For Marx, meaningful change would only come about when the workers seized control of the means of production. In his day that meant land, factory machinery and transport networks. Were he around now, I think he would probably cast a tired eye over the left’s moral crusading on executive remuneration and welfare payments and look instead with enthusiasm to what is stirring in the economy.
It is already widely noted how rapid technological change is transferring the power to design and manufacture from large companies into the hands of individuals and small networks. Less noticed is the way that a similar transfer of power is happening for other business practices associated with the service sector as much as manufacturing.
Marketing, for example, no longer requires expensive advertising or marketing departments but can be done through a skillful use of peer-to-peer online networks. Distribution can be conducted immediately and cheaply if your product is intellectual content but even if you are selling something with a physical form then firms like Ebay and Amazon offer sophisticated distribution infrastructures. R&D no longer requires an office full of pointy-heads as there is a sea of free advice out on the web if you know how to access it. Even the mysteries of the finance department are opening up to individuals and networks with the rise of crowdfunding and other investment sites.
what started as a consumers’ revolution is becoming a workers’ revolution
I have characterised this as a shift towards ‘self-generated value’ because consumers are creating the things they value for themselves rather than relying on business to do it. However, the capacity provided by the internet to generate this value for yourself also means the tools are now available to generate value for others. Millions of people are now producing on-line content or using the internet to provide fundamental support to their off-line activities. And many of those millions are finding ways to make money from that value generating activity. In effect, what started as a consumers’ revolution is becoming a workers’ revolution as people increasingly produce things directly for customers rather than having to work for a company to do this.
What Marx got wrong
However, Marx was very wrong about two things which explains why this is not a revolution he would entirely recognise.
Firstly, he believed fundamentally in the labour theory of value: the notion that the value of any commodity is determined by the work that has gone into producing it. For him the reason workers should seize the means of production is so they can lay claim to the full value that they, and they alone, have created.
Over the years, it is an economic theory that has taken a very serious intellectual battering. Quite rightly as it turns out because the shifts we are seeing towards self-generated value are not being driven by Marx’s concerns. Instead they owe far more to a strong desire to participate directly in the production of value for oneself and for others. Put another way, what is driving this is an entrepreneurial and creative spirit to generate value not a campaigning spirit to seize value.
Secondly, Marx saw the means of production being seized only when the workers acted collectively as a class to do so. Again, this is a theory that has been beaten to a pulp both intellectually and in reality as class allegiance has dwindled along with the industrial sector which Marx and Engels studied so closely. So the means of production are not being seized by unions and workers’ communes but by individuals and loose networks of individuals.
For these reasons, today’s Marxists who have noticed this shift to self-generated value either regard it as unimportant or as something to be appropriated by the ‘working class movement’ and transformed into a collectivist phenomena.
A new battle for economic control
Marx might have been more intellectually adventurous than today’s Marxists
I’d like to think that Marx himself might have been more intellectually adventurous. I wonder if what he might see in its very earliest stages is a conflict not over control of the existing means of production as such but over the right to use a new means of production free of the constraints imposed by those who control the older means of production. This is closer to what happened in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as merchants and early industrialists battled to loosen the old feudal nobility’s grip on property and trading law which had been established when the main means of production was the land.
So today we see those making wide use of new technologies struggling against the laws that served the interests of those who run the more centralised and closed economy of public corporations and large companies. Hence the battles over intellectual property law which is raging most acutely in the creative industries. The rather fraught relationship in the US between banking regulators and crowdfunding sites. And the emerging tensions between the users of the on-line currency Bitcoin and state officials.
However, the question Marx may have asked himself given his radical concerns is not only whether those who are seizing, or more accurately, transforming the means of production will triumph but whether their new power will be shared widely when they do. In short, is this really the coming of a new age of democratised ownership and trade or is it simply one elite facing down another?
Every Budget debate is a category error. The notion that decisions taken by a centralised, structured body like government can have a seamless impact on a dispersed, self-organising system like the economy is one of the great fallacies of our political era. But rather than acknowledge the vast obstacles this places in the way of meaningful economic policy, our public discourse is full of voices aghast at the wooden-headedness of a Chancellor failing to do the obvious thing.
And those voices should be considerably more wary of sounding too strident at a time of economic volatility. The tax cutters on one side of the party divide and the bond sellers on the other must know that when a person has to walk an unknown path they are bound to wear sensible shoes.
What responsible Chancellor is going to bet the farm on a radical course of action when unexpected events (of which there are many these days) could quickly negate any supposed benefit leaving him with an even bigger problem to resolve. Whiz bang solutions like slashing CGT or borrowing billions to spend on house building would fizzle like a damp sparkler should the Eurozone suddenly fall to a Cypriot contagion.
It is sad but true that when faced by the biggest economic test that the UK and the world has endured in many decades, the state is looking mighty small. What was never really in the gift of Chancellors – economic health – is even less available at a time of high risk and great uncertainty.
There is only one meaningful question we can ask ourselves at a time of economic crisis. It is not “what should the Chancellor do” but “what should I do”. It is the inestimable strength of capitalism that it generates growth not through the decree of a central authority but through the aggregated force of a million decisions made every day by millions of people some of which are tiny, some much larger. If we would but recognise it, the power to get the economy back on course rests in our hands.
The ideological out there will be rolling their eyes at the piety; they are after all mostly professional state botherers for whom every path to heaven and to hell passes straight through the doors of 10 and 11 Downing Street.
But get out of your party political citadel and talk to a younger generation and there is a spirit at large that entirely reflects this more voluntarist ethos. There is a fascination with practical ideas and with innovation. There is a fresh belief that rather than griping about a problem, the obligation is ours to resolve it. There is a desire to be an agent of change not as the baby boomers understood it – going on marches and ‘dropping out’ – but by establishing ventures that have an impact here and now. In short, it is a new entrepreneurial spirit but one applied not just to commercial business but also to charitable, public sector and network activity.
Hence the sudden sharp rise of the number of 18-29 year olds undertaking early stage entrepreneurial activity in the UK. And before the cynics claim this is a sort of forced entrepreneurialism brought about by a stagnant labour market, note that the great majority of young entrepreneurs deny this.
If we really do care about the state of the economy, rather than merely the state of our political credibility, then the best thing we can do is turn away from the bi-annual pantomime of financial statements and work out what our organisations – educational bodies, charities, businesses – can do to nurture and spread this youthful spirit of ‘venturism’. As the state cowers, the obligation can fall nowhere else but to us.
This post first appeared on the LSE British Politics and Policy Blog.
All credit to Ken Loach for directing our attention back to the epoch-shaping Labour Government of 1945. It speaks to a time when many fear that the last vestiges of what Attlee, Bevan and Dalton built are being torn down.
The truth is, however, that the narrative behind the longing for the ‘Spirit of 1945’ is wrong. Political values may have shifted unrecognisably from that period but in terms of cold hard cash, Beveridge and Attlee remain the towering figures of our age. In fact, their importance has only grown.
The three areas that the Attlee Government hard-wired into the fabric of state provision were pensions, healthcare and social security. A brief look at the change in the share of public spending going to these areas reveals why, far from fading, the ‘Spirit of 1945′ is in the sort of health that would make Nye Bevan proud:
|Year||Share of public spend on health, pensions and welfare (all figures can be found here)||Public spending as % of GDP|
The trend is incontrovertible and there is no sign that it will reverse given an ageing population, growing demand on the NHS and the higher unemployment rates we have experienced since the mid-1970s.
So the real challenge is not how we return to some lost world of pre-Thatcher glory but how we maintain a civilised and just society when the mechanism established under Attlee to do this has become unsustainable. As the FT columnist Janan Ganesh wrote last year (£):
Seventy years on, the benevolent thrust of the Beveridge report jars with the recent resurgence of the defining problem of economics: scarcity. But the intellectual boldness of the document is what the age requires. The UK needs an equivalent of the report from the opposing perspective – a strategic vision of the state that seeks to gradually contain its cost by narrowing its ambition.
The notion of the Big Society was, of course, supposed to do this rethinking. However, when one looks at the scale of growth in the table, the idea that a half-baked marketing concept might genuinely recast seventy years of the Beveridge behemoth was always ludicrous.
A ‘success state’ not a ‘failure state’
Ganesh is right, we need something as powerful as the Spirit of ‘45. That power came in some large part from the clarity and simplicity of the message: the idea that giving the state a much more active part in the life of the individual would slay the five giants of disease, squalor, ignorance, idleness and want that the free market could not defeat.
Since that point, the right has tilted constantly at the extra role this gives to government. Their alternative guiding principle has been the notion that the state is a malign interference in the beneficial operation of the market and its cornerstone of individual responsibility. However, despite eighteen years of Conservative Government inspired by this view (and three more since 2010), the figures above show how ineffective this has been as a mobilising ideal.
The problem is that the enlarged role for the state acted as a dog whistle for the right detracting their attention for decades from the other very significant aspect of the Spirit of ’45. This is its deeply remedial nature: the notion that the role of the state is to pick up the pieces resulting from the failure of the market and the individual. In short, the state steps in when things go wrong. The obvious alternative view that the state may have a role in stopping things going wrong in the first place has always been the less favoured sibling despite the fact that it is potentially just as powerful and fruitful as the remedial conceptualisation.
As a result, we have a state that spends more on welfare than on education (17% of total public spending versus 13% in 2012), commits only 2% of the healthcare budget to prevention and public health and spends £1.5 billion on a hotchpotch of benefits for better off pensioners rather than using the money to help older people stay in work, set up a business or volunteer.
The importance of shifting to a state designed to generate success rather than ameliorate failure is two-fold. Firstly, it is an optimistic notion of what can be achieved by state action which chimes far better with the more aspirational age we live in now. And secondly, it may prove an effective way of saving money over the medium to long term. Better educated citizens are less likely to be poor and unemployed, citizens who take care of themselves are less likely to get ill and older people who work longer or remain active are less likely to require state support.
So ultimately, the goal of those who would like to see the state back on a sustainable fiscal path while also holding true to a vision of a civilised and just society is to find ways to replace our ‘failure state’ with a ‘success state’. In short, this would be a state that is less about protecting people against the flaws of a free society and economy and more about helping them to enjoy all that a free society and economy has to offer.
The recent vote on same-sex marriage has shown how shrunken is the space in British politics for those who value a consistent notion of individual freedom and choice.
Take the Conservative Party: this is a group of people who see themselves as the defenders of the individual against the predations of the state. And yet, over half the parliamentary party voted against reducing the role statute has in the personal lives and choices of gay people. Strip out those who voted for the Bill because of loyalty to the Government and the proportion would probably be much higher.
The Labour Party, on the other hand, saw only 22 vote against the Bill and 217 in favour. And yet this is a party that is far more relaxed about the expansion of state powers particularly in areas such as regulation, economic intervention and tax.
The truth is when you dig down into the beating ideological heart of our MPs and their grassroots supporters beyond the carefully crafted policy statements and the leadership speeches (what Henry Drucker called the party ‘ethos’) you find that British politics is dominated by one party that believes economic freedom is more important than social and political freedom and one that believes the opposite. A division that neatly matches the distinction John Tomasi makes between the philosophical schools of ‘classical liberalism’ and ‘high liberalism’ that have been so influential in each respective party.
In essence, Conservatives are comfortable to let the economy run its course and develop its own unpredictable features based on trillions of individual choices but, mostly, have very clear views about the shape of society, constitution and culture and are happy to use the power of the state to impose that view no matter what the principle of individual freedom may demand.
Labour have clear views about the economy and will use the state to tweak and shape as they see fit to achieve certain outcomes even if that means effectively expropriating more income or constraining certain economic behaviours. But the Party is far more comfortable about a wide diversity of choices and unpredictable outcomes in the spheres of lifestyle and culture.
This is a dispiriting state of affairs if, like me, you tend towards the view that individual freedom and choice in economic life AND in social, political and cultural life is a good thing. Indeed, those in both parties who share this view seem constantly on the defensive these days. The progressive conservatives led by Cameron are being crushed by a wave of backbench traditionalists. And in Labour, speaking up in praise of the market and economic freedoms is most definitely not a route to a triumphant political career.
It is almost as if a certain strand of political thinking, which probably represents a fair proportion of the general public’s view, is gradually being squeezed out of existence.
I have attended a few Select Committees in my time. In most cases, they have been friendly if rather sedate affairs. However, I’ve also experienced their harsher side.
At a Treasury Select Committee hearing, I sat on a witness panel with the head of a trade association who had made the error of issuing a press release that morning about the evidence he was planning to give. This, it turned out, is just not the done thing. After being firmly rapped on the knuckles by the Committee Chair (fair enough), the MPs then took it in turns to rubbish, with mounting aggression, the views of the sorry individual in front of a packed committee room and internet broadcast cameras. This continued for an excruciating forty minutes. The poor soul did his best to defend himself but there is only so much you can do when confronted by eleven counsels for the prosecution.
On another occasion, I was in the audience for the notorious questioning of leading figures from the private equity world again by the Treasury Select Committee but with a mostly different set of MPs. This was in the midst of the very heated and high profile battle that was occurring between the trade union movement and private equity in 2007. Again the interrogation was fierce and it was widely judged to be a PR disaster for the private equity side. So much so, in fact, that the CEO of the British Venture Capital Association, who had been the target of much of the MP’s questioning, resigned the next day. It caused much joy amongst the trade unions but I have to say I felt sad at the fact that a man who had struck me as a pretty decent human being had lost his job in such circumstances.
I was reminded of these events listening to the Public Accounts Committee grilling the CEOs of the big accountancy firms last week. There was the same hectoring tone and aggressive interrogation I had witnessed. A similar approach was taken by the Culture Select Committee to the previous Director General of the BBC during the Savile crisis – his poor showing there was one factor contributing to his ultimate resignation. A few weeks before that there was Nick Buckles, the CEO of G4S getting a grilling from the Home Affairs Select Committee over the Olympics security fiasco. The list stretches back to the rough ride dished out to the Government scientist, David Kelly, by the Foreign Affairs Select Committee in 2003.
Some may see this as just part of the cut and thrust of public life but I have come to take a much more dim view for two reasons.
Firstly, Select Committees have effectively become public courts where individuals are tried not on the veracity of their case but on how well they manage to perform in the Committee Room bear-pit. And the sentence, should one’s performance not be up to scratch, can be a severely damaged reputation or even loss of employment. In truth, some now appear before Select Committees not as witnesses but as the accused but without any of the protections usually offered to those appearing in the dock.
Of course, the same is true of anyone putting themselves up for a hostile questioning on the Today programme, for example, as George Entwistle himself discovered. But Select Committees are not news programmes. They are legally established bodies of the Commons which have the power to compel witnesses to attend, demand written evidence and even charge witnesses with contempt. Witnesses also have no right to silence. At the very least, institutions of such standing and power should be constantly asking themselves whether they are delivering natural justice for those who appear before them.
Secondly, there has been a worrying mission creep in the role of Select Committees. The Committees were established and expanded during the 1970s and 1980s to ensure that the House of Commons could better scrutinise the Government and hold it to account – an unquestionably admirable objective which most of the time, most Committees perform without fanfare.
However, in recent years, some Committees seem to have come to see their job as holding the wider world to account as well hence the hostile grilling of people who hold no governmental role. This, it seems to me, is a fundamentally different activity to scrutiny of the executive and represents a significant extension of state power which has not been legislated for nor subject to public debate.
Of course, few will shed tears for the CEO of a big accountancy firm getting a telling off from Margaret Hodge but that is not really the point. There is an important principle here. MPs are entirely free to criticise whom they want in the Commons chamber or in the media but subjecting people, however powerful, to a courtroom style cross-examination without proper procedure or protections borders on the unjust and possibly a departure from due process.
We must also be very careful about where such practices may lead over time if not challenged. MPs often look across the Atlantic with envy at the huge powers and influence wielded by Congressional Committees. But the Americans learned a very important lesson in the early 1950s about how parliamentary committees can lose perspective and deeply damage the lives of ordinary citizens when seized by a mission wider than executive scrutiny and not subject to proper controls. Select Committees are, of course, nowhere near that sort of systematic abuse of power but ten or twenty years in the future, who knows? Better to deal with the drift now than find out where this might lead.
To listen to the party political duelling last week following the publication of the growth figures, you’d think the Westminster village was riven by fundamentally opposed positions on the economy. In fact, the opposite is the case. There may be differences of detail but on the big policy responses, something like a new ‘Osballs’ consensus has emerged.
Fiscal policy is supposedly the area of greatest disagreement but it is not at all clear that Labour would be doing anything radically different from the Coalition if they were in power. George Osborne’s rolling target for the deficit means he has a high degree of flexibility built into his plan allowing him to respond to economic conditions. In truth, should the economy continue to under-perform, he can push his deficit targets indefinitely into the future and postpone the toughest cuts.
It is also widely overlooked that by targeting the structural deficit (the bit that can’t be eliminated by economic growth over any time frame), Osborne can actually allow the welfare budget to grow and tax revenues to fall when the economy hits a downturn. This may mean the overall deficit looks bigger (at least for a time) but still leave Osborne on track to reduce the knottier bit of the shortfall.
And, of course, Osborne has now abandoned his debt target for 2015 and pushed that into the future as well.
It may be difficult for party zealots on both sides of the divide to hear but this is actually now a far more flexible approach than anything Alistair Darling had put in place.
In truth, Osborne was just as worried about the risks of ‘too far, too fast’ as Ed Balls when he drew up that 2010 Emergency Budget.
Labour want an added stimulus boost on top of this flexible approach to deficit reduction. But those who think this means a Japanese style flood of money borrowed from the markets are likely to be disappointed. The closest thing to a stimulus Labour has announced is its five point plan for jobs – of which the main proposal is a temporary cut in VAT. It’s hardly F D Roosevelt.
More recently a lot of noise has been made over cuts to welfare but it’s very hard to see how if Labour was in power it wouldn’t also be cracking down on social security. Welfare (including pensions) make up over a third of government spending. When you’ve ring-fenced education and health from cuts (and Labour have not said they would do different) which makes up another third, it’s almost impossible not to get heavy on welfare if you are serious about reducing the deficit.
On growth policy there is also broad consensus. It may have taken a while but the Coalition now seems to have got behind an industrial strategy with Vince Cable (boosted by Michael Heseltine’s report) announcing the establishment of a state investment bank, continuing the Labour Government’s support for growth sectors, using the Technology Strategy Board to back new technologies, expanding apprenticeship and training schemes, and reviewing government procurement to focus on support for SMEs. And George Osborne has made clear his desire to secure more investment for infrastructure projects .
Reading this recent speech by Chuka Umunna (the Shadow Business Secretary) outlining Labour’s industrial strategy, it is extremely hard to find any points of difference from Cable’s agenda except on matters of detail and, of course, the usual opposition cry that they would do the same but better and (possibly) bigger.
On labour market policy there is something of a genuine difference. Labour favours a jobs guarantee approach and the Coalition is keener to let private sector companies discover the best route to get people into work under a payment by results scheme. But both parties implicitly accept the need for major labour market interventions based on training, placements and other forms of support. They both also support the notion of strong ‘conditionality’ whereby those who have been unemployed for a period of time are required to participate in a scheme or face loss of benefits.
One key area where there is complete consensus is on monetary policy. Both parties seem to have a “let the Bank of England work its magic” stance. They both accept that it is entirely up to the Bank to set the UK’s monetary policy. If that means much looser policy – as the incoming Governor seems to favour – then they will acquiesce.
This points up a wider aspect of consensus – both parties fundamentally agree that fiscal policy must be tight to reduce the deficit while the challenge of short to medium term economic growth (resulting from austerity and wider conditions) is largely left to monetary policy to resolve. This is really the core of both parties economic approach when all the more minor policy differences are stripped back.
Even on the European economy, current differences on a referendum aside, there is agreement: support bold Eurozone efforts to secure recovery but resist any attempt to draw the UK into such a process and certainly avoid any talk of joining the Euro.
Of course, there are big differences of tone overall. Labour complains about the cut in the top tax rate, talks about the need for a living wage, and regularly references the ‘squeezed middle’. The Party also never uses the word ‘austerity’ to describe its own approach even though it has admitted it would probably keep the majority or even all of the Coalition’s cuts and tax rises. But tone is not concrete policy and it has a habit of fading when parties get into Government.
For some, this may all sound very positive. Broad economic direction is agreed, public debate has settled on the best approach and investors can be sure that policy will not shift radically even if there is a change of Government.
But economic consensus in the UK has a poor historical record.
The post-war economic consensus ended in the disaster of the stagflation of the 1970s. The consensus of the New Labour period favouring an independent Bank of England, light touch regulation for the City, acquiescence over the trade deficit and public service improvement reached its high point with the Conservative’s acceptance of Labour spending plans just a year before the Crash hit.
The problem with consensus is that it stifles and marginalises dissent. The post-war consensus felt very satisfied with itself in the ‘never had it so good’ era. Those who warned about the chronically uncompetitive nature of British business were largely ignored until it was too late. Equally those who raised questions about rising levels of debt or the unbalanced nature of the UK economy before the 2008 Crash were rubbished, at worst, or given a kindly pat on the head, at best.
Today, serious widespread discussion about fundamental aspects of this consensus is muted to the point of silence. There is no party debate on the long term impact of increasingly loose money policies from the Bank, none on whether major labour market interventions are the best use of funds at a time of slow growth, and very little now on whether industrial strategy can actually deliver the competitiveness it promises.
This is particularly worrying given so much of this consensus is driven not by considered, evidence-based analysis but by a ‘something must be done’ mentality that has gripped the media and policy-makers as the economy has under-performed.
So in the midst of this ‘Osballs’ consensus, the best strategy must be to ignore the Westminster rhetoric, look at the actual policies and, maybe most importantly, seek out the dissenters and give them a hearing.
Libertarians have a very poor reputation outside their own ideological enclave. Generally associated with the wilder fringes of American politics, libertarianism has little purchase on mainstream thinking in the UK even if some of its spirit informs the Conservative Party’s approach and elements of UKIP’s.
A more tolerant attitude to the state exists over here, of course, but some portion of blame can be placed at the feet of libertarians themselves. Shrill, often glib and, like most deeply ideological types, as obsessed with purity as with influence, it is unsurprising that many recoil. A mirror-image, in fact, of the hard left with which they do regular and pointless battle in the blogosphere.
Libertarianism also suffers through its association with the Tea Party. This movement projects what might be called a ‘selective libertarianism’ – claiming to be the sole guardians of liberty from government interference in the economic sphere but then apparently discovering a deep statism when it comes to immigration, gay rights, women’s rights, anti-racism and various cultural practices they find distasteful. Many libertarians are not as incoherent as this (witness those within UKIP who have paid the price for consistency over gay marriage) but given that the Tea Party is the highest profile libertarian movement in the world, it is to be expected that many conclude that the whole ideological strand is confused.
Now, however, a new strand of libertarianism called Bleeding Heart Libertarianism (BHL) has emerged which wants to reach out to the mainstream to open an apparently serious dialogue. In particular, they want to discuss social justice driven by the view (heretical in libertarian circles) that if ‘libertarian institutions’ (non-state, mutually beneficial arrangements) cannot genuinely help the worst off then they should be abandoned or reformed. Should we return the favour? Here is one reason why I think we should.
The object of libertarian derision, the state and its agencies, has been enduring a painful decline for many years. The state is not about to disappear any time soon but its ability to effect change and, linked to this, the public’s faith in government has gone into reverse. The reasons for this and its outcomes have been charted extensively elsewhere. Clearly globalisation, more mobile populations, the emergence of a less deferential culture and, more recently, the rise of the internet, have made the state’s attempts to assert its will far less straightforward.
Now the state, at least in the advanced economies, faces a further blow to its role in the form of a deep fiscal predicament. The way this will challenge many of the core functions of government is only now beginning to dawn on those who have to deliver them. See, for example, the ‘jaws of doom’ and the ‘graph of doom’ . The long-run decline of the state is starting to look worryingly like existential crisis .
Under these circumstances, a dialogue with thoughtful individuals who have long doubted the state’s efficacy or moral right to govern, seems worthwhile. In some ways, libertarians have been ahead of the curve on the state’s inner contradictions and the public’s changing attitudes while mainstream politics merely throws up its hands in despair at the rising constraints on effective policy and the popular hostility to government.
There are, of course, many routes (as yet undiscovered) to addressing the problems emerging as the state withdraws but if conversation with those who have long planned and hoped for such a withdrawal can help us discover one or two or those routes then we should seize it.
This is particularly the case for BHL. Its interest in social justice is fundamental to the prospects for serious dialogue. The decline of the state is a real threat to the worst-off and vulnerable who rely on its structures for all sorts of help from welfare payments to healthcare to social care. Those libertarians who believe blithely that such potential suffering is a price worth paying for liberty or, alternatively, believe the market will automatically deliver for these social groups would be useless correspondents.
But BHL has the potential to be different. It admits it is less sure of its ground on social justice and thus offers a chance to discuss this most pressing issue openly. Conversation could challenge some of their preconceptions but, more importantly, might also challenge ours and show us the beginnings of new ways of generating social justice that could be achieved with a much reduced state. In truth, the stakes are too high to ignore the possibility of inspiration no matter what its origin.
In the next post in this series, I’ll suggest a further reason for dialogue related to the rise of an ‘economic planning mentality’ since the 2008 Crash.
I think it was Enoch Powell who said that a politician who complains about the media is like a fish complaining about the sea. The same is just as true for think tanks, so this isn’t a complaint just a quick counterpoint to some of the gratifyingly widespread coverage of the Academies Commission report which was published today.
Most of the press has led on the warning in the report that academies are manipulating their admissions processes to improve results. In fact, admissions takes up only one chapter of seven in the report and the Commission was deliberately cautious about what it said on the subject. Here is the quote from the report’s Overview:
Evidence to the Commission illustrated the impressive commitment of many academies to social inclusion but this did not extend to all that we saw. The Commission views social segregation in the school system as a problem for equality of opportunity and to system improvement. It heard, for example, of some academies willing to take a ‘low road’ approach to school improvement by manipulating admissions rather than by exercising strong leadership. It is vital, as academies begin to assert their independence more vigorously, that such practices are eradicated. Ensuring excellent teaching and school-to-school collaboration is the route to improve learning and raise achievement for all pupils, no matter what their background.
There is no suggestion of a wholesale shift to manipulation of admissions more a warning that the poor practice of a minority of schools must not be allowed to become common practice.
The actual over-arching message of the report is best found, unsurprisingly, in the report’s Overview. Here are some paragraphs (paraphrased by me) which capture that message:
The introduction of academies has provided much-needed vitality to the school system. At the same time, the evidence considered by the Commission does not suggest that improvement across all academies has been strong enough to transform the life chances of children from the poorest families. There have been some stunning successes among individual sponsored academies and academy chains, and these have raised expectations of what can be achieved even in the most deprived areas. But it is increasingly clear that academy status alone is not a panacea for improvement.
… The evidence considered by the Commission has left it convinced that there now needs to be a new, determined focus on the detailed implementation of the academies programme to ensure that it realises its transformative potential.
In particular, the Commission has recognised three imperatives for the further development of the academies programme …
• to ensure that there is a forensic focus on teaching and its impact on pupils’ learning so that the gap between the vision for academies and practice in classrooms is reduced and the words ‘academisation’ and ‘improvement’ become inextricably and demonstrably linked
• to ensure that an increasingly academised system is fair and equally accessible to children and young people from all backgrounds
• to ensure that academies demonstrate their moral purpose and professionalism by providing greater accountability to pupils, parents and other stakeholders. The role of governors is more important than ever in an academised system, and their scrutiny and challenge should ensure effective accountability.
Alternatively, listen to the Commission’s Chair, Christine Gilbert, on the Today programme this morning (scroll through to 2.51 hours).
Across the Atlantic, a small intellectual movement is beginning to grow in influence and size. Jokingly referring to itself as ‘bleeding heart libertarianism’ (BHL), it is focused on an attempt to fuse the libertarian values of individual liberty, economic property rights and a scepticism towards the state with a respect for social justice and defence of the poor and vulnerable often associated with the left.
Most importantly, BHL doesn’t, like most libertarian thought, believe that social justice is a natural by-product of market and non-state relationships which are themselves justified by other values, most notably the freedom of the individual. Instead, BHL believes that such relationships are only worthwhile to the extent to which they actively promote social justice and the well-being of the poor. One leading BHL thinker, Matt Zwolinski, has suggested, for example, that unlike most other libertarians, BHLers would either reject or modify their prioritisation of market and non-state relationships if it could be shown that they do not benefit the poor and most vulnerable.
This attempt to combine radical notions of individual liberty with social justice has prompted some very fresh discussion. A post, for example, on the benefits of trade unions from a libertarian perspective and a debate launched by the suggestion that Occupy are a morally just movement.
However, BHL is primarily a dialogue of political philosophers. That gives it a great strength and a great weakness. Its strength is that it is rigorous and thoughtful and, unlike much of what passes for libertarian commentary on the web, deeply respectful of alternative views. Indeed, BHLers seem particularly keen to engage in dialogue with the left. Its weakness is that it has a strongly philosophical focus and one has to search hard for detailed discussion about what might be the policy implications of BHL.
This leads to another problem. BHLers are clearer on three aspects of their political outlook than a crucial fourth.
They share the libertarian suspicion of the big state on economic issues and are critical of high tax, interventionist policies, ‘crony capitalism’ and the loose money policies of the Federal Reserve.
However, unlike some of the loudest elements in the Tea Party (or indeed in UKIP) who might share these economic views, they are also supportive of civil liberties in the form of gay rights, anti-racism, internet freedom, legalising marijuana use, feminism and more open immigration.
They are also highly critical of American foreign policy opposing the ‘war on terror’, military action against Iran and other forms of intervention. (Although it must be reiterated here that BHL remains a dialogue of diverse views rather than a manifesto to which all sign up.)
The commitment to social justice, however, is not nearly as clearly worked through as these three aspects. That is maybe inevitable as it is the newest element introduced by BHL into the libertarian strand but it remains a frustration for anyone seeking a fresh perspective for these times when so many seem unable to secure a decent livelihood.
This lacuna also results from the philosophical nature of BHL. In particular, there is an ambiguity about whether social justice is primarily being employed as a philosophical justification for standard libertarian positions or whether an explicit concern for social justice means revisiting and rethinking some of those positions. It seems to me that unless it is the latter then the real world implications of BHL will be pretty limited. The extent to which some BHL proponents are fascinated by the work of Rawls (a philosophical high priest of the left) would suggest some quite significant rethinking which one might expect would result in a shift in political positions but that does not always seem to be acknowledged explicitly.
However, I do think BHL has benefits which means it should be looked at closely by politically-minded sorts in the UK. In particular, it is starting to develop an intellectually exciting position at a time of rather stale mainstream debate. And it is a position that, despite its current limitations, could provide some useful perspectives as we face up to the awe-inspiring challenges confronting us after five years of financial and economic crisis.
I’ll explain why I think that in more detail in my next post.
Reading etc on BHL:
The on-line home of BHL is the blog bleedingheartlibertarians.com. Probably the most detailed account of BHL thinking, so far, is John Tomasi’s 2012 book Free Market Fairness. From a more political perspective, the former Republican Governor of New Mexico and 2012 Presidential candidate for the Libertarian Party, Gary Johnson, has identified himself with BHL.
For a quick introduction to Bleeding Heart Libertarianism, you can do worse than look at two posts by Matt Zwolinski here and here. And if you do not want to plough through John Tomasi’s Free Market Fairness, you can watch a lecture he gave to the RSA here or a more detailed and longer talk he gave at the Adam Smith Institute here. There’s also a speech here by Gary Johnson. It’s worth watching just because it is so interesting to see someone combine views that are traditionally associated both with the hard right and hard left under the banner of individual freedom.
A terrible libel was perpetrated on Lord Alistair McAlpine a few weeks ago. Who perpetrated that libel? Websites and social media. Was there an Editor to be held accountable: there was not. Of course, TV and press played a role in stoking the interest in the scandal (Newsnight most notably) but it was the internet that named the man.
As any fool knows, our news comes from a huge variety of sources these days and many of those sources are getting far better at doing the investigative work and the basic journalism that was once the preserve of the newspaper industry alone. The press were devastated, for example, by the fact that the biggest celebrity story of the noughties – the death of Michael Jackson – was broken on-line rather than in a newspaper.
This is why the newspaper industry is dying day-by-day to be replaced by a mass of blogs, social media and varied websites. Increasingly people are also turning to apps that aggregate their content for them effectively creating a bespoke, on-line newspaper that precisely suits their tastes and interests without the over-bearing involvement of an Editor.
So Leveson has proposed a regulatory system to keep an eye on the bosses of an industry that is becoming increasingly marginal. Who honestly thinks the printed newspaper or periodical will wield the same power and influence in a decade?
Indeed, it is easily possible that the printed newspaper could have entirely disappeared in the next two decades or so to be replaced entirely by websites. We may then end up with the very odd situation where news websites which were once attached to a printed newspaper are regulated by Leveson’s architecture but news websites which have only ever had a virtual presence are not.
This is not to say that news on the internet should be regulated necessarily but it is to say that Leveson, for all its enormous length, has addressed the questions of the past not the future.