To be or not to be a liberal

The piece below is taken from Arya Gaduh’s blog. Reflecting further the post (and reactions) in my blog the other day, Arya gives me an explanation of what constitute ‘a true liberal’. His blog is also accessible, just click the link to his blog in the link area on the right===>


Being a liberal

Professor Alan Blinder, Princeton economist, has a litmus test for a true liberal – at least, in the modern American sense. “Walk into a room where [a man] is watching football. If his favorite team is not involved, he will always be rooting for the underdog or for the team that is way behind”. Having rooted for Ecuador and Ghana (and having fancied neither) in the World Cup’s second round, I must be a true liberal, then.

Notice that I qualify such liberalism as a modern American one – represented in the United States (US) by the Democratic Party. It’s a rather different animal than the kind proposed by 18th century philosophers, notably J.S. Mills, who emphasise protection for individual rights (including the rights to property and trade) from the power of the state. This kind of liberalism is often associated with the Republican Party.

Guess what: I am also that kind of a liberal.

This rambling about to-be-or-not-to-be-a-liberal began when my good friend, Philips Vermonte, a political scientist now studying for his PhD in the US, somewhat objected to my calling him a liberal. He sought for possible reasons for my putting him in a “Fellow Indonesian Liberal” category – only to find it in the fact that he had more web-links to “liberal” (read: right-minded, market-oriented) friends than to more left-minded friends.

For an American reader, this must have sounded quite odd: shouldn’t it be the other way around?

But coming from Indonesia, this, certainly, is not the only available interpretation of “liberalism”. The last time the word went public, it was in a fatwa – a religious edict – of the Indonesian Ulemma Council, which considered it an evil ideology. I am not a hundred percent sure what the Council meant with the word, though I can imagine why religious councils would condemn an ideology respecting individual interpretation of holy texts (though I can imagine that most Indonesians who supported the fatwa were associating “liberalism” with “a liberal lifestyle” which includes sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll). It won’t be the first time in human history.

But I’m digressing. The point I was making (if there was any in the first place), is that for me, being a liberal should transcend economic-ideological line of centre-left and centre-right (e.g., between Keynesian and neoclassic). Liberalism, at its essence, is about respect of individuals. Whether one things that such respect would be better served by a little more market, or a little more government, is a matter of taste. But the far-left (totalitarian communism or), far-right (to quote Kwik Kian Gie, in lack of a better term, “free-fight liberalism”), and far-up (religious fundamentalism) ideologies – now, they are the true non-liberals.

Going back to my dear friend, I really can’t see him supporting any of the three ideologies I just mentioned. In fact, when I checked his supposed “non-liberal” friends, I found all of them to be liberals – promoting individual rights to choose (religions, what to wear, what to think, what to say), or to be (e.g., a woman). I hope, this clarifies – just in case I get tempted to start including M. Vermonte’s “other friends” next time.


4 Tanggapan to “To be or not to be a liberal”

  1. Dicky Says:

    and so the battle of ideas begins.. :) it’s getting more and more interesting, it seems like i’m watching a debate of how to be a good libertarian.. :) i think i reckon myself within the side of “little more government”, since there are many third-world govts (incl. Indonesia) likely can not able to catch up the imparity which caused by the neoclassical system, like the “life-cycle product system” and the “core-periphery” phenomena.. i believe that market is okey, but government role is very important, to cite Stiglitz: in order to handle the market imperfections.. so, i think i’m in the inbetween of centre-right and centre-left as Bung Arya mentioned.. oh, i’m rooting for the Brazilian team.. so, is it reckon me as a non-liberal? i hope not.. because i’m still hanging my profession within the sphere of reification, as Marcuse said.. hehe :)

  2. Arya Says:

    Commenting on Dicky: The paradox of “third-world govts likely can not able (sic) to catch up with the imparity caused by the neoclassical system” is that the government failures may actually be worse than the market imperfections they are trying to fix. This is not always an argument for less government, but for a well-defined, well-thought out role of government, where the (scarcely-resourced) government intervenes in areas it knows it has clear advantages over market (but here, the controversy continues…)

    […and yes, it is a debate on how to be a good libertarian… well, sort of…]

  3. Dicky Says:

    I agree, it seems that the controversies will always be lay on the state’s capability in choosing the best advantages over the market. But there are many things that I still haven’t found the “middle-way-answer” yet, especially on how the government can likely to manage the intervention process in a well and effective shape in order to handle this market imperfection.

    To give a slightly picture, I’m portraying the difference between Malaysia’s and Thailand’s ways in dealing with the 97/98 crisis. Fact has proved that Malaysia suffered a less pain than the Thailand’s had. But the focal point is, especially for the Malaysia, it seems that
    they have a better resilience to utilize their resource to deal with the crisis. I believe that Mahathir’s “Look East Policy” in 1981 has shaped this strength, along with his HICOM project to developed the national’s industry, especially for the Bumiputera.

    Hence, I would like to ask some questions for you. Since the good governance is likely to be the main considerant for the government to be able to formulate which areas it knows it has clear advantages over market, is there any further “middle way” of the centre-right and the centre-left to provide the effective economic measures and best solutions, since the good governance development processes likely have to interact with culture, values, and local identity?

    Second, what is best answer to make the state likely could be able to stands up its local sector in order to deal with the market imperfection? and what do you think about the “on the ground solutions” approach, as Sachs have mentioned? What are the “on the ground solutions” that will likely to be effective to overcome our economic problems, like poverty, etc?

    Lastly, I want to say that what you do have a very nice blog. It’s inspiring. :) I hope you don’t mind to disseminate some enlightments for my questions. It’s kind of a little process of being a good libertarian. hehe. Thanks before. Cheers. :)

  4. Arya Says:

    Thanks for the compliment (for my blog, that is ;-)). And thanks to Philips for allowing his blog to become a forum for discussions. Hope we’re not taking too much space.

    Now to the main topic.I’ll go with things that I have *some* kind of answer first (which, perhaps, still amount to very little nonetheless), then to the other questions on which I have even less certainty about my own answers.

    What do I think about on-the-ground solutions? Absolutely — but not the way envisioned by Mr Sachs. I think Sachs got it wrong when he proposed that, to “end poverty”, rich countries should pour money to poor countries, and the poor should “make plans” (labelled, among others, Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper – PRSP) to make use of the money.

    Planners have information limitations to “solve poverty on the ground”. Plans by bureaucrats tend to have no accountability. Instead, I’d go the “Easterly way” (in The White Man’s Burden, if you’re interested — or just google “William-Easterly” at NYU for papers). In essence, take a more “market-” approach to on-the-ground-solutions: Don’t necessarily go through government, give funding to initiatives that work, and give incentives so that local civil societies work to find initiatives that work.

    I call this a “market” approach, because it works bottom-up, to let funding be defined by concrete successes, not concrete plans. There is criticism to this approach, but overall, it seems to be much better than the Sachs overtly ambitious plan.

    Malaysia v. Thailand, I don’t think they are really comparable. Using an earthquake analogy, Thailand was at the epicenter of the earthquake — it was its currency that was fiercely attacked — while the attack on Malaysia came as an afterthought through contagion.

    Re: government intervention and good governance, I don’t even think that governance is the most important ingredient in getting intervention right. I believe, it’s restraint: Government, by its nature, wants to govern everything, and thinks that it can. But it needs to realize that it cannot — when it cannot, just back out of it.

    What government is best at, I think, is providing the public goods, solve conflicts on those public goods, protect individual rights, and making sure that, when some people have better information than others, those with less are not exploited. Let market help out with the rest.

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