08 November 2007

The meaning of 'liberal'

Those wondering about my (and others') use of the term il-liberal might like to check out the new collective blog Liberal Conspiracy. On the current front page, we have three articles giving us clues about the contemporary meaning of 'liberal'.

First, the Labour Party's Mike Ion struggles to understand "why anyone on the Left of British politics could oppose Gordon Brown’s moves, mentioned in the Queen’s speech yesterday, to raise the education leaving age to 18."

Mr Ion appears to have difficulty understanding the difference between correlation and causation. The fact that people who currently stay on longer in education have higher earnings or other distinguishing characteristics doesn't mean that everyone else will share those characteristics just because they are forced to stay on longer.

But these putative practical benefits probably aren't the important point. The real motive may be that of "promoting greater equality ... Raising the education leaving age to 18 is a progressive, bold and socially just policy." Guardian columnist Sunny Hundal helpfully adds: "there was a study done on Denmark on raising the marriage age for people who bring over brides from foreign countries. Illiberal, some call it, but a study showed that it raised education levels amongst immigrant populations and made them richer in the long term." Reduces the inequality of those it coerces? Must be okay then.

Second, we have a post (the very next post, in fact) about why it is perfectly liberal to have banned smoking in public places.

Calls to liberty ... are spurious on this one. As much as hard hats on a building site, or breathing apparatus down a mine, smoking legislation is about workplace safety. I suppose any staff who object to a pub pea souper could always work somewhere else. Your average Victorian mill owner would have agreed. Tell that to the student working off his overdraft, or the single mum who needs employment that fits round school hours, or the 50-something asthmatic roadie who’s plain forgotten how to do anything else. ... Can any of these make a meaningful choice, a free weighing of the alternatives, before selecting their place and conditions of work? That we don’t always have a real choice is a cornerstone of left thought; it’s all about the power, stupid.

Yes, liberty is only real liberty if it is freedom on terms which il-liberals approve of. Otherwise the choices which people make aren't real choices, they aren't meaningful.

Third, we have Chris Dillow in relatively extremist mode, demanding that the Left "give less priority to equality of opportunity", and that there be more redistribution to achieve equality of outcome, in line with the Rawlsian model* of 'fairness'.

So much for the current state of 'liberalism'. (Fortunately, Chris partially redeems himself at S&M with two posts that challenge Mr Ion's dubious argments in favour of conscription.)

* roughly: "If you might not have agreed to a system before you knew your life circumstances, it isn't fair."