5. The Philosophical Justifications Continued: Why Other Ideologies are Not Sufficient

In the previous essays, a philosophical justification for liberalism has been provided on the conceptual level, beginning with basic, universal principles, and working through their implications if we were to give priority to our substantive form of autonomy, the equal freedom from domination. But in order to supplement our standalone justification for liberalism, it will be helpful here to make a brief digression from the derivation of a practical framework, and to describe why the liberalism thus far sketched is superior to the other major schools of philosophical thought. The ideologies thus treated will be conservatism, libertarianism and socialism, which are, I posit, the ideologies with the largest followings outside of liberalism.

Philosophical conservatism, writing in a British context, must be distinguished from the purely political “Conservatism” of the modern (and historical) Conservative Party, which I will refer to with the ‘c’ capitalised. It is the philosophical preference for tradition and custom, the preservation of institutions and hierarchies, and a limited role for the government in redistribution. It can take many forms, and is a school of thought which, due to its history, is particularly broad, but the majority of its adherents would agree that the majority of the tenets outlined above are common to most of those permutations of it. Why should this conservatism be philosophically undesirable? The greatest reason lies in the inherent conservative preferment for tradition and hierarchy, which leads to conservatives necessarily believing in a concept of what constitutes the good life, or the right way to live. Evidently, if a conservative believes that there is a strain of tradition which society itself should prefer, as opposed merely to the personal choices of individuals to follow a conception of the good life, those not adhering to that tradition, or whom the tradition excludes, will be disadvantaged by that society. Take, for example, the idea of an established church, one agreed with by many conservatives. The state preferment of that religion will lead to the state-promoted disadvantage of those who do not adhere to it. It will, in effect, lead to a barrier to participation in society for those who are not part of the religion. How can this be said to be desirable? A state which promotes a conception of the good life necessarily violates the principle of equal freedom from domination. A state promoting a conception of the good life must give advantage to those following that conception. Such an advantage must be in giving additional privileges, rights, or economic powers to those adherents. And so, the non-adherent will be damaged. How can such a non-adherent participate fully in their society if the state damages their interests? It must be the case that as a result of any commitment to equal autonomy, the liberal state cannot promote a conception of the good – which is frequently the most common unifying belief of the liberal: it is the doctrine that anyone should be free to act, so long as they don’t force that act on another, or harm another in so acting. For a state to promote a conception of the good life is to do those things. Thus it is unable to be maintained by anyone believing in autonomy. In this way, the core principle of conservatism is inimical to anyone who believes in the high valuation of autonomy.

Conservatism in its modern context is closely allied to libertarianism, particularly with respect to frameworks of economic distribution. Both hold that governments and states should not interfere in the property rights of individuals beyond what is absolutely necessary. The difference is that libertarians, unlike conservatives, do tend to believe in the neutral state as outlined above, and so show no preferment to a particular conception of the good. But even despite this, libertarianism is philosophically unsatisfactory for any person who believes in autonomy, because of its economic principles. A libertarian may well believe in total legal and theoretical freedom for all individuals, and that freedom may well be equal. But the core principle of liberalism as outlined in previous essays is equal freedom from domination, and that domination consists also in equal capacity to participate in society, respecting our inherent moral equality as persons. And, as a result of the belief in the untouched market, and the view that any economic transaction is valid so long as it is freely consented to, the libertarian fails to take into account the bigger picture and the nature of suppressive power. Paying full attention to mere freedom of economic transaction means that a libertarian crucially fails to account for the arbitrariness of talent and fails to account for redistribution to compensate for this, and thus fails to give people useful autonomy in participating in society, and empowers merely those with arbitrary talent. It may well be that an exceptionally poor person consents to working for poverty wages while the extremely skilled, intelligent businessman creams off huge amounts of profit, and to the libertarian, this is a perfectly acceptable situation. But autonomy requires respect for moral equality, which requires equal freedom from domination, which requires both the capacity to participate in society – which the poor workers lack due to their economic precariousness – and a state which doesn’t give advantage or disadvantage to the arbitrarily talented or non-talented – which is precisely what does happen when the state allows the unskilled poor, who are in their situation through chance or an arbitrary lack of skill or talent, to be so disadvantaged in society; or when the state allows the arbitrarily intelligent businessman, who is in his situation through his arbitrary talent, to have such advantage. Thus, I posit, libertarianism, and such an atomistic and non-holistic view of distribution, is inimical to anyone who values autonomy and its equal exercise, which liberals must be committed to.

At perhaps the opposite end of the spectrum, and perhaps most opposed to liberalism in recent times, is socialism, as part of the broader ideology of communitarianism. These essays are not intended to be histories of ideology, but it will suffice to say that modern democratic socialism in Western countries like ours could almost certainly be said to be in the broader tradition of eighteenth century liberalism – but, as almost all ideologies could be said to be in that tradition, the point is irrelevant for present purposes. Modern socialism, in many ways, arises out of the philosophical assumptions of utilitarianism, where the greatest happiness of the greatest number is prioritised. Socialism requires the central planning of a state in order to promote “the greater good”, even at the expense of individual interests, treating the interests of the community as prioritised over the individual. It is perhaps an intuitively appealing philosophy because of some of its practical political achievements, but it seems rather to be the case that it achieved the right ends for the wrong reasons, and that liberals would achieve the same ends for the right reasons. This view will be explored in later essays. But socialism is philosophically unsatisfactory for two chief reasons: its attitude towards autonomy, and its attitude towards egalitarianism. Socialism is an explicitly autonomy non-preferring system. As outlined above, it prioritises the community interest and the force of numbers because of its emphasis on the greater good. Clearly, any person who believes in the priority of autonomy will find this suspect. There may be many who do believe that autonomy is a trifling concern, but it is my belief that this position is entirely inimical to the facts of human nature and morality. We take autonomy as being a core requirement of morality, as outlined earlier, and value autonomy very highly when the threat of it being taken looms over us. None but the most hardline communitarians would disagree with this. And if it is so, then the philosophical entailments of a belief in the high value of autonomy – the respect for moral equality, and the principle of equal freedom from domination – must follow from it as well. Believing in equal freedom requires us to conceive of individuals who do have some set of rights and insuperable interests. And in this way, socialist considerations of “the greater good” where a greater number necessarily defeats an individual must be rejected. The second reason is a lesser reason, but important nonetheless – socialism economically prefers inherent egalitarianism rather than preferentialism. In the previous essay, a framework for economic distribution was outlined in which it was noted that liberals are not economic egalitarians for its own sake, because absolute equality of resource could nonetheless lead to the poor being worse off than they otherwise might be. In short, it was said that minor inequality could be tolerated if it led to an overall better situation for the poor. In this way, our distributional framework is one of preferentialism of the situation of the poor. But socialists frequently differ from this position, and believe in the absolute, inherent egalitarianism which we rejected. While absolutely not a liberal herself – indeed, squarely a libertarian with conservative tendencies – the Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher put it most pithily: “they would rather the poor were poorer so long as the rich were less rich”. While socialism is a multi-faceted ideology which encompasses many views and beliefs, this preference for absolute egalitarianism is present in many. It is another reason why it must be philosophically unsatisfactory to one who prioritises autonomy.

Having reached the end of the comparison of ideologies, two important features arise which should be noted. First, it was explained that priority of autonomy and belief in that priority is almost the default position for almost all people. It is the purpose of these essays to argue that that autonomy should be equal autonomy, and thus that liberalism is the best way to politically channel that belief. But it is also clear that any believer in the priority of autonomy should be put off by the logical entailments of other ideologies – conservatism, libertarianism and socialism most notably. Conservatism requires the non-neutrality of the state and thus the disadvantage of those who choose to live their lives individually, which violates the principle of respect for our inherent moral equality. Libertarianism is too atomistic in its distributional thinking, and again allows for the arbitrarily talented to exploit the arbitrarily disadvantaged. And socialism doesn’t respect autonomy at all in its lack of respect for the individual and “greater good” attitude. Having now shown that liberalism is the superior ideology for those who believe in the priority of equal autonomy in political thinking, in the next essay I shall begin to derive the framework, based on the liberal principle of equal freedom from domination, for practical policymaking for liberal politicians.