4. The Philosophical Justifications Continued: Structures of Distribution

It was determined in the previous essay that the ultimate goal of liberalism on a philosophical level should be to establish equal freedom from domination. But that state of freedom, while desirable in and of itself, can be of no use in practical terms if it is unable to be utilised. As we said, then, the practical expression of our freedom from domination consists in the capacity to participate in society equally to others. While this was a mere philosophical construct in the previous essay, this one will begin to make the descent from the high-level conceptual thinking we have hitherto engaged towards the terra firma of reality. How, we must ask ourselves, can we ensure the equal capacity to participate in society, and thus, the equal freedom from domination we have established as our primary liberal goal? While perhaps not sufficient on its own to constitute this equal freedom, it is clear that economic factors must play a major role in bringing it about. Man is not a self-sufficient being. He requires resources in order to survive, and in order to prosper. Without these resources, he simply will die, or, short of this, exist in such a state of penury and precariousness that the obtaining of resources will be his sole preoccupation. In such a position, he cannot be said to have the equal capacity to participate in society, and thus he cannot be said to possess equal freedom from domination, compared to someone with the requisite amount of resource. In this way, then, the distribution of resource – or, more simply, economic distribution – must be an important and fundamental part of our philosophical liberalism. In short, in order to begin to derive a framework for practically applying our liberal idea, we must provide an account for what distributive principles and structures are entailed by a commitment to equal freedom from domination.

Recall our earlier discussion of the moral equality of persons, and its entailment that arbitrary features about a person should not be the grounds for advantage or disadvantage being conferred upon them by the state. It was determined there that discrimination on the grounds of race is morally wrong for this reason; similarly, that conferring advantage onto children born into rich families would be a violation of this principle of respect for the moral equality of persons. But other, less intuitive factors are also arbitrary. Importantly, for discussing the distributional structures entailed by liberal equality of freedom from domination, it must be conceded that our talents are arbitrarily distributed. It is simple fact that some are born with greater intellectual talent than others, or that some are born better at playing the flute, or painting pictures. And, while these skills are all teachable and learnable to a degree, we can say that inherent “talent” is an ability to pick up these skills more quickly and develop them more proficiently than others. It is clear, for myriad biological and genetic reasons, that these talents are distributed arbitrarily. It would be absurd, for example, to say that a child “deserves” to be intelligent – what factor about them would give rise to that deservingness? The premise of the arbitrariness of natural talent, then, is perhaps an obvious one to comprehend, but what that premise entails is often more broadly resisted. This is because, under the principle of respect for the moral equality of persons, arbitrary features about a person should not be rewarded or punished by the structures of the state. So, just as someone should not be rewarded or punished for skin colour or their family background, equally, it follows that they should not be rewarded or punished for their inherent intelligence or talent.

This conclusion is difficult to accept on an intuitive level for many people, because it goes against the apparently honourable principle of meritocracy. How is it right, they ask, that people should be said not to deserve the fruits of their labour? To found a system of redistribution on this principle is surely to deprive people of what they’ve earned? Indeed, a further complication arises when one considers that proclivity to work – so a strong work ethic, or its opposites, laziness and fecklessness – is also an arbitrary distribution. To redistribute from the hardworking to the lazy seems opposite to all good sense. Fortunately, however, this is not necessarily the case.

A digression to the main discussion is here called for, and we must set straight an issue of priorities in constructing our distributional system. We have already established as its aim the liberal goal of equal freedom from domination, and thus, the necessary equal capacity to participate in society required by it. But while a standard tactic of the anti-egalitarian, it would be misleading to suggest that this liberal principle entails the state-driven forced equality of all in all respects. In framing our target principle, we talk of equal freedom from domination. That is, we talk of freedom from the barrier of domination – and this is an important subtlety to note, because it draws us away from the absolute pursuit of equality for its own sake, involving the undesirable imposition of equality in all respects. Once an individual has reached a point at which they can be said to have equal freedom, and equal theoretical capacity to participate in society, our goal is fulfilled. The liberal thus supports the elevation of individuals to a point beyond which that barrier can be said to be removed, rather than pure equality, promoted through an ideological commitment to equality for its own sake. And, this means that liberals are committed to prioritising a distributional system where the poorest are pushed over that barrier, rather than a purely egalitarian system for its own sake. To express this more simply, the liberal’s primary goal should be to ensure that the poor are elevated to a point where their poverty doesn’t negatively affect their ability to participate in society. This is an essential idea because it can, in fact, conflict with the principle of pure egalitarianism. The egalitarian will want all things to be equal no matter what. The liberal, however, will be pragmatic, and will tolerate inequality if it allows the poorest to be liberated from the barrier of domination, and to emancipate them into that equal capacity to participate in society which forms the central goal of his ideology. It can be seen now how this digression factors into the main discussion, but I will elaborate on it explicitly.

We have seen that talent and lack of talent are arbitrary. The state should not give advantage to the talented, or punish the untalented through its structures, and, so, the state should not allow a distributional structure where the untalented are left worse off. However, such considerations of “advantage” on its own terms are of secondary concern to the liberal. The liberal’s core principle is equal freedom from domination. It has been shown that, in distributional terms, equal freedom from domination requires each individual to be above a certain threshold, after which point that freedom exists, and a person can freely participate in society. And so the liberal’s primary distributional goal is to ensure that the very poorest receive priority, and are elevated beyond that threshold. In this way, it is the liberal position that the talented should be able to use their arbitrarily given talents, and to benefit from them, as that benefit will encourage them to use and cultivate those talents. Such use and cultivation will of its own accord create more resource through the growth of the economy, and thus improve the lot of the poorest, pushing them closer to that threshold. But, it must nonetheless be conceded that excessive benefit to the talented must still be redistributed to the untalented, so as the state does not condone a system where the arbitrarily talented are advantaged beyond the point where that advantage can fruitfully improve the lot of the poorest.

This is perhaps the most complicated move of the philosophical basis for liberalism which was promised to be painted, and so it perhaps requires a restatement in clearer language. Talents are arbitrary, and so by rights, people shouldn’t get more for being talented. At the same time, though, the liberal most wants to get people above the threshold where they can participate in society meaningfully, in order to secure equal freedom. So, as a result of this priority, the liberal is happy for the state first to encourage the talented to use their talents, by allowing them some of the proceeds of it, secondly to harness those talents in order to grow the economy and suchlike, increasing the value of the existing share of the poorest, and then thirdly, because the talents are nonetheless still arbitrary, to devise a distributional system where the excessive benefits of the talent – the benefits which are above those needed to encourage the talented – are themselves redistributed to the poorest. In this way, an inequality in distribution is tolerated in order to ensure the fulfilment of the principle of equality of freedom from domination, which is the liberal’s supreme principle. Fundamentally, the liberal cares above all that everyone can participate in society. So long as they can, minor inequalities in distribution which help to assure this are tolerated.

In this way, we have derived a distributional system based on the foundational principle of the liberalism posited thus far. It focuses its efforts on removing the barrier of incapacity from the poorest, and tolerates and allows for the talented to keep some degree of financial reward in order to achieve this goal. In aiming to achieve equality of freedom rather than equality directly of resource, we can thus call this framework “liberal egalitarianism”. It is this that I suggest should form the basis of liberal economic policymaking. Having now laid the requisite philosophical groundwork and given an exposition of the conceptual case for liberalism, the next essays will turn to deriving a comprehensive practical framework from these philosophical ideals, and then, in turn, deriving policy and practical ideas for Britain as it stands from that practical framework.

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.