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Posted by on Feb 27, 2013 in Culture, Politics | 14 comments

Challenges to liberalism

In the light of the previous post and resulting thread, let’s have some open discussion of the problems for individual liberty in the West. What ideologies or concepts stand most in the way of competent people (mature adults and sufficiently mature minors) being able to live and express themselves as they see fit? Set aside issues to do with poverty (an important problem in its own right, and one that certainly restricts people, but not what I’m getting at here). I mean your ability to say what you want, however you want to express it, and essentially to do what you want… all within the limitations of your economic resources and the restriction of the harm principle.

Is the biggest problem the coercive power of the state – which is often used, in current times, to restrict freedom of speech, impose paternalistic requirements, and so on? Or is it social pressure of one kind or another, whether from the relatively silent but often censorious majority, or from articulate minorities that are able, one way or another, to exert power to restrict us as individuals? Is it from powerful non-state institutions such as business corporations or religious organisations? Or some combination of these?

Have we moved backwards or forwards during, say, the lifetime of an average baby boomer (i.e. about the last 50 to 60 years)? Or is it a mixed bag? How much do you think this differs from country to country, or perhaps between the US and other Western countries with more social democratic assumptions?

All of these aspects are up for debate. These sorts of questions form the sub-text of much of what I’ve been writing about lately, and if you go back you’ll find it’s the sub-text of much that I’ve been writing about over the past seven years that this blog has been going in one incarnation or another. It is certainly a large theme in one of my forthcoming books (i.e. Humanity Enhanced). So let’s discuss it explicitly with whatever examples you like.

  • RussellBlackford

    Though when I say “whatever examples you like” I’m thinking more of German laws forbidding Holocaust denial, or the hostile reception of Peter Singer in Germany; or the draconian Italian laws re assisted reproduction; or the frequent bans worldwide on reproductive cloning; or censorship regimes of various kinds; or anti-abortion activism in the US; or … well, on and on and on. There are very many examples relating to liberal democracies all over the world. But can we please not talk about the topic of invitations to chat over coffee made in hotel elevators in Ireland? It’s a topic that produces flame wars, and it’s been thrashed to death elsewhere.

    I’m still trying to maintain an Elevatorgate-free zone, though it’s getting difficult to avoid issues that are at least somewhat related as more and more issues of interest get sucked into that whole mess. Just bear in mind that I’m trying to have rational, civil discussion of matters of general philosophical and political interest, and to keep away from topical atheist blogosphere drama as much as I can.

    In particular, try not to denigrate individuals personally – not even (or perhaps especially not) individuals against whom I’m known, or believed, to have some kind of grievance. That isn’t what this post is meant to be about.
    As you were!

  • I’d say in terms of what are the biggest social forces that stand in the way of individual liberty, certainly excesses of state power are a big one, though obviously it varies from country to country. If you’re in somewhere like North Korea, the power of the totalitarian state is overwhelming. In Russia, not quite as much, but will still come down with an iron hand on dissenters (see Pussy Riot). In the democratic West, obviously we don’t suffer from quite the iron hand more authoritarian and totalitarian regimes do. However, even in the US, if you somehow fell on the wrong side of the national security state, you could be quite literally end up being “disappeared”, tortured, or killed. And even highly democratic countries like the Nordic ones suffer from a high degree of paternalism, and won’t think twice about muzzling people in the name of a pet ideology like state feminism.

    Unlike many classical liberals, I would also count powerful non-state actors as among those who constrain individual freedoms. Powerful corporations and other wealthy entities have access to influence that belie the idea of “one person, one vote”, and more importantly, the kind of economic inequality such entities tend to engender represent huge constraints on actual operational liberty exercised by the “99%”.

    I would also add racial, gender, and other inequality to the list of things that to varying degrees constrain operational freedoms for those in affected groups.

    Conversely, in terms of ideological challenges to liberalism, I would say the most powerful illiberal ideologies in liberal societies are those that claim that racial, gender, etc and maybe economic inequality are the only real forms of oppression, and that abuse of state power is a non-issue, and perhaps even sees expanded state power and various forms of paternalism as positive solutions. One sees a lot of this mentality among ostensible “social justice” advocates, unfortunately.

  • Vic

    I have begun writing long rants twice now and stopped because it got out of hand. So there’s a risk there a lot of confused convolution in my brain now.

    It’s just such a very interesting topic and connected to so much, especially tribalism and othering (“you can say what you want, as long as you agree with us”) and how politics work in general.

    I don’t think we moved back. I think certain things are less liberal now than 50 years ago or were sometime in the between, and other things are more liberal. Depending on what concerns a person, one might have the impression that it got more illiberal and at the same time somebody else will have the impression the West got more liberal.

    If one would ask me for a summary statement, I’d say: I think western society has become more liberal in general.

    So, if somebody has a unpopular opinion today: Is it difficult to get political influence? Yes. Is it difficult to get media coverage? Yes. Does that mean there is disregard or oppression of your opinion? Is it?

    And is that different from 50 years ago? What did a homosexual face 50 years ago? What a communist in the McCarthy area? Today, also thanks to the internet, minority opinions can reach quite a lot of readership.

    I think there is a perception problem. People who are disappointed that the majority does not hold their views are quick to accuse society in general of wrongdoings or of seeing a conspiracy.

    The question how widespread these ideals of liberty are. Generally one would think that they are very widespread in the west. But I think that’s a slight misconception. Because we think freedom of speech is “everywhere” we don’t take it serious when somebody claims to have been policed. We dont think we have to support freedom of speech because we like it so much, and because we like it so much everybody else likes it too. This leaves us open for exploitation, just like our trust in science leaves us vulnerable for fraud which wears a scientific cloak.

    I want to paraphrase Howard Bloom: We like our Western humanist liberalism so much, we are puzzled when we meet people for whom the burning of a book is worse than the burning of a person.

    Likewise, there are influences from the inside. Feminism was mentioned in the other thread and I say that as somebody who, if he talked to his self from 10 years ago, would have thought of his present self as a loony conspiracy theorist: There are some very strange branches which have sprouted from feminism or other ideologies which are commonly held in high regard.

    And these partially are enabled by our new sense of “goodness”, partially by laziness. There’s a gigantic poisoning of all wells going on in the name of very idealistic goals and a turning of blind eyes.

    We have seen this in the thread about sex workers’ rights and how the
    powerful feminist organisations try to shove sex workers themselves out of the way.

    This shows parallels to e.g. the right-wing trying to push security and observation laws on behalf of the fight against terrorism.

    If you are able to sell your cause as a cause for good, because people are very motivated for goodness, you are able to dodge past much of people’s skepticism. “We protect you against immigrants! Believe us!” – “We promote women’s equality! Believe us!”.

    There was also the very interesting discussion about science denial on
    the left here on skeptic ink. There were several topics, nuclear energy, global warming, creationism etc.
    It’s not unique to the “right” as I’m afraid to say (I write from the perspective of a leftist, so).

    My suggestion is to use the tools of science, skepticism, objectivity and rationality regardless of the issue. No leniency. This takes, of course, effort. It is just much more comfortable to act on ideological grounds.

    On the one side I think seeing the issue through the filters of left and right is wrong and useless. On the other hand, based on personal experience, there is a slight difference in attitude. Or still is, while being chipped away in the name of collective guilt and collective responisbility of an individual’s wrongdoing (“One racist remark makes us all more racist! One sexist remark makes the whole of society more sexist!”). Ackknowledging that as, at least, head-scratchingly worrisome does not weaken your positions if you have good arguments for them.

    But back to attitude. I have, on skeptic-ink, several times identified as a communist. Yet I never got accused of mass murder. 😉
    I have also written comments which were not “typically liberal”, mostly concerning modern feminism. Yet still responses have been very civil, despite this being, I dare say so, a “liberal space”.

    I think this shows that people who feel committed to tolerance and freedom of speech can guarantee and provide these freedoms without much problem. The promotion of these, together with promotion of objectivity and science, should be a valubale agenda which serves all ideals regardless of ideological origin.

  • SmilodonsRetreat

    I think that one of the biggest issues (at least in the US) is the inability of many US citizens to own up and take responsibility for their actions and words.

    The reason I think this is because, when you give people freedom to do what they want, (at least around here) you get cock fights, drunk driving, more firearms than people, kids ignoring education in favor of making $20,000 a weekend selling drugs, etc.

    I’m not saying that individual liberty should be stopped because of things like this, but I don’t think we’ll ever have a society like the Culture novels, because, as a society, we just can’t handle the pressure of personal freedom. Maybe Loki in the Avengers was right. Freedom can be a curse.

    Of course, this could be my natural cynical nature and the allergy meds too.

  • RussellBlackford

    The thing is, steps could be taken to deal with at least some, maybe all, of those specifics within Millian principles. E.g. we’d normally not think it a problem to stop cruelty to animals. Kids are not the same as mature minors or adults, and we could legalise/regulate drugs in a way that recognised this. Drunk driving falls creates imminent risks of physical harm to others and falls well within the harm principle. And if there’s a strong enough nexus between unregulated firearms markets and downstream harms, then we’re entitled on Millian principles to regulate firearms markets.

    So it’s not as if applying Millian principles means that “anything goes”. We do, however, need to test whether particular laws can be justified against those principles or not. There seem to be a lot of laws based on paternalism (toward adults), moralism, very remote harms, etc., and more aimed at dislike of the behaviour than empirical evidence that there will be significant ordinary harms to non-consenting parties unless the behaviour is banned or regulated in a very hostile manner.

    I guess a point to be made here is that: “~(Anything goes)” does not entail abandoning liberal conceptions and principles as to what “goes” and what doesn’t.

  • Colin Gavaghan

    I’d say one – though by no means the only – challenge has come from the resurgence in paternalistic arguments, often in the guise of public health campaigns that involve attempts to change the law. For quite a few public health experts, that fact that Act X causes Adverse Health Outcome Y is, in itself, reason enough to ban or restrict Act X. Millian considerations are entirely alien to such people.

  • RussellBlackford

    That’s an important point, Colin. And there’s a moralistic side to this – i.e. the pleasures obtained from Act X simply get discounted for the purpose of public policy, as if those pleasures are somehow tainted and worthless. If we did a proper utilitarian analysis (if that is even a coherent idea), we might obtain a very different result.

  • Cass Sunstein recently put out an article touching on these themes, arguing in a small way against Mill.

    I’d be interested to hear everyone’s thoughts on it if you happen to read it.

  • Colin Gavaghan

    That’s an interesting article, and I think Sunstein makes some valid points. I’m not so wedded to the Millian paradigm that I would never even consider a minor infringement of short-term autonomy that would probably yield a large long-term gain (and neither, I think, is Russell). But, as Sunstein acknowledges, there is a real danger that researchers or legislators will discount the short-term pleasure that some people derive from risky eating, drinking, sexual or other activities, particularly if they are pleasures with which they cannot readily identify.

    This is what bothers me about some of the ‘public health ethics’ stuff; they don’t even seem to perceive the need to make a case that the health benefits outweigh the lost pleasure, the latter simply doesn’t go onto the moral scales at all.

  • I think your phrase “if they are pleasures with which they cannot readily identify” is spot on, and is in my mind one of the main, if not THE main contributor to misguided “benign-intentions-paternalism”.

    It reminds me of something Christopher Hitchens said. During one of his cancer interviews he was asked if, now knowing the outcome, he’d live his life the same way if he had it all to do over. He hedged saying he might have stopped slightly earlier hoping to cheat out a few more years, but in effect, no. The bohemian life is the one he chose, and for him, the outcome was a shorter life. He phrased it as “All of life is a wager.”

    This seems to me to be a perfect case for freedom of choice even when those choices shorten our life. Yet such choices seem to be the very first thing benign paternalists would seek to ban.

  • I’m not sure about the biggest challenges to liberalism, but one that has been worrying me is the attacks on liberalism from self-proclaimed liberals.

    Take the Liam Stacey case in the UK for instance. He went to prison for a month or so on account of the content of his drunken Twitter activity one evening. Unlike with the Twitter Joke Trial, I witnessed only a small minority of UK liberals disagreeing with the judgement against Stacey. If you disagreed with the verdict, you were seen as supporting racism, etc.

    Those who did support the verdict were of course entitled to their opinion, but they didn’t seem to think that free speech considerations were even relevant, and it was quite acceptable to them for someone to be imprisoned for something they said.

    I see that as a big challenge. Liberals are forgetting just how central free speech is to liberalism, and that’s worrying to me.

  • RussellBlackford

    Yes, agreed. This does seem to be a case of supposed liberals forgetting their liberal heritage.
    Jailing someone, even for one day, is an extreme use of coercive power; jailing someone merely for something that they say is always going to be highly problematic. Even if some kind of argument can be put for it in a particular case, it should be with expressions of reluctance and a lot of caveats.

  • The issue of VERY downstream harms is my big issue with the anti-porn movement, and similar movements to ban certain kinds of video games, TV programs, movies, etc. I never cease to be amazed at how often “pornography affects men’s attitudes toward women!” is floated as as a serious argument. And, of course, if that your bar for potential state intervention toward media is simply having “an effect”, you’re pretty much on a collision course with the entire idea of free speech, since speech and expression in general have effects, and nobody is claiming otherwise.

    The point is that no form of speech or media, including pornography and violent video games, has been found to have any kind of consistent “X causes Y” influence on behavior, but rather, behavioral outcomes are the sum total of many influences, many of them not very proximate to the behavioral outcome. Hence, from a utilitarian harm principal, the tradeoffs in loss of individual autonomy, pleasure, etc from having the right to view something taken away are not well counterbalanced by sufficient net positive behavioral outcomes that would represent a redeeming good. (And that’s leaving aside the question of the overall rightness of sacrificing an individuals autonomy for the good of the many.) Especially given that other inputs from positive socialization and education can have a huge effect on later behavioral outcomes from media exposure.

  • Dave Kendall

    To me repression by the state is more of an issue than anything from culture. It’s a bad thing when someone feels pressured by society to do something they don’t want to, but it doesn’t compare with arrest, trial and incarceration. Authoritarian activist groups aren’t generally just trying to convince people to change their ways, they’re fighting for new laws that censor and criminalise.

    I don’t completely reject the idea of the state restricting personal freedoms. I think only the most extreme libertarians would argue that there are no circumstances at all where individual choices should be curtailed to protect other people. What I view as unacceptably authoritarian is when legislation is not supported by solid evidence of its benefits, especially when there is solid evidence that it’ll cause harm. In my opinion the standard of evidence to be met before restrictions are put in place should be a lot higher than it generally is.

    Looking at Britain, things have certainly improved since 50 years ago. Back then gay rights campaigners were still fighting for the decriminalisation of “homosexual acts”. But during the last decade or so I think things have definitely gone backwards, especially when it comes to free speech and tolerance of the sex industry.

    A couple of the recent examples I mentioned under the previous post were the UK’s 2008 criminalisation of “extreme porn” possession, and the ongoing feminist campaign against sex shops and strip clubs.

    Like the proposed legislation in Iceland, the UK’s “extreme porn” criminalisation was hailed as necessary and progressive by many secular people. It was portrayed as only targeting sick and twisted abusers, with those who thought otherwise dismissed as using a slippery slope fallacy. It was treated as common sense that this would reduce rape and violence against women and children, despite the lack of any hard evidence for that claim. You’d have to be on the side of the misogynistic perverts to oppose it…

    I think the only feminist piece I saw that even acknowledged the potential for collateral damage saw that as a feature rather than a bug:

    Five years on and many of the thousands of prosecutions for extreme porn possession have been for photos of consensual adults performing legal sex acts. Despite the law supposedly being about protecting women, some gay right activists have argued that gay man have been disproportionately targeted.

    In most cases people have pled guilty to avoid a trial and possible prison sentence. Barrister Simon Walsh was an exception, and as a public figure who fought against the charges, his story is one of the few to receive media attention:

    While he won his case, he still lost his job and had his life turned upside down. To me that’s a clear case of harm being caused, and can’t be justified by the vague promise that criminalising certain images will reduce crime.

    As for the feminist campaign against sex shops and strip clubs, the main evidence supporting the idea that they increased rape in their vicinity has been thoroughly debunked:

    Yet those bogus statistics are still being quoted by feminist organisations, and are still credulously repeated as “facts” in the press. People who argue against a ban on strip clubs are still attacked as not caring about women being raped.

    Again, there are clear examples of this causing direct harm, and again I think authoritarians fail to make a compelling case that their policy is a lesser evil. People losing their jobs during a recession is bad enough, and as pointed out in this article (by a C of E vicar in support of protesting sex workers), there’s evidence that pushing the sex industry underground can make it more dangerous:

    Even sticking with porn and the sex industry in Britain there are plenty of other examples of new restrictions and campaigns from the last decade. Add things other people have mentioned, like the Twitter joke trail and other arrests for offensive speech, and I think there’s a clear case that we’re less free than we used to be.

    While in the past these campaigns were generally run by conservative Christians like Mary Whitehouse (and had little success), these days they’re generally pushed by the left, especially mainstream feminists. Rather than legislation being pushed on moralistic grounds, it’s portrayed as progressive, and aimed at protecting the rights of vulnerable women and children. This is much more effective than Bible bashing in relatively secular European countries.