Monday, 27 March 2023

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The useful fuzziness of liberalism

The useful fuzziness of liberalism

I used to live near a building in Washington DC that had the First Amendment etched on its vast stone facade. Walk by enough times, and it sticks. “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech . . . or the right of the people peaceably to assemble.”

Congress shall make no law. A bank, or a trade union, or a sports team, will often curb what its staff may say on the public record. (Via a code of conduct, perhaps.) As long as those staff can quit their jobs and speak without limit as citizens, we tend not to consider this a breach of the amendment.

Gary Lineker deserved to win his showdown with the BBC. But was it, strictly speaking, a free-speech issue? The problem was the overzealous internal regime of one corporation. And the whiff of political interference. It wasn’t that his wider right to speak (to the extent he has one in Britain’s less codified system) was in peril. Put it this way. Had he tweeted something dottier, such as “Invade Norway”, no one would object if the BBC had scolded him. He could leave the Beeb and keep willing the invasion. As I cheered him on this past week or so, though, some of those cheering with me thought a fundamental right was at stake.

There are two high-profile threats to liberalism nowadays. One is populism. The other is the cultural left. Here is a less-discussed third: a fuzziness among liberals ourselves about what this creed consists of. This is a disease of success. Liberalism has been the ruling idea in the west for so long that it tends not to be taught or discussed from first principles. In fact, for most of us, it is less a creed than a set of rote-learned phrases, like bits of Shakespeare that are easier to recite than fathom. “Free speech” is one.

Here’s another. The “rule of law”. I can’t be the only one who has lost all track of what this means now. One interpretation is all about process. A state policy breaks the rule of law when it is made in an arbitrary way, or applies retroactively, or targets individuals. So, a government can be vile — abolishing welfare, for example, or razing parkland — and still within the rule of law. But there are “thicker” definitions. According to these, the moral substance of a policy also matters. The populists of the past decade were often described as threats to the rule of law. Sometimes by me. Why? Specific procedural breaches? (If so, which ones?) Or a sort of generalised unpleasantness?

Look, I am…

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