David Green, author of the upcoming “Inclusive Capitalism: He we can make independence work for everyone“, has a good piece in the Spectator about the extent to which the modern Conservative Party has abandoned the goal of maximising liberty. Bonus points to Green for quoting Michael Oakeshott, with whose work I gained a very passing familiarity and appreciation thanks to reading Andrew Sullivan’s blog back in the day.
There is also much to be learnt from the great philosopher of freedom, Michael Oakeshott, who tried to put his finger on the fundamental truths that are worthy of defence. Our freedom, he said, rests on mutually supporting liberties none of which stands alone:
‘It springs neither from the separation of church and state, nor from the rule of law, nor from private property, nor from parliamentary government, nor from the writ of habeas corpus, nor from the independence of the judiciary … but from what each signifies and represents, namely the absence from our society of overwhelming concentrations of power.’
In short, he says, we consider ourselves to be free because: ‘no one in our society is allowed unlimited power – no leader, faction, party or “class”, no majority, no government, church, corporation, trade or professional association or trade union.’
Precisely. Yet tell anyone today that there are no “overwhelming concentrations of power” in our society and they will laugh in your face, quite rightly. At least in the 1970s the enormous power of the trades union (bad though it was) balanced out the power of the state and ensured that there were at least two competing interest groups. Now there is no such balance. The unions were de-fanged, which was right and necessary. But the decline of religion, waning influence of the church and the gradual capture of arts, culture and academia by metro-leftist ideas mean there has been no real opposition to prevailing policies inside or outside Parliament.
Today, recent anti-establishment backlashes including Brexit and the election of Donald Trump – while dissimilar in every other way – are united by the popular belief that recent government policy had served the interests of only one interest group, the university-educated metropolitan elite, with no countervailing force able to successfully represent other interests. Certainly the Labour Party gave up any pretence of supporting or representing their working class constituents well over a decade ago.
Green goes on to argue that one reason the pro-liberty wing of the Tory party have lost so much ground to the inept clan of statists and authoritarians like Theresa May is that their definition of liberty has become too narrow, and their view of how to achieve it too simplistic.
It is not enough to argue that capitalism is great and to shout hysterical warnings about Venezuela and North Korea in the expectation that this will convince an increasingly sceptical population to embrace a status quo which is evidently failing so many of them. And the more one lays into Jeremy Corbyn and his merry band of socialists without revising and promoting one’s own definition of freedom, the more one appears to be an apologist for the crony corporatism that the Left now falsely claim represents the entirety of capitalism.
But apologists for capitalism in its current form are undermining what is mutually beneficial about a market economy. If we want to continue adding to our prosperity we must accept that it depends on constant adaptation to fluctuating demand for goods and services through the system of voluntary exchange at freely adjusting prices. We must enjoy the personal freedom to react to incessant alteration of the conditions affecting the occupations available to us and the products we are able to buy. The mistake of free-market fundamentalists is to assume that this freedom to adapt implies minimal government. But freedom does not depend on the absence of government. We must learn to choose between government actions that are compatible with a free economy and those that are not. Compatible actions included contract law, measures to prevent the abuse of private power through cartels and monopolies, and laws regulating corporations, including limited liability.
And this is just one of many things that this year’s Conservative Party Conference and Theresa May’s meltdown of a speech failed to accomplish. The prime minister made a half-hearted attempt to acknowledge the crisis of faith in capitalism in her speech, but when she later called out the dysfunctional energy market, her solution of national price caps was straight from the leftist, Ed Miliband playbook. The remedy proposed did not seek to enhance the liberty of either the producer or consumer – perhaps by finding ways to promote competition, break cartels, lower barriers to entry or increase transparency and information for consumers – but merely sought to impose the imposition of a state-mandated settlement on both parties.
Like the entirety of the Left, today’s Conservative Party seeks to regulate outcomes rather than provide a level playing field and equal opportunities. We see exactly this explicitly stated in Theresa May’s audit of racial disparities, which blindly looks for inequities of outcome and attributes them to racism rather than looking at underlying demographic, social or systemic issues.
So fearful has the Right become of the Left, so desperate are they to shed their image of being the “nasty party”, so totally have they absorbed the Left’s narrative about 21st century Britain being some terribly racist dystopia that policy is now made according to the headlines the Tories hope to generate rather than the results they want to see. No wonder they also lack the courage to stand up to leftist smearing of capitalism and make the positive case for free markets.
David Green is quite right to remind us that promoting maximum freedom does not mean a complete government withdrawal from regulation and oversight. But Theresa May’s government (as with David Cameron’s before) goes too far, abusing this principle by trying to regulate both inputs and outcomes, and prioritising the latter over any commitment to defending liberty.
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