Friday, January 18, 2008

The real connection between Classical Liberalism and Welfare State liberalism

Because conservatives have tried to prove that there's no connection and that therefore liberals are anti-liberty. L.T. Hobhouse, an English author writing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, provides the best analysis of the new liberalism in the essays collected in Liberalism and other writings, put out by Cambridge. Basically, the transition from classical liberalism to welfare state liberalism depended on the ideas of agency and of effective liberty. Agency means the ability of a person to truly self determine their life in society, effective liberty means the potential for people to actually make use of their rights in society. What the liberals of the 19th and 20th centuries decided on was that the elements of classical liberalism that were at its heart were the idea that people should be able to self determine their own destinies without a hierarchy limiting their ability to do so and that classical models that linked economic liberalism with the creation of this state weren't necessarily accurate. The model of laissez-faire free market economics may have helped to realize this goal at one point, but the goal itself of self determination and actual participation in society was more important than sticking to one model. If laissez-faire didn't work there was no reason to keep it in place despite it being defective. The liberals of the 19th century saw what was happening in their countries and determined that to preserve a society where people were free to exercise their rights in a real way and to determine their own destinies socially there needed to be legislation and reform, even though legislation, taxes, and constraint of business were some of the things that classical liberals had railed against. The difference was that the system they confronted was linked to feudalistic monarchy, which was inherently anti-liberal.

How does all of this work in practice? If capitalism creates barriers for poor people to have the ability to advance socially based on their talents and on their work then legislation needs to be created to restrain that barrier so that this can happen. If capitalism creates a situation where people profit from businesses out of all proportion to the work that they put into it this should be corrected by progressive taxation since it distorts the equal potential for everybody's work to be fairly compensated. A company sets up a factory that pollutes a neighborhood and causes people in the neighborhood to get sick; this infringes on their essential rights as citizens to live without experiencing consequences that they are not responsible for just because they happened to live in the wrong place. Health care is another great example of how this works. If there's a system where one person can get sick, be unable to afford healthcare and therefore lose his or her job due to illness, and another person can get any of their wants attended to, that's a heaping impediment to self determination since no one is responsible for the illnesses that they get. Therefore, health care needs to be insured for all people so that no one has their life ruined because they got sick one day. Housing too applies to this, and the idea of a living wage comes directly out of this tradition. People should be able to afford housing. They might not be able to afford really great housing, because that would come with socialism ;), but they should be able to afford a basic roof over their head that leads them to not be homeless. If the housing market is so bad that people are thrown out into bad situations because housing prices have gone through the roof some sort of subsidized housing or public housing needs to be created to allow them this basic requirement for a decent life. Food gets in here too. Race and racial discrimination created by social legacies of oppression should be confronted by creating artificial programs to promote the advancement of members of minority groups, i.e. affirmative action.

Liberalism in this sense doesn't mean that the differences between rich and poor, advantaged and disadvantaged are totally eliminated. Instead, there's a wide range of possible outcomes for a person seeking to make their way in society, from success and relatively greater wealth to not so much success and relatively smaller wealth. The point is that in this system everyone should get a fair chance. Access to free education, both high school and college, figures in to this as well.

Socialism is different in that socialism seeks to change the basic fabric of society so that these inequalities are not produced, while welfare state liberalism goes from the outside in, only tentatively approaching the root problems of society.

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