Last Wednesday, there was a memorial service for one of the doyens of American liberalism – Professor Ronnie Dworkin – who died in London, his adopted home, earlier this year. A succession of some of Britain's best-known liberal writers and thinkers took to the rostrum to pay tribute to a man who continued to honour Roosevelt's New Deal, insisted law and morality were indivisible and argued that to live well and with dignity was every human being's aim – one that law and government should support.
It was a moving occasion, but, as his wife, Irene Brendl, wrote in the service notes, this great liberal tradition is increasingly beleaguered. She is right. We live in rightwing times. Law and justice, which Ronnie Dworkin cherished so much, are depicted as burdens on the taxpayer whose costs must be minimised. If you want justice, you must pay for it yourself and have no embedded civic right to expect others to contribute. The good society and moral individuals are those who do without the state. The public sphere is derided and positive public action to promote the common or international good is acceptable only if it involves less, rather than more, government. Instead, what we are invited to hold in common is nationhood, national identity and hostility to foreigners and immigrants. The open society is in retreat.
This may seem an odd commentary in a week in which gay marriage has been agreed by the House of Lords and where companies are increasingly hounded for avoiding their tax. Both are surely liberal rather than conservative preoccupations. In an idiosyncratic leader recently, the Economist proclaimed the strange rebirth of liberal England, arguing that young people's tolerance of ethnic and sexual differences, along with growing distrust of the state and welfare, was proof positive of the emergence of a new liberalism. Ronnie Dworkin should have been happy.
He would have turned in his grave. Such a view of liberalism does not go to the heart of what it means to live well. Tolerance of other people's differences is a core element of a liberal order, but a good society is one where we go beyond just shrugging our shoulders at someone's sexual preferences, religious beliefs or ethnicity. It is one in which we engage with each other, create law and justice as a moral system enshrining human dignity and accept mutual responsibilities. The aim is to live with dignity, to be able to make the best of one's capabilities and to expect that the consequences of undeserved bad luck – what Dworkin called brute bad luck – would be compensated by society in a mutual compact. This is a million miles from the Economist's arid conception of liberalism.
In successive areas of public policy – "reform" of criminal justice and legal aid, the health service, climate change, employment law, social security – the debate is similarly defined wholly in terms of the need to assert individual rights and choice, to minimise social and public responsibilities and, above all, to roll back taxes. If the facts or scientific evidence do not support this drive, then the facts are changed or the science ignored.
But if the right is dominant, a rounded liberalism has one advantage. The right's world leads to economic stagnation, social atomisation and a destructive nationalism. Nor, ultimately, is there happiness and dignity to be found by living as a tax-avoiding, climate-change-denying anti-feminist while mouthing how tolerant you are. There is a quiet and mounting crisis in conservatism. Liberalism, in its best sense, could capitalise on the opportunity. It is a pity Ronnie Dworkin won't be around to be part of the fight back. We'll just have to do it by ourselves.Killer last paragraph and timely perspective and advice for Canadians who presently face many crises of governance faith.