This interview was conducted by Javier Toro.
Timothy Garton Ash, CMG, FRSA, is Professor of European Studies at the University of Oxford, Isaiah Berlin Professorial Fellow at St Antony's College and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. His latest book is Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World.
I think the crisis of liberalism that we are experiencing at the moment comes precisely from liberalism having being reduced to the one dimension of economic liberalism, that is to say, free markets. Indeed, in many countries now, when people say liberalism, they only mean economic liberalism. True liberalism has to be multidimensional. It has to have a political, a social, a cultural, a legal, as well as the economic dimension, because true liberalism is about what enables the greatest possible individual liberty, and, as we know, man does not live by bread alone. So, the political, the social, and the cultural dimensions of liberty are equally important.
Inequality does not distinguish the liberal economic system from all other economic systems. There is no economic system known to history that in practice hasn’t had great inequality. Feudalism, prefeudal systems, authoritarian capitalism as we know it today, they all have had great inequality. What is different in a democratic system is that too great economic differences, that is to say, inequality of income and wealth, do threaten liberalism because a majority in the country concerned ultimately says, as they are entitled to do, “we’ve had enough of this, this is not good enough”. But let us not kid ourselves that inequality is confined to capitalist systems. The problem of thinking that inequality is an intrinsic problem of capitalism is, of course, that the solutions proposed by the populists are not the right solutions. Complete equality is a Utopian idea, but a stable and lasting liberal society does require a limit to the degree of inequality. It has to have a component of equality. Equality is not, in my view, equality of outcome. In other words, everybody doesn’t have to be paid the same, or everybody doesn’t have to be as rich as each other. Equality means equality of opportunity and, what the great liberal philosopher Ronald Dworkin called, “equality of respect and concern”. There is an important point that I should mention about this. The fundamental requirement of a liberal society is that everyone in that society can be authors of their own lives, that is, they can shape their own lives. For that, they need a minimum: a roof over their heads, a minimum income, basic education and health care. And there are certain prerequisites for that minimum. Now, you could theoretically argue that if everybody has enough, it doesn’t matter if a small group of people has far too much. But the practical experience of the last fifty years shows that too great an inequality affects the life chances for those at the bottom. There is a point where they stop having equality of opportunity.
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