Sunday, July 02, 2006

Variants of liberal thought

Two recognised variants of liberalism are neoliberalism and social liberalism. The former, in an American context, supports the freedom to trade but does not necessarily oppose the large government role of Keynesianism or environmentalism. The latter developed much of its foundational elements from the utilitarian writings of John Stuart Mill, who wrote of the ‘Greatest Happiness Principle’, which can be interpreted positively as requiring the provision of resources. Neoliberalism is primarily an economic form of liberalism but has also been used to describe foreign policy initiatives.

However, I do not consider either of these offshoots as truly encapsulating what liberalism means. While Mill makes similar a priori assumptions about self-interest, social liberalism adds a welfare dimension not found in classical liberalism. Such additions arguably characterise many variants of liberalism and even Tony Blair’s social democratic ‘Third Way’.

Yet because liberalism is a philosophy based on first-principles and not an ideology of welfare, it is the fundamentals – individual liberty, limited government, free markets and peace – that matter. Consequently, variants of liberalism are in some ways similar to the factional groupings that have characterised other ideologies; most concur with select core principles but affix further socio-economic principles that are not always compatible with the bare approach of classical liberalism. The main areas of disagreement (or variance) arise with the positivist versus negativist interpretations of freedom, and the respective roles for government these entail.

Of course, it is important to note that the push towards less governmental involvement wherever feasible is not a push towards anarchy, although some anarcho-capitalists can be considered borderline cases. The role of the State in liberal thought is that of an umpire operating within, and enforcing, democratically expressed rules.

14 Comments:

At July 02, 2006 3:18 pm, Blogger skepticlawyer said...

I think Popper's criticisms of essentialism - discussed by Rafe in an earlier post - apply here. I'd rather definitions of liberalism be based on common core principles, rather than a rigid straightjacket into which all purported adherents must fit. Apart from anything else, this encourages civility in debate.

 
At July 02, 2006 6:16 pm, Anonymous mikey said...

Is there actually an a-priori assumption about self-interest underlying all classical liberalism?

 
At July 02, 2006 7:57 pm, Blogger skepticlawyer said...

Not sure, Mikey. Will have to wait until Sukrit checks in for an answer to that one.

 
At July 02, 2006 11:46 pm, Blogger Sukrit Sabhlok said...

There is indeed. Think back to the Enlightenment period. Liberals have always been suspicious folk
who wanted the self-interest motive of individuals to be utilised. We also want to structure incentives in a way that recognises this overriding motivation. Schumpeter's 'creative destruction' and Adam Smith's 'invisible hand' is based around a similar recognition.

The basic argument is that self-interest provides in far better ways than naive attempts at the public good. It's safer to assume the worst about people than not to. That doesn't mean we shouldn't strive for a moral society; there are plenty of people who argue there is a link between a liberal society and greater social capital.

 
At July 03, 2006 5:54 pm, Anonymous mikey said...

So, Classical Liberals seem to come under two groups:

1) Those who believe humans are inherently self-interested and therefore structures need to be set up that both minimise (punish) and maximise (Incentivise) this state of affairs.

2)Those who are unsure about the inherent nature of humans but who think we shouldn't take any chances.

While I heartily accept caution as a guiding principle such a choice seems to impose a limit on what we can strive for. How can we create social capital, let alone the public good, if we are essentially self interested? Or do you see self-interest as an empirical truth and thus everchanging, so that one day we may trust ourselves enough to go after the 'public good?' Or perhaps the concepts of self-interest and 'public interest' are inherently intertwined.

And how can we know this definitively?

 
At July 03, 2006 9:13 pm, Blogger skepticlawyer said...

I'm not an economist, I'm a lawyer who studied a fair bit of biology as an undergrad (long time ago now, I'm afraid). Until Sukrit gets back and posts something intelligent, I'd highly recommend Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene as a good primer on why humans tend to be self-interested.

As a scientist, Dawkins is refreshing because he doesn't attribute moral weight to this 'selfishness'. He just explains it really, really clearly.

 
At July 04, 2006 12:04 pm, Anonymous mikey said...

Yeah, thanks sl. Objective science is a good place to start.

I guess I'm not so much dis-agreeing that, historically, selfishness has tended to triumph, rather i'm suggesting that human beings have an inherent 'I-dont-know-what-to-call-it' which is not all that hard to tap into and which needs to be institutionally supported.

 
At July 05, 2006 4:07 am, Anonymous Sarah on a sausage peg said...

Isnt ‘Greatest Happiness Principle’ also known as 'utalitarianism'? if so, i was reading bout that recently. I think its a bit silly; Its almost impossible to measure degrees of happiness for a start as different ppl experience different pleasures to different degrees...i think a few ppl have tried making charts tho...like that Bentham fella, i havent checked them out but i havent got high expectations. Also, If the argument is that the desired out come of any action is to have the largest amount of ppl as happy as possible it doesnt take into account the morally objectionable means that could precipitate a desired outcome; e.g in a Utalitarians argument you could publically hang an innocent man if it could be proven that so doing would prevent others from commiting crimes and causing misery.
I like J S Mills tho as he wrote 'The Subjection of Women' - massive props.

 
At July 05, 2006 4:08 am, Anonymous sarah on a sausage peg said...

Isnt ‘Greatest Happiness Principle’ also known as 'utalitarianism'? if so, i was reading bout that recently. I think its a bit silly; Its almost impossible to measure degrees of happiness for a start as different ppl experience different pleasures to different degrees...i think a few ppl have tried making charts tho...like that Bentham fella, i havent checked them out but i havent got high expectations. Also, If the argument is that the desired out come of any action is to have the largest amount of ppl as happy as possible it doesnt take into account the morally objectionable means that could precipitate a desired outcome; e.g in a Utalitarians argument you could publically hang an innocent man if it could be proven that so doing would prevent others from commiting crimes and causing misery.
I like J S Mills tho as he wrote 'The Subjection of Women' - massive props.

 
At July 05, 2006 9:53 am, Blogger skepticlawyer said...

As I understand it, modern utilitarians have developed a 'calculus of utility' that's pretty sophisticated... although I have to confess I've often wondered how one measures 'happiness' in a way that's reasonably objective.

There's been quite a bit of recent discussion of happiness and how to measure it over at Catallaxy .

 
At July 05, 2006 11:10 am, Blogger Sukrit Sabhlok said...

"Isnt ‘Greatest Happiness Principle’ also known as 'utalitarianism'"

It is. JS Mill was a great bloke. But he had some ideas that would nowadays be deemed strange - like giving two votes to the educated class.

 
At July 06, 2006 7:30 pm, Anonymous mikey said...

I reckon measuring happiness objectively would require us -and by 'us' i can only really speak for me - to undertand and communicate with each other on a higher level than we do now.

Assuming we think its a worthwile pursuit than say, floating down a river and chewing on a blade of grass, that is.

 
At July 06, 2006 7:55 pm, Blogger Sukrit Sabhlok said...

"Assuming we think its a worthwile pursuit than say, floating down a river and chewing on a blade of grass, that is."

My sentiments exactly. If we build a free society won't people automatically gravitate to what makes them happy?

 
At July 06, 2006 8:12 pm, Anonymous mikey said...

I find that logic strangely compelling.

But freedom has to be built on equality, in a sense we'd need to start a-fresh. And spend about 1000 years coming to an agreement on what a free society truly is.

Actually you kind of subverted my meaning. I was going for a kind of Huck Finn reverie back there, romaticising the chewing of grass while floating down the Mississippi an' all.

 

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