Reviving social liberalism

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With the publication of his new book, The Idea of Justice, Amartya Sen announces a needed new departure in political philosophy. In effect he takes a great tradition gone stale -- social liberalism -- and suggests needed updates. In doing this with verve, he places himself in the company of great liberals of the past who argued strenuously for liberty, and against injustices: Condorcet in France, and Mary Wollstonecraft in England, who fought eloquently against slavery and for the emancipation of women; John Stuart Mill the great 19th century champion of the expansion of human capabilities; and John Maynard Keynes, the persuasive exponent of the capacity of human ingenuity to overcome economic depression.


Contemporary discussion of liberal political philosophy takes the work of the American John Rawls as the starting point, and Sen does as well. However against the liberal theory of justice proposed by Rawls, an all encompassing attempt to imagine "a priori" the institutions that would provide justice, Sen argues for action to reduce present injustices through the application of public reason.


What is most unacceptable for Sen are instances of flagrant injustices that are recognizable, and for which remedies are at hand, but nonetheless remain unattended to by governments. He believes that global justice issues can be addressed through civil society, and that there is no point in waiting for world government or other form of utopia. Action now is possible, desirable, and it is reasonable to expect it will be forthcoming, on patent drugs denied to AIDS victims for example, or withdrawal of American forces from Iraq.


Sen's early work focused on the great Bengal famine of 1943. He discovered that famines were not the result of an absence of food. People died because they were too poor to buy available food. And, that is why they are still dying around the world.


For all that his work has to recommend it, Sen stumbles over the obstacle that troubles all versions of liberalism: private property rights. Throughout the ascendancy of a conservative liberalism (1970s, and 1980s) championed by Hayek and Friedman, the right to accumulate private property was deemed to guarantee liberty. In our times this "liberty" is incarnated in giant corporations that make their own law when they do not control law-makers indirectly, or directly.


In the social liberal tradition of Stuart Mill and Sen, freedoms emanate from democratic assemblies. The issue that modern liberals have turned away from is the threat to democracy from the concentration of economic power, today in the hands of transnational corporations. Liberal thinker do not address what to do when the liberties accorded private owners thwart democratic liberties, and imperil social and economic rights, and Sen is no exception.


The small-scale revival of social liberalism Sen would like to see become a major force was due in part to the concern over the evident increase in inequalities. In rich countries, like Canada, at the same time as overall the economy grew, the majority became poorer, and the worst off became destitute -- amid plenty.


For socialists, capitalism itself is unjust, and it creates injustices for which known remedies are at hand: fair taxation, redistribution of income, public ownership, extension of trade unionism, co-operatives, anti-poverty programs and laws, public control of credit, expansion of public services, the state as employer of last resort and de-militarization, to name only these policies pursued successfully in various places at different times.


Sen rightly mocks rational choice theory for its insistence that only self-interest animates (or should animate) humanity. He argues that a renewed social ethics, taking account of what people do for others, combined with farsighted institutional reforms, can bring about a better world for all. We should hope he is right, but we had better prepare for battle with the private property liberals, because the rational choice theorists see clearly at least part of what goes on in our world. Those who have accumulated great power and wealth are happy to continue to use it in their own interest, attaching no serious concern to what happens to anybody else.


Duncan Cameron writes from France.

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