Paul Marshall on Classical Liberalism

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Paul Marshall, British investor and one-time MP candidate for the SDP/Liberal Alliance, has provided a spirited defence of classical liberalism over at Unherd.

The title of Marshall’s article, “Progressives have sacrificed liberalism”, gives one the false impression that this is purely a pugilistic piece pointed at an imprecisely defined progressivism. This notion is wrong on three counts: 

  • first, the argument is positive and constructive as well as apologetic 
  • second, insofar as the author’s aim is pugilistic (which it undoubtedly is), he targets three rival ideologies: not only progressivism but post-liberalism and libertarianism. (In fact, he takes aim at a further philosophy which lies behind progressivism and libertarianism: the 18th century so-called Enlightenment).
  • And third, on progressivism, the author carefully defines this creed as the conceit that humankind’s moral and epistemological progress is “on a perpetual upward curve in parallel with technological progress”.  

The author’s main contention, in many ways complementary to John Gray’s Two Faces of Liberalism, is that classical liberalism has “lost its moorings”. More specifically (and unlike Gray), he contends that classical liberalism has lost its deep Christian (more particularly still its Protestant) faith revealed in an assumed anthropology (a shared understanding of human nature wherein we possess inherent dignity but are also fallen creatures), a common epistemology (theory of human knowledge where, because of our fallenness we empirically test our hypotheses), and ethics, wherein we pursue virtue and good in light of God’s decrees. 

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Why I’m Pro-Vaccine but Anti-Mandate

When it comes to the covid jabs, I am pro-vaccine but anti-mandate. 

I am, broadly speaking, in favour of the covid vaccines. Getting the jab is, on balance, a wise course of action. This is especially true for those over 50 and those of all ages who are clinically vulnerable. But it might also extend to those aged 20 and over who have no underlying health conditions. With the roll out of the vaccine in the UK, we have seen the reduction of deaths and hospitalisations and so the risk of serious symptoms has been mitigated. Conversely, I find it generally irresponsible not to be vaccinated, though I would want to reserve that opinion on a case-by-case basis. Nevertheless, at the moment I’d view the goal of as getting as many folks as possible vaccinated against covid to be a good outcome because it is the most effective measure for allowing life to continue while also reducing (of course, never eliminating) fatalities and associated health risks. 

But I must part ways from the extreme voices on the pro-vaccine side who are calling for the vaccine mandate, i.e. for citizens to be forced to be jabbed. Many are comfortable with the state using a variety of measures to compel its citizens to get vaccinated. What appear to be authoritarian measures are, on this view, justified if the goal of vaccinating more people is achieved. I am extremely worried about the measures being used across Europe to compel citizens to be vaccinated. At the time of writing, such measures include lockdowns for the unvaccinated across countries in Europe, the threat of fines and imprisonment in Austria, internment camps in Australia, and segregated areas for vaccinated and unvaccinated in Germany. My central disagreement with the pro-vaccine camp is with the means of getting to that goal of increasing vaccination. 

I dissent from the mandate position on three grounds: first, on the basis of the fact that it is deeply counter-productive to the intended goal; second on the basis of liberty and opposition to authoritarianism; and third on the basis of the precedent that is being set for coercive state action moving forward. 

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Matthew Crawford on the Administrative State

For my money, Matthew B. Crawford is one of the most original thinkers around just now. I first came across him via one of Giles Fraser’s editions of the Radio 4 Thought for the Day. On a rare occasion where the programme caught my interest, Fraser drew on Crawford’s Why We Drive to argue provocatively that God does not, in the first instance, exist to make us feel safe but to save and love us. I immediately went out and bought the book. Readers of this blog will remember Crawford’s influence on my covid counterfactual, my 2020 New Year reflections, and my final Covid Diary on risk and liberty, rightly ordered. 

In a recent piece for Unherd, entitled “The new public health despotism”, Crawford uncovers the intellectual history of the administrative state—more on that term shortly—and helps to explain the long-developing shifts that have disturbed many, myself included, in the relationship between the government and the governed over the last 18 months. It makes for necessary reading not only as a retrospective analysis but also as a prospective warning as governments, including in the UK, consider stricter “plan B”s ahead of Christmas. 

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Tribalism, Kimmich, Vaccines and Conversion

In the second piece in my series on Christianity and Tribalism, I argued that tribalism consists not of the presence of disagreement but the resentments held towards those with whom we disagree. These are expressed in how we treat, speak of and think about those who think differently from us.

Towards the end of the piece, I highlighted a common tribalistic move in contemporary debates—the injunction to “educate yourself”. On this view, the problem of tribalism is simply the existence of competing ideas. The solution is simply to resolve differences of opinion through catechesis into a closely guarded communis opinio

Only this week, I was sad to see a classic example of this tactic in the discussion around Joshua Kimmich who has, up until now, decided not to get vaccinated due to anxieties around the longer-term health effects (he remains open to vaccination in the future).

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Courage and Competence in the UK Coronavirus Response: A Counterfactual

It’s fair to say that the driving motivator of the UK government’s response to the coronavirus has been fear. Fear of widespread cases and fatalities and fear of an overwhelmed health service. Fear, by and large, leads to, and is undergirded by, concerns with safety.

And there was much to fear when the virus appeared on the scene in early 2020. The virus was a kind of unknown; we did not know how it would operate. Indeed, it seemed to affect different populations, and different parts of a given population, differently. Fear seemed a natural response to the unknown. It seemed right to prioritise safety above all else. So, here in the UK, we went into a series of national lockdowns—two, in fact, as well as other measures that came pretty close to the life-altering existence that lockdowns represent.

Courage

But what if the government had appealed to alternative motivators for tackling this pandemic? Specifically, what if it had appealed to the courage of its citizenry?

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Christian Life is Lived Between Christ the King Sunday and Advent

James KA Smith’s address to Christians in Parliament from 2018 is a must listen for the week between Christ the King Sunday (a relative newcomer to the Liturgical Calendar) and Advent. Check it out below:

Two New ResPublica Seminars on Post-Liberalism

With a Summer and Autumn of cultural upheaval in the Anglosphere (as a result of Covid, fiery protests of various sorts, Brexit debates and, now, an ongoing US election that will perpetuate the liberal order, whether economically with Trump or socially and economically with Biden), there’s certainly appetite for considering fresh ideas that might take us forward with the crucial task of re-constructing community and society.

It’s just as well, then, that the UK think-tank ResPublica have recently produced two instructive seminars on post-liberalism, that political philosophy which, in broad terms, advocates moving to the left on the economy, to the right on culture and identity and to the local and particular in governance. Identifying the overarching assumption of liberalism as unmitigated autonomy—the human person unmoored form ties to person or place—post-liberals seek to offer a positive vision that prioritises relationships, community and belonging in our cultural, economic and social life.

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How Have Commentators’ Understood Jesus’s Command to “Render to Caesar What is Caesar’s and to God What is God’s”?

This Sunday’s lectionary features the tribute passage, which appears in all three of the Synoptic Gospels and ends with Jesus’s famous words “render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s”. I wrote a piece a few years back for Currents in Biblical Research which summarised the four main ways that contemporary commentators have read this saying. You can read the article for free, here.

Image: Jacek Malczewski, The Tribute Money (part of triptych) 1908, (Wikiart)

My Politics Needs Christianity

The British public has perhaps been never more politically engaged, and yet never more politically disillusioned.

As the Hansard Society’s Audit of Political Engagement for 2018 and 2019 show, opinions of the governing systems are are their lowest point in 15 years, even as the appetite for political change and engagement has grown.

On the one hand, the number of elections post-2014, including of the most significance of these, the Referendum on EU Membership, has generated an unprecedented level of active political activism among the British population. The Hansard Society refers to the increase in electoral events as an “‘electric shock therapy’ for political engagement”.

On the other hand, there is a general weariness and dissatisfaction just now with political parties and candidates. In particular, there’s a suspicion that the options on offer appear to propagate the interests of the financial and cultural establishment. In the US, this is largely made up of different types of big business, as American academic and commentator Bret Weinstein explains. Disillusioned with the candidates on the ticket, various individuals have formed the Unity 2020 campaign, a movement for a third party candidate, and alternative form of politics. Closer to home, the Social Democratic Party (SDP) has sought to transcend the traditional divides between capital and labour, nation and world and even private and public sector (see their New Declaration from 2018, one of the more powerful pieces of political writing in recent years).

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