Would Edmund Burke be for Leave or Remain?

Why do so many so-called ‘conservatives’ back such a radical upheaval?

 

B29xcyYCQAATi2J

The wisdom of Michael Oakeshott

 

The watchbreakers

I want to briefly take you back to 1980. This was the point when the deflationary policies of the Thatcher government were beginning to bite. The government had raised the cost of borrowing in an attempt to wring inflation from the economy. So far, it did not appear to being doing that. But it had pushed many firms into bankruptcy and thereby propelled their workers into unemployment. To add cruel irony to the situation this was a government that had got itself elected by declaring that “Labour isn’t working”. In this context Michael Foot, one of the greatest radical MPs in Labour’s history, took aim at Keith Joseph. He was a Conservative MP, Secretary of State for Trade and the Iron Lady’s ideological guru. He had introduced her to the works of the American Economist Milton Friedman and was therefore arguably responsible for what was unfolding. Foot’s weapon against him was to be a simple story:

In my youth, quite a time ago, when I lived in Plymouth, every Saturday night I used to go to the Palace theatre. My favourite act was a magician-conjuror who used to have sitting at the back of the audience a man dressed as a prominent alderman. The magician-conjuror used to say that he wanted a beautiful watch from a member of the audience. He would go up to the alderman and eventually take from him a marvellous gold watch. He would bring it back to the stage, enfold it in a beautiful red handkerchief, place it on the table in front of us, take out his mallet, hit the watch and smash it to smithereens. Then on his countenance would come exactly the puzzled look of the Secretary of State for Industry. He would step to the front of the stage and say “I am very sorry. I have forgotten the rest of the trick.” That is the situation of the Government. They have forgotten the rest of the trick. It does not work. Lest any objector should suggest that the act at the Palace theatre was only a trick, I should assure the House that the magician-conjuror used to come along at the end and say “I am sorry. I have still forgotten the trick.”

It’s a good joke at which Joseph had the last laugh. The economy eventually rebounded and in the General Election that followed Thatcher would crush Foot.

Nonetheless, Foot’s story points at an apparent paradox. He was perhaps the most left-wing leader Labour has ever had. He was not merely a progressive but a radical. By contrast, it would have been hard to find a political figure more conservative than Joseph. He had been instrumental in the transformation of the Conservative Party from an organisation rooted in genteel centrism to one that pushed right-wing policies more assertively than any other in Europe. Arguably more so than any other party in the world.

Yet Foot’s implicit criticism is that Joseph is not being conservative enough. He is experimenting with new economic policies he does not understand and cannot control the impact of. It would have been better, according to Foot, to stick the Keynesian status quo.

I want to suggest that in the EU referendum we are confronted with a loosely analogous situation. A lot of people affiliated with the Conservative Party or who call themselves ‘conservatives’ are advocating a massive and potentially destabilising policy change. And the best hope for containing their dangerous radicalism are people who would normally regard ‘conservative’ as an insult.

Of Conservatives and conservatives

Like most political concepts, conservatism exists in the eye of the beholder. It can mean free market economics, authoritarian politics or a host of other things. But here, I use it to mean a political disposition born of intellectual scepticism. It’s what Michael Oakeshott meant when he said:

To be conservative, then, is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.

These ideas have been on my mind of late because I have been reading Jesse Norman’s biography of Edmund Burke. The great man is best remembered now for a celebrated critique of the French Revolution that provoked Tom Paine into writing A Vindication of the Rights of Man as a response. Burke was also a Whig MP and, Norman argues, a seriously underrated political philosopher.

Norman extracts from Burke an argument that humans are more characterised by interdependence than independence. This fact will frustrate the efforts of social engineers. They want to be able to manipulate societies in a precise, predictable and tidy way. But that demands being able to move humans like Lego bricks and actual people aren’t like that. If you pull them apart and start putting them back together again, the ties between them will become tangled and torn. Therefore, wherever possible the Burke/Norman hybrid argues we should leave things the hell alone. Failing that changes should be small and go with the grain of what already exists.

Burkean Euroscepticism

Norman – who has traded in academic philosophy for being a Conservative MP – clearly does not think much of the European Union. He has declared himself neutral in the EU referendum in the hopes of ‘holding the ring’. However, he has previously written that:

…this lack of legitimacy…poses the deepest challenge for the EU, deeper even than the economic challenges of debt and competitiveness. Without legitimacy, no government can sustain itself over time by democratic means. Unaccountable government is ineffective, unresponsive government; government which turns inwards on itself and becomes vulnerable to corruption, self-dealing and domination by special interests.

People start to ask: why pay your taxes, why vote, why obey the rules, if you have no power to change things? Resources are allocated for purely political purposes, rather than in response to public need. Resilience, competitiveness and energy are reduced; sclerosis sets in. When change occurs it tends to be convulsive, not gradual.

And in the Burke biography he indicates that his subject would have shared his distaste:

Within the European Union, the new currency of the euro was introduced as an elite project which deliberately ignored, and ignores, longstanding public concerns about the huge differences in the societies involved, and about the legitimacy of the Union’s own institutions. Burke would have reminded those involved that a project which ultimately seeks to abolish national identities and allegiances is likely to fail.

In this reading of the EU it is an unwanted and unwarranted imposition on imperfect but servicable national communities. They had developed ways of making laws, representing their people and providing them with services. They did not need a bunch of Euro-utopians coming along and attempting to displace all of that with their dreams of a pan-continental federation united in a chorus of Ode to Joy.

Norman perhaps imagines Burke would see Eurocrats the way he saw the East India Company’s corporate raiders: complacent outsiders trampling all over societies they did not understand and whose merits they did not appreciate.

All of which is enough to convince me that Burke would have been at least dubious about further European integration. And it is hard to imagine a truly conservative case for a United States of Europe.

Overwhelming benefits or extreme necessity?

Despite this I would like to claim Burke – or at least his arguments – for Remain. Conservatism ought to abhor wrenching discontinuities like Brexit. While attempting to channel Burke, Norman writes that:

The political leader knows in advance that all change, however well intentioned, will disrupt the social fabric, with unforeseeable and potentially serious negative consequences. Still more is this true of sweeping, radical change – what Burke calls ‘innovation’ – which abolishes whole tracts of settled human understanding and social wisdom. For radical change to be genuinely worthwhile, it must bring overwhelming social benefit, or be the product of the most extreme necessity.

It is hard to argue that the EU – as opposed to the Euro – has reached the point where its flaws are so massive that leaving could lead to ‘overwhelming social benefit’ or that our departure would be of “the most extreme necessity”.

If you push leave supporters on this kind of point, the answers tend to be comically inadequate. Asked to cite benefits of leaving they’ll point to things like being able to negotiate a free trade agreement with Australia, lift the tampon tax and even make our own regulations on the size of shipping containers. Neither individually nor collectively do these amount to a compelling case for departure.

Alternatively, there are those who see things on the EU’s horizon that are so ominous they do in fact necessitate an exit. There is the talk of a convulsive crisis of legitimacy, like the one hinted at in the article by Norman I quoted earlier. Alternatively, there is the notion that the EU is a whirlpool from which we much must escape before we are pulled into a Federal Superstate. Take this from Boris Johnson:

The idea of the Single Market has become so capacious that it is a cloak for full-scale political and economic union. We now have up to half our law coming from the EU (some say two thirds); and if the Five Presidents get their way, the process of centralisation will simply continue – much of it in the name of the “Single Market”. It’s time we learnt the lesson. The federalists do mean it when they sketch out these programmes. The ratchet is clicking forwards. When you come to vote, the status quo is not on offer.

This notion is basically rot. For starters, Britain has successfully stayed out of projects it doesn’t like including the euro and Schengen. I would agree there is an unfortunate tendency for the European Court of Justice to take the most integrationist reading possible of the treaties. But it is still constrained by those treaties and a superstate could not built on the basis of them. They would need to be amended to, for example, unify defence and foreign policies. This can only be done with the unanimous agreement of member states and that would allow the UK to veto them.

Worries about the EU’s legitimacy and democratic deficit are less easily dismissed. Clearly they are real. But they are hardly unique to the EU. A loss of faith in governing institutions is a global phenomenon which is having an impact well beyond the EU. Indeed, the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom seems to be in as much danger as the one between European nations.

The notion that the EU is a uniquely undemocratic institution is generally rather glib. For most purposes, it is simply a collection of member states each with their own democratically elected governments. It is these governments that choose the Commissioners and cast votes in the Council. In addition, the Union has its own parliament. It is quite capable of responding to pressure from below. As a small example of this, witness the deal to allow the UK to scrap the ‘tampon tax’. Campaigners pressured the UK government for a change, which precipitated the government going to their European partners and advocating for a change in the Union’s rules on what products could have VAT levied on them. The system worked: it allowed for a change to be negotiated and British voters were able to hold their government accountable for whether or not it delivered the change they wanted.

The EU as a means of conservation

Much of the anti-European discourse tends to assume that the natural social order is embodied in the nation state, and that the EU is an artificial imposition upon it.

I would agree that the EU is indeed artificial: it was made by men not discovered in nature. But the same is true of all political groupings. Nationhood is like paper money, it only has power to the extent humans agree among themselves it does.

Human beings have not always been organised into distinct nation states. From tribes through to Colonial Empires for most of history, most of humanity has lived outside the Westphalian System. Indeed one of the signatories to the Treaty of Westephalia was the Holy Roman Empire, a confederation of political units not totally dissimilar to the EU.

Now clearly if you are dealing with societies organised into nation states, the default conservative position should be to stick with that arrangement. But that does not mean it can never be modified.

Norman writes that:

…Burke is not opposed to change as such, only to radical or total change. On the contrary: for him acceptance of change is the indispensible corollary of commitment to a given social order, which will itself be continuously evolving. To recall the words of the Reflections on the Revolution in France, ‘A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation’.

And at the time of the founding of the EU’s predecessors, European states were in need of a means of conservation. They had fought not one but two wars that had killed millions. Communism had enveloped parts of the continent already and was menacing much of the remainder. Europeans needed to bind themselves together to avoid falling apart.

Even given that it would have been hard for Europe to immediately jump to a union of 28 member states. So it didn’t. It began as a Coal and Steel Community of 6 states. And from there gradually grew and deepened into the entity that currently exists.

That allowed for the creation of a single market, for resources to be shared between rich and poor areas, and provided an incentive for potential members to adopt free markets, democratic institutions and the rule of the law.

I therefore, submit that far from being an imposition on the European social order, the EU is now an integral part of the order. And a Brexit would be disrupt it.

You see the thing is there are good conservative reasons to condemn not only revolutionaries but also counter-revolutionaries. For example, one of Burke’s intellectual heirs Michael Oakeshott attacked the attempt to restore Irish to its status as a Ireland’s national language. He felt this was an ideological project that was unnecessary and unlikely to succeed when English sufficed perfectly well as a means of communication for Irish people. Given that there may be fewer fluent speakers of Irish than of Polish in the Republic, he seems to have been right. Attempting to push people back into an idyllic past is as foolish as trying to drag them into a utopian future.

And that’s what trying to rebuild a pure Westphalian system in Europe would amount to. It never actually existed and for good reasons we have gradually moved away from it. To destroy that would be to privilege the dubious insights of ideology over the more reliable guide of history.

Norman quotes Burke describing the British constitution as like an old building which:

stands well enough, though part Gothic, part Grecian, part Chinese, until an attempt is made to square it into uniformity. Then it may come down upon our heads altogether, in much uniformity of ruin; and great will be the ruin thereof.

A Burkean therefore should not distressed by the untidy intermingling of national sovereignty and European community that characterises the current British constitution. It is those who fail to appreciate the purpose served by such messiness who should worry us.

Into uncertainty

I don’t want to rehearse the full arguments about the merits of leaving. Nonetheless, it is worth subjecting a fair number of them to a Burkean analysis.

The essential point here is not to give equal weight to the benefits of arrangements that currently exist and those a proposed alternative set of arrangements. We can have more confidence in the former than the latter.

As we’ve already discussed societies are unimaginably complex. So when we draw up plans for a new improved version, we only be making the roughest of sketches. We therefore have little idea how the finished product will look. It is thus probable that we will like it less than we imagined.

In the case of Brexit such disappointment is basically guaranteed because Leaverers are working from multiple sketches. One of the peculiar features of the Out campaign is that it draws a disproportionate amount of its support from the further edges of the political spectrum. Rather than left facing off against right, it’s often the far left and far right taking on the centre-left and centre-right. The fact that a single ‘remain’ campaign was opposed by a series of rival ‘leave’ groups is not all that surprising. Their views are not only different, they are contradictory. The EU can’t simultaneously be ‘a capitalist club’ and be chaining down British capitalism. Brexit could theoretically result in freer trade or more protectionism but not both. In the years following departure either Daniel Hannan or George Galloway would be likely to wish we’d stayed in.

More likely is that both of them would be disappointed. A common feature of radicalism is condescension towards the past. The only way we could have wound up with such dumb policies and institutions is if our predecessors were themselves a bit dumb. Take for example, the common assertion that the UK entered the then European Community under false pretences, believing it was a free trade area only to see it mutate into a political union. In fact, a large part of the 1975 referendum campaign was a debate about national sovereignty rather similar to the one we are having today. Witness, for example, the Yes campaign reassuring voters that: “membership of the Common Market also imposes new rights and duties on Britain, but does not deprive us of our national identity.”

Notwithstanding the ideology of radicals, people usually had pragmatic reasons for the decisions they made. Those reasons generally still at least partially apply. Therefore, it’s generally hard to completely change course. Witness, for example, the way that the SNP’s vision of an independent Scotland has transmogrified into an EU member country with sterling as it currency and the Queen as its head of state.

In the European case that would likely mean having to rebuild some kind of trade relationship with the remaining members of the European Union. Not having easy access to our immediate neighbours – who also happen to collectively be the world’s largest economy – is not really an option. Not doing so would put close to half our trade at risk. Vote Leave reassures us that this will be no big deal:

The UK is the EU’s largest export partner. It is overwhelmingly in the EU’s – particularly Germany’s – interests to agree a friendly UK-EU free trade deal.

But their complacency is misjudged. The EU would indeed have an interest in free trade with the UK and in all likelihood such a deal would be concluded. But it does not follow that this would be a good deal for the UK. We are an island, they are a continent. They would want a deal, we would need one. It is easier to gamble with a modest fraction of your trade, than it is with half of it. They could therefore credibly threaten to walk away from a deal they found unsatisfactory, while we would have to swallow it. Emotion would play a role too. The rest of the continent would likely take a dim view of our departure and the disruption that resulted. They would therefore be unlikely to be feeling charitable. And we’d need to consider how a British civil service that has not negotiated a trade deal since the 1970s would fair dealing with an EU bureaucracy that exists in large part to make such deals. There is therefore a real possibility, perhaps even a probability, that we would wind up with some combination of access to fewer markets than we’d hoped, still paying into the EU budget and something like Norway’s ‘government by fax’ whereby we’d have to follow EU rules but have no role in making them.

Set against this we must consider the argument put forward by free trading Brexiteers that leaving the EU would give us more opportunities to trade beyond it. Douglas Carswell has argued that “staying in the EU means confining ourselves inside the world’s only declining trading bloc. That means a future of shrinking markets, and diminishing opportunities” and that we should look for “light regulation, free markets, and free trade with the whole world” on the outside.

A conservative should have nothing nice to say about this argument.

For starters, it invites disruption. My reference point for understanding why this is a problem is someone I briefly encountered in my days as a local councillor. I was at a public meeting about plans to pedestrianise the centre of Oxford. A corollary of this idea would be rerouting the coaches to London. One of the members of the public who spoke was worried by this. She didn’t think one route or the other was inherently better. Nonetheless, she commuted into London and had bought a house specifically to be near the existing route. Had the route been different she’d have bought a different house. But having made her choice, if the route changed there would be no easy way for her to get back to a position as desirable as the one she was currently in.

There’d be a real risk of something comparable happening with regard to European and non-European markets. Businesses will have made plans and investments on the assumption of having access to the European single market. Even if they get greater access to markets outside the EU in compensation that’s still not what they’ve been preparing for and they would therefore be less able to exploit it.

More baffling still from a Burkean point of view is that getting to some nirvana of global free trade would involve the UK sacrificing its existing free trade agreements. It would go from having treaties with 50 countries to none. The Leave camp would probably dismiss this concern: surely negotiating replacement deals would just be a formality? Well not necessarily. The UK’s economy is substantial and access to its market is a big prize for any country. But it is an order of magnitude smaller than the EU and therefore our government would go into any negotiation with far less clout. And let us not forget that that government has not negotiated a trade deal in 40 years. So it seems reckless to assume that everything would go according to plan. That forces us to confront the prospect that exiting the EU could restrict Britain’s trade not only with Europe but beyond it. Brexit thus becomes a classic case of the folly of sacrificing the known benefits of the present for the speculative ones of some imagined future.

Stepping back from the issue of trade, we can observe a host of other areas where leaving the EU would unleash disruption and uncertainty. How would the lives of British citizens living in other EU countries be affected? How about EU citizens living in the UK? What would be the impact on the friends, neighbours and employers of both groups? How would we decide which of legal precedents established since accession, all of which were supposed to be compliant with EU law, would still apply? Will dealing with a Brexit distract the EU and make it harder for it resolve the refugee and Eurozone crisis? Would we alienate allies like the US and Germany by leaving? Would we embolden enemies like Putin? Would the EU evolve in a direction we don’t like without us there to advocate for the alternative? Would there be a second referendum on Scottish independence?

And those are just the first few questions that came to my mind. There will be myriad repercussions I can’t predict. Probably no one can predict them. European integration is a ‘game’ which dozens of states and hundreds of millions of citizens are playing, and that the rest of the world are engaged spectators of. Its complexity is so vast that making predictions is very hard. Caution is therefore the only responsible position.

The gamblers

There has been criticism of the Remain campaign for being uninspiring. It is claimed that it focuses too much on arguing against Brexit. It apparently needs to do more to make the case for the EU. This may or may not be a good point as regard political tactics. I’m personally sceptical. But when it comes to the substance of the policy debate, it’s definitely wrong. If Britain were not currently a member of the EU, I would want to join. But even if you don’t like the EU, you should still recognise that the very process of leaving would have real costs. They theoretically might be justified by “overwhelming social benefit” or “the most extreme necessity.” But as we’ve seen they simply aren’t.

That makes Brexit an unjustified gamble, which in turn makes it a profoundly unconservative thing to do. It is therefore be surprising that so many members of the Conservative Party back it. And furthermore that they do it in such a thoroughly unconservative way. Rather than wisdom and caution they offer bravado. Rather than warning of the dangers, they ridicule those who do as “merchants of doom” who can be ignored because…uhh…Britain. You will search Burke and Oakeshott’s writings in vain for a passage explaining how exclamations of national machismo can substitute for the hard work of policy making and institution building. Yet that is what many self-proclaimed ‘conservatives’ are in fact doing.

The Leavers want you to believe Brexit will be simple; that the details will fall into place; and all kinds of benefits will arrive without costs. But it won’t be easy. You only need to be slightly convinced by conservative ideas to realise that a change this big can never be easy and is seldom wise.

But the likes of Johnson, Hannan and Carswell do not deal in such ideas. They are not pragmatists or sceptics but ideologues. Rather than cherishing institutions they seek to eliminate any that stand in the way of the realisation of their vision of pure Thatcherism.

Brexit is not an act of conservation but of destruction. Its proponents casually assume it will be the creative kind. But they have given us little reason to believe that. Their arrogance strongly suggests they have little hope of putting the watch back together again, and given the chance they will sacrifice our trade relationships and international alliances in pursuit of a blissful utopia of national sovereignty.

You can be a conservative or you can be for Brexit. You cannot be both.

 

 

P.S. If you are interested in how right-wing ideas went from conservative to radical, I wrote a more general post about this topic which you can find here.

Liberalism for pessimists

Human wickedness is a better argument for liberalism than human goodness.

Liberals will often explain their liberalism by citing their optimistic view of human nature. Take this view propounded by liberal luminary Millicent Fawcett:

Millicent-Garrett-Fawcett-quote-790x790

 

Or more recently this view by Nick Clegg:

Underpinning… [the liberal] attitude towards power is a particular liberal attitude towards people – a belief that most people, most of the time, will make the right decisions for themselves, their family and their community. A belief in the dispersal of power only makes sense if sustained by this optimism. There would be little point in dispersing power from governments to citizens, families and communities if you did not think they have the capacity and capabilities to put that power to better use than governments themselves.

If as Clegg suggests this kind of optimism about human nature actually was a prerequisite for being a liberal then I would not be one. That’s partly a function of my personal religious beliefs. I’m a Christian of a somewhat Calvinist bent. That means it is an article of faith for me that all human are impregnated with original sin and in need of divine redemption. But you don’t need to share my theological outlook to find human beings a frightening bunch.

The most obvious illustrations of this are the almost unimaginable atrocities of history: the Nazi gas chambers, Stalin’s Gulags or the Khmer Rouge killing fields. The latter of which saw soldiers executing children by smashing their heads of children against trees – shooting them would apparently have wasted bullets. Thus the human beings we are supposed to be optimistic about are capable of building a society in which ammunition was precious but human life was disposable. One could perhaps dismiss this as the work of abhorrent monsters rather than ordinary people but that is to give ourselves too much credit. In the wake of the Holocaust psychologists begun doing controversial research that suggested that randomly chosen volunteers could with alarming ease be encouraged to cause pain or dehumanise others. This shouldn’t come as a terrible surprise; generally when we see an opportunity for people to behave awfully without consequences, we see at least a minority of people behaving awfully. The persistent failure of criminal justice system to punish sexual violence means that shockingly high levels of sexual violence persist. The shield of anonymity online allows for all kinds of hate to be spewed. And anyone who’s worked in a customer service job can relate tales of how beastly people can be when they know you are not allowed to argue back.

Now clearly I am focussing here on the negatives. Humans are capable of great kindness and generosity, and they should be treasured and encouraged. But they should not be expected. Our lighter side is unreliable: more likely to apply to some people than others, subject to our blindspots and often overwhelmed by our worse instincts.

There’s simply no reason to think of goodness as our default. In his excellent book The Better Angels of Our Nature, the Harvard psychologist makes a convincing case that the terrible things humans are not evidence of the corruption of our true nature. Rather they arise from that nature. For example, he shows that in the kind of tribal societies we are often misty eyed about are probably the most violent that have ever existed.  Inhumanity is sadly a very human thing.

Nor is it only others we can screw over; we are quite able to hurt ourselves. On everything from smoking to obesity to saving, we make objectively poor decisions.

Generally, the people who share my scepticism about human nature will incline to authoritarian politics. The usual implication that’s drawn from the idea that people are corrupt is that they need a strong state to prevent them indulging that corruption. And there’s some truth to this. Pinker suggests that the existence of a state reduces violent deaths by somewhere between 75% and 90%. So a preference for authoritarianism over anarchism is prudent.

But they are not the only options. There is also liberalism. It’s necessary because there’s a central flaw in using fallibility to argue for authoritarian politics. The state that’s supposed to contain human fallibility is itself composed of fallible humans. Given the power of the state they can turn tyrannical and/or engage in all kinds of venal profiteering. The best solution we have is not as anarchists suggest to take away the state’s top down power but the liberal one of balancing it with power that comes from the bottom up. Hence the state is made democratic and mechanisms introduced that force it to respect human rights and the rule of law.

As a result, I would suggest that the divide between liberals and authoritarians is not between optimism and pessimism. Rather it is that liberals recognise that everyone is fallible. By contrast, in order to justify giving the state so much arbitrary power, authoritarians tend to wind up assuming that there is a special class of people – be it an aristocracy, priesthood or fuehrer – who have some degree of immunity to that fallibility. I would suggest that both the track record of supposedly special people given power and the fact of our shared humanity strongly suggest that this is a misguided notion.

Irving Kristol once quipped that a conservative is “a liberal who’s been mugged by reality”. But as we’ve seen there’s a hard headed case for liberalism. What makes for authoritarianism is not scepticism about humanity but selective optimism that gives some the right to rule over others. The central liberal insight is that power is dangerous – whoever has it.

 

Afterword: this post is largely inspired by Judith Shklar’s essay the Liberalism of Fear

Can you explain to me how anarchism would work?

So you might have seen that last week I posted my review of Noam Chomsky’s On Anarchism. I was underwhelmed by his unwillingness to engage with how the principles he was outlining might actually work in practice. So dear readers, I was wondering if any of you can succeed where he failed and give me a sense for how anarchism would actually work.

What I did get from Chomsky was he that he thought that he thought that enterprises should be owned by their workers. So presumably you’d wind up with an economy of John Lewis’s. He also seems to like the model of a kibbutz as a way of running a local community and to believe in “dismantling state power.” However, these three suggestions and their interplay raised more questions for me than they answered.

Below are the questions I think are most pressing. I, of course, realise that different anarchists are likely to have different answers to these questions. So am more than happy to hear personal views or your sense of where the weight of opinion within the movement is.

1) How would resources be allocated between enterprises?

Having worked for Waitrose, I have a pretty good mental picture of how resources would likely be allocated within a co-operative. However, I’m unclear how resources would be divided between them. Would they continue to trade in a competitive market with the less efficient co-operative losing market share and potentially going out of business? Or would the allocation happen by some alternative mechanism?

2) Would resources be redistributed from wealthier enterprises and kibbutzes to their poorer counterparts? If so how?

I accept that like socialists, anarchists think the community has a responsibility to care for its members. However, they do seem to operationalise it as something rather smaller. I can see, for example, that if you lost your job then the people you live with on your kibbutz might step in to help you out. But is also true that sometimes whole areas fall on hard times. How do they get help? Will that simply be a matter for private charity or will it be formalised in some way?

Similarly, it seem that even if an investment bank and a cleaning contractor are turned into co-operatives, the people at the former will still be a lot wealthier than the later. Would there be redistribution between them?*

3) In this new era of decentralisation how will individuals be protected from abuses by their community?

Presumably many communities will continue to have some rather oppressive instincts. So wouldn’t dismantling the state leave say a Catholic in Castlereagh or a women in the Tribal Areas of Pakistan?

4) How are public goods that cross boundaries of localities going to be provided?

I don’t see how HS2 would ever happen in an anarchist society. Wouldn’t the kibbutzes that covered rural Buckinghamshire veto the idea regardless of the benefits to other parts of the country?

5) How do disputes between kibutzhes and enterprises get resolved?

4) is essentially a subset of this question. Clearly from time to time there are going to want different things or will have grievances with each other. How do they get resolved with a central state?

6) What have co-operatives and kibutzhes got to do with curtailing state power?

Tito’s Yugoslavia was a pioneer of Worker’s Self-Management yet was still a Communist dictatorship. Israel has plenty of kibutzhes yet its state still oppresses the Palestinians. Is there any link in practice between these principles?

7) What if any functions would the state retain?

There’s an episode of Family Guy where under the influence of the Tea Party, the residents of Quahog abolish their city government. Predictably the city promptly descends into chaos. The mess is only sorted out when Peter Griffin persuades his fellow Quahogians to try “this crazy new thing” whereby they elect a group of representatives “who will decide the rules we all live by” and take part of each person’s salary each year to hire people “to provide us with social order and basic services.” Once order has been restored, Peter proudly proclaims “and we did it all without government!”

As you might have detected by now my underlying scepticism about anarchism is that it would wind up following a similar trajectory to Quahog. The state’s ability to instigate, to mediate and to redistribute make it too important for achieving the ends that anarchists are seeking that if they don’t retain it, then they will have to reinvent it.

 

*I appreciate that in an anarchist society there might well not be investment banks. However, I think you’ll see the point I am trying to illustrate.

What’s a liberal? A conservative or a socialist who realises they might be wrong

The always insightful David Boyle writes on his blog about why liberals should take Karl Popper seriously. Boyle explains the link between Popper’s philosophy of science and his views on politics:

You may not be able to prove what you believe about the world, no matter how often an observation or experiment takes place, but you can disprove it.

Popper used the example of swans. It doesn’t matter how many white swans you see, it still doesn’t prove that all swans are white. But if you see a black swan, then you know they are not.

Popper was writing during the Second World War, his home city was in the hands of totalitarians, and he quickly found himself applying this insight to politics too. In doing so, he produced one of the classic twentieth century statements of philosophical liberalism, The Open Society and its Enemies.

He said societies, governments, bureaucracies and companies work best when the beliefs and maxims of those at the top can be challenged and disproved by those below. This has huge implications, not just for effective societies, but for effective organisations too.Popper was flying at the time in the face of the accepted opinions of the chattering classes. They may not have liked the totalitarian regimes of Hitler or Stalin, but people widely believed the rhetoric that they were somehow more efficient than the corrupt and timid democracies.
Popper explained why they were not, and why Hitler would lose. Anybody who has read Antony Beevor’s classic account of the Battle of Stalingrad, and the hideous slaughter and inefficiencies brought about by two centralised dictators who had to take every decision personally, can see immediately that Popper was right.
I’d argue that what defines liberalism is taking seriously the possibility that you are wrong. Liberals may not read Popper as much as Boyle would like. However, we are instinctively drawn to institutions like localism, proportional representation and a free press that allow people to articulate (and indeed sometimes implement) alternative approaches to the government – including potentially a liberal one.
This seems like the right approach. Human societies are almost impossible to understand: each individual is complex and paradoxical, so when millions of them interact the uncertainty is mind blowing. The communities we live in are subject to an extraordinary amount of diversity and butterfly effects. Oh and this is a system we are part of, so are denied the opportunity to look at from the outside. With all this mind, it is best to suppose – as liberals do – that we are wisdom consists of knowing how little we know….Well Probably!
Hat tip: Stephen Tall

Rescuing Hayek from the Hayekians (and himself)

Friedrich-August-Hayek

We (belatedly) finish Conservative Week with a look at Margaret Thatcher’s favourite economist and philosopher: Friedrich Hayek.

The Austrian economist FA Hayek has long been a staple of free market thinking. Margaret Thatcher read him as an undergraduate and cited him as a major influence on her premiership. And in 2010, professional right-wing scaremonger Glenn Beck devoted a whole episode of his TV show to Hayek’s book the ‘the Road to Serfdom’ and in the process launched it to the top of the US bestseller charts.

Given Beck’s use of Hayek as a tool for creating hysteria, it’s worth reflecting on what kind of free market thinker Hayek really was.

In order to argue that the (purported) expansion of the state under Obama threatens American democracy, Beck focuses exclusively on a single work of Hayek’s: ‘the Road to Serfdom.’ It’s a polemic about how economic planning leads to tyranny and it’s an excellent book. Hayek shows with chilling precision that there is no clean division between the economy and the rest of life, hence the state cannot takeover one and not the other.

Hayek and Beck both argue that combining liberal democracy and socialism is impossible. But they are talking about different socialisms. Beck’s scarcely deserves the name; at one point it extends to the government hiring people to conduct the census. By the contrast Hayek was writing Serfdom in the 1940s as Stalin’s Soviet Union was devouring Eastern Europe and many people in Britain were advocating keeping wartime planning in place even after hostilities had ceased. Hayek had more sinister things on his mind than Obamacare.

In fact it seems quite possible that Hayek would have been ok with a welfare state. In Serfdom Hayek wrote that:

Nor is there any reason why the state should not assist individuals in providing for those common hazards of life against which, because of their uncertainty, few individuals can make adequate provision. Where, as in the case of sickness and accident, neither the desire to avoid such calamities nor the efforts to overcome their consequences are as a rule weakened by the provision of assistance, where, in short, we deal with genuinely insurable risks, the case for the state helping to organise a comprehensive system of social insurance is very strong. There are many points of detail where those wishing to preserve the competitive system and those wishing to supersede it by something different will disagree on the details of such schemes; and it is possible under the name of social insurance to introduce measures which tend to make competition more or less ineffective. But there is no incompatibility in principle between the state providing greater security in this way and the preservation of individual freedom.

It is a pity that Beck does not go beyond Serfdom and look at the rest of Hayek’s work. His macroeconomics are mostly junk but his political theory is enlightening. Of particular benefit to Beck might be The Constitution of Liberty. It’s an argument that prosperity rests on the rule of law, and it might teach Beck that it’s not just the size of the state that matters. Whether it is accountable to the public and courts matters too. This is why despite Sweden and Venezuela both have economically interventionist governments, life in these two countries couldn’t be more different.

Progressives too often forget that freedom includes free markets. People who call themselves Hayekians need to remember that there is more to freedom than free markets.

The wisest conservative

Oakeshott

I don’t want Conservative Week to pass without me acknowledging that it’s not a tradition devoid of merit. In particular, I want to commend its most significant philosopher: Michael Oakeshott. A thinker with as much to say to the left as the right.

In his essay On Being Conservative, Oakeshott explained that he believed conservatism to be grounded in a preference for the known over the unknown. He argued that the key traits that followed from this were:

First, innovation entails certain loss and possible gain, therefore, the onus of proof, to show that the proposed change may be expected to be on the whole beneficial, rests with the would-be innovator. Secondly, he believes that the more closely an innovation resembles growth (that is, the more clearly it is intimated in and not merely imposed upon the situation) the less likely it is to result in a preponderance of loss. Thirdly, he thinks that the innovation which is a response to some specific defect, one designed to redress some specific disequilibrium, is more desirable than one which springs from a notion of a generally improved condition of human circumstances, and is far more desirable than one generated by a vision of perfection. Consequently, he prefers small and limited innovations to large and indefinite. Fourthly, he favors a slow rather than a rapid pace, and pauses to observe current consequences and make appropriate adjustments. And lastly, he believes the occasion to be important; and, other things being equal, he considers the most favourable occasion for innovation to be when the projected change is most likely to be limited to what is intended and least likely to be corrupted by undesired and unmanageable consequences.

So why does Oakeshott appeal to me? Part of the reason is doubtless that his vision of government is arguably more liberal than conservative:

The spring of this [conservative disposition]…in respect of governing and the instruments of government….is to be found in the acceptance of the current condition of human circumstances as I have described it: the propensity to make our own choices and find happiness in doing so, the variety of enterprises each pursued with passion, the diversity of beliefs each held with the conviction of its exclusive truth; the inventiveness, the changefulness and the absence of any large design; the excess, the over-activity and the informal compromise. And the office of government is not to impose other beliefs and activities upon its subjects, not to tutor or to educate them, not to make them better or happier in another way, not to direct them, to galvanize them into action, to lead them or to coordinate their activities so that no occasion of conflict shall occur; the office of government is merely to rule. This is a specific and limited activity, easily corrupted when it is combined with any other, and, in the circumstances, indispensable. The image of the ruler is the umpire whose business is to administer the rules of the game, or the chairman who governs the debate according to known rules but does not himself participate in it.

And it is true that his real identity might actually be an anti-utopian liberal like Isaiah Berlin. However, if he articulated liberal ideas, he did so within the Conservative tradition. He identified himself as such and is much more of a touchstone in Conservative circles than Liberal ones.

The real strength of his conservatism is that it is rooted in the present not the past. He’s warning about the drawbacks of dramatic change not extolling the benefits of a lost past. Therefore, his writings can cut against the right as much as the left.

In fact, it is principally as a critic of conservatives that I have come across Oakeshott. I first (unwittingly) imbibed his ideas through their reflection in Francis Fukuyama’s critique of the invasion of Iraq as a hopelessly utopian project, designed to produce change more rapid than any society could absorb. Then I started reading Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish blog. Sullivan wrote his PhD on Oakeshott and frequently used him to lash the Republican party. For Sullivan, the American Right is not about preserving but about destroying the New Deal and America’s tradition of tolerance.

While British conservatism is more Oakeshottian than its American counterpart, an Oakeshottian critique of it is still possible. The bungling mess that was Health and Social Care was a leap into the unknown that appeared to be less about ‘redressing some specific disequilibrium’ than a mania for change. Michael Gove often seems to be trying to drag education out of the present and into the past. And tearing Britain out of the European Union would be a disruptive change, whose proponents are nowhere near meeting ‘the onus of proof, to show that the proposed change may be expected to be on the whole beneficial.’

I find Oakeshott interesting because his brand of conservatism is not reactionary or counter-revolutionary. It allows space for gradual reform and therefore can be more pragmatic. Oakeshott is at pains to point out that he is advocating a ‘disposition’ rather than an ideology. Therefore, it provides a resource by for critiquing any ideology including those of conservative parties.