CentreForum Liberal Villain of the Month: Mark Littlewood

by Stephen Tall on June 28, 2013

Liberal Hero of the Week (and occasional Villains) is chosen by Stephen Tall, Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and Research Associate at CentreForum. The series showcases those who promote any of the four liberal tenets identified in The Orange Book — economic, personal, political and social liberalism — regardless of party affiliation and from beyond Westminster. If they stick up for liberalism in some way then they’re in contention. If they confound liberalism they may be named Villains.

cf mark littlewood villain

Mark Littlewood

Director-General, Institute of Economic Affairs
Reason: for proposing to ‘name and shame’ welfare recipients

I know Mark Littlewood. I like him. He’s an instinctive liberal (at the libertarian end of the spectrum). He was voted LibDemVoice’s Liberal Voice of the Year in 2012. So why is he this month’s Liberal Villain?

Well, the Daily Mail published an article by Mark this week — it’s headline summarises its content: Why Osborne must publish the names of every benefits claimant – and how much we pay them: An incendiary idea to save on our £500m A DAY welfare bill. Here’s an excerpt:

The biggest item [taxpayers’] cash is then spent on is welfare. You have a right to know who is receiving it. Publishing this sort of information should be quite straightforward. The Government has never been competent at running an IT system, but uploading to a website each payment handed out, along with the name and address of the person claiming it, must be doable. Even by the dimmest bureaucrat. … I’m simply asking, on behalf of all those who pay for the welfare state, for a bit more information and transparency. In many areas of British life, we are already comfortable with this principle. Criminal trials are held openly and the name of the defendant is often widely publicised even if they turn out to be innocent.

Not surprisingly, Mark’s suggestion has attracted a hefty dose of criticism.

The least effective ripostes (step forward Left Foot Forward) have demanded full tax transparency, showing the annual income of every British taxpayer — which dodges Mark’s logic that accountability is required when the government confiscates citizens’ money through taxation.

The best response has come from Mark’s fellow libertarian, Sam Bowman at the Adam Smith Institute, his 2013 successor as Liberal Voice of the Year:

These proposals would humiliate people on benefits and rob them of their privacy. They don’t deserve it. Many (probably most) of them are dependent on welfare because of the state itself, and it is senseless to make their lives even more difficult instead of tackling the real causes of their poverty. … Cutting back the state is a bit like a game of Jenga – if you blithely pull away the supports that people rely on before you take away the causes of that reliance, you’ll only end up making things worse.

Mark is a professional provocateur, who loves nothing better than to challenge Lib Dems who are more comfortable ignoring the party’s free trade liberal heritage.

This proposal, though, reflects liberalism through a glass darkly. Its direct comparison of welfare recipients and criminal defendants is unpleasant, its ‘name and shame’ remedy no way to create a more liberal society.

You can view our list of ‘Liberal Heroes of the Week’ (and occasional ‘Liberal Villains’) here. Nominations are welcome via email or Twitter.