I had the pleasure of spending an evening in the company of the Adam Smith Institute’s Eamonn Butler at their annual boat party last month. Conversation inevitably turned to the state of the right in both the UK, where they have a chance at power the next election (if you can call Cameron of the right), and in the U.S.
As with the set of interviews I have been doing with leaders of the UK right, I wondered what Butler would do if he were advising the American right on how to bring themselves back from oblivion:
AD: As a leader of a right-of-center/free market think tank that has remained true to its roots despite the left onslaught in the last decade, what advice would you give the right in the U.S. on how to deal with the socialist administration of President Obama?
EB: You have to stick to your principles. You might have to dress them up in different language, and focus on some new areas, but you will never make progress by backtracking or compromising all the time. My own view is that the Obama machine was a great campaign machine, but not a great policy machine. On economics, its policies seem to be taken from a book on political correctness rather than a book on economics (and definitely not from a book on Austrian School economics). Even if they work out a way of implementing these fuzzy ideas, they will soon be disappointed in the results. I think this administration is already running into the sands of disillusionment on economic policy. That’s about three years ahead of most administrations.
AD: What do you think of the current leadership of the Conservative Party in the UK who look to be in power come next election?
EB: They’re better than a lot of people give them credit for. When the new leader was elected, the Conservatives had been out of office for nearly a decade and were riven with disputes. Nobody knew what the party stood for, and its constant negativity turned off the public. The Conservative brand was thoroughly polluted. The new leader, David Cameron, reckoned he had to rebrand the Conservatives in a big way before people would even listen to them, never mind vote for them. So he started talking about new issues like social inclusion, culture, and the environment, which were not traditional Conservative issue areas (they had focused for years on economic issues). Yes, that introduced some ideas that I would disagree with, but mostly it was window-dressing. The actual policies they are coming up with are not all that bad.
For example, the three big spending ministries are health, education, and welfare. In health they are going back to Mrs. Thatcher’s idea of fund-holding family doctors, who can buy in services from the state-run National Health Service or from private providers. In education, their model is to replace state education with charter schools — which Obama for some odd reason wants to reverse, I’m told. And in welfare, it’s a Wisconsin-style contracting-out of the entire business of getting people off benefits and into work. The language is all touchy-feely, but the policies are pretty sound.
AD: Would you recommend that the Republican Party in the U.S. follow the Tories or adopt something different?
EB: I don’t know enough about Republican politics to comment, but it seems to me that they have a battered brand to repair, too. They need to address the issues that people really think are important to them — issues about the way they live, not abstract issues of economics. The language needs to be less strident, perhaps, and more accessible and welcoming. But don’t let any of that detract from the actual policies of sound management that you need to make a real difference to people and so get re-elected.
AD: Is there any required reading for budding younger Republicans to advise them on how to deal with socialists?
EB: There’s an Adam Smith Institute book online called Freedom 101, which is a start. It takes 101 socialist arguments and demolishes them in a single paragraph each. It’s mostly bound up with UK issues, but many of these are just as relevant to the U.S. But then why doesn’t some enterprising group of younger Republicans produce one of their own? Apart from that, let me put in another free advertisement for my own book, The Best Book on the Market. It’s very short, but it explains how free markets work and why they are more rational than central planning and more moral than socialism.
AD: Do you think the “move to the right” EU-wide is a reason for optimism?
EB: I am always optimistic, because however enticing are the politically correct arguments of the left, young people in particular know that the only lasting solutions are ones which address the real issues for the long term, rather than go for quick gains now. It’s easy to see the immediate gains from rent controls, or minimum wages, or import restrictions against countries that compete with your own manufacturers. But in the longer term, policies like those harm the very people they are meant to help and impoverish the whole country. Young people know that, so I am optimistic. But I have little trust in politicians, of any color.
The Bush administrations both promised sound policies but then left government bigger than they had found it. That’s a problem of how the political system works. I would like to see term limits and other initiatives to stop politics from becoming a profession, a career. It should be a service, a calling. The trouble right now is that the political class — politicians, journalists and so on — have their whole lives invested in politics, so they naturally want and give us more of it. Personally, I’d like to see government so small that nobody would notice if it went on holiday for a month. You can’t do that while the entire career structure of journalists and politicians depends on them expanding the scope of politics more and more.
Many thanks to Eamonn for taking the time to respond to my questions. His responses contain some fine ideas to ponder. The right in the UK, of all types, closely monitors the machinations of American politics. They do so to both emulate and avoid depending on how successful the American right is at any one time.
Before scoffing at the ideas of the UK right, as several commenters seem to consistently do, one must realize that Obama and his cronies seem keen to pinch ideas from the Labour playbook, both old and new. Many American socialists look admirably to the British Labour Party and its leaders. If the U.S. does not want to end up the basketcase the UK currently finds itself resembling, then watching for their mistakes might be a good idea.