When do liberal ends justify illiberal means?

by Stephen Tall on March 15, 2016

It’s a question worth wrestling with. Here are three issues on which I struggle, or have struggled:

All-women shortlists.

A major topic for discussion among Lib Dems this weekend, with the party conference voting that “If any sitting MP elected in 2015 decides not to contest the next General Election, his replacement should be selected from an all-women shortlist” (as well as giving the right to any local party “to be able to vote for an all-women shortlist or an all-disabled shortlist, or reserve some spaces for candidates from other under-represented groups”).

Once, I would have been firmly opposed. We shouldn’t promote equality by openly discriminating against individuals based on their sex. Nor do I see why we should privilege a white, female barrister over a black, male bus driver. Also, the Lib Dems’ leadership programme had proved itself successful in ensuring women were selected in roughly equal numbers as men in what we had thought were “winnable seats” (unfortunately, in 2015 very few seats proved remotely winnable for the Lib Dems).

I still hold those views. But, equally, I cannot deny that progress will be much, much quicker with all-women shortlists. That increased diversity will benefit the party and (if they’re elected) the country.

So, do the liberal ends justify the illiberal means?

Smoking in public places.

One of my most popular articles to this day is something I wrote more than a decade ago – Why we shouldn’t ban smoking in public places – based on a speech I gave in an Oxford City Council debate at the time when the smoking ban was a hot topic.

I’ve just re-read it and found myself nodding along. Not only did the ban re-define private businesses as public places… not only did it ignore the increasing number of pubs etc which were already declaring themselves smoke-free zones (meaning customers had a choice)… not only did it ignore that the real threat to public health was from passive smoking at home… More fundamentally, “I believe that every time governments impose a law designed to compel individuals to improve their health – whether they like it or not – we make the individual less responsible for their own actions. But a functioning liberal society depends on individuals taking full responsibility for their lives.”

Yet I can’t deny that the evidence suggests the policy has worked, according to a government review on its effects: ‘The law has had a significant impact. Results show benefits for health, changes in attitudes and behaviour and no clear adverse impact on the hospitality industry.’

So, do the liberal ends justify the illiberal means?

Freedom of expression.

I’ve long been a First Amendment-er, reckoning that absolute freedom of speech is a fundamental tenet of liberal society. It’s why I’ve long stuck up for the Christian-run Ashers Bakery in Belfast over its refusal to produce a cake with a pro-same-sex marriage slogan for a gay customer: they shouldn’t be forced to write something they don’t agree with, even if it is as a transaction.

As Peter Tatchell wrote, “This raises the question: should Muslim printers be obliged to publish cartoons of Mohammed? Or Jewish ones publish the words of a Holocaust denier? Or gay bakers accept orders for cakes with homophobic slurs?”

And yet, and yet… Do I really want to turn the clock back to the pre-anti-discrimination laws days of the 1950s, complete with infamous landladies’ signs declaring, ‘No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs’? Of course not — but curtailing the rights of businesses not to turn away paying customers on the basis of who they are was a crucial step in ensuring the UK is a more tolerant society.

So, do the liberal ends justify the illiberal means?

There you go, then. Three issues on which my views haven’t changed, fundamentally, but on which I’m now much more ambivalent.

I agree still with my former liberal principles; but cannot pretend that those liberal principles being flouted won’t result in a better, healthier, happier reality. Maybe that’s a function of growing older — our youthful certainties are gradually broken down by life experiences — or maybe it’s a liberal character trait of seeing both sides of an issue. Whichever, I’ve found it interesting to reflect on the issues on which I now find myself conflicted.

It’s also a useful reality check: most people put outcomes before ideology, prize ends above means. Unless you can show how your principles will improve their everyday lives, don’t be surprised if you fail to persuade.