Inevitably when people debate an ism, differences will be exaggerated due to different impressions of what the ism in question is about. We've had this lately over economic liberalism. What does it mean? Is it necessary? Etc.
So, weighing in: economic liberalism is broadly speaking, the idea that it is good for people to have money that they are free to spend. That is, that prosperity is good. And it is quite evidently true: prosperous countries and individuals have more freedom, better health, better environments and so on than poorer countries and individuals.
This is a crude mini-definition, and a different slant to Rob Knight and Femme de Resistance, who I agree with. But I think it would be illuminating to go through some of the positions opposed to economic liberalism in this sense.
First, there is a socialist objection, based perhaps on Marx's theory of value, that A's prosperity means B's poverty - that the two are inextricably linked. This is simply an error, except in one respect: positional goods - the ability to buy, say, the nicest house in the neighbourhood. If you become richer than me then you can buy it and I can't. But this sort of positional movement is morally neutral - it doesn't change the totality of good outcomes.
Next, Greens frequently believe that prosperity is bad because it leads to environmental destruction. Again, they are wrong. There may be specifics of some activities causing both, but it is not destruction of the environment that adds value. Where the good of prosperity conflicts with the good of the environment, there is a social choice to be made, but this doesn't make prosperity any less good.
There is a tendency towards asceticism in much religious thought. While as an individual choice, your asceticism is none of my business, it is possible for the values to leak into judgements about other people. The idea that it is alright to be poor is a dangerous one. If you believe it, listen to "Common People" by Pulp until you change your mind.
So, moving on a little, there is then the view that my prosperity is good and yours is bad, so my objectives should be to maximise my prosperity at the expense of yours. There are three examples of this that I can think of.
The first two are Class War fought on behalf of a) the poor and b) the rich. To many people these are precisely what politics is about, and so liberals are accused of being non-political. Class war from the left has now largely been abandoned, but there are still elements of it coming from the right, from the 'nasty party'. It is by no means a dominant theme of the Conservative Party, but that party is still the party for nasties to join, and it is the place to go if you want to hear loathing and contempt for ordinary people expressed. And there are a few businesses, Poundshops and sweatshops, that would prosper less if people prospered. So there are likely to be some interests against any liberalisation, right and left, because the general prosperity would increase at the expense of their own.
The final example is illustrated by a story about a class of students in the US being offered two choices: a) that the US economy should grow 1% and the Japanese economy 10%; b) that the US economy should shrink 1% and the Japanese economy shrink 10%. A majority chose the second option. It is seeing national wealth in positional terms - probably based on the Hegelian view of the glory and inevitability of war; that all actions on the international stage should be seen as a continuation of war by other means. A hideous, right-wing, misanthropic position.
To me, this opposition to economic liberalism clarifies nicely what economic liberalism is about. And where does it come from? Not just the "left", but out of 6 examples, there are 2 from the left, 2 from the right, 1 from Greens and 1 from religion.
None of these objections to economic liberalism hold any water as far as I can see. Does this mean we should always pursue the most economically liberal policy? Of course not, it is a good thing, but not the only good thing. In general there is a synergy between the liberalisms, economic, social, political and personal. But sometimes there are conflicts and social choices to be made. The levels of taxation and provision of public services is the most obvious. The use of regulation to achieve social and environmental objectives is another. These are trade-offs between different desirable objectives, proper questions for democratic debate and honest differences between liberals. Appealing to first principles, to isms, tells us nothing.
Tag: economic liberalism