Friday, August 26, 2011

Book review: Them and Us by Will Hutton

From today's Liberal Democrat News.

Them and Us. Changing Britain – Why We Need a Fair Society
Will Hutton
Abacus, 2011, £10.99

Fifteen years ago it was impossible to escape Will Hutton. His book The State We’re In, with its call for a less short-term, less short-sighted capitalism, was everywhere – so much so that the New Statesman was later to claim that it had sold 200,000 copies. This, the magazine said, was by far the most for a book of its kind “since J M Keynes's The Economic Consequences of the Peace shortly after the First World War”.

And New Labour, which was clearly on its way to power by the time The State We’re In appeared, showed considerable interest in Hutton’s concept of ‘stakeholding’ – the idea that those with a stake in a company's fortunes should include not only those who own its shares, but also its customers, employees and suppliers, and the wider community.

Time moves on, and Hutton’s ideas turned out to be too radical for Blair’s government, which was determined above all to do nothing to frighten the horses in the City. Meanwhile, the suspicion grew that The State We’re In was a bit of a hawking – a book more purchased than red – and more recently Private Eye has taken to poking fun at Hutton’s stewardship of the Industrial Society (now called the Work Foundation), claiming that it has been as short-termist as any of the business leaders he criticised.

But Hutton was not daunted. He continued to turn out books on political economy, even if their titles rather obviously harked back to his earlier success. There was The State to Come in 1997 and The World We’re In from 2002. Last year saw Them and Us, the paperback edition of which has just appeared.

This time round Hutton is even more ambitious. Them and Us calls not just for a reconstruction of corporate governance, but for something close to the reconstruction of society as a whole. And he wants to see this reconstruction based upon the value of fairness.

The concept of ‘fairness’ is fashionable – all parties laid claim to it at the last general election – but that may be because it is popular because of its vagueness. Yes, we all believe in fairness, but that may just be because we have very different ideas of what the concept means. And isn’t there something of the playground about it? (“It’s not fair!”). Ideas like ‘justice’ and ‘equality’ are much more grown-up – and more challenging.

But Hutton promotes his understanding of fairness by engaging with meaty thinkers like Marx, Rousseau and John Rawls. There is nothing of the playground about the debate here, and his determination to win Adam Smith back from the Conservatives is particularly welcome.

And this impression of seriousness is reinforced by Hutton’s interest in the fashionable discipline of behavioural economics, as he uses its insights to argue that a sense of fairness is ‘hard-wired’ into us.

Well, maybe. But the claim that “you can’t change human nature” is more commonly heard from advocates of laissez-faire economics. And, even if you buy the idea of a fixed human nature, don’t we have education and all the other institutions of a civilised society precisely because we recognise the need to transcend out natures?

Still, many of Hutton’s prescriptions on constitutional reform, media ownership and corporate governance will be welcome to Liberal Democrats – he even spoke at the Social Liberal Forum’s first conference. There are more entertaining writers on the economy these days – John Lanchester and Larry Elliott are good examples – but Hutton’s unashamed seriousness in Them and Us is to be welcomed.

Jonathan Calder


Kimpatsu said...

The claim that human nature is immutable is demonstrably false. What do the advocates of laissez-faire think the Renaissance was? At root, it was a paradigm shift in thinking from the teleological (roses are red to signify the blood of Christ, and have thorns to represent the crown of thorns) to the natural (roses are red to attract pollinating insects, and have thorns as defence against predators). If an entire continent can undergo such a change in a single generation, smaller changes of attitude are easier to implement; in fact, psychologist Richard Wiseman has done research into how easy it is to persuade large groups of people to change merely by making a series of small, discrete steps that ratchet up towards a goal. How do the proponents of laissez-faire explain that?

iain said...

I thought one of the best bits of the book was the recognition of the debt we owe to Hobhouse et al...