Leiden Law Blog

Liberal “principles” or how to make the best of it for yourself in worthless times

Liberal “principles” or how to make the best of it for yourself in worthless times

More than a few prominent liberals in The Netherlands were, and are, publicly known for misconduct such as tax fraud, misleading company shareholders, bribery at the cost of public interests, or simply stealing. Recently there was public outcry over a former liberal cabinet member (by the name of Robin Linschoten) charged with tax fraud.

Indeed, our liberal party, the “Vereniging voor Vrijheid en Democratie” or VVD, is also rather liberal when it comes to norms and values in principle. Personal freedom and autonomy are at the core of the liberal programme: away with “objective” norms and values prescribed from above, live your life for yourself! In line with this liberalism, the party encourages individual initiative and enterprise in making the best possible use of the circumstances. Others may complain about “excesses”, but where are the “objective” norms and values that can be used to define such excess. That is, if there are any at all?

But then tax fraud, bribery, theft and the like are surely at odds with the law, one would think? Some liberals would not agree: respect for the law is not prescribed by law itself. What is the objective value or worth of all these regulations? The real question is taken to be: what is their value or worth for me? For real liberals, the legal order is no more than part of an external reality. A complex system offering opportunities and threats, to be made good use of for personal advantage: the “tool kit conception” of law or, in fact, of everything.

Still, even liberals fully living up to these principles can be caught and convicted, that is if they have been unlucky or just stupid enough to have miscalculated their chances and opportunities for making the best of it. But why pass any moral judgment on such “misconduct”? “Crime” for personal advantage is fully in line with liberal principles, backed up by the supposed absence of any real values. This may well explain our liberal party’s pole position in terms of crooks and criminals among their prominent members.

This is a caricature of course. Still, it serves to show the contradictions in any attitude, political or otherwise, that stresses the priority of personal autonomy over everything else. First, any appeal to personal autonomy in order to disqualify “objective” norms and values is nothing more than a personal statement, as long as personal autonomy is to be regarded as a value as well. So any liberal promoting such values may expect reactions like: “most interesting, but why listen to your opinions on autonomy or whatever so-called liberal values and norms at all, as long as they are no more than personal opinions?” Second, liberals still promote values and norms such as: “paying taxes is giving in to extortion”, or less radical versions of anti-tax stances. According to their own liberal “philosophy”, such norms are again no more than subjective opinions. Third, any chance of living your own life presupposes a real rule of law, general respect for it, and so many more effective institutions offering opportunities for living autonomously. Taxes are to be paid in order to keep all this up and running of course.

Liberal man's, or just man's, opportunistic subjectivism and relativism, which puts “autonomy” or individual advantage first and thus belittles real crime at the cost of others, is a conceptual and moral mess which is about as bad as the belief in witches and unicorns. David Luban stated a better starting point: respect for the law is respect for your fellow citizens, unless the law is unfair, stupid or simply wrong. This expresses a non-subjective, basic moral value. You’re not alone in this world. The real challenge for respectable liberalism is finding a fair balance between personal autonomy and public responsibility, both in principle and in the conduct of prominent liberals.

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