Mr Corbyn and the deaf philosopher

Jeremy Corbyn captivated the Labour Conference with his calls for a kinder politics and a caring society.  His audience enthusiastically applauded the idea of seeking fairness and compassion.  This is not surprising, since these are all aims that would be shared and expressed by many, if not most, people across the political spectrum.  David Cameron would have received rapturous applause for the same words, as would Tim Farron.

It is not the aims that mark the political divide, but the methods that might be deployed to achieve them.  It is not the intentions that matter, but the policies pursued to bring them about.  Mr Corbyn’s speech was long on ambition but short on policy, though there were some policies, together with others in the pre-conference days, that enable us to picture the approach he would take, if not the detail.

I have at times advocated being a ‘deaf philosopher,’ not listening to what politicians say, but watching what they do, judging them by their actions and not their words.  It is all very well talking about caring and compassion, but not much use if the policies pursued bring about drabber and more restricted lives for the people they claim to serve.

The Communist governments of the Twentieth Century uttered high-vaulting words of fairness and ‘rule by the people,’ but the reality they delivered was of squalid poverty and stunted lives.  More than that, their rule was marked by a huge gulf in living standards between the party elite allowed to buy Western goods in special shops and the mass of ordinary people consigned to the endless queues for the shoddy products of a socialist economy.

Mr Corbyn talks of rent control, a policy no serious economist endorses.  This is because it fails in practice.  For a few it fixes their rents, but given non-market returns, landlords withdraw properties from the market, so availability diminishes.  Moreover, with inadequate returns landlords do not spend to maintain properties as well, so they decline in quality.  Fewer and poorer properties is not the intent, but it is the result.

Renationalizing railways and utilities is advocated to ‘put the people in charge,’ but in reality it means bringing them under political control.  When they were under state control they were characterized by under-capitalization, producer capture, vulnerability to frequent industrial unrest, and services that paid scant attention to consumers.  The talk was of one thing, the reality of another.

It will be very important during the coming months to make the case that real-world results matter more than high-falutin intent.  We need to see what happened before in the UK, and what happens elsewhere when politicians attempt to impose ideas without regard to their actual results.

Freedom makes us nicer.

Human imperfection can be counted upon as surely as death and taxes. Despite this, study after study seems to confirm that most of us are rather decent fellows when push comes to shove. I am willing to wager that a desire to do good, whatever that may be, is an evolved trait innate in the condition of most people. Against this, our nature is certainly affected by the conditions in which we live, and resultantly subject to change for good or ill.

Our natures cannot be summed up in a single phrase or formula, and any attempt to produce such a rule tends to prove intellectually awkward. Commonality of behaviour, however, suggests that on the whole we do not benefit from the kinds of societies autocrats would force upon us. The material ages of humanity, as outlined by Marx, give a clear indication of how the economic superstructure can warp our natural instincts. The licence of masters, the dehumanisation of slaves, and the mutual fear and loathing induced by this asymmetry in power does not make for moral and responsible agents.

Though the divisions of rank and legal status have been smoothed by time, the continuing divisions between property owner and unemployed tenant still shape the behaviours of both classes to some extent. The property owner has an interest in conservation and expansion of their material interests, the welfare dependent on extracting subsistence from others, both through the coercive power of the state.

Changing the behaviours of both groups will require a new phenomenon, the liberating force of popular capitalism. Universal property ownership which began with right-to-buy should be extended, with planning liberalisations to allow for more house building, and support for personal savings and retirement accounts. As with the sale of council houses in the 1980s, the right to save for old age, and support in the form of replacing National Insurance Contributions with a tax free pensions saving allowance, will change attitudes. The division between property owner, and those alienated from the capital rewards of progress will be erased, with, as its result, a concordantly greater understanding and support of the market.

The greatest role for institutions may be elsewhere. As Randolph Churchill defended constitutional traditions for their role in guiding and balancing the state and its leaders, so too must liberals champion the great pillar of the free society: the voluntary association. Tradition adds colour and a spiritual connection between generations past, present and unborn, but its true purpose is to get the best from each of us. The friendly societies, cooperatives, clubs, universities and trades unions of this country can do just that; and have evolved and sustained themselves out of the better nature of free individuals. You don’t need to engineer or manipulate the individual to make them good, you simply need people to discover the essence of what it is to live well with one another. Left to our own devices, human beings will creatively find new ways to overcome our own failings, learning from the past experiences of others through the living network of societies. If institutional memory can teach us how to be good without reference to a state compelling us to live in one particular or narrow fashion, then every liberal person should celebrate. The victims of arbitrary authority reflect its character; therefore, lets make ourselves freer so we can carry on being nice.

Heraclitus v. Parmenides – Flux v. Stasis

I gave the opening lecture at Freedom Week at Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge last week.  My theme was “Flux versus Stasis,” and I contrasted the views of Parmenides and Heraclitus, two of the Presocratic philosophers.  Parmenides took the view that nothing changes in reality; only our senses convey the appearance of change.  Heraclitus, by contrast, thought that everything changes all the time, and that “we step and do not step into the same river,” for new waters flow ever about us.

I divided the world between those who seek permanence (the stasis of Parmenides) and those who embrace change (the flux of Heraclitus).  Those who prefer stasis resist change and innovation, and try to keep society following traditional practices, using social pressures and, if necessary, the force of law to sustain conventional norms.  They include people who resist technological change and the changes it brings to employment, as well as those who urge subsidies and tariffs to sustain domestic markets against foreign competitors.

Those who accept that change happens and try to adapt to its flux follow Heraclitus.  Their societies allow experiment and innovation, even knowing that some will be upset by the disturbance they bring to traditional ways.  They allow markets to pulse and flow, reacting to inputs, and adapting to and coping with those changes.  

Stasis societies value order and tend to entrust government to maintain their status quo.  Flux societies value new ideas and look for progress toward their citizens’ goals.  It is the flux societies, the ones ready to embrace change and develop its positive aspects, which are most friendly to liberty and the right of people to pursue self-referring goals unimpeded by arbitrary restrictions imposed by others.

The full text of my lecture can be seen here.

George Monbiot is entirely correct here

This will shock some, that we agree with George Monbiot on any subject more heavyweight than whether kittens are cute or not. It will also shock others that George Monbiot is actually correct about something more heavyweight than whether kittens are cute or not. But it is so, he is right and we agree with him:

No progressive party can survive the corporate press, corrupt party funding systems and conservative fear machines by fighting these forces on their own terms. The left can build only from the ground up, reshaping itself through the revitalisation of communities, working with local people to help fill the gaps in social provision left by an uncaring elite. A successful progressive movement must now be Citizens Advice bureau, housing association, scout troop, trade union, credit union, bingo hall, food bank, careworker, football club and evangelical church, rolled into one. Focus groups and spin doctors no longer deliver.

We’re not, to be honest, sure that this is either left wing or progressive. For it is exactly the classical liberal vision of society. Yes, certainly there are some things that must be done by the State. For there is some small group of things that both must be done and can only be done by said State. We are not anarchists. But beyond those things that can only be done in that manner and also must be done there’s vast areas of human life that do require some amount of organisation and coordination.

And who are the best people to do this organisation and coordination? Why, obviously, the people themselves in whatever manner they decide suits them to do such organisation and coordination. Let a thousand, a million, organisations of voluntary cooperation bloom across the nation. The Friendly Societies, the Churches, advice bureaus, sporting associations, however and whatever the people decide themselves that they wish to do in such voluntary cooperation. This includes any form of business organisation anyone wishes, a workers’ coop, a customer one, a producer one, a capitalist firm, not for profits, for profits and every conceivable variation thereof.

Our agreement here with Monbiot does not prevent us from being just a little sharp clawed, as with those cute kittens. For of course all Monbiot has done here is rediscover Edmund Burke’s “little platoons”. Something that the rest of us didn’t forget in the first place, not since he first pointed it out in 1790.

So why is it that everyone hates libertarians?

The easy answer of course is that libertarians are hateful people. But when you translate “libertarian” from American into English you get “classical liberal” which means us. And we’re lovely, cuddly, people so that cannot be the right answer. Over in the US they’re trying to answer this question (Tyler Cowen, Bryan Caplan) and there’s a variety of reasons given. None of which quite explain it all to our satisfaction.

So, we’ll put forward two more, the first not entirely serious. Which is that we’re right, they know we’re right, we know we’re right and everyone hates smug gits who know they’re right and who everyone knows are right.

The second, entirely serious, reason is that we’re the only people not telling people how to live their lives. On the right, the conservatives, want to insist that everyone keep it in their pants until married, don’t ingest things that make you feel good, work hard and if you conform to our prescriptions then maybe we’ll let you be. On the left we’ve the usual hodge podge but the same urge is there. Live your life according to the manner in which we demand you live your life. Don’t be greedy, don’t be too successful or we’ll take it all off you, you must respect everyone’s decisions about how they live their lives and don’t, whatever you do, blame anyone for creating their own bed that they’ve now got to sleep in.

By contrast we’re the only people saying that we don’t give a damn how you live your life. As long as you’re not harming others, nor their ability to live their life as they wish, why on earth should we even pay attention to how you live let alone control, or even respect, how you do?

Which is why they all shout at us of course. For if you’re running around with a set of rules that everyone must live by it’s OK to have another group running around with a different set of rules about how you must live. But it’s disconcerting, discombobulating even, to have a group insisting that there is no such list so would everyone shut up please? What merit in gaining control of the State in order to force everyone to follow your prescriptive rules if the libertarians (or classical liberals) have got there first and removed the power of the State to insist upon everyone having to follow any set of such rules?

To put it very simply, those who fight to insist upon vanilla flavoured cake are quite happy to battle those who fight for chocolate flavoured cake and vice versa, but they’ll unite in hatred against those who say the cake is a lie.