Taking a fresh look at liberalism
It is far too early to pick up the pieces and reconstruct either mainstream economics or the free market version of it after the debacle of the past two years. It is not, however, too early to restate some liberal values that need to be preserved whatever technical changes are made in the conduct of economic policy.
(The word “liberal” has acquired so many meanings that I need to make clear that I am using it in the classical European sense of someone who attaches especial importance to personal freedom, and therefore wishes to reduce the number of human made obstacles to the exercise of actual or potential choice. The late Isaiah Berlin called this “negative freedom”.)
Many socialists and social democrats regard the negative definition of freedom as far too narrow and ask whether someone can be really free if he or she has not enough to eat or is deprived of the opportunity of a decent education. The confusion arises from the attempt to derive all public policy from one central goal. Freedom is not the same as prosperity, equality, self-government or any other desired state of affairs. These goals may sometimes be complementary, at other times competitive.
Modern discussion of the subject begins with John Stuart Mill's still controversial 1859 essay On Liberty. This states that “the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection”, that is to “prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant”. The distinction is sometimes made between self- regarding and other-regarding action.
Some classical liberals make the rule of law their central doctrine. By this they do not mean any law that happens to pass the legislature, but general rules applying to all without fear or favour. But this is only a necessary, not a sufficient, condition for freedom to prevail. It is easy to think of perfectly general laws, such as Germany's ban on Sunday shopping, which are inimical to personal freedom. But even though it is not a good definition of liberalism the ideal of a government of laws rather than men and women is a profound one. It is weakened every time the media announce that the prime minister or president is to order or forbid certain things, as if the mere whim of a political leader should prevail without going through any constitutional or legal process.
I would myself favour an informal concept put forward by John Maynard Keynes in an essay he wrote in the 1920s, which distinguished between the agenda and non-agenda of government. This could not be fixed for all eternity but would vary over time. Keynes devised the idea to separate himself from those 19th-century Liberals who saw little useful role for the state. But it could equally be applied in reverse to cordon off areas where the government has no business interfering with citizens. It is the refusal to recognise any such limits that is the real crime of New Labour and why some of us will find it hard to support it again.
To conclude, here are three examples that starkly expose anti-liberal ways of thinking.
Some people advocate compulsory national service, not necessarily military, as a way of improving the character of young people. The late James Tobin – he of the Tobin tax – favoured the US draft as an egalitarian ideal and even suggested setting soldiers' pay well below what they could earn elsewhere so as to rule out a volunteer army. Whatever his other qualities, he was an arch anti-liberal.
Consider, too, the rigid exchange restrictions that have at times been imposed on foreign travel to conserve official holdings of foreign currency. When these were imposed by Harold Wilson's UK Labour government for three years there was hardly a word of protest from Labour's supposedly enlightened intellectual camp followers.
A final example is the smoking ban in public places – and I speak as lifelong non-smoker. So long as there are designated areas to ensure non-smokers are protected from smoke pollution, what is the harm in providing a room where people can smoke at their own risk? Why is this worse than making smokers stand outside in the cold?However difficult it is to define a liberal, it is not hard to spot anti-liberals.
（“自由主义”一词被赋予的含义如此之多，以至于我有必要澄清，我是以欧洲人对该词的经典理解来使用它的，即指一个人特别重视个人自由，因此希望把行使实际或潜在选择权的人为障碍减至最少。已故的以赛亚•伯林 (Isaiah Berlin)称其为“消极自由”。）
许多社会主义者和社会民主党人士认为，这种对自由的消极定义太过狭隘，他们提出了这样的问题：如果一个人食不果腹，或者被剥夺了受良好教育的机会， 这个人能真正自由吗？造成这种困惑的原因是，他们企图从一个中心目标衍生出所有公共政策。自由不同于繁荣、平等、自治或任何其它理想状态。这些目标可能有 时互补，有时则互相竞争。
关于这一话题的现代讨论，始于约翰•斯图亚特•穆勒(John Stuart Mill)于1859年发表、至今仍受争议的散文《论自由》(On Liberty)。文中称，“人类对其中任何成员的行动自由进行单独或集体干涉的唯一正当理由，是自我保护，”也就是“防止对他人的伤害。个人自己的好处 ——无论是物质上还是道德上的——不足以构成正当理由。”人们有时对“考虑自己”与“考虑他人”的行动加以区分。
我们需要超越穆勒，部分原因是，对于如何区分“考虑自己”与“考虑他人”的行动，永远都会存在争议。几乎所有行为都对他人有一定影响。哲学家、经济 学家阿玛蒂亚•森(Amartya Sen)举过一个著名的例子：一个正经刻板的人，因为想到自己的同伴在读《查泰莱夫人的情人》(Lady Chatterley's Lover)而感到不快。微妙之处在于，把界限划在哪里，才能剔除那些琐碎、无谓、间接，或者表现出对他人生活方式缺乏容忍的互动。还有就是哪些政治安排 最有可能维护消极自由的现实问题。
一些传统的自由主义者将法治作为其中心教条。他们所说的“法”，未必是指立法机构通过的任何法律，而是指在不带畏惧或偏袒的情况下适用于所有人的普 遍规则。但这只是自由占上风的必要条件，而非充分条件。我们很容易想到像德国的周日购物禁令那样具有完全普遍性、却妨碍个人自由的法律。不过，尽管它并非 自由主义的恰切定义，但建立法治政府、而非人治政府的理想意义深远。每当媒体宣布某位首相或总统将下令或禁止某些事情（仿佛政治领导人的一时念头就应该得 到贯彻，而无需经由任何宪法或法律程序），这一理想就遭到削弱。
我本人偏爱约翰•梅纳德•凯恩斯(John Maynard Keynes)上世纪20年代撰文提出的一种非正式概念，用以区分“政府议程”与“非政府议程”。这一概念不可能永远不变，而是会随着时间推移而改变。凯 恩斯设计这一概念，是为了与19世纪那些认为政府几乎纯属多余的自由主义者划清界限。但反过来，同样可用这一概念圈定政府无权干涉公民的领域。英国新工党 的真正过错，正是拒绝承认此类限制。也正因如此，我们中一些人将很难再次支持它。
有人提倡实行强制性的国民服役——不一定是兵役——作为改善年轻人品性的一种方式。已故的詹姆斯•托宾(James Tobin)——“托宾税”(Tobin tax)就是以他命名的——赞赏美国的征兵制，认为它体现了平等主义理想，甚至建议把军人薪酬设定在远低于他们可在别处赚到的水平，以排除形成一支志愿兵 军队的可能性。不管他具有哪些其它品质，他都是个十足的反自由主义者。