Monday, March 12, 2007

Liberals v Democrats

I'm glad I watched the Adam Curtis docutorial 'The Trap' last night.

Like 'The Power of Nightmares' it had that irritatingly compelling presentation. I have to confess to enjoying it in lots of ways despite myself. The collage of the Super-8 aesthetic and early electronica (last night, he included John Carpenter's excellent self-penned soundtrack from 'Assault on Precinct 13' among others). Norm gets the demagogic potential of this kind of film-making spot on here though.

I'm not sure where Curtis is going to take it yet, and I suspect that the outcome is going to be as exasperating as TPoN. Last night may have been throat-clearing before some leap or other, I suspect. I do, however, think that a challenge to the crude inductive individualism that governs the way that Public Choice Theory is applied is long overdue. With honourable exceptions, the sociology of the current commentariat means that we are unlikely to get it elsewhere. Curtis may end up representing a convenient popular narrative more than he represents than any accurate account of the arguments, but raising the subject at all is better than not doing so.

For at least fifteen years now, whenever anyone has asked me for a bit of shorthand to describe my own views, I've reached for 'libertarian' as the best description. By that, I mean that I favour mutual and co-operative solutions over the traditional Labourist preferences for nationalisation and paternalism. I'm all up for more federalism - reducing the power of the state by handing it's powers up to the EU and down towards regional and local representative government.

But a more individualist libertarianism seems to have become the default position of the commentariat, and more particularly, the blogosphere. The bloggertarians. It's an easy position to take.

Most of the time, though, it looks to me like an appendage to negativism.

And - with such a consensus - you wouldn't need to take a sabbatical from your day-job to argue for individualist libertarianism. The distributed wisdom of the blogosphere collectively makes every such point that has ever needed making. If you want to write a terrifically well-argued post supporting this position, just spend ten minutes cutting-and-pasting anything that Technorati turns up for you. Arguing against it is a good deal harder. An 'optimal institutional mix' doesn't really have any of the cachet that is needed to compete with demands to close whole institutions down and sack lots of Sir Humphreys.

It doesn't mean that the arguments aren't there. It just means that they're not riding the wave of middlebrow popularity at the moment. Yet, because these arguments aren't being developed leaves the field open to the likes of Madeline Bunting. Today, reviewing Curtis's programme, she argues that "freedom ... needs to be re-imagined."

No, it doesn't. It needs to be re-argued by democratic socialists. There is a perfectly coherent critique of neo-liberalism and the highly individualistic application of rational choice / public choice theory. It stresses the importance of elected politicians and representative democracy. But it's just too boring (and small-c conservative) to point out that it is the political settlement with the most effective track record in promoting prosperity and social justice.

So, for instance, Mancur Olsen's use of public-choice theory to examine 'The Logic of Collective Action' shows that groups of people can achieve things as long as those groups are configured properly. And that competing interests can be mediated effectively as long as there are strong elected politicians in the classical independent Burkean mould. Or Patrick Dunleavy's work on 'Democracy, Bureaucracy and Public Choice' shows that civil servants don't always have to be crude budget maximisers. Annoyingly for me, without an academic library card, it will cost me close-on £50 if you want me to get my hands on these books again to give you a more detailed account of the arguments in them. I've not read them for about ten years, but since then, I've always found it depressing that they have such a low profile.

Hopefully, they'll be taken out for a bit of a canter in the next few installments of 'The Trap'? I doubt it though. Curtis will surely have learned that you can get great reviews without ever saying how you think things should be organised.

Either way, Curtis's scenario - one in which liberty is entirely eclipsed by this managerial hybrid of cold-war theories - is one that doesn't bother me as much as it does him. I think that we are in the middle of what Norberto Bobbio calls (from memory) "the dialectical interplay between democracy and liberalism" - this isn't all a one-way street.

Us democrats are going to beat those liberals one way or another. We always do. It's just no-one notices. We're not as noisy as the empty vessels.

Update: re-reading this post this morning, I realise that I've drafted a sentance clumsily. Here is what I've added: "...a challenge to the crude inductive individualism that governs the way that Public Choice Theory is applied...". Apologies.

1 comment:

Chris said...

That's an excellent post.