Good morning from New York. The English theologian and political thinker Phillip Blond is speaking now about Red Toryism, the current political and economic crisis, powerlessness, and whether his ideas for reform conservatism can work in America. (He’s here in the States working to get funding for the American office of his think tank ResPublica. It’s all on the record, so I’ll be liveblogging the talk. Keep refreshing this page for updates. All quotes below from Blond, unless otherwise noted.
Liveblogging below the jump!
8:18: Whence Red Toryism? It stems from an analysis in which ordinary people have lost economic and political power. How can we change that? “Particularly in the Anglo-Saxon world, we’ve all lived under the same orthodoxies” — and those have disempowered individuals.
“I believe in markets, I believe in free markets. … But now unfortunately the language of free markets goes along with oligopoly and cartel formation. … We have now the rhetoric of free markets but the reality of closed markets.” We’ve made it harder for people to participate in the markets. “We’re recreating serfdom, both in Britain and the USA. … Hayek’s vision [is] being replaced by the cartel state.” That is, he says capitalism as we now practice it is actually anti-capitalist.
“I think nobody has the answer.”
“Individual households have become Keynesian.” — that is, individual households have been fueling the economy through high levels of deficit spending. And we’ve finally gotten to the bitter end of that — the literal bankruptcy of that model.
8:28: Philip K. Howard, Blond’s host, points out that we have become so overregulated in some ways that it’s impossible for people to respond creatively to our real problems. “I think the Republicans are wrong calling for deregulation. … What they ought to be calling for is smart regulation [rather than] regulation that leads to paralysis.” Said that regulatory law is so unbelievably complex now that nobody can know it all. “We have this idea in society that you can program the correct choices. Where Hayek is clearly correct is that all accomplishment boils down to humans on the ground. And that is not at all inconsistent with what I call ‘occasional Keynesianism,’ where you use Big Government to stabilize society in times of turmoil.”
Blond: “Bad business loves regulation, because regulation favors incumbency, and it serves as a barrier to market entry.” Only the biggest economic players can afford the legal staff, etc., to know and satisfy regulations.
Blond says the Eurozone is failing because of centralism: the idea that you can impose a single model on very different societies and context.
“If you have extreme individualism, you’ll need extreme collectivism.” That is, if we value extreme individualism, we will require a powerful central state to protect the weaker folks. And this is corrupting to the health of society.
Howard: The “rights revolution” emerging out of radical individualism shackles everyone, because paralysis becomes inevitable.
Blond: “Everybody says we can’t do anything” — Blond, on his meetings in Washington in past few days with political leaders. Says that “in the West, we’ve forgotten the primary norms.” That is, a loss of common vision to which we’re committed, versus an extreme focus on individual rights.
8:37: Sir Harry Evans, the moderator, asks Blond and Howard what he would say to OWS protesters.
Blond: “What you do is you start asking the simple questions. Look, Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party are essentially different expressions of the same phenomenon.” TP criticizes Big Government, OWS criticizes Big Business. They’re two sides of the same coin.
Howard: Said government guarantees of mortgages incentivized Wall Street to create and sell bad mortgages, and now we’re all paying for it. Said corporations today are incentivized to place short-term profits above everything else. This now results in whole towns left destitute overnight when a company outsources its manufacture overseas. What’s missing is a sense of mutual obligation.
Blond: “What we’ve created in our society is people who don’t believe in norms. Everyone who was rioting [in London] was in a sense a modern Leftist, where they can define their own moral principles. So the language of the Right was correct.” But on the Left, people are right to complain about the lack of social mobility. “The US and the UK are the worst places to be born if you want to climb up the income decile ladder. So we have the rhetoric of social mobility, but the reality is otherwise.”
Blond says in our time, “the Left has taken apart the marriage, the family, and any form of social cement. The Left will use the state to create autonomy. The Right has used the market” to do the same thing. Both are tearing the social fabric apart.
“I think we’re in a situation in which the Right is creating a constituency for the Left on an unprecedented basis.”
Blond: Quotes GK Chesterton favorably on capitalism requiring a wider distribution of capital. “What the Right has to do is create an environment for small entrepreneurs and small businesses” to emerge.
8:43: Edmund Phelps, the 2006 Nobel Prize winner in economics, is in the audience, and says he loves all this talk, but the prescriptions fall “woefully short.” And: “Just having small companies is not the same thing as having innovative companies.” Blond answers: “The key to innovation is allowing market entry. … We now live in a society where it’s very difficult to obtain market entry. That encourages rent-seeking” by big commercial entities. Said we need to enforce laws compelling competitiveness so we can “grow the middle.”
8:48: Someone in the audience raises the idea that people in Wall Street who have profited greatly who have faced no comeuppance for their behavior that helped crash the economy are destroying healthy social norms. What are people observing that these Wall Street types have behaved so selfishly and badly, but not faced any justice for it, either in court or otherwise? What does that tell us about the destruction of norms?
8:56: I made the point that class warfare in the US is culture war, which is why the Right and the Left have so much trouble agreeing on anything. Blond said the modern Left and the modern Right have remarkably much in common. I know it sounds odd, but it’s true.” He said New Left in the 1960s promoted liberalization from traditional moral norms to emancipate individual desires. Then the New Right that followed promoted liberalization from economic strictures. What’s happened has been a social disaster, especially for the poor. The only people who have made out fine have been the wealthy. Blond had a great line about he morality of the sexually libertine left, when applied to economics by the economically libertine right:
“It produced an economy where people thought you could screw each other and everybody would get rich.”
Blond agreed with Howard that the basic problem is authority. Blond says we have to talk about human flourishing as a basis for re-establishing shared norms in our pluralist society.
9:06: Howard says Republicans are wrong to be against regulation across the board. That won’t work in “an anonymous, independent global economy.” You’ve got to have somebody making sure that lead paint is not being put on children’s toys.The problem is bad regulation, regulation that becomes so mindless and procedural that nobody with common sense is in charge.
9:13: A member of the audience said that it’s hard for him to take seriously the idea that we are turning into a society of “serfs,” given how much unbelievably better the standard of living is for the people protesting at OWS than for most people around the world, and even by way of comparison to previous generations of Americans. The audience member says that if you work hard enough and get good grades, you really can succeed in this society.
Blond: “I think it sounds unbelievable, because the rhetoric of America — and I’m not using rhetoric in a pejorative sense — stands in stark contrast to reality. The figures are as solid as figures can be.” He’s talking about figures showing social immobility in America today. Said real wages have not gone up over last generation for most people, and declined for men. Debt has skyrocketed over last generation. The “killer statistic,” says Blond, is that far more American households — 50 percent, he claims — are now receiving some form of welfare payment from the government.
“What that tells you is people can’t get ahead, so they’re turning to the state,” he said.
“America still produces the elite. Britain still produces the elite,” Blond said. “But the point is, you don’t get ahead just by educating your elite. The key indicator is median skill level, and on this point, Britain and the U.S. are declining.”
An audience member suggested that we are not dealing with the fact that we have created an economy in which technology has made many jobs obsolete. Said that our political system hasn’t caught up with this reality. How do we provide for the good of people for whom there simply aren’t any jobs? We’re not even talking about that; we’re still stuck in the conversation for an economy that, structurally speaking, does not exist any longer. Blond agreed.
On the central problem of authority related to the paralysis of our political system, Howard made a great point:
“People need to be able to assert things that they can’t prove.”
[End of session.]
UPDATE: After the session, I spoke with a friend who works for Blond’s US think tank, and who is going with Phillip on the rounds. He told me about a boldface names dinner party of media elites — he named names, but I can’t; I’d heard previously about this party — in which some of the top journalists and media executives in the country sat around listening with intent and amazement as Blond talked in contemporary terms about a politics of teleology, Aristotle, G.K. Chesterton, and so forth. This is not the kind of talk you hear much in America. More, please! If you want to be part of Blond’s efforts to launch this reform conservative debate in America, go to ResPublica America’s website and contact Philip or a member of his team.