Alberto Mingardi  

Theresa May's anti-libertarian turn

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Theresa May's speech at the Tory national conference has generated little enthusiasm among British conservatives of a libertarian bent. On the other hand, it cautioned some people on the left, who found Mrs May is perhaps ready to steal the very vocabulary of the labour party.

May understands Brexit not just as a vote "to change Britain's relationship with the European Union," but also as a call for "a change in the way our country works - and the people for whom it works - forever." Her speech (read the full text here) is apparently proving right those who considered Brexit as an expression of rage against international trade and globalisation. Not unlike Trump in the United States, May aims to speak to those who find themselves "out of work or on lower wages because of low-skilled immigration" and provide them with the comfort of nationalism and protection. This is, to be clear, nothing new in the history of the Tory Party.

Allister Heath has written the best comment on the speech. It is a significant speech because, as she points out, it shows how free market policies are perceived to be a liability from the leader of Margaret Thatcher's party - who spends time and effort to dissociate herself from them. May wants to dismantle both "the ideological templates provided by the socialist left and the libertarian right and to embrace a new centre ground in which government steps up - and not back - to act on behalf of us all."

Writes Heath:

Many of her arguments were implicit attacks on Hayek (author of the Constitution of Liberty, a key reference for Lady Thatcher); May didn't name check them but her inspirations seem to be Joseph Chamberlain and Theodore Roosevelt. She implicitly rejects the Hayekian idea that the market is a process of discovery, and that the economy should be allowed to develop as a spontaneous order: to her, that's tantamount to "just sitting back and seeing what happens." But stating that the Government knows best what our strategic industries should be, and where they are to be based, is itself a case of the elitism that she rejects; Hayek himself wrote a whole book, The Fatal Conceit, on this approach.

Heath is referring to some staggering sentences by May, such as, "we must set the market right." If we don't like what the price system is signalling, we'll set it right!

There are other strong signals that Mrs. May is very happy to turn her back on privatisations and liberalisations, such as her comments on the NHS ("the party that expanded the use of the private sector in the NHS the fastest was not this party, but the Labour Party").

Yet, May has spoken of a "global Britain" and appeared committed to "always acting as the strongest and most passionate advocate for free trade right across the globe."

Also, she mentioned "bad side effects" of quantitative easing, and in particular the fact that "people with savings have found themselves poorer." This conclusion is not corroborated, but merely stated in May's speech. Yet you won't find any other European leader, besides Mr. Schäuble, that doesn't think that QE was anything but an unqualified blessing.

Still, May's diagnosis of the current crisis of politics doesn't differ much from many populists'. She wishes to reassure low-income people that she understands their feeling of having lost control of their lives - and she will give it back to them. This means control over immigration but also an "industrial strategy," an attempt to foster development in particular areas with some political aims in mind.

This is, again, nothing new. We've been there and it hasn't worked particularly well. England has been there and needed Thatcherism to recover from having politicised business for half a century.

As an aside, I find it bizarre that so many people wonder about why people feel poorer - and nobody, even among the Tories, dares to say that perhaps taxing them a bit less would be a way--which is entirely within the power of governments, without entailing bold plans for driving the market this or that way--to make people less poor. This would seem a rather obvious policy choice, for "conservatives." But apparently it is not.

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CATEGORIES: Eurozone crisis

COMMENTS (6 to date)
Ben writes:

Conservatives have cut taxes on the poorest massively in the past 6 years, almost doubling the amount you can earn before paying income tax from about £6500 to £11,000 (and soon to be £12,500). Who knows if that will stop because of May.

But, you're absolutely right. May is a figurehead for old-style conservatism before Thatcher: utter contempt for globalisation (especially immigration), a view on education policy that, essentially, classes should be separated at an early age and the poor should be thrown into worse schools that the state gives up on and an old-fashioned view on state intervention - that the state is all good and should be heavily interventionist.

Most importantly no one voted for this: Cameron's manifesto and government won the election, she's implementing harmful xenophobic and anti-market policies with no mandate. That's the true insanity of all of it.

Proxies of the nation-state are not happy with current trends of increasing irrelevance, and because they can't buy legitimacy anymore with government welfare and other varieties of promises and bribes they've been retreating into anti-humanism and nationalism. This movement will accelerate the loss of legitimacy among the most cultured, educated and mobile.

Luca1000 writes:
Her speech [...] is apparently proving right those who considered Brexit as an expression of rage against international trade and globalisation.
I don't understand how Brexit could have been interpreted differently. It would have been enough to see some polls (for example this one) and who were the most vocal supporters (UKIP, Tory backbenchers). Yes, there were a few libertarian statements from the Leave campaign, but they were just a bait-and-switch: it would have been enough to check that the UK is already ranked among the most free economies in the world, yet behind some other EU countries - UK could have push for more economic freedom, but has happily decided not to do so (for example, building restrictions are among the most strict in Europe and contribute to the incredibly expensive housing market in the UK).

The libertarian Jacob Levy expressed all of this and much more very well in the following excellent post:

R Richard Schweitzer writes:

The following is on the site of 10/06/2016:

Now there's Almost the whole nut response to Hayek's
Why I am not a Conservative.

The PM says:

the state exists to provide what individual people, communities and markets cannot

A state is an embodiment of power which is established by physical or ideological force or some combination of the two; or by consent or passive acceptance of those seeking benefits or immunities from the exercises of those powers.

Government is a facility created to fill the needs for mechanisms to implement and administer the power and authority (force) of the state.

PM says:

Government can and should be a force for good;

Government can only have force as an instrumentality of the force of the state.

PM says:

the state exists to provide what individual people, communities and markets cannot;

There - in those words- is the fabulous lie, deceit and conceit of those who would control the mechanisms of government to have the force from the power embodied in the state - to ends and by means of their determination; whatever their guise in speaking.

A state, whether it be Regnum or Constitutional, provides NOTHING for the people of a society. "Individual people" do all that gets done to provide the needs of society.
They do so with and through many facilities and instrumentalities (which the PM would replace with "government"); by cooperation and in competition, which include "communities and markets."

Your PM needs a glandular modification.

She has NO libertarian instincts.

Michael Bruce writes:

If taken at face value this speech marks a sad retreat from sane policies. My only hope, sadly, is that May is being less than straightforward. One clue that this might be so is the sentence: "always acting as the strongest and most passionate advocate for free trade right across the globe." which is clearly incompatible with: "we must set the market right."

Certainly she is trying - almost certainly a vain effort - to signal to traditionally statist Labour voters that if they abandon Corbyn's Labour they will find a comfortable home with the Tories. I suspect that if UKIP get their act sorted their blend of nationalist attitudes with interventionist economic policy will be more attractive to those people.

She risks, of course, alienating a number of voters who normally support her party, but has probably calculated that the damage will be containable. Libertarians have no other party to run to.

I await developments; with more fear than hope.

Brandon writes:

Thanks Alberto.

Barry Stocker, an English political philosopher based out of Istanbul, was warning about this very problem back in July...

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