Will Hutton’s analysis of modern finance and the need for fairness is one of the year’s most important arguments. Yet he is a flawed visionaryby Anatole Kaletsky / December 15, 2010 / Leave a comment
Them and Us by Will Hutton (Little, Brown, £20)
Will Hutton, one of the few remaining visionaries on the left in Britain, has produced another powerful polemic that could reshape the country’s political thinking. Them and Us is, in fact, Hutton’s magnum opus: bold and engrossing, but also characteristically flawed. This book is the culmination of all his previous works into an “attempt to develop a more fundamental critique of modern capitalism than any I have offered up to now.” Them and Us is a call to reform our entire political discourse, to respond to the financial crisis by reconsidering core beliefs about our institutions and the interactions between the market and the state. This is a vastly ambitious agenda, but it is vindicated by Hutton’s boldness and erudition.
Hutton starts by challenging his loyal readers on the anti-capitalist fringes of the Labour party and the green movement. He insists that, despite the recent crisis, capitalism is the only credible method of organising economic activity, and also the benign driving force responsible for most of the material and social advancement achieved by humanity (nine of the 23 truly transformative “general purpose technologies” since prehistoric times, starting with fire and writing, have been invented in the 125 years since the global triumph of capitalism in the late 19th century).
But capitalism must now be reinvented. The key to this reinvention, as it has been after previous crises, is a new relationship between market and state. “The debate,” Hutton argues, “is not between state deniers and state asserters; it is where on the continuum of state involvement we should plant our standard.” I am bound to agree, having written my own book, Capitalism 4.0, on the same theme. But in contrast to my view that the main dysfunctions of modern capitalism revealed by the recent crisis were caused by excessive faith in the economic efficiency of markets, Hutton ascribes the breakdown to a moral flaw: a neglect of “fairness,” which he presents as the “indispensable value” that holds together and motivates all societies.
The first half of Hutton’s book is a brilliant crash course on the ethics, history and sociology of his “subtle and complex” concept of fairness, which is by no means identical to traditional egalitarianism. One of Hutton’s talents as a writer is to spice up his abstract analysis with intriguing facts. For example, JP Morgan apparently asserted that his…