Friday, 28 May 2010

Liberalism in Politics and Philosophy

One of the undeniably interesting elements of the fact that Britain now has in government members of the Liberal Democrats is the opportunity it opens up for discussion about the nature of liberalism. In a thoughtful, if, unsurprisingly, somewhat biased posting, Stuart White argues that there is an important distinction between the beliefs of some of the Liberal Democrat members of the current cabinet and the most important liberal political philosophers of the most 40 years. The suggestion White makes is that the standpoint of the recent liberal political philosophers is broadly egalitarian but that of the Liberal Democrat ministers is not. There are two pieces of evidence in his argument. The first concerns the paucity of reference to political philosophy in some books he takes to be particularly important in the recent history of the Liberal Democrats. The importance attached to these books is, however, far less evident than White suggests since, for example, such an undoubted social liberal as Simon Hughes can be (and has been) given support in his bid for the Deputy leadership of his party by Vince Cable, identified by White as an "economic" liberal. So it is not as evident as White thinks that positions can be read off from the books he cites to political actions and decisions.

The second reason White relies on concerns a specific policy matter. However, given that egalitarian ends are not evidently tied to specific modes of delivery this piece of evidence is not as solid as he thinks either. The more interesting element of White's position doesn't concern either of these alleged pieces of evidence. Rather, the interesting point concerns the fact that recent liberal political philosophy has no evident tie to market mechanisms since the "basic structure" as Rawls would put it is rather viewed through normative principles and mechanisms are then viewed in relation to them. Politicians, by contrast, do tend to begin from consideration of the "here and now" and then look at principles in relation to them. Is this a difference in focus between politicians and philosophers? Certainly Kantians generally should start from principle rather than an appeal to the given conditions since otherwise the dangers of sacrificing principle are obvious enough. The question remains whether this is a position that working politicians ever take and hence whether, if a "Kantian liberal" comes to support a Liberal government whether this support will not, inevitably, have to have a critical edge?

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