Lazy rascals, spending their substance, and more, in riotous living

Liberalism: threat or menace?

Why shouldn’t we call out Lib Dem “betrayal”? Because they haven’t betrayed anyone. To think that they have reinforces the mistaken belief that, when they describe themselves as “progressive,” they mean “left.” But Lib Dem progressivism isn’t just a fluffy sort of not quite socialism, it’s a specifically liberal version of progressivism.

Consider, for example, welfare provision. The issue here is not simply one of more or less state support, but about how that support is provided. Conservatives don’t actually want (too many) people starving in the street; but they do want those who receive state support to be directly disciplined, probably by highly moralizing institutions (hence the conservative support for certain kinds of religious charity). Liberal welfare provision, on the other hand, requires that the recipients be disciplined by the amorphous institutions of the market. Thus raising the tax threshold is an eminently liberal policy, an attempt to improve the position of the poor by embedding them further in market mechanisms, not by limiting the influence of the market. In this context, Lib Dem skepticism about tax credits is rather baffling; perhaps the best example of a liberal welfare policy is Milton Friedman’s suggestion of a guaranteed minimum income, that is, a universal tax credit.

So a lot of what those of us on the left see as dismantling the welfare state may well be a restructuring which, from a liberal point of view, is entirely fair and progressive. The Lib Dem claims to have received concessions from the Tories aren’t desperate spin, they’re true, we just have to understand that what look like Tory policies are sometimes actually concessions to the Lib Dems. What gives the Lib/Con coalition the air of tragedy is that those concessions the Lib Dems have been able to wring from the Tories are of course precisely those that expose the limitations of liberal “fairness,” where the marketization of welfare emphasizes the marketization rather than the welfare. However, the fact that so many people experience the Lib Dem role in the government as a betrayal suggests they have a much more robust sense of what is genuinely progressive and fair than the Lib Dem leadership do.