Essays, Moral, Political and Economic
Samuel Brittan The David Hume Institute: Hume Papers on
If it is true that we are all liberals now, what liberalism means today is anyone's guess. There is little consensus on core liberal values. For some liberals, the central concern is personal autonomy, understood as a complex condition that can only be achieved fully in a tolerant, pluralistic society. John Stuart Mill is the canonical figure in this strand of liberalism, and Joseph Raz its leading living exponent. For others, equality is the central ideal, and liberal freedoms are valuable chiefly as a way of treating people as equals. Ronald Dworkin is the principal defender of this egalitarian variety of liberalism. For yet others, freedom from interference in the lives of individuals is the main goal, and if it leads to inequalities that may not be too large a price for society to pay. F A Hayek is the canonical figure in this liberal tradition. But it is in the writings of Samuel Brittan that the most humane and balanced contemporary defence of classical liberalism is to be found.
Essays, Moral, Political and Economic is a less heterogeneous book than its title suggests: a rigorously argued restatement of the case for liberal individualism, with recent ideas of community (communitarian thinking, in the jargon) being its chief target. Brittan defends a classical liberalism with a human face. He has been, unlike his more sectarian confreres on the neo-liberal right, consistent in his conviction that the argument for freedom of choice applies not just in markets but also (and just as importantly) in personal life. He is no defender of "traditional values". Equally, he has never followed Thatcherites in seeking to link economic liberalism with support for the sovereign nation state. He was an early, though never uncritical, supporter of EMU. In these crucial issues, Sam Brittan stands out as a beacon of reason among enthusiasts for the free market.Yet I cannot help thinking that Brittan's critique of communitarian thought misses much of its point.
Communitarianism is, I concede, a pretty soft target, and he scores some palpable hits. He is right to note, in the substantial first essay "In Defence of Individualism", that small groups can be intensely oppressive. A good deal of communitarian rhetoric consists in a romantic eulogy of common life. In this dream world, communities are not hierarchical or exclusive, they do not harbour intolerance or suspicion of outsiders and they never conceal their own internal conflicts. In other words, they are unlike any actually existing community of which we have knowledge. Brittan is right to point to the dangerous unreality of these notions.
Even so, for all its rhetorical exaggeration, communitarian thought was a useful corrective to the excesses of liberal individualism. We must not forget the historical context to which communitarianism was a response. In political life, the right had been captured by a species of paleo-liberalism. In the new right's primitive catechism, government was the problem, free markets the solution. At the same time, in political thought, a narrow and shallow form of liberal legalism was the ruling philosophy. In the view of John Rawls and his many followers, justice was the supreme virtue of social institutions. Ideals of the good society had little if any place in politics.
It was against this background that communitarianism came about. It was never a free-standing political philosophy but rather a prophylactic against the hubris of recent liberal thinking. Much communitarian thinking, without always realising the fact, was a retrieval of earlier liberal traditions. That individual freedom and social cohesion go together was no news for John Stuart Mill. Around the turn of the century, new liberals such as T H Green, Bernard Bosanquet and L T Hobhouse argued that freedom was not something individuals exercised against society, but rather a particular kind of social life. Maynard Keynes was not (as is sometimes suggested) a precursor of the ephemeral monetarist orthodoxies of the 1980s and early 1990s, but a thinker squarely in the new liberal tradition. Whatever they may have imagined they were doing when they attacked the individualistic excesses of the paleo-liberals, communitarian thinkers were for the most part salvaging insights from older and wiser liberal thinkers.
In perhaps his most crucial chapter, "Making Common Cause: how liberals differ and what they ought to agree on", Brittan shows himself alert to the historical complexity of the liberal tradition, even if his view of liberal values remains curiously one-dimensional. He defends "negative" liberty from interference without giving sufficient importance to the fact that, for many people today, its value comes largely from its contribution to the "positive" freedom of personal autonomy.
But personal autonomy is not secured by the mere absence of legal coercion, nor is it the same thing as consumer choice. Though its value comes from its benefits to individuals, personal autonomy is an inherently collective good. It is a demanding social ideal, requiring positive public provision. The kind of liberal state envisaged by Mill and Keynes did more than enable individuals to achieve their desires. Through subsidy and education it opened up new options for them. Brittan readily acknowledges the need for redistribution, but his dread of paternalism leads him to draw back from this larger role for government. But without it liberal institutions become mere instruments of want-satisfaction. Redistributive market liberalism is not enough.
There is much else here that repays study. A section on globalisation dissects some popular fallacies, and there is a subtle analysis of causation in economic affairs. Yet the value of this admirable collection comes neither from these discussions, nor from its defence of liberal individualism. It comes from the book's rare combination of intellectual virtues - rigour, clarity, fairness and imaginative sympathy in argument. In recent times liberal thought has risked hardening into a blinkered orthodoxy. Essays, Moral, Political and Economic shows what it is like at its best. It should be required reading for the next generation of liberals.
John Gray is professor of European thought at the LSE