Wednesday, March 17, 2010

A classical mistake

Over on The Telegraph, Simon Heffer is having a poke at Labour's record on individual liberty.

We live in a country where harmless people taking pictures of cathedrals are warned off by police invoking anti-terrorism laws; where the same legislation is used to regulate the positioning of wheelie bins; where smoking is banned even in public places whose owners wish to allow it; where the hunting of vermin is banned even on the land of those who wish to have it hunted. All these invasions of individual autonomy have taken place since 1997.

All fair points and quite true. Heffer goes on to describe how a book about liberalism has forced him to think about such things and wonders how it is that liberalism has such a bad name these days.

Well, first of all - it doesn't. The term "liberal" is indeed used as a derogatory term by US conservatives, but beyond that relatively small band of people it is generally seen as a positive thing. Heffer points out that "Mrs Thatcher was a 19th century liberal" and goes on to describe himself as a "Gladstonian liberal".

As Heffer rightly notes, 19th century, Gladstonian liberalism was very different from the liberalism of today. Today, "liberalism" generally means progressive liberalism which is simply a form of socialism (but one that avoids the stigma of the term socialism) which employs the tools of political correctness and the "rights" of victim groups to push cultural Marxism on to an unsuspecting people.

What Heffer forgets though, is that the form of classical liberalism he refers to took root during the time of the nation state. This is a crucial point to understand about classical liberalism and individual liberty as I will now try to explain.

To have individual liberty and "autonomy" you need to have sovereignty - the power to make the decisions that affect your "territory" - in this case, your person. The further that sovereignty is removed from an individual, the less autonomy they will have. In any form of society, no individual will have complete autonomy - even if there is no organised system of government - because there are always others that you may have to defer that autonomy too whether it be members of your immediate family or the "tribe". This is a simple natural state (even primitive animals defer autonomy).

In the historical rise of a civilised society, that autonomy is deferred to various levels - from the individual to the family. From the family to the parish. From the parish to the county and from the county to the nation. Through each stage, the autonomy of the individual decreases. The only thing that binds it together throughout each stage is the culture - the shared values, traditions and institutions of the society.

Deferment of autonomy is an historically bottom up process. It begins with the individual and rises up through the various levels of societal structure. The governed defer autonomy to the government. This is why the nation state is the ultimate conclusion of society as it is the top level of society that can exist for any given culture (which is also why "multiculturalism" can not work and will eventually lead to the break up of a nation).

Classical liberalism took root during the time when the nation state had risen to prominence throughout the world. It worked only because of the nation state - it can not work in a form beyond that as that relies on a top down process where the governors defer autonomy of the governed, not vice versa - and where it does not defer autonomy it imposes its requirements on a people regardless of - and often against - their culture.

This is what we are seeing with modern progressive liberalism. We are seeing the imposition of rules and laws which go against our national culture - and this is resulting in the erosion of traditional British liberty. Those rules and laws increasingly come not from our government, but from various unelected and unaccountable corporate bodies of bureaucrats - the UN, EU, WTO etc.

Classical 19th century liberalism worked as well as it did only because of the existence of the nation state and only within the context of a nation state. People like Heffer who suppose that the same principles can work on a global context fail to understand the basic principle of individual liberty - the deferment of autonomy is a bottom up process and only acceptable amongst people with shared values, traditions and institutions - i.e. a shared culture.

People like Heffer want their cake and to eat it too. They want the social and personal benefits that are derived from the nation state at the same time as they want a globalised "laissez faire"* economic system - but they can't have it both ways. If you have this globalised economy, then you will need to accept that some global authority is going to decide what you can and can not do - regardless of your historic national, cultural traditions - and you have to realise that this "authority", once established, is never going give you any of your personal autonomy back and will only take more and more of it away.

* It's worth noting also that the term "laissez faire" also rose to prominence with the nation state and was only used in the context of a national economy.


Richard Manns said...

I don't agree with your interpretation of "laissez-faire".

Where does this global authority come from? The markets? But the markets are simply collections of autonomous individuals, making autonomous choices.

The markets can't stop you from doing something, but they can refuse to co-operate in your venture. If you want to make a rubber hammer, you can. Just don't expect many others to offer some of their autonomy over their assets to fund you.

The non-laissez-faire state, on the other hand, is a world of state-sanctioned monopolies and tariffs. The state declares that it will penalise your autonomy by appropriating assets if you try to trade cross-borders, and both stops you from freely creating monopolised goods and freely buying those same goods from anyone but the monopoly-holding supplier.

How is this not a far greater assault to your autonomy?

Further still, the nation-state is, by definition, the sole legal arbiter of coercive force. The market will not stop you from making rubber hammers; it does not care what you do with the rubber, only that you pay for it in a mutually-agreed sale.

But if the state has sold a monopoly licence to make those rubber hammers to another, then it can forcibly curtail your autonomy on liberty and property to enforce that licence.

How can this give more autonomy to the individual? Which curtails it more: the bank that charges high interest rates to fund your scheme that, in its autonomous eyes, is high-risk, or the state that forcibly prevents the manufacture in any capacity whatsoever?

Stan said...

I didn't actually offer an "interpretation" of laissez faire" - merely pointed out that the rise of laissez faire economics came at a time when the nation state was established. The phrase was never used in a global context until well into the 20th century - and a global depression soon followed.

In your comments you refer to a "non-laissez faire state" - but that is my whole point. It's fine to have a laissez faire nation - because that means the people of that nation still retain the control over their individual autonomy (through their national government - the body they defer autonomy to).

Incidentally, the state does not penalise you for trading cross borders - it penalises you for acting illegally - the same as if you stole someone's property. That is law. No one disagrees with the concept of law do they?

What you can not have is a laissez faire globalised economy - because there is no global "people", no global culture and so it is not possible to have a single global representative government. What happens instead is what we have - a global authority consisting of unelected, unaccountable corporate transnational, supranational and non-governmental bodies.

These bodies defer autonomy back to the nation states at their discretion - not vice versa. Do you not see the difference?

The nation state is the ultimate expression of deferred individual autonomy - because the nation state is the ultimate conclusion of a people with a shared history, values, traditions and institutions - culture. Anything beyond that means that that culture has to be compromised.

This is why we are seeing more and more of our traditional liberties being dismantled and eroded.

The nation state may have been the sole legal arbiter of coercive force (it isn't anymore), but it was so through the will of the people of that nation. That is the rule of law. That was the way it worked and worked well during the 19th century - the era of Gladstonian liberalism.

The nation state no longer has that sole right to coercive force - instead many of those legal rights have been taken, without consent of the people of the nation - and handed to those corporate bodies I mentioned above.

Nobody has complete individual autonomy - except a few dictators around the world. As I tried to point out, we defer autonomy through a system built up based on our culture. Of course it means you have to grant someone - or some body - the legal right to coercive force, that is the principle of law, for goodness sake! - but it is done with the implied agreement of the individuals who share a culture.

To me this is so obvious it hardly needs stating, but it is clear from your comments that some people just do not get it - and probably never will.

Weekend Yachtsman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Weekend Yachtsman said...

I don't believe Heff is being as subtle and nuanced as you think.

Essentially, he belongs to the "f*** off and leave us alone" party, and I think that approach is starting to have a bit more leverage with the public as NuLab's nanny state becomes ever-more extreme in its intrusive meddlesomeness.

In this, I'm with him.

Oh, and Richard - rubber hammers are actually very useful things. They don't damage tools and they don't cause sparks, to name just two advantages.