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The new lords of the manor

Natalie Solent (“brain like a planet” – Alice Bachini) has this to say today about farm regulation:

Note the vague and subjective nature of the criteria by which the officials make these decisions – “Is the farmhouse character-appropriate?” “Is the residential aspect in balance with the farm?” If one has high taxation one needs a complicated regime of rules to allow wealth to be created at all. Once the regime of rules becomes sufficiently complicated it collapses under its own weight and becomes a regime of the personal judgement of officials. And personal judgement must frequently mean personal whim, personal caprice. We are edging back to the lord administering justice as he pleases in his own demesne.

Apart from the word “edging”, which I would probably have done as “moving”, I agree.

But now here’s a thought. If it is true that any year now the public sector will be carved up again into slices of property which the ruling official can rule as he pleases, might this perhaps be a way that classical liberal ideas could smuggle themselves back into society again? Might not some of these local lords of the manor decide to preside over a genuinely free market, and if they do, would they not attract lots of business? And might it not then start to spread?

If the very laws themselves are now more and more being enacted upon the whims of individuals, and they are, might not laws in due course find themselves being abolished by the same mechanism?

A further relevant thought, which I often find myself repeating because it has so many applications and resonances. When I worked in that free market bookshop in Covent Garden in the eighties that I’m always going on about, we found that some of our most loyal, knowledgeable and ideologically simpatico customers were people in the upper reaches of the civil service. Why? Because, whereas outsiders still tended to hope for the best from the government, these people all knew the worst. They knew that government screws up almost everything it touches, because time after time, they’d been right there when it was being done. Often these people start out very statist in their thinking, which is why they started out working for the state. But if they are well educated (and they mostly are) and intellectually scrupulous (which some certainly are) they find themselves compelled to revise their statist opinions.

So it is not so very fanciful that at least some of these high state officials who mutate into lords of the manor might well be our kind of people, and want to do our kinds of things.

7 comments to The new lords of the manor

  • Brian Micklethwait

    There’s a good chance that, even if all these prospective “lords of the manor” were villainously inclined brutes, we would still see a classical-liberal propertarian resurgence. After all, the laws of nature, of which the laws of economics and the related human incentives are part, don’t refrain from operating on you just because you’re a bad guy. Rather the reverse.

    Robert Axelrod’s experiments in conflict studies and Douglas Hofstadter’s work on superrationality (a.k.a. “renormalized rationality,” in Martin Gardner’s formulation) suggest very happy outcomes, given time, whenever a hegemonic order fractionates in favor of a regime of dispersed control. We shall see, of course.

    Francis W. Porretto

    This comment was originally attached in error to the Samizdata posting just below this one.

  • I absolutely agree! That’s why I was disappointed really that Margaret Thatcher enforced some limited state retrenchment by centralising at the expense of local authorities.

    Apart from attracting more talent into local councils if they seemed to matter more, there would be more room for just this kind of experimentation.

    Just imagine if, instead of centralising all the income tax and redistributing it, Westminster allowed local councils direct access to one shilling in the pound of incomes in their region, with perhaps two pence move up or down per year at local discretion?

  • Matthew Asnip

    Your aside about Civil Servants is spot on. Seventeen years ago I worked for the Internal Revenue Service (Same function as the Inland Revenue Service). The senior attorneys in my office were all vehemently anti-statist. I would venture to state that no one really hates the tax office more than those that work there. We knew just how awful things could get in a bureaucracy and had no desire to live in the world of Kafka more than eight hours out of every day.

  • Today’s Daily Mail has a piece about the Agricultural Holdings Bill currently going through the Scottish Parliament:

    “Civil servants who are in the process of preparing the Bill are believed to be appalled by the MSPs’ plan, fearing its knock-on effects could be catastrophic for the tenanted farm market.”

  • Hmm. A couple of points. First of all, you need a mechanism whereby corruption can work. It is one of the great drawbacks of the UK state that corruption is extremely low and punished severely.

    Secondly, I would guess that systems like this have existed in other European states eg. Germany, Italy for decades. The Germans and Italians just love rules but corruption or no corruption they don’t seem to have done them any good.

    There is, however, a interesting tactical point here. Is it better for libertarians to seek to counter statism and re-establish the status quo ante or to accept that all this crap is going to be passed and allow the market to bugger it up further down the line.

    Me, I prefer the first option. The problem with regulations (at least those on the middle classes) is that they only have to be enforced occasionally to get very high compliance.

  • Andrew Duffin

    You are all being much too optimistic.

    The people who take over these “fiefs” will not be top civil servants, or any other reasonably rational and well-educated people.

    They will be the types who run local goverment now – the jumped-up union hacks, the ex-Polytechnic lecturers, or in a word, councillors.

    In Scotland we have a wonderful pseudo-word for these people: we call them “Cooncillors”. It’s the English word, with joke Scottish pronunciation, and it conjours up all the small-mindedness, the short-sightedness, the general parochialism and mean-ness of their outlook and capabilities.

    THOSE are the people who will be running our regions.

  • Andy Wood

    On the subject of “cooncillors”, I recently moved back to Scotland and discovered that the BBC is now known round these parts as “Cooncil Telly”. It’s an expression which I think should be used by the rest of the world.