Interview: Common Ground
Industrial: A Low Act
Unions: The Number of the Least
Politics: The Smoking Gun
Economics: Microcredit, Compulsory Superannuation and Inequality
Environment: Low Voltage
History: The Art of Social Justice
Review: Work’s Unhealthy Appetite
Culture: A Forgotten Poet
From Green House to Glass House
The Smoking Gun
The Englishman Ralph Harris has died. Harris was the creator (with chicken meat entrepreneur Anthony Fisher, albeit an Old Etonian entrepreneur, who provided the dough) of Britain's first post-War economic libertarian think tank, the Institute of Economic Affairs, in 1957. Harris' long-time collaborator in this venture, Arthur Seldon, died a year ago.
Harris' attitude to the evil weed provides a metaphor for his life. He was an aggressive defender of the right to smoke against 'authoritarian' regulations, also (according to the Guardian's obituarist), 'insisting on their "liberty" to pollute the air of others'. Moreover:
His book, Murder a Cigarette (1998), dismissed the threat of passive smoking as being based on "pseudo-science, anecdotal evidence, selective surveys and statistical jiggery-pokery".
Harris' shonky conceptualisation of the individual in society and his contempt for tobacco epidemiology doesn't give one confidence in his (and Seldon's) take on the economy.
Both fiercely committed and fiercely energetic, Harris and Seldon provided intellectual and polemical background for the Thatcherite revolution in Britain. Harris' consistency of principles were on display in his fight to keep the IEA independent of any political party, and his sitting as a cross-bencher in the House of Lords (his elevation courtesy of Margaret Thatcher, one of her first actions as Prime Minister). Harris couldn't make up his mind about the European Community (predictably, as its complexity caters to no simple a priori principles), but he became an important voice amongst 'Eurosceptics'.
Naturally, Harris has been given god-like status by his like-minded obituarists - the dry Martin Wolf, columnist in the dry Financial Times (20th October), and Greg Lindsay, Harris' colonial replica as founder-director of the Sydney-based Centre for Independent Studies, in the Sydney Morning Herald (27th October). Similarly, the obituary
Andrew Roth's obituary
The language used by and of Harris is symptomatic of the entire polemic of the so-called neo-liberal age - representative of what a friend calls the 'language game gulag'. The language is destructive of meaning rather than facilitating it. Not a good look for the English, who in their assertively pedestrian philosophising are supposed to have championed a clarity and common sense in the use of language.
Harris and friends are avid disciples of Austrian-born Friedrich von Hayek, whose post-World War II polemic The Road to Serfdom feared the ascendancy of 'socialism' in the West. The label is too preposterous for words. On the cards was the regulation of capitalism, a process already in train for at least one hundred years), to make it both workable and tolerable. If one gets the basics so wrong, the details are always going to be suspect.
Harris and Seldon were both beneficiaries of the welfare state that they despised, able to transcend non-privileged backgrounds via an accessible educational system. But their subsequent intellectual development highlights the dangers of the mainstream economics syllabus for minds seeking simple explanations and simple solutions. Harris and Seldon were both influenced by Lionel Robbins, between-the-Wars academic at the London School of Economics, who long obscured the economic system with a mythical simplistic story, and who brought von Hayek to England.
One smells a rat as soon as one as one reads of their devotion to Adam Smith. Smith has been claimed as inspiration for multiple schools of thought, and the perennial claim that Smith provides a panegyric for the 'free market' is hogwash. Moreover, Smith's dense works are products of the mid-18th Century, predating the rise of industrial capitalism and the later rise and dominance of the joint stock corporation. Smith would be aghast at the opportunistic appropriation of his labours.
On matters of detail, one is no more attracted to the understanding of Harris and his friends. There is the perennial claim that Harris and Seldon ultimately cracked the 'conventional wisdom' of post-War Britain, entrenched in public ownership of industry and Keynesian micro- macromanagement (or what was called in Britain the 'Butskellite' consensus, after the Conservatives' Rab Butler and Labour's Hugh Gaitskell).
What did post-War nationalisation consist of? The Bank of England, whose nationalisation mattered not a jot to its orientation. Coal and railways, which were basketcases. The nationalisation of steel, soon reversed by the Conservatives, is the only controversial area. The later 1960s/70s nationalisations of steel (re-nationalisation), Rolls Royce and British Leyland, for example, were all driven by 'national interest' criteria. The British Labour Party in its early years might have associated public ownership with socialism, but in office British Labour's motivations had little to do with socialism. British Labour embraced Cold War politics after 1947 which both facilitated the Conservatives' return to power in 1951 and enabled a relative continuity in foreign and domestic priorities.
As for claims of entrenched Keynesianism or Butskellism, the dominant post-War agenda in Britain was the defence of the pound sterling and, behind that, the maintenance of the City of London as a preeminent centre of global finance. Inflation, rather than being neglected, was a major concern as soon as numbers looked even mildly menacing from the mid-1950s onwards. This orientation (still there under Tony Blair) seems to have escaped these piercing intellects.
Harris' admirers talk about the attempt to make monetarism respectable as somehow a long-term achievement. Monetarism had its place in the sun for a decade, and has now been unceremoniously shelved by the authorities everywhere, with a deathly silence as to its failings. But its crude analysis and related crude prescriptions were transparent from the start. One could go on.
Here are the champions of the 'free market'. But it's not clear what they mean by the free market. The fact that the 'free market' think tanks have elevated economic libertarianism to preeminence while studiously neglecting the substantive contribution of anarchist thought highlights the essential hypocrisy of the libertarian credo. The joint stock corporation is the elephant in the room, not to mention the elaborate legal apparatus that constrains the freedoms of wage labour.
Harris and friends are in practice champions of capital, and of corporate capital in particular, rather than of the free market. One would hope for some openness in explanation and defence. But no. Obfuscation reigns.
|Search All Issues | Latest Issue | Previous Issues | Print Latest Issue|
© 1999-2002 Workers Online