Liberty versus Multiculturalism — May 21, 2012

Liberty versus Multiculturalism

Well after the success of my last revision piece I’m going to do another. This is indulgence on my behalf, but to be blatantly honest, it beats writing boring past essay answers over and over again, and I got a lot of feedback and comments on Twitter because of my last post. Honestly, I didn’t expect my revision to fall into a Liberty versus. series, but hey ho!

Today, I’ll take a look at liberal principles and the problems of multiculturalism. As ever, any feedback (and it can be good!) is wanted.

Firstly, let me start with a disclaimer – *I think multiculturalism is a good idea* – bare that in mind, it may get a bit liberal ranty.

“Multiculturalism is a body of thought in political philosophy about the proper way to respond to cultural and religious diversity.” The response of many is that we must give people of a cultural or religious minority “group rights” which protect them from the tyranny of the majority. Will Kymlicka is one such proponent of group rights and takes a “liberal egalitarian” approach to the matter. He argues that by the accident of birth, people are born into minority cultural or religious groups, they make no choice and it is luck that places them in society. As a result, because they fall within a minority it is legitimate to grant them special protections and even to support affirmative action.

Yet this is completely ILLIBERAL. It is illiberal to grant minority groups affirmative action or special conditions solely because they are in the minority, in fact it is illiberal to grant them special rights for any reason. For example, to grant women group rights in selection quotas resulting in all women short-lists; or A-Lists for ethnic minorities adopted by the Conservative Party in the UK are illiberal. It denies the majority, who have done nothing wrong (except be born into the majority) the chance to participate, flying in the face of democracy and liberalism. It also denies voters the chance to actively participate, they are presented with an artificial choice. You simply cannot stick the word positive in front of discrimination and think that everything is rosy.

So where do we go from there?

Iris Young argues that universal citizenship cannot be sustained in a plural society. Plurality means that people are going to be different, therefore giving everybody equal rights undermines the rights of some groups.

Universality means:

i)                    Equal participation

ii)                  Leaves behind particularity and denies differences

iii)                 Indifferent treatment, law denies the needs of certain groups

Treating people who are different exactly the same is intolerant. Equality (wrongly) dominates difference. Surely we don’t want to live in an intolerant society whereby we treat people of different cultures exactly the same? Or do we…

We can break society down into the public and the private sphere. The public sphere is where Government operates, it tells you how much tax to pay, how long you have to go to school for etc. The private sphere is where the Government should have no control, for example what you wear, who you marry etc. Would we be a liberal society if we treated everybody the same in the public sphere? I think so. Chandran Kukathas suggests that groups suffer because of the primacy of autonomy under liberalism, but we shouldn’t abandon liberalism. Groups should instead simply remain in the private realm. We should grant the same basic liberties to everybody, no more to some, and no less to others. People should be allowed the freedom of speech, even if you disagree with it. People should be allowed to practice a religion of their choosing, and be allowed to wear religious accessories as they see fit. The ban in France on religious clothing is as illiberal as affirmative action.

We should be happy to celebrate the differences between people, from different opinions we evolve as a society. Multiculturalism is to be encouraged, but we should not be granting special privileges to any group. The Government should act solely in the public sphere and remain outside of the private sphere, and to suggest this is not intolerant as suggested by Iris Young.

Liberty versus Democracy — May 18, 2012

Liberty versus Democracy

Okay guys, a more philosophical post than usual. Definitely more philosophical than my last post about Football! I’m going to use this post as a revision tool for myself more than anything, but as ever I welcome, and want your feedback on my ideas. So here we go…

The title of the post refers to the fact that liberty and democracy are seemingly incompatible.

The two always seemingly go hand in hand, I am a member of the Liberal Democrats, and we in the UK would argue that we live in a Liberal Democracy. So how can the two ideas be so juxtaposed?

“Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote.” ~ Benjamin Franklin

While democracy has to do with the selection of rulers or policies, liberty refers to the freedom to engage in certain behaviours or to hold and express views without governmental interference. For example, the freedom to travel, to practice one’s religious faith, to look at pornography, and to buy and own property are measures of liberty rather than democracy. Democracy is about the ability to participate and have regular, free and open elections. Democracy in the minds of many almost presupposes liberty. We (wrongly) always assume democratic countries to be liberal countries. We have liberal checks and balances on our democratic institutions, based on the liberal thinking of people like John Locke. It is seemingly impossible to separate the two. But it is crucial that we do.

Government, and therefore democracy exists to limit a person’s liberty. Without Government we would exist in the infamous State of Nature. Whichever understanding of the State of Nature you take, be it Hobbesian, Lockean or Rousseau’s, life eventually sucks. Government is formed to protect the lives of its citizens, be it absolute government (a la Hobbes) or representative (a la Locke). The point is, people have to give up some of their liberty to have protection by the state. Which leads me straight into (brilliant) quote #1

“Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both. He who gives up freedom for safety deserves neither” – Benjamin Franklin.

We see a worrying trend of this happening in the UK and the USA. Be it the Patriot Act across the pond, or Terrorist Laws and snooping here in the UK. Democracy is curtailing liberty. It is the empirical slippery slope argument, will we ever get these rights back? Hell no. The Government will only further creep into our lives and erode our civil liberties in the name of security.

“A democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where fifty-one percent of the people may take away the rights of the other forty-nine.” – Thomas Jefferson

Here’s an explanation on what we mean, from a great article on the subject by Christina Annsley:

Democracy actively contradicts liberty. If 51% of the population voted to ban alcohol that is dictating to 49% what they can or can’t do with their own body. Likewise if 51% voted for more taxation; the 49% are forced to comply under a democratic system. Democracy is preferable to dictatorship purely because it is less likely that a significant mass of people will vote for insane policies; however, to those not in the majority, it is dictatorship all the same. For those who object to their legal right to do what they will with their own body and property being taken away from them, it won’t matter WHO banned alcohol or raised taxation, be it a majority of the population, a hereditary monarch, or an authoritarian dictator. It is essentially a collectivist system, ignoring the rights of the individual and prioritising the “public good”.

Democracy flies totally in the face of Mill’s Liberty Principle.

“In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence, is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.”

Government and democracy take a paternalistic role over its citizens. They claim to know what is best for their citizens, be it compulsory education, mandatory bank holidays, plain packaging of cigarettes or minimum pricing on alcohol. Paternalism as Mill understands it involves coercing someone against his will or without his consent, but any constitutional provisions, democratic or otherwise, will set the procedures within which consent operates and so will be to a large extent imposed on the citizenry without their consent. As Kant argued: “Paternalism is the greatest despotism imaginable.” Why? Because paternalism presupposes an Aristotelian good life. It presupposes that the State does in fact know what is best for its citizens. How can this be true? There are no universal rights and wrongs, the idea of right is subjective. Just because I believe X doesn’t mean that another person has to agree that X is also right. Paternalism makes people lazy and docile, they accept what they are told, without ever challenging what they are being told.

This gives me a great chance to use my favourite quote:

“If freedom means anything it must surely include the freedom to engage in activities which others may consider unwise. This includes smoking, overeating, not exercising, driving “off road” cars in cities, even winning goldfish. A Liberal society is one where people should be free to make their own mistakes.” – David Laws

I’m no fan of Ayn Rand, but this sums up the argument superbly:

“Individual rights are not subject to a public vote; a majority has no right to vote away the rights of a minority; the political function of rights is precisely to protect minorities from oppression by majorities – and the smallest minority on earth is the individual.”

It is high time that we stand up for liberty, and ensure that no further rights are curtailed in the name of democracy.