Nov 142009

Perry de Havilland has written a post at Samizdata that reinforces what I touched on yesterday about allowing one’s political opponents to dictate the terms of debate, which he calls the meta-context:

What is audacious about conceding the choice of battleground entirely to the nominal enemy? I say ‘nominal’ because in truth the philosophical/ideological differences between New Labour and the Tory Party (BlueLabour) are not that significant.

And so Cameron’s audacious stuff is to try and do what Labour tried, just ‘do it better’. Far from being audacious, this is just more of the same heard-it-all-before by-the-numbers political droning, tailored slightly to appeal to whoever he is talking to at the moment and which way the weathervane is pointing today. Audacious would require an actual meta-contextual shift and Cameron has made it clear he represents continuity, not radical change.

The only think we need more of from government is inaction… we need less across the board, not more… Richard Reeves cannot see that because he is a regulatory statist who sees government in terms of the parties being competing ‘management teams’ rather like Soviet design bureaus… offering creative options within essentially the same ideological system and meta-contextual framework. But in truth we do not need ‘better’ government action, we need ‘less’ government action… dramatically less. We also need actual intellectual opposition, not a difference of management theories. In short we need a far less powerful and intrusive state vis a vis civil society.

This is exactly the sort of thing I mean when I say we are tacitly permitting the enemy to frame the debate. And this failure to step outside the meta-context is why libertarians tend to view the present-day Tory party as more or less indistinguishable from Labour.

Which is interesting, because of course Labour supporters still see the Tories as both diametrically opposed to their own views, and indistinguishable from their Thatcher days.

Witness the words of Ed Miliband at Comment is free:

Cameron’s argument was that the state is the cause of poverty. “The size, scope and role of government in Britain has reached a point where it is now inhibiting, not advancing, the progressive aims of reducing poverty, fighting inequality …” And indeed, ever since the late 1960s, the state has been “ineffective”. There is no evidence, historical or otherwise, for this claim, only pernicious political motive.

The difference between Thatcherism and Cameronism may be that rhetorically, one says poverty doesn’t matter, and the other says it does. But let’s not be taken in: there is no difference when it comes to prescriptions.

Ed Miliband actually thinks Cameron wants to reduce the size of the state. (This is as laughable as those disaffected Republicans who believed Obama wanted to restore civil liberties.) What he doesn’t seem to realise, which libertarians do, is that Cameron is still speaking within the framework that social democrats like Miliband himself have created: Cameron still wants to reduce poverty and inequality. His only disagreement with Labour is over the method by which that is done. He is not questioning the the desirability of those particular goals.

This is why libertarians see so little difference between the two main parties: they have both adopted as desirable ends the same ‘progressive’ ideals. What distinguishes the Tories from Labour is the means. Truly to step outside the meta-context, the Tories would need to ask whether those ends are, in fact, advisable. Is reducing relative poverty and inequality of outcome really a goal worth pursuing?

Very few people in mainstream politics appear to be asking that sort of question.

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