Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Liberalism: "Old" and "New"

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has published a new article on the topic of liberalism which is by Gerald Gaus. Gaus' piece raises a number of important questions concerning the nature of "liberty", the debate about the comprehensiveness of liberalism, the discussion of its reach and the division between types of liberalism. Given the dominance of liberalism within contemporary political philosophy the discussion is an important one and most of what Gaus discusses is worth responding to in detail.

For the sake of this posting I want to focus on the way Gaus distinguishes between two forms of liberalism: the forms he terms "old" and "new" liberalism. This distinction is an interesting one, cutting, as it does, to the nature of debates within liberalism that are important for seeing reasons why liberals, who apparently share the "same" view, often have very different reasons for saying and doing things and, in fact, turn out to be at some variance with each other.

The people Gaus terms "old" liberals are more usually referred to as "classical" liberals and should be distinguished from libertarians (though Gaus conflates them to a certain degree). These types of liberals stress private property as a uniquely fitting institution for the protection and enhancement of liberty. Along with the stress on private property emerges a commitment to the market economy. As Gaus stresses, this position can be made even firmer, as it was in the case of Hayek, for whom private property is basically the only type of institution that is taken to fit the demands of liberty. This tradition is, however, not carefully related by Gaus to precedents in political philosophy. So, Gaus claims that it has precedent in the 19th century and cites Jeremy Bentham in support but says nothing about John Stuart Mill and has, in his consideration of this form of liberalism, nothing to say about its relationship with pre-19th century philosophers such as Kant. This is despite the fact that the structure of Kant's Doctrine of Right mirrors the emphasis of "classical" liberals in opening with a discussion of property and taking the relationship between freedom and property to be decisive for what he calls "private right". It should be said, however, in mitigation of this, that Kant also indicates a distinction between "private" and "public" right with the latter including a basis for state restrictions on private property. Even so, the relationship of the Kantian account of property to this "classical" notion of liberalism would certainly be worth thinking through and Gaus does not do so.

Gaus' notion of the "new" liberalism involves concern with the notion of "social justice". This emphasis involves a reference to the work of Keynes whose examination of such things as the "paradox of thrift" arrived at the view that economies based primarily on "natural" liberty would not be able to deal with structural problems of wealth that would require, instead, the intervention of the state. So, by contrast to the "old" liberals, the "new" ones promoted emphasis on state action. With the emphasis on state action comes a certain kind of suspicion of private property where this now becomes seen as the basis of inequality. Incidentally, and again not noted clearly by Gaus, this view of property indicates a re-evaluation of equality. If the classical form of liberalism emphasizes "liberty" (in accordance with the name "liberalism"), the new form, by contrast, is involved in a new emphasis on equality. Such a concern with equality naturally leads to looking at the sources of inequality but does require that the presence of inequality is seen as a distinct social ill. Here Gaus does mention John Stuart Mill in terms of the political economy of Mill leaving open the question as to whether private property was the best means of ensuring personal freedom. However, in mentioning Mill in this context, Gaus neglects to note here the tensions within Mill's thinking and particularly the ways in which he comes close to socialism at some points whilst providing arguments of a distinctly libertarian kind at others.

Having drawn this distinction, which, despite the problems noted here with the means it has been done, does indicate something of importance, Gaus proceeds to discuss contemporary liberal political philosophy primarily as contributions to the "new" liberalism. Again, somewhat surprisingly, there is no reference to Kant, despite Paul Guyer's essay discussing the relationship of Kant and Rawls, and Rawls' own history of references to Kant, references that point in many different directions. So, despite the usefulness of Gaus' analysis here, there remains room to think in much more detail about the nature of the variety of possible Kantian responses to the divide sketched.

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