So far I have examined chapters 2 through 10 for a right-wing agenda. Laws' chapter on health was found guilty (community service I think), and Cable gets a not proven verdict. The other Orange Bookers, Davey, Clegg, Huhne, Kramer, Oaten, Webb and Holland, are acquitted. Marshall is acquitted on the pensions chapter but must also take responsibility for the introduction, and with Laws, chapter 1 and the overall message, which I address now.
In Chapter 1: Reclaiming Liberalism, Laws builds up a polemic to remind Liberal Democrats what liberalism is about. He decries the nanny-state liberalism of "compulsory animal welfare education in schools". An odd choice - the whole national curriculum is compulsory, this does not make alterations to it illiberal. Detractors are accused of "liberalism à la carte". Right back at you David.
The first thing that struck me about the Orange Book when I first read it, is that it seemed to be dogmatic in places. This is not the same as being true to liberal values. Let me explain the difference.
The Orange Book frequently argues that this is what liberal means therefore we should support it. Of course I agree that we should support liberal policies, but the message I think is still in a somewhat rarified sense backwards. I think it is a mistake to drive policy forwards by a process of defining liberalism more carefully and seeing what conclusions drop out. One risks ending up with almost theological arguments for policies based on a liberalism elevated to high dogma.
What I think we mean when we say that a policy is liberal, is that a fairly standard armory of liberal arguments can be broadly and correctly applied in its favour. Being a liberal means that I think they are good arguments. What this approach does, however, is demand that each policy is tested on its merits. It gives us room to weigh conflicting values without giving dogma a trump card. It demands that the arguments work. It demands critical rationalism and rejects dogmatism.
This difference can explain why nearly all the chapters have "liberal" in the title. To move an ideology in the direction you want you seek to have your ideas admitted to the canon of dogma; you expand the meaning of "liberalism" by using it in the odd-looking contexts of Oaten and Webb. I think it is more honest and desirable to use words in the way they will be best understood, argue your case, and let the evolution of the meaning of "liberal" look after itself.
The dogmatic trump card played by the Orange Book, is this: Use economically liberal methods to achieve socially liberal goals. How could a liberal possibly object to this? Well my objection is that even the purest motives don't make up for a policy with little merit. Kramer's chapter on the environment, although acquitted, and containing good ideas, reflects this dogma. Once values are replaced by dogma, the arguments might no longer work. True markets empower consumers and use resources efficiently, the invisible hand makes the right choices. Artificial markets (such as in carbon permits) make artificially right choices, also known as wrong choices. They might still be the best available choices, but we will only know by looking at the details.
Laws' insurance model for healthcare looks like it was written precisely with the brief to use economically liberal methods to achieve socially liberal goals. With the brief given and accepted, considerations of whether the policy would work were no longer necessary. Where there are genuine conflicts between different liberal goals, reason would have us examine them, but this dogma tells us that they don't exist and to carry blithely on.
Care should be taken when mixing the public and private sectors, that the common good is benefiting from the invisible hand, rather than, as often seems more likely, the dynamism of the private sector is crushed under the dead hand of the state. Initiatives such as PFI are at best only loosely related to the operation of free markets. They are more closely related to corporatism. The private sector does not get things right by magic, but under the pressure of competition. If only the state is buying, stupid buyer that it is, there is no competition, and there is very little reason to expect good value.
Privatisations like BA and BT were liberalising, although even with BT there was a corporatist element - creating a national champion based on a captive domestic market. But with the obvious privatisations done, Labour and the Tories have been scraping the barrel for ways to involve the private sector more. And the less obvious the solution, the more corporatist it has been. All parties need to demonstrate support for business. Lib Dems should be finding ways to make this demonstration with freer markets and lower costs of doing business, so that the private sector can flourish, honed by competition, not dulled by public sector politicking. Leave the corporatism to the other parties.
When, as is often the case, dogmatically driven private sector involvement fails to deliver value for money, we are sacrificing social liberal objectives by diminishing public service, or economic liberal objectives by raising and wasting tax revenue. That's liberalism à la carte, Mr Laws.