Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Oliver! (or ‘Please, Mr Letwin, we want some more’)

Oliver Letwin has been waving his brain around [PDF] about what the new Conservative political theory is. First he suggests the terms of debate:

“Politics – once econo-centric – must now become socio-centric. If the free market is a matter of consensus, the debate must change its nature. Instead of arguing about systems of economic management, we have to discuss how to make better lives out of the prosperity generated by the free market. Growth in well-being hasn't kept pace with growth in domestic product. ... Instead of being about economics, politics in a post-Marxist age is about the whole way we live our lives; it is about society. Politics today is socio-centric.”

Then he offers the Tory answer, in contrast to “the provision-theorists of Brownian New Labour [who] see the state as the proper provider of public services and of well-being through direction and control”:

“The framework theory of the modern state sees government as having two fundamental roles: to guarantee the stability and security upon which, by common consent, both the free market and well-being depend; and… to establish a framework of support and incentive which enables and induces individual citizens and organisations to act in ways that fulfil not merely their own self-interested ambitions but also their wider social responsibilities.”

Hmm. You could remark that given Brown’s record on growth and employment, it’s not surprising the Tories don’t want to talk about the economy. And you could also argue that Labour’s (including Brown’s) use of public-private partnerships, promotion of social enterprise and increasing involvement of the voluntary sector in public services suggests that they’re not the dogmatic ‘provision-theorists’ Letwin paints them as.

But what I want to pick up on is that despite Letwin’s undoubted intellect, this vision is a tad flimsy. Once you get down to the nitty-gritty, it amounts to either ‘shrink the state’ or (if you generously add in some sensible caveats that his speech curiously omits) ‘shrink the state where possible without hurting anyone’. Whichever of the two he means – and this doubt testifies to the lack of clarity – it’s either standard right-wingery or fluffy warm words (albeit polysyllabic ones).

Another clear hint that this political theory doesn’t amount to much is that he himself mischaracterises his own description of it. He says:

“The Cameron Conservative framework-theory of the state… takes the same place in the socio-centric political debate of the twenty-first century that free market theory once took before it triumphed in, and hence outdated, the econo-centric debate of the twentieth century.”

But it doesn’t. Free-market theory (not that Thatcher or anyone else ever really implemented such a thing) is, as the name suggests, about freedom. Prosperity is the motivating factor for private enterprise; government should merely ensure the enforcement of contract rights, property law and the such, and individuals and companies will be free to engage in economic activity as they see fit. The profit motive obviates any state-based system of incentives.

What Letwin is suggesting, however, is that the state should “establish a framework of support and incentive” to promote fulfilment of “wider social responsibilities”. In other words, the state will define how it thinks people should live and then use its top-down centralist levers to skew people’s motives in that direction (marriage bribes, for instance).

I’ve used somewhat ‘grumpy right-wing’ language in that last sentence to illustrate that this theory actually goes against the grain of the liberal wing of the Tories that Letwin apparently belongs to (ditto Cameron), using statist manipulation to promote somewhat authoritarian ends. Then again, you could also use this ‘framework theory’ to justify scrapping environmental and labour laws in favour of ‘inducements’ and cajolery (thus making the ‘free’ market that much freer and more dangerous).

It really seems that it’s the spin and PR makeover driving all this talk, rather than a clear, new policy analysis or philosophical outlook.

But one thing that I accept does accurately represent a core belief of Cameron Conservatism is in the suggestion that “we have to discuss how to make better lives out of the prosperity generated by the free market. Growth in well-being hasn't kept pace with growth in domestic product.”

This takes for granted that the nation’s prosperity (of which there’s quite a bit) is fine economically, and now that we’ve got that, we just need to think about how to use our money to make our lives better. It ignores the fact that the fruits of growth go mainly to those who are already well-off (although far less so than under the Tories [PDF; see p17 fig7]).

There’s not a hint about poverty or redistribution. All this talk of creating ‘frameworks’ to ‘enable and induce’ people to fulfil ‘social responsibilities’ neglects the fact that market-defined merit will leave plenty of people impoverished and that only direct state economic action can plug that gap. Under Cameron and Letwin the poor will always be with us – but they’ll be helped to be so much happier with their lot in life.

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