Sunday 9 March 2008

The supplicant state

Simon Titley is at the very forefront of the attempt to renew the intellectual underpinnings of the Lib Dems, and his commentary in this month’s Liberator is an important contribution to this:

The real division in the party is now, he says, about what it means to be human. “Are we primarily partners, parents and relatives; friends, neighbours and colleagues? Or do we define ourselves more in terms of the things we buy?... Do the Liberal Democrats envisage a society of active citizens or supplicant consumers?”

That is exactly the right question (though I might quibble with the use of New Labour-speak like ‘active citizens’), and Simon is quite right that there is a dividing line in the party over this issue which is preventing us from articulating a genuinely Liberal narrative.

Where I take issue with him is exactly where that dividing line lies. Simon identifies the wrong-headed wing with those who subsume this human relationships within economic relationships, with the idea that people are individual consumers faced with a series of passive choices.

That is right, but Simon misses out the other side of the argument. Because that reduction of people into dependent supplicants is not confined to those can see no further than narrow consumer choices in public services; it is alive and well among those who don’t believe in choice at all – who are quite happy that people should be grateful but passive recipients of services defined by the local state.

Because, in practice, the wrong-headed idea that we oppose is not confined either the private or the public sector. It is an insidious combination of them both – the idea that people are defined narrowly by their needs, and should be administered by giant agencies part-public, part-private, by huge databases and remote call centres.

This is the new centralised supplicant state, and Simon is absolutely right that it is the heart of a new Lib Dem critique of public services. Not because the supplicant state is too public sector, or too private sector – it borrows from the worst of both – but because it is deeply alienating, deeply inefficient and deeply ineffective.


Tristan said...

I don't buy this distinction between human relationships and economic relationships.

To me, economics is the science of human relationships.
It describes how human cooperation and freedom to act can enable us to attain what we want as individuals, whether that be spiritual gain or to be a consumer.

True, it cannot hope to detail every aspect of human life. Economics cannot tell you how to live your life, but it is a tool for analysing human behaviour and society.

This of course is no idealised homo oeconomicus of abstract theory, it is the human of reality who acts on many different impulses and values, not just price of goods.

The Liberal takes this analysis and seeks to work out how prosperity and well being can be most enhanced for all and discovers the answer is limited government and personal freedom and voluntary society.

Anyone who thinks of humans as passive consumers must not even understand themselves, but anyone who thinks that economics is about passive consumption doesn't understand anything of the broader scope of economics.

David Boyle said...

Tristan, I don't think your right. Economics describes some aspects of human interaction very well, but is useless - and makes fatuous assumptions - about other aspects. Because economists only have one tool (money) with which to measure value, and any glimpse at the real world suggests that this is only one element of the complexity of being human.

Joe Otten said...

David, I think you're talking somewhat at cross purposes with Tristan here. I don't think economics is trying to measure "value" in a broad sense of the word, at all. And therefore it isn't trying to measure it with money.

I do not see the division in the party you describe. I have met nobody advocating a society of supplicant consumers.

I think it quite bizarre if, as soon as we demand a better surgeon or a better breakfast cereal, to say that we are defining ourselves in some narrow impersonal way. Demanding better surgeons and breakfast cereals is a good thing to do, but not the only thing to do, and not something that diminishes in any way the richness of our relationships with other people. Right?

Agree with your criticism of Simon btw.

David Boyle said...

Joe, I think your remark that there is nobody in the party trying to create a society of supplicant consumers is right. But the context here is the debate about public services, and there are assumptions - both from the market wing and their opponents - that human beings aspire to no more than this passive role. That's what I'm criticising.

I ventured further into the reductionism that economics sometimes suggests because of Tristan's peculiar idea that there are no disticntions between human relationships and economic ones. When my wife accepts payment from mew for picking up the children from school, or kissing me at night, I will begin to suspect he is right - but not before.

Joe Otten said...

I suppose Tristan should answer for himself, but I think reductionism has a bad press.

In a sense any body of thought will be reductionist when applied to any real world phenomenon. That is not to say they belittle the phenomenon, just that they understand some things about it and not others.

So we understand more by being physicists and philosophers and lovers as well as economists - and we would understand less by not being any of those things.


By the way David, I would like your feedback on this: