The Toxicity of Individualism and Building Alliances for Liberal Values

Classical Liberals and their allies, both inside and outside of the Conservative party, are dismayed (if you pardon the pun) by Theresa May’s shift leftwards on economic policy, and there is a likely battle ahead for the soul of the party; some are even wondering whether the future of Classical Liberals lies within the Conservative Party at all. Although it would be attractive to return to a politics from before the rise of the Labour party, I find it hard to believe that a new Classical Liberal party is a realistic option in the short-to-medium term.

May’s motives are understandable: as David Goodhart (author of the Road to Somewhere) explains, she is targetting the hitherto neglected Somewhere constituency, indeed seeming to have identified the Somewhere/Anywhere divide before Goodhart’s book even came out. Hence the move to try to capture the centre ground, and perhaps to turn the Conservatives into a Christian Democratic party.

This has resulted in rhetoric rejecting not just socialism on the left, but also Libertarianism on the right, tarring it as the cult of selfish individualism.
In his book Stranger Than We Can Imagine, John Higgs builds an entire thesis about how the 20th Century was dominated by Individualism, ranging from Aleister Crowley (“Do What Thou Wilt”) to Ayn Rand, and then follows up with a powerful (if flawed, in my view) critique of Neoliberalism.

Libertarianism as a label has, therefore, become somewhat toxic, perhaps alongside neoliberalism and capitalism. I wonder maybe if this is related to why Daniel Hannan, honorary president of Conservatives for Liberty, has been unable to get on the approved Central Office list for prospective parliamentary candidates.

The quandary for Classical Liberals is just what to do about this, and I believe this is where it might be useful to employ Professor Jonathan Haidt’s theory of Moral Foundations, the 6 foundations being: Care/Harm, Freedom/Oppression, Fairness/Cheating, Loyalty/Betrayal, Authority/Subversion and Sanctity/Degradation.

According to Haidt, in a WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic) society, typical Liberals exhibit the first 2 of these (Care/Harm and Liberty/Oppression), whereas Conservatives have all 6. Haidt suggests that Libertarians primarily have the Liberty/Oppression foundation only.

Now it can be argued that the Sanctity foundation has little place in a modern developed society — it does indeed seem to be the main driver of conflict (for example, militant Islamism, but also the Social Justice Warrior movement). The Authority foundation might appear little needed in societies which are not under external threat, but respect for the Rule of Law is nevertheless vital; this is not, however, something that is controversial when dealing with Conservatives. So that leaves us to consider how the other 3, alongside Liberty, can be used to advance a just society.

In Douglas Carswell’s book Rebel, he identifies 3 conditions (which I shall henceforth call Carswell’s Tripod) necessary for a society to prevent parasitic elites capturing the wealth of the productive, which are thus the prerequisites for human flourishing: Independence, Dispersal of Power, and Interdependence.

Carswell’s Tripod has some striking similarities to the tripartite motto of the French Revolution: Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité. Independence and Liberty must be very much the same thing; Dispersal of Power could be viewed as a type of Equality (related to the Fairness foundation), and Interdependence is has much in common with Fraternity (the Care foundation combined with the Loyalty foundation). Fraternity is also not unrelated to Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments.

So we know that for humans to flourish, Liberty on its own is not enough. The Legatum Institute’s Prosperity Index is based on 9 distinct categories, including factors such as social cohesion in addition to personal freedom.

I think it would be useful, therefore, for Libertarians, Classic Liberals and Neoliberals to build allies with those who value moral foundations other than Liberty. In particular, they should de-stress anything that might imply selfish individualism, and concentrate more on the other two legs of Carswell’s Tripod. The argument for free markets must emphasise the constraint on vested interests and parasites, making use of the Fairness moral foundation. And maybe it is time to wrest ownership of the concepts of Equality and Fraternity from the Left!

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