Liberalism and its manifestations

If you ask 3 people what they understand “liberalism” to mean, you’ll likely get three different answers. Even after name-checking some canonical figure – Mill, Berlin, Rawls, Kymlicka, etc. – we’d still be left with confusion, thanks to now being able to argue about the how “classical” liberal tenets differ from “social democrat” ones.

So, I’m not going to try define liberalism in general at all, but rather offer a few remarks on what I understand it to be, or rather what I mean when I identify as a liberal. If you want to read a good summary of the theoretical debates alluded to above, I’d recommend the political philosophy page on the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

I’m by and large a “classical” liberal, who takes a utilitarian approach to resolving any inconsistencies that may arise, such as when trying to reconcile individual freedoms with the responsibilities of the state to care for everyone’s interests equally.

To pick a trivial example of such an inconsistency, I’m happy to be taxed higher than some other people as a way to cross-subsidise those with more material wants (which maximises equality overall), even though some might think it “unfair” to one person to pay a higher proportion of tax from their salaries than others do.

But there are more tricky examples than this, of course – liberals typically value freedom of speech, which raises the question of whether it’s consistent with liberalism (or a contradiction) for a (allegedly) liberal party such as the Democratic Alliance to eject a member for sharing positive sentiments about apartheid monsters.

I’d say it is consistent (whether or not it was the correct decision), because individual freedom to speak might sometimes be trumped by some broader conception of liberty (in other words, it’s not necessarily the case that freedom of speech be treated as an absolute, without exceptions), and for the pragmatic reasons offered in the first example.

You can be a liberal without being a free speech fundamentalist, in other words (at least on my definition – yours might differ).

A second, less controversial way of resolving this apparent contradiction would be to argue that if you voluntarily agree to a certain code of conduct, as was the case in the example in question, you can be held accountable for violations of that code even if there’s a general commitment to free speech. (Not to mention, it’s not a free speech restriction in the strict sense anyway, in that the person in question can say what she likes, just not in specific and pre-specified contexts.)

Enough preliminaries, except to note that I’m certainly not a libertarian, contrary to the impression I’d apparently inadvertently created for one student who asked me about it on Twitter the other day. I certainly think that there are occasions where freedom overall is certainly maximised by compromising individual freedoms.

Ensuring freedom from undue or unjustified interference is certainly constitutive of my understanding of liberalism – the difficulty, of course, is knowing when the interference is justified or not.

Being judged as an individual is also an essential element of liberalism. This means that a person shouldn’t be assumed to have certain views or a certain character by virtue of what race, sex, gender, nation and so forth they happen to belong to – you get to define yourself (including the freedom to define yourself into one or more of the groups I’ve just listed.)

As Mill put it in On Liberty, “the only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way” – and while I’d quibble with the “only” in that quote, I do think this one of the most accurate descriptions of what lies at the heart of liberalism.

But because others can get in the way of us pursuing our own good, we’re justified in implementing certain constraints on behaviour. Equality, for example, sees legal expression and reinforcement in concepts like the rule of law, and equality before the law.

And, even though the scope for governments explicitly telling us what to do needs to be very carefully limited, and justified by secular and universal concerns, rather than partisan ones, I’ve got no problem with governments “nudging” us (an idea I defended at length in a previous post).

While many of the points above need further defence, my objective here is to provide a starting point, laying out what strikes me as fundamental to my understanding of liberalism: freedom, equality and self-determination. I’ll hopefully unpack this more in future posts.

But to conclude, I’d like to reiterate that you’d rarely find me defending any given principle as an absolute. Instead, it seems more useful to have strong commitments to clear guiding principles, only violable with very good justification.

Democracy doesn’t magic us into equality

As submitted to Daily Maverick

When you call for a boycott of Woolworth or SAA it’s not in my name, Solidarity. Not in those terms, where you misinterpret legislation, or at the very least stick your fingers in your ears and stamp your feet when you’re offered alternative interpretations. And not in the indignant tones of a group that wants to claim disadvantage in a country where the 10% of us who are white still seem to control just about everything except for the government.

I get that you are frustrated – judging from the comments on some recent Daily Maverick columns, many white folk are at least frustrated, if not angry. It’s even fair to say that you might have a point, because if it’s true that BBBEE is handicapping business and holding back otherwise qualified white employment candidates while only benefiting black tenderpreneurs, then BBEEE is broken. An unemployed black person might even be quick to agree with you, if it was that obviously broken.

Another way in which you certainly have a point is that we shouldn’t be reserving jobs, or positions at universities, according to race. As I argued last year during the crisis-talks around who was allowed to call themselves “African”, Patrice Motsepe and Anton Rupert have far more in common than Steve Hofmeyr and I do. Both black and white refer to something meaningless, or are shorthand for something else that is deeply meaningful.

That meaningful thing is privilege and power, and whether one has it or not. It is whose numbers you have on your cellphone, and whose you do not. It is how many books you read as a child, and therefore how ready you were for school and maybe university, and it is about whether your parents had time to spend weekends with you instead of go to work – or even sometimes about whether you knew your parents at all. It is about all these things, and many more that I can’t imagine.

That meaningful thing tends to correlate with race. We can perhaps summarise it by using the descriptor of “class”, even though that would need further definition. And no, melanin levels play no direct causal role in assigning you to a class. But they have played an indirect one for centuries, thanks to those of us with a lighter skin using race as a proxy for identifying those who stand ready to be exploited.

Not willing, of course, but ready. Sometimes ready thanks to not knowing any better, or through trusting the wrong people. Eventually, as you all know, the exploitation was codified in law, and it was ensured that the vast majority of our population would have less access to the privileges of good educations, safe neighbourhoods, running water and the like.

Those laws changed one generation ago. So it is true that many entering the job market today grew up in a racially neutral democracy. But very few of those job-seekers have parents who can advise on appropriate water-cooler conversation, or on which tie goes best with that suit, or on what to do when you’re the subject of sexist jokes in the workplace.

1994 – or whatever date you choose to identify the start of freedom – did not constitute an act of magic, despite the exuberant rhetoric we so long to believe in. Disadvantage can at some point in history be considered self-inflicted, or an instance of bad luck that has no systemic cause such as racial prejudice. But we’re not there yet, because it remains unreasonable to question the fact that a white kid – in general – enjoys advantages that a black kid does not.

Ideally, this conversation shouldn’t be about race. It should be about identifying which South Africans are underprivileged due to some or other injustice, and then providing redress where possible. If we could find a better way of detecting this lack of privilege than race we should use it, or at least open the discussion about using it – affirmative action based on something as meaningless as skin colour does need a sunset clause, or some sort of trigger condition for its demise.

And yes, it is also true that there are poor white folk, some very rich black folk, and therefore easy examples of inefficiencies and injustice you could point to as being caused by affirmative action. But when you do so, you sound like a racist. Because those exceptional cases don’t alter the fact that cultural capital – Pierre Bourdieu’s term for the knowledge, access and other advantages that allow white people, in general, to still enjoy a higher status in society – is not built over a single generation.

So by all means, Solidarity, question whether we should substitute class for race and explain to us how we should do so. Introduce the idea of a sunset clause – it would be improper for you to be accused of racism simply for doing that. As far as I’m concerned, you could even ask whether it’s appropriate for a job to be targeted at a certain race group, if it’s true that doing so would constitute unfair discrimination.

But as I tried to point out in my column on SAA’s cadet scheme, when one race – or one class – is under-represented in certain job categories, it’s pretty easy to guess what race and class they are, and why they are under-represented. And it’s perfectly justifiable to try to find qualified candidates from that group, before expanding your search to include looking for more people of the sort you already have.

We should all hope to one day not need affirmative action of any sort. But if you claim we don’t need it now, simply because no child was born into a South Africa where they were deprived of a vote thanks to their skin colour, you’re really missing the point that you can’t simply vote your way into a better life for all. Securing a better life involves education, employment and a host of other goods – all of which remain easier to access if your skin happens to be pale.

Errol Naidoo: remove religion as example of unfair discrimination from the Constitution

Errol Naidoo’s latest Family Policy Institute newsletter indicates quite a remarkable change of mind, at least if I’m correctly reading between the lines. In one section of it, he appears to be arguing that religion should not merit any special protection from discrimination under South Africa’s Bill of Rights. Here’s (part of) what he has to say:

There is a proposal to remove the ‘sexual orientation’ clause in the Constitution. This clause in the Bill of Rights serves only to provide homosexuals the power to demand special rights.

Homosexuals are protected as human beings in the Constitution like every other citizen. The sexual orientation clause provides special protections and privileges for their sexual preference and more importantly, provides legal sanction to penalise anyone who disagree with their lifestyle.

The clause in question (9.3) reads as follows:

The state may not unfairly discriminate directly or indirectly against anyone on one or more grounds, including race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language and birth.

So, following Naidoo’s logic, if the “sexual orientation” clause only exists to “provide homosexuals the power to demand special rights”, it’s surely also the case that this is true for the “religion” clause (and all the others), and he’d have section 9.3 read something like “The state may not unfairly discriminate directly of indirectly against anyone”.

This might be the first, and only, time that I can say he’s on to something which isn’t completely crazy…