On liberalism and politics

Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s thought-provoking piece analyses the tensions between multiculturalism and liberalism. This comes in the backdrop of David Cameron’s recent call for ‘muscular liberalism’ in stead of multiculturalism in Britain. The tension is ever-present in Indian politics as much as in British politics – Mehta mentions the personal law debate. Our political establishment’s wavering position on freedom of speech is yet another example (discussed previously on this blog).

Mehta’s insight that ‘liberal politics globally has been curiously susceptible to being taken over by right-wing nationalists’ is noteworthy. Notice that he talks about liberal, rather than neo-liberal, politics. I find the right-wing’s takeover of the liberal agenda curious too. Unlike neo-liberalism, recent liberal thought not only recognises but also mandates redistributive justice (and not necessarily based on identity). Liberal philosophers from John Rawls to Joseph Raz to Martha Nussbaum are more likely to be classified as belonging to the ‘left’ than to the ‘right’.

On a related note, much is being made of ‘efficiency’ in the public sector in British politics these days. Again, like liberalism, I fail to see why efficiency should find a natural home in right wing politics. Surely, the left can make a positive case for a redistributive (big?) state which is also efficient as easily as the right makes a case for a small and efficient state? Appropriating liberty and efficiency as values of (at least parts of) the political left may also help expose those politicians who use them as pretexts for another agenda.

Written by
Tarunabh Khaitan
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