What It Means To Be Socially Liberal
If you wanted to ‘explain politics’ to the completely uninitiated, you might be inclined to put it this way:
The left, or liberals, are socially and fiscally liberal.
The right, or conservatives, are socially and fiscally conservative.
Libertarians are socially liberal and fiscally conservative.
There you have it.
The problem with this analysis is not that it is too general, but that it doesn’t actually make sense. It shows us that the popular conversation has shaky principles, and therefore leaves the layman utterly confused. You can’t separate social policy and economic policy. In all the important ways, a person’s social life and economic life are inseparable.
The dichotomy between social and economic implies that people that act in an ‘economic’ manner are not being social. It seems that there is a difference, say, between a group of friends going to the beach and someone opening a business. Yet, is the real difference between them that opening a business isn’t social?
Going to the beach with friends involves group action for mutual benefit, whereby people come together for a shared aim, i.e. enjoying each other’s company and strengthening each other’s friendship. It’s a social act.
In turn, think about what opening a business entails. It means someone offering products and/or services in exchange for money or other good/services, for mutual benefit. This too is a social act.
Both of these require reaching out to our fellow human, and participating in a joint venture that increases the utility of all involved.
This is in contrast to the popular conception of economic activity, that sees the entrepreneur as fundamentally in opposition to everyone they interact with. They compete with other businesses, exploit and underpay their employees, and try to get as much profit as possible out of the hapless consumers. The market economy is described as “dog eat dog”. A cold, calculating and callous way of being that sees humans as mere commodities.
This analysis seems plausible, especially in today’s economy where every market actor’s activity is hampered by the government in some way, thereby imposing greater scarcity. Looking from the inside out, it appears that the average participant in the market is subjected to it, rather than acting within it. Yet, on closer look, it’s an inaccurate perception.
Critics of the market system use the concept of ‘competition’ as a bludgeon, framing it as an artificial imposition that makes enemies out of men. In an important sense, economic activity is ‘competitive’. However, this competition is positive for society. Businesses compete for the favour of consumers.
In the free market, the consumer is king. All the activity of a business is directed towards satisfying the desires of their current and potential customers, for without that, there goes their profit. It is not the case that products are hoisted upon people without their consent, but offered, and from then the consumer can decide whether they want to buy the product or not.
The left sees the entrepreneurial class as holding dominion over the consumers, but what is it actually like in the real world? When you walk into a store, you’re not helpless. In fact, the staff say, “how can I help?”. They are in service to you.
You have the ultimate decision-making power. If you find a product you like, and the price is right, you can buy. If not, you can choose not to. If anything, you’re in charge.
We see this benign form of competition in many areas of our lives. For instance, you will find a number of men compete for the affections of an attractive woman. The lady has only so much love to give, so only one must win. This puts a lot of pressure on the men, but look at the result: each man improves himself with the aim of meeting the woman’s desires. No matter what happens, the woman wins.
What about the employees? A great many workers in this world are being exploited and not being given what they deserve, right?
“Deserve” is in the eye of the beholder, but truthfully, employers make mistakes. Many do not compensate their employers in proportion to their true market value. Nonetheless, all employer-employee relationships are voluntary. If an employee feels that their worth is not being represented in their wage packet, they are free to leave for another company that will pay them appropriately. Or they can seek education and training that will increase their productivity and thereby their market value.
The situation is not coercive (if it is, this isn’t an employer-employee relationship, but a slaveholder-slave relationship). It is in principle, two or more people participating in an exchange. One side is offering money and perhaps other benefits, and the other is offering labour. They both enter the relationship because they perceive that they will benefit by it.
Finally, in the free market, there is much more cooperation than competition. No business is an island. No entrepreneur can successfully rely on themselves to do everything a business requires. They must reach out to other businesses to buy their production equipment and source materials. They must seek outside investment to grow their business. They must hire consultants to guide the direction of their business. An entrepreneur that saw themselves as a long warrior in a free-for-all war of commerce would not get very far in the market economy. Profit necessitates cooperation.
The market is better described as a system of co-op-itition. It is a society of mutual benefactors that may sometimes compete for the affections of individuals, like how people will compete for someone’s romantic affections. Free individuals coming together in voluntary associations, competing for the satisfaction of other people’s.
Now, isn’t this the essence of society?
What the left mean by ‘socially liberal’ is a set of favoured policies that are not strictly ‘economic’. They are in favour of legalising gay marriage. They often support the legalisation of sex-work or prostitution. They sometimes even favour decriminalisation of certain drugs. These are categorised as ‘social’ issues, in contrast to the economic.
The argument for social freedom goes: the government has no say in the business of two consenting adults. Two gay people getting married, a person offering sex in exchange for money, a person offering money in exchange for cannabis; these are all private contracts that violate nobody else’s rights. The state, whose remit is only to protect against harm, has no business interfering in these relationships.
There might be other justifications for them. For example, many support drug decriminalisation on a utilitarian basis: that ending the war on drugs would save money that would be better allocated towards more productive ends; but the true ‘liberal’ makes a principle stance against anyone interfering in the private affairs of individuals.
Why then, the inconsistency on economic matters?
As we have established, economics acts are social. They bring people together for mutual benefit. They enhance society.
If the left-liberal were consistent, they would apply their intuitive sense that nobody ought to interfere in the private contracts of individuals in certain fields to the economy fields. If telling people who to marry is wrong, then surely telling people who they can hire is wrong; and what kinds of products a person can sell, and at what price; and at what wage a person can hire someone at.
In the main, the left-liberals are not consistent in this regard. They support all manner of restrictions on business and labour. They support government regulations, that tell businesses what kinds of products they can make, and how many, and at what price. They support minimum wage laws, that tell employees that they’re not allowed to work for a company for any less than a certain wage they have arbitrarily plucked from thin air. They support institutions that inhibit the production of certain medicinal drugs, that aggressively restricts consumers choices. These are all incursions into the liberty of individuals. They prohibit relationships between consenting adults.
The left-liberal has two options: 1.
Apply the principle consistently, and support economic policies that empower the individual, namely, the unhampered market economy or 2. stop defending their ‘social’ policy recommendations on the basis of individual liberty.
If you pick number 1, which I strongly suggest you do, you have more grounds to describe yourself as ‘socially liberal’.
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