So Philip Blond's new think tank ResPublica (that's how it's spelt, leaving one to wonder whether it's actually a pretentious electricity company or something) and his "Red Toryism" is this week's non-Iraq, must-talk-about political gizmo. And my, what an odd beast it is.
Blond's speech on Thursday was a strange thing indeed. Part of the time was spent wrestling with a series of impressively tiny Straw Men ("In order to reclaim a civilised society, market and state should not be regarded as the ultimate goal or expression of humanity") and rather more of it was preoccupied with the kind of high-falutin' gobbledegook of the kind favoured by the smarter-dressed confidence trickster. ("We can create a civic economy based on trust, sustainability and reciprocity." Sounds good! But, er, what does that mean?)
Hopi Sen is quite clear: he thinks Red Toryism "a load of old toss"; Sunder Katwala and James Crabtree take more measured views but are unconvinced by both Blond and the seriousness with which Project Cameron takes the Red Tory project. (Here, incidentally, old-school Conservatives, struck by Cameron's flirtation with Blond's "Red Toryism" and Zac Goldsmith's "Green Toryism" may, not wholly unreasonably, wonder what happened to good, old-fashioned "Blue Toryism"? One answer, of course, is that it kept losing.)
Still, whatever else Red Toryism might be, Blond is quite clear what he doesn't like: the state (yay!) and libertarianism (boo!). He seems to think that while, as the old saw has it, libertarianism often or even usually begins with Ayn Rand, it also ends with her. But this is not the case. Perhaps Blond is simply guilty of being sloppy. Consider, for instance, his critique of the welfare state:
All existing working class welfare organisations were sidelined by a universal entitlement guaranteed by the state based upon centralised accounts of need. Local requirements, organisation or practices were simply ignored and thus rendered redundant. Thus the welfare state began the destruction of the independent life of the British working class. The populace became a supplicant citizenry dependent upon the state rather than themselves and the socialist state aborted indigenous traditions of working class self–help, reciprocality and social insurance. Rather than working with each another in order to alter their situation or change their neighbourhood or city, relying on the welfare state only to get them through a temporary rough patch, working class people increasingly became permanent passive recipients of centrally determined benefits. As such welfare ceased to function as a safety net through which people could not fall, becoming instead a ceiling through which the supplicant class – cut off from earlier working class ambition and aspiration – could not break."
And like libertarians, Blond wants to see "lower regulatory barriers" and places great store on voluntary and mutual local associations. At this rate you might think that if it weren't for his self-professed, knee-jerk hostility to all things libertarian, Blond would be signing up for life on the ocean waves with Patri Friedman's Seasteading Institute. Now these brave chaps really do want to create a new society.
So far, and up to a point, so fine. Then Blond turns his attention to the economy:
"The great paradox of the neo-liberal account of free markets that has dominated discussion, and determined practice and indeed economic reality for the past thirty years is that in the name of free markets the neo-liberal approach has presided over an unprecedented reduction of market diversity and plurality. It has both reduced the type of provision available and the numbers of providers. In the name of freedom we have produced economic concentration and in a number of areas monopoly dominance or indeed something very much like it. A perverse corporatism has produced industries that are too big to fail and consequently they have been made bigger again."
I think Blond is bemoaning a certain homogenisation of urban life and, sure, there's something to that. But the fact remains that, for instance, it can never have been cheaper (in terms of a percentage of average wages) to feed your family and you've never had as great a choice of provisions with which to do so. I bet Blond disapproves of supermarkets (fair enough) but poor people like supermarkets. And they're not stupid to like Tesco or Aldi or whatever.
Similarly, the horrors of the modern economy have brought us to a situation in which the average person spends much less time at work each year than did their grand-parents or great-grandparents. I think it's about 800 fewer hours per annum in Britain. This too does not seem a negligable gain.
For that matter, one financial crisis, no matter how serious, does not prove the "failure" of markets. Apart from anything else, they've not been tried* for decades in areas as trivial as secondary education (except for the rich) and health (ditto).
Sometimes, if I understand him correctly (not as simple a task as it ought to be), it seems as if Blond wants to take us back to the 1930s - at home and at work. I think he'd like everyone to live in small towns or, preferably, villages too. Now there was much that was good about the 1930s but time, and society, moves on and it's futile to suppose that the clock can be wound back. Equally, for all that progress or, if your prefer, time, causes some valuable things to be lost, it also brings valuable improvements. In the end, Blond comes across, perhaps unwittingly, as a nostalgist. And, I'd hazard, it's but one hop from nostalgia to full-blown reactionary status.
Because, of course, even when the state was smaller, that hardly meant an absence of coercion (especially, one might note, for women). Social mores can be just as stifling as the state even if they also have overwhelming local support and play a significant, even important, role in fostering social cohesion. Look at the Western Isles for instance, or pockets of Bradford today. Which is also why it's important that there be a means of escape and that the individual, no matter how much Blond dislikes such folk, be, to use a think tank word, "empowered".
That doesn't mean that more mutalisation, an emphasis on local and voluntary associations and trying to expand and widen opportunity are bad things. They're not. But whether Red Toryism is more than a few good (and less than earth-shattering) ideas buried benath a mass of bewildering and sometimes contradictory assumptions is something that, for now, remains a matter of some confusion. Certainly, it's apparent belief that you can have everything and it's apparent belief that trade-offs are extinct suggests that more work needs to be done. Time will, I guess, tell.
*Yes, yes, yes. Just like "true" Communism, "proper" or "authentic" libertarianism can never fail because it will never be tried...
UPDATE: The Freethinking Economist is also unimpressed.