Archive for January, 2011

Why I am not a Puritan

Walter Russell Mead and Razib Khan have interesting articles about the birth of the Democratic coalition in the USA. Essentially, Mead follows the Mencius Moldbug idea that one wing of the Democrats is the ultra-Protestant party, and the other wing is ethnic minorities. Ultra-Protestants, according to the thesis, are direct intellectual heirs to the tradition of the Puritans who settled New England, and despite slowly shedding their Christianity over the years have never lost their real religion – that of the nanny-state. Politics as moral uplift.

I don’t know enough about American political history to evaluate the thesis, but in British politics there is a clear parallel. As I have mentioned before, there is a direct line from Cromwell to Shaftesbury to Walpole to Fox to Cobden to Gladstone to Lloyd George, which then in the 1920s and 1930s allies itself with the trade union movement and transfers to the Labour Party. Then in the 1980s there was the SDP, which slightly split the movement politically (but not intellectually), but New Labour and the current Conservative-Lib Dem coalition appear to have packed it back together under the Labour banner. It is no exaggeration to say that Tony Blair was Cromwell’s political heir.

And of course what makes this parallel so interesting is that the Puritans who settled New England were the same people as the religious revolutionaries who disrupted England in Charles I’s reign. Therefore if Mead’s theory is correct, Blair and Obama are both heirs to Cromwell. This would certainly explain why the progressive wing of the Labour Party so resembles the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, even though the other wings of their parties nothing resemble one another.

Khan, by contrast, emphasises not intellectual coalitions but social ones. I think this is an important and overlooked part, because ideology is so often window-dressing. While he gives good reason to be skeptical of Mead/Moldbug’s ideas in an American context, this actually reinforces the point in a British context. Lloyd George was linked to Shaftesbury not only by an intellectual line, but by continuity of people, institutions and support. Cromwell to Shaftesbury and Lloyd George to Roy Jenkins are slightly weaker links, but still very strong, to the extent that no serious person would deny them – of course they were supported by the same people.

My high school history teacher once remarked, off-hand, that the true division in English politics was the same now as in the time of Sidney Godolphin, between High Church and Low. At the time I thought it a ridiculous remark, but as the years have gone on I see the wisdom in it. Even though we are no longer a religious country, attitudes and beliefs are transmitted through the generations, analogous to religion. It is so easy to see the High Church in the One Nation Tories, and so easy to see the Low Church in New Labour. Khan’s “long persistent affinities across cultural networks and domains” combines with Mead’s political tradition to make it a slam dunk.

But it is important to recognise that this is not the only division. Reverend Mead wasn’t even right about Godolphin’s time – court and country was as important as Whig and Tory. And today the division is not merely between High Church tolerance and Low Church zeal, it is also between working class collectivism and middle class aspiration. Perhaps looking at it this way makes it clear why liberaltarianism is so unappealing to me – I’d much rather side with tolerance than zeal, and gaining one means losing the other.

Why I am not an Estimator

One of my the many reasons I think utilitarianism is silly is that you can’t tell if you are increasing utility, or by how much. Admittedly, this is hardly an original criticism. Utilitarians defend themselves like:

A CEO would sound ridiculous making this argument to his shareholders. ‘You guys are being ridiculous. It’s just not possible to know which actions will increase the value of the company exactly how much. Why don’t we try to make sure that all of our meetings end on time instead?’

In other words, we have to make hazy estimates about the future all the time, so this is not an objection to utilitarianism, as much as it is to all human action.

But this defence is silly. We may not be able to calculate precisely the future value of the company, but we can at least measure the profitability in the past and the present, and so to some extent judge our measures retrospectively. By contrast, utility is ill-defined and not measurable even in principle. It’s more like if the shareholders were telling the CEO to maximise the company’s karma.

What’s more, predicting the future is not just messy, it is expensive. Even if utility were theoretically measurable, the effects of an action on net utility would be intractable, so by saying that we have to estimate the effects of our actions on utility, the utilitarian is committed to an endless waste of resources on this issue. It would be rather like telling the CEO of a company to act so as to maximise world GDP.

Ultimately, saying “maximise utility” is just too vague. It is the moral equivalent of telling someone “be yourself” – either content-free mush, or dangerous nonsense, but certainly not a helpful heuristic.

Libertarianism in the UK

Ben (of Contrarian Moderate) writes in comments of the previous post:

My sense is that the UK Conservative party is a much better fit for libertarians than the US Republican party is, and that were Wilkinson in the UK, he wouldn’t be looking to rearrange coalitions. The Republican party is not only more extreme on social issues, it hasn’t been conservative at all economically. The current Republican coalition seems to be social conservatives + older voters who don’t want their entitlements cut, which is the worst combination for libertarians.

Is this really true?

Obviously all political parties are coalitions, but the Republican Party definitely has a libertarian wing, and the Tea Party has a strong libertarian core to it. Moreover libertarianism is embedded into US politics by being able to rely on the constitution as a focal point. Definitely there is an element to the Republicans as the party of Medicare… but in the UK, the Conservatives are committed to maintaining a single-payer public option for healthcare, with spending rising inexorably. Meanwhile there just isn’t a libertarian presence in UK politics at all. The Conservatives are much better than the Republicans on the free market, but are (from a libertarian perspective) much worse on social issues. An established church, gun control, opposition to gay marriage, anti-immigration, anti-drugs, tough on crime, restrictions on campaign spending, etc – these are pretty much shared by all wings of the Conservatives. On social issues, a libertarian would be sympathising with the Lib Dems, but they are essentially a party of the progressive left, with all that implies for economic issues.

The Conservative Party has two wings – the “One Nation” wing, and the “Thatcherite” wing, to which I belong. The “One Nation” wing is the party of Macmillan and “The Middle Way,” the party which Hayek was writing about in his famous essay. Clearly they are anathema to libertarians, but the Conservative Party will never be elected without their support. They are economically and socially mixed, but their social mixture is if anything less libertarian than the so-cons, because it is paternalist.

I’m afraid the Thatcherite wing is not much better from a libertarian perspective. It is committed to the free market, but socially it is if anything more conservative (although less paternalistic) than the One Nation Tories. Thatcher famously said about Hayek’s Constitution of Liberty “This is what we believe” and there is definitely a civil libertarian element to the Thatcherite wing – they are better than the One Nation wing on things like arbitrary detention and school choice, but much worse on things like gay rights and immigration.

In the US, a libertarian could plausibly hope for a Tea Party takeover of the Republican Party, followed by Republican control of the White House and Senate, under a very libertarian programme. In the UK, the best a libertarian could hope for is the current administration, which is still a million miles away from being libertarian.

It may be true that Will Wilkinson would be happier as a Tory, but that is because the Conservatives are far less populist and anti-intellectual than the comparatively boorish Republicans, so it might make him feel more intellectually respectable. Note though that it wouldn’t tone down the hatred from the left, he still would get as much or more hostility from liberals at cocktail parties. And the flipside is that the Conservatives are far, far less electable than the Republicans.

Ultimately, UK politics is a desolate ground for libertarians. The most prominent one we have is Daniel Hannan, and even he is probably better known in the US than he is here.

Why I am not a Liberaltarian

Will Wilkinson:

It’s best to just maximize growth rates, pre-tax distribution be damned, and then fund wicked-good social insurance with huge revenues from an optimal tax scheme

Karl Smith

A core hope of my engagement with the blogosphere is to determine why there is so much resistance to this idea.

Perhaps I can explain why, from my perspective.

I’m sympathetic to libertarianism as an outcome, but not as a philosophy. In other words, if Nozick’s Minarchia existed and was stable, I think it would probably be an awesome place to live. But I don’t think it could exist stably, at least not without other, non-libertarian, underpinnings. So for me, politics is about developing coalitions to move, incrementally but stably, in the right direction – and also to provide the moral and political underpinnings of those moves.

If that sounds abstract, then look at it this way: in 1979 most Thatcherite reforms were politically unfeasible. By 1997, it was not politically feasible for Labour to undo them. That’s success.

As an outcome, Wilkinson’s statement of liberaltarianism seems like progress from where we are. But then you start picking a little deeper. Would it really be “wicked-good social insurance,” or just wicked-high government spending on social insurance? What processes would there be to make sure the latter led to the former, given the disastrous state of government provision at present? The reason child social services is so pathetic is not that spending is too low, it’s that it’s run on behalf of social workers, not children. But the left at present don’t want to talk about public choice theory and that kind of thing, so what makes you think they’d be any more willing once we get to Liberaltaritopia? And that’s without even getting into the incompatibility between maximising growth and having high government spending, and the incentives created. I think this situation would likely be worse than what we’re in now – plus it’s unstable.

But if liberaltarianism is a poor outcome, it’s even worse politics. There is no political agreement on what maximises growth – the left somehow believe that government intervention and regulation are growth-positive. The practical effect would be to sign us up for a massive increase in government welfare spending in return for some small adjustments in marginal tax rates. And given the political incentives at work, I’m not even sure we’d get the latter.

For a right-wing coalition to be worthwhile, it needs to have reducing the size of government as a key plank. For a right-wing coalition to be successful, it needs to tap into populist feelings. Wilkinson’s ideas do neither.

Addendum: Eli Dourado also makes great points.

Why I am not TJIC

Borepatch is running a campaign in support of fellow blogger TJIC – no, I can’t link to his blog, because it’s been taken down. Essentially, TJIC’s firearms licence has been suspended because he posted “1 down and 534 to go” on his blog, regarding the shooting of US Congressman Gabrielle Giffords. In protest, Borepatch wants fellow bloggers to use the following image to show solidarity:


I’m not sure how I feel. Of course TJIC wasn’t making a specific threat – and if the police really thought he was, he should have been arrested. Meanwhile plenty of people have said as much, or worse, about Republican politicians. It certainly looks like selective enforcement of the law, and an attempt to censor unpopular speech.

The problem for me is that, while I don’t like the censorship, I regard the outcome as being benign. One less person owning guns is A Good Thing, and if I had my druthers America would move in the civilised direction of Britain, where police and citizens alike are unarmed. I’m aware that this will mean I am no longer welcome in the American version of the Right Wing Conspiracy, but if I offer them some cream cakes and a nice cup of tea I’m sure all will be forgiven.

So TJIC, I stand by you… in part. I’m afraid that’s as revolutionary as we get in England.

Why I am not a Hagiographer

Margaret Thatcher made some serious mistakes as Prime Minister. But, by and large, the left doesn’t care in the least about that, they hate her for her persona, and her successes. However, that does not mean that we should gloss over her blunders – I think this is particularly important for those of us, like myself, who consider themselves essentially Thatcherite.

The first error was the mistaken targeting of monetary aggregates in the early part of her administration. Not only was this intellectually flawed, it shook the economic underpinnings of the government, and they were never clearly rebuilt. Hence the problems of the late 1980s, where Lawson was setting his own course without reference to the agreed Cabinet policies – that could never have taken place had the government been clearer about what it was trying to do.

If the first error was one of theory, the second error was one of operation – Thatcher should never have allowed the Chancellor the leeway to conduct a secret monetary policy in this way, and it is shocking that her hand was so far off the tiller. And once this was discovered – incredibly, it was journalists who brought the matter to her attention – she should have immediately sacked Lawson. By patching over the matter, she placed her own political survival ahead of the national interest. And this goes double for her agreement to join the ERM in 1990. Ironically, by behaving in this way, she probably hastened her end. It is possible that she could have survived had she dismissed Lawson and stood up to Howe and Major. But she sealed her own doom by acting weakly, because it meant she lost authority.

In addition, on a deeper level, Thatcher left the state dangerously over-centralised. Nowhere is this clearer than the Poll Tax debacle. I believed then, and still believe now, that the Poll Tax was eminently fair. Moreover, the people opposed to it on principle would never have supported the government anyway. But what sunk the policy was the disastrous way it was implemented. The central government had spent the previous ten years turning local government into ciphers, which meant that voters, understandably, no longer paid much attention to the councils’ actions. And this, in turn, made councils unaccountable. So when they were allowed to set Poll Tax levels, they jacked up levels hugely, rightly judging that central government would be blamed for the higher taxes while the councils would get credit for extra spending. As the tax rates spun higher and the government was forced to bring in emergency measures to cap council spending, moderates rightly concluded that the whole policy had been botched.

I think it is no co-incidence that all these blunders took place in Thatcher’s third term, when she seemed to have more of an eye on posterity than the practical task of governing. Some of them did huge damage – the loss of localism is something the present government is still trying to address, and ERM membership of course blighted the British economy in the early 1990s, causing huge misery.

Nowhere, you may note, do I talk about the unemployment of the early 1980s. This is because it was not a “mistake,” it was a painful but necessary part of the economic adjustment. And indeed, people saw it as such at the time. At the height of the unemployment problem, the 1983 general election saw the Conservatives re-elected with a whopping majority of 144. Subsequent attempts to try and rewrite history are ahistorical. Besides, regrettable though that unemployment was, it was truly conquered by the late 80s.

What’s really interesting to me is that none of the blunders here are at all part of the anti-Thatcher mythology so vociferously championed by the BBC et al. That’s for a future post!

Why I am NQOCD

In a rational world, politicians would be hated for their failures, and this does occasionally happen – Chamberlain will forever be associated with appeasement and Narvik. But more normally, they are hated simply for who they are. Most people who hate Sarah Palin have no idea of what she may have done as Governor of Alaska – they hate her for the way she speaks, the way she dresses, etc. This is particularly the case in Britain, where it is so easy to fall afoul of multiple overlapping class viewpoints – most politicians will be disliked by half of their own party, let alone the country as a whole. As Professor Higgins said, “the moment [an Englishman] talks he makes another Englishman despise him.”

The occasional politician is lucky enough to be hated for his successes – these are the first rank, who substantially changed society for better or worse. William III committed no atrocities, ended any notions of Plantation and gave peace, stability and economic growth to Ireland. But the Catholics hate him anyway – because he won the war and drove James out. We can see this in the 20th century with figures such as Lloyd George, Attlee, etc.

But once in a great while, a politician manages to be hated for all three reasons. At this point an unquenchable torrent of hate bursts its banks, and even the mildest action immediately becomes Satanic. The finest example of this in modern Britain is, of course, Baroness Thatcher.

Thatcher’s first sin was to be resolutely middle-class, thus earning her the scorn of the Tory grandees and liberal upper-middle classes. Baroness Warnock spoke for the latter when she talked about Thatcher’s “patronising elocution voice [and] neat well-groomed clothes and hair, packaged together in a way that’s not exactly vulgar, just low. [It fills me with] a kind of rage.” But I always thought the most interesting insult was that she had “the mentality of a housewife” – like all insults, of course, it says far more about the attackers than the target. What makes it fascinating to me is not just the political stupidity of it (there are lots of housewives, and they vote!) but the mentality it reveals. There are plenty of negative stereotypes of women, but a housewife is probably the most positive of all stereotypes in the popular imagination – that she was actually attacked for coming across as thrifty, domestic, stable and down-to-earth demonstrates how large was the gap between the Liberal Establishment and the popular mindset in the 1970s.

In a past age of deference, Tory patricians had been able to speak for the nation, but this was no longer so. Lord Stockton (about whom I will write more in a later post) famously attacked Thatcher’s policies as being like selling the family Canalettos – a comment that speaks volumes. The key was that the working class saw middle class values and lifestyles as worthy of emulation, not enmity – indeed, this is probably the biggest change in British society since 1970, and one which Thatcher’s government accelerated. Although Thatcher’s background and personality annoyed grandees and Guardianistas alike, it spoke powerfully to ordinary people. When Thatcher said that people of her background needed grammar schools to compete with the privilege of Shirley Williams and Tony Benn, she gave probably the clearest articulation of popular hostility to the leftist elites who claimed to represent the people.

And it is a statement that has enduring relevance today, when we see talk of the regulatory state and the ruling class. Gladstone, ancestor to the Liberal Establishment, famously said that he would back “the masses against the classes,” which is exactly what his spiritual descendants think they do now. But it is the job of popular Conservatism to wrest that mantle from them, because the true division is not middle class against working class, but the broad middle classes against an insular elite. That was the class dynamic of Thatcherism, and for that she earned the undying class hatred of the progressive left.

TBC in a future post.