Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Why Jack of Kent isn't a liberal


Top legal blogging chap, Jack of Kent, has – in his glory and pomp – issued a definitive definition on his blog. Not to do with the law but an answer – nay a revelation – “what is liberalism?” Forget about the great minds of the past who have pondered the meaning of liberal and liberalism – Jack has given us the definition. In short, easy to digest sentences:

Flowing from this priority placed on human autonomy then come the more practical applications of liberalism: due process, equality and diversity, freedom of expression on public matters, a private space on personal matters, free movement of peoples, internationalism, free trade, an evidenced-based approach to policy and law making, and so on.

Now because I’m a good boy and not as clever as Jack, I’m going to accept his definition of liberalism (even though I don’t entirely agree). Which is why I know Jack isn’t a liberal. He wrote this:

The ongoing economic crisis is a good moment to test this faith in the Market deity

And this…

It is as if the invisible hand has let us all go and started slapping us instead. One really must now have doubts that the Market is omnibenevolent, even if it retains the other two usual attributes.

No-one who claims to be a liberal should hold these views. You cannot be selective in your choice of liberal viewpoints and it is as illiberal to reject the free market as Jack does here as it is to reject freedom in sexuality, worship or diet.

But then, even in his glorious defining statement, Jack falls back on that old leviathan:

The liberal endorses an individual's autonomy unless there is a greater public interest in interfering with that autonomy.

So I can do what I want so long as the Government (or Jack) doesn’t think I shouldn’t do that something. I hate to tell you, Jack, that ain’t liberalism. It's social democracy.

But then, what do I know, I’m not a liberal!



He's Spartacus said...

So there is liberal left in the Tory Party!

Let us know if you get lonely.

Emma said...

Interesting post! I might just be playing devil's advocate here, but...

Surely it's the role of a liberal to question the free market's ability to solve every ill: such questioning just reveals his ability to rise above the market superstructure and recognise that it sometimes fails and restricts individual autonomy - a very liberal thing. (And yes, superstructure is a very Marxist term - apologies)

I'm not sure that Jack meant 'government' by 'greater public interest' either: it's more a nod to the inevitable fact that some individuals' exercise of autonomy may curtail others' ability to exercise theirs. He's merely prioritising the freedom of many - who will only exercise it within certain bounds - at the expense of those who will curtail it.

Although you are right to pick up on 'greater public interest' - it's a concept that's often been abused by governments seeking to implement unpopular measures not in the public interest so has its own resonances.

Bill said...

" is illiberal to reject the free market..."

True to a point, but it depends how you define a "free market". Even Smith didn't think markets should be totally free, because he thought that such freedom would pose a threat to wider liberty:

Perfect liberty cannot happen if government heeds or is entrusted to the mean rapacity, the monopolizing spirit, of merchants and manufacturers who neither are nor ought to be the rulers of mankind

As for "that old leviathan", you're right that Mill's model does have a weak point when it comes to the problem of arbitration - who shall guard the guards? But claiming that such a classic exposition of liberalism is illiberal puts you in a very strange and lonely corner of the "liberal" camp.

Surells said...

Well... I think you can be against the free market and be a liberal... You could argue that the free market actually takes away freedoms for more people than it provides, condemning some to crippling generational poverty and debt. Its like saying you can't a liberal if you're against the right for free murder. You might be taking away one freedom to allow greater freedoms, whether people's right to be on an equal footing/not be abused/not be murdered. Not that I'm saying this is what Kent thinks, and not that I'm saying I think I have a better idea than a free market, these are just my vague uneducated musings as a vague quasi socialist liberal.
Enjoy your day,

Guthrum said...

Nope, you got it he is an interventionist Social Democrat

Peter said...

I shall be seeing him on Monday and beating him around the head (as an act of self defense) with my copy of Murrary Rothbard's The Ethics of Liberty.

Jack of Kent said...

Ha - thanks for this.

I must be a rum sort of social democrat, as I don't believe the state is much good at providing services, and that public sector failure is more likely than market failure.

I also do not accept the NHS is necessarily the best model for providing health services, even on the basis of universal access and it being free at the point of care.

I accept the market is generally the best means of resource allocation.

But you are correct that I no longer accept that the free market necessarily tends towards equilibrium.

I am not sure my original blogpost warranted so much interest, but again thank you for taking the time to offer a response.