Demos draws a line in the sand by embracing liberals


10:10 am - May 7th 2009

by Sunny Hundal    


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The think-tank Demos today publishes a new pamphlet titled ‘The Liberal Republic’ to cement its move from being of the centre-left under Catherine Fieschi to its new liberal axis under Richard Reeves. He is a biographer of John Stuart Mill.

As if to politically underscore that point, it also announces that Tory MPs George Osborne and David Willetts will join the board. Pah!

In the introduction to their pamphlet, Richard Reeves and Philip Collins say:

Liberals demand that people be permitted the space to construct their own life; republicans insist that power be held
in people’s hands. A republican liberal prospectus recognises that a self-authored life requires both independence and individual capability. But it is founded on the conviction that people are in charge of their own wellbeing. By contrast, conservatives on left and right prefer power to be exercised by institutions, rather than people. They fear that, in the end, people do not know what is good for them.

The economic wreckage of 2008 has served as a brutal reminder that power can concentrate in market institutions as well as political ones. Markets serve liberal ends by dispersing power to individuals. When economic power becomes concentrated in monopolies or cartels, the liberating potential of markets is undermined. Liberal economics is not neo-liberal economics.

Liberals, unlike their libertarian distant cousins, do not however assume that the conditions for a self-directed life emerge out of thin air. Independence requires a set of what Amartya Sen labels capabilities – especially financial resources, education and skills and health. Without them the goal of independence is a pipe dream. Liberals care deeply about equality, but in terms of what people can do, rather than what they receive. ‘The problem of inequality,’ Sen argues, ‘in fact gets magnified as the attention is shifted from
income inequality to the inequality in the distribution of substantive freedoms and capabilities.’

Most of these key capabilities will be developed within institutions such as the family, but also state agencies such as schools, hospitals and job centres. Indeed, the liberal state has a special responsibility to ensure that people have the necessary capabilities for autonomy. Institutions also embody the desire of people to engage in collective, social activity. Nobody yearns for a world sandblasted clean of civic, social and state organisations.

A liberal republic, populated by free citizens is necessarily a cacophonous, unpredictable and messy place. It will have its fair share of nuisances, but it is not the job of a ‘restless statesmen’ to clean us up. It is time to put the broom away.

Interestingly, the pamphlet also calls for strong inheritance tax, arguing that is it “unearned wealth”. Bizarrely though, it is less celebratory of progressive income taxation, somewhat fudging with the view that there is no philosophical reason why people who earn more shouldn’t be taxed at a higher rate. The authors should perhaps read more of Adam Smith.

At first glance I can agree with most of the broad philosophical points made, though I’m less convinced about how their taxation system deals with entrenched inequality (and therefore denies opportunity to whole swathes of society).

If this pamphlet encourages New Labour to be more liberal then that would be welcome. However, it looks more like Demos are re-aligning themselves to try and influence Conservative party behaviour, realising that the political tectonic plates have shifted. I doubt Osborne will implement even half the policy suggestions made given that the highly reactionary rump of the party is rising up the ranks.

Could anyone really see Nadine “hand of hope” Dorries fit into this framework? Chris “rights have to be earnt” Grayling? David “its political correctness gone mad” Davies? The Conservative Party’s shallow re-branding exercise continues. But kudos to Demos for trying.

The whole pamphlet can be downloaded from the Demos website.

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About the author
Sunny Hundal is editor of LC. Also: on Twitter, at Pickled Politics and Guardian CIF.
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Reader comments


Wasn’t it Demos who appointed that mad Madeleine Bunting (?) as Director – lasting for all of a month as I recall.

Rather Willetts and Osborne than her, anyway!

I doubt Osborne will implement even half the policy suggestions made given that the highly reactionary rump of the party is rising up the ranks.

What proportion has Labour implemented?

Pah!

While I tend to agree with the premise that inheritance tax should be held at a moderately high level (although flexibility is needed to ensure people are not forced to sell long-held heirlooms), I am confused as to how income tax policy “denies opportunity to whole swathes of society”

One of the great things about the past 30 odd years in the UK has been how social barriers to personal advancement have collapsed.

People are far more able to self-improve themselves than they have ever been (and likewise, it is easier to move down as well as up the ladder).

We need that level of flexibility to unleash the inherent abilities that SOME people have. We have a system in the UK which largely offers equality of opportunity.

Fortunately, we do not entrench equality of outcome – as that would push everyone downwards to the lowest common denominator, which would be a disaster.

Considering that the top 2% of tax payers pay 40-50% of the total income tax, and that income tax is highly progressive, can you explain how it is, as you put it, entrenching inequality?

How does this sort of thing

“A republican liberal prospectus recognises that a self-authored life requires both independence and individual capability. But it is founded on the conviction that people are in charge of their own wellbeing”

“They [‘conservatives’ of left & right] fear that, in the end, people do not know what is good for them”

“A liberal republic, populated by free citizens is necessarily a cacophonous, unpredictable and messy place. It will have its fair share of nuisances, but it is not the job of a ‘restless statesmen’ to clean us up. It is time to put the broom away”

Square with Richard Reeves’ advocacy of teaching ‘character’ to school kids, for example, here:

http://www.prospect-magazine.co.uk/article_details.php?id=10283

The man really is a cretin and even by think-tank standards this ‘repositioning’ is such a blatant attempt to make sure Demos researchers get invited to Downing Street policy seminars under the Tories it’s actually embarrassing.

I don’t get the obsession with income tax. Why are we so focused on taxing income rather than wealth?

Imagine a kid from a poor background who goes on to become spectacularly wealthy. This person would end up giving money to their family, putting something ‘back’ into the community from which they came (maybe donating something to a school or a community project), as well as – doubtless enough – buying themself a nice house and a few nice cars or what-have-you. Why should this person pay more tax – far more tax – than a person born into wealth who never really earns all that much money? In the latter case, that person’s money never gets circulated, never goes outside of their own community, is never even seen by people who aren’t like them – other rich people.

Obviously if you have someone who earns a lot of money over a long period of time, then they start to have enough wealth to attract serious taxation. But why punish people who are just starting out towards getting some serious money and ignore the people who were born with it, and whose parents were born with it?

An obvious retort here is that many high earners were already rich, and earn lots because they went to expensive schools. Fine, but taxes targetted at wealth (I’m thinking of land specifically) would hit them just as much as income tax would have done, but would leave the person from a poorer background relatively better off.

Anyhow, I say this just to point out that I’ve no idea why we use income tax as a measure of fairness as though it’s a uniquely fair tax – it isn’t.

Sunny wrote:

“…though I’m less convinced about how their taxation system deals with entrenched inequality (and therefore denies opportunity to whole swathes of society)”

Aargghh!

Redistributive taxation alone will never deal with entrenched inequality. Unless you change the factors that lead to, and support, such inequality, wealth will simply flow back upwards again.

We’ve had centuries of experience that demonstrates this; so why are the regular contributors (and commenters) here so loathe to actually address the root causes of such inequality? Rearranging deckchairs is mere political onanism, and won’t ever radically change the status quo.

What are the root causes of inequality Patrick?

Considering that the top 2% of tax payers pay 40-50% of the total income tax, and that income tax is highly progressive, can you explain how it is, as you put it, entrenching inequality?

Let me explain this point more. I believe in progressive taxation to the point that I think people should pay income tax roughly in proportion to the amount of wealth (as a proportion) they hold. So it’s completely right that if the richest 10% hold 90% of the wealth, then they also pay 90% of income tax.

My point was that income tax is central to a more redistributive economy as Adam Smith envisioned, and some redistribution is necessary to create a welfare state and protect people who may fall through the cracks, or to alleviate endemic poverty.

I agree that this is fairly shameless leaping from the sinking Labour ship. No doubt the Conservatives are happy to have an extra ideas machine at a cost of absolutely nothing, but I can’t really see Demos commanding any serious respect.

I also wonder how much of this repositioning was for financial rather than political reasons, seeing as no-one in their right mind would be funnelling money into the likes of IPPR right now.

Sunny wrote:
“What are the root causes of inequality Patrick?”

Property law, IP law, a debt-based monetary system, state subsidy (direct & indirect) and/or tariffs that favour corporate interests, the power relationships between the state, corps. and individual human beings (including corp. personhood and limited liability), how/where new money enters the economy, planned inflation, international capital ‘investment’ and the effects of the IMF, WTO, World Bank, etc. etc. etc.

And no, things like access to education, health etc. are not on that list. Why? Because they are secondary to the factors which create and maintain the economic imbalance; lose that, and you would no longer have to grovel before your munificent betters, in the shape of the state, begging to be thrown a few crumbs from the table.

Whilst (I hope) that you will understand if I don’t try to elucidate the above list and more in a comment tucked away on a blog post, my original question still stands. When does LC make a point of looking at these sort of issues? At the rich heritage of left-leaning economic, political and philosophical thought? The left existed before Fabianism, you know.

Maybe the problem is that I’m labouring under an mistaken impression of why this site came into being, and what the agenda here is.

You recently asked “What has been the left’s main problem over the last decade?” My response would be that it’s forgotten what being ‘left’ traditionally meant. However, I seem to be in a minority, as the impression that I get from virtually all of the editorial posts here are that those authoring them have accepted a socio-economic present and future reliant upon authoritarian state capitalism, with a bit of socialist window dressing (e.g. progressive taxation) chucked in; presumably to keep the populace quiet.

If that is your aim — to squabble over mere technicalities with a similarly authoritarian, pro state capitalist Tory party — simply in order to give the appearance of choice or minor difference to the electorate, then I’ll simply shut up. If you have a somewhat different agenda, then for God’s sake start thinking about the question that you posed, albeit with a recognition that ‘the left’ lost their way long before the last decade.

I am not sure there are any “root causes” of inequality. It is pretty much the natural state of people (not that it isn’t something to overcome).

It is nice to hear these sort of ideas from Demos and the republican theory of liberty has quite a lot of good in it. Worth noting that libertarians don’t believe that the self-directed life emerges out of thin air but from a specific set of legally enforceable rights that are both necessary and, in most cases, suffient to allow people the freedom to pursue their own ends. But hey, perhaps a republic is the best way of entrenching those institutions.

Too busy to read the pamphlet now, but have to say it does look good. I’ve met Richard a few times now, very impressed by him overall, and picked up his Mill book to get back into a few days back.

He’s never made a secret of his desire to promote liberalism across party lines, so to get a few of the supposed “liberal conservatives” on board is a good thing. I do wonder how much longer the Conservative party can maintain cohesion though, there are genuine liberals within their ranks (have been since the modern party was formed), and I always wonder how they can stomach the idiot Tories like Dorries and Leigh.

Oh, mostly agree with Rob—it’s wealth that’s the big problem, especially inherited wealth, income less so. I’ll have to read their inheritance ideas, I’ve favoured making it a personal tax like a capital gain for a long time now (the French system looks especially good).

Bugger, forgot to tick that box. Sunny, is it possible to get the notify box to default to ‘on’ instead of off? And to get the tabfocus to jump to it, really breaks accessiblity guidelines as is.

The question should be “is it possible to get the notification box to work at all?” It rarely does now…

I can get the tab focus on it, but it would probably break the server if everyone was automatically signed on to it, with the amount of emails it would have to send. I wasn’t aware it wasn’t working… it works for me?

That makes sense. I’ve not noticed an issue with it not working, but then, not sure I’d notice. I still don’t get emails for comments made to my posts unless I logout and commment, but that’s not a major problem. Getting the tabfocus to go there so I can subscribe is most useful—guess I’m spoilt with LJ/DW always having had subscription options, blogs and platforms without it seem somehow lesser…

15. Stuart White

Liberal Conspirators might (or might not) be interested in my post on this pamphlet over at Next Left:

http://www.nextleft.org/2009/05/liberal-republic-how-liberal-how.html

“Pah!”

“David “its political correctness gone mad” Davies”

???

Ahem Ahem

http://www.pickledpolitics.com/archives/2064

At least the Tories have finally found some balls regarding the erosion of our civil liberties. And yes, I felt slightly sordid saying that. But its worth thinking about – if you’re brown, then its not worth voting Labour for the sake of your own security.

Ahem.

David T – its a different guy – Davies, not Davis 🙂

Um, yeah. The contrast between David Davies and David Davis is a case in point—Davis is a fairly liberal right wing capitalist conservative. Davies is an illiberal authoritarian Cornerstone tory twonk. That they can remain in the same party together astounds me.

19. Chris Baldwin

“By contrast, conservatives on left and right prefer power to be exercised by institutions, rather than people. They fear that, in the end, people do not know what is good for them.”

‘Conservatives on left and right’? Oh please, this is just Tony Blair’s ‘forces of conservatism’ rubbish again, isn’t it? ‘forward, not backward, upward not forward,
and always twirling, twirling, twirling towards freedom.’

‘Conservatives on left and right’? Oh please, this is just Tony Blair’s ‘forces of conservatism’ rubbish again, isn’t it?

I read it as I suspect (but can’t prove) it’s meant, referring to “conservative authoritarians”, which has a properly defined meaning within political science discourse.

Labour inclined state socialists who hearken back to the old days when the unions ran the country are just as conservative as Tories like Davies and Dorries. Note the complete lack of capitol C in the phrase, it’s not the Conservative party being referred to.

21. Chris Baldwin

“Labour inclined state socialists who hearken back to the old days when the unions ran the country are just as conservative as Tories like Davies and Dorries.”

Unions never ran the country. Capital has always run the country, just in the past it ran it a little less completely.

22. Charlieman

MatGB @18: “Um, yeah. The contrast between David Davies and David Davis is a case in point—Davis is a fairly liberal right wing capitalist conservative. Davies is an illiberal authoritarian Cornerstone tory twonk. That they can remain in the same party together astounds me.”

Take two Labour MPs of similar age who will be retiring at the next election. John Reid is an authoritarian former Home Secretary who exemplified the lack of talent in Labour ranks. Alan Simpson is a decent lefty — I don’t always agree with his causes, but I respect his honorable intent. Likewise, the fact can remain in the same party together astounds me, but isn’t that just a consequence of broad coalition, first past the post politics?

Chris. To an extent, yes, except one of the regulars in my pub is one of the old guys who used to go to the “beer and sandwiches” meetings—perception is important, and people perceived the unions had power.

Charlieman. Yes, sort of. But Labour has been known to expel people for being egregious tossers. Militant, Galloway, etc. Has Cameron ever expelled any of his openly racist MPs? Has the party heirarchy ever pulled Dorries up for her repeated lying?

I approve of broad churches, but it can be a bit too broad at times, and some of the Tory backwoods should be beyond the pale for a proper liberal (how can people like Alan Duncan tolerate Dorries and her ilk?)

I wrote:
“Maybe the problem is that I’m labouring under an mistaken impression of why this site came into being, and what the agenda here is… If that is your aim — to squabble over mere technicalities with a similarly authoritarian, pro state capitalist Tory party — simply in order to give the appearance of choice or minor difference to the electorate, then I’ll simply shut up”

Thanks, Sunny. Your silence has answered my question in the most eloquent manner possible.

Have posted something at Next Left

This does not seem to me to be particularly new, when the politics of post-ideology and beyond left and right were such dominant Demos narratives from the start.

Though I do think that having a surname may prove an asset for P.Blond over Perri 6 when it comes to influencing conservatives
http://www.nextleft.org/2009/05/demos-postmodernism-and-deja-vu-all.html

Look, anyone who’s read Richard Reeves’ (or even knows that he wrote a) biography of John Stuart Mill would know that he’s someone who actually does believe in liberal constitutionalism, freedom of opportunity, all the rest of it. Inheritance tax has a solid liberal justification; it’s less clear that progressive taxation (specifically on income tax i’m assuming) does. That explains his position. I don’t think it’s a ‘fudge’. Even Vince Cable could only seem to come up with “well the rich can afford to pay more so they should” when he was asked about it. And as David Hume fans know, one cannot “derive an ‘is’ from an ‘ought'”.

Anyway, it doesn’t really stack up that this pamphlet be written as part of an effort on the part of Reeves and Demos to cosy up to the Tories, for reasons i’ll come onto in a moment. First, though, is it only me who thinks it significant that, though there are 2 Labour politicians and now 2 Conservative politicians on the panel, there are 3 Lib Dems? It seems more like Demos is trying to sit in the centre ground than get particularly close to the Tories. Then again, maybe i just see everything through Lib Dem-tinted spectacles…

As for the pamphlet, if anything it seems to reaffirm Demos’ ideological distance from traditional Tory positions. To quote the pamphlet at length:

“The long tradition of republican thought insists that people are only free when they are not, in Rousseau’s phrase, ‘at the mercy of others’. This idea of freedom as non-denomination departs from the classical liberal focus on non-interference. A dictator may govern liberally, but his people are not free. Citizens are only free when they have an equal voice in a properly democratic system.”

That sounds very much like a repudiation of the Tory/libertarian position, with an emphasis on liberal constitutionalism. In fact, a lot of the document amounts to providing a political-philosophical justification for existing Liberal Democrat policies.

Richard Reeves is basically a Millite liberal through and through, albeit one who has taken on board the New Liberal argument that poverty, ignorance and so forth limit freedom, as well as the state and social pressures. In many ways, this is disappointing. I’d have expected him to have read some Rawls or Dworkin or other contemporary liberal thought. If Reeves can be criticized for anything, i think it’s being a little parochial in his liberalism.

Rawls and Dworkin themselves basically argue that there needs to be a just distribution of wealth at the off, rather than pursuing redistributive measures through the welfare state. This is probably the future direction of liberal politics, if only people like Reeves could read around a little more and see it.

27. Stuart White

Carrion: nice post, thanks. On your last point, I agree that a Rawls-style liberalism doesn’t see equality as being advanced only through the welfare state and income redistribution. Rawls (and Dworkin) both argue also for more equality in the distribution of assets which people bring to the marketplace. This is one reason why social policy thinking influenced by Rawls/Dworkin-style liberalism has become so engaged with ideas around ‘asset-based welfare’ (though this is the UK government’s term, not theirs). Labour has edged onto this terrain with policies like the Child Trust Fund and Saving Gateway, though the scale of what has been done is hardly proportionate to the other forces driving up wealth inequality. I agree that a radical liberal social policy would seek to build on these initiatives – though by no means, in my view, as a full-blown alternative to the welfare state, but largely as a complement to it.

I agree it was disappointing that the Reeves/Collins book didn’t really mention this ‘assets agenda’, particularly as it fits very well with their philosophy. Reeves has, however, indicated sympathy for these ideas in the past on the Demos website, e.g., in a thread related to Philip Blond’s ‘Red Toryism’.

However, what I find really disappointing is the complete lack of engagement in this radical liberal policy agenda from the party that ought to be making the running with it: the Lib Dems. They want to abolish the Child Trust Fund and offer no similarly inclusive assets policy in its place. And when one reads their publications one is struck by the apparent ignorance of Rawls, Dworkin and the social policy agenda emerging out of their philosophical work. Lib Dem thinking often seems to me to go on in its own world without any connection to the major intellectual developments in liberal political philosophy in past 30 or so years….

On the liberal foundations of progressive income tax, you might be interested in my post at Next Left on ‘Mill against Reeves on tax?’

http://www.nextleft.org/2009/05/mill-against-reeves-on-tax.html


Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    New post: Demos draws a line in the sand by embracing liberals http://bit.ly/pSm7m

  2. Michael Haddon

    RT @libcon: New post: Demos draws a line in the sand by embracing liberals http://bit.ly/pSm7m

  3. Richard Reeves

    Liberal conspiracy’s reaction to our new advisory board: http://tiny.cc/1Nz6n. And from Conservative Home: http://tiny.cc/2ErXZ

  4. Liberal Conspiracy

    New post: Demos draws a line in the sand by embracing liberals http://bit.ly/pSm7m

  5. Michael Haddon

    RT @libcon: New post: Demos draws a line in the sand by embracing liberals http://bit.ly/pSm7m





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