Sunday, August 29, 2010

John Pugh, public debt and the nature of the state

At the start of the month I asked why political radicalism has become synonymous with a desire to see a permanent and massive public debt. Stumbling and Mumbling went further, pointing out that there are several reasons why the left should be suspicious of a large public debt.*

So I was pleased to see John Pugh, the Liberal Democrat MP for Southport, writing an article for Liberal Democrat Voice in which he argues that "Liberal Democrats can act to reduce the deficit and be positive about the role of the democratic state".

That is quite right and I am pleased to see John saying it. However, I am less happy about something else he says:
The trouble starts when those on the right start to regard the democratic state itself as some sort of alien monster that has sprung into existence on its own, independently of its citizens. Then ‘rolling back the state’ is identified as freeing and empowering citizens – as though we can always achieve the same individually as we can collectively.
It is precisely because of poor accountability – a distorted voting system, limited devolution and huge swathes of public services run by quangos – that people disassociate their aspirations from those of their state.
I do not regard that state as an "alien monster" and our Liberal Democrat concern with democratic reform - the thing that unites all shades of opinion within the party - suggests that we all accept that it is not about to wither away.
However, even in some future Lib Dem utopia with PR and proper local control of public services, I would be wary of talking about the state having aspirations. People have aspirations - often widely differing aspirations - and it is the role of the modern state to allow them to live in harmony while seeking to fulfill those aspirations.
To attribute aspirations to the state or to argue that it can meet all human ambitions strikes me a sort of Hegelian state worship. Rather than encourage reform, it tends to mystify the nature of government, which is a tendency that will appeal to traditional Conservatives but should not appeal to us.
The debate on the state that Liberal Democrats should be having is that outlined by Ronald Dworkin:
The practical problem is this: there are certain things we all want government to do. We want government, for instance, to select methods of education, to sponsor culture, and to do much else that looks, on the surface, like endorsing one set of personal values against another and therefore contradicting liberalism.
It is very important for liberals to develop a theory that would make a distinction here between enriching the choices available to people and enforcing a choice upon people.
The crucial idea, it seems to me, is the idea of imagination. The liberal is concerned to expand imagination without imposing any particular choice upon imagination.
But I've simply named a problem. I haven't met it. It does seem to me that liberalism is rather weak at this point and needs a theory of education and a theory of culture-support that it does not have.
* It was William Cobbett who pointed out that we have the Crown Jewels but a National Debt.

5 comments:

Tristan said...

as though we can always achieve the same individually as we can collectively.

There's a fallacy here - John Pugh seems to be suggesting that the only way to do something collectively is through the state, which is false.

Libertarians might (rightly) argue that the state prevents people from acting collectively - that is a large thrust of the libertarian left argument.

As for the democratic state - it emerged from a few concessions given by the ruling classes to keep those they rule a little happier. All it really provides is a means to choose between slightly different groups of the ruling class who perpetuate policies which are almost identical except for a few, minor, areas.

The crucial idea, it seems to me, is the idea of imagination. The liberal is concerned to expand imagination without imposing any particular choice upon imagination.

Very true- but the state is incapable of that. Those who make up the state will always seek to use the means at their disposal to enforce their preferred choices on people.

Niklas said...

Quoting Dworkin: We want government, for instance, to select methods of education, to sponsor culture, and to do much else that looks, on the surface, like endorsing one set of personal values against another and therefore contradicting liberalism.

Who is this "we"? I'm a fan of classical music and so benefit from state subsidies when I go to the opera or to a concert, but I'm not sure that the state should really be sponsoring culture. It's very difficult to do so without imposing one person's taste on everyone else's. Perhaps low or no VAT for tickets to any kind of musicial or art event would be a non-imposing form of subsidy?

And John Stuart Mill emphatically did not think that the state should "select methods of education". He education to be universal (policed by publicly-set exams), but wanted to leave the maximum latitute to parents as to how they educated their children. (See On Liberty ch. 5: http://oll.libertyfund.org/title/233/16560 and search for "universal education")

Incidentally, that paragraph has the earliest reference I know of to what we now call school vouchers: Mill says that the state should pay the school fees of poor children, but not decide where they go to school.

john said...

Tristan is wrong in saying I 'seem to be suggesting' that the only collective action is state action. Why would I say something as silly as that?
Nonetheless the state is A form of collective action and a useful one at that.
As for the state having 'aspirations' , it wasn't my intention to 'reify' the state( quite the reverse) but to point out that the state's actions/decisions result directly from the actions/decisions of its people. Such actions/decisions can be assumed to have intentions- things they aspire to bring about.

On a more basic point should honest politicians allow all us individuals to pretend that state action/policy and its failures- all happens on its own.

My goal was not to create a monster of the state but to try to deprive misguided right wing theorists of their traditional bogeyman - an alien,oppressive organisation of unknown origin,staffed by Kafkaesque bureaucrats, pursuing a perverse agenda. I know this sounds a bit like a few institutions we know but that's not what a democratic state is supposed to be ! Is it ?

Jock Coats said...

"misguided right wing theorists"?

Lenin wrote:

"They themselves share, and instil into the minds of the people, the false notion that universal suffrage “in the present-day state" is really capable of revealing the will of the majority of the working people and of securing its realization."

...and...

"the real business of “state” is performed behind the scenes and is carried on by the departments, chancelleries, and General Staffs. parliament is given up to talk for the special purpose of fooling the "common people"."

Jock Coats said...
This comment has been removed by the author.