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Liberalism, Hobbes (again), Maslow...

Yesterday might well have been the Last Day of Summer. Sunny but not relentlessly so – a smattering of fleecy clouds – a bit of breeze, temperature in the mid 20s. Perfect for a decent length walk.

Walks are often when ideas sort themselves out. It must be something to do with the physical motion, or maybe it’s the presence of nature presenting a suitably vast context, or maybe it’s the ever-changing scenery…

What, I found myself wondering, is Liberalism? A recent article had said ‘the preservation and, indeed, the supremacy of the individual.’ That troubled me. I like to think of myself as a Liberal, but that sounded so selfish… Ah, but what do those words mean, anyway? The individual as what?

Back in 1651, Hobbes started Leviathan, his discussion of the ideal state, by asking what makes people tick, then went on to describe what that implies for how we should organize our society. The right approach, surely. Any other is hopelessly abstract. A zoo keeper handed a creature they knew nothing about wouldn’t waste time theorizing about concepts like ‘liberty’, but find out what it ate, was it social or solitary, what temperatures it liked, did it live in water or land (etc.) A gardener needs to know under what conditions a plant will flourish.

However, Hobbes’ view of humanity, formed at the tail end of a vicious Civil War that had ravaged the country for the best part of a decade, was bleak, as I said in my last post. I’m looking for something more positive (and which reflects my own experience of life, which includes both time spent in Hobbesian worlds and an escape from them to something much bigger, happier and better.)

Fast forward three centuries to Abraham Maslow’s Motivation and Personality (1954). He talked of the supreme human need as ‘self-actualization’. This sounds horribly egotistical, but he actually had a very positive view of personal development. The point of life was to become ‘bigger and better’. It was about being more competent in more situations, about having more empathy for more people, about learning ever more about the world, about having more skills and self-discipline, about developing an ever wider perspective, about learning to savour more things more deeply. It’s about being kinder, more considerate, a better citizen, neighbour, friend, family member; about giving more and getting more joy out of life.

In political terms, that was effectively the view of the New Liberals back in the Edwardian era, who wanted to open up as many opportunities for ‘bigness’ and ‘flourishing’ to as many people as possible.

(To be fair to Hobbes, he understood this potential in us, but feared our nastiness was more powerful and would always undercut it, unless order was strictly enforced.)

Critics of Liberalism see it as just saying ‘everyone can do what they want’. This isn’t Liberalism but anarchism, a recipe for rule by the most vicious: modern Haiti, where gangs hold sway, seems to be a good example of this. (But this tells us something about human nature. Some people are psychopaths, and all they care about is power and control. So one core role of a Liberal state is to protect the rest of us against these people.)

The piece also talked about Liberalism as being obsessed with ‘enabling everyone to define their own identity’. This is fine, but not the whole story. It might be a stop on the road to bigger and better things – the personal development aims cited above. But people who say that this is ‘what liberalism is’ are missing the point, mistaking a (rather small) part for a much greater whole.

Going back to Hobbes vs Maslow… If one accepts the latter’s view, development is the route we humans have been designed to follow. That is the way we flourish the most, just – going back to the horticultural analogy – as particular plants flourish in particular soils. That’s how we’re made. Bears, blades of grass or pieces of rock are made differently. But at the same time I understand that some people choose not to follow this Maslowian route, are happy to fulfil ‘lower’ needs in his hierarchy, such as belonging and esteem (status). These individuals can still be decent people, worthy of respect, as long as they don't become militant philistines. And then, of course, there are some very damaged people who are like Hobbes’ monsters.

So… The finest should lead, the smaller should follow and we should all be protected from the psychopaths.

Gosh, should society be unequal, then? Yes. No human society has ever been totally equal, as far as I know. What matters is that the best people are in charge. The biggest, the best informed, the most ‘rounded’, the most magnanimous, the most humane, the most… noble. (The old idea of ‘nobility’ was a good one in theory, but didn’t work in practice.) How does one bring that about? Interesting question. Fruit for debate. Imre Lakatos would say, ‘part of the research programme’.

There are, of course, levels of inequality. There are powerful arguments for a reasonably equal society, in material terms, anyway. One is simply that, looking at surveys of happiness, equal-ish societies tend to be happier than radically unequal ones. They were also happier than the old Communist ones, where radical equality was forced onto people. There must be a sweet spot, an ‘optimum degree of equality’. Another part of the research programme would be to work out what this (roughly) is. ‘Roughly’ because this is not an exercise in perfectionism, but about being ‘good enough’.

A second argument comes from surveys on the marginal utility of wealth. These seem to show that extra income brings lots of extra reported happiness for poorer people. It carries on making people in the middle happier, though less intensely so. After a while, the effect tends to wear off, and extra money doesn’t really make rich people that much happier. (Once again, the psychopathically greedy will be outliers from this. Deep down, they are never really happy.) More research – what wealth distribution would maximise the utility in society? This needn’t become a kind of crazy rule – ‘everybody has to earn £45,000 a year’ – but would be an important guideline for policy.

Arguments that taxing the rich lowers incentives are not very strong. Clearly it has some role, but entrepreneurs and top-earning entertainers are largely (I believe) motivated by enjoying doing what they do (in a broad sense. They may not think ‘Whee, isn’t this fun!’ all the time, but they are driven to succeed by a range of motives such as wanting to prove other people wrong or a simple desire for excellence). The Beatles complained bitterly about the Taxman taking 95% of their top earnings, but that didn’t stop them making music. Once again, I suspect one can work out an approximate figure around which a critical mass of ‘value-creators’ begin to get seriously disincentivized. Yes, some will give up earlier and others will press on regardless, but somewhere in the middle will be another sweet spot.

Is this ‘socialist’? Perhaps the term is best avoided. If Socialism means welcoming the fact that human beings are social animals and so social institutions should reflect that (exactly how can be a matter for debate), then I support it. If it means valuing public goods, I support it. If it means nationalizing all commercial activity or arguing that the working class have some kind of magical virtue that everyone else lacks, then it’s outdated rubbish.

One can say the same of Conservatism. If being Conservative means conserving vital things like our beautiful countryside (and, beyond that, our planet), then sign me up. But now it just seems to mean enabling the rich to get richer and bugger everyone else (including future generations). Conservatism also used to mean respect for expertise, hard-earned knowledge, study (an important part of development: learning and the application of that learning to public good). Now it seems to mean sod ‘experts’: the half drunk, bitter old man propping up the bar in the Dog and Duck is right.

Liberalism, as I’ve said, is not libertarianism. It is a project about building the best society we can, one where people can be the best they can be. It will be driven by education, giving everyone as many chances as possible to learn as much as possible. Everyone should learn to read. Everyone should have the chance to learn a musical instrument. Everyone should have a go at other arts, too: drawing, painting etc. And, of course, various sports: for some people, ‘self-actualization’ is physical, not aesthetic. Everyone should have opportunities to spend time in nature and explore our beautiful landscape. Everyone should find a passion, and be encouraged to follow it (and become an expert!) An estate agent friend recently waxed lyrical about her fascination with houses and design, not just as things she bought and sold, but amazingly interesting things in themselves. (Find something that fascinates you, then make a living from it… Perfect life advice!)

Young people should also have other support, too. Parenting classes. How to deal with money and finance. How business works. Adult education: give people who messed up first time round a chance to get it right this time.

This is Tony Blair’s ‘education, education, education’. Pity he didn’t stick to it with more determination.

Yes, the militantly uneducated will fight back, and complain about the cost. But they must be resisted, not viciously, but simply by getting on with the job.

Question: should the arts be subsidized? Well… Certainly arts education should be. Every child a reader. Every child who fancies it a musician (or painter or whatever). My sense is that, if this really happened, people would spend loads of money on arts anyway, as part of their journeys towards fulfilment and ‘bigness’. Maybe subsidies wouldn’t be needed. But a bit here and there, why not? Prizes. Support for local arts venues. Really skilled arts officers in various locations would pick up what was happening and where the need was. Pouring huge amounts of money into London-based opera is probably not the answer, though I like opera (if it’s good, it doesn’t have to be lush. Don Giovanni is beautiful on a simple stage because of the music. If people want to pay extra for lavish sets, great!) OK, maybe a few flagship projects need support. Things like the National Gallery, the Tate, British Museum etc. But these are as much about global branding as raising quality of life.

Then there’s the matter of ‘the market’ and its ethical value. The distinction between value creation and value extraction seems at the heart of this debate. Value creation is by and large a good thing (though one could argue about whether every piece of value creation is morally good. A violent porn movie technically ‘creates value’ if it makes money.) Extraction seems to be of no moral worth – though one can be a good landlord, looking after tenants, or a bad one, overcharging for a shit property. Another task the for the Programme: how to distinguish between creation and extraction, and tax those very differently. The old ‘earned vs unearned income’ was, I suppose, a start. But that was just for individuals. What about companies?

Clearly the Programme would look at ways of raising revenue from the Great Asset Boom since 1996. How to do this without driving people out of their homes?

So, a society where opportunity is maximized, in the broadest sense of the term: personal, cultural sporting (etc.), as well as just financial. A relatively equal society in terms of income, but one where expertise is admired and valued. One where the wisest are in charge (so, for example, the House of Lords becomes a real forum for ‘tribal elders’, people who have achieved a lot).

This is a kind of New New Liberalism. Plenty to get one’s teeth into.

Arriving home, I felt a real love for my home, the beautiful landscape around it and enormous gratitude for having the opportunity and freedom to enjoy it to the full. That’s how I would like everyone to feel about this lovely island where we live – and which we now have to organize and run a whole lot better than we are doing at the moment.


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