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REPUBLICAN PARTY OF GREAT BRITAIN
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REPUBLICAN PARTY NEWSLETTER
For a Civic and Constitutional Republic
Issue No 54 Friday 22 January 2010
Highlighting news stories important to the Civic Republican view, particularly those that are overlooked or little covered in the main media.
· Neoliberalism – The Political Philosophy That Has Blighted Our Times
We live today under a single predominant political philosophy. It is known as “Neoliberalism”. It incorporates principally the thinking of twentieth century writers, Michael Oakeshott, Friedrich Hayek, and Robert Nozick and it pervades the thinking of all the major British parties. If we are to evolve better government we need to understand what exactly it is and why it will always fail in practice.
If the word is not that familiar outside of academia, most of us have a good understanding of it through our acquaintance with the primary instincts of the politicians and policy-formers who currently shape our society. These instincts are Neoliberal. This is seen in the declared intention to reduce the role of the state and it is seen in the proclamation that free markets have inherent virtue and that anything run by the state automatically is defective. In Britain Neoliberalism is equateable with Thatcherism for it was Prime Minister Thatcher who was instrumental in forcing Neoliberalism upon British society and government in the 1980’s. We still live under Neoliberalism because the whole New Labour project, as formulated by Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson and Gordon Brown, was and is a continuation of Thatcherism. Therefore the understanding of Neoliberalism is the key to the understanding of current politics and, moreover, a lot that is wrong with it.
A new book by Raymond Plant on Neoliberalism called The Neoliberal State has just been published and according to reviewer John Gray in the New Statesman is likely to become the definitive work on the subject. In this book Plant formulates a central criticism of Neoliberalism and it is this. Whilst the intention of Neoliberals like Thatcher and Blair is to reduce the state they in fact end up by extending the operation and remit of government. This is not because they do not successfully carry out the Neoliberal programme but because the implementation of Neoliberalism itself necessarily increases government activity. It thus contains an inbuilt contradiction. It is fatally flawed as an idea.
To understand what Neoliberalism is we need to place it in relation to two other political ideas – Liberalism and Libertarianism. Neoliberalism and Libertarianism can both be contrasted with Liberalism in that they can be distinguished from the latter for the same reason. Liberalism is about allowing people to do what they wish with the minimum constraint imposed by the state and the law. It is thus concerned primarily with human rights. Liberalism can be applied to our personal lives and so seeks to protect for instance freedom or speech, and it can be applied to our economic lives and so protect rights to form companies and so on.
What Neoliberalism and Libertarianism both do is to take the Liberal ideal and say that it can be more than just about rights - it can be used as an instrument of political change. Indeed, they say allowing people to do as they wish should be used as the fundamental determinant of society. Neoliberals and Libertarians argue that we should not be prescriptive about the type of society that we end up with. We simply apply Liberal principles and consider the political job done.
Neoliberals and Libertarians always make the most of Adam Smith’s notorious statement that if everyone is left to pursue their own economic ends the result will ultimately serve the common good. Thus the accumulative effect of atomised human behaviour is beneficial and so we do not need to design institutions for the common good. This in turn means we can have a very lightweight state as its role need only be minimal and a reduced state is an essential element of both Neoliberalism and Libertarianism.
So how does Neoliberalism differ from Libertarianism? The two undoubted spring from the same political and theoretical impulse. They differ mainly in the extent to which their proponents are prepared to go in following through on that impulse. Libertarians are not all in agreement but most wish to remove pretty well all restraints on activities in society except that the government should remain in place to uphold the law and defend the nation. This it should do with the help of minimum taxation. Libertarianism can thus come very close to anarchism and so theoretically can be seen as belonging to the left as much as the right. But in practice Libertarianism is almost exclusively a right wing doctrine. The most fertile ground for Libertarian ideas has always been in right wing American political circles and it seeps into American Republican Party thinking. But whereas Libertarianism has been very influential in the United States its ideas are far from ever having been implemented in full there. Probably the greatest effect of Libertarianism, on both sides of the Atlantic, is in its influence on Neoliberalism.
Neoliberalism might be seen as a less extreme or watered-down Libertarianism. As such it has been possible to work its ideas out in practice and this has indeed happened in the two large Anglo-Saxon nations. The main features of Neoliberalism are:
To repeat, Neoliberalism takes the Liberal idea of rights and extends it to make it a normative instrument of political philosophy. This should result in less government according to the theory thus reducing taxation and shifting the power away from government. So does the New Labour application of Neoliberal principles suggest that this aim has been achieved? There are few that would answer Yes to this question. The reality is that government has expanded under New Labour – and seldom in ways that produce any real benefit to those whom the government is supposed to serve – the British people. This is because Neoliberalism simply does not work in practice. It does not achieve the ends its sets for itself. It amplifies government rather than reduce it.
This becomes clear if we take as an example New Labour’s public service reforms. Tony Blair regards his public service reforms as his best and most significant achievement and would hope that others would see things likewise. For one thing this would help deflect attention from what most people would regard as his primary legacy –the Iraq War. Blair and New Labour were adamant that we should find ways of "replicating" conditions that pertain in the private sector within the Public Services. The solutions he came up with were the same old Thatcherite instruments for dealing with the Public Services: targets, consumer choice, outsourcing and job insecurity. Prime Minister Brown has repeated this formula since taking office.
But the problem for Neoliberals is that all these measures cost money and inevitably result in more government not less. If you are going to set targets then you need people to check and monitor whether the targets are being met. If you are going to create “consumer choice” you are going to have to duplicate services resulting in inefficiency and more provision. If you are going to outsource you have to specify and monitor performance – more administration again. On top of that, all these measures distort the operation of those who have to actually provide the services so that for instance the desire to meet a specified target can result in unbalanced provision. The constant changing of private contractors results in a heavy administrative burden. The figures show a ballooning of government under New Labour (as under Thatcher) not a reduction. This fact can be laid in large part at the door of the Neoliberal political philosophy.
Robert Plant’s book is a timely reassessment of the nature of the Neoliberal experiment. But what should be put in Neoliberalism’s place? Do we simply want a return to the old ways? Well, yes, we do to a degree, not to ossify the way government operates but to provide a starting point for future really beneficial reform. Fundamental to any reform must be the clear understanding that public services and free enterprise cannot possibly operate under the same types of regime. It is not that one is good and that one is bad. They are different, that is all. Free enterprise has to be competitive and adaptable. Government works best when it develops professionalism and continuity in its various departments.
In the end the rigour of the permanent aspects of government supports the democratic framework. Democracy by its nature means changing the government executive from time to time. But this can only work if there is a permanent bedrock of continuity in government. Only a republican constitution can put in place safeguards for the civil and public services and provide a commitment to development them positively. Only then will we see an end to faddish experiments like Neoliberalism.
Recommended article of the week
This four part BBC series tells the story of the Royal Navy but much more besides. It is quite clear about the way the financial interests in the City of London were the driving force behind British naval power. This is history as it should be - detail about, say, shipmen's rations or the original investors in the Bank of England mixed with portraits of unfamiliar characters that played important historical roles but all held together by a compelling overall narrative. It is that rarity on British TV - a history that is not seen through the eyes of a monarch.
The only complaint must be that the BBC has been too nervous to insist on it being presented by the author, Brian Lavery, and has persuaded itself that ratings require a media figure in that role.
A Republican Party meeting is planned in the new year in London.
Especially in the run up to the general election, it is time for the website to become an organisation. Subscribers to the website and to the newsletter have been building up. You will soon be asked to donate towards the costs of the meeting to launch the party.
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……. …….until next time