27 December 2016

Nice is not the same as Left and mean is not the same as Right


Over the Christmas week, CapX is republishing its favourite pieces from the past year. You can find the full list here.

The “political centre ground could be further to the left than thought”. So declared a recent press release from the University of Sussex – highlighting research published on the LSE’s politics and policy blog.

The academics – Tim Bale, Paul Webb and Monica Poletti – reached this conclusion on the basis of the extent to which strong supporters of Britain’s main political parties agreed or disagreed with the following five statements:

  1. “Government should redistribute income from the better-off to those who are less well off.”
  2. “Big business benefits owners at the expense of workers.”
  3. “Ordinary people do not get their fair share of the nation’s wealth.”
  4. “There is one law for the rich and one for the poor.”
  5. “Management will always try to get the better of employees if it gets the chance.”

I largely or partly agree with all five of those statements, but in doing so I wouldn’t regard myself as Left-wing. The statements capture some important moral principles that could be thought to unite progressives on Right and Left rather than distinguish between those who believe injustices must be confronted (conservatives, social democrats and socialists) and those who do not usually see an active role for government (laissez-faire libertarians).

Let’s briefly examine the meaning and implication of the five statements in turn:

1. I agree that “governments should redistribute” money – not until the pips squeak, as Denis Healey once suggested, but (the key word for conservatives) judiciously.

Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and John Howard – the greatest three conservatives of the last three decades – all supported mildly progressive forms of taxation and spending. But none of them could be seen as Left-wingers.

2. I’m not entirely sure what is meant by “big business benefits owners at the expense of workers” but insofar as it means society can suffer when business is large, cronyist in its relations with government and suffocating of small, start-up businesses (through devices like expensive regulation and compliance codes) I agree with this second statement too.

I’d argue that progressive people on the Left and Right should start with a bias towards competitive businesses rather big businesses. And people on the Left and Right should recognise a role for unions in protecting workers’ interests.

3. “Ordinary people do not get their fair share of the nation’s wealth” is proposition three. I half-agree with this statement too.

Britain’s highly regulated planning system, for example, means that those who already have property are getting richer (37 per cent of all UK citizens’ wealth is accounted for by homes) but those without a foot on the housing ladder are falling behind. A freer, less regulated land market would advance equality and growth.

4. To all intents and purposes there is, indeed, “one law for the rich and one for the poor”. Good lawyers often make a difference and good lawyers tend to cost money – giving an advantage to people with deeper pockets.

Government systems of legal aid ensure a basic service for every person, but they can never ensure a completely fair playing field for everyone.

5. And, yes, management might not “always” try to “get the better of employees” (and other stakeholders) if they get the chance but they will often try to. That’s not the view of Lefties but any student of sinful human nature.

In one of my chapters for the Legatum Institute’s “Prosperity for All” report, I noted that it was Adam Smith who denounced the “clamour and sophistry”, “the impertinent jealousy”, “mean rapacity”, “mean and malignant expedients”, “sneaking arts”, “interesting sophistry” and “interested falsehood” of business people who espoused “the vile maxim, ‘all for themselves, and nothing for other people'”.

To be angry at big businesses like Volkswagen or Libor-fixing banks cannot be the preserve of the Left-wing. It’s actually more important that the Right (traditional defenders of free enterprise) are more angry at the transgressions by wealth-creators and more determined to keep them as honest as practically possible than those wealth creators’ natural critics on the Left.

Many on the Right are to blame for this confusion. There has been a gap in Right-wing rhetoric on issues like redistribution and what conservatives actually do. State minimalists have given the impression that redistribution from the wealthy to the needy is regrettable and inefficient.

The centre-right inclination to see businesses as a more important generator of wealth and progress than government can decay into a defence of everything business does.

Conservatives don’t just need to “do” redistribution, attack cronyism and deregulate land markets – they need to celebrate it as a central feature of why they are in politics. They need to use moral arguments as well as practical arguments to justify targeted redistribution, intolerance of market malpractice and of extension of opportunity for small businesses and inventors.

We might then get to the state when academics don’t classify all “nice” policy actions as “Left-wing”.

Tim Montgomerie is a columnist for The Times, a Senior Fellow at the Legatum Institute and co-founder of the new website The Good Right. His “reform of capitalism” report for the Legatum Institute was published in November 2015. This article originally appeared in January 2016.