TCS Daily


Duncan's Three-Pointer

By James Pinkerton - May 11, 2006 12:00 AM

Alan Duncan, a Conservative MP, is your typical British politician. Which is to say, if he were an American he'd be atypical. He reads a lot, writes a lot, thinks a lot; he seems motivated by ideas, as opposed to just personal ambition. And he has ideas aplenty, on the future of the British Conservative Party, on the future of the conservative movement worldwide, and on the future of freedom in general. And since the Conservatives are now ahead of Labour -- eight points, according to a poll in The Times of London -- it's time to pay more attention to them; they might soon be in charge again.

Yet there's one thing about Duncan that might never come up, not because he keeps it a secret, but because as far as he's concerned, it's a non-issue. But of course, since I'm a journalist, I had to ask -- more on that later.

Last week, Duncan gave a talk at the Cato Institute; his topic was an important one: the erosion of freedom in the United Kingdom, after nearly a decade of Tony Blair -- and, frankly, after a century of the welfare state. In 1995, two years before Blair was elected, Duncan wrote a jeremiad, the title of which says it all: Saturn's Children: How the State Devours Liberty, Prosperity and Virtue.

A decade later, these concerns about statism are still well-founded; indeed, many of the same freedom-devouring trends are visible, too, here in the US. It's a bi-national, bipartisan phenomenon.

So as Duncan spoke, I found myself thinking that each of his three points had an American doppelganger.

First, he was extremely critical of the incumbent, Tony Blair. Given that Duncan is a member of the Loyal Opposition, the Shadow Secretary for Trade and Industry, the fact that he didn't like the Labour Prime Minister was hardly a total shock. And while some of his word-digs about Blair bespoke partisanship -- "he is not a principled person," "he governs by propaganda" "the headline matters more than the deed" -- Duncan wasn't necessarily wrong in what he was saying. Indeed, an American can observe many of the same behavior patterns in the US, from presidents of both parties.

Perhaps Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian theorist, was right when he said that "the medium is the message." That is, it might just be that television puts a premium on smooth talk and reassuring buzzwords -- reality be damned. And so long as the pictures "work," maybe the prime minister, or the president, can get away with whatever "truthiness" he is attempting to project.

Because as Duncan explained, the rise of television, and televised spin, has been accompanied by a simultaneous decline in the ability of most politicians, especially legislators, to follow complex issues. That is, if the chief executive makes a proposal, Parliament/Congress will react to it, pro or con. But what they won't do is read it; lawmakers prefer to operate on the basis of dumbed-down talking points. And this talking-point-ization of policy discourse invariably degrades the governing process, because the discoursers are using lowest-common-denominator material.

Sometimes, such LCD-ing hits rock bottom, as happened in the US last week, when Senate Republicans tried to boil down complicated concerns about energy and gas prices into a simple talking-point "deliverable": a $100 rebate to consumers. Yet the thinking behind this rebate-proposal was so half-baked that it was quickly laughed out of town, and that's saying something when the town is Washington DC. But the McLuhanesque point is that if the medium is television, then the message has to be so dumbed down that the thought-process behind the message has to be dumbed down -- mental form follows function.

Lamentably, Republicans in Congress are still at it. Rather than trying actually to unravel the supply constraints that are keeping prices high, for example, lawmakers are now talking about criminal investigations for "price gouging" -- that's the politically charged synonym for "supply and demand."

OK, back to Duncan.

The Briton's second point flowed naturally from the first. The war on terror, Duncan said, had accelerated a trend that was visible even before 9-11: the short-circuiting of due process. That is, raison d'etat was displacing the rights of Englishmen. Under Blair, the same powerful state apparatus, erected to deal with the likes of Al-Qaeda, is now being used to chase after economic violations.

And the same thing is happening in the US. A couple of years ago, Cato's own Gene Healy wrote a book about this, Go Directly To Jail: The Criminalization of Almost Everything, in which he argued that prosecutors were zealously turning civil violations into criminal violations, in part to extort plea bargains, in part because, well, this is a prison-happy culture, where nearly one percent of the US population is locked up. More recently, The Wall Street Journal editorial page has taken note of this same phenomenon; prosecutors now have the legal equivalent of Abrams tanks, which they can use to run over anybody, accused of just about anything. When non-violent suspects are threatened with prison terms that stretch for decades, or even centuries (and when employers are terrorized into cutting accused employees loose, financially, leaving them with no hope of paying their legal bills), well, then, of course, the accused take the plea, and justice, of course, is traduced.

Finally, to Duncan's third point: For all the new powers of the government -- to bamboozle, to intimidate -- there's a dirty secret at the base of all that state power: It doesn't work very well. The state has feet of clay.

As the Tory told us, for all the state's efforts to channel behavior in certain socially approved directions, it usually achieves the opposite. That is, if the state sets out to make people better off, it ends up making them worse off. As Duncan said, Britons end up, "less rich, less free, and less moral." The welfare system encourages "social collapse," and the schools "don't teach." And the net effect is visible across the country: The United Kingdom, once renowned for its politeness and good behavior, now, by some measures, has a higher crime rate than the United States.

And Duncan made another good point: The effect of such misgovernance is actually to increase inequality.

This is a point worth pausing over: The redistributionist welfare state was created to narrow inequalities, but in fact, in the way that it works, it ends up widening those inequalities. That is, if people are rendered ill-equipped to work, they will likely end up with even less earning power. And oh, by the way, they will end up suffering at the low end of other kinds of equality, too, including poor health and lousy educational attainment. So yes, as Duncan says, the Saturn-state devours its own children.

So is there hope? Of course there's hope. The situation today, in either the UK or the US, isn't anywhere near as dire as it was in the 70s, before the ascension of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. So the daily struggle against statism and its behavioral side-effects continues, even we search the horizon for heroic saviors.

But in the meantime, there're a few complications.

One such complication is environmental policy. If Duncan truly speaks for the Tory Party -- and he's a Tory elder, first elected to Parliament in 1987 -- when he embraces the Kyoto Treaty, then many American conservatives will be unpleasantly surprised to learn that Margaret Thatcher's party has become "hard green."

One American in the audience for Duncan's speech was Fred Smith, president of the Competitive Enterprise Institute; Smith spluttered that the British Conservatives were covering heavy-handed statist mechanisms in "green paint instead of red paint." That is to say, the old authoritarian policies associated with "red" socialists and communists are now being used by the Greens. But of course, Smith suggested, it doesn't matter what color the paint is, if it kills the golden goose. Yet the American then declared "Blair is better" -- perhaps because, as first noted here at TCS, Blair has shown serious willingness to reconsider Kyoto, in light of the basic infeasibility of greenhouse gas emission-controls as currently envisioned. To this observer, acknowledging that global warming is occurring is easy enough; the hard part is figuring out how to stop it.

But for all the frank talk, one issue didn't come up: Duncan is gay. He came "out" four years ago; he makes no secret of it, but he also didn't bring it up in his talk to Cato -- which, of course, is a libertarian stronghold, so nobody in the audience seemed to care.

But homosexuality is a hot political issue in the US, and so I felt duty-bound to ask: "How has your life changed since you came out?" His immediate answer: "For the better!" Amplifying, he said that in making his declaration, and suffering no ill effect inside the Conservative Party, he had demonstrated that his political coalition, too, had transcended kneejerk homophobia. It just wasn't an issue -- no special privileges, no special penalties. Everybody minds their own business.

And while Duncan didn't say so -- he's too polite to offer unsolicited advice -- he clearly thinks that "live and let live" is a good model for the US, as well. As his talk reminded everyone in the audience, there are plenty of really serious issues bearing down upon us.

James Pinkerton is TCS media critic and fellow at the New America Foundation.

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