Riyadh: Wednesday 27th February 2013
Anyone, who, like me, is a keen follower of the news, will be well aware of the inexorable sense of economic & cultural decline that permeates all aspects of European news reporting at present.
For most observers, the most surprising aspect of the loss of the United Kingdom’s treasured ‘AAA’ Credit Rating this week, is that it took so long. Certainly, to judge from the modest response from the stock market, it was not a surprise to investors, who had clearly been preparing for this for some time.
The Debt Crisis which evolved from the Banking Crisis has not been confined to Europe and the arguments prevalent on the American Right resemble closely those of the European Right, when it comes to prioritizing the dismantling of expensive Welfare provision.
Meanwhile the Left, on both sides of the Atlantic point to the stubborn failure of Austerity measures to generate fiscal growth in the economies where it has been implemented and to the relatively faster recovery of the US with its mix of stimulus and support for American industry.
Yet this argument is not merely an economic one. How can it be? For the economics directly impacts people’s lives and aspirations and ability to fulfill these. Moreover, the economic models that will emerge from this prolonged economic flux will also affect the lives of future generations.
To me therefore, this debate misses the point from both right and left. It should not be about which economic model best prepares future nation states, but which economic model best affects the lives and aspirations of the people living within them.
Certainly the left are right to point out that fiscal stimulus is no less successful in times of economic hardship than prioritization of a lowering of debt, when it comes to engendering energy and optimism into an economy. The New Deal is proof of that. For while it may not have driven the economy out of the Depression, it injected into the people the energy and work ethic and dignity which would prepare them for the opportunities which flowed from the outbreak of war in Europe. Those who critique the New Deal miss the point. Its success was less in offering a means out of the depression than in giving people hope that one could be found and in providing them with the dignity and solidarity of work while one could be found.
That said, certainly the right are correct in their assertion that as economies emerge from a global recession, those with a healthy bank balance will have greater scope to stimulate a consumer driven economic drive than those still lumbered with vast quantities of public debt. Perhaps, if this point is to be proven, the initial lead in the race to recovery, enjoyed by America, will be clawed back by countries like Britain and Germany who currently struggle in a flaccid economic environment.
The Right point to the fact that while the New Deal did give the population the critical mass of endorphin’s, energy and the dignity of work to allow it to enter the War driven economic boom in a robust manner, the 1950’s American boom was generated by an export boom in armaments and the provision of the Marshall Plan to rebuild a battered Western Europe. And this point should not be lost. Capitalism’s vitality came from the movement of Capital. Not the well-meaning tinkering of the State.
And the critical point here is that both are right.
Anyone who believes that Obama’s stimulus packages will by themselves eat up the vast debt and creeping inflation it generates is ignorant of history. But his economic stimuli may yet allow America to exit into a state of Growth ahead of Europe. And when it does so, it will have a greater sense of individual optimism and a greater level of experience of work than Europe. Britain’s emergence from recession will be driven by growth in global confidence, rather than individual sweat and toil. But its years of austerity, so it is argued, will leave it well placed through being structurally ready with modest wage inflation and an ample labour market hungry for the opportunity that growth brings. But it will carry something that America will not; a generation of young who will not have known work and who will have no realistic access to the incentives work brings, such as financial independence and home ownership.
While this is speculative and unproven (The truth is that neither Right not Left know for certain that their economic vision is the right one for a global recession), certainly that seems the likely outcome at present.
Similarly, anyone who believes that Austerity measures alone (By which I mean a shrinking of the National economy through removal of public sector infrastructure in order to concentrate on re-balancing the budget) will drive the public into entrepreneurial and consumer lead growth is ignorant of the lessons of the depression era economics of Calvin Coolidge and Warren Harding and of the North Sea Oil funded economic “miracle” of the Thatcher Revolution.
When Britain removed its Labour Government and instituted a Coalition of Liberals and Conservatives in 2010, I was, on the whole supportive. I could see that the Labour Party was tired and needed a period to recoup. I could see too that there was a critical energy about both Liberals and Tories that their years out of power had given them.
But more than that, I could see a logic to the need to draw down the State and concentrate of the hard work of paying off our debts. This, of course was not coherent economics, but an instinctive feeling that debt driven consumer growth which had funded nothing more substantial than a lot of foreign-made plasma TV’s and mobile phones (Or house price inflation in an economy where wages had remained nearly stagnant for most classes), was the economic equivalent of vandalism.
It was time to pay it back.
But, as I say, this was instinct and while it may have a certain validity when applied to a person of limited Middle Class aspirations, it hardly solves the problems of a nation.
Today, the major economic powers of Europe all struggle. There are few positive signs. Germany, with its robust export industry is able to siphon money from the rest of the continent in return for its high value products. Yet globally it is merely an expensive competitor to China.
Britain abandoned its Manufacturing industry in the 1980’s rather than modify its management and industrial relations and so has no such fail-safe. Moreover, its economic policies since then have been to encourage consumer driven growth.
This is essentially problematic because Foreign Holiday’s, TV’s, I-phones, Cars and other nice consumer goods, only contribute to the economic well-being if you make them. Otherwise, they act as a drain on the nation’s economic resources.
In simple terms, if you buy a book, you have invested in a resource that, looked after, will contribute to your well-being pretty much indefinitely. It might allow you to entertain yourself or educate yourself or enrich your family and friends. It is a lasting good. Similarly, buy a house and you have made an investment that will protect your financial well-being and provide lasting heat, protection and security.
But buy a Kindle and you have just sent a percentage of your income to China. You are then obliged to send a percentage to America for each book you download. If you lose your kindle or are robbed, you lose all your books. Similarly when technology makes the e-reader you bought two years ago redundant, or old-fashioned you will be compelled to by the latest upgrade sending more money abroad. And just as you did before, will be obliged to buy the books you love all over again as they will no longer be compatible with the new technology.
Like all consumer technology, therefore it is a form of status driven snake oil. It perpetuates a credit boom driven on aspiration and jealousy but provides nothing tangible in terms of lasting investment.
Having to buy something is not a bad thing. Aspiration drives Economic growth. But having to buy the same thing repeatedly is essentially inefficient as it merely circulates capital rather than forcing its creation. In this regard, consumerism is little better that statism in that it promises to satisfy individual need but in practice merely creates illusory needs which in turn require to be satisfied. No one thinks of technology as addictive in the way we think of drugs as addictive, but in a real sense western societies have become addicted to technologies which by their very design, require to be replaced and upgraded periodically preventing the individual from consolidating his or her finances or investing in things that drive growth.
If you doubt this look at who invests money in stock or capital projects. It is rarely small investors. The reality is that capital investment is the preserve of those with an excess of capital. The rest of us spend it on an endless round of gizmo’s which provide the illusion of freedom, connectivity and sophistication but non of its tangible rewards.
Rent a house, and the asset you live in is only yours by way of your continued ability to pay. Lose your job and it is no longer yours. This might be mitigated to some extent if you are the beneficiary of a State sponsored home (for example, if you are a single parent on benefit), but in practice you remain tied to the economic priorities of that State. And if an alternative government decided that single parents would need to work for a home like everyone else, the illusion of home ownership would be revealed.
This is the essential (though I accept simplified) problem of the consumer economy. Capitalism’s critical dynamic was its promise to make us all richer. But consumerism makes us poorer while fooling us into believing we have the essentials of wealth. So does reliance on the State.
Last year, I went on holiday to a wonderful part of the Adriatic. I ate fabulous food. I swam in crystal clear water. I drank wine looking out over a beautiful scene of tiny islands and azure waters. I gave my loved ones (Those that I could bring with me), some nice memories, and some recuperative time away from normality.
But, in tangible terms tourism, like everything else, is best consumed in moderation. For it is illusory to imagine that we can live that life forever, or that if we could, that it would present us with the critical component of escapist happiness that the initial holiday provided.
Which brings me to a problem.
For that very dichotomy, between working for the things that make life feel like progress is what fuels Capitalism and free market economics which drives the austerity of George Osborne’s economic policies. It says, work hard and spend your money on Life Assurance, on Marriage and Mortgages, and a manageable level of credit. It says, save for your healthcare and retirement, avoid excess and look after your own. It says that it is not the State’s job to regulate you and it is not the States job to bail you out. The State will free you from its clutches by paying off debt and allowing you to be liberated from taxation. Then you are on your own.
The great advantage of Liberal Democracy is often misunderstood. It is supposed to be the ability to allow individuals to mediate their own economic fates. Yet in reality what Liberal Democracy does at its best, is free us from the tyranny of the Majority. It successfully combines the provision of freedom with the provision of a compassionate and understanding ‘society’ and in doing so, allows us the freedom to be eccentric or introvert as we please. In Britain, we take this so much for granted that it is enshrined in our national psyche. We think nothing of mad aunties and crusty old buffers with odd habits. “ow’t as queer as folk” we’ll observe, at the latest example of an alternative way of life.
Liberal Democracy provides room for alternative points of view and behaviors by providing room for individuals to act with toleration and humanity towards one another. When the BBC, gives room on the TV Show Question Time, to people of minority interests, like Nick Griffin, The BNP Politician, Gay Rights campaigners or Spokespeople for Human Rights Organisations like Shami Chakrabarti, it is performing the single most important function of a broadcaster in a Liberal Democracy. It is allowing the minorities their turn at the table and in so-doing, preserving us from the insidious tyranny of the majority. Moreover, it is giving oxygen to the single most dynamic and democratic aspect of Liberal Democracy.
For Liberal Democracy to work effectively, we need national debate to be organic and the beauty of Liberal Democracy is that opinion-former’s need not come from the majority or from some “Official Opposition” but from anywhere. You can set yourself up as an opinion former, provided you have the articulacy and coherency to do so. Anyone can.
Or at least anyone should. For we can often judge the health of a Liberal Democracy by the prevalence of lobby groups. In the US, it is not possible to be an opinion former just through articulacy. You also require financial backing or else a popular mandate and professional organisation. Thus we see lobby groups such as the “Environmental Lobby” and the Oil Lobby competing in nameless ways and organic groups such as the Tea Party or Occupy, develop into linear managerial lobbying organisations.
The problem with this is that the voices that lobby groups claim to represent get lost in a deregulated and money driven system like that of America. In Britain, where there is a regulatory environment compelling broadcasters to give a certain amount of time to competing points of view, money is less important and alternative voices can inform the national debate.
This is a delicate balancing act and requires cultivation. And it is important as we consider the economic future of the American and European Nations. For so much of the debate between Right and Left is conducted in strictly economic terms.
To the Right, the economic reforms required by Austerity will lead to a more dynamic country when finally we all exit the recessionary stagnation of this decade. What will remain will be a nation of entrepreneurial individualist who fund, without thinking, their own healthcare and pensions drawn from the private sector, who marry one another because to do so provides stable economic modules and a rigid societal environment in which to raise children of similar mind and aspiration.
It is the dictatorship of suburbia, the modern equivalence of the old image of bowler hat wearing, umbrella carrying Middle Managers walking to suburban commuter stations in Kenton or Orpington from Mock-Tudor Semi’s to offices in Holborn or Lancaster Gate.
The dress sense will be different. The commute will not involve the complex folding ritual of the Telegraph or the Times Crossword, there will be more women, but the vision is the same. Uniformity through choice. It has a ring to it, like ‘Strength through Unity’ or ‘Joy through Work’.
How else can you explain the hypocrisy of State sponsored Marriage allowances and the arcane debate about whether calling civil partnership marriage is to somehow degrade the love and solidity that marriage is supposed to engender?
I say this not to critique the lifestyle of the majority but to point out that in legislating to remove large elements of a societies infrastructure you remove the support structure of the many and in so doing restrict the opportunities of the few to be the few.
Just because the majority live a certain way, should never necessitate the State to take a view on the matter. On the contrary, in a Liberal Democracy, the State is the fundamental guardian of the right to live life as we choose.
The most cretinous and malevolent corruption of this simple notion is the so-called Libertarian. He will pretend that he believes in exactly this idea. Will preach the individual’s right to behave as he pleases but in dismantling the state and the infrastructures of society, he will deprive that society of the ability to protect the individual from the tyranny of the majority by forcing him into a life spent uniformly working for a basic level of security.
The lie at the heart of Libertarianism is the idea that he believes the State to be the great opponent of liberty. Yet, no libertarian would remove the States ability to defend itself from foreign invasion by disbanding the military. No libertarian would tolerate the idea of the commune, because he would see the responsibilities that come with that as being an incursion of his freedom. His is the anarchy of the 4-year-old, where freedom is to consume as he pleases, behave as he wants and reject the discipline and responsibility towards society that Liberal Democracy (and only Liberal Democracy) brings.
History gives us no Libertarian societies, though there are isolated and short-lived examples of Anarchist societies. What it does provide are examples of Liberal Democracy so successful that they have allowed people the illusion that they might live life as Libertarians should.
The phenomenal success of the American Liberal Democracy allows individuals to dream that they could live in a community of individuals. There are even examples of this, walled communities with names like ‘The Citadel‘, where would-be Libertarians can move themselves and their families to live out their dreams of freedom.
Of course, you are not wholly free. Try being a pacifist on such a community or passing the moderate view that perhaps Obama has a point when it comes to taxation or gun control or immigration reform. The Citadel, and places like it, are every bit as much a dictatorship of the Majority as the Libertarian fears.
Except that through the success of the Liberal Democratic States of America, and the vast military and economic powerhouse it has become, its inhabitants can delude themselves (Have the freedom to delude themselves) that they are escaping the States clutches.
Can there be any greater example of the Success of a Liberal Democracy’s ability to protect the minority and the eccentric from the tyranny of the majority than the foundation of a gated community, the premise of which is that you are protecting your liberties from the long arm of the State?
And the Left are no better. Here I do not need to paint a picture of their dictatorship. We have ample examples of their propensity to prefer uniformity and economic efficiency to individual toleration and happiness. Look at Communism. Look at Socialism. Look at Social Democracy. You will see again and again the desire for Societal norms will lead to encroachments on the individual’s right to be.
Tony Blair was no Communist, but he proposed ID Cards and compulsory on the spot fines enforceable by the police, both of which, had they ever been imposed, would have fundamentally encroached on the liberties of individuals protected by the State through the right to a trial and the right to be considered innocent until proven guilty.
The key point is not to decry the State or its absence or even its selective application. If someone were to give me the chance of an affordable Mock-Tudor semi in Kenton and a pinstripe suit in a solid job I would not refuse it.
Ironic as it might seem, I have met people who hate the uncertainty of the modern free market, and the way it refuses to allow them peace to securely plan their modest futures.
Even today this notion is almost offensive. We naturally shy away from the idea of any removal of our right to live life as we choose, let alone a removal by so racist and brutal a set of people as the Nazi’s.
But Sartre also, on a philosophical level, spoke a fundamental truth that people are apt to dismiss without understanding.
For when you have no say in the function of the State, only knowledge of its autocratic workings, and power to dominate your life, you are effectively living with a sleeping monster. Act rashly and it will wake and hurt you. But act carefully, and its slumber will provide you warmth and protection, and allow you freedom to get on with living your life.
Sartre’s counter intuitive point is essentially that occupied Paris still saw shows at the Moulin Rouge and debauchery in the various brothels of the Pigalle District. Writers and Intellectuals still gathered in the cafe’s of the Rue de Montparnasse and courted young Acolytes in the streets around the Sorbonne.
People still fell in love, got married, went to work, raised children and held private convictions. People were still hypocrites. Moreover, people were aware entirely of where they stood because of the life and death centrality that knowledge demanded. You were actually free to collaborate or to resist, because you understood the consequences and the gambol you were making.
To Sartre, denial of the basic freedoms of open political debate and social mobility, provided Parisian’s with the freedom afforded those with no access to the levers of power; namely the freedom to explore the space of their private places, their minds, their emotions, their souls. The corollary, for Sartre, is a world where we are afforded the freedom to inhabit the society as we see fit and are enslaved by the need to operate its daily levers.
This is not an argument in favour of State control, let alone the brutal form of occupation practiced by 1940’s Germany. On the contrary, as a Liberal, I am arguing for liberty.
Yet Sartre’s observations about Nazi Occupied Paris, and the many people who sometimes lament the loss of certainty that accompanies the end of a Statist economy, force us in the west to ask what freedom really is, and by extension, how do we avoid succumbing to loss of liberty.
As people we developed complex notions of society and nation at about the same time as we developed religion. And since that time, societies have protected individuals from encroachment by barbarians. Society is the ultimate arbiter of justice and civilization and humanity has come to opt into society almost universally.
Today there exists on the Earth, no place where land is not administered by a nation or by multinational treaty.
Slavery has not been eradicated. Injustice and exploitation exist everywhere. But these are managed and mitigated, societies protecting individual freedoms by protecting individuals from the freedom of others to exploit their weakness or largess.
No form of society has done this more effectively than Liberal Democracy. And for lovers of Liberty, the freedom to be will always be threatened by Snake Oil Salesmen of Right and Left, who promise freedom but mean only the rule of the strong.
Be under no illusions, when people talk of freeing the individual; do not ask “From what?” Ask “What to?”
- Clinton: America’s Debt Problems ‘Can’t Be Solved’ With Austerity (thinkprogress.org)
- We’ll stick to debt plan – Osborne (bbc.co.uk)
- Moody’s Strips UK’s Treasured Triple-A Rating; First Ever Sovereign Downgrade Strengthens Demand For Policy Change (ibtimes.com)
- UK shock over AAA credit downgrade (thewiseme.com)
- What’s Real Libertarianism? (lewrockwell.com)
- George Osborne insists he won’t change course despite credit rating downgrade (guardian.co.uk)
- Libertarian heavyweight responds to Coulter: Yes, libertarians are pu**ies (theblaze.com)
- UK downgrade pressures reluctant Osborne to change course (news.yahoo.com)
- Libertarians Boo Ann Coulter Over Marriage Equality (lezgetreal.com)
- What Would Sartre Say? (digiday.com)