Democracies always seem to conform to the traditional divide between Left and Right, progressives versus conservatives, with varying levels of antipathy. The Left calls the Right brutal and stupid. The Right calls the Left naive and profligate.
Tacking towards the centre
Neither side is wholly good or bad in this. Both sides, however, are aware of what horrors lie at their outlying extremes, and trim their rhetoric accordingly. They know that most people in a modern liberal or social democracy have something of each side in them and reject extremists. This, then, is the centre ground – middle-class cntrism – and both wings continually and obsessively triangulate themselves with it (I think the Tea Party movement and its libertarianism is the exception that proves the rule).
To attract people in the centre, most democratic parties adopt slogans which, whatever their exact wording, ultimately come down to two traditional and iconic words. For the Left, that word is ‘fairness’. For the Right it is ‘freedom’. There is a world of meaning in each, and not always a good one. Both of the words need to be moderated in practice.
‘Fairness’, for example, holds that it is morally wrong for the rich and powerful unfairly to enjoy more wealth and power than do the poor and powerless. The principle seems unobjectionable, but does it not risk penalising enterprise and exposing part of our commonwealth (that is, our joint sociopolitical arena) to layabouts and the unscrupulous? Benefits cheats, for example, and people who lie about their address so that they can get their children into better schools? Where is the fairness in that, we ask, whilst being uneasily aware that the principle of Grace freely given may trump such reservations?
But I would argue that the concept itself is still a valid moral claim upon us, however it is applied. We should be fair to all our neighbours and do what we can to make fairness a major component of our democracy. But in doing so, we are entitled to exercise at least some degree of realism and common sense. This is the “wisdom of the serpent”. And why not?
On the Right, there is a mirror image of all this. As Canon Giles Fraser was saying on BBC Radio 4 not long ago, many on the Right declare their devotion to the moral principle of ‘freedom’, but what they actually mean by that is the freedom to do whatever they want, without regard to society or anyone else. That is selfishness rather than freedom in the moral sense and its roots go back a long way.
The centuries since the middle-class destruction of existing oligarchies and the substitution of their own ones, as well as the teachings of the Enlightenment, have reinforced a tendency towards exploitive,autonomous individualism: to be solely ‘out for Number One’, a particular blemish on the face of Anglo-Saxon societies in thrall to turbocharged capitalism. The risks from such an ‘I’m all right, Jack’ attitude, and its blithe unconcern for the well-being of the weaker members of our society or of the strangers amongst us, are only too evident and not only in the works of Ayn Rand.
Balancing the virtues
So it comes down to this: yes, we can be free, but on condition that we are fully responsible for all that we do and be actively aware of what it means to be fair to our co-beneficiaries in our common realm of social and economic activity. This is why we always have to remind the Right that paying taxes is not imposing government on us, or some form of organised theft, but a tangible sign of our moral duty of reciprocity towards all our neighbours. So cut public services if you must, including defence (which J K Galbraith said is the only thing right-wingers don’t mind funding), but only if you can show that you thereby improve them for the benefit of all.
At the same time we have to remind the Left that even Marx accepted a degree of reciprocity in the provision of public services. Neither he nor his precursor Henri de Saint Simon meant it to be all one way: “… after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly, only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!” Critique of the Gotha Programme (1875).
Yes, we should continually find ways to build a fairer society but we are also entitled to ask for something in return (such as a willingness to undergo retraining if that is what it takes to make us employable again). This amounts to saying “I am always willing to help you, to a very large extent unconditionally, but not altogether so; there are limits.”
Freedom and fairness together: the Rule
For both sides, it is a reminder of necessary compromise: that we exist willy-nilly in our societies and have moral duties to fulfil for them. Or, to put it more succinctly, the Golden Rule: Do as you would be done by. This is a precept found in at least 21 belief systems over the past few thousand years but it is surely still in force today.