On Red Toryism

My good online friend, Prasanna, had earlier sent me these essays by Phillip Blond. These were my first thoughts (edited from our email conversation) based on a quick read of the above essays:

Free markets are not incompatible with a communitarian ethic. The actual source of hyper-individualization today is the left’s welfare state. Why have as many kids as earlier in western societies when you have social security ? Why stay in a joint family when the NREGA gives work per house in every Indian village (irrespective of whether a joint family or nuclear family lives there)

In so far as “Red Toryism” calls for a “Big Society” based on not just markets but decentralization and families too, this is correct. Indeed, the atomization complaint can seem to have some “street-cred” what with Mrs. Thatcher having infamously said (paraphrasing) “There is no such thing as society”.

Although of course the context of Thatcher’s remarks was that the constant invoking of society as this abstract entity that should help and redistribute took away from individual responsibility because this invoking happened not through NGOs and religious platforms but in the sphere of politics where any redistribution is perforce by force.

When communitarian-ism is voluntary and not forced, then the real benefits of a big society start to pour in. Maybe I should not provoke that Hindu by deliberately killing cows in the open if many charitable non-denominational schools are funded by a lot of Hindu (if agnostic) billionaires, and not by the state? Maybe I should not burn the Quran in my locality if the local genuinely decentralized school’s PTA has a higher-than-national-average of Muslim parents? Now, of course buring books and eating animals will remain my “right”. But my incentives will now change.

But guarantee welfare benefits along with liberal individual rights and you have the inevitable fraying of society. The sexual revolution need not be subtle anymore, it can now indeed be about “summers of love”. Why should it be otherwise? The state guarantees my healthcare and education till I am (say) 25 and then there are employment benefits anyway! No restraints in the name of (a very predictable, monotonous and conforming) individualism.

A better way to understand how terribly misguided the critique of Red Tories (or Compassionate Conservatives, Christian Socialists or Hindu Swadeshi supporters) is to look at the writings of two individuals – the American Paine and the Frenchman Tocqueville.

Paine categorically differentiated between state and society. Tocqueville noticed that the grassroots and non-redistributive democracy of America actually contributed to voluntary associations unheard of in even then statist France. In India, a Gurumurthy or indeed even an Advani – when they say they reject the absolutism of both the market and state, they are simply repeating a canard. It is a false choice for anybody at this level of intellectual discussion.

Markets need a very strong state to function. But a very limited state too.

We need many police officers internally and many army officers externally. Pakistan is not getting a lot of FDI despite having less business regulations than India according to some reports – for obvious reasons. Then we need that brilliant statist creation – quick and fair courts. My family may prefers business deals only within the North Indian Agarwal Bania community not because we dislike other communities but what if that Tamil dude reneges on our verbal or indeed written contract? Within our community, we can name and shame. What do I do about somebody in Chennai or Ludhiana? A good legal system supports accretion of social capital and free market efficiency.

Finally, to talk about class monopolies and inequalities is neither here or not. Yes a static snapshot will reveal great stratification, but what is infinitely more important is a dynamic observation where class mobility and opportunity is real. And even if normatively we agree on the same level of state benefits, much better to provide them through choice competition and decentralization. Red Tories or their equivalent may not object to this in principle, but in practice their instinctive aversion to markets can lead them to oppose, say, privatizing the social security system in India through the NPS (Yashwant Sinha’s call for guaranteeing returns recently in NPS!) and similar opposition in the West etc.

Indeed, I would highly recommend books by Theodore Dalrymple – especially “Life at the Bottom” to understand why Britain and other countries need less communitarianism of the statist variety. The book is sharp, sad and funny. Hands down one of my best reads. For a more 101 overview of the issue in the British context – more data-intensive, but less inspiring – read “The Welfare state we are in”.

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