Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Classical liberalism and illiberal groups

The latest IEA publication, which I have just finished reading is thoroughly to be recommended. Eamonn Butler's Classical Liberalism - A Primer is an excellent summary of that much misunderstood body of ideas with a good many paragraphs that will, no doubt, appear on this blog whenever I am writing about the need to control governments and legislatures, regardless of how its members get there. In other words, a dictatorship by an elected majority has to be controlled as well as the old-fashioned monarchical institutions were.

The historic sections made me laugh - they reminded me of the tail end of the Whig history that I encountered at my schools but there is nothing terribly wrong there. I would have liked a little more about Mediaeval constitutionalism but Dr Butler had to concentrate on the later ideas as these are of greater relevance.

Nevertheless, my first blog about this work is a critical one. I was a little disappointed with his coverage of classical liberal attitudes to illiberalism, always a tricky subject.

On page 92 the author tackles the subject: Dealing with illiberal groups:
An interesting problem for classical liberals, however, is how they should deal with groups and nations that are highly illiberal. The problem has become more urgent. There have always been religious and political fundamentalists who reject any idea of political, social and economic freedom and who would gladly extinguish our own freedoms if they had the reach to do so. But now, with travel so easy and destructive technologies so obtainable, the potential threat has become more dangerous.
The problem is relatively (but only relatively) easy while we are dealing with those threats from outside the country: after all, not every illiberal state is a direct threat to us except maybe by existing but a number of them are prepared to send our agents in to try to destroy us and we need to be prepared for it now as we had to be prepared in the days when our enemy was Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union.

What of the illiberal groups that are already here and are trying to subvert and overcome our own liberal ideas (in so far as they exist) or create groups and areas that function or intend to function outside our rules and ideas? While we can all be tolerant of people joining Trotskyite groups if they so wish or go to a mosque that preaches intolerant and hate-filled ideas, what of the move to create sharia courts that undermine the basic concept of equal and clearly understood justice for all, without which free societies cannot function?

Dr Butler does not touch on the subject of sharia but he tries to deal with another serious problem:
On the other hand, many classical liberals would think it right to intervene to prevent girls being denied an education, for example, or to prevent female genital mutilation and forced marriages. These are seen as breaches of the rights and freedoms enjoyed by all human beings.

Classical liberals have no prescriptive answer to such questions. But in general they take the view that state action should be kept to a minimum. Some take the view that we live in a pluralist age, and are mature enough to tolerate different manners and customs, so intervention is generally not justified unless there is some overwhelming ‘public’ case for doing so. Others emphasise that persuasion and debate are more effective at changing minds in the long run. A law against female genital mutilation, for example, is probably less effective at ending this practice than women who have undergone it being free to decide not to inflict it on their own children. It is that freedom that the law should be defending.
He then goes on to discussing what we should do if those illiberal groups should find themselves in position of power or authority. I know some people think that illiberal groups have already taken power and to some extent I agree with that, adding the proviso that we are in a position to change that, should we wish to do so.

What, however, is of such problems as female genital mutilation? Why exactly should it be put aside, not dealt with in legal terms (though it is banned in law despite a certain lack of action)? A classical liberal's core belief that the state must exist in order to protect individuals from direct physical harm inflicted by other people. The immense physical harm that is FGM is inflicted on children, often little more than babies who then suffer from the after effects, both physical and mental, for the rest of their lives. By no stretch of the imagination can one say that they are consenting partners.

Yet. apparently, there are classical liberals who do not think this is something for the law to deal with. One assumes that they do think the law should deal with other methods of child or adult torture but not this. Either those people do not exactly know what FGM is, in which case they should read or listen to accounts or they are prepared, in certain cases, to forget about individual rights and the core belief of equal and clearly defined justice and allow certain cultural groups to stay outside that law. More, they are prepared to abandon the basis of classical liberalism which is respect for the individual in favour of (some) group rights. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is not  good enough.


  1. I don't think many people have an issue with the banning of FGM, and then rigorously enforcing that ban. But where do you stop. What about male circumcision? There are plenty of people who consider this to be the male equivalent, and the person involved is hardly in a position to give consent. I will allow that circumcision can be medical necessity in some cases, but they are rare. Although FGM is hugely more invasive, they only differ in degree.

    On a slightly related note I was watching my local news last night, and Wantage, that hotbed of anti-social behaviour is now implementing a challenge 30 scheme in all off-licenses. Illiberal, I think so.

    1. I know nothing about Wantage but I do know certain things about FGM. First of all, it is illegal and has been since the mid-eighties. The fact that nothing much has been done about it is a separate issue. Secondly, nobody who knows any physiology can possibly consider that female genital mutilation is anything like male circumcision. If you don't believe me, read some accounts of both.