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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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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In Praise of Unherd’s Coverage of Lockdown

According to a recent Sky/YouGov poll, trust in journalists is at an all time low. In the results of the poll, which surveyed 1652 British adults, journalists fared the worst in terms of public faith, with TV journalists receiving a net score of minus 40 and newspaper journalists, minus 55.

The issue of public trust in journalism is certainly complex. There’s clearly a massive debate to be had about the limits of this data (extent), where the data is and isn’t pointing in this direction (demographics), why people are thinking this way (cause) and why all of this matters (significance).

But in the face of this story, I want to focus on an example of journalism that I have greatly appreciated. In all of this, I have been most impressed by the coverage of the lockdown offered by the team at Unherd.

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CovidDiary Day 19 (Weds 8th April 2020)

What if this quarantine is just saving middle-class lives? That’s the question raised in this New York Times piece. The article runs with the headline: “white-collar quarantine”.

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CovidDiary Day 6 (Thurs March 26th 2020)

A brief post to flag up the stimulating conversations happening over at Unherd on #LockdownTV. Today’s episode focussed on the virus and the environment. The climate is a fraught enough topic in normal circumstances without needing to throw in a global pandemic. In the anxious times we’re living in at the moment, it has been sad and frustrating to sometimes see the issues of the climate be handled so badly by some environmentalists. Take for instance the recent XR posters stating that “humans are the problem and Corona is the cure”. This is deeply disturbing, anti-human and frankly eugenicist stuff.

This was why I was encouraged by Elizabeth Oldfield’s strong contribution to the debate (see the video below). Oldfield rejected the approach outlined above but wisely cautioned against throwing out the baby with the bathwater. We can still use this moment to think about our personal individual decisions as well as the need for governments to re-think global capital’s reliance on fossil fuels.

On the point about individuals taking responsibility, I was encouraged and challenged by Liz’s bridge-building instincts (around 8:50) as she made reference to conservative doyen Roger Scruton’s writings on the environment (Liz makes reference to working transgenerationally and in local contexts that we call home). I also greatly appreciated her refusal to decide between the local and the global by making reference to the interdependence that has arisen so clearly in recent weeks between individuals within communities and between communities across borders.

Check out the video below and have a read of Liz’s most recent post on the issue here. It rightly avoids what she calls the “triumphalist crowing” from some in environmentalist circles just now, while still remaining faithfully and positively committed to the care of creation.

LockdownTV from Unherd (Elizabeth Oldfield b-right)

CovidDiary Day 5 (Weds March 25th 2020)

In the wake of Covid-19, libertarianism appears to be on the back foot. From tacitly enforced government social distancing and isolation, to top-down regulation and intervention in markets and business, it looks in many ways like we are witnessing the limits of the libertarian creed…

From my perspective, this marks a positive development. Before I go on, I want to state some of my premises and define my terms: I am wary of those who place unfailing trust either in the market or in the state—these two poles seem to have the common fatal flaw of misplaced trust and a poorly worked out anthropology. What usually functions as a spectrum moving from more statist solutions to more market-centric ones, on closer inspection appears to bend and meet where these two positions are concerned. And yet this is a broken world. The markets are broken, and the state is broken. Because people are broken. When all is said and done, that’s the baseline, the undercurrent of my thinking on the matter.

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