Barack Obama – a Natural British Conservative

by Brian John Spencer

Margaret Thatcher is revered by the Republican Party. However, with the passing of the Iron Lady has come a stark realisation: just how far apart the two conservative traditions on each side of the Atlantic have drifted apart in recent years.

Where transatlantic conservatives under Thatcher and Reagan were politically and ideologically united, British and American conservatives are now out of step and alien on many issues.

Such is the dissonance between the two conservative traditions that Obama would actually slip seamlessly into the Cameron cabinet.

And vice versa: as a Romney advisor said to the Telegraph in London, “In many respects Cameron is like Obama.” Lawrence O’Donnell went even further and said: “British Conservatives are more liberal than American liberals.”

The reality is that the British love Obama. The Left and the Right.

So what’s going on?

To understand what’s going happening we need to sketch out the political temperament in Britain.

While the British may be America’s closest cousins, the reality is that British are of a different social and political temperament.

Socially, we Brits don’t share with Americans the habit for unbridled optimism. We’re a sceptical lot.

Politically, we Brits are the archetypal European social democracy. Big tax, big spend government, soviet style socialised health care and a generous welfare system that stifles individual responsibility.

Much of this a relic of the collectivism born by the war years, made mainstream by the post-war Labour government who implemented the government programmes of Keynes and other socialist thinkers.

And as Milton Friedman put it: “nothing is so permanent as a temporary government programme.”

In Britain we have come to love big government and we would not like to see it summarily dismissed. We are conditioned for a socially interventionist and liberally minded government.

Therefore, conservatism of the American kind would never float in Britain.

And the British conservatives this and know what the British public have come to expect. Where in America the Tea Party movement has shunted the right rightwards, the right in Britain have gone leftwards. Conservatives in Britain are on a mission to ‘detoxify’ the conservative brand and are preaching a form of compassionate conservatism.

A mission typified by the Tory parties desire to introduce full marriage equality.

The mission to detoxify was also illustrated graphically when David Cameron unreservedly backed Barack Obama in the 2012 presidential race and repudiated the GOP. Snubbing Romney during his March 2012 visit to Washington.

Back to the question: so what’s going on? Well it’s a mix. Obviously conservatives in American have gone too far to the right, run out of middle aged white men and so need to broaden their appeal. They need to what Cameron is doing and ‘detoxify’.

As for the Brits it’s also clear that the Thatcher style of uncompassionate conservatism was an aberration and will not be coming back.

Irish blogger Mick Fealty put it best: “If there is a primary weakness in the British English character it is the way it is given to sudden – often highly irrational – enthusiasms on the left as well as the right.”

Thatcher’s politics were necessary in the 1980s. After the war Britain veered radically leftwards. Thatcher’s reign was an age of rebalancing; a rebalancing that brought Britain back to the right. However this radical veering leftwards under Attlee then rightwards under Thatcher has passed.

British politics nowadays is all about the centre ground. A view echoed in a left wing weekly by Tony Blair who criticised the current Labour leader, Ed Miliband for being a party of protest and for abandoning the business friendly policies of New Labour and going too far to the left.

But by and large British politician today want to avoid the irrational enthusiasm that had traditionally brought them to the political extremes.

There’s one last thing that warrants attention.

To my mind I had always regarded Obama as a pragmatic conservative of the modern British kind. The shouts of “Marxist!” always perplexed and confounded me. I thought these the claims of a paranoid and misinformed electorate.

But it seems there was something in this viewpoint. Andrew Sullivan speaks of Obama as a natural Burkean conservative. Speaking at the JFK School of Government at Harvard, Andrew Sullivan denounced the GOP as radicals. A party he said is hostile and obstructionist to the political process.

For Sullivan Obama is the true American conservative: a man that can bring the US out of the fiscal quagmire and through the political brinkmanship.

To conclude: It would be wrong to suggest that Obama and Cameron are totally aligned. They differ on a number of policy areas including on Europe, on austerity and spending. But they agree more than they differ. And by implication, Obama is a natural British conservative.

What implication does this have for the political process in the US and Britain? I’m not exactly sure. Perhaps this analysis is merely an inane observation. Or maybe it’s a reminder of how far US conservatives have gone outside of mainstream politics.

Who knows? Take your read of the situation and make your own call. My call is that it just shows how ideologically divided the US is.

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70 thoughts on “Barack Obama – a Natural British Conservative

  1. A good essay.

    I’ve seen people make this sort of comment about the Democratic Party and American liberals for years. Certainly long before before Barack Obama. Basically American liberals would probably be European conservatives.

    This often makes me feel kind of an odd-ball politically. I am much further to the left than many Americans but too many of my European friends (who tend to be on the left), I am a center-rightist. Or at best a kind of New Labor-Blair sell out. And what I hear, British Jews are as staunchly Conservative as American Jews are staunchly Democratic*. Though I’ve seen conflicting information on the political alignment of British Jews. There are certainly a lot of Jews in the Labor Party.

    *Despite what certain people want to happen: 80 percent of American Jews remain staunchly Democratic.

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  2. Pingback: Barack Obama – a Natural British Conservative – The League of Ordinary Gentlemen (blog) | 1600-PennsylvaniaAvenue.com

  3. Cameron’s Conservatives are to Obama’s socialist left on healthcare policy and a few other things. But historically, they’re a little bit to Obama’s right on taxes, redistribution equality of opportunity, foreign policy, etc.

    Cameron swung the party to the left, thereby occupying the center, taking all the air out of ideological disputes, and since Labour had a smell of Blair’s disastrous support of Iraq, Cameron couldn’t lose. And since Labour went to bed with the neocons under Blair, the Conservatives had the wiser foreign policy, though the Conservatives were more neocon, prior to Blair.

    I’d say Obama could fit in either the Labour party or the furthest left-wing of the Conservative party, depending on the era, though Obama does not believe in austerity, so he’d likely not be long for Cameron’s Conservative party, as that’s the biggest issue today.

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    • Cameron’s Conservatives are to Obama’s socialist left on healthcare policy and a few other things. But historically, they’re a little bit to Obama’s right on taxes, redistribution equality of opportunity, foreign policy, etc.

      this identifies an important point – there is no universal left – right axis we can place politicians on, no matter what time or country they hail from. Ideology is more complicated than that, even if political battle sin any one country tend to collapse into a left-right split.

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      • “this identifies an important point – there is no universal left – right axis we can place politicians on, no matter what time or country they hail from. Ideology is more complicated than that, even if political battle sin any one country tend to collapse into a left-right split.”

        You are unaware of political science research showing that in the USA at least, a one-dimensional axis has had increasing predictive power over the past few decades?

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      • Yeah, or at least we can’t identify right and left via what specific policies you hold. We need general criteria about what ideas you believe in, or something like that.

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  4. The first European to institute modern welfare state type laws was Otto Von Bismarck. Part of this was a misplaced hope that the German Working Class would stop voting for the Social Democratic Party and become less radical if some form of welfare state was existence. The other part was based on a belief that allowing the poor and working classes to whether the vagrancies of life without assistance is simply unrealistic and didn’t reflect the more communal but hierarchical vision of society that European conservatives had.

    This type of conservatism never developed in the United States. American conservatism has been fiercely against any type of welfare state and government regulation of the economy since the late 19th century. The ethos of American conservatism was always fiercely individualistic.

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    • What I’m trying to say is that the tolerance of British and European conservatives for the welfare state has deeper roots than recent history. It goes back to at least the 19th century with Bismarck’s bread and butter laws and to Disraeli’s One Nation Toryism/Tory Democracy. European conservatism always envisioned a more organic, communal society than American conservatism.

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      • I’ll also add that European conservatism has a stronger streak of paternalism than American conservatism does (or ever did). Of course, the Bismarckian socialism you mention was probably more cynical–or at least instrumentalist–than paternalist, but I wouldn’t be surprised if his efforts appealed to a certain sense of self-legitimating “noblesse oblige” by the Junker class and perhaps also the rising merchant class.

        In the U.S., it’s hard to find conservatism associated with a clear paternalist outlook, certainly from the New Deal onward. I suppose the Eisenhower and “Rockefeller Republicans” who used to be a non-trivial presence in the GOP might have had paternalist orientation, but then they were called “liberal Republicans.”

        I guess all I’m saying is that I agree with you.

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        • American conservatism can have a paternalist outlook, but typically not in economics, I agree. When it comes to non-economic social issues, many conservatives are quite willing to argue for state intervention.

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          • Good point. I wasn’t even thinking about the social conservatism. Now that I am, I wonder if there are ways in which social conservative paternalism might–sometimes and only to a limited degree–imply a sort of economic paternalism (e.g., faith-based communities, state supports for adoption).

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            • I don’t know well the history of conservative views on state/federal funding for faith-based initiatives or adoptions, but I think that calls for state/federal money for conservatively-supported private social programs are relatively new in conservative thought. I’m guessing that these sorts of things became popular in George W. Bush’s presidency, and they seem in line with his call for “compassionate conservatism.” (While I’m no fan of George W. Bush, I don’t think he was insincere in his belief in this sort of approach.)

              In other words, these sorts of policies seem much more Mike Huckabee than William F. Buckley.

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              • I should have said, “…I think that calls for state/federal money for conservatively-supported private social programs are relatively new in AMERICAN conservative thought.”

                Way to not integrate the message of the OP! Sorry about that!

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        • British and other European conservatives were able to make peace or even propose welfare state legislation because of the tradition of “noblesse oblige” amoung the European aristocracy. Your right, I think that Bismarck was mainly acting out of cyncism rather than paternalism but there was a strong paternalistic element to German politics. When Berlin was rapidly expanding during the 19th century, the Prussian government made of the most vigorous responses to the problems of urban housing for the working class out of any European government.

          This tradition of paternalism never really existed in the United States. American conservatives fought against any sort of reform as socialsitic since the Gilded Age. They fought against the 8-hour day, union rights, social security, and universal healthcare.

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        • Eisenhower and the Rockefeller Republicans were the remnants of the Progressive movement that remained within the Republican Party rather than migrate over to the Democratic Party. During the Progressive era, liberals and advocates for reform were to be found in both parties. The conservative victories within the GOP during the 1920s and the Depression caused many of the liberal Republicans to join the Democratic Party but they were still a presence in the GOP. LaGuardia was more liberal than many Democratic Party members but he was a member of the GOP during the 1920s and the Depression. The battle over Civil Rights is what caused the final demise of the moderate to liberal GOP members.

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    • The ethos of American conservatism was always fiercely individualistic.

      From the time the US Constitution was ratified until at least 1880, it was possible for a man to walk to a place where he could claim enough land that was essentially free to establish a viable farmstead. The same hadn’t been true in Europe for centuries. A lot of the American individualism can be traced to that one difference.

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      • It is certainly true there is a strong strain of individualism in american character and that can be traced to the size and “openness” of the frontier ( except for the people who were already there of course.) But neither conservative’s have their own communitarian nature they typically express that religion and social pressures. Conservatives have been fine with gov level communitarian policies when it suited them and when society was much more conservative.

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      • Perhaps but that has not been true for a long time and is certainly not true in a post-Industrial economy.

        We are not a nation of self-sufficient yeoman. We have not been for a long time and it would take true disaster to make it true again. Like a complete collapse of every government in the world.

        Yet conservatives still want this to be yeoman land.

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        • We never actually were a self-sufficient yeoman. The people that settled on the wilderness still needed all sorts of supplies and tools made in towns and cities. Many of them sold things that depended on canals, trains and population centers. One of clearest examples of this in the idealization of mountain men in the West in the late 1800’s. Leaving aside that they trapped out all of the fur bearing critters which was bad, their trade in furs was dependent on furs being mad fashionable in Europe. The mountain men depended on and only had a trade due to interstate and international trading.

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      • From the time the US Constitution was ratified until at least 1880, it was possible for a man to walk to a place where he could claim enough land that was essentially free to establish a viable farmstead.

        Courtesy of the government, which had removed that land’s original inhabitants.

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          • Given it away, yes, for free to the railway barons. Who charged less-than-extortionate prices to the European immigrants who rode those railways. Great fortunes were made along those lines.

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            • Corporate welfare has been the only constant of the American ‘individualism.’ This mantra that conservatives always say is a joke – funny, corporate laws today are based on the 13th amendment that ‘allowed’ property to gain human rights (i.e. the slave was freed.) There is no law or moral that corporations can’t corrupt or twist to enrich the elite who, by the way, are the real owners of America, Inc. The robber barons are alive and well; in fact, their share of real growth in America over the last 30 years almost make the 1880’s barons look like amateurs.

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      • “From the time the US Constitution was ratified until at least 1880, it was possible for a man to walk to a place where he could claim enough land that was essentially free to establish a viable farmstead. The same hadn’t been true in Europe for centuries. A lot of the American individualism can be traced to that one difference.”

        Not really; the man had to be non-indian, non-black, and probably non-asian ancestry. Then there’d be the question of strange religious practices, and finally the fact that in many places and times elite interests could take that land, either by (bribed) ‘lawful’ means or by simple violence.

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        • The Homestead Act was never applied in Florida because the Bourbon Democrats that ran Florida after Reconstruction ended didn’t want to give land to anybody for free.

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          • The Homestead Act was never applied in Florida because the Bourbon Democrats that ran Florida after Reconstruction ended didn’t want to give land to anybody for free. The Homestead Act, as it applied to Florida, was repealed in 1877 as part of the Compromise that ended Reconstruction. It is not surprising, then, that the Homestead Act, as it applied to Florida (and the other public land states in the South) wasn’t “applied” in Florida after Reconstruction. It was, however, applied in Florida from 1866 until the Compromise of 1877.

            And the repeal of the Southern Homestead Act had less to do with whether Bourbon Democrats wanted or didn’t want to give public (federal) land away for free than it had to do with the fact that the Southern Homestead Act excluded any former Confederates. I’m quite certain that they didn’t mind giving away federal land to the right people, which would have been former Seshes.

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        • The Homestead Act was never applied in Florida because the Bourbon Democrats that ran Florida after Reconstruction ended didn’t want to give land to anybody for free.

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  5. Cross national political party affinities are difficult to sketch out given the very different starting points, the UK having a welfare state nearer to every other developed democracy than the US and the whole class thing for which there is not a US equal (lots of Tory front bench Etonians or Bullingdon Club members for instance). Several policies seem right at home amongst Republicans though, a regressive VAT increase, prioritizing a tax cut for the wealthy, repealing Child Trust Funds, a retrograde stance on immigration, an obsession with perceived slights to sovereignty (ECHR), and the “bonfire of the quangos”. Also the whole undeserving poor bit is a pretty common theme for conservatism on both sides of the Atlantic.

    As for Romney, he was just sort of a tool when he visited the UK. If someone’s being self-deprecating you don’t contribute criticism, you provide reassurance and empathy. He should’ve said the UK is set to have a spectacular Olympics, or that the US too faced pre-games difficulties but it turned out great. Any Prime Minister would push back against Romney’s ill considered remarks.

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  6. Spoken like a good Thatcherite. Baroness Thatcher, like Reagan, has become so encrusted in myth she’s become rather like a statue of Ganesha, so swaddled in garlands one can barely see Ganesha’s trunk sticking out.

    I endured the Thatcher years and do not see much congruence. When Reagan invaded Grenada without so much as a by-your-leave from Thatcher, it was clear enough who was in charge of that relationship. Thatcher could barely march in step. She trotted behind him, full of guff and bluster, to be sure. But there was never any common cause between them. Reagan’s ancestors were Irish from South Tipperary: when Thatcher implored Reagan to stop the flow of weapons and money from the United States to the Irish Republican Army, nothing was done.

    And let us not put too fine a point on all this: the Conservative Party in the UK is in government in coalition with the Liberal Democrats. Thatcher once declared the Liberals as dead as John Cleese’s parrot yet there seems to be some life left yet in Pretty Polly. It’s been the Conservatives gone hat in hand to find friends, with Cameron as the Minister of Silly Walks, calling himself a Conservative yet behaving himself very much like a Liberal of old. The UK have always been given to irrational enthusiasms but seldom hath a more unlikely Pushmi-Pullyu appeared on Albion’s Isle than Cameron’s government.

    Obama would never fit into a Cameron cabinet. It is absurd to think Obama would find common purpose with the Conservative Party as constituted in Anno Domini 2013. Obama’s political roots would be New Labour, were they translated into American politics.

    All politics is local: Thatcher changed the landscape of the UK as surely as the Blitz. It’s an evil wind which blows no good: plenty of horrid old institutions were destroyed and were replaced. If some thought them venerable and mourn their passing, JRR Tolkien once posed a riddle beginning with “This thing all things devours.” He spoke of time but he might as well have said it of Thatcherism. For all that it built, Thatcherism destroyed as much and more.

    The stench of Bolshevism always followed Margaret Thatcher about, a pitiless Vanguard of the Proletariat, a cadre of the Select Few. She was a True Believer in every sense of that word, the child of her father the Methodist lay preacher. Thatcherism might have put up a few interesting buildings in the City but for all practical purposes Wales and Scotland have revolted entirely, thanks entirely to Thatcher. Those horses are out of the barn and will not soon return, for all the Conservative will to run them down. “The guest who has escaped from the roof, will think twice before he comes back in by the door.”

    Conservatives of the American kind are to be found in the UK, you need go no farther than Ulster. Now there are some American-style small-c conservatives for yez. Good old Democrat Union Party, as good a fit to the American Republican as can be imagined. Mouth breathing, unscientific, racist, gay-hating sons of bitches, right down to the teaching of creationism in schools. Thus was Ireland’s gift to us — her poor mad children.

    Well Thatcher is dead and the UK will never be the same. The UK will muddle along as it always has, poor wretched misgoverned gits. The Special Relationship between the USA and the UK will continue as always, an ocean of myth between us and the pastiche of old wars fought in common, none of which worked out very well for the UK. We will never truly understand each other. The UK is every bit as divided as we are: let the revivals of the Welsh and Scots parliaments be put into evidence. And I blame Margaret Thatcher for that.

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    • BlaiseP:

      “Spoken like a good Thatcherite. Baroness Thatcher, like Reagan, has become so encrusted in myth she’s become rather like a statue of Ganesha, so swaddled in garlands one can barely see Ganesha’s trunk sticking out.”

      I love this!

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      • That is a beautiful quote. Reagan as conservative saint certainly is quite different from Reagan the man. And interestingly, both conservatives and liberals view him as the conservative saint as Republicans of today identify him, rather than someone who compromised with his opposition and who raised taxes.

        Did Thatcher actually match her current image more than Reagan does? Andrew Sullivan seems to argue that her image has been distorted not by the right in the UK, but the left. He’s particularly anxious to portray her as less anti-gay than she has been perceived. Which makes sense, given that he was a gay Thatcherite.

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  7. I think the problem with American conservatism is it is driven more by identity politics than ideology. This makes it cohesive while at the same time disconnects it from reality. Redistricting has allowed and even required republicans to cater to a smaller and smaller constituency.

    Efforts to rebrand the party are being lead by a creationist.

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      • I must return to an often-ignored point: Hayek told us some mighty truths about the natures of markets and governments. If there are Ignorant Liars afoot in the world, there are more Ignorants than Liars. Hayek understood more of the threats to both Markets and Government than anyone of his era.

        Socialism understands two things: poor people are bad for business and government must never attempt to solve a problem more properly solved by markets. Tax them, regulate them, do as you will with markets: they can bear heavy burdens but must never be destroyed by too much regulation or too much taxation. This is Socialism. The gauge of good government is invariably the health of its markets. Hayek denied the existence of social justice but he did not deny the concept of justice entirely, especially not justice for the poor. Hayek knew the heart of government, that it privileges the few at the expense of the many. If his solutions look a bit antique today, the truths of his arguments are still valid. Would that more people understood how true they remain.

        A thorough reading of Law, Liberty and Justice, especially Volume 2, will disabuse the aforementioned Ignorant of many of their delusions. Someone should go through the works of Hayek, especially LL&J, to clean it up: it would be far better if half of it, the repetitive bits, were removed. Nonetheless it is a mighty bit of prose and parts of it are brilliant.

        The poor do not want a handout. They want a damned job. Insofar as government preserves freedom, especially the freedom to fail, we shall all live in relative plenty and if some are richer than others, let us not succumb to the “Socialism” of redistribution. But in so saying, the preservation of freedom and markets requires a mighty rider, for markets are wilful horses, easily panicked and prone to every sort of collective idiocy known to man. It is the hallmark of a working civilisation that it puts the specialist to work, even at the lowest levels: flint-knappers make the arrows and knives for the hunters. This is socialism, too, though that word has come in time to be associated with government redistribution.

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          • Which part of that don’t you understand? I could write it another language if you’d like. Perhaps you should go back and read Hayek:

            A policy making use of the spontaneously ordering forces therefore cannot aim at a known maximum of particular results, but must aim at increasing, for any person picked at random, the prospects that the overall effect of all changes required by that order will be to increase his chances of attaining his ends. We have seen(14) that the common good in this sense is not a particular order of things but consists in an abstract order which in a free society must leave undetermined the degree to which the several particular needs will be met. The aim will have to be an order which will increase everyone’s chances as much as possible — not at every moment but only ‘on the whole’ and in the long run.

            (14) C.H. Waddington The Ethical Animal (London 1960)

            Entirely congruent with socialism by my definition. not at every moment but only ‘on the whole’ and in the long run.

            Christ, I wish some people around here would actually read Hayek.

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                • I’ll let you crunch that bit up, perhaps it will give you some insight.

                  None whatsoever. At least no insight into what your definition of socialism might be so that it understands that “government must never attempt to solve a problem more properly solved by markets.”

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                  • None whatsoever? Gosh. The socialist declares the government and markets are inextricably linked: one cannot exist without the other. It is not Communism, which would be a state control of the means of production, the Totalitarian Zero.

                    Marx was a good capitalist. There another author I strongly recommend, a sovereign antidote to much stupidity at work in the world. Marx observed, he never analysed. If he said capitalism sorted people out into Haves and Have Nots, bourgeois and proletariat, he never condemned capitalism, merely what it tended to produce, left to its own devices.

                    Hayek said exactly the same, may I add. I’ve quoted him and you haven’t responded to that bit. Hayek took a slightly different approach to why unfettered capitalism couldn’t work and why our best gauge of these things is the Increasing of Chances. Where Marx had concluded the Bourgeois would set in motion their own destruction through the oppression of the Proles, Hayek observed markets would destroy themselves.

                    What, then, is Socialism? It’s a frank admission government has a role to play in markets. What role is optimal? Hayek has defined it for us: where booms and busts appear, either the markets have gotten out of control or the government has screwed with such things as the money supply and suchlike.

                    This is also the view of Hobbes, whose monarch was more likely to measure his own success by the well-being of his subjects than a bickering mob of parliamentary parasites, each intent upon grabbing as much as possible for himself and his constituency. Nasty, brutish, etc.

                    If money concentrates upward in capitalism, it does so when people at the bottom have the options to buy things so the money can have that upward momentum. Marx and Hayek are both concerned about that motion: they speak to the problem from different angles but it is the same problem. Markets and governments depend upon each other to satisfy each other’s needs — and ours are best served when we quit pretending otherwise.

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                    • Not Hayek, that’s for sure. Do you think of Hayek as a socialist?

                      I think of socialism as the collective ownership of the means of production. I know that’s an idiosyncratic definition, but I’m a rebel.

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                    • While I’m not prepared to accept BlaiseP’s definition of socialism as the only definition of socialism, there are countries that we might define as socialist where the means of production remain in private hands. Sweden might be an exemplar of BlaiseP’s definition of socialism (more at some times than others, of course). The amount of redistribution might be outside of what BlaiseP would prefer to include, though.

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                    • I suppose in my mind, socialism ~= social democracy. I’m willing to accept markets in a socialist society if the means of production are collectively owned, but as soon as you have private ownership of the means of production, you don’t have socialism, you have a mixed economy or social democracy or some such hybrid of redistribution (which is not, necessarily, a socialist thing) of wealth and a market-based economy in which private businesses compete for private profits (where the profits are still largely private even if, as in our economy, the risk is socialized). But the idea that socialism “understands… government must never attempt to solve a problem more properly solved by markets” is so alien to my conception of socialism as to make me think that Blaise and I are talking about two different things. And while I joked that my definition was idiosyncratic, I’m pretty sure that what I mean by socialism is closer to what socialism has traditionally meant (among political theorists, not among post-60s American conservatives).

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                    • As Democracy is not embodied in the Democratic Party (of any nation), so Socialism is not embodied in the Socialist Party. I am a bit downhearted that you can’t see my point here, or that you were so dismissive of my parabola, really I am.

                      Government and Markets reinforce each other. My view of socialism dispenses with all the Vile Statism we’ve come to associate with the Socialist Parties. Socialism clearly admits for the necessity of markets. It just demands that government make markets work for the good of all and not the few. It was Hayek’s point, too. Maximising people’s Options is not handing out Gummint Cheese or putting them in a Council Flat. But government simply must intervene in markets, as the Libertarians are so fond of telling us, to prevent Force and Fraud.

                      And yes, a good government would make sure people don’t starve in the forest. Beggars are bad for business. Next thing you know, you’re having to lock them up: better by far to get them into a situation where society can cope with them. Prisons are expensive.

                      See, the socialist readily admits to the evil of what Hayek calls Malinvestment, the tendency of government to interfere in markets. It’s not hard, really it isn’t. Hayek very plainly told us not to aim at a known maximum of particular results: the socialist accepts this as a given. The socialist is a gardener, if you will: markets will grow if they’re watered and fed and yes, pruned. But the gardener isn’t growing the tomato. That’s up to the tomato plant.

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                    • FWIW, my reading of “socialist” and “social democracy” (or “social democrati(ci)sm) is similar to Chris’s. I wouldn’t call Sweden socialist, but I do think of it as one of those European social democracies.

                      (This is all inherently semantic. Just laying out what the words mean to me.)

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                    • Yeah, so stipulated. Everyone hears “socialist” and starts forming associations with Sweden. We sorta intellectually accept separate definitions for Democrat and democracy, though Lord knows that’s changed over time, too. Democracy was once equated with anarchy, itself gone through a few transmogrifications.

                      It’s what Quine used to call the Indeterminacy of Translation. This whole thing began with the phrase “socialist thinker”. Well, for me, Marx said socialism was inevitable. Hayek kinda says the same thing when you get right down to it: either we get serious about everyone in society or the whole thing will go ass over tea kettle, as it has so many times before.

                      Capitalism just isn’t enough. It’s the motor. Socialism is the transmission and the drive shaft and the axles and the wheels, taking us all somewhere. Hayek tells us over and over, quit dreaming up all these insane plans for the future. Cope with the present. Deal with the problems you have, now, recognise market booms and busts as symptomatic of some jackass who doesn’t know how to shift the gears.

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                    • Blaise, I chose this ground to fight on because I generally consider myself a socialist (of sorts, not a “statist” socialist), and I generally see socialism as, in the realm of theory, a critique of the market. Within socialist circles, the role that the market can and should play has received a lot of attention since the fall of the Soviet Union, and while that seemed inevitable, it certainly doesn’t take the direction you’re taking, which is essentially saying that socialism is the theory of the neoliberal welfare state, and thank god for that, because if nothing else, we need something to do the work of critique in the realm of theory.

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                    • That last sentence ran on, I know, but the point is this: you are right, within the liberal or neoliberal or whatever world view, the market needs government to reign it in or keep it from destroying itself (ala Keynes, say), and the government needs the market for Hayekian reasons or whatever. However, there is a position outside of the market, a position which argues that the market is an important, perhaps a necessary step along the progress of human culture and human ethics, but at its heart it is deeply unethical in many of the same ways that the systems out of which it grew were unethical. This position can offer both an ethical and a pragmatic critique of the market. In general, this position is associated with socialism. You’ve taken socialism and made it a market theory, which essentially means the game is over, the crowd has left the stadium, and all that’s left for social theorists to do is to analyze the mess they’ve left behind.

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                    • I don’t disagree that Sweden is a social democracy, I’d just argue that social democracy is merely a particular kind of socialism in practice. After all, a nation could have an economic system structured similarly to Sweden’s without a democratic form of government. I’ve always thought of states that took over the means of production (temporarily, and on behalf of the proletariat of course!) as not just socialistic, but communistic.

                      Not all socialists, historically or at present, have agreed that the state must actually own or control the means of production to have socialism in practice.

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                    • Collective ownership and “state” ownership are not coextensive concepts. I’d be interested in historical examples of socialist systems that couldn’t be reasonably considered social democratic systems (again, I don’t see social democracy as a form of socialism, but we can put that issue on hold for a moment) in which the means of production were not collectively owned. Do you have some?

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                    • Heh. I suppose that makes me a Post-Socialist. Or perhaps a Synthetic Socialist. Socialism, for me, isn’t a critique of markets. Here’s your next step along the way: consider that markets aren’t immoral. They’re amoral. We’re not going to evolve beyond markets any more than we’re going to evolve beyond fire or currency.

                      Tell you what is gonna have to evolve. Government. I contend the nation state is losing relevance in the current paradigms. Markets evolve and I mean fast. Government comes up puffing and blowing like a fat man trying to catch the train already leaving the station.

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                    • Collective ownership and “state” ownership are not coextensive concepts. I’d be interested in historical examples of socialist systems that couldn’t be reasonably considered social democratic systems (again, I don’t see social democracy as a form of socialism, but we can put that issue on hold for a moment) in which the means of production were not collectively owned. Do you have some?

                      I agree that collective ownership can exist without state ownership. I don’t know of any examples of non-democratic “social democratic” states (to use a very ugly construction), but I also don’t know of any large scale democracies with collective ownership of the means of production. The fact that neither may exist doesn’t mean that they aren’t theoretically possible.

                      One reason I think of social democracies as “socialist” in a meaningful way is that they were typically founded under the leadership of social democratic parties. These parties identified themselves (and members thought of themselves) as explicitly socialist. Not some half-measure, but socialist.

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                    • …markets aren’t immoral. They’re amoral.

                      Amen to that! One problem with parts of the Republican Party today is the notion that not only are markets not amoral, but somehow moral, punishing the wicked and lazy and rewarding the virtuous and determined. We have too many worshippers at the altar of Capitalism who seem ignorant of a basic understanding of economics. The market operates just like evolution does, without regard to our notions of good or bad. We can work at the edges to understand why things happen and to ameliorate outcomes we dislike, but we should remain in awe.

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                    • Zane, democratic socialism and social democracy are not the same thing. Originally, social democracy was meant to be a route to democratic socialism, but has now become an end in itself, essentially a mixed economic system with a larger welfare state than most.

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                    • We have too many worshippers at the altar of Capitalism who seem ignorant of a basic understanding of economics. Erm, in like manner we have too many worshippers dancing around the altar of Government, completely ignorant of its limits for good and its damned-near-endless capacity to harm. Never was worse evil done than with the best of intentions. As surely as markets can be monopolised, so can the power of government be too concentrated in too few hands.

                      In so saying, I am no Libertarian but I’m more than sympathetic to their claims. I am, after all, a Hayek kinda guy. I just view him as I do Karl Marx: a wonderfully astute observer.

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                    • Chris, I think the issue for me is that collective ownership of the means of production is one formulation of socialism (Marxism, specifically), but not the sum total of the range of socialist strategies, goals, or ideals.

                      As an aside, are there any examples of non-state community ownership of the means of production? The only examples I can think of that approach that ideal are tiny and part of a particular religious movement, like the Amana Colonies.

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                    • Erm, in like manner we have too many worshippers dancing around the altar of Government, completely ignorant of its limits for good and its damned-near-endless capacity to harm.

                      I think there’s a difference today in the US between the worshippers of Capitalism and the worshippers of State, though. The difference is one of adherence to the object. Market ideologists believe that the market is in fact Moral, that its outcomes (if uninterfered with) are Good, and dissent is heresy, all based on a flawed or incomplete reading of economics. The flawed reading leaves out things like the necessary inefficiency of monopolies, the problem of externalities, and the cyclical nature of the economy.

                      In the US today, I suspect that we have far few State worshippers and more Capitalist heretics, who doubt the ultimate morality of the market, wish to temper it, know of no tool other than state intervention, and try to use the power of the state without adequate thoughtfulness and hesitation. (Oh, there are those who are trying to capture the state for their own economic interest, but some of those are actually members of that Capitalist religion above.) I don’t see many people who see the state as something that is by its nature a good and moral thing.

                      And even among those who are willing to try to use state power to address market problems, there’s doubt about the effectiveness of state intervention. With the advent of neo-liberalism we started to see the Democrats working with Republicans to come up with policies that relied less on the state and more on the market. That’s why both Republicans and Democrats supported loosening the regulatory grip on the mortgage market instead of more programs like FHA–the state was viewed as necessarily less able to deal with improving homeownership rates than the market. Ironic that FHA loans turned out to be a far safer bet than the subprime market. (And also ironic that FHA loans were already a private/public partnership–too much public in that mix for people to stomach.)

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            • Christ, I wish some people around here would actually read Hayek.

              And now damn it I think I’m gonna have to. But it’s a lot easier just to remain ignorant and sort of vaguely disapprove of him, as is the received wisdom among my particular sect of the church of krugman.

              Thanks. Because reading Hayek’s going to be a lot more fun than the Alan Furst novel I haven’t gotten to.

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  8. Hey guys and girls, thanks for reading and all the comments. Have enjoyed previous articles and threads on the blog and am pleased to get involved and hopefully this will be the first of many more comments.

    I particularly got a lot out of what BlaiseP had to say. Much of which I agree with. My analysis was generous and broad sweeping… These are only my first tentative steps into the matter as I explore the relationship between the party and conservative traditions.

    I enjoyed also the BlaiseP analysis of Ulster politics, which was right but things have changed big time and these dinosaurs are dying out.

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  9. “Politically, we Brits are the archetypal European social democracy. Big tax, big spend government, soviet style socialised health care and a generous welfare system that stifles individual responsibility.”

    This is the most asinine description of Britain and British society that I have seen in many years. British taxation is at an all time low, inequality has risen dramatically since the disaster that was Thatcherism, the NHS is not remotely “soviet style” and the welfare system is most certainly not generous. If Mr Spencer decides to visit Britain at some point, he will rapidly discover just how embarrassing this post was. As an Englishman, born in London, educated at Cambridge, and having resided in most parts of Britain over my 40 odd years of life, I can only say that this piece should be given no credence. It is a right-wing fantasy that would be laughed out of court anywhere in Britain outside the pages of the Daily Mail or possibly a UKIP party propaganda meeting.

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