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« Regaining control of the news agenda | Main | Product blogging »
Wednesday
Jan312007

The three kinds of liberal

The fundamental principle of liberalism is that decisions are better left to individuals. Chris Dillow quotes Mill's defining statement that

"over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign"

And I think it's true to say that any liberal would go along with that. The problem is that these same people are all too willing to forget this basic principle when there are controversial issues at stake. The circumstances in which they are ready to drop their principles are different from individual to individual, but it's possible to identify three distinct groups.

The first kind can be characterised as the "bad thing" liberals. They believe from the bottom of their hearts that the individual is really, genuinely sovereign over their own body and mind....except when we're talking about a "bad thing". This may well be something that affects only the individual, but because our bad thing liberal thinks it's, well, bad for them, he feels that the full force of the law should be used to stop them doing whatever they want to do. There was a good example today when LibDem DCMS spokesman Don Foster made what Stephen Tall correctly described as an eeyore-ish response to the government's announcement on casinos, demanding that there should be no further increase in their number.

The second type is the "good thing" liberals. As you might expect, "good thing" liberals believe that decisions should be left to individuals except where something is so good that they must be forced to have it. I was treated to a demonstration of this in a comments thread over at Inner West when the author, James, explained his support for the extension of the school leaving age as follows:

In very broad brush terms as a liberal I suppose I see education as a 'good thing' because it broadens an individual's life choices.

It's not liberalism at all, of course. It's thoroughly illiberal, but this kind of thinking is now very much the norm, and the Liberal Democrats (party of Mill) and the Conservatives (party of freedom) are no exceptions.

The last kind, is of course the "all things" liberal. The one who can make himself retain his principles even when they disapprove of the action that the individual is taking, or when they thoroughly approve of something. Devil's Kitchen is one:

[I] defend the Catholic church's right to make certain decisions, but I won't necessarily support the Church or those decisions per se.

Chris Dillow is another. His typically eloquent defence of the freedom principle which is linked to above is called Losing the Culture of Liberty. But if a large proportion of self-declared liberals are going to drop their liberalism if something is good, and many more if it's too bad, perhaps the culture might as well be gone already.

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Reader Comments (8)

Well put. I suspect one distinction between the "all things" liberal and the not-liberals-at all concerns the function of law.
We all-things liberals think the law should be confined only to extreme cases. Of course, there are many activities we approve or disapprove of. But in these we remonstrate, reason, persuade and entreat people (to use Mill's words), rather than support state compulsion.
The not-liberals-at-all by contrast think the law should be used as a solution to all problems. They're managerialists.
Feb 1, 2007 at 1:21 PM | Unregistered Commenterchris
"one who can make himself retain his principles even when they disapprove of the action that the individual is taking, or when they thoroughly approve of something. Devil's Kitchen is one:

[I] defend the Catholic church's right to make certain decisions, but I won't necessarily support the Church or those decisions per se."

The Church is not an individual.
Feb 5, 2007 at 10:24 PM | Unregistered CommenterFrank O'Dwyer
Agreed. Does it make a difference?
Feb 6, 2007 at 9:51 AM | Registered CommenterBishop Hill
I think it does, as one could defend the individual's right of conscience without extending that to companies and organisations (which may be a 'legal person' but not a natural person).

In terms of the Church & gay adoption, I don't think there is an issue of individual liberty at all. The only individuals involved would be the individual gay people, the individual agency worker, and the individual child. None of those people's freedoms seem to me restricted either way, so it becomes not an issue of individual liberty but of what is best for the child. And arguably allowing the Church to limit the child's access to fit parents is not best for the child.
Feb 7, 2007 at 9:05 PM | Unregistered CommenterFrank O'Dwyer
Why should freedom of conscience be taken away from somebody simply because they want to act in concert with others of the same belief?

As for the rest of your posting, the key word is "arguably". That's why it should remain an issue of freedom of conscience.
Feb 9, 2007 at 1:23 PM | Registered CommenterBishop Hill
"Why should freedom of conscience be taken away from somebody simply because they want to act in concert with others of the same belief?"

It's not. They do not own the child and there is no right to an adoption agency. Nor is there any right to adopt a child of course. However if a child is up for adoption and there are fit parents why does a group of individuals have a right to a veto the adoption?

They can still, individually, refuse to participate. However just because they have a belief does not entitle them to require a child to suffer for it.
Feb 10, 2007 at 1:48 PM | Unregistered CommenterFrank O'Dwyer
I could take potshots at the substance of the arguments in your last comment, but I'm trying to understand the distinction you are making between freedom of conscience for the individual and for people acting in concert. You have said that you think there is an argument for individual free conscience but not for groups on people. Why?
Feb 10, 2007 at 6:54 PM | Registered CommenterBishop Hill
That is not quite my argument. The only point I make about a group is that only the individuals within it have rights, the group as a whole is not a natural person and so does not have the same rights as one.

A company cannot be falsely imprisoned or murdered, for example, although its members can. Or has a company been falsely imprisoned if its CEO has? 2 of its directors? 1 of its shareholders? What would mean to falsely imprison the Roman Catholic church? And so on.

Similarly what is the 'conscience' of a group of people? Is it what their leaders dictate or what they democratically decide? Is it whatever their rules say it is and what if they can't agree on those rules? What if the conscience of an individual Catholic worker in an adoption agency contradicts with that of the Pope, which 'freedom of conscience' should we respect?

More likely the rights of a group in concert is a special case which emerges from the rights of its constituent natural persons, but should not be confused with them.
Feb 12, 2007 at 12:13 AM | Unregistered CommenterFrank O'Dwyer

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