Reading Christopher Snowdon’s attack on eco-miserabilists made me realize something – that in many ways I’m not a lefty.
This thing is, I agree with Snowdon. Ending economic growth does not move people up a higher spiritual plane. Quite the opposite. It makes them mean and nasty. Recession and austerity led to greater hostility to immigration and to Brexit.
Yes, there’s a case to suggest to people that they live more modestly, as a way of coping with capitalist stagnation. But there’s a world of difference between suggesting something and wanting to impose it upon them.
The point broadens. There is an element of preachiness in leftism which I dislike. Granted, many of those rightists who attack the liberal elite as “patronizing bastards” are narcissistic over-entitled posh white cunts. But what Joan Williams says of US Democrats applies perhaps in part to some of their British counterparts – they are smug and patronizing and out of touch with the working class. They are too quick to identify the “white working class” with backward attitudes, and too slow to see the genuine racism of the ruling class.
Equally, there is an element of lifestyle politics among some lefties – of wishing that everyone could be more like themselves. My big problem with “nudge” politics is that it assumes that rulers are rational and that the people are not – an assumption which is very questionable.
These are not the only ways in which I depart from many (some) on the left.
For example, I’m more accepting of markets than many are. The point is not that the private sector is inherently better at managing than the public sector. Instead, it’s that markets function – when they do so well – as selection devices, selecting for more efficient strategies and against less efficient ones. Back in the days when productivity was growing, a lot of that growth (pdf) came from entry and exit rather than from incumbent firms upping their game.
It’s for this reason that I’m not wholly unsympathetic to the introduction of markets into public services. Of course, outsourcing can and has been a way simply of channelling money to capitalists. And because children only get one chance of education, failed free school experiments can be costly. For me, though, the issue is more balanced than it is for many leftists. A lot hangs on precise institutional details rather than on general principles.
Also, I’m more sceptical than many lefties of higher corporation tax. I fear these aren’t an easy pot of money for government because they might instead lead to less investment, jobs cuts or relocation. I’m not wholly convinced by Paul Krugman’s arguments to the contrary because the UK probably has less monopoly power than the US and so fewer rents to tax and we’re a smaller more open economy so firms might relocate to Ireland or the EU. I don’t say this to oppose any increase at all, and certainly there’s a case for reforming corporate taxes. I just fear that a Labour government won’t be able to raise many billions this way.
A further difference between me and many other lefties is that I’m sceptical about higher minimum wages. Yes, I know their effects so far have been much less harmful than simple-minded free marketeers warned – though not perhaps wholly harmless. But it would be wrong to infer that further rises are risk-free; there’ll come a point when a wage floor will do more than merely capture monopsony rents. Just because you fell better after taking one paracetamol it doesn't follow that you should take 20 more. I would much rather raise real wages by increasing workers’ bargaining power via stronger trades unions, full employment, a jobs guarantee and citizens income.
There is, in fact, a common theme to all these differences. It's about attitudes to knowledge. I'm much more wary of how much we can know for sure and so am sceptical of policies which presume such knowledge. This might reflect a class difference: as someone of working class origin, I've had humility beaten into me in a way that posher lefties might have.
Unlike Nick, however, I’m not going to disown the left. The differences I’ve described are perhaps those between Marxists and non-Marxists. The non-Marxist left believes, with Orwell, that England is “a family with the wrong members in control”. My problem is that in a class-divided society the wrong members will always be in control.