Alongside the battle for votes, there’s the battle of ideas. A small of group of thinkers have been banging on about the excesses of liberalism — both economic and social — for years. For want of a better word, they’re called post-liberals. Like the voters in 2016, they were ignored by the establishment. But now, because what they said would happen did happen (at the general election), they’re having a “moment”.
That’s David Aaronovitch’s word, not mine. But he’s right: with liberalism visibly exhausted, post-liberalism is finding its voice. Not that this pleases him. Writing in The Times he makes his feelings plain:
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“It may mean well but it’s nonsense. And this isn’t just because the ‘good old days’ before precocious childhood sexuality and drug addiction were also the ‘good old days’ of fumbling priests and unpunished domestic violence.”
Oh dear. Does he not realise that it’s possible to draw inspiration from what earlier generations got right without wanting to bring back the bad stuff? What makes this line of attack extra-annoying is that progressives have their own nostalgic streak. Yet when they talk about, for instance, the idealism of the post-war era, no one says ‘oh, so you want to bring back the ration book, do you?’
However, Aaronovitch moves on to an argument that does require a serious response:
” … an appeal to mainly community-based decision-making cannot work. This is the world of climate change, the coronavirus, refugee surges and international trade. Pick the communitarianism out of that lot…
“Which is why, I suppose, when we get down to the new practicalities of what this ‘post-liberal’ moment might consist of, they seem… almost whimsical.”
Post-liberals don’t actually believe that everything should be decided by the local parish council. And yet, being a post-liberal myself, I have noticed a distinct tendency towards the parochial and the pastoral. There’s probably no better expression of post-liberal values than the lyrics of The Kinks’ Village Green Preservation Society. But as lovely as these sentiments are, a rallying cry of “God save strawberry jam and all the different varieties” won’t change the world.
If this really is a “post-liberal moment” then post-liberals need to explain what post-liberalism would do differently. Leaving aside the fluffy platitudes and the hobby horse policies, what would a truly post-liberal administration do to change the fundamental assumptions on which public policy is made in this country?
Here are five governing principles I’d like to see taken to the heart of power:
1) Prioritise investment in short supply chains
OK, this sounds ultra-technocratic — and that’s because it is. And yet it’s also of great importance. Globalisation doesn’t just happen spontaneously. It is supported by an underlying infrastructure of transport links, energy pipelines and digital connections.
In turn, this is enabled by government: construction projects are subsidised; operators given permission to dump environmental costs on other people and the natural world; economic policies encourage the offshoring of jobs and the avoidance of taxes; military and diplomatic resources are deployed to protect investments. However strong the market-based rationale for a globalised economy, it couldn’t exist without massive ongoing state intervention.
All of this effort and cost is what it takes to support long supply chains — which not only enable the beneficial aspects of globalisation, but also the concentration of power and wealth among the upper echelons of the knowledge class.
Do we have any alternative? Yes — we could shift the balance of state support towards shorter supply chains — i.e. local links and connections that help to spread-out market opportunity. While a hub airport gives executives access to markets around the world, a decent bus network gives workers access to a larger number of job opportunities within a reasonable travel time. Both have the potential to boost productivity, but the rewards of the latter can be enjoyed by more people and at a lower cost to the environment.
One can’t help noticing that in the current era of globalisation, inequality has increased and productivity growth has decreased — at least for us in the West. One has to ask searching questions about the fragility of long, expensively-maintained supply chains — from the cost-overruns associated with the underlying infrastructure and the vulnerability of the global system to economic, social and environmental disruption.
The post-liberal approach is to avoid overstretch, to build up our own communities first as the most secure basis on which to then build out.
2) Against the Matthew Effect
The Matthew effect is something I’ve already written about, here. The term was coined by the sociologist Robert Merton and it basically means the ‘more you have the more you get’. The name is inspired by a verse from St Matthew’s gospel — “For to every one who has will more be given…”
You can see the Matthew Effect at work in just about any field of study from astrophysics (e.g. the formation of planets through the accretion of matter) to economics (e.g. “the rich get richer” or “money comes to money”). Part of the job of government is to fight against this universal tendency — for instance through progressive rates of taxation or anti-monopoly laws.
However, some government policies make things worse. This is especially true when it comes to allocation of capital spending. Just think about all the public investment that’s focused on London — on the grounds that new infrastructure generates more returns when it joins up with existing infrastructure. The reason why we’re building HS2 (a connection from the North to London) before HS3 (connections within the North) is that the value of the former is supposedly multiplied by its connections to Heathrow, Thameslink, and so on.
It all seems so logical, until you see where the logic takes us: an ever widening gap between London and rest of the country.
Letting the Matthew Effect guide public investment might make sense in a world where superstar cities were succeeding as centres of breakthrough innovation (e.g. like Manchester during the industrial revolution). Unfortunately, in the midst of the current Great Stagnation, that’s not our world.
Real growth, as opposed to the mere hoarding of capital and talent in a few favoured urban centres, is achieved when untapped potential is released. It’s how previously under-developed countries have been able to grow so much faster than we have. It’s also why we should see neglected communities in the West as a better opportunity for growth than inflating asset bubbles in London and other centres of neoliberal excess.
The current government’s talk of “levelling up” is an encouraging sign. Let’s hope there’s some deeper thinking behind it — an economic philosophy that understands the essential sterility of the established economic order.
3. The median versus the mean
It’s not that the basic assumptions of neoliberalism go entirely unquestioned. Indeed the radical Left, once all but banished from the political stage, has found a new audience for socialist ideas.
Even among the most unadventurous of conservatives we’ve seen a search for new directions. For instance, at one point David Cameron dallied with the idea of an index of general wellbeing as an alternative gross national product (GNP). The initiative came to nothing, as such ideas usually do, because wellbeing is too subjective to be measured in a meaningful and consistent fashion. But that doesn’t mean we don’t need better indicators.
As the saying goes, “what gets measured, gets done” — therefore if a post-liberal government wanted to do things differently it would need a different set of measures.
GDP is an aggregate measure of economic output, while GDP per capita is an average one. As such they can conceal great inequalities — as when most of the benefits of growth are captured by then very rich. One way of correcting for that is to focus on household income and to use the median instead of the mean to calculate the average.
The median is the exact midway point in the income distribution — the level at which half the country has a higher income and half a lower one. Therefore unlike the mean, it isn’t flattered by windfalls for the very richest individuals.
An even better measure than median income is median earnings. Post-liberals, who place great value on the dignity of work, would seek to boost the earning power of ordinary working people in preference to merely compensating them through the redistributive power of the state.
Of course, no statistical measure is perfect. But an economic policy that targeted median earnings and not just GDP would be fairer and more relevant to the great majority of working people.
4. Radical localism
We’re all localists now, aren’t we? After all, who describes themselves as a centralist?
And yet decentralisation hasn’t gone nearly far enough. The welcome progress made in the first half of the last decade more or less came to a halt in the second (unless one counts Brexit, of course).
Rebooting decentralisation within the United Kingdom requires a new approach. Instead of home nations, regions and communities petitioning Westminster for control over resources and policies, the process needs to be turned on its head.
The default position should be that control over each aspect of domestic policy starts at the most local level of government — and that a credible case has to be made for centralising it. This reverses the burden of proof — forcing civil servants and ministers to justify their existence before doubting the ability of local people to direct the activities of the state with their own communities.
For instance, it shouldn’t be for the cities and towns of northern England to argue that Transport for the North should have more power. It should be the Department for Transport that has to explain why it should have any say at all in a part of the country that it’s let down so badly.
Neither the conventional Right nor the conventional Left can be trusted to relax its grip on the levers of power. Only a post-liberal government would rethink the machinery of government from the bottom-up.
5. Deep optionality
To conventional thinkers, communitarianism is, if not sinister, then irredeemably twee. Admittedly, post-liberals are partial to the small-and-quirky. And why not? A world without colour and texture would be a grey and glassy place — as embodied by the architecture that the globalisers impose across the planet.
And yet nurturing “all the different varieties” is much more than a matter of sentiment. It has a deadly serious edge.
Wherever globalisation drives out distinction and diversity it creates fragility. Systems that are hailed as ‘seamless’, ‘open’, ‘efficient’ are in fact prone to catastrophic failure because they’re so standardised and integrated that when they fail they fail all at once. Indeed, worse than that, they provide a context in which risks can multiply, cascading from one level to the next.
We’ve seen enough examples in this century alone — military intervention in the Middle East, the global financial crisis, the Eurozone crisis, the rise of populism, the threat of pandemics, ecosystem collapses and the climate emergency.
To increase our exposure to good fortune, not bad, we need optionality, i.e. lots of little experiments. When failures are small and local, the costs are limited. On the other hand, the successes, no matter how few and far between, can be copied or adapted for use elsewhere.
A post-liberal policy framework is one which not only allows a thousand flowers to bloom, but also accepts that 999 of them may die. It is tolerant of failure in policy making, indeed it actively welcomes it if the negative consequences are limited, but the learning opportunities are not.
Neither the statist Left, with its blind faith in big government, nor the free-market Right, which panders to private sector monopoly, can nurture true diversity. This, by the way, is why successive governments have such a bad record when it comes to involving charities, social enterprises and community groups.
Conventional governments of all colours continue with the wrong investment priorities, misleading measures of prosperity, and over-centralised, diversity-destroying systems of power.
So what do post-liberals want? We want different priorities, different measures, different systems.
And so if we’re attacked from both the Left and the Right — and by both liberals and authoritarians — then perhaps we’re getting somewhere.
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