A recent post by Professor Tim Bale (Queen Mary University) in the Financial Times discussed the ‘Conservative disposition’, as termed by Michael Oakeshott ‘the party’s pre-eminent postwar philosopher.’
Arguing that there was something inherently Conservative in being apprehensive about Brexit, Bale cited Michael Oakeshott’s description of Tory ‘temperament’ as one reluctant to traverse new waters;
The conservative, wrote Oakeshott “is not in love with what is dangerous and difficult; he is unadventurous; he has no impulse to sail uncharted seas; for him there is no magic in being lost, bewildered or shipwrecked . . . What others plausibly identify as timidity, he recognises in himself as rational prudence . . . He eyes the situation in terms of its propensity to disrupt the familiarity of the features of his world.”
Oakeshott is admired by many Conservatives not least because he is a bonafide Englishman and a philosopher, rather than ‘economist.’ The desire to transcend merely economic principles and present Conservatism as congenital and native has continued as a project for prominent factions of the party.
Oakeshott went on to become professor at the London School of Economics, where he was a colleague and friend to Bill and Shirley Letwin – the parents of Sir Oliver Letwin, MP for West Dorset, and formerly the Duchy of Lancaster 2014-2016 (which means for that time he was responsible for handling the Queen’s financial affairs – currently being discussed in the Paradise Papers). Shirley Letwin wrote the ‘Anatomy of Thatcherism‘ shortly before passing away in 1993. These relationships were outlined in the excellent Thinking the Unthinkable by Richard Cockett.
Thatcher once said “Economics are the method; the object is to change the heart and soul.”
Given that Oliver Letwin has since discovered Behavioural Economics, it is telling that his new book on the Conservative party is titled ‘Hearts and Minds.’ Behavioural science got a further head-nod this year when the Nobel Prize laureate was announced as Richard Thaler – an acquaintance of Oliver Letwin and co-author of the bestselling ‘Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth and happiness‘ with Cass Sunstein.
According to the authors, nudge refers to “any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives. To count as a mere nudge, the intervention must be easy and cheap to avoid. Nudges are not mandates. Putting fruit at eye level counts as a nudge. Banning junk food does not” (Thaler and Sunstein, 2008).
Sunstein went on to become President Obama’s Regulatory Czar while Thaler provided the ideas for Oliver Letwin’s Behavioural Insights or “Nudge” unit.
At its inception, the unit was largely focused on promoting social policy and altering behaviour in ways the public could largely sympathise with – the colours of the lines painted on the street, the positioning of signs to ensure you notice, with aims such as reducing car accidents.
Of course the danger remains that with a ‘nudge’ you will never know what is influencing you or how.
True to form (as Letwin authored the book ‘Privatising The World’ in 1988 while working for N. M. Rothschild) the Nudge Unit was privatised in 2014.
Nudge and Deregulation
A post by Maria Alejandra Madi shortly after the announcement of Thaler’s Nobel ascent, discussed ‘Nudges, individual behavior and neoliberalism’;
She asks and answers the following: which are the reasons that explain the increasing acceptance of the nudge approach to public policy?
‘First, the use of nudges in public policy seems to be associated to the broader processes of deregulation and privatization in the context of financialization.
‘Second, the focus on individual behaviour is consistent with a neoliberal agenda where the new approach to public policy enhances the illusion of free individual choice.
‘Third, behind the partnerships between the public and the private sectors that aim at developing new forms of non-coercive regulations, there is, in truth, a set of economic and political interrelations that shape the financialization of corporate strategies in sectors that used to be related to public services.’
Madi strongly links the use of nudge with deregulation, corporatism and financialisation – all pursuits Letwin has advocated. In the talk below, Letwin describes Social Market Economics. Some call it the Third Way. While Letwin boasts that Marxism has been thoroughly debunked (or so he thought), he says it is now possible to be both Deregulatory and Interventionist.
He doesn’t mean Interventionist in the economic sense which would involve some form of nationalisation or meddling with the market with something like Quantitative Easing (QE).
Here he is talking about psychological interventions a.k.a. nudge.
Brexit; A nudge too far?
Brexit could and has been seen as an opportunity for ‘substantial deregulation’, in the words of Mark Littlewood, director of the Institute of Economics Affairs – one of Britain’s most prominent neoliberal thinktanks. Also one of the most secretive about its funding.
IEA director Mark Littlewood says he voted for Brexit because it’s an “opportunity for substantial deregulation”. Patel: “absolutely right”.
— Adam Bienkov (@AdamBienkov) October 2, 2017
Letwin meanwhile remains central in the Brexit effort. After a short stint as Brexit Minister (before David Davis), he became a leading member and founder of the Red Tape Initiative (RTI) – a cross party group formed in April 2017 to look at ways to tweak and amend laws and regulation during Brexit, in 10 sectors. The group has come under criticism, not least because it met to discuss building regulation and fire safety rules the day after the Grenfell tragedy.
Further, construction news site Building ran a piece after the launch of RTI titled ‘Brexit red tape bonfire to start with housebuilding.’
Politico reports that the group is backed by ‘major business groups’ and receive funding through a small group of donors – the largest of which is from GW Pharmaceuticals Chairman Geoffrey Guy, who pledged £50,000. Donors have been reportedly told they have no influence ‘whatsoever’ over the group’s work. One Brexit-supporting minister told Politico anonymously that despite supporting the principles of RTI there was a threat that it could be “hijacked by big business lobbies like the [Confederation of British Industry] CBI,” while others feel it could be seen as an old boys club, independent of government working to tweak rules. Indeed Letwin is joined on the board by Charles Moore, former editor of the Telegraph and Eton schoolfriend to Letwin.
But is Brexit even what Letwin wanted? Some of the praises of the RTI come from the potential support it can give to the monumental task ahead for government to negotiate and re-regulate its sectors. But maybe, nudging people into loving deregulation hasn’t gone quite according to plan.
Letwin wrote a paper called ‘Drift to Union’ in 1988 in which he pointed out the risk of a Ever Closer Union and a European Superstate. But nevertheless he believed it would have been better to remain in the customs union whilst arguing for reforms, suggesting he was, like Oakeshott described , ‘not too in love with the dangerous and difficult.’
Could this all be the backfiring of Letwin’s ambition?