Thursday, 29 April 2010

Gordon Brown writes new Fabian pamphlet

Gordon Brown has written new Fabian Ideas pamphlet called ‘Why the Right is Wrong’.

It sets out the philosophical case for a Labour government and why ideas matter in politics. It's an interesting companion piece to the manifesto and shows some of the broader thinking behind it. I thought I’d post a couple of short extracts that are in keeping with Next Left's mission to raise the general level of philosophical engagement on the blogosphere... at a time in the campaign when the battle of ideas isn't get much of a look in.

It has just been mailed out to Fabian members, so the best way to get hold of the whole thing is to join the Fabian Society. Alternatively, you can access it here.

First up, on the market and reclaiming Adam Smith:
“The global financial crisis has demonstrated once and for all that leaving markets to their own devices – in the laissez-faire, neoliberal manner demanded by the libertarian Right – simply does not work. I have long been fascinated by the work of Adam Smith, the famous Enlightenment economist who hailed from my home town of Kirkcaldy. Smith fully grasped the vital role that markets and trade can play in generating prosperity, stimulating innovation and creativity, and making everyone better off. But his thought has been fundamentally misinterpreted by many on the Right. In 'The Wealth of Nations', Smith writes of an ‘invisible hand’ at work in the operation of the market, which enables the pursuit of individual self-interest to work in the common good. In an often-quoted passage, Smith observes that 'it is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest. We address ourselves not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.'

However – and this is the point that is so often not understood – Smith did not see this as the whole story. He did not believe that self-interest always yields public benefit; nor did he believe that public goods can only be produced via the pursuit of self-interest. Indeed, Smith makes clear in his 'Theory of Moral Sentiments' – the book in which the term was in fact coined, and the book of which he himself was most proud – that the invisible hand must be accompanied by what might be described as a ‘supporting hand’: the idea that we should not pass by on the other side when others are in need of our help and it is within our power to help them.

An appreciation of the virtues – but also of the limitations – of markets has always been a central element of Labour thinking, and this element of our progressive philosophy is now more relevant than ever. With the laissez-faire approach of the neoliberal Right now thoroughly discredited, right-wingers have found themselves with little in the way of substantial and coherent principles to fall back on. They have been forced, as a result, to take one of two options. The first option is denial. Some politicians and commentators on the Right still cling to the outmoded idea that government can do no good; this explains their expressed willingness to ‘let the recession take its course’ and their opposition to the measures we took to support the recovery. The second option is a reliance on sound-bites, presentational gimmicks, and intellectual fads to provide ‘mood music’ that conceals a lack of deeply held values and principles."

And here is an interestingly Croslandite section on equality:
“I believe we need to think more boldly about equality. Simply put, equality of opportunity is an ideal that is impossible to achieve without also embracing fairness of outcome. For while some families have more money than others, they will always be able to secure advantages for their children that will give them opportunities that poorer children will not have – private tuition to supplement schooling, foreign holidays to help learn languages, and so on. Equality of opportunity is desirable, but it is only fully possible if we embrace fairness of outcome, too. Does this mean, therefore, that we should subscribe to the ideal of equality of outcome in order to secure full equality of opportunity? I believe not. Incentives are a necessary part of an economy and society; they drive aspiration and encourage people to work harder, do better, and create new ways of doing things. They also, of course, cause some inequality. But this kind of inequality can be justified if it makes everyone better off than they would otherwise be, especially the poorest; this was one John Rawls’s great insights.

Absolute equality of outcome has never been advocated by those on the mainstream Left, whatever caricature the Right might present of the progressive position. Equality of outcome, as many progressive thinkers and politicians have argued, is contrary to human nature and inimical to liberty and personal autonomy. It is important to realise, though, that this is not the same as saying that we should not care about inequalities of outcome at all. Any genuine commitment to the principle of equality of opportunity entails achieving fairness of outcome; in other words, limiting inequality of outcome to some degree. For, as we have seen, inequality of outcome in one generation leads automatically to inequality of opportunity in the next, as parents legitimately use their resources to give their children a head-start in life.”


Old Holborn said...

Right is wrong, black is white, truth is lies, freedom is slavery


Francesco Petrarch said...

Surely equality of income and wealth (outcome) should only be pursued as a means to achieve greater individual autonomy (i.e. making the least powerful more powerful), but not as an ends in itself.

Stuart White said...

Well, its nice to see at least one person not succumbing to Rawlsaphobia!

George CA Talbot said...

As an aged member of the Fabian Society I have had the time to read Brown’s booklet. It is indeed about ideas and the failure of the Right. But it does not explain this failure or describe the hard choices needed to achieve success. I know these need international cooperation and would be unpopular. But he leaves Labour and the Left without even a vision of a credible route to success. And by offering more government help, his proposals increase Labour's vulnerability to the Right's claim that it always runs out of money!

The only good thing I have found is the following comment from the second Prime Ministerial Debate where Gordon Brown admits the problem. That's supposed to be half way towards its solution!

(1:38:58) But the key thing is that we've got to have an agreed plan to reduce the deficit, protect our public services, and get growth in the economy. And I'm afraid that we don't have agreement on what needs to be done even this year to sort the economy out. I want to see our economy grow this year. I want to see unemployment come down. I want to see businesses thrive, and that means we've got to keep the government support in the economy for the time being,...

The quote is from iPlayer's xml file.