How to be a Liberal - Ian Dunt

It's politics time! Expect the usual talking around the book, rather than of the book.

I joined the Liberal Democrats at the start of 2017, when it was clear that they were the only major party that wasn't unhinged, as well as conveniently having policies and a philosophy that seemed to roughly align with my view. I never really got into the details of it all, but now, having some time on my hands, I've been catching up.

Ian Dunt provided some entertaining, insightful and above all sweary analysis of UK politics during the recent grimness of Brexit, so given he wrote a book on Liberalism, it seemed a great place to start.

It turns out that it's reasonably hard going, given it's really a multi-hundred-year history of liberal thought. The historical parts have that history feeling to them, and the discussion of modern times are... quite depressing, frankly, once you lay bare the nationalism and damage to truth that has happened. And it's not short.

Having said that, I think it's the right approach - by discussing the historical evolution of liberal thought, you can incrementally build up from the simple idea that people should be pretty much free to do what they like as long as it's not getting in the way of others, through to modern social liberalism, in a way that seems fairly logical. And that depressing section at the end about recent history is also a decent call to arms.

It does feel somewhat like this is Dunt's personal thesis on liberalism - there must be enough source material to be able to pick and choose rather carefully, but the book should make you think about this, even if it doesn't raise it explicitly: It makes the point that a liberal should always have an element of doubt (if you know the answer for sure, dictating what others should be doing becomes easy!), and that the rational approach seeks refutations to held beliefs, not just confirmation. The book's pretty much saying "You should be reading other stuff", and handily has an extensive "further reading" section at the end.

Despite all that, it sell liberalism in a way that strongly appeals to me. The individualism inherent in liberalism is not "screw community, we're all doing our own thing", it's a way of saying the population is diverse, and "the will of the people" is illusory. Liberalism fights against the tyranny of the majority, and rejects "enemy of the people" and "elites vs. the common people" as manipulation, since real people are way more complicated.

To counter the threat of concentrated power, liberals build systems that have a balance of powers. So, when judges required the government get the consent of parliament to give notice of Brexit (classic balance of powers), and the newspaper headline "Enemies of the People" came up, that was textbook illiberal stuff. Which is a nice theoretical basis for why this was horrid Daily Mail BS.

This focus on individualism means that the Liberal Democrats are not a party to represent the working class or the rich, but are aimed at everyone who doesn't want to divide society into simple groups and support one of them. I'm on board with that.

While the book doesn't talk about libertarianism, which superficially has this overlap with liberalism around FREEDOM, etc., it's still helped me build an unfounded pet theory. American democracy was forked from European democracy before it had fully evolved, so it's got some weirdnesses (like guns and oppressing black people, at the very least). In a similar was, ideas of liberty got forked before they'd become well-developed in Europe, so they just end up with insane individualism and FREEDOM. I'm not sure it's true, but I like the idea.

Liberal history has also upset some of my pre-existing thoughts. I'd always taken the bloodiness of communist and fascist takeovers to be symptomatic of of the horrors of totalitarianism. However, the revolutions in England and France, attempting to bring us democracy, also had horrible terror and bloodshed. Does that mean democracy also is inherently violent?

The liberal answer is that the horrifying violence comes from the elimination of the "enemies of the state". Revolutions tend to assume a particular will of the people requires action to achieve, so generally end up getting rid of people, but the ongoing terror-or-not comes from whether this remains the steady state. A liberal democracy won't do that, while totalitarianism will. The English and French revolutions were democratic, but not properly liberal. Once you have the transition to a liberal government, there should not be the violence. It also implies that non-liberal democracy is... not a great government system.

Dunt also makes the case that liberalism clashes with identity politics. Identity politics largely focuses on groups of people identifying with that group (and working towards helping that group). This clashes with treating people like individuals - it implies that anyone in that category who doesn't believe in the majority opinion of the group is a traitor, and empowers people to speak as if they represent the group even if they have no specific qualification to do so.

I suspect that the more left-leaning liberals, having more sympathy with full-on Labour-style politics that emphasise class, have more sympathy for identity politics, but I do like the idea of being critical of it. I think it's a useful tool - it's hard to deny that most black people have strong and largely similar views on racism, based on personal experience, and that in discussing racism it makes sense to centre black voices - but we have to remember it's a simplifying model that should be handled with care.

A thing I rather like about liberalism (that again isn't talked about explicitly, but is implicit in the writing) is that it's an empirical approach. Backed by doubt, rationality and seeking counters to your arguments, liberalism has evolved over time as weaknesses have been found. Liberalism has moved from laissez-faire economics to Keynesian economics as it became clear that laissez-faire causes crashes, and Keynesianism digs you out of crashes (economic depressions are liberty limiting!). It's less a philosophical argument (sorry, Hayek), it's more about what actually works.

This is in contrast to e.g. Marx claiming that communism is an historical inevitability, which it really doesn't seem to be despite a bunch of people trying to accelerate the "inevitable". Liberals don't believe liberalism is inevitable, but that a rational, tolerant government promoting equality and freedom is continual hard work.

Given I mentioned Keynes I'm going to take a quick break to fan-boy. I've been a minor fan of Keynes since reading a few economics texts. However I've moved up a couple of notches given this quote about him from the book: "the sharpest and clearest that I have ever known. When I argued with him, I felt that I took my life in my hands, and I seldom emerged without feeling something of a fool". Who said this? Bertrand Russell! If he's making Bertrand Russell feel dumb... wow. Not sure what to say.

The discussion of post-war liberal period makes the politics of the last decade all the more horrifying. Dunt explains the EU and international free trade as liberal attempts to correct for fascism and communism, and dismantling and disregarding these things is a signal that we've forgotten the lessons from World War II. They're flawed institutions, but as liberalism became something like a background assumption, the flaws became more visible than the underlying intent, and people became grumpy with the institutions.

As mentioned earlier, recent history is pretty grim, with liberalism in decline and nationalism on the rise. Despite this book being published in 2020, you can see more and more nationalist rubbish by the day. The ongoing Conservative activity of union flags everywhere and pictures of the queen are a case in hand. Sure, Conservatives tend to like these things at the best of times, but it's no accident that they're being raised right now, when so much is a mess.

In the last few paragraphs of the book, there's a call to action. Liberalism has been too hands-off. It needs to drive change, it needs to make people's lives better. It needs to go beyond technocratically building institutions like the EU and WTO, to directly improve the lives of the poorest and most under-privileged, which would be both the best actual improvement in liberty for humankind, and provide a counter to the dangerous attractions of nationalism. I find the idea compelling.

Is the book any good? I think so. A little long and not authoritative, maybe, but if I had a friend whose politics I'd want to influence, I'd chuck them this book. If it doesn't convince them, then at least I get to hear their counter-arguments!

Posted 2021-07-04.