Thursday, January 19, 2006

The Orange Booker Slur, concluded

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.


Barrie Wood said...


As you observe there is much in the OB than we can all agree with. It is the **dogmatic belief** in using economically liberal methods to achieve socially liberal goals and the primacy hinted at of economic liberalism over personal, political and social liberalism that I balk at.

In places I think the term social justice is incorporated as an add-on rather than with any great commitment to that dimension of politics.

I would add that the Lib Dems are not exclusively a Liberal Party and containd people with quite differing perspectives than classical liberalism.

As a former leading activist of the Green Party I would suspect that environmentalism of the party is one of your prime reasons for joining the Lib Dems rather than strict adherence to ideological Liberalism ?

Why did you leave the Greens if you don't mind me asking ?

Joe Otten said...

Wow, why did I leave the Greens - about 4 years ago now - that is a question meriting another 10 part blog.

I think even the Lib Dems sometimes risk overdoing the green stuff in some respects while doing too little in others. Quality not quantity of policy is what I'm after.

As for the Greens - I was just disagreeing with them most of the time. Whether it was unlimited spending commitments, Euroscepticisim, knee-jerk reactions to any technological issues, or just the indifference to the things we need to do to make long prosperous civilised life possible if they should have a modest impact on the environment, I would find myself in a small minority. The only sort of policy allowed to trump the environment was a socialist one. No thanks.

Anonymous said...

Before you completely accquit Huhne of being a right-winger, consider this:
He breaks bread regularly with Cameron advisor Nick Boles & MP Bernard Jenkin at a Westminster dining society 'The Chamberlain Club'. No-one knows what they discuss. Could all very well be innocent of course, though the dining society is named for Joseph Chamberlain who went from radical reformer at the beginning of his career to an alliance with the Conservatives as a Liberal Unionist.

Joe Otten said...

Of course I am passing judgement only on the content of one book, not on anybody's life work.

But if the best you can do is who the guy has eaten with then I am resassured.

MatGB said...

Hmm, Huhme is a member of a club that, potentially, celebrates that the Tories have has a real Liberal wing since 1922, and, due to NuLab authoritarianism, is now coming to the predominance of that party, and it's a bad thing?

I think not, encouraging Tory liberalism is essential.

Thanks for a great series Joe, a very good read. Now all I have to do is get hold of a copy of the book itself.

Anonymous said...

I think it shows a load of dogmatism from you to judge Laws because he is supporting private sector as a providef of health services. I would have thought that the most important thing for Lib Dems is the service is free at the point of use, not that the means of production are publicly owned. But maybe I have mistaken. In that case there is no difference between Lib Dems and socialists.

Joe Otten said...

Not at all. If Laws proposed a model that would do a better job and offer better value for money, I would support it. He didn't. He hardly even argued for what he did propose.

There is no room for dogma on either side if we want the best public services. I will call it when I see it.

Anonymous said...

"Liberals and Liberal Democrats should have no philosophical problem with private sector – or voluntary and community sector - involvement in delivering better services provided this is not allowed to compromise the basic principles of universally accessible public services."

Guess who said that?

Joe Otten said...

Anon, it could be anyone. I might have said it. What does it have to do with insurance based healthcare?

My objection is not to the principle of private involvement but to the fact that Laws' proposal would cost more and deliver less.

The dogmatists are those who stick to either public or private sector provision when the other would offer better value.

...anyway how do you propose the private sector will deliver a better value judiciary or are you a closet socialist?

Anonymous said...

It was Ming Campbell.

"What does it have to do with insurance based healthcare?"

Well, insurances are one way (probably the best) to get the private sector involved in delivering health services. That doesn't mean, that the insurances couldn't be subsidised by the state, which would make this public service universally accessible.

Joe Otten said...

Probably the best? Any aspect of any service could be contracted out to the private sector. The judiciary, the army, the legislature, you name it.

If a private sector supplier of, say, hip operations comes along and offers to do them better and cheaper than the public sector can, we should leap at the offer. It doesn't seem to be happening - why not?

What does the insurance proposal contract out? Management decisions regarding which providers receive funding, which are used. Might they make these decisions better? Possibly. I would expect it to depend on what competitive pressures they face. (The private sector is not more efficient by magic, but because of competition.) A fixed price and a fixed range of clinical sevices makes most competitive pressure inapplicable.

And if they do make better management decisions, are the better to a sufficient degree to outweigh the overheads of running insurance schemes?

And what is the risk that in creating a contrived structure of customers and providers that we will find some parts are the Railtracks - non-viable, and some are the ROSCos - getting money for old rope.

Free markets deliver good value to customers, particularly smart customers. A monopsony with a stupid customer (the state) will rarely deliver good value. So I suggest that we should have more carefully defined goals than "involving the private sector".

Tristan said...

My interpretation of the Orange Book was that it was trying to shake us out of our complacent, sometimes statist, outlook.

Its all about balance. Some things we immediately reject from market based solutions could benefit from them. Others will not. But we tend to be rather conservative and assume they won't.
The health insurance argument has its attractions, but it also has its problems. It should not be accepted or rejected on the grounds of its application of (part of) economic liberalism.

To me, economic liberalism and social liberalism (as well as political and any other sort) go hand in hand, they are both necessary, but not sufficient, for a modern liberal society.

Geraint said...

The orange book shows the joke of "liberalism" and the "Fib Dems" are, that they are not a party of the centre-left, but a party of Thatcherism ideas of privatisation and undermiming public services and the public service ethos, and that the only way forward hope for Britain is a Labour Party run by a true Labour Party democratic socialist and not the New "Labour" Blairite imposters that have hijacked the party at the moment.

Joe Otten said...

Hello Geraint, have you read any of this blog?

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