Chasing Liberty

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.

Green writes:

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.

Money quote:

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.


Theresa May - Building a country that works for everyone

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The Uber Wars: Will The Left Ever Fight For Consumers Over Special Interests?

London Black Cabs - Uber Taxi Protest

Whenever there is a battle between the interests of ordinary consumers and the tired, unimaginative producers who rip them off, the Left take the side of the special interests over the little guy every single time

Wherever there is technological innovation and the prospect of incremental or revolutionary improvements in the way we live, there is also inevitably a finger-wagging lefty standing by with ten good reasons why humanity should stay in the cave, be terrified of fire and reject the wheel because it will put professional floor-draggers out of work.

And so it is with Uber. Left Foot Forward have come up with a list of five things you didn’t know about Uber – the obvious nature of which is clearly based on the assumption that you are a credulous simpleton who has no curiosity or understanding about how the services you use every day come to be delivered. And unsurprisingly, this list of five scandalous “unknown” things just happens to support the case for regulating Uber to death and propping up the greedy, inefficient, snarlingly anti-competitive black taxi cartel.

Here are Left Foot Forward’s five reasons why Uber is actually evil, courtesy of Ruby Stockham:

  1. It asserts that its drivers are ‘partners’, meaning they are not entitled to normal worker’s rights.
  2. If a driver’s rating falls below 4.6 or 4.2 (there are varying accounts) they risk being sacked (or ‘deactivated’ to use the Uber euphemism.)
  3. Uber deducts a fifth of a driver’s income, which is already low.
  4. Uber’s tax arrangements are highly contested.
  5. There are no limits on the number of cars Uber can operate.

My God, it’s awful.

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Politicians Who Are Against Uber Are Against Working Londoners

Uber Taxi Protest

Uber represents everything good about capitalism, disruptive innovation at its most useful. Any politician who wants to make it harder or impossible for Uber to operate is directly working against the interests of the people

If a group of heavies from, say, the Unite union had broken into Parliament during the recent debate on the Trade Union Act, disrupted the House of Commons, forced an end to the session and knocked a security guard unconscious in the process, what do you think David Cameron’s Conservative government would be doing right now?

Exactly. Those involved would be receiving the same full measure of British justice as was dealt out to the London rioters back in 2011 and looking at some hard jail time, while the unions they represented would be positively begging for measures as mild as those currently proposed by the government. The Conservatives would be at total war with the unions, and Labour’s hyperbolic claims about the Evil Tories wanting to roll back two hundred years of industrial relations regulation might actually start to seem plausible.

All of which makes it surprising that when exactly the same thing happened at London’s City Hall earlier this month – when members of that famous cartel, London’s black cab drivers, burst into the chamber and brought an abrupt end to Mayor’s Question Time – there were absolutely no negative consequences whatsoever.

CityAM reported at the time:

Mayor’s Question Time was shut down after police were called to City Hall today, after a security guard was apparently knocked out in scuffle outside the building. 

Black cab drivers were demonstrating outside (and inside) the Southbank venue over ongoing criticism of Transport for London’s handling of regulation for private hire car companies, in particular Uber

They waved banners calling for Johnson to “stand firm” against “Uber’s lobbyists”, with suggestions that the ride-sharing taxi app puts public safety at risk. 

Ah yes, appeals for politicians to consider public safety – the last refuge of the desperate, antiquated monopolist fighting a lost cause as they slide into irrelevance. Won’t somebody please think of the children, too, while we’re at it?

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Will The Anti-Corbyn Backlash Change Labour’s Attitude To Capitalism?

Capitalism Isn't Working Banner - Jonathan Jones - Socialism - Jeremy Corbyn

If Jeremy Corbyn is not the answer to the Labour Party’s creeping irrelevance, the party must make peace with capitalism and free markets once and for all – and then decide what it stands for.

Is Guardian columnist Jonathan Jones the great new hope of the British Left?

No, of course not. This is still the same odious man who poured scorn on the Tower of London poppy display and who thinks that the Union flag – our national flag – is ‘provocative’ and offensive. But between the usual self aggrandisement and marvelling at his own peerless ethical virtue, a small but noteworthy sliver of realisation crept into Jones’ latest column.

Jonathan Jones is a committed Labour centrist, you see, and it is driving him absolutely crazy to watch Jeremy Corbyn’s acolytes seize the mantle of principled socialism for themselves, leaving him looking like just another rootless, ideologically compromised member of the establishment.

All of which led to this mini tantrum in the Guardian:

I can’t listen any more to rhetoric that contrasts the idealism of Corbyn’s supporters with the supposed cynicism, hollowed-out power worship and futile pragmatism of the centre-left. I am a Labour centrist supporter not out of cynicism but out of principle, because I believe the only ethical politics of the left today has to be moderate, reasoning, and sceptical. I am Labour, but I am not a socialist any more.

But it’s what Jones writes next which is really interesting:

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The End Of America As We Know It? Hardly.

Andrew Sullivan posts an excellent retort to Mitt Romney’s fear mongering that the United States is about to make a binary flip from being a free enterprise nation to having a “government-run economy”, based on this illuminating chart:

As you will note, the line indicating growth in corporate profits (in billions of dollars) obstinately refuses to go in the direction that it would need to point in order to signify the government-led smothering of the private sector that Romney wants us to believe is currently taking place.

The Republican presidential candidate has been giving speeches bemoaning the notion that President Obama doesn’t understand capitalism or the free enterprise system, and that this ignorance is leading Obama to implement policies that are harming the economic recovery. Romney has advanced this line of attack frequently, most recently at a campaign event in St. Louis, Missouri, though to be fair, he seems willing to ascribe Obama’s supposed failures to ignorance rather than malice:

I do not believe this has been done with evil intent or ill will. But for a family watching their house being sold at foreclosure, or the family that is forced to spend their kid’s college savings just to make ends meet, the results are just as devastating.

Oh wait, perhaps not:

I will not be that President of deception and doubt. I will lead us to a better place.

Then, of course, comes the obligatory lie about Obamacare, the Affordable Healthcare act:

Today, government at all levels consumes 37 percent of the total economy or G.D.P. If Obamacare is allowed to stand, government will reach half of the American economy. And through the increasing controls government has imposed on industries like energy, financial services and automobiles, it will soon effectively control the majority of our economic activity.

This line only works if you are ill-informed enough to actually believe that Obamacare effectively appropriates and nationalises the entire US healthcare industry, bringing it under government ownership as opposed to just regulating the industry to a higher degree and increasing the customer base of the insurance companies through the individual mandate. So it’s basically a big fat lie, though Romney is clever enough to choose his words carefully, stating “government will reach half of the American economy”, a quite meaningless phrase, but one that deliberately and incorrectly suggests ownership and control of half of the US economy without actually putting him on the record as having said so.

And finally, the crux of Romney’s argument:

One must ask whether we will still be a free enterprise nation and whether we will still have economic freedom. America is on the cusp of having a government-run economy. President Obama is transforming America into something very different than the land of the free and the land of opportunity.

We know where that transformation leads. There are other nations that have chosen that path. It leads to chronic high unemployment, crushing debt, and stagnant wages.

I don’t want to transform America; I want to restore the values of economic freedom.

This is what really irritates me about the Romney argument, this idea that there is a binary choice between “free enterprise” and “government-run”, that America has always dwelt on the free enterprise side of the line and that Obama wants an old-school socialist planned economy. It is borne out of the total allergy to nuance or shades of grey currently affecting the Republican party, and is one of the main reasons why I cannot bring myself to support them at the moment.

Of course there is no such binary choice. What percentage of GDP would have to be consumed by government spending for “free enterprise” to officially be declared dead according to the Romney definition? 37%, the current figure? 50% + 1? Something else? All conservatives – myself included – want to see government spending account for as small a proportion of GDP as possible, and most would agree that the current level – in Britain as well as in America – is too high. But the size of government has expanded under both parties, and though Obama may be guilty of failing to reverse the trend, he has at least slowed the rate of increase in the size of government, when the stimulus measures are factored out. For Mitt Romney to suggest that the US is teetering on the brink of becoming a planned economy under Obama when government spending accounts for 37% of GDP is not only the worst type of scaremongering, it also ignores the significant contribution that his own party made to the problem.

And as for this narrative about Obama seeking to “transform” America, to turn it into something unrecognisable from before – while it may be the only narrative that Romney can hope to ride to the White House in November, it is also untrue. Obama is a centre-left politician implementing mostly centre-left policies, some of which would actually have enjoyed a measure of support among Republicans if they had been proposed by a President Bush, Cheney or McCain. But for Romney to get out the vote, he must convince his supporters of something patently untrue, that Obama is a radical, a dangerous subversive trying to alter the fabric of America.

I’m an economic conservative, I believe in a small state and limited government involvement in private markets. But given the choice between someone on the centre left who is making an honest effort along Keynesian lines to solve the economic difficulties facing America and someone on the right who screams “socialism!” where none exists, and who remains in denial about his own side’s complicity in the downturn and the detrimental effect that his policy proposals would have on the recovery, I have to hold my nose and support the centre left guy.

Which is a shame, because it would be nice to have a genuine choice in 2012.