Thursday, June 26, 2008

Opposing states of mind

There are people on the right who accuse the left of thinking that things have to be done either under a government aegis or not at all – that official, state reality is the only reality that matters, whereas actually normal life carries on informally under the bureaucratic and ministerial radar.

On the other hand, though, there’s an equivalent, opposing blind spot that many of the same right-wingers have.

Today, Harriet Harman is plugging positive discrimination – letting employers prefer female or ethnic-minority candidates ‘of equal ability’. I’m a bit doubtful about this (declaration of interest: I’m a white man), but what occurs to me is this:

When the commentators of the right leap in to criticise this, many will be ignoring the unmeasured, unofficial, informal discrimination that goes the other way, and that policies like this are intended to counter.

It is ludicrous, as ludicrous as thinking that all good flows from the state, to think that all restrictions on freedom and opportunity come from the state. I doubt anybody actually believes either of these things, but all too many often talk – and make policy – as if they did.

Relatedly, Richard Reeves has an interesting piece out: “Cameronism is… critical of state initiatives to solve underlying social problems, lambasting Labour for nationalising social problems. … Cameron is quite right that Labour is very often guilty of a knee-jerk statism, but he is equally at risk of following an unthinking anti-statism.”

A lot of the reason that I dislike (Cameronite) conservatism comes out when I hear talk about “the economy”, “the state” and “society” as if they’re utterly distinct entities with pretty straightforward relationships: Thatcher fixed the economy by rolling back the state, and now Labour’s overuse of the state has broken society (the society–economy link appears to depend on which party growth happens under). But the three have intimate and complex interconnections.

4 comments:

Toby said...

“Just as we needed then [1979] to realise that the state couldn’t run British businesses properly and shouldn’t try, today we need to realise that the state can’t run British society properly, and shouldn’t try.” -- internal Conservative document, post Crewe.

Cassilis said...

"It is ludicrous, as ludicrous as thinking that all good flows from the state, to think that all restrictions on freedom and opportunity come from the state."

I'm not sure that last bit in bold IS how conservatives think - not this liberal one anyway.

A better way of saying it might be that deliberate and organised restrictions on the part of the state are the potential to be far more pernicious and detrimental to the general good than un-enlightened prejudice from random individuals. That’s not to condone the latter in anyway and I’m all for legislation to address it but there has to be a recognition of the limits in attempting to change behaviours.

Positive discrimination worries me because it presupposes some sort of natural balance that might not exist and is never properly stated. The idea that because less than 50% of CEO’s are female there must be some sort of prejudice in play is clearly silly although if that figure was at 0.01% then it’s a reasonable proposition. Since we don’t know point at which all prejudice is eradicated and the balance is fair it’s unwise for the state (or anyone else) to try and arrive at it. Far better to change attitudes slowly…

My favourite retort on positive discrimination is ‘does the proportion of people called Kevin in boardrooms match that in the general population’. Tends to put the discussion in context I think...

Tom Freeman said...

Toby,
Actually I have a feeling that ‘internal’ document was largely verbatim from a Cameron speech… but yes it makes that basic charge pretty clearly. But, of course, not one single member of the Labout party thinks that the state can or should try to “run British society”.

Cassilis,
I basically agree with all of that. Right-wingers don’t, I'm sure, really think that any more than lefties really think the converse (see previous para). But if someone thinks the current balance is too far in one way, then they focus on the opposite direction disproportionately.

In terms of social prejudice, it’s often not a matter of “random individuals” but a pretty widespread social phenomenon that leads to the unfair disadvantaging of a certain group. Or, on the other hand, big business (sorry to use shorthand bugbear language) can have quite systemically negative social effects even as it succeeds on its own terms.

There are two tendencies in parts of the right, sometimes overlapping, to think that (a) the 'natural social order' is more or less the way things should be and that the state should keep out, and (b) that the state should not try to misguidedly shield society by frustrating the needs of the free market. Both focus on one type of problem to the exclusion of the opposite risk.

(I do have my doubts about positive discrimination, although it depends a lot on the exact proposal. Andrew is quite interesting on this today.)

Tom Freeman said...

(And so is Will.)