Shuggy has invited me to disagree with him about what he sees as a decline in the liberties that we enjoy. On the whole, I'm not even sure that I do disagree with Shuggy that much anyway. I just think that it all bothers me a bit less. For instance, Shuggy does a very entertaining line in blogging about things that annoy him. I'm not as good at this as he is, but it doesn't mean that a lot of petty impositions, or misguided centralisation don't bother me either.
One thing is for certain: I can't reply succinctly. Thinking about it, I was tempted to draw up one of those poxy mind-maps, but even that got too complicated.
However, I've got the day off. And I've got stuff to do. So I can reply, but this isn't a fully footnoted essay. More a series of observations that I think are pertinent: Many of them aren't really deeply held convictions, and some of them may even reflect poor research and misunderstandings on my part. The aim here is mainly to provide an impressionistic portrait of the state of our liberties - to show a different perspective on the subject.
Where to start? How about...
1. Our increased ability to reason, learn and develop
Well, in that post, I think Shuggy undersells the increases in 'liberties' that we have come to enjoy in recent years. For instance, we can learn more freely, cheaply, and with less constraint. The Internet is the autodidact's wet-dream-come-true. This is turning into a massive emancipation, I would argue. It makes minor subtractions to our gross liberty look feeble.
Better, more diverse, less conformist content of a social, cultural and educational nature is available at little or no charge, and the situation improves daily. The pre-Internet society had many of the traits of a society that burned books, and these traits are withering before our eyes. The increased speed of innovation is there for all to see and it would be pinching arguments from most liberals to point out just how emancipating this progress can be.
As an aside, this could also be the relativists wet-dream-come-true as well, but this worries me a lot more than it worries most self-styled 'liberals'. As a corollary to that, we can associate and organise in a way that we could only have dreamed of 15 years ago. Communications costs have plummeted. Barriers to entry into some parts of the mass media have evaporated.
None of these liberties, I'd add, are largely the result of political pressure or constitutional change. But in happening, they have changed our relationship with the state decisively in a way that most liberals will surely welcome?
That said, the state has reacted less furiously than I suspect that it would have done in the 1950s - perhaps because we are a lot more of a liberal society now than we were then?
There is also a liberalising agency that the state has performed in recent years. We can travel further. More cheaply. And - if we were more willing to embrace 'projects of the elites' in this country, we Brits would be able to do so without a passport in the way that most EU citizens can.
We can also go to places that are more liberal than they used to be. These liberties are - at least in part - the result of our own muscular liberalism. We - the EEC / EU countries - imposed liberal preconditions upon accession states (from Greece, Portugal and Spain, through to the former eastern-bloc countries). You can now go to east Berlin without being followed, and you can expect a fair trial in Spain when you get lifted holding an eighth. We made them provide these liberties before we let them into the EU.
You can go to many more countries and join the locals in protesting about their governments. You can even recruit the locals to campaign against your own as well if you want to. Which brings me to...
2. A right to participate in government
As I've observed, we can now work, trade, invest, and park our money elsewhere with a great deal more ease. But not all of these 'liberties' have a objectively liberal outcome, in that they often remove options from the majority in order to protect the privileges of the rich minority.
One of the greatest liberties that we enjoy is the liberty to participate in the social contract and to shape it.
For example, I would also like to vote for a government that would implement a greater tax-and-spend programme than the current one does. It would be in the short-term interests of most people I suspect, so it may be popular. But no viable option of this kind exists because the liberty that the wealthiest fraction of the population enjoy to keep their finances opaque curtails my electoral options here.
The social contract makes it possible for the wealthy to become more wealthy than they would be able to in Hobbes' 'state of nature', yet 'libertarians' have a curious knack of forgetting this when the other contractors ask for their facilitation fee (taxes).
I'd like to vote for a government that would shift taxation decisively away from indirect taxes (VAT, etc) and onto direct taxes (income taxes, etc). I can't do this because our government signed a multilateral treaty many years ago that effectively trumps the outcome of the next election. EU states can't compete on indirect taxation, I believe? So international treaties curtail my liberties.
All of that said, in both cases, I recognise that I enjoy benefits that arise of out of the withdrawal of these liberties. I understand that the open society results in more creativity and higher productivity. I understand that long-term international treaties enable us all to plan, and reduce the damage caused by footloose capital. And for these reasons, my concerns here are very lightly held.
Shuggy raises the withdrawal of our rights to protest as evidence that our liberties have been reduced. As I've said before, I'm not convinced that rights to protest give us much more than a symbolic freedom that actually clouds our understanding of what liberties really are. This brings me to...
3. A system of government that is inclined to result in social liberalism
Then there is the question of 'liberalism' in it's many meanings. I think that Shuggy and I have a similar, fairly limp-wristed, social liberalism.
We don't want people executed (with obvious exceptions). We don't want the police to be allowed to torture suspects and we want punitive sanctions to be geared towards rehabilitation. We want a state-funded open hand extended to the widow and a collective light shown to the child. We understand that the beggar doesn't really have the liberty to dine on caviar.
We don't like over-testing in schools or national curricula (?) and we acknowledge that any warmth that we feel towards corporal punishment (and we both do, I'm sure) is largely atavistic. I suspect that we are both, deep down, Guardian readers - no matter how much we fight it.
I think that my liberties are best guarded by people that I can elect. People who don't have too many unelected and powerful rivals that are beyond my control.
So I want the people that I elect to apply their distributed moral wisdom to legislate. All of my experience of politics has taught me that genuinely empowered elected representatives of the centre-left to the centre-right tend to (in aggregate) support the kind of liberal limp-wristedness that I do, and that as democracy gets more direct, that the outcomes are likely to be more illiberal. I fleshed this out here a while ago (in response, as it happens, to a post of Shuggy's).
In short, I want to see a policy-making mechanism that results in a more liberal settlement than we have at the moment - and I really haven't seen another blogger arguing this yet - nor have I found these arguments being criticised (er... yet!). So, finally, is my position broadly illiberal?
4. The essential pre-conditions for libertarian socialism
I also would like to see a greater level of political decentralisation, This would result in more liberal outcomes (both of the limp-wristed variety and the anti-statist one). Here's my back-of-a-fag-packet plan to bring this about soonish.
And I think that the state should be more active in promoting co-operative and mutualist solutions to social problems than it does. As such (decentralisation, Euro-federalism, mutualisation) I don't think I would have a problem in describing my position as being that of a libertarian socialist.
In short, Shuggy, I'm not going to push the envelope and claim that I'm actually *more* objectively liberal than you are.... but it must make you wonder, eh? ;-)