Wednesday 4 February 2009
Deborah Orr: Freedom and responsibility aren't always opposites
In recent years the distance between Left and Right has not been so great
Let's pretend, for the sake of precious, beloved, argument, that there is such a homogenous, seamless entity as "the Left", every member of which has been struggling for decades to "destroy the family". Let's pretend, for the same reasons, that there is a similarly coherent entity called "the Right", which has been fighting for years to protect the family.
Let's accept that the family has indeed been undermined in this period, and pretend also that this dismal achievement is now unreservedly regretted by "the Left". Let's pretend that the Left now wants to make a truce with the Right, and find common ground on which a new appreciation of the family can be built.
But let's stop pretending at this point. The truth is that the distance between the Left and the Right during recent years has not been so very great. Many of society's difficulties have come about because views seen as "of the Left" and views seen as "of the Right" have in many respects had symbiotic relationships.
The Left, broadly, for the purposes of the debate over the family, is characterised as the group that promotes personal freedom, and persuades people that the pursuit of their own happiness is the most important thing. The Right, in supposed contrast, wants personal responsibility, which is just a way of saying that individuals should look after themselves.
In the eyes of many on the Right, it is the triumph of freedom over responsibility that has messed so many of us up. Yet while "freedom" and "responsibility" may seem like a couple of concepts in ineluctable contrast to each other, it is important to remember that the other word both sides prize is "personal". This shared idea persuades people, at an individual level, that they should have the right to make their own personal choices, untrammeled by the exhortations of the state. It has resulted in an odd centre-ground alliance, whereby even those services offered by the state are expected to deliver unlimited – and expensive – personal choice.
A number of commentators who would identify themselves as of the right are arguing at present that leftist ideas of personal freedom have come to dominate society, to its detriment. The contents of the recently published Children's Society report on childhood are brandished in support of this idea. The report's assertion that the nuclear family is best for children is presented as a bold revelation of truth to power, as if it is the first step on the road to a desirable and easily attainable situation in which unwed parents are sent to the gulag.
Yet even the people who are most doctrinaire in their belief that it is the collapse in support for marriage that has ruined us all can come up with no more of a clarion cry than "tax-and-benefit-breaks for registered heterosexual relationships" as a practical way of imposing "personal responsibility" on parents.
The reality is that the mainstream Right and Left differ only on whether the great sin is to lecture people on how to spend their money or how to conduct their private lives. Which begs the question: "How can economic liberalism be right, and social liberalism wrong?" The two go hand in hand, surely, just like love and marriage did, long ago, in days gone by.
The Left has not triumphed in Britain, any more than the Right has. Both sets of ideologies have generally championed the freedoms and choices of individuals, even though the Right's emphasis has been economic and the Left's emphasis social. Neither has much to say about how the promotion of individual freedom by necessity confers on people the freedom to make the wrong choices.
The Right's big idea is to concentrate only on limiting the freedom of choice of those who rely on state benefits. Once people are spending their own money, any idea that smacks of consumer or worker or community or environmental protection is to be rejected.
When the Left talks of tough food labelling, or restrictions on advertising in multi-generational spaces, or family-friendly working policies, or even containing the flood of sexualised images that constantly surround us, this is seen as an attack on business and entrepreneurship, and another intrusion by the ghastly nanny state. But really, it's just a weary and difficult acknowledgement that choice is freedom, and that freedom and responsibility are not always life-long faithful bed-fellows, whatever your political stripe. We got to where we are now together, and together we should shoulder the responsibility for our present difficulties.
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