On the 4th of May, the Democratic Alliance Student Organisation (DASO) held a lively debate at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) on the topic of classical liberalism versus social liberalism.
Representing classical liberalism was Neo Mkwane, Chair of the Western Cape DASO and at the Rational Standard. Representing social liberalism was Lindokuhle Matanzima Sixabayi.
The debate comes at a time when many liberals are feeling dissatisfied and worried about policy changes in the DA. For many of us, the DA seems to be sacrificing liberal principles for votes.
One such example is from Van Damme, who said:
“As a political party, with the objective of national governance, we need to move away from rigid liberal ideology towards a liberal approach that is more relevant to addressing the inequality in South Africa. This is not a rejection of our liberal values.”
Except for a few individuals, it seemed that the DA was moving away from liberalism and embracing pure social democracy.
The debate at CPUT, in many ways, was a watershed moment. I went to support a few of the individual DASO members I know to be real liberals and to support my ideology, but I was also using the event to gauge the future leadership of the official opposition.
‘Classical’ liberalism vs ‘social liberalism’
It is important to distinguish these different conceptions of liberalism. Politicians often confuse their own views for the views of their adopted ideology and, while people should be free to support certain coherent policies on their own merits, one shouldn’t ascribe to them the wrong ideology.
Liberalism, first and foremost, is an ideology that promotes individualism, free markets, free speech, the rule of law and rational discourse.
‘Classical’ liberalism could be seen as a strict adherence to the original tenets of liberalism. It takes the principles and comes to the conclusion that to achieve the rule of law, free markets and individual freedom, one needs a small and effective government that respects property rights and liberty.
‘Social liberals’ are pro-free market, but they are also willing to compromise in the name of material equality. They believe that material inequality prevents freedom and that the government should intervene to remedy this state of affairs. In practice, social liberals and social democrats have the same policies, but different intentions. Social liberals must always ultimately concede to the original principles of individual liberty, while social democrats must concede to popular vote.
Because social liberals, thanks to John Rawls, have a freedom principle, they can be considered liberals. It also means that the second one of their policies can be proven to violate that freedom principle, they must concede it.
The debate saw Mkwane make a great case for classical liberalism – excellently basing his argument on the ideals of liberty: leave people alone until they threaten harming others.
The principle was able to counter all opposition on the floor. Sixabayi even started using it to base his own arguments on.
The most resonant point that Mkwane made, however, and one that the audience really seemed to gel with, was the self-determination of individuals.
What I gathered from the reactions of the audience and from the debate, was that South Africans are stick of a paternal government that tells people how to live their lives and how to run their businesses. The mood of the room was that government should stop babying its people and needs to leave them to run their own lives.
There were a few naysayers in the room, but by the end, even Sixabayi was supporting more classical liberal policies than social liberal policies.
In fact, the only disagreement was on grants and progressive taxation – and Sixabayi said vehemently that tax across the board should be lower. And because there are classical liberal welfare schemes, the social liberal camp can still be pulled solely onto the classical liberal side.
It is clear from this that while there may be many aesthetic differences, classical liberals can convince social liberals to adopt better policies.
It was a fun evening but beyond that, it made me realise that there is still hope in the DA. The youth want freedom, not a nanny-state and the more confident the real liberals in the DA become, the more they can begin to reclaim the party from its illiberal ways and thus put South Africa on a better path to liberty and prosperity.