It has been an astonishing few weeks in British politics and – while I believe our events are specific to our circumstances – there does seem to be a pattern emerging in the affairs of Mankind as a whole. So let's take pause and summarise where we stand. I will state matters as best I can and ask you, gentle readers, to tell me where I am at fault.
- The "capitalist" system is working well on a global scale. One hundred million people came out of poverty in the last decade. Most of them were in China. Almost all of them were in Asia, living under regimes that are openly anti-democratic. How well capitalism functions seems to depend on the extent to which markets are allowed to work unimpeded. People living under an authoritarian state that, for whatever reason, decides to allow free-ish markets, can make just as much economic progress as those living in a democracy. And MORE progress than those living in a democracy that – at the peoples lawful bidding – decides to "manage" its markets.
- The myth of socialism is still powerful. Even though tested to the destruction of tens of millions of human lives and the impoverishment of billions more in the 20th Century, the ideas of "equality" and "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need" are still attractive to many who ought to know better. Look at Venezuela. Not only were the people there fooled by Chavez, but many of our own leftist leaders sang his praises and spoke of the great future to come. Here that future now is; shorn of life's essentials and with crowds of women forcing their way past border guards to buy food and toilet rolls from the "inferior" state next door. As always.
- Democracy seems to be in crisis. There is a widespread sense that self-serving elites are in control of government and state institutions in the Western World. Whereas Churchill, Attlee and most recently Thatcher had admiring followers, modern politicians have no "fans". A healthy cynicism is all very well, but we seem to have reached a stage where "they are all the same" is our only political thought. The danger is that, if we believe all politicians to be bad, only bad people will run for office. Another danger is that any demagogue who can present convincingly as NOT being "the same" seems able now to get a hearing, regardless of merit or even sanity.
- The identity politics practised by the modern left for so long seems to be breaking down. The "Black lives matter" movement in the United States may well prove to be its last hurrah. It's not as easy as it was only a year ago to silence a political enemy by calling him names. Over 17 million of us were called "racists" during the referendum campaign and still live to tell the tale. Some real nastiness may emerge as actual racists act illegally on their hatreds but that can and should be managed without reverting to suppression of free speech.
- There is a trend to division. To those of us who enjoy history and Star Trek, this is worrying. Most European history, in particular, is of nasty little statelets bickering and fighting over what (with hindsight) seems to have been precious little. That had its benefits in driving the technological advances that placed Europe and its now-independent colonies in the "first world", but it made for an uncomfortable life for the citizenry. There was hope that the whole world might follow the pattern set in the pre-history of our own islands, with tiny nations merging into greater ones. At some level perhaps most of us imagined we were heading towards a Star Trek universe in which a United Earth would sit at the heart of an interplanetary Federation of nice guys. Scotland failing to gel with England & Wales, the Catalonians failing to get along with the other Spanish and the United Kingdom voting to leave the European Union may suggest to pessimists that the Star Wars universe is a more accurate prediction.
- Technology is changing our world in unpredictable but mostly positive ways. At an IEA conference in London last year I heard a futurologist predict the imminent end of ageing and the cure of most killer diseases. He said that most of the younger people in the room could expect to live 800 years. And not 800 doddery miserable years but most of them youthful and healthy. The economic consequences of that prediction would take us into whole new realms of complication! As someone who enjoys being around children, I am rather happy I won't live to be on a planet where people have to put off having them until they are 700 or so! Nor do I fancy the idea of the teenage years going on for centuries! Less dramatically, such mundane tech as "driverless cars" will solve many everyday problems, such as traffic congestion and road accidents. Communications technology is simultaneously raising and lowering the level of civic discourse at present but many believe it is also enabling a more participatory democracy that may be a solution to the crisis of cynicism mentioned above.
However it is organised, I believe that democracy is a better way of selecting a government than any other, but it is no guarantee of success. Bad governments are often elected by free peoples because we are no wiser than the unfree. In some ways we may be more naive than them. I am willing to bet that if North Korea became free, it would take a couple of generations before any of its citizens were prepared to believe a more powerful state was the answer to their problems.
In my ideal world the ship of state would be so small that it would not make much difference who was at its helm. We would not be electing bosses, but trustees; people whose job is was to keep our few laws up to date to reflect changing circumstances and ensure that the modest taxes raised to fund the state were honestly and appropriately spent on such practical, boring things as public infrastructure, law enforcement and an independent judiciary. We are very far from that and even if things go reasonably well from this moment (which I have no particular reason to assume) most of us will be dead (except for young readers with 800 year life expectancies) by the time such a state could be achieved.
This may be why I fear the trend to division less than others. I would rather see lots of micro-states experimenting with different approaches. Terrible though it may be for the citizens concerned, we probably need many more Venezuelas before the scales finally fall from the eyes of such idiots as Owen Jones – a young man whose very existence made me weep even before I knew he might live 800 years. More positively we need some micro states to practise Austrian economics and strike envy into the hearts of the citizens of the failing states around them. Sentimentally attached as I am to Scotland and hard though it would be to abandon my good Scottish friends to the horrors of a cold, wet Venezuela, I would pay that price to set England on the path to true freedom.
Given that many of us hunger for the soft option of socialism to such an extent that we are blind to its oft-proved hard consequences, any progress towards my ideal is likely to be two steps forward and one back. Democracy is a weary business because so many contradictory things are so blindingly obvious (despite being demonstrably wrong) to so many. I fear that those in control of what is taught in our schools and colleges will continue to have a disproportionate and negative effect on our political future. For so long as those institutions are state funded and controlled teachers and lecturers are almost bound to be statists and leftists. Honest classical liberals would find it hard to face such a parasitical existence. I told a retired Permanent Secretary at dinner a couple of years ago that I didn't know how he could sleep at night knowing that every penny he had ever "earned" was taken by state violence from his fellow men. Even as I said it (and enjoyed his slapped-in-the-face-with-a-wet-fish reaction) I realised that there was the problem. If people with my views won't go into government service how can it ever be shaped by our views?
Life being as complex as it is, you can find evidence to support pretty much any point of view you want to advance. Especially if, like most people engaged in political debate, you systematically select the data that supports your case. So, select away gentles and let me know how wrong I am. Is the above a fair assessment of where the world stands today?