So, I voted for a Conservative Party candidate in the UK election last week. Which was weird for me, as I’ve never had any kind of affiliation with them. Indeed I’m insticitively repelled by the conservative instinct of “tradition knows best”. I’m not right-wing. But I’m not left-wing, either. And I’m definitely not a centrist. However, I am politically engaged. This is a very strange concept for some people.
The myth of Left and Right
The reason is that a particular simple model of political philosophy – the one-dimensional spatial model – has become totally ingrained in everyday culture. The model has this kinda weird quantum-style property that its content depends on where the observer fits within it.
If you are “left” wing, it says that politics is split between those good people who want to use the state to benefit the poorest and physically labouring people (“left”), and those bad people who want to use the state to benefit the richest, capital owning people (“right”). If you are “right” wing, it is split between those good people who want to use the state to protect the institutions of civilisation that have developed over millenia (“right”), and those bad people who would use the state to tear it all down and condemn us to chaos (“left”).
These are caricatures; more unites the wings than divides them, when it comes to philosophy of social organisation. Both sides sides see society as a malleable object, and largely agree that the state is an all powerful mechanism for moulding it. Because of this naivety about the technical workings of the state, it follows in both worldviews that disagreement over policy is identical to that of morals, and so their opponents are not just wrong but evil.
The instinct of both sides when presented with a social problem is for the state to interfere more in people’s lives to prevent them doing the “wrong” thing. They just tend to use it in slightly different ways – right wingers have tended to want to “ban” things like gays marrying; left wingers, certain types of labour contracts, for instance. (Though of course it’s easy to argue that these policies work against their own sides’ stated aims, as homosexuality is likely an intrinsic property that has been at times traditionally accepted, and people are not generally helped by limiting their employment options). Both profess bland platitudes about individual freedoms with an attendant “but…”, and then love to use the security apparatus to find and prosecute perceived enemies.
The corollary of ignoring the details of the workings of the state is a ridiculous conspiracy theory-like emphasis on the power and morality of the people working there. A social problem is a symptom of the “wrong people” being in charge, and its solution is merely a matter of putting the “correct people” in charge. And “in charge” is the right phrase, as both are intensely paternalist, believing their elites know best.
This is most obvious in the respective extreme forms – far-right and far-left governments are eerily similar in their practical details, differing merely in the window dressing. Sometimes not even that. (This has led to an amusing sideline where modern-day partisans try to disown and pin extremist regimes on each other, by decrying eg Nazi Germany as a “left” wing state or the USSR a “right” wing one. This is not an accurate description of the strategic coalitional position of these states).
In practice, many people fit nicely into the model through their own behaviour, by associating mainly with those close to them according to it. So it’s great for predicting who will tend to agree on many issues, because it reinforces that process. There’s a reason for that – the left-right labels actually come from the literal sides of the chamber that the members of the National Assembly sat on in Revolutionary France.
But it’s a very poor model for consistently classifying philosophies of government, because while the general trend is to favour more government, the manner in which sides are taken on how on any given issue is more or less random. Crucially, whether the state’s job is to rule out unacceptable actions which are sufficiently detrimental (the liberal position), or to rule in allowable actions that are sufficiently harmless (the authoritarian position) is not consistently applied. Whether an individual action needs to justify itself, or whether the state needs to justify interfering in it, depends on what that action is, where it fits in the individual’s prejudices. Left and right are partisan, not philosophical, labels. It is a descriptive model of who tends to agree with whom, at least so far; it is not a coherent theory of why.
Worse, it’s not complete, either: there’s nowhere for state-sceptics to sit at all. The centre’s no good: it’s not that we sometimes agree with the Left about how we think government should be used to actively mould society, and sometimes the Right, it’s that we don’t think it should be used unless it really has to be. Generally speaking, people are pretty good at getting on with their own diverse lives, and forcing them to live one particular way tends to do more harm than good. The state is a last resort for when free interaction fails.
It’s sometimes a lonely and confusing existence, following this philosophy consistently, while everybody else goes bounding off in any direction their day-to-day whim tells them to. Some days one group agrees with you about a particular policy while the other calls you names; the next day they switch.
People on the Left and Right think we’re whacky and crazy, simultaneously egregiously cynical and naively optimistic. This is because we reject the idea that the state must be used to deliberately mould society, and prefer in the main to allow for its spontaneous development through a human institution that channels potentially bad things like self-interest or greed into good ones like social benefit. This is counter-intutitive for most people.
Amazingly, the great novelist George Orwell remained a kind of leftist until the sad end of his days, despite his deep insight that the Left’s methods for attempting to solve social problems would not only fail but lead to tyranny, if followed to their logical conclusion. He once reviewed Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, and gave a great summary of the principal thesis about socialism, before saying something incredibly stupid about Hayek’s support for decentralised competitive markets.
“The trouble with competitions,” said Orwell, “is that somebody wins them.” If the problem with competition is the existence of winners, the answer is very simple: destroy everything of any value to anybody. Then there are no winners – we’re all losers. Problem solved. With the help of a better German speaker than myself, I’ve coined a phrase for this: Reichtumshaẞ – wealth hate.
Presumably what Orwell meant to say was that the problem was that somebody loses. He probably had in mind a foot race, a soccer match, or divvying up a pizza – a zero-sum game, where the existence of winners’ winnings implies equal and opposite losses to losers.
But wealth is not a pizza – the amount available is not independent of how it is divided up; my wealth does not necessarily create your poverty. This is hard for people to understand, because our brains evolved in hunter gatherer societies where wealth was not stored, and so its sum total did not grow.
There is still an entrenched belief that somehow when a person or a firm profits, it is a “rip-off”, that it must be some kind of fraud. But when two people enter into a trade in a free market, both profit. Or they don’t do it. That’s undeniable, and the great drive behind prosperity. Growth, after all, is merely the sum of profits. You can’t be pro-growth and anti-profit.
Some complain that the spread of impersonal trade is bad, that it removes the human contact in previous ways of organising. Once again, this is actually a good thing. Impersonal trade is buying and selling things without caring who is on the other end of the deal. The opposite of that is preferring some over others – xenophobia, insularism, tribalism, racism. Adam Smith, the founder of economics, was the first to really recognise this.
It’s true that markets need a private property convention to function, for which a state can be very helpful in practice. They can under- or over-provide goods that are non-rival, non-excludable, or both. And this can potentially be an argument for government subsidising or taxing the consumption of something, and in the last case, running its provision. Monopolies and oligopolies can have materially different outcomes to competitive markets, though the common misconception that free markets necessarily tend to them is false.
Bilateral trades can result in costs to third parties not involved in negotiating the deal – that’s called an externality and the study of what they are and what to do about them is wonderfully varied and challenging. I happen to work in one particular area of this study – the externalities that come from financial systems.
These are very interesting but overwhelmingly the exceptional problems, that, as the saying goes, prove the rule. If you think otherwise, your life must be hell – every time you buy a Mars bar, you must berate yourself for all the terrible pain you’ve caused. Or, you could imagine all the huge numbers of people who, while mainly caring about themselves and their immediate family, somehow cooperated to get you this tasty bag of calories. Seriously – markets are, quite literally, amazing.
Free markets are the most unconservative idea
“Underlying most arguments against the free market is a lack of belief in freedom itself,” said the great economist Milton Friedman. Authoritarian and tyrannical governments have understood this from time immemorial – it’s why they nationalised mints to control the coinage, and why Elizabeth I created monopolies for her favourites and outlawed Lee’s stocking frame.
Quite naturally, then, it was the forces of conservatism that historically opposed free market policies, and for this reason Friedman and Hayek, for instance, both strenuously resisted being labeled a conservative when people – on left and right – tried to. The Tories have a long record of opposing free markets, against Levellers, Whigs and Liberals. Perhaps the most shameful episode in this story is their support for the Corn Laws, which imposed minimum price restrictions on grain and other farm produce in Britain and Ireland, and tariffs on competing supplies from abroad, from 1815.
The laws were designed to create a state-backed oligopoly of farms, securing steady income to rural landowners and their employees, at the expense of the smaller ones who would like to undercut them to compete, and the urban population that depended on them for bread. This is similar to many modern ‘social democratic’ proposals to organise various industries according to “stakeholder interests”, and very similar to its close cousin fascism, as practiced in Mussolini’s Italy, or Franklin Roosevelt‘s New Deal, for instance.
It all came to a head in 1845, when a strain of the plant disease known now as late blight destroyed the potato crops of Ireland. The Corn Laws meant legally-bought bread was prohibitively expensive for the starving Irish. But, as the minimum price was so far above the cost of producing it, many smaller farmers saw an opportunity to grow their business by undercutting it.
State officials employed increasingly draconian methods to keep violators of the laws exporting bread to Ireland at illegally affordable prices. Here was the surreal sight of the government preventing people who wanted to sell products from selling to people who wanted to buy them, so that others could be protected from that competition. With guns. Around a million Irish starved; another million emigrated to the United States. Some believe the country has never quite fully recovered.
With the Irish population starving, the Conservative Prime Minister Robert Peel saw the only solution to the humanitarian crisis to be getting English bread into the country. He advocated tirelessly for the repeal of the Corn Laws, over the intense opposition of his party, mostly led by the future leader Benjamin Disraeli, eventually securing it with the backing of the opposition Whigs and Radicals in 1846. This was a betrayal for the Tories, who swiftly booted Peel out of the party. They remained an intensely anti-free trade, anti-markets, protectionist party for another 135 years.
Weirdly, it was a Conservative Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, who brought economic liberalism in from the cold somewhat in the UK in the 1980s. This confused the Left so much that they rebranded it “neoliberalism” so they could sneer at it safely. This rather silly label later got associated more with the foreign policy arena, in particular as a pro-Western imperialist philosophy.
The rebranding has been so successful from both sides that almost all people now bizarrely see free market policies as a conservative idea! They’re not. Some even think they’re necessarily imperialist ideas, and if you espouse free markets you’re necessarily for imposing them at the barrell of a gun all over the world! That’s just stupid.
The weirdness of modern day politics
So why did I vote for my historical enemies? In this election the Conservative party had the most pro-liberal agenda. While the coalition that they led botched its major reforms of health, welfare and education, it had the right idea in attempting them. While the cuts they implemented to the welfare budget may have had some negative effects, the cuts to those of defence, the civil service, local government and police and fire departments have not led to a drop in public service standards – and so were a good thing.
They talk the talk on improving democracy, decentralising state power and freeing up people from over-regulation to improve their lives, while Labour and others largely gave voice to the statist instinct to expand government in many directions in many bad ways. That’s why I voted for their candidate in my constituency.
It’s only a week since the election, and already the government is taking a potentially very illiberal direction. They want a bill to replace the EU Human Rights Act in 100 days, which could be good or bad depending on its content. The guy drafting it, Michael Gove, has the weirdest mix of liberal and authoritarian mindset I’ve ever seen, so it could go either way. Worse are their plans to grotesquely expand the already grotesque powers to punish “extremist” speech.
I don’t yet regret voting for them, as Labour would never have done a good version of the former, and could easily have done the latter, indeed the proposed Tory law builds on existing Labour laws. But if this carries on I might.
But to return to the big picture: if we must have a one dimensional model of politics – and modern analytical theory is starting to move away from this – it seems to me the split should be liberal-authoritarian, or capitalist-socialist. Both traditional wings would be overwhelmingly concentrated on the authoritarian/socialist side, even post-Thatcher/Reagan. Hayek knew this – The Road to Serfdom was dedicated to “the socialists of all parties”.
I’m far from the only one to recognise this, and there are more and more successful organisations making the argument that, hey, maybe government isn’t the answer. Maybe no one needs to be “in charge”, maybe there are just some problems which must be solved collectively, and those few should be solved by an institution that works for us.
The graph of social benefit versus size of government has a large spike near zero – undoubtedly having a violence monopoly to enforce a rule of law does allow the development of all the freedoms necessary to lead to the unbelievable riches that mean virtually everyone in a developed country is far richer than anyone born before 1880.
But after that it drops. And states have a tendency to drive to increase their size unless checked. We should start checking them more effectively.
This entry includes parts of a passage which originally appeared at the end of my stupidly long ‘Election Post-Mortem Post‘, reblogged here so people don’t have to slog through all of that.