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Liberal mosaic

Published on February 8, 2010 by: in: Thought

Ralf Dahrendorf was a liberal thinker for whom the conflicts procedeeing in various ways in the highly complicated structure of the society seem to be a permanent phenomenon. Modern liberalism, offering freedom of three kinds, composed his response, a difficult response for darious needs and contradictory interests. The goal of liberalism was apparently impossible ereconciliation of social elements, desires of freedom, equality and power.

Marx following the line of least resistance

Dahrendorf was that liberal who openly questioned the basic thesis put by Carl Marx, according to which all social conflicts are signs of class struggle for property. What Marxists considered to be a fundamental flywheel of the history of the mankind, Dahrendorf perceived as an unacceptable simplification. In fact social conflicts have the nature of fight for (differently understood) power and they do not necessarily have to run along the mythical line of demarcation, separating possessors from hired workers. They overlap each other in a variety of ways. Depending on the context and the subject of a conflict, they create a countless mosaic of all sorts of motives, attitudes, impulses, not always material – what’s more, not always rational. Conflicts are an inevitable and constant phenomena, particularly within democratic conditions. The best way to avoid dangers which are caused by them is a well-established pluralistic society. A conflict of interests must have the ability to ‘occur’ within a social-political system. Otherwise it may become a source of challenging the system.

Entitlements versus the freedom of choice

Then, social conflicts usually correspond with the scheme ‘more entitlements’ versus ‘more freedom of choice’. They take place between two typical kinds of claims, whose logic pushes them into a mutual conflict. The former type of claim, more entitlements, is satisfied in contemporary practice by a social state that gives a new, required entitlement to the interested, most often at the expense of economic freedom or effectivness of economy. The driving force of the claim ‘more entitlements’ is the idea of equality (also financial), or rather a well-described by sociology phenomenon of discomfort resulting from the experienced or perceived relative inequality of social-economic status, oversimplifying – “neighbourly jealousy”. This triggers an irrational feeling of unjustice, resulting from the conviction that the lack of financial equality is synonymous to questioning the equality of human beings as such. To demand a redistributive intervention appears to be identical with the restoration of equality before the law, hence it is a call for ‘more entitlements’. Satisfying the latter type of claim, ‘more freedom of choice’ is closely related with the economic growth, that is to say it can be satisfied only by economic efficiency, which is objectively higher when there is limited interventionism and reduction of social functions of the state. Its source are aspirations of the individuals who in their comprehension of ideal life go beyond the widespread standards or generally available options of choice.

The point is, the claim ‘more entitlements’ is generated by a comparative feeling of inferiority, that is to say, it can also be manifested by fairly affluent people. It is a limitation of a high level, while the claims refer to even a higher level. On the other hand, aspirations which cause the claim ‘more freedom of choice’ might occur independently of the financial situation of the person. Thus, the conflict between those typical kinds of claims does not necessarily have to be based on economic factors. It is not a conflict: the poor against the wealthy. This doesn’t mean, however, that it can never adopt such a basic formula. Nevertheless, it means that Marx and his followers are mistaken when they believe that the conflict always adopts such a formula.

Here, we deal with a conflict between a requirement of economic performance on the one hand and a need of the sense of justice (which determines the real social cohesion) on the other hand. Settling the dispute depends greatly on the influence exerted by advocates of both sides, this means on their political freedom which is the third crucial category here.

Ralf Derendorf postulates that the aim of liberalism should be providing at the same time political freedom, economic performance and social coherence. This task doesn’t seem to be easy.

The three deficient models

1. Adopting a literally neoliberal recipe is certainly a good means of increasing economic performance. Low immediate taxes and costs of work not connected with earnings, high flexibility of job market, deregulation and privatisation, that is to say the state’s withdrawal from economic sphere, makes it easy for the private enterpreneurs to achieve success and gives rise impulses to the economy. This rise, however, doesn’t bring about the improvement of the situation of the individual people from all social classes. The link is particularly indiscernible on a short term basis. Greater competitivness of the economy and financial potential of comanies are not reflected by domestic budgets of the majority of citizens. The newly created vacancies are less paid than those which were reduced. Big social groups become actually excluded, which additionally leads to – sometimes quite violent – outbreaks of social discontent. The respect towards law decreases. The state starts to be perceived as an institution both weak and unfriendly. There is a growing sense of public order being at risk. These phenomena, together with the liquidation of welfare benefits, result in a remarkable decline of financial situation of many people and lead to popularisation of the opinions about unjust distribution of the ‘growth fruit’ and to the crisis of social cohession. Dahrendorf argues that a society, which truly aspires to realisation of liberal values, cannot agree to such a course of events on moral basis. Non-economic field of life requires then separate legal regulations.

2. Prosperity is not determined by an economic factor, but also by a social one. Companies aware of this fact on their own initiative pursue providing their employees with the best possible work conditions, increasing the number or work places, they don’t maximize profits at the expense of the level of payment. This is considered a positive contribution to strenghtening of social cohesion. However, this is true that in most cases such actions are imposed by social laws of the state and the pressure exerted by public opinion. A big number of comparatively high welfare benefits forces the Parliament to pass high taxes. Maintaining high standards of employment denotes the necessity of imposing a number of duties on employers, including paying costly contributions. The state guarantees that a part of them will be assigned for high pensions of the people who no longer have the manufacturing capacity. ertainly, the sense of social security and justcewill be great in the case of such an economic model. Plus, the risk for social cohesion will be low. Especially because most citizens opt for entitlements, not for the possibility of choice. Prosperous countries, in the presence of constantly growing claims, in the long run do not bear well the burden of allocated benefits. Their economic performance turns out to be too low to cover the costs of social cohesion. The economic growth doesn’t keep the pace with the rise of expenses, particularly because limiting the economic freedom make it impossible to take full advantage of existing potential. Inefficiency of this solution renders it useless from the liberal point of view.

3. Efforts to maintin a certain model of balance between cohesion and efficiency lead to the necessity of reaching out for authoritarian solutions, that is to say – to limiting political freedom. It happens especially when the preferred model inclines to efficiency, whereas most citizens would choose entitlements, that is they would prefer the model leaning to cohesion. Hence, in the opposite direction. In the face of exclusion and growing frustration of the impoverished social masses, the only way to preserve strictly market-orienteered economic system turns out to be depriving them of the right to voice during the process of making political decisions. Otherwise, the political forces which are opting for the policy of cohesion and welfare protection would gain the majority of voices and resign from neoliberal solutions. A similar problem is caused by the resistance against efforts to limit social protection benefits in a state which carried out a coherent policy until then, but at some point faced serious problems and is now forced to swing the balance in favour of policy of efficiency. There are many examples of authoritarian countries that, thanks to sacrificing political freedom, are able to succesfully meet the requirements of of efficiency as well as cohesion through submitting all areas of political life to a strict controll and through making authoritary decisions once for the sake of efficiency, at other times for the sake of cohesion. They make such decisions considering each case independently. This way, such countries maintain the appropriate balance, which is not disrupted by any criticism, strike or political opposition’s activity. These are not, by any means, solutions compatible with liberal values.

Coexistence of freedom, efficiency and cohesion

Ralf Dahrendorf believes that the only solution compatible with liberal ideas is coexistence of freedom, efficiency and cohesion. The state must unconditionally leave political freedom in the hands of a citizen It must be flawlessly democratic. It cannot respond to difficulties and dangers with limiting individual rights. The state must keep such economic policy which will facilitate taking the maximum advantage of social-economic potential and satisfying requirements of efficiency, without which the other two values will always be at risk. Moreover, the state ought to secure decent living conditions to every citizen as it is its moral duty. The taks of maintaing cohesion should rest on the shoulders of the active civic society, the society taking up a number of various initiatives and able to provide help without engaging the state financially, i.e. without a harm to the efficiency. Civil initiative should be able to count on the institutional and legal support of the state. Voluntary locating each individual in a thick net of social interconnections is likely to help to successfully identify and solve social problems. Obviously, cohesion doesn’t mean that there won’t be absolutely any social tensions. Nor does it mean the uniformization of individuals. However, as Dahrendorf wrote, “interconnections within civic society bring along the values of trust and cooperation, they include others to the community. A civic society is a society of citizens who have rights and take on duties (…) It is a society trying to prove that nobody has been excluded and offering their members a sense of belonging, as well as the constitution of freedom”.


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About Piotr Beniuszys

Piotr Beniuszys holds Master’s degree in sociology and political science; his views are to the right in economic issues, to the left in ethical and moral issues – i.e. liberal in both cases; the final chairman of Unia Wolności in Gdańsk, a former member of Democratic Party –

Fredrich Naumann Foundation For The Freedom
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