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Tim Montgomerie: Economic liberalism needs social conservatism

By Tim Montgomerie
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Yesterday, in analysing the so-called crisis of capitalism I spotlighted political over-reach. Politicians were so busy doing one hundred impossible things before breakfast - like abolishing boom and bust - that they neglected to fulfil their basic responsibilities. In the current context I would emphasise a government's central duty of balancing its budget and, secondly, ensuring competition in key sectors like banking. It's much easier and more important for governments to ensure competition than regulation. I'm suspicious that regulators will ever get on top of the mathematicians, rocket scientists (literally) and other whizz kids that financial institutions can afford to employ. They can, must but didn't, however, ensure we avoid having banks that are too big to fail.

If politics failed to constrain capitalism I also want to note the other thing that are needed to tame runaway markets; strong civil societies and the virtuous behaviours that they nurture.

I happen to believe that - despite everything - these are the best times in human history. The west is going through tricky times and these tricky times may last for a decade but the world overall has never been richer, better fed, healthier, leisured or better served by technology. The pessimism of many on the right is one of its least attractive qualities. I'd rather live now than at any time in history. I explained why in an article I wrote for The Times (£) immediately after this summer's riots. I expect 2020 to be better than 2010 and 2030 to ber better than 2020 (as long as we can stop the spread of WMD but that's a topic for another day). Even while incomes decline our consumption is often increasing. Matt Ridley has advised that the correct measure of material well-being is the time necessary to purchase something rather than the income we receive. Most things (with energy currently the big exception) are within our own reach for fewer and fewer working hours. But I'm digressing.

Despite my overall optimism it's hard to deny that there's something's wrong in our country. Whether it's boardrooms that are unwilling or unable to run their companies in ethically appropriate ways. Whether it's London's streets which were taken over by many thousands of looters in August. Whether it's the care of the elderly on NHS wards. Whether it's the growth of extreme poverty alongside conspicuous consumption. Something isn't right.

Too many of our social institutions are weak. Family structures are fragmenting and my focus would be on extended families. Family breakdown means many children never see their father and many elderly people are very lonely. I think of how charities and community groups are being taken over by the state. In return for money they become subject to regulations that blunt their innovativeness and politicise their missions. I think of churches that used to provide a whole range of love-their-neighbour activities but have been crowded out of their communities by the welfare state - a welfare state that disincentives important social institutions such as marriage and civilising activities such as work and volunteering.

Many libertarians may agree with my diagnosis but will not agree with my cure. I don't believe that societies will miraculously be renewed if we roll back the frontiers of the state. Habits of association take time to build and they need to be nurtured. At a minimum the state must provide a safety-net for the very vulnerable. The state is also needed to stop the conspiratorial tradesmen of Adam Smith's experience forming monopolies. But I'd go further than this...

  • ...I think some lives are so broken and some families so dysfunctional that nothing other than properly funded and massive early intervention has a hope of making a difference. I think this is so important I've even advocated a wealth tax to fund this properly.
  • ...Government has a role to play in helping people achieve the kind of family stability, education and employment that underpins success in life (here are some examples of policy actions that would help).
  • ...I'd allow many more faith-based schools and universities (if that's want parents and students choose).
  • ...I'd replace direct state funding of charities with matched and voucher based funding so that not-for-profit groups become society rather than state-orientated.

Another way of thinking about it is that socially liberal or permissive attitudes towards things like family structure and drug misuse is that they are very expensive for the taxpayer, as well as for the people involved. One of the big drivers of the growth in government is the cost of family breakdown, notably eldercare. 

Two further comments...

First social conservatism isn't some belief in a fossilised set of social norms. It's about finding ways of ensuring that timeless virtues like duty, honour, courage, self-restraint and fidelity are handed from one generation to the next. That's one reason why I support gay marriage. I can't put it better than David Brooks did in 2003:

"We shouldn't just allow gay marriage. We should insist on gay marriage. We should regard it as scandalous that two people could claim to love each other and not want to sanctify their love with marriage and fidelity. When liberals argue for gay marriage, they make it sound like a really good employee benefits plan. Or they frame it as a civil rights issue, like extending the right to vote. Marriage is not voting. It's going to be up to conservatives to make the important, moral case for marriage, including gay marriage. Not making it means drifting further into the culture of contingency, which, when it comes to intimate and sacred relations, is an abomination."

Finally social conservatism is about ensuring that conservatism has a bigger language than "leave me alone" because some people wants government's help and many need it. David Brooks (him again) has called for a "Great Restoration". In that Restoration, government would play its part in re-establishing timeless norms. Brooks suggests (i) you shouldn’t spend more than you take in; (ii) re-establishing the link between effort and reward; and (iii) that loyalty matters - including loyalty of employer to employee and vice versa. Here are some other ideas.

Yesterday's Guardian article where I started to raise some of these issues is here.


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