Monday, 2 August 2010

Political Philosophy and the Left

Over at the New Left Project , Ed Lewis has published an interview with yours truly on 'Political Philosophy and the Left'. (Apologies in advance for the shameless plug...)

Part 1 of the interview focuses on the values of the left: equality, liberty and the relationship between them. Part 2, to be published soon, will focus more on the broad institutional implications of commitments to equality and liberty.

Equality is a core value of the left. But its content is complex and highly contested. Revisiting some ideas previously covered at Next Left, I argue in the interview that recent work in political philosophy has largely discredited the purely meritocratic notion of equality - the notion which has so strongly influenced Labour's rhetoric in recent years.

But the interview also offers a critique of a standard right-wing argument about the alleged conflict between 'liberty' and 'equality'. Without wishing to deny that conflicts between specific liberties and equalities can and do occur, I argue that recent work in contemporary political philosophy has refuted the argument that tax-based 'redistribution' for egalitarian purposes is intrinsically hostile to liberty.

And by 'liberty' I mean what right critics of 'redistribution' mean by liberty: the so-called 'negative liberty' to do what one wants (or might want) to do without coercive interference by others.

If this seems an arcane - academic - point, bear in mind just how salient this sort of claim about liberty and tax is to the small-state 'liberalism' that is the Coalition's ideological glue.

Here is the argument from the interview:

'I mentioned the philosopher G.A. Cohen in an earlier answer and I think one of the other insights in his work is to note the way in which any distribution of private property is also a distribution of negative freedom....Let’s say you’re a person without much income. You want to go on the train from London to Liverpool but you don’t have the money to buy the ticket. You get on the train, the ticket inspector finds that you haven’t got the ticket, and you’re required to get off the train at Slough. Now, what you’ve experienced there, in virtue of your lack of income, is a restriction on your negative freedom. Your lack of income translates into a lack of legal permission to do something: to travel on the train from London to Liverpool. A lack of money limits the things that it’s legally permissible for you to do, and in that way it restricts your negative freedom.

Now this matters for the alleged conflict between liberty and equality. If the state comes along and arranges property rights so that there is a more equal distribution of income, it is not reducing liberty as such: it is changing the distribution of it so that we get a more equal distribution of negative liberty.

It’s very important for people on the left not to get too defensive when confronted with the claim that freedom and equality conflict. A lot of what the left stands for in terms of promoting equality is not about reducing freedom, it’s about redistributing freedom. And not some mysterious kind of freedom that’s different from what we ordinarily understand by freedom: what the left is concerned to achieve more equality of is straightforward, bog-standard, negative freedom – the freedom to do what you like, or might like to do, without being interfered with coercively by others.'

For me, this argument, which derives from G.A. Cohen, Jeremy Waldron and Adam Swift, is a great example of what political philosophy can do and why the left needs to take it seriously. It can take a powerful ideological claim - such as the claim about tax and liberty - and show by careful attention to the terms of the claim itself that it is flawed. It can serve as terrific bullshit detector, identifying just where and how an idea or argument falls down when subjected to scrutiny.

Some discussion of the interview can also be found over at Crooked Timber. And a lively discussion is now also starting up at New Left Project itself. If you have any comments, please comment there.

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