Friday, March 10, 2017

The Orange Book was too statist for me

When I saw this tweet I suspected it was a parody, but it does come from the official Liberal Reform account.

The most vocal young economic liberals in the Liberal Democrats tended to find deeply principled reasons for leaving the party when it became clear the roof was going to fall in at the 2015 general election.

But I am sure Liberal Reform will still find some keen to win this prize.

Those who are lucky enough to do so may be disappointed. The Orange Book is not a coherent philosophical work but an uneven collection of essays on different areas of policy.

It is also approaching its 13th birthday, which is long in the tooth for a book of that sort.

And libertarians readers will be surprised by at least one of the chapters.

When I reviewed The Orange Book for Liberator back in 2004, I had this to say:
And then there is Steve Webb. Webb argues that liberals should not take a laissez-faire approach to the family, yet his views are not as ground-breaking as he seems to think. With the exception of a pamphlet I published last year, I cannot recall any Liberal Democrat questioning the move, rapidly accelerated under this government, towards more state intervention in family life. Certainly, none of the 64 references in his essay point the reader towards a dissident view. 
Webb offers an apocalyptic view: our children are suffering more mental health problems than ever before, they are starting school unable to talk or listen, they are turning to drink. What is strange is that this view is supported only by references to surveys and magazine articles. As an MP Webb must regularly meet all sorts of people who work for children, yet nowhere does he mention them. Basing his arguments on their testimony would have made for a more interesting essay – and quite possibly a very different one too. As it is, his work reads like a collection of press cuttings; it may be no coincidence, that Webb is the only person in the book to make his research assistant the joint author of his paper. 
The answer to our predicament, Webb argues, lies in massive state intervention, delivered through the voluntary sector. He lists a number of schemes with approval, but it is hard to judge them because we have no direct knowledge of them. What is more worrying is that there is no sign that Webb has direct knowledge of them either. Again, he relies upon published references and gives no sign that he has met the people whose work he is praising. And, while liberals will favour government support for the voluntary sector, its essence lies in the personal qualities of those who work in it and its local nature. Any attempt to roll out a scheme nationally will inevitably tend to reduce it to a trite formula that fails to reproduce the unique characteristics that made the original model work. 
Somewhere in Webb's essay is the ghost of a more interesting, more personal contribution. One senses that he really sees our salvation as lying in a revival of marriage – he spends a couple of pages convincing himself that welfare benefits do not encourage young women to have babies out of marriage – and a greater role for religion. It is a shame that Webb did not write that other essay, because it might have offered the beginnings of an interesting critique of free-market economics. The traditional criticism of it is the Marxist one that capitalism will impoverish the workers, but we know by now that this is not true. A more subtle critique is the conservative, communitarian one which sees the free market as hollowing out important social institutions and acting as more of a destructive than a creative force. 
Webb's essay as it stands, however, turns our idea of what constitutes virtue on its head. A healthy society sees it as residing locally – in the family and friendship and in strong local communities – and is distrustful of national government because it is distant and anonymous. To Webb, however, virtue resides in the state and in the professionals and volunteers whom it licenses, while families and individuals are weak and morally suspect.
I have always been something of a Steve Webb fan and I suspect the editors invited him to contribute to The Orange Book to dispel the idea that it came solely from the economic liberal wing of the party.

But when his essay appeared alongside ones like David Laws' call for the National Health Service to be replaced by a system of private insurance, the effect was unfortunate.

It reinforced the impression that economic liberalism stands up for the interests of the big corporations.

Money must be set free, they seem to argue, but people must be more closely policed to make sure they do not have public money spent on them and that they are the model citizens those corporations require.

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