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Posts Tagged ‘liberalism’

Hoping for the internationalist victory in France

21 April, 2012 2 comments

It may be the land of Voltaire, Benjamin Constant and Fréderic Bastiat, but it is rare that a liberal today can hope for much from the politics of modern France. In this case, in terms of who I hope to win the French presidential election, the first round tomorrow, I am considering negatives as much as positives. In 2007, I thought Nicolas Sarkozy, who represents Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), the largest centre-right party in France, would bring the economic reforms France needed. He delivered on some of this program, such as raising the retirement age from 60 to 62, but he has otherwise been disappointing.

One of the dangers in times of recession is a rise in nativism. This manifests itself in a retreat to the nation at the political level. In economic terms, this is protectionism and a preference for produce of the country. But for any country to be competitive, it must be willing to compete in a global world. If French people are not buying enough French products, it is a signal that they must adjust either their quality or price. Firms seek to grow, and they can only expect foreign markets to be even less forgiving than those of their compatriots. This principle does apply at a European Union level, where President Nicolas Sarkozy wants a “But European Act”, but more so yet at a national level, where he would seek such a measure in lieu of European protectionism.

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Difference of opinion in a free society

6 September, 2010 Leave a comment

I instinctively feel my political views rooted in the liberal tradition, in matters of both politics and economics. I identify with historic liberal politics, and in most countries would support a party clearly identified as liberal. In economics, I believe the progress in societies that openly trade with others in goods and services, without barriers, restrictions or envy, in undeniable, and that because of the dispersion of knowledge at a local level, the market mechanism is far more efficient at pricing goods than any state-controlled system would be. I also have a passing interest in science, having taken two science subjects for the leaving cert and I still like to keep in touch with developments, if at a popular level.

So it was was nice to see these combined as one outlook, the dispersion of power, in Jonathan Rauch’s defence of the expression of unpopular viewpoints in academia, speaking to the conference of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

Jonathan Rauch – FIRE’s CFN 2010 from The FIRE on Vimeo.

A liberal on trade

In The Storm, Vince Cable, Deputy Leader and Shadow Chancellor of the Liberal Democrats, outlines the bizarre Alice in Wonderland nature of trade negotiations argued on protectionist assumptions.

The main trading countries have been locked for several years in negotiations that centre on the following proposition: you agree to stop shooting yourself in the foot by paying out subsidies and hurting your consumers through costly import restrictions, and we shall, reluctantly, do the same. Or, more accurately, if you refuse to stop shooting yourself in the foot, we shall also refuse to and, indeed, shoot ourselves in both feet, just to show that we are more serious.

A liberal on taxes

13 January, 2010 Leave a comment

A liberal should never forget that whatever justification given for taxes, to fund justice and security, public services, social welfare, or certain macroeconomic aims, they come from the people. German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, leader of the FDP, Germany’s liberal party, in coalition with the Angela Merkel’s CDU, expressed this view well.

What kind of decadent understanding of the state is it that sees tax cuts as a gift? Citizens give the state their taxes, not the other way around.

(As reported by Derek Scally, The Irish Times, 8 January 2010)

On Liberty, by John Stuart Mill

31 December, 2009 Leave a comment

In 1859, 150 years ago, John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) published On Liberty, one of the finest expostulations of individual liberty in political philosophy. Mill was someone whose words in the years since his death have been expropriated by both socialists, who emphasize his ideas on collective ownership of firms, and by conservatives, who emphasize his suspicion of the state. While he does offer a lot to many political traditions, he should still be regarded primarily as a liberal, given his continual emphasis on the importance of the individual as a political and moral agent in society.

On Liberty is, of course, most famous for his delineation in Chapter One of the role of society in restricting the actions of individuals, with what has become known as the harm principle:

That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant.

His words have since been appealed to in opposition to laws regulating private actions and speech. Read in context of the work as a whole, it is clear that Mill was cautious not just of the arms of the state itself, but also of society in general, which in the later Victorian era had become exceptionally moralistic. It had taken on a very middle-class puritan outlook, and he was critical of this attitude of social conservatives even when they did not specifically manage to get the point of legislating against what they determined as vice. He strongly defends freedom of opinion and expression, but his justification is more on the usefulness of alternative points of view in challenging received opinion than on the simple right of the individual. In his defence of freedom of practice and custom, he asks his English reader to consider their position in another society with different customs and taboos, which it would surely be wrong to compel them to follow.

Mill was no armchair philosopher. From early in his life he showed his deep concern for society through his actions. Richard Reeves, in his biography Victorian Firebrand, describes how at the age of 17 he found the corpse of a newborn infant, and from then realized how important education on birth control would be to the lives of the working classes. He distributed literature on birth control, contravening laws on obscenity and spent two nights in jail. At the same time, he strongly believed that parents, and not the state had a deep responsibility for the children they had borne. In Chapter Five of On Liberty, he believed that the state should require a certain standard of education, but that it should be “fulfilled, at the charge, as far as possible, of the parent”. While he did accept that the state should pay for the education of the children of those who could not pay for it, his beliefs that parents should be responsible for providing for their offspring were such that he argued that beyond those who could not provide for them should not have the right to bear children, something few who have a followed him could stomach, following the ideas of Rev. Thomas Malthus (1766–1834). While still on the subject of education, he anticipated Milton Friedman’s school vouchers in arguing against a state school system, saying that “a general State education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another”.

His own family and personal life was interesting. He was subject to a harsh educational regime by his father, the philosopher James Mill (1773–1836). In his Autobiography, he recounts beginning to read Latin at eight, and Greek at an earlier age, and reading many of the classic works in the original language at that age. He asserts his belief that any child subject to such an education at that age could learn as he did, in line with idea of the blank slate, where the capacity of our minds are not determined at birth, something I would highly doubt. He never got a chance to try such methods with any child of his own, being in a long-term relationship with a married woman. He met Harriet Taylor in 1830, married since 1826 to John Taylor. Harriet and John Stuart soon fell in love, but her husband remained alive till 1849, John Stuart and Harriet marrying in 1851, when she was beyond child-bearing age.

Mill also served a term in parliament from 1865 to 1868, and was an active voice, speaking strongly in favour of the Union in the American Civil War, in defence of the life of condemned Fenians, and on suffrage reform. His greatest parliamentary legacy was the beginning of the campaign for political equality for women. He moved an amendment in 1867 in a debate on the Reform Bill to change the word ‘man’ to ‘person’. He viewed the position of women in most households as an anomaly akin to slavery, “not felt to jar with modern civilization, any more than domestic slavery among the Greeks had jarred with their notion of themselves as free people”. He was critical of the Reform League for the aim of manhood, rather than universal, suffrage.

He had ideas on voting reform that received very little popularity, specifically the idea that votes should be given in according to the degree of education. Every ordinary unskilled labourer would get one vote, a skilled labourer would have two, and so on, so that lawyers, doctors, clergymen and artists would get five or six. Proposed when those at the bottom end of the scale had no vote at all, this was better than nothing, but was unlikely to appeal to many. He also opposed the secret ballot, believing that people should be able to account for their votes.

He also voted against the abolition of the death penalty, arguing “what else but effeminacy is it to be so much more shocked by taking a man’s life than by depriving him of all that makes life valuable”, and was an advocate of compulsory military service, so that there could be an army called at any time if necessary, without a permanent force, believing the latter more likely to be oppressive.

In economic terms, Mill was clearly a classical economist. He opposed progressive taxation, “to tax larger incomes at a higher percentage than the smaller is to lay a tax on industry and economy and to impose a penalty of people for having worked harder and saved more than their neighbours” and he criticized the paternalistic nature of factory legislation, creating “in the minds of labouring people the persuasion that it is the business of others to take care of their condition”. In his later years, however, he supported the rise of the working classes, believing that they should seek to own the sources of labour collectively, through cooperatives. Given changing times he lived in, it is difficult for any contemporary political tradition to claim his views wholesale, though with this mix, he fits most closely with the Liberal Democrats, as one would expect. He has served as one of the great influences for those across the political spectrum, and his ideas remain a yardstick by which people seek to justify their political actions.

The Decline of American Liberalism, by Arthur A. Ekirch

22 December, 2009 Leave a comment

This book, written in 1955, recounts the history of the United States from the perspective of the declining importance and success in politics of the liberal tradition as expounded by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence. Prof. Arthur Ekirch (1915-2000) praises the liberalism of eighteenth century political thought, and how the American Revolution was clearly a liberal one, where Washington did not become a Caesar, a Cromwell or a Napoleon. The American revolutionaries were conscious of the need to avoid replacing the military rule from Britain with a domestic equivalent.

Prof. Ekirch sees the decline of American liberalism beginning effectively from the end of the Revolution, with a brief life under the presidency of Thomas Jefferson. Throughout the book, he holds agrarian Jeffersonian liberalism as the ideal. He quotes Jefferson, in a sentiment that typifies the principles and attitude of the book,

Government should not only be prohibited from interfering with the rights of individuals and from creating a large bureaucratic class who could live at public expense … The greatest of all dangers to democratic freedom and equality was the use of political power by an aristocracy, a bureaucracy, a mercantile oligarchy, a pressure group, or any other minority interest in order to increase their wealth or to obtain the privilege of living parasitically on other men’s labor.

He chastises attempts by the first Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, to aid business in the early years of the new state. The book, however, should not bee seen as a diatribe by a pseudo-libertarian small government conservative, as gives more space to a criticism of the Alien and Sedition Acts instituted by President John Adams’ administration in 1798, and heavily attacked by Jefferson. Then Jefferson’s own two terms show the difficulties even true liberals have in governing true to their principles, particularly in light of the nationalism provoked by the continuing Napoleonic wars in Europe.

Ekirch believed there was promise in President Andrew Jackson following in the Jeffersonian tradition, but this was ultimately confined to the sphere of economics. “Retaining only its economic program, the Democratic party of Jackson worked out an alliance among southern slaveholders, western expansionists, and the urban and immigrant masses of the North. National unity was thus preserved at the price of liberal values”. Then followed the single greatest example of the decline of American liberalism, in the perpetutation of the practice of slavery, and the extent to which the country had to go to end it. In the case of the Civil War, while Ekirch does give voice to pacifists, he does not write against it, as he does other wars. He does, however, lament the illiberal practices by the government during the time of the war, such as conscription, arbitrary arrest and the seizure of property.

Ekirch’s argument really takes hold recounting the years after the Civil War, when with nationalism the scope of the government grew significantly, and with it the possibility of patronage and favours. He recounts the corruption of the Republican Party in the postwar years. He is also of critical of the Reconstruction policy, “based on force and military occupation of the former Confederacy, was the opposite of liberal”. But there are times when a liberal needs to use coercion, and had they ensured that there would be a democratic society based on liberal values, then I think it would have been justified. The real fault was that the policy of Reconstruction was often times triumphalist and not being directed on liberal ends.

He is strongly critical of the Populist movement, who began in years from 1887 to institute segregation laws in railroad travel and the beginning of the Jim Crow Laws. As poor white activists sought greater political power, they used this to assert a higher place in society than the black population. This time also saw the rise of protectionism, with the Morrill Act from 1862. The Republican Party, as the party of big business, were all too happy subsidize and protect the business and trade of their supporters. During the same period, the native American population lost their separate nation status, with an act of 1871 stipulating that no more treaties be made between Indians and the Federal government.

For much of the late nineteenth-century years, the Republicans were more likely to interfere in the economy, with the Democrats taking a classical liberal approach. This saw a break when President Gover Cleveland, hitherto known as a liberal, used Federal forces to break the Pullman Strike in 1894, led by Eugene Debs against private railroads. The criticism of Theodore Roosevelt’s nationalist outlook is interesting as he was frequently cited by Sen. John McCain last year as his favourite president. In a speech on praising state education, Roosevelt said that “the commonwealth will get from every citizen the highest service of which he is capable”, as McCain spoke of patriotism and the virtue in serving a purpose higher than oneself.

Liberals saw hope in the election of Woodrow Wilson in1912, but were to be disappointed by his eventual entry into the First World War. He initially received the support of many liberals, for his entry into the War, but when this did occur, there was a growing resentment at the illiberal policies of the war at home, particularly in terms of conscription and censorship. The description of these years again brought to mind recent years, with a war ostensibly fought on liberal grounds leading the government in an illiberal direction. Similarly the reluctance of Republicans to criticize Democrats for entering a war was to reoccur when LBJ started the Vietnam War.

Ekirch shows a particular respect for Eugene Debs, leader of the Socialist Party, who was imprisoned in 1919 for his opposition to the draft during the war. President Wilson proved particularly vindictive in his case, and it took the election of a Republican president, Warren G. Harding, to commute his sentence and invite him to the White House.

President Harding’s return to normalcy was not to see any revival of liberalism, as the 1920s were to witness a rise in anti-immigrant feeling; a resurgence of racism manifested in the revival of the Ku Klux Klan; a constitutional prohibition of alcohol; laws on sexual vice; the prohibition of narcotic drugs (which of all these, is the one to remain to this day); censorship of books and film; and the increase in the brutality of police techniques. There was not even the trade-off for a classical liberal of free trade, as the GOP returned to its old policy of higher protective tariffs.

He sees Franklin D. Roosevelt’s victory over Herbert Hoover as inevitable given the circumstances, but condemns the way the New Deal created institutional framework to the advantage of big business. Ekirch is critical of the way the US prepared for and fought the war. Here he is speaking as a pacifist; as a European pleased on balance with the outcome of the Second World War, I cannot go as far as he does. But he is right to condemn the treatment of Japanese Americans, two-thirds of whom were citizens, sent to government detention centres, and of conscientious objectors (of which, the author’s biography at the end reveals, he was one, sent for two years to a public service camp).

The ten years between the end of the War and writing his book provided ample further material to account for the declining force of liberal ideals in government, with the way the Cold War was being fought and national loyalty required. Spending on security continued to be high, the Secretary of State was for the first time a former professional soldier, and freedom of speech and association was curtailed for communists. There was some good, however, in the righting of the ancient wrong by the beginning of granting political liberty to the black population. Still, government exercised greater control over education, with laws to fire teachers who would not swear an oath of loyalty to the nation. Sen. Robert Taft was particularly adamant in his opposition to this practice, and Ekirch is critical of liberals for leaving this role to a conservative.

Ekirch’s work here is certainly thorough, cataloguing the encroaching role of the state in all the time since the United States’ independence. He is to be commended for truly taking a universal approach to liberalism, not confining it simply to a single issue such as the economy or war policy, and also for seeing those as different in other aspects as Eugene Debs and Robert Taft as intellectual allies depending on the cause. My one criticism is that he does not give enough room for a discussion of the movement for racial equality, and of the racism of politicians such as Woodrow Wilson. I would certainly recommend it, though it is difficult to come across, as it was a book I had to order in from the Independent Institute in California.

Don’t blame liberal economics

8 December, 2009 Leave a comment

Mahatma Gandhi’s reported response when asked what he thought of Western Civilization was to say “I think it would be a good idea”. That is often my thought when considering capitalism and globalization in the world today. Too often commentators conflate a pro-business approach with a pro-market approach. A system that allows businesses and banks to play around with other people’s money, but then helps them out when things get rough is not true capitalism. Neither is a system that encourages businesses and banks to invest in a particular industry, allowing the economy to concentrate where it would not otherwise do so.

I heard Fintan O’Toole recently blaming the situation we are in on neo-liberal economics. I will probably read his Ship of Fools when it’s available from the library to be able to judge his analysis of the causes of our current situation properly, and while much of it will probably be valid, I don’t believe this is a fully accurate description of our economic situation in recent years. Low taxation and low regulation are not enough to qualify an economic system as liberal (or neo-liberal, if one prefers). The implicit guarantee to the banks, which became official in September 2008, was one sign that the banks were not working in a free market, as was the cosy relationship between bankers, regulators, politicians and property developers. In an economy such as ours, the careful regulation we lacked would have been entirely consistent with a liberal approach to the market. A few other features show that this was a populist, rather than liberal, approach to the economy:

  • The very structure of social partnership, with the unions and employers, in the form of ICTU and IBEC, was geared towards pleasing certain troublesome sectors of the economy, privileging those who were represented at those talks, rather than the majority of workers who are not in those represented unions. This led to significant pay increases in public sector pay, to the point where Ireland has one of the most highly paid public and civil services in Europe. When the government had the tax revenue, it was happy to pay off unions rather than endure public sector strikes.

  • We had a bloated semi-state sector, highlighted in the case of FÁS by Shane Ross, where the government was willing to spend money propping up it and other similar bodies. The boards of these companies had the usual suspects, with ICTU and IBEC well represented.

  • Social partnership also led to policies such as the minimum wage, which was not an issue during the boom years, but it now seems foolish to have any such disincentive to employment. While only 2-3% of workers are on the minimum wage, it affects competitiveness at the low end of the scale, and with the economy where it is, employers forced to pay workers at this price will either find other ways to lower their labour costs that would affect their workers’ welfare, or be more likely to let them go. It could also hurt the prospects of those seeking small employment at low skills level at the current time.

  • There was a considerable emphasis on taking people out of the tax net entirely, so that nearly half of the working population pay no income tax. This makes people as citizens less responsive to quality in public services, and seems overly progressive.

  • While we had budget surpluses in some of our years, this was then used to win votes with more government spending in the form of welfare or public sector payments rather than tackling the national debt. Charlie McCreevy’s response was “I have it, so I’ll spend it”. Not a classical liberal approach.

  • We had a universality principle with certain welfare payments. This predated the recent years, and in the case of the third-level fees being paid by the taxpayer was a decision made by the Labour Party just before the Fianna Fáil/Progressive Democrat coalition. But it was continued with measures such as the medical card for all over 70. Most economic liberals acknowledge a role for the state in providing for welfare, but it should not be for those who can provide for themselves, and should be structured in such a way that there is no disincentive to working more.

  • Perhaps the biggest and most pernicious instance of a populist rather than liberal policy was the support given to the property market. We should have experienced a recession in 2001/02 after the natural rise in house prices and property development that came with our prosperity waned. This we did, but it was then countered by tax breaks and incentives to development and mortgage interest relief to the public that continued long after it made sense for our economy. It suited the government, for many reasons, but in part because it was relying on stamp duty as a source of government revenue, and also because of the popularity of this artificial boom.

We need reform in this country, and I hope some of these measures are addressed in tomorrow’s budget. But the electorate also needs to realize some of the populist causes of our current situation.