Liberal Hero of the Week #65: Sir Samuel Brittan

by Stephen Tall on April 4, 2014

Liberal Hero of the Week (and occasional Villains) is chosen by Stephen Tall, Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and Research Associate at CentreForum. 

cf samuel brittan

Sir Samuel Brittan

Political and economics commentator, Financial Times
Reason: for a lifetime’s contribution to serious liberal thinking.

After almost half a century’s continuous service at the Financial Times, Sir Samuel Brittan – indisputably the doyen of economic and political commentators – has finally announced he is retiring, aged 80.

There are plenty of commentators around. A few are thoughtful, but fewer as deeply. A few are well-read, but fewer as well. A few are liberal, but fewer as cogently. The combination, and certainly for how long it’s been sustained, is unique. Never satisfied with skimming a think-tank’s report to regurgitate its executive summary in order to appear clever (like most of his supposed peers – and maybe some bloggers, too), Sir Samuel ranged wide and drilled deep.

Enough with the encomia, though. Much better to fillet a few of his columns from the last decade to show why Sir Samuel Brittan is this week’s Liberal Hero…

The awful lure of the grassroots
25th May 2003

I do not know what to say about Liberal Democrats. The party is almost defined in terms of its grassroots. Indeed it started to recover its electoral prospects by embracing “pavement politics”, which were an extreme concentration on local issues which should have been the concern of municipal bodies. Yet it is the descendant of the 19th century Liberal Party, whose intellectual leaders, such as John Stuart Mill, were not only contemptuous of grassroots, but were very cautious about extending the franchise too rapidly to people who would not know how to use it. …

Let us examine a topical test case. What do you think would obtain a more considered result in a referendum on British euro membership? A franchise confined to party activists, a secret poll among the senior civil service, a free and secret vote of the House of Commons or the envisaged referendum?. Surely the real choice is only between the last two.

On J.S. Mill, liberty and choice
7th April, 2006

It is, in my view, presumptuous of legislators or social scientists to tell us how to promote our happiness. Their objective should be to promote conditions in which people have the maximum of options. What they make of these opportunities is their business; and whether they then fill in questionnaires saying that they are happier or not is interesting, but not the final criterion.

It is necessary to go even further. The bedrock value on which classical liberals ought to rest is freedom. Someone who attaches importance to freedom is committed to attaching importance to choice, but it does not necessarily work the other way round. You can have a lot of choice but be fundamentally unfree. What matters is freedom of action and speech among consenting adults. A society is unfree if your income has increased but you can be put in jail for expressing beliefs contrary to the prevailing political or religious ideology. It is also unfree if you are prevented from travelling abroad either by edict or by an exiguous official travel allowance. Choice among hospitals, or even among varieties of cereals, may not have the same importance, but it is still part of a free society.

Summon the ghost of Lloyd George
20th July, 2007

… carefully designed fiscal redistribution remains a better response to globalisation than the protectionist threats with which the US Congress, for example, so loves to play. If you are looking for a tax to provide the wherewithal that has little or no disincentive effect you need look no further than that old favourite, a tax on land not on development but on pure space. The case for it was eloquently expounded before the first world war by those two great non-socialists, Winston Churchill and David Lloyd George. Plans were well advanced for introducing it when the war came about and diverted these two statesmen to supposedly higher things. We need to summon up their ghosts.

A fresh look at liberalism
8th January, 2010

… here are three examples that starkly expose anti-liberal ways of thinking. Some people advocate compulsory national service, not necessarily military, as a way of improving the character of young people. The late James Tobin – he of the Tobin tax – favoured the US draft as an egalitarian ideal and even suggested setting soldiers’ pay well below what they could earn elsewhere so as to rule out a volunteer army. Whatever his other qualities, he was an arch anti-liberal.

Consider, too, the rigid exchange restrictions that have at times been imposed on foreign travel to conserve official holdings of foreign currency. When these were imposed by Harold Wilson’s UK Labour government for three years there was hardly a word of protest from Labour’s supposedly enlightened intellectual camp followers.

A final example is the smoking ban in public places – and I speak as lifelong non-smoker. So long as there are designated areas to ensure non-smokers are protected from smoke pollution, what is the harm in providing a room where people can smoke at their own risk? Why is this worse than making smokers stand outside in the cold?

However difficult it is to define a liberal, it is not hard to spot anti-liberals.

Capitalism still has no rivals
13th January, 2012
There is no need to pretend that market rewards reflect personal merit. As Lord Melbourne said in another context “There is no damn’d merit about it”. Redistribution is best carried out by a (preferably unified) tax and social security system and not by interfering with prices and wages. How far should redistribution go? Up to the point where it ceases to benefit both the poor and the mass of the population. Jealousy and envy of the better off may be part of human nature. But it is no part of the business of either moral philosophy or political economy to pander to them. Nor should any defender of capitalism rely on the shabby argument that excessive redistribution will lead to an emigration of talent. This surrenders the moral high ground and depends on the division of the world by frontiers and the difficulties of international cooperation.

Left vs Right – still a bogus dilemma
13th April, 2012

I once wrote a book entitled Left or Right, the Bogus Dilemma, which was quite widely discussed but not much read. … The left-right classification did not really take root in Britain until after World War One. In the 1923 General Election, which brought the first Labour government to office, the main issue was the defence of Free Trade on which Labour sided with the Liberals. And the old associations did not die completely. The association of the left with personal and political freedom, anti-militarism, religious tolerance and general civilised values helps explain why as late as the 1940’s and 50’s there were merchant bankers in London and Paris who preferred not to regard themselves as on the right. …

A Libertarian political philosopher, JC Lester, has suggested supplementing the left-right spectrum with two axes based on attitudes to “personal choice” and “property choice”, together with a questionnaire to determine one’s position. I came out well on the libertarian side on personal choice, but highly interventionist on “property choice”. This might surprise many of many of my colleagues who regard me as well on the free market side of most non-financial issues. This is because I hesitate to advocate the end of all taxation, the abolition of the state’s monopoly of law, leaving environmental problems entirely to the market or the abolition of all state welfare.

Nevertheless I become infuriated when those who take a more laissez faire attitude to these questions are described as “to the right of Genghis Khan”, a Mongol emperor whose campaigns are said to have resulted in the deaths of 40 million people. And my main grouse against the US “Republican right” is that they give competitive capitalism a bad name by associating it with religious intolerance, a chauvinistic foreign policy and a generally punitive attitude. And to come back to the UK: I am not going to abate my opposition to the so-called independent nuclear weapon for fear of being thought on the left any more than abate my support for markets and prices for fear of being thought on the right.

The Lib Dems need to be more liberal
14th September, 2012

All libertarians believe that human beings have basic rights to live their life in their own way and to engage in economic activity. Right libertarians stop there. They might be thought of as conservative except that they have no necessary belief in nationalism, tradition and authority displayed by many rightwing parties.

Left libertarians accept these basic rights, but go on to assert that individuals have another right to an equal share in natural resources, defined very broadly to include land, mineral rights and even the atmosphere. They differ from socialists in not caring much about income equality so long as equal rights to natural resources can be established. I am not fond of the word equality, but ownership of natural resources is now so heavily concentrated that we need not argue about how far corrections should go.

[Professor Hillel Steiner of Manchester] helpfully lists four broad policy tendencies that characterise left libertarianism. He identifies first, extensive privatisation and deregulation in the economy and social rules; second, an increasing proportion of state revenue derived from land tax and inheritance tax; third, a shift from conditional welfare benefits towards unconditional basic income or basic capital state entitlement; and fourth, free trade, free immigration and (hopefully) international pooling of land tax revenues.

Mr Steiner doubts if any contemporary political figure would endorse all these lines of thought, but his best guess is Vince Cable. Clearly I would not expect the UK business secretary, or any other practical politician, to sign up to any complete academic scheme. But if the Lib Dems want to move beyond pavement politics and opportunist gestures, left libertarianism seems to me the right way to go. It is better than acting like a Labour colony in a Conservative administration.

A liberal case for scepticism of the EU
28th September, 2012

Since anything that can be mis¬≠understood will be misunderstood, I must start with some disclaimers. I am not urging the EU should end. Like the Holy Roman Empire, it may spend many years in gentle decline doing little good and little harm. Nor am I urging that the UK or any other member state should leave the EU. What I am saying is that the EU no longer deserves the devotion of practical idealists. When voices in Paris or Berlin say the answer to any problem is “more Europe”, by which they mean more centralised power to EU institutions, we should turn a deaf ear. And when some leaders say that “without the euro there is no Europe” we should shrug our shoulders and look at an atlas to reassure ourselves.