(This is the first in a series of posts looking in depth at issues from Conrad Russell’s An Intelligent Person’s Guide To Liberalism. My original post on the book is here.)
“Liberalism is and remains largely about power.”
It feels rather apt to be writing this post on a day when the Government – with the consent of the Opposition – has announced it will be rushing through new laws to get around the fact that what it was doing before was ruled to be illegal. However, I want to write about this issue in more general terms rather than focus on the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill.
Putting power at the centre of his vision of liberalism is an interesting step for Russell to take, but one that fits entirely with the view of a historian, rather than a philosopher. Principle is important, but those principles cannot be divorced from the historical context in which they emerged and the circumstances that have kept them relevant since. In recent years, I’ve seen much debate by liberals on what the size of the state should be, but not a connected debate on how powerful it should be. There is an assumption amongst some that if one makes a state smaller in economic terms, it will automatically be less powerful, as though economics is the only thing that matters.
This view is countered by the the ideas that came from the New Right, captured perfectly in Andrew Gamble’s description of Thatcherism as being concerned with ‘the free economy and the strong state‘. The power of the state is not measured solely in what it can do for the economy, but in the myriad other ways it can effect people lives. For instance, one can see many on the right who advocate both for a small state and the return of the death penalty and for me, giving the state the power to determine who lives and dies is a much more fundamental ability to control than the percentage of GDP it uses.
The corollary to this is that liberalism is not anarchism or libertarianism, in that it recognises that that there are situations in which power needs to exist. This links in with Russell’s historical approach and an acceptance that power already exists, that we’re not in a tabula rasa where we can create whatever we wish to see from scratch. It’s a pragmatic position rather than an idealistic one, but it’s also about the application of principles to the situation at hand. Russell sets out the history of British liberalism as a series of small triumphs that have taken us far from the original starting point in service of the central principle of controlling power:
I do not believe that my ancestors intended (excluding hereditary peers from the Lords) when they set the Exclusion Bill in motion in 1679, yet it follows logically from the challenge they then launched to the principle of power based on birth. This is only one example of among many of the way an apparently simple general principle, if held firmly and as a central conviction, turns out to have all sorts of implications of which its founders were unaware.
The rationale for the control of power is that all power must rest on consent, and thus it flows upwards, given from the people to the state, rather than freedom being granted to the people by the state. This again goes back to the seventeenth century and the events and arguments there that motivated Locke to set out his treatises on government. Again, a simple principle leads to lots of unexpected ramifications over the centuries.
Russell (and liberalism generally) does not dispute the right of the state to exist, but does question the legitimacy of its actions if the executive power is concentrated in such a way to enable it to be abused. Democracy is a tool for creating a state that can be constrained, but democracy has to be seen as a continual process, rather than an occasional event – one cannot claim consent purely on having an election every four or five years if that state is free to do whatever it wishes between those votes. The question that is to be answered here is that if we agree that some power is necessary, how do we make it acceptable and controllable? Russell’s answer to this – in common with many other analyses over the years – is that Britain, at least, has not yet found an answer to this question, if indeed a permanent answer can be found. What may be acceptable limits for the state in one generation, may be seen as far too lax (or even too strict) to a future one.
The implications of this are more than simply asking what is the role of the state and how it can best carry out that role. To go back to the quote I began this post with, liberalism is not about the state, it is about power. When the building blocks of liberalism were first being laid down, the main powers were the state and the church, but we have seen lots of other sources of power emerge in the time since then. For liberalism, all power should be controllable and accountable, and this is where it diverts from the minimal state vision, for while it’s own power must be controlled, the state can and should have a role in making other forms of power accountable and controllable. Power in this sense does not necessarily have a tangible form either. Social and economic pressures beyond those of the state, the church or the corporation can oppress the individual and limit their freedom, and it is perhaps to fight those amorphous powers that we need to create some power greater than ourselves.
But a lot of that detail is for another time, as I plunge into more depths and examine the implications that flow from seeking to control power, but please feel free to continue the debate in the comments.