We might, usefully even if just as caricatures, describe Larry Elliott at The Guardian as a progressive liberal and myself as a classical liberal. We might also use this piece by Larry Elliott as a useful example, even if as a caricature, of the difference between the two.
The Covid-19 blunders drive home a harsh truth: the state has failed us
OK, fair enough. So, why do we live in a failed state (it’s often worth looking at the URL to see what someone really wanted to say before editors toned it down for the headline)?
This is not simply a question of ministerial incompetence, although there have certainly been blunders galore. Saying Johnson is not up to the job is true but misses the point. Nicola Sturgeon has not faced anything like the criticism aimed at Johnson, and indeed has won plaudits for the way she has performed, but Scotland’s infection rates are not much lower than England’s.
A more searching probe into what has gone wrong has to start with the ability of any government – not just this benighted one – to perform its basic tasks properly: ensuring that the health and social care systems can cope in a crisis; providing an adequate welfare safety net; responding quickly and effectively to a pandemic; having a long-term strategy for economic regeneration rather than just spraying money around.
Note what Larry is not saying. That the state must actively provide the specific things. Rather, that the responsibility is to make sure they’re provided. So far no difference between the progressive and the classical.
What Covid-19 has shown is that the state too has been hollowed out, with what were once its core functions – planning and organising public services – outsourced to consultants and private contractors.
The classical has no problem with the planning and organising of public services either. Although this does depend rather upon what we’re using as our definition of “public services”. If they are things provided through government then of course government must plan and organise them. If they are services which are provided to the public then not so much. Food retailing is a service provided to the public and neither the progressive nor classical thinks that should be government planned and organised. Sure, the Leninist – or idiot but I repeat myself – might think so but not a liberal of any stripe.
The hollowing out of the state has been going on for years, but it has taken Covid-19 to expose what has happened. In truth, the last taskforce that really mattered was the one sent to recapture the Falklands in 1982 and it is no accident that the army has been called in for the testing programme in Liverpool. The military is the one part of the state apparatus that can still be relied on to do things properly.
It’s also the last part of the state to be as yet unmanaged – rather than simply directed – by politics on a day to day basis which might have something to do with it.
But this does lead us to our actual distinction between a progressive liberal and a classical liberal. Both note that the current state we’ve got – the classical would put more emphasis on have always had but that’s a shade here, not an underlying principle – is pretty shit at doing stuff. The progressive demands that summat summat so that shit government can do more shitly. The classical liberal notes that shit done by government is done shitly so let’s go off and use other methods of getting stuff done.
We even have a detailed example of what is meant here, food banks. The British state has always, but just always, been entirely shit at getting those £10 and £20 amounts to poor people so they can eat when benefit change, circumstances do, when the cupboards are bare. Over the past couple of decades we’ve imported the idea of food banks from America. Peeps with no food get given some by a network of voluntarily manned and supplied little stores. Get provided with food immediately, in their locality, life is less shit.
The progressive says that this is terrible, government should do this shit. The classical notes that shit is better and ain’t that great?
That is, the classical liberal agrees with the progressive as to the base aim. That we’re trying to make life better and sometimes that does mean the deployment of government power. The classical also notes two things, that it’s the result that matters, is life made better, not whether government power has been deployed? Further, that making things better often enough means making up for the deficiencies of government power by not using it.