LETTER: Liberalism is about individual rights
Social democrats tend to devalue the rights of individuals in favour of the ‘public interest’
Merle Lipton’s letter refers (“Liberalism should not just be about individual rights”, January 17). Individual rights are precisely what liberalism is about. What Lipton suggests is to abandon liberalism for social democracy.
Many in SA and elsewhere are wedded to being called “liberal” despite not sharing the values of liberalism. Lipton reveals her hand when she writes about the ostensibly good history of “liberal social democrats” campaigning against wealth inequality. However, in that label “liberal” is at best redundant and at worst misleading.
A social democrat and a liberal agree — to greater and lesser degrees — about the dignity and worth of the individual, about the importance of the rule of law and (at least it used to be the case) about the importance of tolerating difference. But a social democrat and a liberal are not the same thing.
A liberal believes that the recognition and protection of the liberty of the individual must be the highest political objective in society, without competition. When one speaks of the “public interest”, or the “common” or “greater good”, as a liberal one is here referring to individual liberty as the over-arching guarantor of the greater good. In any society where government does not respect the individual and their sphere of free action, any other sincere ideas about the public interest soon follow into the trash can, to be replaced by the interests of the political elite.
What is meant by individual liberty? The freedom of every adult person to do whatever they wish, however they wish, wherever they wish, whenever they wish, so long as they do not uninvitedly interfere with this exact same freedom of all others.
This is what is often referred to as a “negative” conception of freedom, which means government must simply omit to deprive someone of their rights, as opposed to a “positive” conception of freedom (often supported by social democrats), meaning government must empower individuals to enjoy their freedom. But the negative versus positive dichotomy is misleading because of the loaded nature of the words “negative” and “positive” — Lipton’s use of the term “positive liberalism” necessarily sounds nice, as opposed to the nasty-sounding “negative liberalism”.
A better way to conceive of individual liberty is that it concerns “allowance”. Social democrats (“positive liberals”), on the other hand, conceive of freedom as concerning “ability”.
A liberal qua liberal is not concerned with ability. This is not because we are heartless but because liberals have long recognised that when government attempts to enable, it necessarily disallows in the process. In other words, the social democratic approach to freedom is an approach that necessarily involves the deprivation of individual liberty.
The liberal approach, on the other hand, deprives nobody of their freedom but does not deploy government as a charity. Private charity, which Lipton dismisses, is the preference of liberals, because that is in the final analysis the only method, outside the intensely liberating force of free market capitalism, that can assist the vulnerable without the destruction of the foundations of liberty upon which prosperity necessarily rests.
Allowance, as opposed to ability, is concerned with the role of coercion, not circumstance. The liberal asks whether someone is allowed to do something, not whether they are able to do it. If they are allowed — in other words, government, or private parties, will not employ violence to stop them or punish them for doing that thing — then they are free. They might be unable to do it, given a variety of unknowable circumstances that affect every individual differently, but that does not mean they do not live in a free society.
In SA, the focus is on poverty (never mind the distracting obsession with so-called “inequality”), but ability is influenced by a host of factors. Financial circumstances, personality traits, local cultural forces, familial responsibilities, birth defects, crippling accidents and so on could all mean one is more or less able to enjoy freedom. The moment one asks the government to alleviate these circumstances, immediately one’s financial freedom, cultural freedom and family rights are tossed aside. One then also opens the door to collective punishment, the antithesis of the rule of law.
This is why liberals prefer community and charitable solutions that arise peacefully from below, rather than the coercive redistributionism that is imposed from above. This is where liberalism’s authentic democratic nature shines, as opposed to the faux “democracy” of marching to the tune of parliamentarians, academic central planners and cultural influencers.
Liberals tend to put their money where their mouths are when it comes to charity. The Institute of Race Relations (IRR) has funded thousands of bursaries since 1935, one of the few entities to do so without regard to race at the height of apartheid. Since 2013 the Free Market Foundation’s Khaya Lam project has greased the wheels of getting title deeds (and thus recognised property ownership) into the hands of indigent South Africans. The Solidarity Movement, which would balk at being described as liberal but nonetheless subscribes to a liberal politics, is filled to the brim with charitable and community-based initiatives that do not rely on a cent of public money.
Social democrats, on the other hand, spend all their time trying to burden taxpayers more than they already are — all in the name of “social justice”, of course. Lipton does not beat around the bush on this, attempting to reconcile tax increases and liberalism in an SA where public money is misspent and looted while taxpayers scramble to protect what little they have offshore or in assets.
The monumental welfare state that disincentives growth and innovation crowds out most private and community charity. A cursory glance at history shows that with the rise of big government came a reduction in voluntary societies, mutual aid schemes and other social services provided by communities and churches.
Herein lies the main difference between social democrats and liberals: social democrats reject the free market, and while they are not opposed to the institution of private property, they regard it as just one among many institutions that can be manipulated and distorted in the pursuance of government programmes when it is deemed expedient.
Liberals (qua liberals), who prize individual liberty above all else, value property rights (the rights, not the property) as perhaps the most important guarantee of freedom. The free market is a natural consequence of an environment where civil liberty and private property are truly respected. And progress and prosperity are, without exception, characteristics of a free market society, as we are shown year upon year by indices of economic freedom.
Lipton implicitly argues that while she and other social democrats care about classic liberal concerns, they additionally care about redress and redistribution so as to enable the poor to thrive. What Lipton ignores is that the programmes social democrats tend to support under the banner of redress and redistribution themselves eliminate the liberal foundations they also claim to care about.
A truly liberal programme of redress would involve the return of ill-gotten property to its rightful owners, and an intense privatisation and deregulation drive to ensure low-skilled and unemployed South Africans also get access to economic opportunities. It would not involve confiscating wealth and property and dishing it out, or placing artificial, politically expedient restrictions on economic activity.
In 28 years of social democracy we have seen exactly what fruits Lipton’s preferred economic programme yields: unemployment, incentives for corruption and rolling blackouts, among others. Let us instead take our cue from history, and even our present experience, which shows beyond any doubt that freer (more liberal) markets, with fewer political barriers, tend to produce more prosperity.
Martin van Staden
Curator, Encyclopaedia of SA Liberalism; member of council, Institute of Race Relations
JOIN THE DISCUSSION: Send us an email with your comments to email@example.com. Letters of more than 300 words will be edited for length. Anonymous correspondence will not be published. Writers should include a daytime telephone number.
Would you like to comment on this article?
Sign up (it's quick and free) or sign in now.
Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.