Sam Bowman joins us this week to talk about political trends in the United Kingdom and in Europe more broadly. What’s a neoliberal, and how is that different from American libertarianism?
What kinds of reforms are needed in European politics? Is there a connection between Brexit and Donald Trump’s election? What does a Trump presidency mean for the U.K.?
Show Notes and Further Reading
Here’s the Adam Smith Institute’s website.
Trevor Burrus: Welcome to Free Thoughts, I’m Trevor Burrus.
Matthew Feeney: And I’m Matthew Feeney.
Tom Cougherty: And I’m Tom Cougherty.
Trevor Burrus: Joining us today is Sam Bowman, the Executive Director of the Adam Smith Institute. Welcome to Free Thoughts, Sam.
Sam Bowman: Thanks for having me.
Trevor Burrus: So Adam Smith Institute, first of all for our viewers who do not know … our viewers … our listeners [crosstalk 00:00:22] you’re looking at me, but no one else is, our listeners. What is the Adam Smith Institute?
Sam Bowman: I hope that most listeners have a picture of you Trevus …
Trevor Burrus: Well absolutely.
Sam Bowman: Trevor, while they [00:00:30] are listening. So the Adam Smith Institute was set up in the 1970s and along with the IEA and the CPS was one of the big driving forces behind the Thatcher radiation.
Trevor Burrus: [crosstalk 00:00:41] fill in some of these …
Sam Bowman: The Institute of Economic Affairs and the Center for Policy Studies was one of the three driving forces behind the privatization revolution of the 1980s. It subsequently went through different brands, different iterations but it was always a free-market, classical liberal organization. For the first few years that I worked at the Adam Smith Institute, alongside [00:01:00] Tom, we were a Libertarian organization and then about a year ago, we decided to, under me, rebrand and try to adopt and appropriate this word neoliberal, because there are a few reasons for that. The word neoliberal doesn’t have a great reputation, but it’s used as a sort of bogeyman on the left to attack the right, and we thought it would be nice to take that back and change what it means. The word Libertarian doesn’t necessarily have a great brand in [00:01:30] the UK. One of the reasons being just that it’s associated with America, and it’s seen as a sort of foreign import. And there’s no reason that should be, because Adam Smith and the old classical liberal thinkers were not Libertarians, really.
Trevor Burrus: Nor American.
Sam Bowman: Nor were they American, yeah. But it’s also kind of primarily for me, actually, about recognizing a different strand in the kind of classical liberal inheritance that I think does actually have quite a large constituency of supporters, but prior to us [00:02:00] putting this out there and lots of other people grabbing it, didn’t really have a name. And that’s for a kind of pragmatic, policy-focused, globally-minded classical liberalism that is trying to fight for free trade and kind-of relatively open borders against this kind of populist tide that we’re seeing on the right. So that’s really what we’re trying to do and we’ve had quite a lot of success, I have to say.
Trevor Burrus: So [00:02:30] the term neoliberal as you said it, it is … I have only really heard it described … used mostly by people, who do not seem to understand what capitalists … what capitalist thinking is. It’s usually used by Marxist academics in my experience saying we have to attack this neoliberal hegemony. Usually that means that they think that there is no real difference between the left and the right in terms of how much they’re for markets. They’re just little bit of details that don’t matter that much. And the huge problem is the support for [00:03:00] capitalism that is broadly enjoyed in the Western world by, whether you’re on the left or the right, in mainstream politics. So that’s what they think neoliberal is, that’s the way it is. So why should we be using this epithet that they’ve used to describe ourselves?
Sam Bowman: I think what’s fundamental about neoliberalism is that it’s about the world as it is, right now. It doesn’t really mean anything when the left uses it. They just use it to attack anybody that likes markets to any extent. But there’s a real strand of kind of anti- [00:03:30] establishment and anti-status quo thinking in the Libertarian world, which is understandable given that libertarianism is sort of a very radical, very ,very kind of change the world, shake everything up, and have a lot of disorder right now. Which is fine, but for a neoliberal, somebody needs to defend the world as it is right now. The world is very globalized, the world is very free market, compared to lots and lots of potential alternatives. And I think that really since at least 1989, since the fall of the Berlin wall, we had won [00:04:00] the argument until maybe 2015, 2016. Somebody needs to defend the way the world was between 1989 and 2016. And say, look for all of its imperfections, this was the period, where more people were lifted out of poverty than ever before in human history put together. More technological advances were spread to more people than ever before.
The problem for me, or the reason that I thought that Libertarian wasn’t sufficient, or wasn’t that useful, was that Libertarian preoccupations [00:04:30] were so different from where the debate actually was. And where the debate actually is that we were sort of losing the argument and the argument was taking place without us even being involved in it. We were focusing on very interesting things to do with central banking and stuff like that, while the political kind of center of gravity in the UK and in Europe and in the US was to do with trade, was to do with what should this specific monetary policy be, what should we should on labor market reforms. There’s nothing … you know [00:05:00] I see neoliberalism and libertarianism as sort of compliments of each other. They’re different ways of approaching the world and different ways of approaching debate.
But, until the last, kind of 6 months, and you know I don’t claim credit for this, I don’t think we can claim credit for this at all, but there has been a slight awakening among many people, many of whom would have been to the center left, who now think, okay, I see now, the debate is, should we have free trade with other countries? Should we have more or less trade with other countries? And it doesn’t matter what you think about tax policy [00:05:30] or regulatory policy, if you think that free trade and migration are good things, then you need to defend these things right now. We’re seeing a huge reaction against that, and for me, the neoliberal thing is about making that the center of the debate that we’re having. And the people who like markets need to put that at the front and center of the stuff they talk about.
Matthew Feeney: I mean it sounds Sam like, as you define it, neoliberalism is a pretty broad church. Is that one of the things that attracts you to that kind of branding, that it’s much more inclusive, [00:06:00] where libertarianism may seem to be something that is determined to stand apart from everything else in politics and policy today.
Sam Bowman: Well yeah, exactly. The neoliberal … if we’re going to defend the period between 1989 and 2016, that includes people who I have huge, huge differences of opinion with, right? Tony Blair, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, right? None of whom I would necessarily classify as kind of, good, pure neoliberals. But all of whom had some kind of recognition that trade was basically [00:06:30] good, that immigration was basically good. There’s been such a sharp divide, both on the right and on the left, with Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, and the kind of rise of populism in Europe, that makes me think that anybody that is a liberal, and I use the word in the kind of European sense, of a Liberal in the left or a Liberal on the right, somebody who thinks that individual freedom is a good thing.
Now we might disagree about how you get individuals to be rich enough to kind of act on that freedom, that’s where somebody might fall on the left or the right, but there has been, [00:07:00] I think, such a … basically, my friend Steve Davis at the Institute of Economic Affairs talks a lot about this kind of political realignment, where you’re seeing kind of leftist and collectivist people on the right and the left coalesce around … maybe not around the same political parties, but certainty around the same positions. That we need to have much more autarchy, we need to have much more protectionism and look after our own. People who are liberals are completely split, they really, really haven’t I think, woken up, to the threat faced by this sort of nationalist, collectivist thinking.
[00:07:30] And the fact that neoliberalism as I talk about it is such a broad church, where we have disagreements it should be over evidence and it should be over what particular labor market policies work best for getting people into good jobs. That I think is something that is … has a lot of potential for bringing people together on the liberal side. So far, I’m not sure how much of it is actually achieved. It’s important, though, to kind of recognize, we chose the word neoliberal, we use the word neoliberal, [00:08:00] because it is a swear word on the left, right? We want to tell these people, look we’re not giving in when we talk about using evidence in policy making. We’re trying to be less brittle in our approach. There’s something very, very brittle about many Libertarian approaches, particularly in the UK. In the US, it’s a much broader tent.
Matthew Feeney: Tell us what you mean by brittle, in this context.
Sam Bowman: I think when you approach policy debates as … with a firm eye, [00:08:30] with at least one firm eye on the way the world should be in a kind of perfect utopia, you end up presenting arguments that can easily be broken down with one example. When you have kind of utopias in mind, you make the arguments that I would say … brittle, you make them easily rejected by a single problem that you have with them. So getting rid of the minimum wage, without a positive side to that, most people will reject that argument, right? Getting rid of the minimum wage would be a good [00:09:00] thing. If you say, okay, we need to strengthen the earning from tax credit, or in the UK, change the welfare system, so it’s much more cash based and much less paternalistic. Then, I think you have both, we need to get rid of this bad thing the government is doing, and we need to make sure that there is something that people who fall in between the cracks, can get. When you don’t have that second point, and you’re only interested in making arguments that are incrementally bringing the debate towards sort of perfect, natural Liberty. I think that [00:09:30] argument doesn’t appeal to people, and it sounds very strange to a lot of people.
Matthew Feeney: How much of the rebranding is, in part, successful because of the kind of Liberals or Libertarians on your side of the Atlantic at the moment? So, when I was working in London and Matt, Sam, and Tom working at the IEA, I … very, very few conversations with Libertarians about natural rights, and those as the foundations of libertarianism. Then you come to the United States, and the landscape is much [00:10:00] more different. Do you find that its actually easier to have consequential conversations in London or Britain more broadly, because over here you have to start with more fundamental first principles?
Sam Bowman: Very much so. There are some natural rights Libertarians in the UK, but people who I would have … who would have called themselves Libertarians a few years ago, I think had always been quite uncomfortable with the philosophical baggage that goes along with that term, and had always been uncomfortable [00:10:30] with the idea that it doesn’t matter whether this actually makes peoples’ lives better or not. All that matters is that this coheres with our philosophical idea of natural rights. Many of those people, I think, particularly on the younger end, who always had felt both like they want a home, they want an ideological kind of thing to identify themselves with, but also that a lot of this seems quite strange. And a lot of the natural rights philosophy that underpins libertarianism in some parts of the world, in America especially, [00:11:00] seems quite weird and doesn’t necessarily seem true or valuable. And breaking those two things apart and emphasizing that this is purely consequentialist. If this doesn’t work, then it’s bad and we should not believe in it. That has been I think, quite a valuable step.
Matthew Feeney: So if we take a look at the last couple years, you mentioned 2015/2016. I don’t want to speak for everyone, but it’s been a rather profoundly depressing couple of years to have these ideas. Mostly because people who claim to adhere to these kind of principles turned [00:11:30] out not to and elections like the US presidential election or Brexit have raised concerns. With that context, how many liberals do you think are out there? People that could actually be housed in this neoliberal home?
Sam Bowman: It depends on how broad we want to go. I think it’s reasonable to say that Tony Blair was something like a neoliberal. He was somebody who believed in … when I say neoliberalism, I basically mean somebody who is very, [00:12:00] very against government involvement in … basically thinks that regulation is almost always bad, but thinks that some measure of redistribution done simply, can be fine. And that those two things don’t need to be tied up with each other. And that you can in fact compliment a reasonably generous redistribution policy with quite a laissez faire approach to regulation. And thinks that the evidence is much stronger when we talk about regulation than it is when we talk about redistribution. And that wants to break those two things apart.
[00:12:30] The new Labor agenda, when though I think it didn’t actually achieve very much, was based on … according to Peter Mandelson anyway, who was the Tony Blair’s spin doctor, the genius really behind the new Labor project in political terms. His view always was that we want to let you make as much money as possible, and then we’re going to tax all of that and give that to other people. And that was the New Labor project, which I think is a reasonably, I mean I disagree with him about the extent to which you should regulate the economy. They want to regulate it much more than me. But that’s more or less the kind of position that I take. [00:13:00] The change that we’ve seen in France over the last couple months I think is very very interesting and it suggests there’s a much, much broader constituency people who would be willing to vote for a pretty much neoliberal candidate in a pretty much near neoliberal agenda in the form of Emmanuel Macron under the right circumstances. Now he’s been very lucky. I think he’s a very talented politician, and I think really the lesson there is get someone really good, and then you might be able get neoliberal reforms through, rather than [00:13:30] there’s a huge constituent of people waiting to vote for neoliberalism. But, the kind of reforms that they need in Europe that are … most importantly labor market reforms, make it much, much easier to fire workers in order to hire them. That is not going to come through anybody, except for Emmanuel Macron-style candidates. Conservatives just won’t be able to get that kind of reform through. The only other people who can are countries that are austerity basket cases like Ireland was, [00:14:00] Greece is, and some of the other Mediterranean countries are.
Tom Cougherty: Do you draw a connection between Brexit and Donald Trump? I mean this has been done a lot with this general theme of all these different countries. But if you think about it, it doesn’t make a lot of sense that all of them would independently … would derive this or influence each other. We don’t spend a lot of time watching British news over here, I think maybe Britain spends more time watching American news over there, but why would they be connected if they are, in fact, connected? At least the attitudes behind [00:14:30] the votes?
Sam Bowman: Well a lot of the … the answer is … the short answer is yes, a lot of the concerns and the worries that people had that led them to vote for Brexit seem to also have been concerns and worries of people had that lead them to vote for Donald Trump. The interesting … there are quite interesting papers that show that trade shock, so not how much trade goes on with your area and the rest of the world, but how much that has increased in the past few years. Also, it’s not how many immigrants [00:15:00] are in the area that you live in, it’s how many more immigrants are in the area that you live in, compared to a few years ago. That seems to be quite a good predictor of support for both Donald Trump and for Brexit. Interestingly on things like housing and building, the English-speaking world seems to be uniquely dysfunctional in not being able to build more houses. San Francisco, Vancouver, London, Sydney, pretty much every English-speaking country in the world, or every advanced one, seems to have a problem with housing that European countries don’t have. [00:15:30] That’s interesting.
I think that … for me, I was against Brexit. I thought it was a big mistake and I think it is a big mistake. I don’t think that people who opposed it were kind of … or who favored it were stupid or anything like that, but I think they might have hitched their wagon to a pretty bad way of looking at the world and that’s why I think a lot of free marketeers who have very good intentions about Brexit and you think that this is a great opportunity for us to deregulate [00:16:00] and to become a global Britain that isn’t tethered to Europe so much. I think they may have actually allied themselves with people who have no interest in doing that at all. The reason that for me neoliberalism is so important right now is that it’s so … it’s explicitly globalist, it’s explicitly in favor of internationalism and cooperation between national governments and not having particular benefits for people just because of where they come from and the EU to a greater or larger extent, was a globalist project. You know freedom of movement. [00:16:30] Treating Romanians in the same way you treat English people before the law, is a very, very good thing in my opinion.
Tom Cougherty: Do you think there’s a general reason … maybe you’ve already articulated it there, but … for why a lot of people in a lot of countries became illiberal almost at the same time? Could it be … I, personally, think that Islam could have a lot to do with it, in terms of fearing the other, in terms of fearing the outside, because it’s a threat to Western Europe and it’s a perceived threat to many Americans even though it’s not really a [00:17:00] threat to us here, but that right there is something that we need to start keeping people out because there are some dangerous people and then that kind of goes … but do you have any [crosstalk 00:17:07]
Sam Bowman: Well, it’s actually I don’t specifically know about Islam, but it’s interesting that you mention that. Obviously, the European Union has virtually nothing to do, there are no Muslim European Union countries. Perhaps, Turkey might … Turkey probably won’t join now, but there was a suggestion that it might join during the campaign.
Tom Cougherty: But there are a lot of Turks in Germany and there’s free movement [crosstalk 00:17:26]
Sam Bowman: Yeah, but there aren’t that many Turks moving from Germany to the UK. But … or [00:17:30] there aren’t that many people of Turkish ethnicity anyway. But, what you’re getting at, I think probably is part of the story. Because … so the political scientist Erik Kaufmann, who’s at Birkbeck University, has shown that Eastern European or European migrant percentage of population in a certain area, it doesn’t predict support for UKIP or the BMP, which is the kind of, neo-Nazi party in the UK, at all. It doesn’t predict that kind of thing at all. But non-white share of the population does predict it, for white voters. So his suggestion [00:18:00] is that being anti-EU and voting for UKIP and things like that, is a sort of expression of frustration at the changing face of Britain that people feel like they have no control over, and use the EU as a sort of proxy for … to get their anger and get their annoyance at the way the country is changing out. I really don’t want to suggest that the vote for Brexit was primarily racist or xenophobic at all, because I think it was really three different coalitions, conservatives who didn’t like [00:18:30] European institutions having supremacy over British ones, people who were anti-trade and anti-immigration, and a smaller number of free market, classical liberals who thought that leaving the EU would be a really great chance for bringing in free market reforms.
So far it looks as if it’s the anti-trade, anti-immigrant people who are winning out. The conservatives are getting something, but it looks as if the number 1 lesson that is being learned by the political establishment, most of whom has to say are Remainers, and voted [00:19:00] and campaigned for Remain, is that we don’t want any more Polish immigrants coming into the UK.
Matthew Feeney: Yeah, I’m going to have to challenge you just slightly on the idea that the anti-trade coalition is definitely winning out when it comes to Brexit at the moment. Now, I don’t think there was an awful lot of anti-trade sentiment or rhetoric in the campaign. I don’t think there’s been very much talk about that subsequent … the referendum decision. Now, I think we can probably say that the government may be mishandling the negotiations, they may be pursuing a road, which may not [00:19:30] lead to the optimum outcome in trade terms, but I think that their basing the kind of Brexit they want to pursue explicitly around continued free trade with Europe. And as much free much with the rest of the world in general. I haven’t been in the UK living there for 5 years, but it doesn’t seem to me that there’s a big, anti-trade backlash. Obviously I can’t argue with you on the immigration point, and it does look like, perhaps, people are foolishly putting the desire to control immigration ahead of the desire to maintain [00:20:00] strong trade links. But maybe you see things differently when it comes to trade.
Sam Bowman: I don’t think it’s true that trade wasn’t an issue. When … there was quite a big story about a year-and-a-half ago about a Welsh steel mill that was … basically had to shut down and its being wound up despite the efforts of the staff, because of cheap Chinese steel imports. And the argument was that the European Union is to lax. It’s not taxing this some kind of dump Chinese steel nearly enough and if we need to European Union we can do that, [00:20:30] and I’m … not only that, we can spend some of the money that we’re giving to the EU on fitting up these steel plants to make the more modern and so on. So I do think that, and this was an argument that was made quite a lot during the campaign, it wasn’t one of the big cases that they were making but they were very, very good at targeting certain voting demographics in a way that only they heard that argument.
But I think more broadly, it’s … we’ve seen from conservative MPs, in fact some of the most since that some of the most … people I would consider to be the most free-market conservative [00:21:00] MPS talk about using tariffs in a retaliatory way and that not being a big deal. If the EU raises it’s tariffs on our imports, then that’s fine, we can raise our tariffs on their imports and that’s going to hurt them. Obviously, it’s actually the importer who pays for tariff, it’s not the exporter who pays for tariff. So if we raise tariffs, that hurts us.
But more fundamentally, I think partially a difference of opinion about what trade actually is, or what trade deals actually mean nowadays. And I understand why [00:21:30] people disagree with this, but because the European Union … because the single market … this great, huge free trader, the biggest free trade block in the world … because that has been based around non-tariff barriers or regulatory barriers to trade and about eliminating those, a shift away from that that only looks at tariffs, which are really not that much of an issue anymore, I think can only be understood as an anti-trade step and we’ve seen this from almost every member … almost every conservative [00:22:00] party MP.
The Labor Party is very, very happy about some elements of leaving the single market. Particularly Jeremy Corbyn and the … he’s a Marxist, I’m not saying this in a … as a slur, he is a Marxist. He would say I’m a neoliberal, accurately, and I’m saying he’s a Marxist, accurately. But they, and the clique around Jeremy Corbyn … it’s widely agreed that they wanted Brexit to happen, even though publicly they didn’t say that. Because they think that we’ll be free of these rules that stop us from subsidizing [00:22:30] domestic producers and from nationalizing things like the energy companies and the railways. So I think to downplay the economic nationalism and the interventionism that drove a lot of support for Brexit would be a mistake.
Tom Cougherty: So you’ve mentioned just now, but I wonder, what does it mean for neoliberalism if the leader of the second largest party in the UK is a Marxist? And I think it is worth for listeners to understand that we’re not … when an American calls Bernie Sanders a socialist or a communist, this isn’t [00:23:00] what we’re talking about. We …
Trevor Burrus: But Bernie Sanders has used the word democratic socialist to describe himself, hasn’t he?
Tom Cougherty: He has, but he looks pretty right wing compared to Jeremy Corbyn.
Trevor Burrus: That’s true.
Tom Cougherty: But so what does that mean though, for a neo … because you’re right to talk about these negotiations with the exit, but there could well be a labor government in the future and does neoliberalism look healthy in that kind of environment?
Sam Bowman: No, not really. But even though Jeremy Corbyn himself is Marxist and the clique around him are Marxists, the Labor Manifesto wasn’t as bad as one might … I mean it was bad for [00:23:30] my point of view, but it was bad within normal ranges of bad.
Matthew Feeney: That’s all we can hope for these days.
Sam Bowman: It was, yeah, it was things like we will get rid of tuition fees, we will slowly stop the railways from being kept in the private sector. I’m not going to go into much detail, but the way the rail privatization works in the UK means that every couple of years, you get to re-decide if you’re the government, which company gets to run the railways and you can easily, in theory, say actually we’re not going to put this out for private tender again. I think what’s [00:24:00] very much worth stressing is that the Corbyn coalition is not that cordierite. Jeremy Corbyn is a very, very interesting person. Anybody who is aware of his previous connections listening, I think we’ll probably agree with me that somebody who meets with the IRA in parliament a few weeks after the Brighton bombing is probably not a great guy. Somebody who meets with Hamas and other terrorist groups, brings them to Parliament for events and introduces them as his friends, he’s probably not a great guy.
Trevor Burrus: He sounds like Oliver Stone.
Tom Cougherty: [00:24:30] Oliver is just hanging out with all the wrong people.
Sam Bowman: I mean he really, he’s taking money. He’s worked for Iranian National TV, he’s really, really not a nice guy and he’s really, really willing to hang out with pretty awful murderous people. But, everybody within the conservative party thought that that was going to kill him dead, I thought it was going to kill him dead. I’m not in the Conservative party, but I was also one of these people, who thought it was going to knock him dead when the campaign came. And interestingly what happened was that, in fact, what we thought was his biggest weakness turned [00:25:00] out to be his greatest strength. Because people are so cynical about politics and they’re right to be cynical about politics, that the impression of people was that anybody who’s willing to do this must be so principled that he is a really decent guy.
So you know maybe he was misguided about meeting with the IRA, I don’t know, I don’t really believe what they’re saying anyway. I don’t think that that’s actually true, but he must be a really principled guy. And that allowed him to say one thing and then have a totally different group assume that he was only lying because he had [00:25:30] to and that’s politics. So he has created, I think it’s fair to say, probably the broadest coalition in modern British political history of people who are highly educated, high earners in urban areas. People who are old labor, people who would have worked in coal mining or would have worked in industrial sectors of the economy that no longer exist, who have totally divergent views about things like Brexit. But, on issues like freedom of movement, where the more educated, more urban people would be very pro-freedom of movement, he could come out and say, oh we want to end freedom of [00:26:00] movement pleasing the kind of old labor, industrial type voters and have all of the urban, young graduates say well, he’s such a principled guy, he must only be saying this because he has to win an election. We know that really he agrees with us.
I don’t know whether he can sustain that, but I think it’s really important to stress that most people who voted for Jeremy Corbyn, I think, we’re not voting for what he really believes.
Matthew Feeney: That feeds into the question I was going to ask actually, which was how much is it broad coalition based around the ideas and so in any political coalition, its supporters don’t all [00:26:30] support all of the ideas, but to what extent were the particular policies he was promoting popular, or what extent was it actually … this was personality politics in an age of 24/7 media and social media and he was able to promote a brand, a kind of idea of himself, which was a very authentic, principled person, who had been true to himself over many years? And it wasn’t just that in isolation, it was that put up against Theresa May, who appeared to not know what she believed or what her own policies were. And [00:27:00] indeed changed her mind on those things over the course of a six week general election campaign. Was it really the Conservatives failings coupled with his own sort of personal brand that built that coalition or actually should we be more worried about the underlying state of the climate of ideas in Britain?
Sam Bowman: I think we should be … I think the answer is yes. That’s kind of … there are a lot of questions there. The answer is yes. Now the conservative party has failed to make any case that free markets are actually good for ordinary people. [00:27:30] And they’re continuing to fail to make that case, because they now think … they’ve misdiagnosed a problem …. and the big problem is that not enough people own their own house. Now I happen to agree that the system should make it much cheaper and much easier to buy a house. But, their view is that … oh well if you …. and government ministers have said, how can we sell capitalism to people who don’t own any capital. That’s not the argument, right? Capitalism is good, whether or not you own capital. That’s not why … I’m not a capitalist because I think it’s good for this small section of rich people.
And they themselves [00:28:00] think that this is the floor in the argument they’ve made. They have failed for decades to make any kind of argument that leftist policies, not only that they are better at administering leftist policies and that they’re better at drawing the line, but that leftist policies fundamentally don’t work. So when they were talking about Jeremy Corbyn wanting to bring us back to the 1970s and they themselves wanted to put Union Representatives on company boards, wanted to have extreme government say over pay ratios and pay [00:28:30] levels in companies. They were offering going back to the 1970s as well, just a different kind of going back to the 1970s. They coupled that with an extreme arrogance about winning, which led them to put quite bad policies but extremely unpopular … not just quite bad from a policy point of view, but extremely unpopular policies would have said that, for example, if you get old and you get sick and you need to be looked after in your old age, for example you get dementia, we’ll take your house to pay for that.
Now that might not be a good policy. But that’s not the sort of thing [00:29:00] you want to campaign on. Maybe their flaw … they were too honest. Teresa May’s advisor after he was sacked basically wrote a piece saying our flaw was that we were too honest. But they also included things that are relatively trivial issues, but make them seem incredibly out of touch, like bringing back fox hunting, which is not an issue that there’s a huge constituency of support for.
Trevor Burrus: This was actually discussed?
Sam Bowman: This was in the Manifesto, this was one of the … this is a sleeper issue.
Trevor Burrus: That just is insanely cliché in some very bizarre sense.
Sam Bowman: Right, and I mean a lot of listeners will wonder why [00:29:30] fox-hunting is illegal in the UK, right? So I don’t really have a … I don’t strongly think we should make fox-hunting illegal. But it makes you look very, very strange. This is an issue that 80% or more of UK people are against legalizing. Even people in the countryside. And it’s a pure serving your base policy, that they only put into the Manifesto, because they assumed that they were going to win a massive majority, and they could get away with doing. And all of those things together, the long-term [inaudible 00:29:58] to make an argument for free markets, the fact [00:30:00] that Teresa may herself ended up sounding like a very strange person. She was asked on national TV, what’s the naughtiest thing you’ve ever done, and she thought about it for a while, and said, “Oh when I was young, I used to run through fields of wheat.” And this is just such strange response.
Trevor Burrus: She sounds like … she sounds kind of like the conservative … I mean I don’t know what conservative there means, but Hillary Clinton-esque. In the sense of being very fake and going back and forth, and not really sure if she has any principles and not being able to relate people.
Sam Bowman: I think [00:30:30] that’s right, and all of these things together, the arrogance, the policy arrogance, so thinking they could just put things in, the fact that they never made this broad-based case, and the fact that they ran a personality focused campaign on somebody who doesn’t really have a personality. All of which made the Corbyn thing much bigger than it might have been. The big problem is it doesn’t look as if there’s a good replacement for her. And, yeah.
Matthew Feeney: And I think just to be slightly fair to Theresa May, I think the comparison with Hilary Clinton is a good one in terms of the way [00:31:00] they maybe bond a little bit during the campaign. But I think actually Theresa May, in her own way, is quite a principled person, but her principles are all about service, and service to the party and service to the country. And so a very well meaning and probably quite principled person in that respect, but that’s not enough actually, I think to be successful in politics, and trying to run a government.
And I know we’ve talked about this before, you’ve written about it, how her fundamental problem was actually the lack of an ideological [00:31:30] framework. And the lack of an ideological framework, it left her all at sea when she was dealing with issues that popped up during the campaign, with having to try and defend policies that seemed unpopular with the electorate. Maybe you can elaborate a little on that?
Sam Bowman: Well, there is the problem that she sounded like she was on script for the whole time. So anytime there was a question that would lead her off script, she didn’t have the normal framework that most of us have, most of us who are interested in politics have, which allows us to think through [00:32:00] a problem, and think through a question, even if we don’t know all the facts of that. We can at least say, this is what my intuition tells me as a Liberal, or Libertarian, or whatever. She didn’t have that. She also didn’t have any allied bases of support within the Conservative party. She does have her own base of support, she has made a name for herself as somebody who’s very tough on immigration, somebody who is quite skeptical of the modernization project that Cameron brought in, and somebody who is actually quite skeptical of Thatcherism. So there is a constituency of support [00:32:30] for that.
The problem was that because she never gave anything to other groups, she never had something, let’s say, on corporation tax, the people like me. People like me, who, if there was something like that that would kind of keep us on board, would be much more inclined to defend her, and stand up for her, on issues we didn’t really care about, because we want this corporation tax policy to be brought in. She never did that, she never cultivated … I mean she … as you say, she does have some qualities.
She doesn’t like the political game, and she doesn’t like horse-trading. You know, the really revealing [00:33:00] movie made about her, short documentary movie made about her, where Eric Pickles, former Cabinet Minister said, the thing about Theresa May is that she just doesn’t do negotiation. She’ll either give you what you want, or she won’t. He didn’t realize that he was talking in the context of a campaign where the Brexit negotiation was the main issue. But he meant it as a compliment. She doesn’t play games, she gives you what she thinks is right, and what she doesn’t. But that’s not a great quality in a leader, because it means she can’t amass, this broad coalition that you need, and that Corbyn was really able [00:33:30] to create.
Matthew Feeney: So all this discussion about interesting candidates and people losing elections, I suppose we can’t have a conversation here without Trump coming up. And there were debates after the American election about whether Trump won or Hilary lost, and what exactly is to account for the fact that Trump won. But a more basic question, I’ve only been back to England once since the presidential election, and didn’t stay too long, so I’d like to ask Sam here, what’s [00:34:00] been the take in the United Kingdom about our current political situation? And what do you think, personally?
Sam Bowman: I should preface what I’m about to say by saying that English people, and Europeans in general, make a sharp distinction between America and the American president. Even when the American president is very unpopular, America is quite popular. But having said that, the perception is that the US president is basically deranged. He is somebody who perhaps isn’t cognitively all [00:34:30] there, he is extremely dangerous and if there is a benefit to Trump, it’s that it’s made European countries realize that they can’t rely on the American Security umbrella forever. Maybe this is all part of the Trump’s master plan, maybe he is playing 10-dimensional chess, but the … in the UK, Trump is so unpopular that being associated with him is poisonous domestically.
So one thing I haven’t mentioned but, for good reason, the UK government’s strategy [00:35:00] with Trump has been to cozy up to him and to try and be as … try and be his best friend as the rest of the world turns away from him in order to hopefully get the support for the momentum for a trade deal with US, which would actually be good for UK economy. But that is actually been very, very damaging to the UK government because the mere hint of sucking up to Donald Trump makes you look like you are … like you have no principles at all. And like you are completely craven.
My own personal view is that Trump is [00:35:30] not a great guy. I think he’s very very worrying, but I think that the American system seems to be restraining him quite well. And I am quite reassured actually by the Congressional gridlock at everything he’s trying to do, even though I like quite a lot of the policies that the house republicans … I like the destination-based cash flow tax and that’s great policy. I almost prefer for that not to go through and to discredit Trump as somebody can get things done and it seems as if the system is working [00:36:00] as designed for all of its flaws. But within the UK, and within Europe in general, Trump is seen as a really, a madman.
Trevor Burrus: In a Western Europe of … in the liberal social democracy that they have in most of … all of … is there an exception for a broad welfare state, high regular … there’s probably no exception in Western Europe. But, and you discussed that in the beginning when you were talking about neoliberalism, which to me, maybe … correct me if I’m [00:36:30] wrong, but you said some of these fights you don’t want to fight anymore. And I … for rhetorical purposes or just having effects of minimum wage, as you mentioned. It’s like do you want to fight not having a minimum wage anymore, that’s a pretty core Libertarian viewpoint, but I would guess that every single Western European country has a minimum wage and it’s probably a pretty generous one, and you’re probably not going to get any headway getting rid of that. So are you basically saying that you should just stop advocating to get rid of the minimum wage, because of political [00:37:00] reality [inaudible 00:37:01]?
Sam Bowman: Well no, but I think that … no I’m against minimum wage full stop. I think it’s bad policy. I’ve actually written quite a lot of work … I’ve read nearly every minimum wage paper that’s been published. Certainly my colleague has …
Trevor Burrus: In terms of what [crosstalk 00:37:14]?
Sam Bowman: In terms of rhetoric, the thing is to restrain the minimum wage, to not raise it anymore, because that’s where the debate is. If we say we want to abolish minimum wage publicly … I’m happy to say on the record, but if we make that a core thing that we’re arguing when we go on TV, then we’re going to sound that like we’re complete nuts, [00:37:30] we’re going to sound like we have no idea what the debate is right now. The debate is how much do you raise the minimum wage by, and how quickly do you raise the minimum wage, that’s where we are in the UK, and where we are in most Western European countries. And that’s where people like us, if we’re interested in actually affecting policy, should be.
Trevor Burrus: But does that just negotiate the terms of surrender? Because I see if Western Europe is where we might be in America in 40 years, where we expect once you get a welfare program in place, [00:38:00] it’s never going to go away. We’ve already seen that more recently with the Affordable Care Act, it’s probably never going to go away, because it’s a welfare program. And if we keep building these up, we’ll keep defending a line that keeps encroaching against freedom and say, well this is the politically acceptable rhetoric we have to fight on.
So for example, the NHS. This is a great example. I’ve heard … I’ve never lived in the UK, but that it is just the third rail of politics in the UK, to say it should be gone. The NHS should absolutely be gone. And it should. [00:38:30] But if we’re just going to accept that it exists and say, okay now we’re going to moderate up, we’re not Libertarians anymore, we’re not advocating for cheaper, better, more innovative healthcare, but a socialized system and now we’re going to call it neoliberal. Is that just negotiating the terms of surrender on something like the NHS? Just because everyone thinks you’re radical even though you’re right.
Sam Bowman: Well, if we were two Japanese soldiers on an island in the Pacific, and we were discussing what we should do, we might decide we don’t want to negotiate the terms of surrender, but we’d still be irrelevant. That is for … in [00:39:00] many Western European countries the question. Do you want to be a Japanese soldier fighting until the 1960s and basically being ignored? Or do you want to take part in the debate that’s actually going on, and influence the debate that’s actually happening as it’s happening, and bringing to bear the things? Because I think that free markets are good and I think there’s a lot of really good evidence that they’re good and that most people who say that they are interested in evidence in public policy are not, and are ignoring the evidence in public policy.
And if it doesn’t … if we don’t step up and say, [00:39:30] within the debate you’re having about the minimum wage, or the NHS, this is the stuff that you’re ignoring and this is the stuff that you’re claiming to talk about, but actually the evidence is against you. And my … yes, maybe I would like to abolish minimum wage, given that the debate is should we raise it by x amount or should we not raise it. That’s the debate that I want to have, and that’s the debate that I want to win. The big … there’s such a tendency to overestimate how much influence you have. We’re gadflies. Certainly in England, certainly in Western Europe. [00:40:00] Free marketeers are gadflies and the best hope we have is being part of the elite debate that’s taking place, and trying to be taken seriously enough, that you can force them to at least acknowledge that this evidence exists and is against them.
I don’t think that we have the option of … I don’t characterize it as surrender … it’s realism. It’s being a pragmatist. And not just … not talking to ourselves. Because that’s the choice. It’s do we talk to the debate that’s going on right now or do we talk to ourselves? And I’m not happy to be somebody who just talks [00:40:30] to ourselves.
Matthew Feeney: Sorry, I just a very quick question that maybe we should have addressed earlier. So, yeah it’s pragmatic. But I’m curiouser maybe to get you on the record, is it your stance that the moral argument for radical libertarianism are incorrect or not helpful? Or perhaps both?
Sam Bowman: What do you mean by moral arguments?
Matthew Feeney: So if the radical Libertarian view is a natural rights, non-aggression principle based theory, and it doesn’t have to be, but let’s call it that. Is it that that [00:41:00] kind of argument is incorrect or is it just not helpful?
Sam Bowman: It’s incorrect. It’s not true. The moral argument for any system is that the system allows people to live their lives the way they want to. It’s that it gives them the choice and the control over their lives that they want.
Trevor Burrus: Well … why do … I just want to [inaudible 00:41:16], so they have a choice because they have natural rights? To live however they want? You say that’s not true, right? You said what Matthew said is not correct. The natural rights view is not correct.
Sam Bowman: That’s right. The natural rights view … the [00:41:30] utilitarian view is correct.
Trevor Burrus: Okay, but then you said that the moral arguments [inaudible 00:41:34] the choice over how they want to live their life, do they have that choice because they have a natural right?
Sam Bowman: No. No.
Trevor Burrus: Okay. [crosstalk 00:41:39]
Sam Bowman: No. The moral … utilitarianism is the correct moral theory, right. So the moral, moral …
Trevor Burrus: I … I disagree with you.
Sam Bowman: Maybe not. Okay, well I agree with myself.
Trevor Burrus: It sounded like you just asserted natural rights implicitly by saying they have a choice.
Sam Bowman: Not at all. Not at all. What I want is to maximize the preferences that are satisfied, right? I’m a preference utilitarian. Most neoliberals, not all, most neoliberals are some [00:42:00] blend of utilitarianism with various strange superstitions about natural rights and things like that. But fundamentally, it’s a consequentialist view. And the view is, the more preferences that are satisfied, this is a kind of slightly obscure, philosophical way of talking about it, but the more preferences that are satisfied the better. Of humans, right? Perhaps of animals as well, but mostly of humans
Trevor Burrus: I mean my preference to murder you is probably a bad one to satisfy.
Sam Bowman: No, it’s not. Any … any …
Trevor Burrus: I don’t want to murder you Sam, but [00:42:30] I’m saying but …
Sam Bowman: No my preference not to be murdered is the preference that I hold as well. So that weights against your preference to murder me. But there’s no way … there’s no moral way of differentiating between good and bad preferences. How could there possibly be a way of doing that?
Trevor Burrus: I … but, this is going to go far [inaudible 00:42:45] just as I …
Sam Bowman: No no no, I mean I’m …
Trevor Burrus: No, you’re right. No, I just … I mean …
Sam Bowman: There’s …
Trevor Burrus: You make a valid point, I’m just like …
Sam Bowman: No I mean I call myself a …
Trevor Burrus: If we wanted to double-length this episode …
Sam Bowman: I call myself a bullet-biting consequentialist. I think it’s both untrue and unhelpful. So I [00:43:00] don’t think you have to agree with me. I’m not claiming to speak for all … I don’t even speak for my colleague on this one, but it’s neither true nor is it helpful. And it’s in fact profoundly unhelpful, so it doesn’t matter that much if it’s true. Even if you think it’s true, the fact that it’s very unhelpful should be enough to make you think twice about how you approach it. Certainly unhelpful in the context I’m working in and it might be different in the US.
The fact that it seems like it’s based on a very … and I say brittle, an [00:43:30] easily rejected way of looking at the world, and the fact that it always ends up making an extremely difficult case that seems to most people completely insane. The idea that it’s better for a person to go hungry, than it is for a rich person to have a pound or a dollar taken away from them. That seems like a very strange reductio ad absurdum. But that’s the position if you are a strict natural rightist you need to adopt, right?
Trevor Burrus: No.
Sam Bowman: No?
Matthew Feeney: So I [crosstalk 00:43:57]
Trevor Burrus: I’m just going to say no to that, because again, we can go, this would [00:44:00] be another episode.
Matthew Feeney: I feel like we could have …
Trevor Burrus: I don’t think we have to adopt taxation as theft to be a strict natural right theorist.
Sam Bowman: Okay.
Trevor Burrus: Obviously, clearly this is not the case, because Thomas Jefferson, for example, was a deep believer in natural rights, and he believed in justified taxation through a consent-based contract theory of government. So you don’t … so … just to push back on your point, you don’t have to say that taxing a rich person a dollar or two and saving someone from starvation.
Sam Bowman: So the non-aggression principle you would agree is wrong?
Trevor Burrus: The non-aggression principle, strictly applied, I think is wrong. But I think it is a [00:44:30] morally significant principle, that I think is morally significant because people have rights.
Sam Bowman: And where does that come from?
Matthew Feeney: So I …
Trevor Burrus: I’m going to let Matthew ask a question …
Matthew Feeney: I …
Trevor Burrus: I have an answer, we could go [crosstalk 00:44:43]
Matthew Feeney: No I …
Trevor Burrus: In the bar afterwards we can totally hash this out, but we’re coming close on time here, so Matthew.
Matthew Feeney: Well I have two philosophy degrees and escaped academia deliberately, so thank you for that trip down memory lane. So I have a question though in this pragmatic [00:45:00] structure, how do we weigh up our policy preferences? So let’s take for example a hypothetical where a government said we plan to legalize marijuana, but we want to give a monopoly to two distributors. This is the plan. Is this something where we should just weigh out that on net it’s probably better to legalize … we don’t like monopolies, but it would be far better for people not to go to prison for smoking marijuana. What’s the strategy or the way that you address questions like that?
Sam Bowman: I think it has to be just based on the merits. [00:45:30] Are there any countries that have done it this way? What does it look like there? Have they solved the problems that we care about? I would be perfectly happy to go with a state monopoly if that was the only possible alternative. I would obviously prefer a free market in marijuana, or in all drugs really, but I would be perfectly happy to accept that if that was the only achievable way of getting that step towards drug legalization that we could get it. It doesn’t bother me that much if we can only get 80% of what we want, because the alternative is usually [00:46:00] getting 0% of what we want.
It’s so important to me that and part of that … I mean, with the neoliberal thing, I don’t want most Libertarians to say that they’re neoliberals. I want a lot of people who aren’t Libertarians now to say that they’re neoliberals. I’m not trying to cannibalize the Libertarian base, I’m trying to extend this way of looking at the world to people who’d usually be put off by natural rights or by the all encompassing way of looking at things that libertarianism gives you. And the debate, at least in Europe, [00:46:30] I think suggests that there is a very large constituency of people … you asked me how many people earlier, I really don’t know, I really don’t know. But there is a pretty big constituency of people, who are very uncomfortable with the nativism of the right and the nativism of the left. The preference for your own people that is pretty much all-pervasive now.
But they’re also not comfortable with the traditional politics that goes with cosmopolitanism. They really don’t understand why it is that somebody who [00:47:00] is just as concerned about people in sub-Saharan Africa as they are about people in London should by default be a leftist or by default be somebody who is preoccupied with bringing back state control of the railways, things like that. And that group of people are not served politically or ideologically by anybody. Our role, for me, our objective is to give them a free market alternative that isn’t so brittle. And isn’t so dogmatic that they’re put off by it.
Trevor Burrus: Thanks for listening. [00:47:30] This episode of Free Thoughts was produced by Tess Terrible and Evan Banks. To learn more, visit us on the web at www.libertarianism.org.