Why I am not a Liberal

Sam Bowman has written a good piece arguing that many people who self-identify as ‘centrists’ are actually liberals, and as such should more assertively defend liberal values. At a time when ideological labels are regularly thrown around in a loose and confused manner, it is refreshing to see someone draw the political dividing lines so clearly and vividly. For my own part, I would say I am neither centrist nor liberal, but rather centre-left and social democrat. But Bowman’s article helps elucidate what exactly this means, and where and why we agree or disagree. This, in turn, reveals the relatively significant overlap in our views, and the places where liberals and social democrats (of my particular idiosyncratic stripe) might be able to make common cause.

Bowman begins by distinguishing liberalism from “ideologies that see human affairs as zero-sum – if you’re doing well, I’m not”. I think I’m on the middle on this one. I don’t doubt that there are lots of ‘win-win’ issues and policies, like freer trade for example. However, I do think that there are plenty of circumstances that are zero-sum. Economic policy is not just about efficiency, but also about allocating the surplus – that’s why I favour a minimum wage and strengthening unions. I think this applies on an individual level, too. It is transparently clear to me that every pound I spend on myself is a pound that could be donated to effective charities to help the poor. As I’ve written before, I think that if these altruistic attitudes were widely enough shared, that would lead naturally to socialism. By contrast, I suspect Bowman’s liberalism is more content to take individualistic preferences for granted.

In terms of positive commitments, Bowman identifies two fundamental values of liberalism. The first is moral egalitarianism: “that we must weigh everyone’s interests equally, regardless of anything else about them”. On  this score, I am in perfect agreement with Bowman. “Everybody to count for one, nobody for more than one” is perhaps the deepest bedrock moral principle I have. I even agree with Bowman’s insistence that this means not prioritising the welfare of compatriots over foreigners, though I wonder if a definition of liberalism that excludes John Rawls is too strict. There is also a danger that moral egalitarianism can be defined in very different, mutually contradictory, ways. As stated, Bowman’s principle is consistent with consequentialist sacrifice of one for the many, and at the same time anti-consequentialist theories that insist on the separateness of persons.

Bowman’s second principle is anti-paternalism: that each person may decide what is good for themselves. It is here that we differ most clearly. I don’t think that freedom has any intrinsic value. Rather, I think people are fairly regularly mistaken about what is in their best interests. For example, I suspect that they tend to over-prioritise material goods over experiences and personal consumption over pro-social activities. I think that people suffer from cognitive biases that mean they often fail to execute on their reflective preferences. Hence policies to reduce smoking, drinking and unhealthy diets. I think in many cases people don’t want the burden of making decisions for themselves – as I argued in relation to food regulations. Most fundamentally, I don’t think we should take preferences at face value, but rather understand the social conditions and pressures that give rise to those preferences, and whether they support welfare. For instance, the fact women choose to undergo radical cosmetic surgery or wear high heels is not enough to render those practices acceptable, and beyond the reach of politics.

This doesn’t mean I think anything goes as far as paternalism is concerned. For one thing, people often dislike being told what to do (to say the least). For another, we have to be very confident that a paternalistic measure does make most people better off, and that is a considerable informational challenge. But where Bowman and I differ is that I think the idea that a person knows what is in their interests is only a defeasible presumption, whereas he raises it to the level of an axiom.

Despite the fact that I am not a liberal, I would broadly endorse Bowman’s political agenda. I think even where we do disagree, these disagreements are often empirical and so amenable to evidence-based debate, rather than fundamentally incommensurable values. In some ways this overlap shows the limitations of hard-and-fast ideological definitions. Yet it also shows how and why we do disagree.


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