The essence of liberalism

In The Times this week, Rachel Sylvester wrote of the Liberal Democrats:

For years now, the third party has been a dustbin for protest votes, a “none of the above” rejection of the political elite… What is certain though is that they can no longer just be a protest party. Now that they are in government, they cannot avoid the compromises, and the choices required by power in the way that they once did. It’s no longer possible to face left in the North and tack right in the South. This doesn’t mean that they’re finished but it does mean they need a new identity as power-brokers with a clear set of values they can bring to coalition.

I agree. If the Lib Dems are to prosper as a result of coalition government, they need to establish a clear, distinctive identity, which sets them apart from both the Conservatives and the Labour Party. So here’s a radical idea – why don’t they embrace good, old-fashioned liberalism? Here’s FA Hayek on that subject:

The essence of the liberal position, however, is the denial of all privilege, if privilege is understood in its proper and original meaning of the state granting and protecting rights to some which are not available on equal terms to others.

And this is exactly what I think the Lib Dems should be about – they should be the party that stands for the great mass of individuals, and against the powerful special interests that use the state to advance their own interests.

They should stand against crony capitalism, bank bailouts and the military-industrial complex. They should oppose subsidies, tariffs, and regulations that reduce competition and protect established interests. They should stand up to public sector unions who thwart consumer-driven public service reform. And they should advocate tirelessly for peace, free trade, and individual rights.

Indeed, many Lib Dems would recognize and accept the idea that liberalism is about opposing privilege. The trouble is that they too often forget Hayek’s qualifier – that privilege should be understood as preferential treatment by the state – and instead use ‘privilege’ as a stick with which to beat those who are merely successful. But socialist class war is more or less the antithesis of liberalism, and redistribution is just another way of the state granting some people rights over others.

I used to like Charles Kennedy’s slogan: “Not Left. Not Right. Just Liberal.” Wouldn’t it be marvelous if the current crop of Liberal Democrats had the sense to make that mean something?