Monday, 24 June 2013

The morality of Liberalism

A thought that's been running around my head recently is about liberalism as a moral philosophy.

Normally we see ideologies like liberalism, conservatism, labourism (I call it that because whatever the ideology of Labour is it's definitely not socialism any more) as political philosophies which make specific recommendations about governmental policies which should be implemented.

But I think this is actually a rather flawed view of these ideologies. Because they're not just political philosophies but moral philosophies as well.

Let's take a look at liberalism, for example. Specifically, let's look at the Liberal Democrat version of liberalism as outlined in the preamble to the Lib Dem party constitution:
The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity. We champion the freedom, dignity and well-being of individuals, we acknowledge and respect their right to freedom of conscience and their right to develop their talents to the full. We aim to disperse power, to foster diversity and to nurture creativity. We believe that the role of the state is to enable all citizens to attain these ideals, to contribute fully to their communities and to take part in the decisions which affect their lives. 
We look forward to a world in which all people share the same basic rights, in which they live together in peace and in which their different cultures will be able to develop freely. We believe that each generation is responsible for the fate of our planet and, by safeguarding the balance of nature and the environment, for the long term continuity of life in all its forms. Upholding these values of individual and social justice, we reject all prejudice and discrimination based upon race, colour, religion, age, disability, sex or sexual orientation and oppose all forms of entrenched privilege and inequality.
Now that's just the beginning of the preamble but already we can see plenty there which is about moral values, not just political ones.

Equality. Liberty. Freedom. Poverty as something wrong that enslaves people. The right to dignity. The right to freedom of conscience - tolerance for different views in other words. A value of good stewardship of our planet. Peace. The importance of protecting the continuity of all life on the planet. Justice. Opposition to prejudice and discrimination. Opposition to entrenched privilege.

All of those are political values. But they are all just as equally moral ones. They involve tolerance and kindness and compassion and helping those in need and the pursuit of peace and of recognising all human beings as equals.

(In fact, a lot of those values sound far from dissimilar to traditional "Christian" values - which is not surprising given the historic links between Quakers and the Liberal party.)

So these are the values of liberalism. This is what is considered to be right on a fundamental level and opposition to these values is considered fundamentally wrong. They're not policies which have a background and require explanation, these are ideals which you either 'get' or you don't.

And to be honest, seeing liberalism in that way as a moral philosophy goes a long way to explaining my own moral values. I'm not a particularly religious person. I have my religious beliefs of course but they don't play a big part in my life. And though I went to schools which had the typical softcore Anglican Christian backdrop (saying the Lord's Prayer and singing hymns in assembly) I never really derived any kind of sense of right and wrong from what I learnt about Christianity, or from what I learned about any other faith for that matter.

Instead, my sense of right and wrong, I would guess, came almost exclusively from my parents and from what I worked out for myself as I grew up. Nothing ground shaking but just simple things like "I don't like it when other people are mean to me so I shouldn't be mean to other people" and "it's unfair that that person gets something more than everyone else when they didn't do anything to deserve it".

And when I became politically aware I ultimately became a Liberal Democrat because I instinctively felt that the values and principles of the party matched what I already believed. To put it another way, I just "got" what liberalism was about without needing it explained. It just seemed obvious to me.

The thing is, no doubt it's the same for devout (and I use that word in every possible sense of it) followers of other parties.

Conservatism isn't just a political manifesto, it's a moral philosophy which is about individualism - you shouldn't expect others to help you or worry about others outside your own group, you should just put your own interests first and if you want something you should earn it yourself. If you don't get what you want or are struggling then it's your own fault for not working hard enough.

Fundamentally, conservatism is about a selfish, self-reliance. And that's something I will never get. I will never be able to agree with the conservative moral view of the world.

Similarly, labourism is about a sense of collective struggle. It's about belonging to a group and struggling to win more for your group against another group who are a threat to you (workers versus employers, progressives against conservatives, etc.) and about solidarity. It's about putting the interests of the group first even if that might mean treading on or occasionally restricting the preferences of some individuals within that group.

Again, that's something which I will never get. I will never be able to get on board with that as I see the authoritarian and controlling aspect of it as morally wrong.

So this, I think, goes a long way to explaining the bitterness and tribalism of political arguments because, on the face of it, they don't make sense. Different political parties can quite frequently agree on the same compromise policy even if they have different reasons for doing so so why are they so aggressive towards each other?

And the answer is that the different parties follow different moral philosophies. Their notions of right and wrong, their views of the world, disagree with each other on a fundamental level.

Bitter vitriol in a dispute over the best way to tackle unemployment might seem inexplicable but when you look at it as a clash between different sets of moral values then it suddenly becomes pretty easy to understand.

As for myself, I guess I'd probably describe my moral values as being about ensuring freedom for every individual to do what they like as long as it doesn't hurt others and to enable them to have this freedom by fighting against obstacles and restrictions they face. That and being about rationality - accepting impartial evidence about reality and not simply rejecting it when it doesn't fit with your prejudices.

Not that this is a claim that I'm morally superior by the way. Obviously I'm going to describe my own views with more positive language than views I disagree with no matter how hard I try to be neutral. And obviously I could be completely wrong.

But thinking about my political philosophy as a moral philosophy as well does probably explain why I can (if I'm being completely honest) get sanctimonious and holier-than-thou when I fundamentally disagree with people in an argument. Intellectually I can acknowledge I might be wrong but on a fundamental level I've got a conviction that my view is simply right while my opponent's is simply wrong.

Which does rather make me a hypocrite, come to think of it, particularly when tolerance is also one of my professed moral values. But, then again, our moral values tend to show up all of us as hypocrites I guess.

Sunday, 23 June 2013

The UK: Only open for business if you're white

So today comes with the news that Theresa May, our glorious Home Secretary (eternal glory be upon her), is to start requiring all visitors to the UK from "high risk" countries to pay a £3,000 bond in order to enter the UK, refundable when they leave.

Sounds fine and dandy, right? Let's just see what counts as a "high risk" country...

...oh, I see. It means pretty much all of the African and Asian countries.

Now, aside from the racism of assuming that everyone from certain countries is automatically an immigration risk while those from other countries aren't an immigration risk at all, this is also spectacularly stupid from an economic point of view.

Take, for example, international students. Particularly those from Commonwealth counties like India and Nigeria.  They're English speaking so good UK universities are very attractive for them

Once here, not only do they prop up or higher education sector by paying extortionate fees, but they also often study high demand subjects where we have major skills shortages - such as science and engineering.

And if, like many students (booth domestic and international) they decide they want to stay in the place where they went to university, then we economically benefit from highly skilled graduates who help fill skill shortages and pay taxes yet are young and healthy enough not to cost us a lot in healthcare whilst having not cost us a penny to educate as children or as young adults.

Except now if they want to do that they'll have to stump up £3,000 cash first before they can even ever the country. So now they'll go to other countries instead and we'll lose out financially as a nation as we lose a key source of skilled workers and taxpayers.

Or consider a businesswoman in one of these  countries (countries which will soon eclipse us economically) looking to make an investment in the UK or to buy products from a UK company.

If she wants to come to the UK to negotiate a business deal or investment then she too will have to pay the bond just to get through customs. The very first message she'll get from us is that we're happy to take her money but we still think she's inherently untrustworthy and a potential criminal. Why on earth would she want to do business with us after that kind of an insult?

What's more, when one country places visa restrictions on citizens of another country, it is incredibly common for the other country to retaliate by introducing the same restrictions on visas for citizens of the first country. Which means that UK citizens wanting to do business in developing countries are likely to face the same obstacles in reverse - making it harder for us to do business in and with this century's new economic powerhouses.

In short, this kind of bond will severely limit our opportunities to do business with any other country which isn't an ageing, predominantly white countries with sluggish economic growth.

So much for the Tory claim that they want Britain to be open for business.

UPDATE: in fairness, I've been reminded that it was actually one Nicholas Clegg who originally voiced this idea. So it was wrong of me to give the tories all the credit when this Mr Clegg (whoever he might be) was clearly a major influence on this stereotypically tory example of idiocy.