I had sat down to write a piece trying to respond to Jonathan Calder’s call for a stronger Liberal Democrat “ideology”. But as, in the process, I was reading and rereading various ways in which people in the party had responded to last week’s election results, I began once again to wonder whether I had anything at all in common with some of them, at least enough to think it worthwhile staying and fighting for my left-libertarian, Mutualist ideal.
So I ambled over to the party constitution, and in particular to its infamous “Preamble” which most people feel is the touchstone of whether one can be a Liberal Democrat member in good conscience, to see what I can and cannot agree on, whether there is an interpretation possible of parts in which I feel I most disagree with many people, and see if I can work out from that whether I should be here or not. The numbering of sections is mine, simply to allow me to cross refer to them
1. The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which noone shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity.
This is, of course, the bit we carry around with us on our membership cards. The Liberal Party version of it was better, enshrining explicitly as it does the right to property right at the beginning, which, for a Mutualist, is a pretty fundamental thing, and for a Rothbardian is the very basis of a social system that hopes to avoid conflict between its members where people wish to pursue their own ends and need to use scarce resources to do so. In David Friedman’s words, that (justly acquired) property is the “Machinery of Freedom.”
Is this an insurmountable problem? On the one hand, I can say that for me a “fair, free and open society” is one which necessarily respects property rights. On the other its omission from this key part of the document seems to imply that its fundamental nature as a guarantor of such a society is not well understood. And that those who do not appreciate that fundamental importance all too often look on others’ property as something which can be taken from them to pursue their political ends.
Not looking good so far, but probably something I share with a fair number of people in the party…
2. We champion the freedom, dignity and well-being of individuals, we acknowledge and respect their right to freedom of conscience and their right to develop their talents to the full. We aim to disperse power, to foster diversity and to nurture creativity.
Where the “we” is a collection of individuals wishing to promote these aims, I can wholeheartedly sign up to this. But…
3. We believe that the role of the state is to enable all citizens to attain these ideals, to contribute fully to their communities and to take part in the decisions which affect their lives.
This one might be harder to surmount by sophistry. I believe that the state is an unnecessary evil, and a nearly unmitigated disaster. However, given that I live in a society that organises itself into states that, whatever I argue are not going to disappear any time soon, and to the extent that this could allow me to argue that this “role of the state” would be most effectively realised by reducing its interventions, I think I can, just about, live with this. Although “enable” sounds as if there is a predisposition toward positive action rather than simply ensuring “laissez-faire”.
4. We look forward to a world in which all people share the same basic rights, in which they live together in peace and in which their different cultures will be able to develop freely. We believe that each generation is responsible for the fate of our planet and, by safeguarding the balance of nature and the environment, for the long term continuity of life in all its forms. Upholding these values of individual and social justice, we reject all prejudice and discrimination based upon race, colour, religion, age, disability, sex or sexual orientation and oppose all forms of entrenched privilege and inequality.
This is all rather motherhood and apple pie. Again, imagining this as a group of individuals signing up to a set of values we promote together, there is no clash here. However, I’m not sure how much attention people in the party pay to the last little bit, opposing “all forms of entrenched privilege and inequality”. I’m sure they like to think they do, but they don’t appear to recognise that it is the state itself that grants privilege (it means “private law” – law that applies to one person or group differently than it does to others).
The banking cartel and the money monopoly is state created privilege on a massive scale. So is the land system and especially the planning system, and particularly when Lib Dems campaign for stronger planning restrictions they are supporting privilege. When they support intellectual property rights too. This is one of those areas, however, where it may be better to stay and elucidate others. But only if they are prepared to listen. And those who don’t, well they are just as guilty of not really upholding the preamble as I might be in other aspects of it.
5. Recognising that the quest for freedom and justice can never end, we promote human rights and open government, a sustainable economy which serves genuine need, public services of the highest quality, international action based on a recognition of the interdependence of all the world’s peoples and responsible stewardship of the earth and its resources.
These are again all fine aims to which I can easily sign up, and which can be argued differently when it comes to developing policy for them. “International action” does not necessarily have to mean doing something through states, or higher level supranational coercive bodies. I’m sure most tend to think in those terms, but that does not mean only they have a correct interpretation of this document.
6. We believe that people should be involved in running their communities. We are determined to strengthen the democratic process and ensure that there is a just and representative system of government with effective Parliamentary institutions, freedom of information, decisions taken at the lowest practicable level and a fair voting system for all elections.
This is tougher – as it always will be where mention is made of the coercive institutions of state. I can argue, for instance, that the strongest and best form of democracy is the voluntary transactions in a freed market that are the only things which reveal peoples’ true individual preferences. I can argue that the “lowest practicable level” which is suitable for all decisions is in fact the individual or voluntary association to which they may delegate some sovereignty for a particular and probably temporary purpose.
But I know, in my heart, that this is not what the party means, and that to be able to argue these positions is to argue, effectively, to change this seminal document, which isn’t going to happen. I could fall back on the excuse, as in 3. above, that whilst there is government and the state, sticking around to argue for such radical devolution in interpreting this section is at least trying to push in the right direction, but if there are too many of those excuses, it seems like a lost cause.
7. We will at all times defend the right to speak, write, worship, associate and vote freely, and we will protect the right of citizens to enjoy privacy in their own lives and homes.
It seems to me that this is another of those areas, as in 4. above about fighting privilege, in which very many in the party do not, in fact, believe completely. When they call for regulations on business to force proprietors to deal with others they may not like, for whatever reason, they are obstructing the freedom of association for instance. When they call for laws to prevent “hate speech” or uphold the 200+ reasons by which the state can in fact force their way into one’s home, they are far from protecting the right to privacy. No doubt they have excuses for all of these, that they are not absolute and must be “balanced” against other rights. But if you have no absolutes, then the alternative is arbitrariness, and that’s no basis for an ideology.
But it is at least an area, again, in which I should stand and defend them as absolutes when others do not perhaps, for they are no better believers than I am!
8. We believe that sovereignty rests with the people and that authority in a democracy derives from the people. We therefore acknowledge their right to determine the form of government best suited to their needs and commit ourselves to the promotion of a democratic federal framework within which as much power as feasible is exercised by the nations and regions of the United Kingdom.
In what way has the party sought to enable people to “determine the form of government best suited to their needs”. The recent AV referendum is a case in point. We just assume that there’s a parliament to be elected and ask how we would like to elect those who would rule over us, rather than asking if that form of government is what people want. The people are not a collective whole. They cannot grant authority on behalf of everyone else. We are never asked. So again, an area observed by others in the party more in the breach than the observance and something to stay and fight for, since it’s pretty fundamental.
9. We similarly commit ourselves to the promotion of a flourishing system of democratic local government in which decisions are taken and services delivered at the most local level which is viable.
Same as 6, above. Or am I missing something?
10. We will foster a strong and sustainable economy which encourages the necessary wealth creating processes, develops and uses the skills of the people and works to the benefit of all, with a just distribution of the rewards of success. We want to see democracy, participation and the co-operative principle in industry and commerce within a competitive environment in which the state allows the market to operate freely where possible but intervenes where necessary. We will promote scientific research and innovation and will harness technological change to human advantage.
Again, on the basis that “we” is a group of individuals with common cause, I can agree. To the extent that it assumes that state intervention is ever necessary or can deliver a better outcome than a freed market, it’s one of those to stay and argue. “Promoting” something is not the same as forcing others to agree or pay for something and I can argue for better ways than state intervention to achieve such outcomes.
11. We will work for a sense of partnership and community in all areas of life. We recognise that the independence of individuals is safeguarded by their personal ownership of property, but that the market alone does not distribute wealth or income fairly. We support the widest possible distribution of wealth and promote the rights of all citizens to social provision and cultural activity. We seek to make public services responsive to the people they serve, to encourage variety and innovation within them and to make them available on equal terms to all.
Finally we get a much belated reference to property, tempered of course by a side-swipe at “the market”. I know what most people in the party mean by this section – it’s the excuse for state redistributive policies. But again, all these are aspirations that only work their way out in policy, and to that extent may be areas in which staying to argue for non-state alternatives is possible. Though the language of “rights” is a big hurdle. These sort of “positive rights” can never be on “equal terms” since they create obligations on others to provide them, extracted by force where necessary. But since one can argue that “equal terms” are better achieved by markets than by states, it still might be possible to believe this and argue for non-state means of achieving them.
12. Our responsibility for justice and liberty cannot be confined by national boundaries; we are committed to fight poverty, oppression, hunger, ignorance, disease and aggression wherever they occur and to promote the free movement of ideas, people, goods and services. Setting aside national sovereignty when necessary, we will work with other countries towards an equitable and peaceful international order and a durable system of common security.
Since I don’t really believe in national boundaries, I cannot be confined by them! But I do have a problem with “setting aside national sovereignty”. Sovereignty rests with the individual. If they grant any body, voluntary or coercive, control over any aspect of that sovereignty, then that body still has no right, without asking, to set that aside, to give that delegated sovereignty up to another, yet more remote body or group. All of these aspirations are ones that I believe will be easier to achieve without states involved at all. As with Cobden, I say “Peace will come to earth when people have more to do with each other and governments less.”
13. Within the European Community we affirm the values of federalism and integration and work for unity based on these principles.
Europe is the continent in which I was born and live. To that extent, I am part of a “European community”. But we all know that this really means the polity known as the “European Union” which, as a supra-state level body is actually anathema to me – it falls in the unnecessary evil camp along with any other mention of the state. If the party believes in its earlier commitment that “sovereignty rests with the people and that authority in a democracy derives from the people” it will commit to asking us whether we want any further integration or not. I would campaign and vote for a no, for an exit from the superstate.
14. We will contribute to the process of peace and disarmament, the elimination of world poverty and the collective safeguarding of democracy by playing a full and constructive role in international organisations which share similar aims and objectives.
Again, as with 12. above, peace and disarmament will only truly come when states are done away with. While states are the predominant way of organising the peoples of this planet I subscribe to limited involvement in bodies trying to get them to talk rather than fight. But I would also like to see that engagement used to promote libertarian alternatives. All too often, some of these institutions, such as the World Bank and IMF, and the WTO, act to entrench privilege and interfere in ways that bolster states and governments and favoured companies agains the real interests of their citizens. I am sure others agree that we should be very careful what we support and very critical of those that make things worse rather than better.
15. These are the conditions of liberty and social justice which it is the responsibility of each citizen and the duty of the state to protect and enlarge. The Liberal Democrats consist of women and men working together for the achievement of these aims.
Accepting again that I can argue that the best way for states to protect and enlarge such conditions is to step back from positive action, I can argue my corner. But to what extent does the past sentence actually apply? In this exercise there are clearly a number of areas that I find difficult. Some that appear to be actually the opposite of what I believe and want to campaign for. In others, I can accept them on the basis that my interpretation of the can be argued for when discussing policy and that my membership of the party may be able to further such interpretations.
I can see areas where I know many people pay only lip service, or perhaps don’t even understand their full importance, as with opposing privilege or defending free speech. But I also feel that their failings in those areas are omissions rather than actual objections to the ideals contained therein. Is there anyone who, going through all of the preamble can hand on heart say they agree and to the best of their knowledge and ability stand by every world of it? Or are we all, to some extent, sinners?
I have been urged on several occasions by members and non-members to remain within the party, to support those areas of policy that promote my ideas of liberty and to argue for different policies where they don’t. But that only really means anything if my arguments ever appear to have any positive influence on such policy, and I am not clear that they do, or that they do so in proportion to the importance I might lay on them.
Ultimately I suppose the $64,000 question is, is it possible to be an anarchist at heart, actively to campaign against the state political system, yet recognise that we live in a world of states and want to influence that system from within and hope that it makes a difference? It feels like campaigning for the other side, though not one, perhaps, as with a rival party, that would actually give advantage to them at the expense of the Lib Dems that would be an expulsion event.
My instincts lie with Emile Faguet, but that ultimately may not be enough. And there’s no point sticking around to argue for my version of a Lib Dem ideology if it is always going to be futile.