It’s true: the Liberal Democrats are far more radical than Labour

At autumn conference this year, unnoticed by most as the farce of Brexit continued to dominate headlines and Lib Dem attentions, the party passed some of its most radical, progressive and exciting economic policy in years. In the nearly four years that I’ve been a member, I’ve spent a lot of my time criticising the party for failing to think properly about the economy beyond tinkering with the existing system, so it fills me with happiness that we’ve finally sorted ourselves out. In particular, I noticed this article get a lot of stick. How ludicrous, the critics say, that the dull, centrist Lib Dems can paint themselves as more radical than Corbyn and McDonnell! But here’s the thing – it might be uncomfortable for some to admit, but it’s true. And here’s why.

In some of my more formal essays on liberalism, I’ve outlined the necessity for liberals to be genuinely radical and creative with their economic solutions, and not just be content to operate within the same old systems which have caused such structural damage and disadvantage. I’ve argued that we need to systematically dismantle those structures of domination, and truly liberate people economically. These policies do exactly that.

The policy I’m perhaps most excited about is the realignment of wealth taxation. By abolishing inheritance tax and instead taxing intergenerational transfers as income, as well as taxing income from wealth in the same way as normal income, we stop the entrenchment of privilege across generations by huge transfers of wealth, while giving most people – the non-wealthy – a very generous allowance and exempting small gifts. A similar proposal was mooted by the IPPR, my favourite think-tank, and it’s fantastic to see it as formal Lib Dem policy.

But it’s also about what we can do with the money raised from this. We now have policy to set up the Citizens’ Wealth Fund, a sovereign wealth fund managed by independent financiers, to invest on behalf of the nation. Most excitingly, we want to use it to set up a citizens’ dividend, so every person can share in the growth of the nation they helped contribute towards. I am particularly interested in a supplementary idea, spoken about before by Vince, of turning this into a young people’s dividend, receivable on their 18th birthday, to really hammer home our message of intergenerational fairness. We also want to invest in lifelong education and reskilling, so workers are equipped for the modernisation of industry. We are the only major party talking about this.

But we’ve also come up with more: most notably, abolishing business rates and replacing them with a land value tax. This proposal would stop the absurd disincentive to investment and development that business rates currently provide, and would instead tax solely the basic land occupied. In this way, the burden of taxation also shifts from tenant to landlord, and thus provides a major shift of economic power.

Adding all of this together is a radical platform in itself. But combined with existing policy – most notably employee-ownership, one of our core pieces of industrial policy for over half a century and ingrained into our constitution, and a preference for new wealth taxation on property rather than higher income tax, our economic policy is by far the most reformative and fresh of any of the major parties. This is most notably true with Labour: the economic section of their 2017 manifesto merely called for some taxes to be tweaked upwards, a few nationalisations, and intervening to stop high street ATMs being taken away. They try to present themselves as radicals, but the truth is that their policies are pedestrian. The Lib Dems are the real reformers, and after Conference this year, that is truer than ever.

7. Liberalism and the Economy – Universal Basic Income

With a framework for the determination of liberal policy constructed, and the bridge between philosophy and policymaking complete, our attention can now be turned fully to policy. As explained in my initial essay, I intend to conduct a broad sweep of each general area of policy, drilling down to specifics over multiple parts. The first of these is the economy, which I intend to examine in multiple parts. This first essay will concern the basic organisation of the economy, which I argue should be capitalist, though acknowledging the current issues with the broken capitalism we have, and then argue for a universal basic income, to eradicate the greatest source of domination: economic uncertainty arising through poverty.

The system at large

The significance of the economy for the liberal project cannot be understated. As explained in a previous essay, it is the underpinning of everything; the single biggest determinant of one’s life chances and quality of life. It is essential, then, that the basic structure of the economy is set up correctly. The basic fabric should be fundamentally capitalistic: the capitalist economy at its most fundamental respects and responds to the choices of the individual, and thrives when our basic freedoms are most respected. But capitalism can be warped – without a proper flow of information, and without regulation, the power that capitalism rightfully deprives from the state in terms of economic control can be transferred almost entirely to private entities, where the domination is no less problematic. True capitalism – liberal capitalism – must regulate free markets to ensure sufficient information is given to consumers to be able to make informed choices, must ensure no entity grows so large that it gains dominative power, and ensure that capital – capitalism’s basic unit – is accessible by the masses. The problem in recent times has been that companies have been owned by an increasingly elite group of people, and free markets have been pursued as an end in themselves, rather than an instrument for the freeing of people. I intend to turn to solutions to this problem in the next essay, where I will argue amongst other things for a radical new employee ownership scheme and bold co-operatisation programmes.

Personal finance and the Universal Basic Income

But if our system is capitalist, then money is of high value. Those with it can do as they please, unstressed and unburdened by the disenfranchising problems of poverty, while those without it feel exploited by a system that doesn’t work for them, and allow them the fruits of society and the economy. Most importantly, and most relevantly for our philosophical framework, poverty means they lack the capacity to participate in society, and from there stem multiple societal problems – disaffection leads to crime, to lower educational standards, to healthcare problems, and so on. Take an example: a single parent having to juggle three jobs just to keep food on the table and a roof over the family’s head would very likely end up stressed, leading to health problems down the line, have no extra time to give to their children, leading to gaping educational disparities between rich and poor, and never own property, leaving them without economic security. This is economic precariousness. It is a burning injustice. And in such a situation, it is clear that a person cannot participate fully in society; they cannot be said to have equal freedom from domination. Fixing that economic precariousness that people find themselves in is crucial, then – it is a source of the highest domination in people’s day-to-day lives, and as liberals, we have to eradicate it.

How? Again, the philosophical framework is useful. If our philosophical priority is getting the poorest to a point where they can participate in society, and precariousness is the target of our action, then there is a very simple answer: unconditionally give everyone a reliable source of income to push them over that line. This is called a universal basic income (UBI), and has been trialled successfully in a few places around the world.

It is superior to the present welfare system for practical reasons: rather than creating a complicated bureaucracy of dozens of elements requiring form-filling, checks, multiple levels of processing, and everything that accompanies it, it is one single payment that everyone gets. For the rich, who don’t need the money, it gets taxed away, but for the very poorest, it completely removes economic precariousness as a source of domination, by knowing that whatever happens, they will have enough money to live off.

Objections to this policy are obvious: giving money to people who don’t work for it seems to be subsidising the lazy. But there are compelling reasons why this is not a persuasive objection. Firstly, in the present social welfare system, there are free-riders, as there will be in any comparable system. It is a constant section of the population, and giving the payment in one tranche and as one payment won’t affect that. And secondly, on a more philosophical level – the money proposed as part of a UBI would be enough to live off. What compelling moral argument is there for someone not to receive the bare minimum to survive? All members of society, regardless of what they do or don’t do, deserve that much.

Another objection is that it would encourage people not to work. But it seems to me that this lacks force as well: very few people are satisfied with earning the bare minimum to live anyway. Indeed, empirical evidence shows this to be true. A UBI pilot in Canada in the 1970s found that there was no change in employment rates, but people did stay in education longer, there were fewer hospitalisations, and mental health admissions sharply declined.

Poverty and economic uncertainty are two of the greatest causes of social and public health problems. Welfare systems are overcomplicated and enormously bureaucratic, leading to eye-watering costs, and also to people falling through gaps and being left in dire need but with no money whatsoever for periods of weeks or months. A universal basic income identifies this source of economic domination, and eradicates it immediately. It is a happy coincidence that it also respects the dignity of the individual, giving them money and trusting them what to do with it. For the philosophically minded, this in particular will satisfy liberal luck egalitarians – people are given money to enable them not to be dominated. But if they choose to squander it (which studies show does not really happen at all), that is the consequence of their choice. It therefore corrects the brute bad luck of being born into a poor family, but not the option luck of using the money badly.

Liberals should be deeply alarmed by the great injustice of poverty, and its distorting effect on society. Rather than tinkering around with minor tweaks to tax rates, personal allowances and other things which fail to attack the core of the issue, we should be unafraid to be bold in our ambition to eradicate economic precariousness for every citizen of our country. A universal basic income does precisely that, and, I would argue, is a liberal thing indeed.

6. A Brief Framework for Liberal Policymaking

In the previous essays, a philosophical justification for liberalism has been provided on the conceptual level, beginning with basic, universal philosophical principles, and working through their implications. It was determined that liberalism is what results from giving priority to equal freedom from domination and equal capacity to participate in society, and that, for anyone who values autonomy at all, this principle is superior to conservatism, libertarianism and socialism. But now that the concept has been identified, it is necessary for us to go a step further, and to stray into the territory of practical policymaking. This is the gap so infrequently bridged in liberal thought, with philosophers theorising in books and articles on the one hand, and liberal politicians working in near-isolation on the other. The aim of this essay will be to build that bridge, by establishing a generic framework for the generation of liberal policy, and thereafter, in following essays, I will examine its implications for each major area of practical policymaking.

Based on the philosophical groundwork, one principle above all – our supreme principle – must be fulfilled. Liberal policy, very simply, must free people from domination. But in order to drill down into precisely what is meant when this is said, we must first determine what domination constitutes. Fortunately, our auxiliary principle helps with this.

We stated earlier that the auxiliary principle was the creation of equal capacity to participate in society. The value of equal freedom from domination, we said, was to allow equal participation. It was from there that we derived the principle that our primary focus should be on helping the lowliest in society to be pushed over the threshold at which they can be said to participate properly – and thus on an equal footing. And so it is here that we can shine a light on the definition of domination. Because domination is not simply a current, existing interference with that freedom to participate: domination encapsulates potential threats to that freedom. Liberals want to liberate people from any conglomeration of power which could choose to act to limit a person’s capacity to participate in society properly, and on an equal footing. The best example is of the slave and slaveowner. The slaveowner might be benevolent, and in practice not interfere with the life of his slave. But does that mean that the slave is free? No, the slave is still dominated, and needs liberating.

So, in sum, all liberal policy must be designed to free people from domination, where domination is a threat – potential or current – to a person’s capacity to equally participate in society. So far, so obvious.

But there is a further requirement that liberal policy ought to fulfil: policy must be radical. If a source of domination is identified, then in almost all cases, that domination is structural. It arises out of the way society or its institutions have been set up and organised, and thus is systemic. If a liberal identifies such a source of domination, then the way to eliminate it is inherently to make a structural change. These are necessarily radical. It would make little sense to identify a problem which has its roots in the way the system is set up, and then to keep the same system in place, but simply to tinker with some of the finer details of how that system is executed. The domination would remain in place, because someone could simply change those details back – the system would still be susceptible to interfere with an individual’s capacity for equal participation.

Liberalism, then, is the ideology of equal freedom from domination, and as its auxiliary, equal capacity to participate in society. It views all people as inherently morally equal, and thus no more deserving or undeserving of the benefits of arbitrary qualities. It views freedom and equality as fundamentally social concepts rather than untethered, ethereal ones, and thus views democratic, societal equality as the root of all other equality which may follow from it. It is not egalitarian for its own sake, but believes first in the priority of the poorest until they reach a point of sufficiency measured by their ability to participate in society, tolerating minor inequalities and the reaping of some fruits of arbitrary talent by the talented if by doing so, the lot of the poorest is increased. And thus, any liberal policy must adhere to two core principles: it must identify a source of domination and eradicate it with reference to improving an individual’s capacity to participate in society – the liberational element – and it must do so without falling into the temptation to merely tweak the existing systems which are the source of the domination – the radical element. It is abiding by these principles that liberals can generate policy in all areas, underpinned by a consistent set of philosophical principles.

Party Reforms

It has been widely reported in a number of newspapers and other outlets today that Vince Cable is planning on introducing a series of radical reforms to the Liberal Democrat rulebook in an effort to re-energise the party and create a “mass membership movement”. Although some of the details appear to have been mangled in some of the reporting – most notably because journalists tend to have a chronically shaky grasp of how Lib Dem internal structures work (and Jennie Rigg of FCC has debunked them well in her blog here) – I want to tackle the principle of it, and explain why on balance, I think parts of this would be a bad move, regardless of how or when it’s introduced. I qualifiedly support a supporters’ scheme, but I do not support the party being led by a non-MP.

Supporters’ scheme

The first element of this would be the introduction of a supporters’ scheme, according to the reports, and it has been touted as being along similar lines as Labour’s, but requiring that a person be of twelve months’ standing before they gain the full privileges associated with it, which are implied to be leadership election privileges.

This strikes me as a half-good idea for one main reason: engagement. Membership of the party is £12 per year (or less if you’re under 26), which is the cheapest of the main parties, but the psychological barrier of “being a member of a political party” is, I would argue, more significant. The ordinary person who watches the news and has a set of opinions, but doesn’t like to associate themselves with “politics” or being “a politician” is often put off by the idea of party membership, seeing it as a step too far. The way I see it, the supporters’ scheme could be a way to bridge this gap, and give those people who are liberal and want to show support an avenue for doing so within the framework of the party. That way, we can keep in touch with them, engage with them, and hopefully persuade a few of them to end up delivering and campaigning, and maybe even joining as full members.

Where I depart from the idea, however, is the idea that we should give such supporters voting rights in leadership elections. The reason for this is not entryism (the Lib Dems are already very open to entryism with our unconditional one-member-one-vote system for determining conference policy, and entryism didn’t impact Labour’s leadership elections at all) but rather incentive: if supporters have the same primary rights as members, what is the point in being a member? My suggestion would be that supporters gain reduced or limited rights, such as half-votes at conference with special voting cards, or half-votes for internal committees, and so on.

Non-MP Leaders

The worst part of the ideas mooted, however, is changing the rules to allow a non-MP to become leader. It has been rumoured that this is a step to allow Gina Miller, the anti-Brexit campaigner, to become leader, but I’ve not heard any reputable person in the party give any credence to that. But regardless of who is being lined up for it, it should be fully resisted. And the reason for this comes down to what the party ought to be.

The Liberal Democrats are the youngest of the major parties in a very narrow sense, but are the formal successors to the Liberal Party, who are the formal successors to the Whigs, and thus, the Lib Dems are the modern representatives of a liberal tradition and movement going back almost 350 years, into the seventeenth century. And crucially, that tradition is a Parliamentary one. We introduced the welfare state, we expanded the franchise, we liberalised the economy, we equalised marriage – all through having MPs in Parliament as the supreme decisionmaking body for the country as a whole, and making that our primary goal. It is a goal that we should maintain. Having a non-MP as leader would shift this focus unacceptably.

From a public relations standpoint, it would also be undesirable. Having a non-MP leader would make it considerably harder to get name recognition in the media. We already struggle – having a confusing split between the person leading us in the Commons and the person leading us overall would exacerbate this. And worst of all, it would signal a lack of seriousness, a relegation to the position of pressure group or single-issue party, like the Greens or UKIP. We are neither of those things. We are the only liberal party in British politics. We have been in government more recently than Labour, and – I’d wager – it is unlikely that they will get into government before us again. It would be a betrayal of the 2.3million people who voted for us last year to pack it all in and abandon our Parliamentarism – especially if the goal of so doing would be to put someone like Gina Miller in power to defer to the Remain crowd, thus obscuring further our other policies.

So while the supporters’ scheme may have some merit and may be a good way to get more people involved in liberalism and the party, some of the specifics aren’t quite right, and the idea to allow non-MPs to be leaders is, to me, very much the wrong route. If we want a better pool from which to pick leadership contenders, then there’s only one option: we’ve got to get more Lib Dem MPs elected.

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.

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.

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.