3. The Philosophical Justifications Continued: The Result of Moral Equality


In the previous essay, it was established that there exists a moral equality of persons, whereby they should incur no advantage or penalty for features of their existence which they had no control or choice over. In this way, our intuitions about the injustice of discrimination are confirmed. It was stated, however, that this moral equality must therefore be factored into our thinking about the ideal state. If this project of essays is to provide a positive case for the ideal of liberalism, such thinking about a putative liberal Utopia must be permitted. In what follows, I will demonstrate that our basic principle of the moral equality of persons, when applied to thinking about our ideal state, leads inexorably to the idea of EQUAL FREEDOM FROM DOMINATION, which I argue is the supreme goal of liberalism.

If we are to be taken seriously as thinkers about the nature of the ideal politics in the ideal state, then, it follows trivially that we must have a conception of what that ideal state is. In this way, we move from abstract thought about moral principles to thinking about political institutions and the structures of nations. If we wish to be bold and take such a step, however, even if we believe that to incorporate our personal moral views into the very fabric of our ideal state would be wrong and overbearing, we must surely decide how our state interacts with the individuals it comprises. To do so in a way which would be viewed as universally unjust, no matter a person’s higher level moral beliefs, would be clearly perverse. I suggest that our core principle of the moral equality of persons is something that no rational person would dispense with, particularly considering its grounding in that most basic principle of morality – that people shouldn’t be punished for things they didn’t do. If this is to be accepted, it follows logically that respect for the moral equality of persons must be incorporated into the very nature of our ideal state.

The precise mechanism for the incorporation of this respect for moral equality can be illuminated by analogy from the small-scale to the large-scale. It has been established that, for an individual, they should receive no reward nor incur any penalty for features of existence which they had no control over and no choice in. Writ large, and with this principle applied to the structure of a state, we find a similarly intuitive set of political principles: a person should receive no state reward nor incur any state penalty for features of existence which they had no control over and no choice in. What is meant by state rewards and state penalties is self-explanatory, but can include criminal punishment, financial benefit, or structural preferment.

The projects of mankind are cursed forever to fail, however. Principles decay; systems are corrupted; error abounds. Even when the very greatest moral concepts are at stake, the inevitable course of the enterprise and character of individuals can be enough to damage even the most meticulous of arrangements. So too with our principle of state respect for the moral equality of persons. It is inevitable that in an organic society, strict adherence to abstract moral concepts goes into abeyance – in this way, it may well be the case that either a state falls from perfect respect for moral equality, or that that respect never existed in the first place, even if, on a principled level, it ought to have done. For example, citizens may begin to be rewarded for actions they didn’t perform, or characteristics they had no choice over; or may be punished for the same. Considering the centrality of this basic principle of equality to our status as people, and, consequently, its importance to the relationship between the state and the individual, it surely cannot be right, in these cases where it is no longer observed, to merely shrug our shoulders and abandon it. In some way, it must be corrected. As for who must do the correcting, clearly, as it is a principle which the state ought to adhere to, it is the state which ought to repair any violations of it. In effect, as the state would be morally to blame if it did not respect the moral equality of persons in its political structure, it is the responsibility in turn of the state itself to ensure some kind of substantive equality and to repair unjustified inequalities where it finds them.

We have thus far identified a duty for states to respect the principle of moral equality by incorporating it into their fundamental fabrics, and by correcting deviations from this respect where they arise. In short, we have realised that the state has a duty to ensure equality with respect to those unchosen features of life. But this equality is a nebulous thing, and at present, we simply know its name, and not its form. We have identified the shadow of equality – we must now work out what it is that is casting it. Equality of what, precisely?

Many scholars of great erudition have written on this matter. Many have said that, because our base talents and fundamental capacity for acquiring further skills are one of the in-built features of our lives, over which we had no choice, we are entitled to no additional reward if we happen to have got lucky and been born clever, and deserve no penalty if we happen to have been unlucky and been born without such natural talent. There is some merit to this argument, but it seems to miss something more fundamental still. For example, even if by some contrivance of the state, all citizens were to be given equal pay, and a law were enacted enforcing totally equal wealth at all times, it would still be possible for citizens to be unequal to one another in more pernicious ways. It is an ancient idea that money begets power, and I don’t seek to challenge the truth of that here, however much that situation may be hypothetically wrong. But that is not the full story, and money is not the only mechanism by which power is obtained. It would be perfectly feasible, even in a world of perfect financial equality, for citizens to be deprived of civic rights based on other unchosen characteristics. Imagine, for example, a state which discriminated against those with blue eyes. Our blue-eyed citizens, doggedly persecuted, unable to participate in the national community, segregated, arbitrarily targeted by police, and so on, would take no comfort at all from the promise of mere equal pay. How can our discriminated-against citizen be satisfied with equal resources when they lack the capacity to use those resources in a meaningful way, as a result of continued discrimination? This example highlights a more fundamental equality: the equality of citizens as citizens, where each is endowed with the same set of privileges within the state, and none receives greater advantage or disadvantage in terms of their power within the state on account of one of their unchosen features. And, indeed, this needn’t merely obtain for the state, but for any other source of power as well, for they are bound either by the moral principle we have highlighted, or, if they fail to adhere to it, ought to be corrected by the state to ensure no indirect discrimination on the grounds of unchosen features accrues. They too must respect moral equality.

In short, the equality which is of central importance, on the picture we have painted, is EQUAL FREEDOM FROM DOMINATION, where every citizen, no matter their natural endowments and capacities, possesses equal freedom from the arbitrary interference of concentrations of power – most perniciously, the state, but also private conglomerations. It is my view that this equal freedom from domination is the supreme purpose of liberalism, and thus the liberty for which we should seek to strive. Its end is not reached until the lowliest of citizens is hoisted from disenfranchisement to equal empowerment and freedom. As Pericles said at Athens, “a man who thinks public affairs are none of his business in fact has no business in this city at all”. So it must hold for our liberal utopia, but by moral right rather than mere expectation.

This equal freedom, as noted, is not the whole picture, but merely its most fundamental part. Upon the foundations of equal freedom from domination can be built a distributional equality based on the intuition that our talents and intellectual capacities are unchosen by us and thus that we deserve no inherent advantage of resource if they are good, or disadvantage if they are bad. It is to this theme, how precisely we are to build upon moral equality in terms of equality of financial resource, that I will return in the next essay.

2. On the Philosophical Justifications for Liberalism, or, Why Everyone is Equal


If there is one thing above all which underpins the ideal of liberalism, it is equality. No matter the height or humbleness of our birth, we all possess the same basic moral worth which leads us to be able to declare, at the very least, that we were born as equals. Indeed, the same end awaits us as equals too. That the moral equality of persons exists seems trivial to many, but it is of such central importance to any form of liberalism that I wish here to restate the reasoning behind it. Having done so, it will then be necessary to demonstrate what follows from that: namely that all people are subsequently entitled to the same set of basic life opportunities, and thus that when drawing up the structures of our ideal state, we must have regard first and foremost to the promotion of this equality of all people.

It is perhaps facile to say that someone should not be blamed for something they didn’t do. It reflects the most basic of our moral intuitions about right and wrong actions, and about how we judge whether someone should receive moral censure or praise. Even having to state it in a reasoned argument seems to be unnecessary. If, for example, you are falsely accused of a crime, or a friend is similarly falsely accused, it elicits in us a feeling of such anger at the injustice that we can’t fail to recognise that this basic moral principle – that people should not be blamed for something they didn’t do – is fundamental to moral thinking in most people.

A further intuition is that people should not be viewed as morally culpable for things that they didn’t have a choice over. If someone puts a gun to your head and tells you to hit your friend, clearly, you have no real choice in the matter. And, in almost all situations where no real choice exists, others do not blame the person for doing what they were coerced to do, or what they had no choice but to do. So, our second core idea is that you cannot be morally blamed for doing something which you had no choice over.

These two core principles about morality are integral to the idea of equality, and, therefore, integral to liberalism. From these two basic ideas, which almost all ordinary people will agree with, a demonstration and justification can be given for the inherent equality of all people.

When talking of moral blame and moral censure, what we mean is other people thinking worse of you. If you go out and willingly shoot someone for the fun of it, clearly, other people will think that you are a worse person as a result. But that isn’t the only punishment – in fact, in a number of ways, it is the least punishment. That moral blame becomes the justification and the root for substantive punishment – prison, in this example. So, it seems, if it is wrong to morally blame someone for something they had no choice but to do, it seems wrong to punish them for that. The same surely holds true for rewards – if someone didn’t do something, they shouldn’t be rewarded for it; if someone had no choice but to do something, they shouldn’t receive praise for it. In this way, taking credit for someone else’s work shouldn’t be rewarded, and being forced to give money to charity at gunpoint shouldn’t be praised.

At the end of it all, then, we can condense our principles down into one injunction. People should not be punished or rewarded for things that they didn’t choose. It will now perhaps be clearer how equality is derived from our core ideas, which were asserted to be near-universal. For if it is wrong to punish or reward people for things they didn’t choose, then this extends not just to actions, but, for example, to physical characteristics which were not chosen but distributed by the lottery of chance. The colour of a person’s skin, for example, is not chosen by them. And so, based on the principle that we ought not to punish or reward anything a person has no choice but to do or to be, the intuition that racism is wrong – either through rewarding people by preferring a race, or punishing people by discriminating against a race, or both – is confirmed by philosophical reasoning.

Of course, this extends to more than just race. This extends to all characteristics at birth – for how can a baby, seconds old, choose any of the features hard-coded into their genes without their choice? In this sense, babies are all born as perfectly morally equal. They have never made any free choices which could attract censure or praise, and therefore have only their features at birth – and unchangeable, genetic futures. It should be noted further that this injunction extends not only to physical characteristics, but also to other unchosen features. The particularly important example of these is socio-economic background. Clearly, a child is forced to live in the family they are born into, whether poor or rich. In this way, it makes no sense whatsoever to contrive a system which will punish a poor child or reward a rich child.

The sum of what has been shown is precisely this: that everyone is born morally equal, and that everyone remains morally equal in respect of the elements of being they have no influence over. That is to say that every single individual has an equal claim to be free from punishment for these unchosen features of life, and, crucially for the liberal project, an equal claim to the opportunities of life, considering the equal value they are, at core, endowed with. This principle of moral equality has important implications for how we envisage the ideal state, and the ideal politics, which must necessarily be drawn up respecting that equality. It is to this that I will turn my attentions in particular in the next essay.

1. Introduction


You are witnessing Britain come to a crossroads in its history like no other, at a time where its political leadership is in the grips of a historic crisis. While the impending implementation of the decision we made to rend ourselves apart from neighbours and change our relationship with the rest of the world hangs over every action of government, the leaders of our nation’s political parties fail to provide any course of inspiration or coherent programme agreeable to the many, and instead seem intent on inflaming passions and stoking divisions. Fear and resentment caused by great economic injustices continue to inflame the hearts of many.

History will one day reflect on this time at the beginning of our century as a time of political crisis, where decisions are no longer made for the long-term good of the people; where the mechanisms of our democracy have begun to decline; and where debates about the country’s future are increasingly held in bad faith. It will indict our democracy – as the democracies of history have been indicted – for failing to provide leadership in crisis, and allowing senselessness to reign in place of sensible thinking and intelligent thought.

And within such an atmosphere of polarisation, the liberal ideas which have almost universally underpinned the past several decades of British policy are being forcefully challenged on multiple fronts, while the current flag-bearers of that liberalism increasingly fail to defend themselves coherently. Indeed, the once high ideals of liberalism have sunk into vapidity. The people do not know what it stands for, what it means, why it is of benefit to them. The liberal sentiment which once dominated the governance of this country has been reduced almost to naught, and it is almost entirely through the inability of the defenders of liberalism to be robust, and to demonstrate what exactly it is that they stand for and wish to see.

There is much sound and fury in modern political discussion. To imagine that mere writing can persuade many or effect political change is a high ambition indeed. But, put simply, something must be done. It is my firm belief that the ideals of liberalism have much to give to our nation, and that the intuitions behind them are ones shared by the majority of the people. And in the insecure and confusing times in which we find ourselves, I think it absolutely necessary to mount a new defence of those ideals, and demonstrate why exactly they light us a way out of the political darkness.

Nor, indeed, do I think that their benefit is solely for “the metropolitans”, or “the elites”, two groupings accused frequently of being indifferent to the concerns of their fellow citizens. Considering the history of liberalism in this country, and the radical action it has taken in the past centuries against poverty and infirmity, it is particularly lamentable that liberals in recent history have allowed a narrative to be constructed which claims that liberalism – no less than the liberation of the individual from the tyranny of state or private coercion, whether economic or social – is for the urban and already well-off.

The task I set myself is a great one, then, and I make no pretence that writing these essays will be a panacaea to the problem. Many will think them pretentious, overwrought, unnecessary, and trying to stem a tide too great and already flowing. But, put simply, in what follows, I hope to offer not only a coherent defence of liberalism, but a positive argument for it. I wish to set out exactly what it is that modern liberals ought to distinctively believe, and exactly what vision for the future of our country they have.

There are four areas I wish to tackle chiefly. The first, necessarily, is to justify why the intuitions behind liberalism are true, and to build the PHILOSOPHICAL CASE FOR LIBERALISM from the ground upwards. After that, using the framework generated therein, I will discuss precisely what the liberalism I propound means for THE ECONOMY, for DOMESTIC POLICY, and for FOREIGN POLICY, and crucially, why it is of benefit to all citizens.

If there is one thing I hope to achieve by the writing and publication of these essays, it is very simply to provide a complete, mainstream defence of political liberalism. If, by that defence, discussion is sparked either internal to liberalism or external to it, about what the liberal vision for Britain is, then I will be immensely satisfied.

It is as a result of deep dismay at the state of our nation that I write these essays. The motivation for them is anger and despair about what we are becoming, and what history will think of us if we do not change course soon. Great perils loom on the horizon of the future. We must be robust enough to overcome them. I believe liberalism is the way, and I hope that my essays will help even a small way towards overcoming our country’s problems, and existing in a proverbially sunnier place in the years to come.

Generation Gap


I was looking through YouGov’s full polling data over the past few weeks yesterday, and was struck by a particular feature of the statistics for the Lib Dems. As mentioned before, we’ve been stuck on 7-8% for pretty much eight years now, but underlying this is an interesting demographic split which should be a little bit worrying for the party.

A recent report showed that the Liberal Democrats have the youngest party membership on average, and has the highest percentage of 18-24 year olds as members, coming in at around 6% (I suspect the number is in fact higher than the QMUL/YouGov polling data would suggest, with internal estimates of Young Liberals membership being between 8-10,000). But looking at the YouGov Westminster voting intention figures, the 18-24 category is in fact our worst age group in terms of vote share.

With the exception of what seems like one anomaly, we’re stuck on around 5-6% with 18-24 year olds, and even including the anomalous 10% figure in this poll taken in mid-February, we still consistently poll behind the Conservatives for the youth vote, which should be worrying considering their reputation at the moment.

The age group which gives us the most support, consistently, is the 50-64 group. And while this is sustainable in the short term, this poses an enormous problem for our party. We are the youngest party by all measures, and yet the young simply aren’t voting for us – and eventually, this will reach a point where our vote share will drop off.

The solution to this has to be strategic as much as policy-based. The tuition fees debacle must have harmed young people’s trust in us. But populist and wrong-headed policies like tuition fee abolition mustn’t be allowed to creep back into our scheme of thinking, nor should we think narrowly when trying to build trust and appeal back up, and only talk about higher education policy.

As a young person, my big concerns at the moment are housing and the cost of living, as well as general progressive concerns like the environment and equality. The Liberal Democrats have good policy on this already, but we need to turn it into a coherent strategy, augment it with bold proposals that don’t fall foul of Technocrat Syndrome (such as standing up to NIMBYs and pledging to reduce the green belt), and electorally target young people.

I don’t know the exact form this would take, but a starting point might be to send target letters to 18-24 year olds across the country, putting forward the case that we are the party that wants to start afresh for young people, and give them the same opportunities their parents had. We want to make the cost of living affordable, ensure every young person has the opportunity to get on the housing ladder, establish an education dividend to redress the generational gap, and so on.

Young Liberals can be part of this as well. We must get better at campaigning outside of freshers’ week. Student societies should start putting out student Focus leaflets all year round, and YL as an organisation should provide templates and funding to be able to do this. Non-student societies should be tasked by local parties with focussing entirely on 18-24 or 18-30 year olds in particular wards, so there are always sections of each local party ruthlessly focussing on expanding our support amongst the next generation.

Our goal as a party must be to improve support amongst young people from a dismal 5%. We’re the third party, and Labour have a monopoly on youth voting at the moment. But even doubling that and consistently getting to 10% amongst this age bracket will help us nationally, and help solidify the emerging coherent demographic that the Lib Dems nationally need to be targetting.

The Toxicity Problem


 

This is the first post I’ve written in a long while. Blogging something I’ve always viewed as a bit pompous and annoying. But I’ve grown so frustrated with the leadership of my party that I will explode with annoyance if I don’t write it down somewhere, and hopefully, this will help marshal my thoughts into something more coherent and useful. In this first post, I want to scream into the void about our supposed toxicity. I have no interest in protest voters who abandoned us after we became a party of government – here, I want to focus on the pro-European, anti-Brexit liberals who still think we’re an unconscionable political choice despite the wrecks of their own parties, in particular, Labour.

 

The Liberal Democrats have been stuck on 7-8% pretty much consistently since the general election, and this figure – notwithstanding a moderate increase in support after the Richmond Park by-election – has remained pretty much the same since shortly after the party’s decision to enter into Coalition government in 2010. And yet, politics has changed almost beyond comprehension since then, the Conservatives having abandoned the liberal conservatism of Cameron, Labour having abandoned the social democracy of New Labour, and, of course, Brexit having happened. To anyone even moderately involved in politics, the claim that there is a “vast space” or a “gaping chasm” or a “vacuum” in the political centre is hardly new. And yet, no matter how many times it is pointed out, and no matter how many times ‘moderate’ voters claim that they are politically homeless, the Lib Dems remain firmly confined to that 7-8%.

 

“But tuition fees!” say some. “But austerity!” say others. These accusations normally come from the left, and from reluctant members of Labour. The hypocrisy here reeks. The Lib Dems have always been proud of most of what we achieved in government, but have always been open about the fact that we made mistakes. We openly, publicly apologised for tuition fees, for example (despite the fact that a majority of the Parliamentary party didn’t even support increasing them), in the spirit of adult politics. We used our private members’ bills to try to put right some of the problems with the bedroom tax. The leader who took us into the Coalition is no longer even an MP, and a majority of our MPs and our members weren’t around under the Coalition. And yet we still get these accusations levied at us, as if we are the exact same party; as if the decision of a very different group of people eight years ago somehow toxifies the whole concept of a liberal party. The way some people talk about the “traitors” who make up the Lib Dems, you’d think that somehow, joining the party turns you automatically into a liar who lusts after power so much that they would abandon every principle they’ve ever had. Clearly, the idea is nonsense.

 

But the accusations so often reek of hypocrisy. Despite the massive changes in the Lib Dems, we’re still the same, and still toxic – but Labour, who had their own problems with the Iraq War, are different now, and no longer toxic. Labour members point to our leader and deputy leader as having been Coalition ministers, while forgetting that their deputy leader and a significant chunk of their Shadow Cabinet voted in favour of the Iraq War. Labour members claim that their membership has changed so radically that it is functionally a different party, while ignoring that the same churn has happened within the Lib Dems, with a majority of our members being post-2015 joiners. Let’s be adult about politics. If you think the Lib Dems are necessarily still tainted by Coalition, then by the exact same token, Labour are still tainted by the Iraq War. If you think recent changes in Labour have absolved them of toxicity, then the same arguments also apply to the Lib Dems. But perhaps more pertinently, it is just in bad faith to make arguments delving back a decade into history. It’s about ideas now – if you disagree with our ideas, challenge them. But feebly whinging about a u-turn half the party didn’t vote for, which we apologised for, and the person responsible for no longer sits in Parliament, while the flames of Brexit engulf everything and your own party is rife with overt racism in the present day is just in bad faith and ridiculous.

 

But perhaps there is something more that underlies why our vote share is flatlining, and why these accusations still work. Aside from our anti-Brexit policy, I think even the most seasoned of Lib Dems would agree that we have got ourselves very lost in recent years. We don’t really know what we stand for. We don’t really know what the liberalism is that we are supposed to support, other than vague intuitions. We have been unable to articulate radical policy that matters to people (not helped by the party’s structure). My hunch is that if we were to throw caution to the wind, boldly state exactly what it is that we are for and what our vision for Britain is, and accept no policy platform which includes mere tinkering, settling for nothing less than structural, root-and-branch liberal reform, we’d be considerably more attractive for wavering pro-Europeans, and would start, at last, to make progress.

 

In short, I think the Lib Dems are held to an unfairly high standard, and that the criticisms of us as toxic for things we did in the Coalition are deeply hypocritical. But the way to get round this is not only to robustly defend ourselves while making fair concessions where we got things wrong – it’s to push forwards, finally get ourselves in order, and articulate what liberalism is and what it means to the people of this country, rather than blandly dithering, and throwing policies at the wall to see what sticks. This, as you may guess, will be the theme of my posts in future.