Ill Fares the Land

But precisely because history is not foreordained, we mere mortals must invent it as we go along—and in circumstances, as old Marx rightly pointed out, not entirely of our own making. We shall have to ask the perennial questions again, but be open to different answers.

But the disposition to disagree, to reject and to dissent - however irritating it may be when taken to extremes - is the very lifeblood of an open society. We need people who make a virtue of opposing mainstream opinion. A democracy of permanent consensus will not long remain a democracy.

Dissent and dissidence are overwhelmingly the work of the young. It is not by chance that the men and women who initiated the French Revolution, like the reformers and planners of the New Deal and postwar Europe, were distinctly younger than those who had gone before. Rather than resign themselves, young people are more likely to look at a problem and demand that it be solved.

Edmund Burke in his critique of the French Revolution. Any society, he wrote in Reflections on the Revolution in France, which destroys the fabric of its state, must soon be “disconnected into the dust and powder of individuality”.

Familiarity reduces insecurity, so we feel more comfortable describing and combating the risks we think we understand: terrorists, immigrants, job loss or crime. But the true sources of insecurity in decades to come will be those that most of us cannot define: dramatic climate change and its social and environmental effects; imperial decline and its attendant 'small wars'; collective political impotence in the face of distant upheavals with disruptive local impact. These are the threats that chauvinist politicians will be best placed to exploit, precisely because they lead so readily to anger and humiliation.

Finding a homeland is not the same as dwelling in the place where our ancestors once used to live.”   —KRZYSZTOF CZYZEWSKI

If it is to be taken seriously again, the Left must find its voice. There is much to be angry about: growing inequalities of wealth and opportunity; injustices of class and caste; economic exploitation at home and abroad; corruption and money and privilege occluding the arteries of democracy.

If we remain grotesquely unequal, we shall lose all sense of fraternity: and fraternity, for all its fatuity as a political objective, turns out to be the necessary condition of politics itself.

Inequality is corrosive. It rots societies from within.

In the eyes of Hayek and his contemporaries, the European tragedy had thus been brought about by the shortcomings of the Left: first through its inability to achieve its objectives and then thanks to its failure to withstand the challenge from the Right. Each of them, albeit in different ways, arrived at the same conclusion: the best—indeed the only—way to defend liberalism and an open society was to keep the state out of economic life.

Keynes died in 1946, exhausted by his wartime labors. But he had long since demonstrated that neither capitalism nor liberalism would survive very long without one another.

Keynes died in 1946, exhausted by his wartime labors. But he had long since demonstrated that neither capitalism nor liberalism would survive very long without one another. And since the experience of the interwar years had clearly revealed the inability of capitalists to protect their own best interests, the liberal eral state would have to do it for them whether they liked it or not.

Markets do not automatically generate trust, cooperation or collective action for the common good. Quite the contrary: it is in the nature of economic competition that a participant who breaks the rules will triumph—at least in the short run—over more ethically sensitive competitors.

Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today. For thirty years we have made a virtue out of the pursuit of material self-interest: indeed this very pursuit now constitutes whatever remains of our sense of collective purpose. We know what things cost but have no idea what they are worth. We no longer ask of a judicial ruling or a legislative act: Is it good Is it fair Is it just Is it right Will it help bring about a better society or a better world Those used to be the political questions even if they invited no easy answers. We must learn once again to pose them.

The materialistic and selfish quality of contemporary life is not inherent in the human condition. Much of what appears “natural” today dates from the 1980s: the obsession with wealth creation the cult of privatization and the private sector the growing disparities of rich and poor. And above all the rhetoric that accompanies these: uncritical admiration for unfettered markets disdain for the public sector the delusion of endless growth.

We cannot go on living like this. The little crash of 2008 was a reminder that unregulated capitalism is its own worst enemy: sooner or later it must fall prey to its own excesses and turn again to the state for rescue. But if we do no more than pick up the pieces and carry on as before we can look forward to greater upheavals in years to come.

Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today. For thirty years we have made a virtue out of the pursuit of material self-interest: indeed, this very pursuit now constitutes whatever remains of our sense of collective purpose. We know what things cost but have no idea what they are worth. We no longer ask of a judicial ruling or a legislative act: is it good? Is it fair? Is it just? Is it right? Will it help bring about a better society or a better world? Those used to be the political questions, even if they invited no easy answers. We must learn once again to pose them. The materialistic and selfish quality of contemporary life is not inherent in the human condition. Much of what appears ‘natural’ today dates from the 1980s: the obsession with wealth creation, the cult of privatization and the private sector, the growing disparities of rich and poor. And above all, the rhetoric which accompanies these: uncritical admiration for unfettered markets, disdain for the public sector, the delusion of endless growth. We cannot go on living like this.

The absence of trust is clearly inimical to a well-run society. The great Jane Jacobs noted as much with respect to the very practical business of urban life and the maintenance of cleanliness and civility on city streets. If we don't trust each other, our towns will look horrible and be nasty places to live. Moreover, she observed, you cannot institutionalize trust. Once corroded, it is virtually impossible to restore.

the disposition to disagree, to reject and to dissent—however irritating it may be when taken to extremes—is the very lifeblood of an open society. We need people who make a virtue of opposing mainstream opinion.

The moral courage required to hold a different view and to press it upon irritated readers or unsympathetic listeners remains everywhere in short supply.

The only thing worse than too much government is too little: in failed states, people suffer at least as much violence and injustice as under authoritarian rule, and in addition their trains do not run on time.

Thinking ‘economistically’, as we have done now for thirty years, is not intrinsic to humans.

Today, neither Left nor Right can find their footing.

True, many radicals of the ’60s were quite enthusiastic supporters of imposed choices, but only when these affected distant peoples of whom they knew little.

We must distinguish better than some of our predecessors between desirable ends and unacceptable means.

We need to rediscover how to talk about change: how to imagine very different arrangements for ourselves, free of the dangerous cant of ‘revolution’.

We no longer ask of a judicial ruling or a legislative act: is it good? Is it fair? Is it just? Is it right? Will it help bring about a better society or a better world? Those used to be the political questions, even if they invited no easy answers. We must learn once again to pose them.

We no longer have political movement. While thousands of us may come together for a rally or march, we are bound together on such occasions by a single shared interest. Any effort to convert such interests into collective goals is usually undermined by the fragmented individualism of our concerns. Laudable goals - fighting climate change, opposing war, advocating public healthcare or penalizing bankers - are united by nothing more than the expression of emotion. In our political as in our economic lives, we have become consumers: choosing from a broad gamut of competing objectives, we find it hard to imagine ways or reasons to combine these into a coherent whole. We must do better than this.

What did trust, cooperation, progressive taxation and the interventionist state bequeath to western societies in the decades following 1945? The short answer is, in varying degrees, security, prosperity, social services and greater equality. We have grown accustomed in recent years to the assertion that the price paid for these benefits—in economic inefficiency, insufficient innovation, stifled entrepreneurship, public debt and a loss of private initiative—was too high. Most of these criticisms are demonstrably false.

Whatever Americans fondly believe, their government has always had its fingers in the economic pie. What distinguishes the USA from every other developed country has been the widespread belief to the contrary.

What, then, should we have learned from 1989? Perhaps, above all, that nothing is either necessary or inevitable.

When Communism fell in 1989, the temptation for Western commentators to gloat triumphantly proved irresistible. This, it was declared, marked the end of History. Henceforth, the world belonged to liberal capitalism – there was no alternative – and we would all march forward in unison towards a future shaped by peace, democracy and free markets. Twenty years on this assertion looks threadbare.

There can be no question that the fall of the Berlin Wall and the domino-like collapse of Communism states from the suburbs of Vienna to the shores of the Pacific marked a very significant transition: one in which millions of men and women were liberated from a dismal and defunct ideology and its authoritarian institutions. But no one could credibly assert that what replaced Communism was an era of idyllic tranquility. There was no peace in post-Communist Yugoslavia, and precious little democracy in any of the successor states of the Soviet Union.

As for free markets, they surely flourished, but it is not clear for whom. The West – Europe and the United States above all – missed a once-in-a-century opportunity to re-shape the world around agreed and improved international institutions and practices. Instead, we sat back and congratulated ourselves upon having won the Cold War: a sure way to lose the peace. The years from 1989 to 2009 were consumed by locusts.