Tuesday 7 August 2018

Values: liberty and its supporting mechanisms

Liberalism is often characterised as a compromise philosophy, with individual freedom being in essential conflict with egalitarian views on justice. The values that are thought of as liberal are often represented as forming some watered down consensus where everything is a compromise for a comfortable life. These values are gathered into lists such as that provided for school projects on "British Values".  According to Ofsted, British Values are:
  • Democracy
  • The rule of law
  • Individual liberty
  • Mutual respect for and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs and for those without faith.
This list seems fine on first reading and serves well as a starting point. Here, I will use it as such. 

Here I will defend the view that liberalism can form a coherent philosophy with a system values distinct from socialism (democratic or not) and conservatism.

Personal liberty, a fundamental liberal value and effectively tautologous and so does not need an argument to be included.  It is on the Ofsted list as equivalent to their third bullet, but what is the status of the others on the list. I acknowledge that all are important, with a reservation on the fourth,  and mostly to be cherished but are they equally fundamental or even values? Of the possible meanings of "values" consider (Oxford):
  1. One's judgement of what is important in life; 
  2. Principles or standards of behaviour.
Each item on the Ofsted list can be interpreted consistently with the first meaning. Only the fourth on the list is clearly consistent with the second meaning but the others could be coaxed into an acceptable format. Equality is omitted from the Ofsted list as is freedom from violence.

Is it possible to do better with our values than provide a bland list? Can some structure be provided or a theory that explains away the perceived conflicts to provide an coherent mesh of values?

Here the value adopted to start the critical discussion is personal liberty for all where each individual is limited only to do no harm to others. By personal liberty I mean (provisionally) freedom of choice and action. All, so far, quite uncontroversial and consistent with Mill's position in the classic On Liberty. The question to be addressed here is: what are the other candidates for liberal values and whether any are as fundamental to liberalism as personal freedom? The obvious ones that spring to mind are democracy, equality, freedom from violence, rule of law and economic freedom. Economic freedom is included because some claim it as a fundamental freedom. In addition, under the name Capitalism, economic liberalism is often described as an ideology by its opponents, often communists but significantly milder socialists and radicals too.

Of the three additional candidates outlined above the one that I think would get the most support, as a value, is democracy. Indeed there are democrats on the extremes (but not always too extreme) of the political left and right who may even value democracy over personal liberty. So is democracy a candidate liberal value or is it something else such as a supporting concept or an enabling mechanism?

It is a tenet of classical liberalism that democracy, just as any form of government, must be held in check by constitutional measures to avoid effects such as the tyranny of the majority. This in itself is not too different from the constraints on personal liberty but here the reason to constrain democracy is to protect personal liberty. Therefore making liberty prior or a more fundamental value. So, why democracy? The strongest reason for a democratic political constitution is to enable the non-violent removal of bad governments (as argued convincingly by Karl Popper). It is desirable for democratic governments to make good positive decisions but scepticism about there capacity to deliver effectively a wide range of services as opposed to laws and regulations is justified by much evidence. Not adopting democracy as a fundamental value is not to de- or under- value it. Supporting mechanisms are essential for values to make  their effect.

This means that freedom from violence is also more fundamental than democracy. A constitutional democracy must have mechanisms to return at regular intervals to the opportunity to change government. On democracy as a decision making mechanism there is sufficient analysis on voting systems to show that there is no generally applicable voting rule to obtain optimal decisions. Therefore democracy cannot be defended a generally effective decision making mechanism. So what  the people vote for needs to be constrained based on the more fundamental freedoms of personal liberty and freedom from violence. Although not optimal, voting does provide a way to arrive at pragmatic acceptable outcomes in many cases. This pragmatism justification means there are a number of candidate constitutional arrangement that have evolved or been chosen to implement a democratic order. 

All this makes democracy an essential enabling mechanism to ensure a satisficing degree of personal liberty and a considerable measure of security from violent acts. It could be argued that freedom from violence is part of personal liberty but they are to considerable extent independent. In a social situation less enlightened than the one we enjoy in western Europe, and some places elsewhere, we can well imagine a preference for freedom from violence over personal freedom and even sacrificing freedom to gain security. Democracy, correctly implemented, provides some guarantees against violence by government against its own population but for more general protection we need to look to the Rule of Law. The Rule of Law is, like democracy, not a liberal value in itself but a mechanism that constrains the freedom of persons or groups but leaves a valued measure of personal liberty to be enjoyed in safety and security.

Economic freedom is often taken a tradition liberal value.  There is ample historical evidence that, given the opportunity, reasonably free persons will organise spontaneously into cooperative groups that eventually give rise to market structures at their local level. In time groups will interact to produce a wider market order.  Analysis of market mechanisms show that they enable cooperation and creation of wealth without coercion. The wealth creation of the market provides the resources to make practicable the desires and actions of free persons. Thus economic freedom is an enabler or mechanism and that is also the case if emerging economic order is labelled Capitalism. It is an enabling mechanism, not a value let alone an ideology, and as such required regulation and a legal framework. Within this  context of values and mechanisms, individual freedom transform in a concept of individual liberty that is enhanced through equality of opportunity, rule of law and open markets.

So, to summarise personal liberty along with freedom from violence are distinct if still mutually influencing values. Democracy, Economic Freedom and the Role of Law are enabling mechanisms. So one fundamental value has been added that is not on Ofsted's list. Democracy and the Rule of Law become essential enabling mechanism along this economic freedom as instantiated in the competitive market order. That leaves the last Ofsted value. It looks like an awkward add on and I would argue that it essentially a polite statement of a desirable attitude that is fundamentally derived from the moral equality of individuals. However one aspect of it is fundamental and that is tolerance. Tolerance is what enables the other aspects of liberalism to work together as a system.

I end by proposing an alternative ranked set of fundamental values to be guaranteed by a constitutional liberal democratic order:
  1. Freedom from violence
  2. Personal Liberty
  3. Equality of opportunity.
  4. Tolerance of other individuals or groups that are not causing harm
These being supported by the mechanisms of democracy, rule of law and markets.