(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.)
“It is only if people’s answers are their own that they will hold them with enough conviction to have any reasonable chance of acting on them.”
Given how central issues of individual liberty are to modern liberalism, it can seem curious that Russell only introduces it as a key component quite late in the book. As I’ve noted before, though, Russell’s primary focus on liberalism as an ideology is historical, and individual liberty — as represented by Mill’s On Liberty — arrived quite late in the history of liberalism. It’s worth recalling that On Liberty is closer in time to the present day (and twentieth century evocations of liberal ideas like Popper, Rawls and others) than it is to Locke’s Two Treatises On Government. That’s not to say that liberalism didn’t care about individual rights and liberty before Mill but more that, as Russell’s general thesis suggests, liberals hadn’t worked through the full implications of their principles in such depth until Mill wrote. Numerous radicals — John Wilkes, for instance — had called for greater civil liberty for the individual, and that empowerment of the individual had been part of the Radical tradition, but it perhaps took Mill to bring it more tightly into the Liberal fold. (And as Russell points out, it took some time before his ideas were widely accepted, even within liberalism)
It’s interesting to note how much an invocation of Mill is sometimes taken as Holy Writ (as I parodied here) and purely by chance, this link appeared on Twitter as I was writing this post. Note the key question is not ‘Do the principles espoused by Mill favour regulating pornography?’ but ‘would Mill regulate pornography?’ to which the answer should only be ‘he’s long dead, so what does it matter?’. The key point for liberalism is the principle Mill espoused, notably the harm principle:
The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.
Like all good political principles, it’s simple enough to state but closer examination reveals its very wide implications, and it could well be argued that we are still working through the full implications of it, not least the question of what limits apply to the ‘prevent harm to others’ clause.
As Russell discusses, one of the important changes in liberalism that Mill introduced — and the implications of which have unfolded over the century since — has been the decoupling of politics and morality. That is not to claim that Mill render all politics immoral, but that following the harm principle includes the recognition that it is not the place of politics to legislate morality. This is perhaps one of the important victories — in British politics, at least — of the harm principle in the recognition that merely offending someone does not harm them. That’s not to say that battle is fully won, but the principle moves forward through a number of small victories and it’s interesting that Russell mentions equal marriage as a potential future battle, anticipating what would come over the next decade or more.
Indeed, Russell reveals here views that were perhaps not as mainstream then as they are now, even though it was only fifteen years ago. It’s a reflection of how fast we have moved in some areas but also how he was able to work through the consequences of the principles of liberalism to understand that certain issues needn’t be contentious, for instance the simple belief that it’s not for the state to proscribe what a family is or isn’t but just to accept that those who believe they are a family, are a family. That simple principle that individuals who are harming no one else should be free to live their lives how they see fit is at the core of liberalism because it builds from the earliest principles of it. It says that there is a definite limit to all power, that it should not affect the individual without their consent, and that our strength lies in our pluralism and diversity, where the individual’s voice isn’t silenced.
It strikes me that there is one area Russell left out of the book that might reflect the times he wrote it in. Issues of privacy, surveillance and civil liberty were on the political agenda in the 1990s, particularly with the increased prevalence of CCTV as the cost of implementing it fell, but they hadn’t reached the levels they did over the next decade, particularly after September 11th, and that probably explains why he left them out of his account. New Labour had yet to fully reveal its full authoritarian streak in 1999, and the world was still in the last flush of optimism after the end of the Cold War, and the era of the surveillance state appeared to be waning.
Sorry, was just indulging in a spot of nostalgia for an easier time there, but it’s easy to see how an optimist like Russell might have regarded that as a battle that had been won and did not need to be fought again in the pages of his book. This, though, is another battle where authoritarian urges of the state come up against fundamental principles — and perhaps explain why it’s when they’re thought to have given way on issues like this in Government, the Liberal Democrat leadership have faced some of the biggest backlash from the membership, as he may have anticipated when he wrote
Liberalism is what liberal members believe, and that part of their task is to remind Liberal governments of it when they become unduly tempted by power.
Liberal principles say that the state shouldn’t have arbitrary powers over the individual and the individual has the right to live their life free of interference. Again, this is where we see liberal principles intertwining — liberalism wants to limit the power of the state and protect the individual, both of which are threatened by the desires of an over-mighty state to see everything and use that as a basis for control. It becomes a question of where you draw the line on the harm principle and if one can justify actions of restricting liberty because you feel that is the only way to prevent some possible future harm. It’s an ongoing debate, and one I’m not going to pretend to have a definitive answer for, though one liberal principle in any of this would be to question whether these are powers to be used in relation to individuals, groups or entire populations? One can legitimately believe an individual is going to cause harm given the right evidence, but can it ever be justified to monitor a large group or an entire population on a fishing expedition to find that evidence and justification? The liberal principle would say that no it isn’t, that it is giving the state arbitrary powers and establishing the machinery of repression.
This is how liberalism comes to assert the importance of individual liberty. Liberalism recognises that power needs to be controlled and limited, and the ability to do that lies within individuals, which brings us to the quote I started this post with. Liberalism cannot force liberty on to people in the name of creating a free utopia, it can only inform and persuade in the hope they accept it. All power rests on consent, but that must be truly informed consent that can only come with an understanding and acceptance of liberty, not an assumption of it.