Wednesday 11 February 2015

The old corruption and the very old debate about business

The editor of the Economist is leaving to take up a position to assist the rise and rise of Bloomberg, and has written a signed, valedictory editorial about the future of liberalism (thank you, Joe, for drawing my attention to it!).

It is worth reading.  It is also one of those rare things these days, a powerful and hopeful critique of the present. But the Economist's interpretation of liberalism is not quite the same as Liberalism, and develops with the speed of a glacier.

Yet, John Micklethawit (for it was he) was surely right that liberalism now has to wrestle with the idea of equality, just as Liberalism did a century ago.  He is right that the huge resources spent by the state on both sides of the Atlantic for the richest fifth of the population dwarfs what they spend on the poorest fifth many times over.

He is also right that this is one of the aristocratic privileges that Gladstone and Mill battled in the Victorian Liberal age. He didn't say that it is also like William Cobbett's idea of The Thing – the great mountain of placemen and pensioners paid for by the struggling farmers and labourers of the nation.

The superstructure of The Thing, as Cobbett saw it, was the burgeoning financial services in London, the stockjobbers and speculators, making money out of money and leaching it out of productive agriculture.

What this amounts to is a re-think by liberals the world over about the meaning of free trade.  Because what began as a Liberal idea to prevent slavery by closed markets has ended up as an apologia for The Thing.

I was thinking about this as I listened with growing frustration as I listened to Digby Jones and Polly Toynbee biting chunks out of each other on the BBC's PM programme yesterday (39.40) about the politics of business, without listening to a word the other was saying.

What was so frustrating was that both were completely right - Jones was right that we need to support those who are making a profit so that we can underpin a civilised nation; Toynbee was right that supporting business does not mean supporting tax evasion or unreasonable tax avoidance.  Or, one might add, it doesn't mean supporting pointless, vacuous, gambling which puts the global economy at risk.  It doesn't mean supporting The Thing.

It was one of those debates that makes you despair for political discussion, and despair for the BBC too.  They seem to want to go through the old motions, for the sake of - what exactly?

Let me say what I believe a Liberal ought to think about supporting business.  Supporting business means backing enterprise and entrepreneurs, but not gamblers - however much money they might make for the economy.  It means shaping a City of London that has the skills and knowledge to support the UK economy, whatever else it might do.  It means backing competition and breaking up monopolies and oligopolies.

Does it mean supporting every whim of every fly-by-night who is speculating in the global market?  Of course it doesn't.  Any more than giving a licence to evade the speed limit to every drunken driver is supporting motoring.

So why are we pretending that is what the argument is all about?  It never was, but it certainly isn't now. 

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1 comment:

Nick said...

Definitely agree, especially on free trade as an apologia for The Thing rather than as a challenge to it.

Have you read Chris Dillow's recent post on the difference between markets and business? Think the two of you might agree on lots.