Lord Dahrendorf mapped out an approach to social progress that was distinctively liberal. He combined an understanding of the importance of markets with a deep concern for social justice and a basic equality of ‘life chances’. The latter concept was essential to his thinking. Dahrendorf perceived life chances as the social conditions that define how much individuals can realise their full potential. He recognised that people do not, cannot choose the conditions they have to work under and that life chances will be unequal, the opportunities to succeed unfairly shared.
This sounds, at first blush, like the start of a basic case for “social democratic” politics. But Dahrendorf saw the route to social progress as being about offering individuals greater opportunities to make the best of their talents. He argued that in order to achieve the greatest life chances for all, we need to create the correct institutions: a strong civil society, a market economy and the constitution of liberty.
Dahrendorf questioned whether large state organisations were always the best means of delivering a society in which ‘life chances’ were maximised. He believed that individual choice had a part to play in all spheres of society. And he saw the choices that people make and ‘the ties that bind’ in society as being both linked together and indispensable in delivering positive change. By contrast, traditional social democratic approaches were based on using state action to promote equality. They tend to see politics as being about improving the lot of particular groups - classes - in society.
To some contemporary liberals, there may have been too much Milton Friedman and too little John Maynard Keynes in Dahrendorf’s work. Yet he recognised that markets needed to be changed and refined, through continual trial and error. Hella Pick’s obituary of Dahrendorf picked up on another important distinction between his brand of liberalism and economic libertarianism.
“Dahrendorf became emphatic that basic civil rights, including equality before the law and freedom of expression, must be given constitutional legitimacy. But he went further, arguing that modern citizenship must recognise unambiguous social rights to free people from insecurity and to ensure that they have education and that their incomes must not be allowed to fall below a certain level. Such rights needed to be removed from party politics and constitutionally enshrined. "
And, as long ago as 1974, Lord Dahrendorf recognised the constraints that ecological damage, overpopulation and limited resources impose on the full actualisation of life chances. In other words, neither "life chances", nor "free markets", could be ends in themselves. He also understood that international co-operation would be needed to meet such challenges.
His ability to see clearly the difference between liberal ends and political means was shown in Dahendorf’s approach to European co-operation, which he supported as a bulwark of freedom and democracy. But he was sometimes critical of the way integration has gone ahead. As Timothy Garton-Ash explained on Radio 4’s The Last Word (19 June):
“[Ralf Dahrendorf’s] Europe was not so much the Europe of institutions even though he was a European commissioner. His Europe was the Europe of freedom and he always liked to say that for him the greatest European moment was 1989 – the velvet revolutions, the liberation of eastern Europe.”
Lord Dahrendorf’s thinking has been very influential on the Liberal Democrats, even if he was often ahead of his time. We have heard strong echoes of his theories widening life chances in many of Nick Clegg’s speeches as leader. In the 2009 European Parliament election campaign, the Lib Dems tried to focus less on the institutions, more on what matters to people in their daily lives.
I did not know Ralf Dahrendorf well but had a few contacts with him over the years, during my time as policy director for the Liberal Democrats and, a few years back, as a fellow participant in a policy working group that redefined the party’s philosophy and values. And on one memorable occasion, Lord Dahrendorf was the guest speaker at a business dinner on UK, German and EU politics. The evening was a great success. He was one of the most insightful and intelligent people I have ever met, and always a pleasure to deal with.