Sometimes it is the reactions of people that really give me ideas about what to write about. On Tuesday night, I went along to a book-signing and talk featuring the one and only PJ O’ Rourke, who has a new book out, entitled, “Don’t Vote, It Only Encourages The Bastards”. He was thoroughly charming and nice, and, I am glad to say, looks in pretty good shape after having beaten a recent cancer scare. I hope he’s around to tickle our funny bones for many years yet. Tuesday night’s event was put on by the Adam Smith Institute. This was appropriate: O’ Rourke has written about Adam Smith and to great effect.
He gave a variant of a talk which has been heard at several places this week. Here is a write-up of another event he was at by someone called Ian Dunt. And it is clear that Mr Dunt is not a great fan:
The first thing I noticed was the age of the audience. O’Rourke is 63, and the average age of the people listening to him was around that. Noam Chomsky is 82, but most of the people at his gigs are in their 20s, which gives some credibility to the old maxim about people drifting to the right as they age.
Or quite possibly, what happens is that when people in their 20s realise that Chomsky, with his moral equivalence idea that there is no real difference between totalitarian communism and liberal democracy, is talking pretentious nonsense, they wake up. Having a family, running a business, paying taxes and generally living tend to have a sobering, but also enlightening, effect. That is not the same as saying that people necessarily get more cynical or pessimistic as they get older. In my case (44 years old, a few greys but still dashing good looks), I am what might be called a “rational optimist”, to borrow from the title of Matt Ridley’s recent brilliant book. And O’Rourke, all 63 years of him, is pretty upbeat about what happens when free men and women, operating under some pretty elementary rules of the game, are left to get on with life. The real reactionaries and grumps, it seems to me, are those on the “left” – sorry it is a loose term but it will have to do – who so distrust ordinary people to run their lives that they consider it necessary for people to be directed, “nudged” or whatever, in the general direction of Progress. The real old farts are those who think it is somehow not an outrage that the state takes at least 50 per cent of all wealth.
Then we get to this passage:
O Rourke brought up Isaiah Berlin’s distinction between positive and negative rights, which is all-too frequently ignored outside of academia. In typical fashion, and rather usefully I thought, he turned them into “gimme” rights and “get out of here rights”.
As he aged, the role of “gimme” rights, which, as a right-wing American, he termed “entitlements”, diminished, while the role of “get out of here rights” evidently became more prominent. The argument, which is pretty topical given the debate over public spending, is that entitlements don’t ultimately promote freedom and that political leaders have been cowardly in their reluctance to disassociate themselves from them. I’ve never found this a particularly convincing argument and there was little last night to bring me onside, despite its witty and eloquent presentation. Ultimately, “entitlements” like free health care for all maximise freedom because health is the prerequisite for all other freedoms. Similarly, universal free education allows people to assess choices. There is no real freedom under ignorance. There is also, I would have thought, a strict minimal benchmark of material possession, under which political freedoms become irrelevant. After all, what use is the right to privacy if you have to sleep on the streets? It’s a crude example, but it highlights the difficulties conservatives have in completely disassociating economic and political rights.
This is a standard misconception; what the reviewer is claiming is that we need to have rights to things, such as education or healthcare, in order to also enjoy the kind of negative liberty that a classical liberal – as O’Rourke is – values. I am not so sure about that. The ability to act, to choose, or walk, lift your arms and so on is not the same as liberty. What we are talking about here is ability, capacity, or in other cases, wealth. A lot of people use the word liberty, and hence rights, very loosely. And in any respect, if we want more of healthcare, education and so on, it is far from obvious that saying that I have a “right” to something means that I do, or that I can coerce someone else to give me £X,000 to pay for whatever it is I deem I have a right to. Does this mean, for instance, that if Mr Dunt feels he has a “right” to an education for himself or his family, that the state should compel some people to teach him and his kids? Where does this presumption stem from? What happens if those told to teach Mr Dunt’s kids tell him, ever so politely, to get lost?
Also, while it is undoubtedly true that being educated and healthy helps us to make choices, it is a fairly practical point that under liberal capitalism, with more wealth and so on, education and healthcare tend to proliferate. It is poverty that best describes the lack of such things, and capitalism, given the chance, tends to be very good in eradicating this. Of course Mr Dunt, if I sense his political views accurately, probably would then claim that a lot of poor people in rich countries don’t enjoy this, to which I respond by saying that he should consider the role of non-state bodies (like Friendly Societies, etc) in delivering many of the things now presumed to only come from the state. And as a practical issue, O’Rourke could and did point out what a mess the State often makes of eradicating poverty, or even worse, in eradicating the habits that beget poverty. As an aside, a person who writes very clearly on the issue of conflating genuine rights from “gimme rights” is Tom G Palmer, in this recent book, Realising Freedom.
On we go:
So it was a little disappointing to hear O’Rourke end his argument with a defence of the free market, so dull and obvious that it did his considerable intellect a disservice. The free market merely communicates value, he argued, it was not an ideology or a creed. The reason for Communism’s collapse was its inability to properly account for the value of things, which money does instantly. It’s quite true, of course, but the only time it would crop up is when arguing against a Soviet economist. There are very few, if any, people today arguing for Soviet Communism. The current argument in the West is really about the appropriate balance of the mixed economy under a deficit, where merely promoting the benefits of the free market is something of a mute point. Given the combination of his intelligence and his position in a political culture where we usually hear only the raving lunatics, I was expecting something a little more rewarding. Something about this anti-Soviet argument reminded me of his age, and the age of the people around me.
The problem with this paragraph is that the case for the market is far from “dull and obvious”. The mixed economy we have now, as Dunt acknowledges we do, has not exactly shown itself to be a coherent mixture, at all. If the benefits of the market were really “obvious”, then how to explain why, in 2010, after a decade of what is sometimes called a period of “neo-liberalism (often as a term of abuse), we have a country with crippling public debts, a central banking system that operates more like Soviet central planning in how it sets the price of money, a vast Welfare State, high joblessness among much of the populace; a monopolistic healthcare system with problems of all kinds; rising regulatory burdens on business, and the rest? Something is clearly not “obvious” enough for people to realise there is a problem. Sometimes, banging on about the “obvious” is vitally necessary. And all the better if it comes with good jokes that make Guardianistas a bit uncomfortable.
And the line about the Soviet Union also jars. Reminding some people that we once were confronted by a vast, socialist empire, which, thanks to certain forces, collapsed, is a necessary thing. It may make a certain type of left-of-centre person uneasy to be reminded of the Soviet Union, in much the same way as it might make me uneasy to remember a youthful indiscretion. Leftists, when contemplating the terrible history of the SU, might want to say, “Oh, cannot we just move on and get over it?”, but I think that lets people off too lightly.