What You Can Get Away With » Russell and liberalism 2: Pluralism and power

baran_networks(This is the second in a series of posts looking in depth at issues from Conrad Russell’s An Intelligent Person’s Guide To Liberalism. The first post in the series is here and my original post on the book is here.

Russell uses his chapter on pluralism to discuss two issues for liberalism: the dispersal of power, and the celebration of diversity. While I understand how his historical view of the development of liberalism does link the two, tracing it from the challenge to the power of the Church and liberal support for Nonconformism, I’m going to give both issues separate posts to avoid confusion by conflating them too.

As a liberal principle, pluralism emerges quite naturally from the desire to control the power of the executive I discussed in the last post. If one wants to prevent a single source of power from coming to dominate all, then why not have a series of different powers at different levels? This idea of dispersing power may seem obvious to us now, but was a radical proposition in the time when monarchies were trying to make their power absolute.

The principle of consent is also important in developing a liberal pluralism, rather than a devolved feudalism. It is possible to separate power and still retain an absolutism, when that power is arranged by a strict territoriality and hierarchy. Each power could be absolute in it’s own small realm, but then subservient in the realm above it. The principle of consent required to create legitimate authority, however, means that all power in any realm relies on the participation of the people within it. The liberal vision of pluralism is not one single power dividing itself up and creating order on the way down, but a mass of power that begins with the people creating the power structures they wish from the ground up.

For me, this is a vital issue for British liberalism and one where we’ve dropped the ball and not paid it much attention. Our conception of power is that it belongs to the people and is consensually given to the state in order to achieve good things on behalf of everyone. However, the British state is still constructed on the basis that all power resides in the centre, and while it can be devolved to lesser bodies, they still remain under its control. If there’s one thing seven years in local government has taught me it’s that a local council is not regarded as a body created by the people of an area, but as an arm of the centralised state, expected to do what its told, with the only freedom being in areas where the Government can’t be bothered to act itself. ‘Localism’ is merely the ability to decided locally just how much you want to agree with the latest directive from DCLG, not the power to say no to diktats from the centre.

As Russell points out, this is directly contrary to the spirit in which local government developed in the UK. While it wasn’t democratised until the 19th century, British local corporations and boroughs were run by figures who came from the community they covered and were generally not imposed by the state upon those areas. A huge number of social reforms, especially in areas of sanitation and education were brought about by local governments acting on their own initiative in that golden era of municipal liberalism. This is still a pattern we see in countries with a federal structure, where local government takes the powers they feel they need, not sitting by and waiting for the government to give those powers to them. This creates a true pluralism of power based on consent, and one that I believe would provide a much more useful basis to review and reassert the powers and abilities of local government than a centrally-imposed localism.

Another important principle here, and one that’s not discussed as much as it was when Russell was writing, is that of subsidiarity: ‘a Russian egg model of political power, in which it is held in a series of containers, one inside another, ranging from the United Nations at one end down to the parish council or an individual family at the other.’ It’s an important part of pluralism, where we assert that it is not simply important that power is dispersed but that it is used at an appropriate level to perform the task required of it. This is again based on consent, where those over whom the power is exercised determine the level at which it should be exercised, not a mighty central power choosing where it hands its power down to. This does not have to symmetrical, either – and indeed, a true test of whether power is being dispersed in line with subsidiarity is the degree of asymmetry – for not all areas will want the exact same powers. One can see this in the original structures of local government in Britain, where different corporations and boroughs did different things, depending on what they saw as important, and still applies in the USA where can one see wildly different amounts of power available to different local governments within the same state, let alone across different states.

PLuralism and subsidiarity may not lead to an arrangement of power that appears ‘efficient’ to those wanting to see strict hierarchies of power, but by dispersing power based on individual consent, we create a much more liberal arrangement of power, based on consent and individual need, rather than the needs of the centralised state. This does not mean an end to governments, or a belief that everything can be done at one level, be it local or multinational, but that we need to be continually asking ourselves whether decisions are being made in the right place where they will be most effective. We control the power of the over-mighty executive by bringing power as close to the individual as necessary for it to be used efficiently, and in the next post I’ll look more at how pluralism promotes the power of the individual.

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2 comments untill now

  1. I think subsidiarity is a bit double-edged, and I’m uncomfortable with it. To me it implies that power starts at the top and is devolved down. A subsidiary is a dependent. And it is particularly used in the European context, where responsibility is pushed down by the EU. Since higher levels of authority are always reluctant to let lower levels take control, its results have been disappointing. I think we need an alternative idea which is more clearly based on consent going upwards – rather than power being delegated upwards.

    Thank you for the posts – it’s helping me sharpen up the way I look at liberalism.

  2. Matthew – I can see your point on how subsidiarity can appear to be talking about top down, but my intention was for it to be describing power coming from the bottom up. There’s probably a better word for it, but I can’t think of one in common parlance, and it didn’t feel like the sort of time that I should be coining neologisms.