Having I started upon a (perhaps vain) quest to become an intellectual (not that I find it a threat to my self-esteem having a younger brother who is a Professor of Philosophy at a Russell Group University; oh no, not at all) at the beginning of the year, I have read 4 books of major significance, all by authors who could be described as Liberals (although not perhaps with the precise same meaning), these being, in order:
- The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt
- The Road to Somewhere by David Goodhart
- Stranger Than We Can Imagine by John Higgs
- Rebel by Douglas Carswell
(I have also made a start on The English and Their History by Robert Tombs, which I interrupted at the end of the reign of Elizabeth I in order to start on Rebel, and last year I read Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, or rather the Condensed version thereof by Eamonn Butler.)
While I was on the Road to Somewhere, I had a exchange with @DouglasCarswell on Twitter, in which, in response to him saying he’d be interested in what I thought of it (it wasn’t explicit whether he meant his own book or Goodhart’s, and I was anticipating there being a conflict between the two books; not the case, as it turned out), I rather flippantly said that I expected my reaction would likely be my favourite quote from Thomas Sowell: “There are no solutions, only trade-offs”.
Well, having completed Rebel, this is what I think.
Out of the 4 books, this is the least challenging to me personally, simply because I agreed with so much of it. Indeed, the experience was almost like reading my own core political philosophy back to myself — Independence, Dispersal of Power, Interdependence — albeit expounded in far greater depth, and with supporting evidence and compelling analysis.
Although I have learned quite a lot, especially about the economic history of Rome, Venice and the Netherlands, it hasn’t altered my views a great deal — which is strangely discomforting, seeing as my quest is to challenge myself to broaden my mind.
Given that I was already aware of much of Haidt’s work, and a fan of his campaign for Viewpoint Diversity, and that I had (as I realised subsequently) already myself set off on the road from Anywhere to Somewhere before starting on Goodhart’s book, the most significant challenge I’ve had on my quest has been Higgs’ critique of Neoliberalism, which I felt contained a lot of truth in terms of its effects, but I didn’t think properly got to grips with the underlying causes of its apparent deficiencies. And yet it disturbed my (perhaps complacent?) neoliberal worldview — I had been reading many blogs by the Adam Smith Institute, which has rebranded itself as neoliberal, and indeed I have been calling myself a Bowmanite Neoliberal in my Twitter profile. Of course, neoliberalism is a poorly defined term, and is so slippery as almost to be meaningless — which is kind of why I used it for myself, but I have been wondering whether I should continue to do so.
Carswell has clarified this for me; indeed, I would say he nails it — he explains the faults apportioned to Neoliberalism, but they are not quite what Higgs infers. Carswell also nails the issue of executive pay, something about which I disagree with the ASI’s director Sam Bowman (one day I will write that rebuttal blog — maybe).
Where I would perhaps disagree with Carswell is in terms of emphasis; his use of the term Optimism is interesting — personally I think that optimists in general are responsible for many problems in the world, particularly company failures — but I can’t fault Carswell’s own more tightly qualified definition of optimism; perhaps it just needs a better description. Also, Carswell welcomes change with open arms, but I, being an admirer of Edmund Burke, am wary of it — it is all too easy to make things worse instead of better. Or rather, that is with respect to political institutions — I am all in favour of innovation that gets tested in the market.
As to Carswell’s proposed solutions — well, although I’m still kind of with Thomas Sowell, I can’t find any fault myself in what Carswell proposes. I have long thought that political parties were part of the problem rather than the solution, so a party-less politics is attractive. Certainly, an approach based on empiricism and error correction must be the way forward. (I wonder whether Carswell is aware of the Agile methodology in computer software development — I have recently been thinking that Agility as a concept could be applied to other areas.)
In all, I thoroughly recommend Carwell’s book (although if you only read one of the 4 books above, make it The Righteous Mind!), and he has indeed persuaded me of the need to Rebel; what I am not clear on, however, is quite what I should do about it — the first step must be, ironically for a rebellion, to vote Conservative in the 2017 General Election, but beyond that?
I will be curious to know what Carswell intends to do next, now he is no longer an MP. I can’t believe he plans to retire from active political life. How is he going to foment his rebellion? And how can ordinary folk like myself (well, ok, maybe I’m not exactly ordinary, but I mean those who earn a living outside politics) join in?