Monday, 1 October 2012

Liberalism gives us freedom from cloying moral relationships

The market and the state are the two great inventions of liberalism [previously]. Of course, they are great because of the way they allow individuals to aggregate their actions to produce great effects, from wealthy economies to empires. But they are also great in a less appreciated, more moral way, because they provide individuals with essential tools for moral autonomy. They permit us to escape the cloying coercive character of the moral relationships of community life, whether of family, neighbourhood, group, or congregation. Belonging to communities can be very pleasant and fulfilling, but only when we have a choice about it. Liberalism provides that by giving us freedom from community.

This doesn't seem well appreciated. First, in politics the conflict between 'right' and 'left' is often associated with a choice between market and state, when it seems to me that the really big choice is between liberalism and communitarianism. Strikingly, both right and left have a deep romantic attachment to communitarianism. The right goes on about family and small town (rural) community values. The left goes on about group solidarity (i.e. minorities), workplace communities (unions), and (urban) neighbourhoods. This shared, though differently focused, commitment to communitarianism makes one wonder how different their vision of society really is. For example, both right and left complain vociferously about increasing social atomism, which is a distinctly jaundiced (communitarian) view of individual freedom, and justify their calls for more state/market primarily in instrumental terms of how that would serve to protect and nurture community life.

The liberal's problem with communitarianism is that, though it has no doubt served humanity well for thousands of years, it does not respect individual moral autonomy. Because of this, it is all too easy for traditional community life to resemble a prison, sometimes even approaching the awfulness of the People's Prison Camp of North Korea. An important way in which this happens is that communities moralise their social order in terms of an overlapping set of moral relationships between members. One simply finds oneself embedded in ongoing moral relationships with others (such as family members) whether one wants to or not. Reciprocal moral obligations are asserted to hold on you; their requirements are ambiguous and often interpreted for you by others; they are often impossible (commanding one to love certain people); they are not supported by anything much resembling a reason (e.g. "She's family - you have to invite her"); they produce real dependencies and constraints about what you are able to do and how you can live (like the means testing of university fees and loans on the basis of one's parents' income); they are open ended and often linger until death.

Both the state and the market provide an escape from the coercive character of community life. Both relate to you in principle as an equal, independent individual, as if you are a stranger. The state relates to you in terms of your rights and entitlements as a citizen; the market in terms of your preferences, economic productivity and purchasing power. Neither are allowed to consider you as a full person, with all kinds of social attachments and affiliations, except as those may be directly relevant to the issue at hand. Both provide you with the materials and space you need to think and act freely for yourself, from education to paid work to social insurance.

Both market and state are founded on a thin (abstract) morality that is quite transparent (on the model of a formal contract) so you actually know what you're getting into; what exactly is required of you; how to object to ill treatment; and can have some faith in the fairness of the arbitration process for resolving disputes and complaints. One of the benefits of this is that one's interactions with state or market are substantially one-offs rather than ongoing relationships. They have a closed transactional character: following the completion of an interaction all moral claims are considered concluded and neither party owes the other anything further. The thinness of these moral relationship may leave some people dissatisfied. For example, it says much more about what you shouldn't do (e.g. infringe on others' rights) than guidance about what you should do (like being a good person). Yet the positive side of this is that it leaves lots of space to the individual to consider and fill in for themself what morality requires, i.e. liberty.

The institutions of market and state provide a framework within which a society of strangers can live and work, deciding for themselves whether and how to affirm and engage in traditional forms of community life. They have all the resources they need to live independently from such communities, which means their choices about them are free from material concerns. For example, they don't have to worry that coming out as gay or atheist will upset their family and community and lead to exile and destitution. Old people don't have to worry that their children will abandon them to destitution and privation in their old age - the state guarantees basic welfare on an insurance model; the market supplies carers who will look after you for wages. Likewise, children don't have to worry about that the burden of caring for their ailing parents falls on them because no one else will, and therefore feel obliged to give up their own lives and move back into their home to care for them.

When one looks at how the state and market are conceived in contemporary politics however, this kind of individual freedom doesn't really seem to be the objective. The left has attempted to use the state to entrench community identities through political multi-culturalism. The right attempts to use the tax system to support marriage by providing discounts (i.e. market incentives) for couples living in suitably conventional relationships. And so on. What we should demand is that these great liberal inventions should be used to promote the great liberal objective: individual autonomy.

I am inspired here by what I have been reading about has been achieved in Sweden. Lars Tragardh has called the Swedish theory of love, that "authentic human relationships are possible only between autonomous and equal individuals". In a recent book, he and Henrik Berggren argue that Sweden is the most individualistic country in the world, not in spite of their large welfare state, but because the state's job is to guarantee everything people need for independence and thus support the Swedish theory of love. The Swedes have organised their state - which, by the way, often outsources service provision to private companies - to allow them to escape the kind of dependency relations that come with providing services through communitarian relationships, such as church, charity, or family. That allows the Swedes to escape the cloying moral coercion, exploitation and hypocrisy that so readily accompanies intimate relationships, so that, when they do enter into or affirm such a relationship, they know and everyone else knows that they do so freely.

Further reading on The Swedish Theory of Love
Review of the book by Lars Tragardh and Henrik Berggren
The Swedish model is the opposite of the big society, David Cameron: Op-ed by Lars Tragardh
Cameron's Swede Dreams: BBC Radio 4 Analysis programme


  1. Two assumptions in your argument: first, that communalism and individualism are mutually exclusive; second, that communalism necessarily undermines personal autonomy and integrity. For a few years I lived in a communalist country, a modern day city state, and there were mechanisms to protect individuals from collective demands

    1. Do you mean communitarianism or communalism?

      I think communitarianism is by definition in tension with liberalism. e.g. liberals say that individuals are, or should be, the authors of their own lives; communitarians consider individuals as actors in a narrative which has been written by their community.

    2. Yes, but if some of our challenges are collective, shouldn't our narratives be to some extent?

  2. You advocate for autonomy for individuals. In your blog post advocating the restraint of the rich you characterize that class precisely by their autonomy. What is the principle that restricts autonomy when it exists in extremes?
    Are there things more important than autonomy?

    1. I argued with regard to exiling the rich that democracy required a degree of interdependence - that we are all in this together with respect to public safety, health care, pensions, trasportation, education, and so on. But people being interdependent at the level of a polity is not the same thing as being materially dependent on specific interpersonal moral relationships that one doesn't get to choose. I wanted to point to the freedom that comes with relating to each other as strangers (via markets/government), and the way that can reduce the hypocrisy on which so many of our communitarian relationships depend (in which we pretend to love/like each other because we are obligated to and our material well-being is tied up in our playing out our proper roles).

      Of course autonomy is not the only important thing. Yet America for example thinks of itself as a very individualistic country when it clearly isn't compared to a really individualistic country like Sweden. That's the kind of complacent mistake I like to point out, especially on this blog.

    2. Thank you for your reply.
      My next question is broader if not bigger.
      Perhaps this particular question is left best for philosopher kings.
      How about the principle of unintended consequences? How do you implement your policy proposals? The world is a complex place; people will resist your ideas for change even your decent (in both senses) ideas. Stuff happens.
      The record for philosopher kings if not philosophy might not be that great; after all look at the world we live in.
      Take Marxism as a good or bad example; people you link to, such as Robert Wolff swear by him; yet look at the record. Or take Christianity; did they create an earthly paradise?
      These might be poor examples simply for the reason that their ethical and political positions might be unsound; yet there are good and great ideas that have trouble being implemented.
      I'm tempted to say that your idea of banishing the rich is impractical; but what would happen if it was really attempted? Yet your suggestions are compelling if not perfectly sound. Why should a good idea flounder because the world isn't ready for it?
      My point (I think) is that consequences are a part of the equation as much as ethical considerations and that just as in a war you have plans for contingencies, and even more to the point the unexpected always comes about (just ask Heraclitus) how do you reasonably implement your ideas other than publicizing them in a blog and elsewhere?
      Perhaps my question is silly or perennial; I am sure you've given it some thought and have an answer I might never foresee

    3. Not a complete answer, only some remarks

      Consequences are ethical considerations. One can have more or less justice, for example. One can abolish slavery and make the world a better - more just - place, without coming close to making it perfectly just.

      I am a meliorist not a utopian. I'm only interested in improvements on our present situation, not ideal theory. Any plans for improving the world should be plausible, and should not inadvertently make things worse.

      Therefore I reject the maxi-max principle: of choosing the policy with the best possible consequences if everything goes right. The world is too uncertain for this.

      The world is messy, because people are messy. We have to take people as they are and the best way to do so is to work through democratic means of persuasion and debate (not philosopher kingship).