In defence of Adam Smith

Phillip Blond may regret the birth of the liberalism, but that does not mean he can ignore it
February 28, 2009

Before I wave my quibbles around, I should begin by enthusiastically welcoming Phillip Blond's stunning riff. I have argued for a while that the Conservatives should dissolve and reconstitute current party lines by reaching beyond 1979 into their back catalogue of philosophies and ideologies, and Blond's analysis-cum-road-map, a mix of decentralisation, flattened hierarchies and suspicion of big business, is a splendid attempt to do just that.

Such a realignment would hardly be unprecedented. Quintin Hogg wrote about the apparent oddness of Conservatives fighting "socialists who attack laissez faire from almost exactly the same angle as the Conservatives in 1848," and the 60 years that separate us from Hogg's Case For Conservatism nearly match the 70 between him and Disraeli.

Intellectually, Blond's resurrection of Burke is very welcome, but I'm uncomfortable with sending Adam Smith to the naughty step along with Mill and Gladstone. Smith's importance to the liberal tradition is patent, but Blond's reinvention of him as the godfather of neoliberalism caricatures a complex and sensitive thinker. The author of The Wealth of Nations also produced The Theory of Moral Sentiments, lest we forget. It is hard to see him applauding capitalist gigantism; he didn't, to my knowledge, anticipate the growth of multinational corporations, and his idea of social good was pretty well developed.

The economic mechanisms Smith described were designed for a world of imperfect people, but were founded on a philosophy of what we now call "corporate social responsibility." He wrote, "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves not to their humanity but to their self-love." So true—but this implies neither that the butcher's and the baker's self-love should ultimately lead them to work behind a counter at Tesco for the minimum wage, nor that the brewer ought to sell up to Scottish & Newcastle. Properly understood and rescued from the neoliberals, Adam Smith should in fact be harnessed in support of Blond's localist asset-owning communities.

Blond's analysis is also missing a global perspective. He may regret the birth of the liberal behemoth, but born it has been and any ideology crafted for the 21st century has to pay it lip service. There is no mention in his piece of climate change, and the need for adjustments to our models of production and consumption because of it. His communitarianism would probably have some effect merely by dampening down rampant consumerism, but there is surely more to be said. To his eternal credit, David Cameron has reinvigorated the conservationist strand of Burkean thinking, but even he erroneously— perhaps mendaciously—links it with the prospect of greater prosperity: "green growth". One does not have to be CEO of Exxon to be dubious about that.

The internet has created a new world of communication and noise, stimulating ideas and spreading fashions. I do not think this has led to levelling down or homogenisation, and the Cameroonian idea of the "Post-Bureaucratic Age" trades on the possibilities of low-friction information transfer. But equally the localist will need to adapt: mere geographical contiguity can no longer be a basis for shared interests in our connected world. The idea of "community" is now a lot more complicated than this.

Lord Salisbury once wrote that the hardest thing for a government to do was nothing. In a world of 24/7 media coverage this is even truer, and the ongoing financial crisis has shown how dangerous it is to be labelled the "do-nothing party." Blond's model requires a quite proper recognition that the state must withdraw from a number of areas where it holds sway, so when problems arise and Paxman and Humphrys demand glib answers, the Red Tory must be brave enough to admit (what is often true): that government intervention would be counterproductive.

Furthermore, a positive account of the merits of liberalism—explaining why people shop at Tesco, borrow money they can't pay back, drive polluting cars, vote for liberals against communitarians—must be appended to Blond's philippic. And those merits, where possible, must be adapted and absorbed into any new world. We want the new communities to turn against banks and faceless business, not gays or those from ethnic minorities. Will this vision worry women who feel liberalism has helped advance their independence?

Blond's roadmap is interesting, challenging and a welcome addition to the ideological debate. But without more detail we can't be sure that it marks the route to electoral victory—or a more equitable and harmonious society—just quite yet.

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