I attended three sessions on the second day of the Battle of Ideas 2012. The event helped me understand how Britain has changed during the twenty years I was away. My classical liberal views, as held by most enlightened people since, well, the Enlightenment are now considered to be not merely out of step but wicked. Today I heard them bracketed in all seriousness, with fascism. And not by some foaming-at-the-mouth student Trot, but by this eminent intellectual (photo, above)
I also heard him claim that Geert Wilders had attacked his right of free expression by trying to close down his institute. When I asked him later what Wilders had actually done, he explained that he had lobbied (unsuccessfully) for the institute's state funding to be withdrawn. Whatever you think of Wilders' views (and I hold no brief for him) he is a man who is in such danger for speaking freely that he has to sleep at a different location every night under armed guard. It is extremely dishonest to equate an attempt to stop money being extorted from taxpayers to finance the expression of a particular view to the suppression of free speech.
I also disliked Riemen's dishonest hijacking of the language of spirituality to argue that we must submit to a higher good. We don't need more wealth, he said (tell that to the Chinese and Indians) we need "true education" (i.e. indoctrination in his way of thinking) and "arts, culture, knowledge, wisdom, love". Those things are desirable, of course, but all except love need money to pursue. As someone who lived his working life as part of the engine of society, I get tired of hearing the wing mirrors and the pine-scented air freshener (however much I might like to have both) tell me snootily that they are more important.
The only encouraging words I heard in the session at which Riemen spoke on The 21st Century Case for Freedom were from Frank Furedi, late leader of the the Revolutionary Communist Party and now emeritus professor of Sociology at the University of Kent. He told us Stalinists had said freedom was less important than poverty because how could you be free if you were hungry and that George W. Bush had said it was less important than security because how could you be free if you were afraid of terrorists. Both Right and Left used the same arguments to subvert freedom and he thought they were mere excuses. We needed to reassert that freedom was a primary good, not one to be subordinated to others at every turn. As he put it,
We need an unqualified endorsement of freedom. No ifs and no buts.
Wary though I am of the man himself, I could not agree with him more on this point. Furedi and the leader of the Institute of Ideas, Claire Fox (another RCP graduate) are denounced by the likes of George Monbiot as defectors from the left to the libertarian right for their defences of free speech and liberty. I am not sure whether they, or we true libertarians, should be more insulted. They both still claim to be leftists, and I believe them, but they are fulfilling a useful role. They are beaters who flush out the undoubted enemies of freedom from cover for us to shoot them down.
Furedi certainly fulfilled that function in the session I attended. Both Riemen and Green Party leader Natalie Bennett were visibly disturbed by the notion of freedom as a primary good.
While advocating the execrable policy of a citizen's basic income whereby the productive are required to support anyone who decides to be idle (which she jokingly predicted will lead to lots of bad poetry) Bennett was laudably hostile to the coalition government's plans to hold more secret trials (euphemistically called closed material procedures) when the interests of the State are at stake. That was it though from her as far as civil liberties are concerned.
Like so many at the event, Bennett claimed to be concerned about the state's freedom of operation in the face of powerful corporate interests. She cited the SuperPACs in the US elections, corporate lobbying and advertising as evidence that the state, God help us, is weak in the face of the business world.
I wanted to tell her that everyone in the room was several trillion pounds richer than the UK government, but that doesn't mean they are a threat. The idea that a state with a total monopoly on the use of force, control over the national curriculum, control through state funding of a huge proportion of academic research, the ability to propagandise constantly at taxpayer expense etc. is weak in the face of companies only interested in selling goods and services is too ludicrous for words. Nonetheless, it was a constant theme at the event and I cannot tell if those arguing it are genuinely stupid or dishonestly justifying more state control. I suspect the latter. I know Orwell's point that some things are so stupid only intellectuals can believe them, but this just goes too far.
As did Bennett's complaint that the people of Totnes are getting a branch of Costa Coffee they don't want because the planning system is too weak to protect their "freedom". If the people of Totnes don't want their new coffee shop, it will be gone in months. Opening it is a bet the company is making that they do want it. All the residents have to do is not show up. The idea that planning control promotes freedom, when it actually limits the use by an owner of his own property, destroying value in the process, is again, too ridiculous to be anything but sinister.
Freedom had to be constrained, she said predictably, by the physical limits on the Earth's resources. Uncontroversial enough, but however pessimistic you are about the environmental limits of economic development, there are traditional approaches to making people pay for their externalities, rather than demanding centralised control of production and, as Bennett did, rationing of carbon outputs. Those approaches are consistent with both free markets and the exercise of personal choice. Even without getting into the debate about whether, in Furedi's terms, Anthropogenic Global Warming is another moral panic/excuse to limit freedom, environmental factors need not make freedom an unaffordable luxury.
The second session I attended was called Risk, regulation and red tape. I am sorry to tell you it was even more depressing. Professor Nick Butler of Kings College and more relevantly the Fabian Society actually said from a public platform with a straight face;
All the regulations of the last 50 years were necessary and are effective.
I noted it carefully because I could not believe my ears. There was a good discussion in the session of the costs of over- or mis-regulation. I strongly argued that the greatest cost of all was in the businesses that never begin. The costs of entry of compliance with regulations prepared for (and sometimes lobbied for by) big business prevent many startups. Simon Nixon of the Wall Street journal laid the blame for increasing regulation at the door of citizens who are simply not prepared to accept risk as their fathers and grandfathers did. If we demand the government insure us against all harm, then it's inevitable, he argued, that government must regulate fiercely to limit its own liability.
This sounds like a good excuse, but does not apply to regulations sponsored by big business to block competition. There is no pressure from the people for government to rig the market, surely? Submitting to such pressure is criminally corrupt and the people are more likely to relish Ministers going to gaol for it, than applaud them. The only point on which Professor Butler and I agreed was that all regulations (I suggested all statutes too) should have a "sunset clause" so that they expire automatically unless renewed after, say, 10 years. I don't think one generation has a right to bind the next and time-limited laws would have the benefit of preventing archaic rules from silting up the legal system. They would have the subsidiary benefit of keeping politicians busy ensuring their favourite laws stayed in force, rather than justifying their existence by constantly creating new ones. The devil has found lots of work for those idle hands.
I took pleasure in making in public my oft-repeated point here that the state's workforce is bigger than it appears because so many people in the private sector are engaged in tax collection (VAT and PAYE) and compliance, which is of no benefit to the customers or owners of the business. I pointed out that the HR department of the large law firm I retired from was bigger than the whole medium-sized firm I trained in - most of them engaged on ensuring compliance with employment law. When these secret civil servants are counted, I strongly suspect the proportion of people engaged on the state's business in Britain today is higher than it was in Poland or Czechoslovakia immediately before the fall of Communism.IEA floated the interesting idea that, if regulations are so beneficial to consumers, the government could commercialise the system by allowing unregulated businesses to operate if they branded their goods with a suitable warning. This could permit people to choose between, say, a cheaper cola with no lists of ingredients on the can and more expensive "safer" stuff they would presumably prefer. This foxed his opponents because of its novelty and the slowness of their unused-to-being-challenged thought processes. I am fairly sure their answer when they regroup will be that this will expose the "vulnerable in society", obviously too stupid to understand the benefits of regulation, to exploitation.
As so often the most alarming views came from the floor. One shrill lady took exception to the ridiculing of Health & Safety, darkly assuring us that employers were ready, if we dropped our guard, to start inflicting pain, injury and death on their workers. In thirty years in commercial law, I can't say I ever met a business person with such aspirations, but perhaps I was just lucky?
The final session I attended yesterday was called Drink, Smoke, Eat; Prohibition Today. This was by far the liveliest, but also the least satisfactory. The health fascists on the panel refused to engage, saying there was no plan for prohibition, while declining to set any limits on future restrictions on the sale, marketing and use of legal products such as tobacco. Pressed, the One Show Doctor, Sarah Jarvis said that there was a difference between tobacco and alcohol because there was a safe limit to which alcohol could be used, while any smoking was dangerous. She was a personable lady whom I would be happy to have as my GP and whose advice I would try to take. She simply didn't grasp, in her backed-by-state-force arrogance, that there was a difference between being an advisor and a boss.
When we nationalised medical services in Britain (a mistake in my view, but that's for another time) we did not give the medical profession a promotion. We still expect them to serve us, not direct us. Nor do we expect them to describe us as a "cost" to the NHS, when the NHS is a cost to us. It may sound a bit Downton Abbey (the sneering leftists at the Barbican and their overt contempt for the plebs - though of course they would never use the word - may perhaps have infected me) but this woman simply does not know her place.
On the cost point, the excellent Chris Snowden (author of The Spirit Level Delusion for which contribution to society I was delighted to have chance to buy him a thank you pint later) pointed out that, if the Health Lobby's arguments were true, the smokers, drinkers and over-eaters were saving the NHS a fortune by dying before they became a burden. The laugh this got from the health fascists rather gave the lie to their "caring" stance.
Which brings me my award for the all-round worst person at the Battle of Ideas. This is a great honour for someone from the dark side of statism, given the hundreds of Marxists, busybodies and all-out fascists present. My choice is Dr Michael Nelson, director of research and nutrition at the Children's Food Trust (a "social business" working with the "charity" the Schools Food Trust).
Again, it wasn't the advice he would give parents as to what their children should eat but his contempt for their ability to make choices and their right to do so that was the problem. He gave this post its title when he complained that parents (as witness the contents of packed lunches they sent with their children to school) could not be trusted to make good choices for their childrens health. Government attempts to improve nutrition by requiring catering contractors to offer healthy choices had failed because those choices were simply not taken up. If we care about "our children" he said (oddly as he and I have no children together) then we must help parents who;
...we know from experience do not themselves have the the power of executive decision when it comes to their own diet...
I asked myself (but did not dare to articulate the suggestion unless it gave him ideas) why he stopped short of taking all British children into care. After all, their parents are too stupid to raise them properly and are jeopardising their health irresponsibly.
I don't doubt the good doctor's sincere desire to make children healthier, but fear he lacks understanding of the consequences of what he says. Yes "compulsion works", just as when soldiers are taught to accept orders without question. But people trained to obedience find it hard to fit back into society as autonomous individuals. Since returning to Britain I find my fellow-citizens, on average, rather irritating. I have realised in the last couple of days it's because they don't behave as adults any more. They are spoiled children assuming that mummy and daddy (the state) will make any problem they face go away. They are resistant to the idea they are responsible for their own lives and simply demand that the productive minority - through the agency of the state's monopoly of force - be compelled to pay for whatever the hell they want.
Conversely, when Dr Sarah complains that the "same few names" cropped up as causing drunken trouble in her Shepherd's Bush surgery on a Friday afternoon, it never occurs to her to suggest action against those problematic individuals. No, she sees it as a reason to impose restrictions on us all, even though most of us will never (however much her thoughtless authoritarianism might infuriate us) rampage through her waiting room.
I must now seriously consider if it's worth wasting my life supporting ideas that are, as far as our ruling class is concerned, dead. Hearing our public intellectuals expound the new orthodoxy, it's clear that nothing short of economic collapse or armed revolution will change their minds. As I desire neither and will certainly do nothing to promote them, perhaps I should just shut up? God knows a weekend spent listening to them discuss how best to command and control a population they despise for its stupidity and ignorance was not my idea of fun. Given their creepy authoritarianism, it may also be unwise to provide them with an online public archive of my "wicked" views.
I have taken the event at face value and applaud what it attempted. While I am fully aware of the shady background of the Institute of Ideas and its founders, I think they genuinely attempted to assemble the full range of British intellectual opinion. That range is simply neither very wide, nor very intellectual.
I was left with the impression that the British Establishment, and particularly academia, is so thoughtlessly leftist that our public intellectuals have descended into lazy complacency. They face no challenge to their stale ideas. As someone who spent two decades in post-Communist countries trying to build on economic, social and political ruins wrought by indistinguishable ideas, I find that incredible. Not to mention rather disgusting.
To hear them talk, state control of public commerce and private behaviour for the greater good of "society" (as defined by an authoritarian elite) is a radical new idea that has never been tried. The global suffering of Marxism's 20th Century guinea pigs is forgotten and they are looking to fill their lab's cages with new ones.
Our nation is already run on their principles under their guidance. What they would call in other contexts "hate speech" against the business people who generate the wealth to sustain them in their parasitical existence is the common currency of the political class, whether Labour, LibDem or "Conservative". Yet still they rail against unnamed "elites" who plunder our "collective assets" for private gain. I wanted to cry out "When will you bloody tyrants stop playing the victim?" As a fellow-libertarian who did rather lose it in one of the sessions found out, it would have earned only uncomprehending looks.
Their view of corporations is as nuanced as the portrayal of super-villains in a comic book or Bond film. Frankly the Joker or Blofeld are more fully-developed characters, with more believable motivations than their image of a business man or woman. They wield the state's monopoly of violence to shape our everyday lives. Yet they expect us to fear those whose only motivation is to make money by selling us things we want.
Our children come home indoctrinated from schools where they have shaped the curriculum. They go to universities where a leftist professor setting an essay on Plato can announce "Anyone who quotes Popper with approval will be marked down". A professor I shocked in conversation during the weekend accepted that British academia is riddled with Marxists. Yet still the left expect us to believe that commercial advertising is so powerful as to make a nonsense of free will.
I understand the motivations of the business people they despise, whereas theirs strike me as pathological. My mistakes have given me the humility to understand that it's really hard to get one's own life right. To believe you have the wisdom to shape the lives of your fellow-citizens better than they could themselves is, to my mind, insane. What is the point of engaging lunatics in discussion?