I am taking time out today to familiarise myself with the Liberal Democrat manifesto, in preparation for a podcast later. One of the things that bothers me as a reader of all the manifestos, from the point of view of someone unused to Westminster’s interfering ways, is how they deal with everything. And in this micro-policy blizzard it is hard to really tell one party from another: tell me, honestly, that reading this list of things the Conservatives intend to do for Universities, that they could not have come from Labour or the Lib Dems as well. That does not mean they are bad; just politically squidgy.
I agree with a more experienced colleague, however, that having a short important-issues-only manifesto looks cheap (or like a single issue nutter). According to the Vote Now show of 12th April (about 6 minutes in), the Greens included in a speech on their tax policy “restore the 10p tax band, and so on“. Yeah, tax policy, easy.
So you have to show where you stand on a lot of different things if you aspire to be in government. Fair enough; once in government, you end up being blamed for them all, after all. The LibDems make this policy blizzard more apparent by having a handy index to their manifesto, which stretches from Adult Learning Grant and Dartford Crossing to Tuberculosis and Zero Carbon Britain.
And in there is Airbrushing. A single sentence: “Help protect children and young people from developing negative body images by regulating airbrushing in adverts”. Liberal Vision have taken issue with this ‘maternalism’. Libertarian Tom writes:
Even if it is true that the existence or prominence of [airbrushed] models adversely influences people’s behaviour (which has in no way been proven), it is still not government’s role to protect individuals from their own actions. The state’s role is to protect people from being coerced by other people; to allow the individual the maximum freedom that does not restrict the freedom of others
Now, we have all had that feeling of waking up and worrying that we have not read enough Kant. There is probably even a medical term for it. I am particularly afflicted, because I have read virtually none, despite majoring in Philosophy and even penning an article in an encyclopedia on him (for shame). I have reached that point in Sandel’s Justice where his conception of freedom is brought out. It is the chapter after Libertarianism, which is appropriate, because its major aim is to dispute the notion of human actions in a market being straightforwardly uncoerced. It also deals with utilitarianism. To quote from the book:
“what we commonly think of as market freedom or consumer choice is not true freedom, Kant argues, because it simply involves satisfying desires we haven’t chosen in the first place .. trying to derive moral principles from the desires we happen to have is the wrong way to think about morality. Just because something gives many people pleasure doesn’t make it right”
To paraphrase and simplify horribly, real freedom is choosing ends as well as the means to already given ends. Get a person addicted to burgers, crack or Arsenal Football Club and their choices are no longer ‘free’ in this sense. In this way, Kant provides some underpinnings to Swinson; and other economists over the years, such as Galbraith.
I still remain bugged by such policies of ‘protecting ourselves from our coerced desires’ because of the sheer difficulty of determining where human free will ends. Taken too far and you end up with the sort of miserable view of human nature that can sometimes seem to animate Labour, and also leads to kooky Behavioural Economic policies to make us all want better things. I just don’t like where that leads. You start with something uncontroversial, like warning kids off smoking, and end up with something Orwellian.
Libertarian is a naive creed; the assumption that all actions in a market are uncoerced is just one example of such naivity, the list of which could go on and on. But I still find it a useful as a corrective to other creeds when they go too far. The IEA from its appreciation of Antony Flew alerted me to an article of his criticising Rawls and his views on Justice. I am finding it handy. For example, it argues that Rawls seems to assume that all present and potential property really belongs to the collective and is therefore available for distribution or redistribution, and that he also assumes that all rights enjoyed by an individual either are or ought to be allocated collectively. No doubt this is an exaggeration of Rawls, whose work I don’t know well enough to say. But I am glad to have read the thought.
Great thinkers often occupy polar opposites. It leads actual decisions to be made by careful empiricists. How much freedom DO we have in our consumerist desires? I don’t know the answer.