Friday, September 21, 2007

Reinventing the State Chapter 1: What is social liberalism?

Reinventing the state is the natural counterpart to the orange book which I considered here.

In chapter 1, David Howarth questions what social liberalism is, in particular whether it is in opposition to economic liberalism, or a complement to it. Howarth argues that economic liberals are those with a preference for market mechanisms as a means to achieving social liberal goals over, presumably, some unspecified rival means.

This does seem to be a fairly value-free interpretation of economic liberalism. Not many political principles would assert of themselves that they are not intrinsically good, but only useful in pursuit of some other principle. Howarth defends Laws, rightly, as arguing that social liberal goals should be pursued with economically liberal means. But this is a slogan I rejected when examining the Orange book.

So I seem to disagree with Howarth when I assert that economic freedoms - to enjoy one's property - are as good in their own right as the freedoms promoted by social liberalism, they are not just instruments for promoting social liberalism. However we agree in rejecting the "libertarian" view that elevates economic freedoms above all others. Howarth gives a good explanation of how the libertarian analysis struggles to deal with issues like climate change, and suggests that this may be a factor in the attractiveness of climate change denialism to them.

While we agree that we should not be dogmatic about means when providing public services and so forth, I do feel that Howarth damns markets with faint praise. Perhaps it is the faintness of this praise that really distinguishes 'social' from 'economic' liberals.

It is difficult to do much justice to many of the other themes in this chapter, but I will try one more. Howarth contrasts political participation with markets; in describing local government he suggests that "unlike markets, it can faciliate political participation." Also "The first condition of wider participation in local government is that local government needs to have effective power. Undermining that power by, for example, purporting to 'devolve' power further to individuals in markets, will defeat the whole exercise." It seems that markets must be merely instrumental, but local government can not be.

Markets, we are told, "undermine political freedom by undermining political activity ... by providing a means for obtaining what one wants without having to engage in anything but the thinnest of dialogues with one's fellow human beings." Is it only me, or is there something paternalistic in demanding people engage in the kind of dialogue that is good for them, in order to access the things they want?

Howarth is right that democratic processes involve a richer communication than price signals, but he neglects to mention that the conclusions they reach are invariably more uniform, one size fits all. I share the common concern over the atomisation of society, but perhaps I am more optimistic that people will find or build new social networks that give them the richness of human interaction that they need. Either way I don't think political participation should be used unnecessarily as a hurdle for people to navigate for their own good before they can access services.

Nonetheless, this fine introduction raises many compelling themes I expect to be explored later in the book, and I have neglected to mention much that I agree with and that has provoked further thought. Two questions this chapter prompts in my mind are: What is social democracy as opposed to social liberalism? and What is wrong with social democracy? These are left as an exercise for the reader.

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