...Liberalism: What is this philosophy of liberalism, about which people talk so much and - regrettably - say so little? How good a guide can it be to the party in its search for new policies?
It should be said first of all that the search for a new philosophy would be futile. There have been very few great philosophies in human history, and none so elevating to the human spirit, so uplifting and so liberating as Liberalism. It had its origins in the struggle with tyrannical monarchies, and derives fresh strength today from the continuing struggle of people under dictatorships for freedom, and the dignity that comes with it.
But this is only the start. It accompanied the development of democracy in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, expressed as the search for social arrangements and institutions which would liberate the creative energies of citizens oppressed by paternalist and monopolistic states. Today it requires fresh development to cope with new forms of op- pression in our highly organised - ever larger and more overwhelming - societies. What we need is not a new philosophy, but new policies designed to speed the realisation of the goals marked out by the liberal creed.
There is no single authoritative statement of liberal- ism - and most of the great classical statements such as Mill on liberty are flawed in some respect or not clearly relevant to many of the problems confronting liberals today. But the important thing is that the goals and principles of action associated with liberalism are reasonably clear and command general agreement among liberal philosophers. The over-riding goal - which must be the goal of any party claiming to be liberal - is the realisation of human dignity for all men. The unique contribution of liberalism is the claim which accompanies this goal; dignity cannot be achieved without freedom. Other philosophies have argued that dignity comes from immersion in some great common cause, such as fascism or communism. Liberals have always argued that dignity comes from the exercise of choice - of decision and responsibility. In the liberal view the only man who can achieve moral stature is the man who has responsibility for his own life.
To this liberal conception, socialists used to reply: "We accept your goal, but dignity cannot be achieved without equality as well, and only by collective action can equality be achieved" Collective action of course meant state action, and the socialist position ultimately decayed as it became widely recognised, even among former socialists, that where the achievement of equality meant serious infringements on liberty, liberty was to be preferred.
But socialism - a perversion of liberalism - forced one crucial amendment to the liberal position. It forced liberals to concede that while freedom was a necessary condition of dignity, it was not a sufficient condition. A man could be free but destitute. A free society could be one in which the lives of many were miserable, and in which the power to achieve improvement was concentrated in the hands of a few. Liberalism was forced to concede that freedom alone - though indispensable - was not enough. Freedom to live one's own life had to be accompanied by concern for one's fellow man. And this presented a great challenge to liberals. Could freedom and concern be reconciled?
Neither freedom alone, nor concern alone, were enough to achieve dignity. The most tragic example of the consequences of concern without freedom in Australia is probably the history of Aboriginal welfare. The most well-meant policies (and it is sometimes hard to believe that the policies which have produced such tragic results were well-meant) often had the effect of removing both opportunity and incentive from Aborigi- nes to take responsibility for their own lives, and created a cycle of dependence and self perpetuating poverty and helplessness which is only now beginning to change.
Freedom alone, without concern (laissez-faire) may well have had tragic results as well - though nothing could be worse than the situation which paternalistic domineering welfare created.
What a failure for the Liberal Party Aboriginal policy has been. It is not that nothing has been done - the last few years have seen humane and worthwhile reforms - but that so little was done and so late. And when action was taken, little was done to show that the situation being reformed was precisely the situation which would be expected by ignoring the most basic principles of liberal policy.
Liberal philosophy may seem less clear in its implications for other areas of policy, but it requires very little further elaboration for these implications to become clear. The belief that dignity comes from the freedom to take decisions about one's own life, and from having minimum power, influence or resources to take effective decisions, has several corollaries of considerable importance for policy.
...the further belief that it is better if people do things for themselves, rather than have others act on their behalf. In the current jargon - expressing an old idea - the liberal believes in the fullest possible participation in important decisions and the exercise of moral responsibility.
The implications of this belief for policy are sometimes recognised, but rarely explored. The belief in the great value of local and voluntary action - of community and cooperative approaches to local prob- lems has long been recognised in Liberal speechifying but often ignored in practical policy. It suggests that direct assumption of responsibility by the state for many activities - welfare, education, recreation facili- ties - is a second-best solution. If it is, liberals ought constantly to be on the alert for the possibility of facilitating greater local involvement.
In education, there are dramatic possibilities for facilitating greater diversity and experimentation in a system which is almost universally conceded to have moved too far towards centralised bureaucratic organ- isation. In welfare, there is tremendous potential for encouraging and helping families and neighbours to cope with problems of age and invalidism themselves - solutions which would be much preferred by the aged to mere grants of money by government, and these are beginning to be explored more fully. The whole area of the powers of local government may be discussed at the constitutional convention this year, and liberals should be in the forefront of this.
It is, I believe, one of the great mistakes of liberals at present to believe that "small-l' liberalism means centralism. It may require strong central action to spur local and private activities by the search for imaginative new procedures and forms of organisation, but it most assuredly does not require greater concentration of power. What a sad thing it would be if the Liberal Party abandoned its belief in private and local action at the very time when affluence and expanding education were increasing people's desire for greater control over their own lives and their competence to exercise that control.
One area which liberals must further discuss is the area of taxation. Under what conditions is the state justified in acquiring its citizens' income for public purposes? Is it entitled to do so to give money to people who have no need of it? This is what is implied by abolition of the means test on old age and invalid pensions. Is it entitled to take income from citizens in taxation and distribute it to other citizens who may be quite well-to-do but who are dissatisfied with their present financial situation, and are likely to become politically unpleasant unless they are given more money? This is what is implied by payment of interest on mortgages for home purchase out of public funds. Under what circumstances is it more sensible to reduce taxation than to continue to make cash grants? Under what circumstances in a well-to-do society is a government justified in transferring income from one group of well-to-do citizens to another group who may not be quite so well off but are far from poor?
There is no end to the vote-buying possibilities of income redistribution and doubtless we shall see many dubious schemes in the coming three years. Liberals themselves have indulged in questionable policies in this area. One important task in the clarification of the Party's philosophy is to attempt to define in some consistent way the principles it will apply in this area.
The belief that dignity comes from the exercise of choice in the disposition of resources has another corollary. It means that liberals believe that the individual is basically entitled to spend the income which he earns, himself, rather than have the state come along and decide for him how it will be spent. It follows from this that the state will always have to have very good justification for taking this hard-earned income through taxation, and compulsorily spending it on behalf of citizens.
Only circumstances in which failure to act means that some serious loss of dignity will be suffered by some group of citizens can justify this compulsory acquisition of income. It will, of course, always be a matter for argument whether the situation justifies taxation for this purpose. The governing principle is that the onus must be on the government to justify the tax, for taxation acts as a restriction on the right of citizens to choose how to spend their own income, and hence weakens their ability to care for themselves, educate their children, look after ageing parents, and so forth. We are in grave danger of weakening the family's capacity to cope by taking its income away, and then using its incapacity as an excuse to increase its dependence on the state.
Of course, taxes must be spent on services which improve the quality of life, but the liberal will always ask whether taxation is the best means of financing these services, and whether the provision of the service is more important than increasing, say, the capacity of the family to cope with the demands of modern society itself. In the liberal view, the more the individual and the family retain the right to spend their own income, the more mature and responsible the individual will be. As a broad statement, then, it can be said that a Liberal Party is a party of low taxation. But this is to emphasise the negative side. It is a proponent of family and individual responsibility.
So far no reference has been made to the liberal attitude to private enterprise. The emphasis so far has been on the individual. The liberal attitude to private enterprise follows naturally from this. Its heart is that private enterprise is supported because it is a means to individual self-realisation. Of all man's activities, his work is one of the most important - it occupies so much of his waking time. It is the means by which he achieves greater resources with which to express himself. To deprive him of freedom in this area is one of the most serious infringements on his freedom, and hence on his opportunity to achieve any kind of dignity.
This view of the value of private enterprise has important implications for the relations between a liberal party and the business world. Liberals are concerned to see that the private enterprise economy is so organised that it provides the greatest opportunities for individual fulfilment and the exercise of choice. This provides a rationale for past policies to control monopolies, ensure competition, in addition to the central longstanding policies of providing an appropriate legal framework for the pursuit of private economic activities. The Liberal Party has, on the whole, distinguished very successfully between support for the economic system of private enterprise, which is to be applauded, and support for individual businesses or businessmen, whose interests may be in direct conflict with the interest of the system as a whole.
But the liberal view of private enterprise provides more than a rationale, and a basis for criticism, of past policies. It provides the objectives and principles to govern a programme of reform, for it is clear that there are many deficiencies in the way the private enterprise system is presently organised, from the point of view of individual choice and fulfilment. As consumers citizens very often have quite inadequate information about a product they are thinking of buying. Often no information whatever is available concerning the contents of a product.
Present legal and/or economic arrangements make it difficult for businesses to offer specially designed employment opportunities for mothers with children who wish to work during school hours. Reforms to encourage reorganisation of business activities to make this possible would seem to be a major obligation of a liberal party. Another problem of great significance is the growth in the sheer size of business (as well as government) organisations.
A liberal party will be constantly alert to the dangers of powerlessness, subtle forms of coercion, and restriction of choice which can occur in large organisations, and should be looking for ways to increase opportunities for employees to exercise control over their activities, or their right to choose other employment. For example, one important means by which corporations control employees is through housing loan arrangements, pension and superannuation schemes. While such schemes have very praiseworthy aspects, they can also provide the basis for subtle and not so subtle coercion, by the control they give the corporation over aspects of the employees' non-working life. There is almost certainly much that can be done to reduce this control by facilitating the transferability of such schemes. Such reforms would do much to increase the employee's sense of control over his own life.
This is only to touch on some of the reforms in economic arrangements which seem to flow naturally from a liberal conception of the economic system. This is an area which appears to offer the)opportunity for the Liberal Party to assume at the same time a reforming stance as well as one which is largely consistent with its past policies.
On so-called moral reforms the Liberal Party faces the same problem as in other areas of policy - to reconcile freedom with concern. On the drug question the resolution is relatively easy. If a person has become dependent on drugs, he has less chance of achieving dignity than a person poverty-stricken through circumstances beyond his control. The pedlar of drugs deprives his victims of their freedom of choice as effectively as any tyrant, and is one of the most dangerous enemies of a free and moral society. It of course always remains open how far any particular drug has this effect.
On other moral questions - censorship, homosexuality, abortion - the liberal is always faced with a conflict between his abhorrence of activities which degrade people's conceptions of human worth, and his abhorrence of coercion as serious trespass on individual dignity. It is in these areas that freedom and concern seem to come most clearly into conflict. The challenge to liberals is to find ways of reconciling these two principles.
This is an area where for too long so-called "liberals" and "conservatives" have battled rather than cooperated in devising imaginative proposals to protect best those aspects of liberalism on which each places most emphasis. It is natural, however, that in these difficult areas debate within a liberal party will continue to be lively because the reconciliation of two central principles of the liberal creed here is in fact so complex.
The author has strong views on these matters, but this is not the place to argue out one side or the other. The important thing is that all participants in the debate recognise the essentially liberal ground held by both sides and try to creatively respond to these tremendously difficult problems of policy.
On the question of censorship, for example, the liberal who dismisses all legal controls on pornography and - with a shrug of the shoulder, so to speak - is content to simply argue that "everyone is entitled to read what they want" has only stated half of a satisfactory liberal position. For it is just as important to affirm that pornography and violence degrade the dignity which all liberals should cherish. Those liberals who support censorship argue with justice that it is important to take action against such activities. The issue is: is coercion the only appropriate or most effective form of action? It is also: if not coercion, what?
Much of the philosophy of liberalism deals with attempts to define where infringements on freedom are justifiable, and where they ought not to be tolerated. In other words, how freedom and concern are to be balanced in particular areas of policy. Freedom, it should be clear by now, means freedom from subjection to the will of another. This is the classical meaning. Freedom should not be confused with wealth or health. Freedom is a relationship between people, not the possession of resources or qualities.
It is the socialist confusion between these completely different notions that has been so harmful to freedom in the classical sense, for it has enabled socialist movements to argue that the redistribution of wealth by coercion increases freedom. In this sense, it is said that to give someone money increases his freedom even if it also increases his dependence on the will of others. The liberal will rightly insist that a man who is poor is not thereby unfree, though he may be able to do fewer things with his freedom than the rich man. The liberal is concerned about this, but he does not believe that the solution is to deprive him of his freedom in order to increase his wealth.
It must be said explicitly that there may be areas where a liberal government should have the courage not to act. There is a myth in our society that action is always better than inaction - or better - that action by governments is always better than inaction. It is natural for liberals interested in politics to emphasise those areas where positive action seems desirable, but there are enough examples of positive but misguided action leading to results worse than the original problem, or preventing the natural solution of a problem by spontaneous social processes, that liberal policy makers should always consider non-action as an option to be discussed along with others.
There is scarcely an area of policy - from federal- state financial relations to censorship - where profound consideration of the implications of liberalism for policy is not called for. Making a virtue of necessity, this is the time and the opportunity. Liberalism has the enormous strength of being both a conservative and a reforming philosophy - conserving the values of human dignity and fulfilment while liberating human energies. It can be stated generally enough to be relevant to most areas of policy, yet specifically enough to offer guidance as to possible kinds of solutions compatible with long term objectives.
The issues of leadership and philosophy are inseparable, for the effective leadership of an opposition party requires authority, and leadership in the restatement of the basic guiding principles of policy is potentially an important source of that authority The future of the liberal movement in Australia will be decided by the response to this challenge.
January 1973 No. 13, 3-137 issue of CHECKPOINT
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