Wow, three posts in three days. My disdain for the political process is clearly not enough for me to ignore all its ramifications!
Of course you decide how much of this, like so many post mortem/what next posts, to give any weight to. The best I can say is that I have never left the party. In spite of close shaves. I was a conference delegate in 2010 and didn’t actually vote for the coalition, but that’s not to say “yah, boo, sucks” just by way of background that I have not, as perhaps some might think, been consistently in favour of it. That said, I always did think it was probably necessary. And brave. And we now know just how brave.
But for years I’ve been little more than an armchair member, having given myself over to anarchism before even 2010, trying to tread a fine line between support for a liberal voice in politics and philosophical disdain for the methods that involve getting elected to these coercive institutions in order to make that voice heard! And I certainly have not been in that veritable army of more active members pounding streets or losing their jobs in the rout last week. While I have little sympathy for those who make Leviathan their life and source of sustenance as a group, as individuals finding themselves the also rans and facing such sudden upheaval in their lives I really feel for the many whom this “evisceration” has hit hardest.
Anyway, some more more or less structured thoughts on Thursday and the Lib Dems…
Whatever lost it was not liberalism
I hear this from lots of different “sides”. Which in a sense is good news. It would suggest that nobody in the party really thinks that what we were offering was something that anyone could point to and say “see, that’s liberalism, and you’ll only get it there”. This won’t do for the future. We presumably exist because we believe in a vision that is distinctively liberal and that is not being voiced by anyone else.
So what is that vision? Well we all have our own ideas of course. It must, therefore, be open to discussion. And I don’t mean of the short, almost pre-prepared type that will necessarily be the case in a short-timetable leadership contest. I realise the importance of having a “leader” fixed up soon, for the short run, but just as when my department went through a reorganisation a few years ago, the one thing I really hated was filling the posts before defining them.
So for me, I’d want to see someone elected prepared to say they will hold office, say, until a European Referendum and that their period will oversee a couple of years of internal wide ranging philosophising and debate on what 21st century liberalism really looks like, before selecting the public champions for whatever that vision turns out to be.
We must be open to the unthinkable too.
Maybe control of the “democratic” institutions of the bureaucratic-managerial central state is not where liberalism is going to be realised in the future – in which case, our early ejection from those institutions might, one day, be seen as an advantage.
We should talk to some futurologists. The world is changing, quickly. Some believe a “great shift” is already in train, led by technological advance, particularly through things like local energy independence and production techniques, coupled with unprecedented global collaboration in innovation, that will stretch many present day institutions, from government, to education, to big corporate dominance, that were designed for an earlier age. In which case maybe the entire focus of seeking to promote liberalism (whatever that means) via controlling those rapidly obsoleting institutions is in doubt. If so, do we need a party structure that looks as much outside Westminster for leadership as within?
We should also be cautious of defining liberalism by reference to what others aren’t. In many ways what has led us to this catastrophe. But in this way too we must be open to the unthinkable – that whatever we end up defining as political liberalism in the 21st century may be being very well campaigned for and represented by Cameron’s more “liberal” Conservatoires on the one hand, or the Greens or Labour-Mutualists (if there are any) on the other.
Obviously, having stayed this long, I don’t think we’ll conclude that and do believe that there is a distinctive liberal tradition that has a future, in whatever institutions exist in the future, that is not well represented by a wing of Toryism or Socialism and that it is something worth pursuing, and perhaps in 2020 voting for, in its own right, in its own name. But if we did conclude one way or the other that “liberalism is doing fine” in the custodianship of some other group, we must also be prepared not to dilute it.
On residents’ associations.
Much as there may be to admire in residents’ associations, since I noticed someone suggesting that the Lib Dems might become a sort of permanent alliance of residents’ associations, they are in one big respect, a troublesome model – they are the ultimate “in group”. This is, I suggest, one of those central dilemmas at the heart of our creed – that local power is better than central power, but that done wrongly that can be very exclusionary.
There is also, I believe, a way to reconcile these two, unsurprisingly, through what most are familiar with as Land Value Tax: a community has every right to stand up for its interests, but in a way in which the externalities (costs born by others) of doing so are explicit (in the form, mostly, of increased scarcity rents) and paid for by the community concerned to the excluded somehow. This is what Churchill meant when he said, as I quoted in my previous post, that “Liberalism would preserve private interests in the only way in which they can be safely and justly preserved, namely, by reconciling them with public right”.
Spencer, George and Marshall
For me, one of the best formulations of what lies at the core of liberalism is often attributed to Herbert Spencer, though let not that put you off completely just yet! His generalisation that “every [person] may claim the fullest liberty to do as he wills compatible with the possession of like liberty by every other [person]” allows for much debate on the extent to which a person has liberty without opportunity to exercise it, but for me it provides an essential reminder of what liberalism’s aim is, for me at least.
At the other end, some might say, of the liberal spectrum, I also find T H Marshall’s explanation of social citizenship some kind of an aspirational touchstone – in which to be fully co-citizens we must all be able to share in the benefits created by that shared effort – even though, for many, the solution often seems to be redistributive programmes that reduce freedoms in other ways. But It’s as if in response to the question invited by Spencer “what is ‘like liberty’?” we have a yardstick by which to measure that.
Once again, what unites these two potentially diametrically opposed perspectives of liberalism is land. Land, or more specifically for the vast majority of us, location, values are the measure of the “social surplus” – the benefits over and above the reward for our individual efforts that arise from our social co-operation. Recycling this economic rent to everyone, either through government services for those who can’t resist meddling, or simply by way of an equal and unconditional citizen’s dividend quite literally distributes the social surplus equally allowing for fully social citizens to take advantage of the benefits of co-operation to reach their individual potential and fulfil their individual desires.
Rent, rent and rent again
To me then, rent, economic rent, is the very financial measure of the “value added” by the simple collaborative effort and interactions of living together. It is the “social surplus” quantified over which we debate how much should be allowed to accumulate in private hands, be equally distributed through a dividend, or spent for people through coercively funded services. Rent is, in an economic sense, what liberalism ought to be about.
Yes, it requires quite a lot of study (perhaps) to understand why economic rent is such an important, and almost universally misunderstood, influence in an economy. But I find it difficult to conceive on any distinctive definition of political liberalism that does not put an emphasis on rent, or in old language, in land value tax. I think if we understood it correctly, we could not help but see it as as intrinsic to liberalism as has been fair representation.
It is just as important as ever (and will be until we become either incorporeal beings or invent a Star-Trek like instantaneous transport mechanism). It scales to whatever level of governance the future holds – from sustainable radically independent community governance to supra-national collaboration. Its private accumulation, whilst we find other ways of funding the very amenities that help increase those rents, is a source of huge distortion in the economy that in reality benefits a very small proportion of people. It must surely be axiomatic that if you believe in any right of an individual to be able to pursue satisfaction of their desires to have somewhere from which to do it. Rent is the measure of how much that right is being impinged upon by our recognising another’s right to exclude others from the benefits and opportunities afforded by a particular location.
No more arsing around, embrace it and make it ours. I have no doubt at all in my mind that it will be more of a key issue in 2020 even than now. If I had to name something as a “red line” in negotiations, it would be this. I don’t think I would come out the other side of this historic, even as unwanted, opportunity for a reinvention of the Lib Dems, a restatement of of a distinctive liberalism worth fighting for that didn’t put what remains unfinished business from our last stint in power closer to a hundred years ago right at its heart.
A Tax Free, Rent Funded society is worth fighting for on its own, with or without a party with “liberal” in its name!