Conrad Russell and liberalism 4: The economy

(This is part of a series of posts about Conrad Russell’s An Intelligent Person’s Guide To Liberalism. You can find an introduction and links to all the posts here.)

As I mentioned in my original post on this, the one thing I found most refreshing about Russell’s of examination of liberalism was that it put power at the centre of his vision and not economics. A liberalism that’s focused on how to liberate people from unjust power is one that looks upon economics and economic policy as a means to achieve those liberal aims, not one that sees a certain arrangement of the economy as an end in itself. Russell argues that there’s been a general misunderstanding of the position of nineteenth century liberals, one that regards their ‘classical liberalism’ as one that centred around free trade and free markets, when instead these were merely tools to achieve a higher aim. He argues that liberalism does not have an enduring economic policy, but rather that whatever economic policy is favoured by liberals at any given time is one that’s determined by the principles of controlling power, ensuring pluralism and championing the underdog.

As Russell notes, this lack of an overarching economic philosophy within liberalism can be a strength and a weakness. It’s a strength because it allows liberalism to be defined as something that’s not just about the economy and the dull managerialism that characterises so much of modern politics. Political ideologies should be about more than just ‘how do we manage the economy?’ and instead about much wider issues of how people are enabled to live the life they choose. By centring political debate about the economy, and making it of prime importance above everything, we end up seeing everything else through the prism of work and money. We can see this most clearly in education, where we focus on giving people skills and fretting over whether school leavers or graduates are ready for the workplace, rather than how equipped they are to lead a fulfilling life. It’s this depressing ideology of workism that gives us ideas like the ‘global race’ where countries are seen as little more than economic teams competing to see who can work the hardest and consume the most things. Liberalism can define itself as so much more than the economy, and we weaken the appeal of it when we limit it to that realm.

However, it’s also a weakness, as best seen in the old phrase ‘if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.’ As Russell notes, liberals have been caught up in the prevailing economic orthodoxy of the times on several occasions, and have begun treating the economics as an end in themselves when they forget that they are meant to be a means. While this might be solvable by having a defined liberal economic philosophy, that would introduce new risks of ossification and irrelevance when the facts change and discredit that philosophy. It should be noted, however, that there is a difference between an economic policy and an economic philosophy — the first is to answer questions of what we should do, while the second is more about the principles of why we are doing what we do. Perhaps the answer here is that liberalism does not need an economic philosophy, as long as the other principles of liberalism are remembered and applied, so that economics is applied as a tool?

What we can construct from this is a message of liberalism as radicalism and doing things differently. It does seem to me that in the time since Russell wrote, there has been a change in British politics, where alternative visions have been gradually shut out of political conversation in favour of everyone accepting the current model, and merely tinkering around the edges of it. Twenty years ago, the Liberal Democrat manifesto was talking about things like land value taxation and citizens’ incomes, but radicalism now appears to mean nothing more than tweaking housing benefit rules or slight shifts in income tax thresholds.

There’s probably an interesting case study to be written in the history of political ideology about how land value taxation has waxed and waned in British liberal politics. As Russell notes, the idea of taxing land was entirely natural for liberals from the nineteenth century on, as they saw one of the fundamental roles of state power as breaking up monopolies to ensure fair competition, and land was the powerful distorting monopoly force of all. This was not just about the economic effect of monopolies, but about their power, and part of an overarching liberal vision of society, where unjust and unaccountable power in all spheres of life were confronted and tackled. Again, this was about economic policy not being an end in itself, but a means to bring about a liberal society.

This belief in economics as a means, not an end, is also why liberalism has been relaxed about the mixed economy, seeing no objection to the state having certain responsibilities, and indeed believing that the state is the better guardian of the public interest in certain areas. This is a use of both sides of power — breaking up monopolies and ensuring competition ensures people’s freedom from unaccountable power, while providing public services such as sewers, schools and libraries ensures that people have the freedom to live their lives in their way and not be ‘enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity’.

For me, this is a much more attractive vision of liberalism than merely trying to brand it as a split-the-difference form of managerialism. Too much of our current political discourse is centred on the idea that the economy has some sort of independent existence, that it’s become some vast creature with it’s own appetites, that our desires have to be sacrificed to in order to keep it fed. A liberal vision should promote a different view of the economy, as something we need to control and use in order to provide everyone with a good life, not leave it to the vagaries of the market (again, something that only exists because we deem it to).

That’s why we need to be remembering those old radical liberal proposals, not forgetting them and pretending they don’t exist because they’re not compatible with the current paradigm. Taxing wealth, especially land, to ensure that we can provide everyone with a basic income that gives them the freedom to live their life is something we should be championing as a truly liberal vision — we should be arguing for the system to change to suit the needs of the people, not for the people to have to change to meet the needs of the system.

In part 5, we’ll look beyond Britain and explore internationalism and utopias.

Many, many things. PhD student at QMUL. Councillor. Ran the 2019 London Marathon for Brain Research UK. @nickjbarlow on Twitter.

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