The Samovar

Left Liberalism, and compulsory education

Sunny Hundal has an excellent new project, the Liberal Conspiracy. The idea, in brief, is to provide a hub of activity for liberal left bloggers. Recently, the right has been much better at organising this sort of thing than the left, and hopefully this project will change that. They have a whole range of some of the best bloggers on the left. Many of them were already on my blogroll, but there are some names that are new to me, so it should be interesting to see what gets posted there.

To me, the benefit of this sort of project is that it potentially provides a non-combative space in which to develop liberal left ideas. A community of people all thinking along roughly the same lines can analyse and criticise each others ideas in a constructive manner, rather than channelling all their effort into defending these ideas against their opponents on the right. This allows the debate to move beyond defending our basic principles, and instead looking at the deeper consequences and applications of these principles.

I hope that this is exactly how the site will develop, but there is one issue of basic principle that needs to be cleared up right from the start, which is the precise meaning of liberal in the name. This contentious point has become one of the site’s central first debates, with Lib Dem bloggers (and right wingers) claiming that the site is just Left and not Liberal. The best statement I have read on this issue so far is Chris Dillow’s manifesto explaining why he is joining the Conspiracy:

The left, following Rawls, gives greater weight to its impact upon the worst-off than does the right. And this is one reason why leftism and liberalism go together. One reason why I oppose infringements of civil liberties – drug laws, control orders or stop & search powers – is that these bear most heavily upon the poor and powerless.

Inequalities of wealth and power – those between bosses and workers – often rest upon an anti-Hayekian faith that hierarchical management is feasible. It’s not. I’m a liberal because I think top-down management fails in government. I’m a left liberal because I think it fails in companies too.

It’s not just states that limit freedom. Bosses do too. It’s not good enough to argue, as the right does, that market forces will solve this problem; they don’t always grind fine enough.


For freedom to really matter – and to win popular support – it must be more than the absence of state coercion. It must imply the opportunity to positively control one’s life, to make something of it.

This last paragraph to me seems crucial to understanding what it is to be a liberal leftist rather than a liberal. Those of us on the liberal left might co-operate with the liberal right on opposing New Labour’s constant attacks on civil liberties, but it is only an alliance of necessity, because the right’s notion of freedom is too restricted.

That’s not to say that all those on the liberal left agree in particular circumstances about what is or isn’t liberal. The first debate to kick off on the site has explored this issue. Mike Ion wrote a guest post arguing that new plans to raise the school leaving age to 18 are a good idea. Amongst others, Chris Dillow responded (here and here) that it wasn’t a good idea. One of his reasons, shared by some of the commenters on the original post, is that it is illiberal. But, as I argued on all three posts, it ain’t necessarily so.

Straightforwardly, it seems illiberal because it is a restriction on a previously existing freedom: kids could choose to continue at school or not. But, if staying at school has an associated financial penalty, then having it be non-compulsory means there is a (financial) pressure to leave school and earn money, even though the long term effect of this might be to limit their freedom quite substantially. This piece of research seems to indicate that financial concerns do indeed play a considerable role in deciding whether or not kids continue at school after 16: after the government introduced the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA, a £10-30 per week incentive to stay at school), the number staying on after 16 increased by 4.6%, and the number still in education a year later was 6.4% higher than before. And that’s just what you get for the tiny sum of £30/week (tiny compared to what you could earn working). So, it might be the case that by making education compulsory to the age of 18, you are actually increasing liberty by taking away a financial pressure that strongly influences the choice. It’s not obvious that it is more free this way – because it might be that compared to the number who feel compelled to leave school by financial considerations, more would want to leave school even if they were paid as much to stay at school as they could earn outside school – but it’s not a foregone conclusion that it is illiberal. Opinion can and does rightly vary within the community of left liberals on this issue.

This was a good debate to kick off the Liberal Conspiracy site, because it has helped to clarify the relevant meaning of liberalism, and exemplified how a constructive critical discussion can take place amongst people who all consider themselves liberal leftists.

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