[This book review by Dwight Murphey is being published directly to his collected writings website.]


Book Review


Them and Us: Changing Britain – Why We Need a Fair Society

Will Hutton

Abacus, 2011


          British social commentator Will Hutton was for four years the editor-in-chief of the Observer, the sister paper of Britain’s The Guardian, both of which promote a “social democratic” philosophy.  In this, his sixth book,  he seeks to make rather an exhaustive review of the reforms he thinks desirable for his country (while arguably overlooking, as we will note later, some of the principal problems faced by contemporary Britain).  His overall position favors an activist government, with a Keynesian program of counter-cyclical infrastructure spending,  within a market economy.  Looking across the Atlantic to the United States, he says that President Obama’s actions “may not have matched his soaring rhetoric, but his words nonetheless identify the attitude that is needed.”

          The idea of mixing governmental activism with a market economy marks, it would seem, a near-endpoint to the rightward shift of European socialist thought since the end of World War II.  This shift first saw an abandonment of the idea of government ownership of the means of production, combined with an acceptance of private property.  For several years, the thought was that it was all right to have a market economy so long as government occupied “the commanding heights.”  Most recently (in 1997), Hutton says, now-former Prime Minister Tony Blair caused the Labour Party to drop “Clause 4’s call to nationalise the commanding heights of the economy,… accepting privatisation.”  That leaves relatively little semblance of what just a few decades ago was the socialist program. 

Hutton’s “active government” within a system of “good” rather than “bad” capitalism is remarkably close to what a well-rounded classical liberalism would call for.[1]    This convergence would be more apparent if there were such a thing as a “well-rounded” free-market, limited government position in today’s British or American thinking – but there isn’t.[2]  Even then, however, the convergence would be confounded by substantial differences in concept and attitude between those coming from the Left and those from the Right.  As we will see, Hutton’s mindscape is colored by several ideas that have been important to socialist thought and that are congenial to the Left but are ill-received by the Right.  His is at present an unresolved ideological polarity, mixing an acceptance of the market economy with a retention of a socialist outlook in significant ways. (An example is his looking with favor on employee ownership, which some socialists have envisioned as one of the many paths to socialism, especially when combined with an abolition of the owner-employee form of business.  Another example is Hutton’s preference for “co-determination,” even though he avoids using that word.  We see this in his advocacy of “shareholder capitalism,” with businesses run “in the interests of shareholders, customers, employees and wider society.”  This has a long history in socialist thought, going back variously to Mussolini, Lenin, FDR’s initial NRA program, and the co-determination employed as part of post-World War II European socialism.)  It may be possible that new formulations, attractive to both Left and Right, will eventually come about, but that will take some doing even if the Right comes to modulate its current views.

Hutton says that his goal would be “to create a good capitalism and a good society,” as distinguished from “bad capitalism.”  He doesn’t accept the recently-fashionable idea that markets are perfect, saying that “capitalism’s self-correcting properties, unless supplemented… are very weak.”  He argues that “a capitalist enterprise [should have] a moral dimension and purpose,” and not simply be a quest for profit.  The value system should be “fairness, proportionality and mutual respect,” with the concept of “due desert” being at the heart of any remuneration.  It is interesting that R. H. Tawney, in his book The Acquisitive Society,  said all of this from a socialist point of view, while John Bogle, founder of the Vanguard Fund in the United States and profoundly pro-capitalist, says it from a pro-market perspective.  Even the late Milton Friedman, who prominently argued against the concept of “corporate social responsibility” by saying that a business’s exclusive task is to return a profit to its investors, would have been quick to acknowledge that there needs be an entire culture of honor, honesty, family and community values, and respect for law in the free society of which business activity is a part.

Hutton comes close to harking back to the “labor theory of value” (integral to the thinking of much socialist thought, including Marx in Das Kapital) when he says “we believe that conscientious students deserve to get good grades, that athletes who practice regularly deserve to do well.”  This, of course, would be utter foolishness in the context of a market system, where consumers care little about the amount of effort expended, so it is good that Hutton adds the qualification that the effort “must be accompanied with successful results.”  Thus, we see in this a mixture of disparate ideas.

It is worth noting that Hutton departs from a basic premise of the Left in another connection when he asks “are the poor to be excused any individual responsibility for attempting self-betterment?”  The ideology that arose early in the nineteenth century out of the disaffected intelligentsia’s seeking of an alliance with the “have-not” has been predicated on the rationale that the great mass of people are entrapped and exploited, making it a principal task of the state to see to their liberation.  (This would serve as a concise statement of, say, Ferdinand Lassalle’s position.)  To impute some degree of self-propulsion to “the poor” is, in effect, a radical challenge to the presuppositions of the Left.  It should be noted, of course, that the Left has, since World War II, largely (although by no means entirely) abandoned its sought-for alliance with what it used to call “the proletariat,” and has put much more emphasis on championing ethnic and racial minorities, producing the ideology of “multiculturalism.”

Hutton bases much of his thinking on an idea championed by the early twentieth century “social liberal” Leonard Hobhouse and by the nineteenth century  American classical liberal Henry George (although Hutton shows no awareness of George).  George differed from other free-market advocates when he saw that much landed wealth (including that arising from minerals) comes not from the efforts of the owner, but from the growth of population.  To George, the owner’s  “unearned increment” should be seen as a valid pool for taxation to provide for the needs and amenities of the community in general.  Hobhouse gave this a more expansive interpretation, applying it to other forms of wealth.  Hutton explains Hobhouse’s thesis as being “that individual wealth is principally the consequence of the ‘sum of intelligence’ that civilization places at any individual business’s disposal.”  He says that “in Liberalism, published in 1911, Hobhouse explained that taxation was ‘just compensation’ – the state’s due desert – for this crucial social contribution to wealth creation, rather than [something that should be seen as] a means of income redistribution.”  This reviewer has much more recently made the point that the concept applies to all sorts of technical and scientific innovation; a computer whiz, for example, in 2030 may do wonderful things, but will be benefitting from the vast accumulation of cybernetic knowledge developed before his time.

This realization could well feed a convergence of classical liberalism (the advocates of which have until now ignored Henry George, opting for an unqualified adherence to “property rights,” fearful that any concessions will be taken to the point of destroying private ownership) and a “social liberalism” as promoted by Hobhouse.  Hutton, however, sometimes gives the impression that he runs too far with the idea, occasionally showing an animus against all wealth and yet at other times acknowledging that some of it is justified as “due desert.”  When he takes the latter position, his views are consonant with a convergence; but when he does not, he is taking the idea so far into a full “leveling” that he approximates the sort of equality favored by socialist thought.  He, and others of his persuasion, will need to decide just how close they are to socialist concepts for a convergence with even a Henry George-like classical liberalism to occur.

Hutton aggregates his thinking into the overarching concept of “fairness.”  As the subtitle of the book says, “we need a fair society.”  One can well imagine that a social and economic system based on a market economy existing within a context of “due desert, proportionality and mutual respect,” might gain broad public acceptance (i.e., “legitimacy”) on the simple prudential ground that it would serve individual and social imperatives well.  Thus founded, it would need no metaphysical bedrock to tie to.  As with so many thinkers, however, Hutton doesn’t consider this sufficient.  He finds the unneeded rationale in some spurious “new developments” in psychology, thereby invoking something of a fashionable scientistic basis.  On this basis, he posits that human beings are “hard-wired” into “universal agreement” on moral matters.  Thus, he speaks of “intuitive judgements of right and wrong… that transcend history, religion and culture.”  It would be well if he were to jettison this part of his argument, since a moment’s reflection shows how nonsensical it is.  When he talks about a morality that transcends history and culture, is he unaware of cannibalism, slavery, human sacrifices – and, more recently, the mass bombing of civilians?  We will be well advised to disregard this part of his thinking, which is by no means essential to his message.

Even readers who find Hutton’s main position congenial will, however, want to examine critically several of his more specific propositions.  Here are some of them:

He doesn’t seem to share a classical liberal’s fear of government.  He wants a Press Standards Commission that will monitor the media’s misreporting and see to the “accuracy of newspapers’ content.”  The Commission will be able to “set tariffs for damages” (whatever that means) and “demand proportional apologies and corrections.”  To almost all Americans, at least, this would seem an extremely dangerous power, subject to much abuse.  Unfortunately, not all of the abuse would be perceived as such, since a prevailing ideology almost always thinks it is no more than reasonable when it imposes its own perceptions of what is true.  For example, those who insist on “political correctness” today hardly understand it as a violation of civil liberties.

Although Hutton decries the selling-off of British industries to foreigners and says the United States and Britain need to stop being the “importers of last resort” for China and Germany, he doesn’t see any inconsistency between these concerns and his conventional condemnation of “protectionism.”  This is a common myopia among commentators in both the United States and Britain. The low-wage, low-regulation competition from the billions of people of the Third World in a global market doesn’t portend to them a permanent hollowing-out of their own country’s industry, since they seem to think that “knowledge work” will be a sufficient basis for the economic well-being of the advanced economies, leaving the “cognitively undemanding work” to the rest of the world.  Just how “knowledge work” is to provide income, in the absence of industry, to the millions of citizens whose intelligence and temperament don’t lend themselves to “skills training” is something such commentators, including Hutton, don’t address.  The reason they don’t consider it is that they are thoroughly imbued with the now-conventional egalitarian notion that everyone is equal in intelligence and motivation.  (This is the same notion that has been the essential fallacy behind the “No Child Left Behind” educational program in the United States that has judged every school by whether it can raise all students’ test scores to a competent level, and behind President Obama’s declaration that “every child” should be made capable of college.)

Although we can see the insufficiency of assuming that skills training can be a universal solvent so that the population in general will be able to get jobs in knowledge work, this is an insufficiency that relates to a work-centered world.  If people in general are to support themselves by having jobs, then job-supplying industry will have to be brought back, and the “hollowing-out” stopped.  In the long run, however, the thinking of people like Hutton (and in the United States, Robert Reich comes to mind) will have to shift from a job-centered economy to one based on a non-labor-intensive technology.  Robotics and cybernetics will over time offer enormous productive potential – but relatively few jobs.  This raises societal issues that aren’t getting the attention they now so urgently demand.  That Hutton doesn’t see those issues is not a criticism of him uniquely.  One wonders how long it will take for serious social observers to notice that the world is changing quite radically.

Not surprisingly, given Hutton’s absorption of the conventional outlook of today’s social democratic Left, he betrays no concern about the cultural, ethnic, religious and national continuity of British (or indeed, Western) civilization.  What is spoken of by so many others as “the impending death of the West” finds no place in his discussion.  Those who are deeply concerned about the demographic changes that are due to come from declining birth rates among the historic population and the influx of millions of people from the Third World into the West are, to Hutton, “xenophobes,” “foreigner-bashers” and “paranoids.”   (Anyone familiar with the neuroses that infect contemporary discourse won’t be surprised by the lack of civility these epithets display.)    

Nor will a reader of Hutton’s book a century from now find any hint of the social crisis caused by what Peter Hitchens has called “the hideous cultural and moral revolution of the 1960s” that still “goes completely unchallenged.” Hitchens tells how in Britain today “gaunt young men who have never worked and never will work smoke marijuana or inject heroin untroubled by an emasculated police force, and their sisters have babies outside wedlock, adding to the enormous number of fatherless families dependent on state handouts for their narrow lives.”[3]  Such concerns lie outside Hutton’s thinking.

We have already observed that Hutton is a Keynesian.  It’s noteworthy that he continues endorsing the “fine-tuning” macroeconomic policy that seeks to moderate booms and busts by fiscal and monetary policy.  Hutton doesn’t see what it seems to us should be apparent after the recent financial meltdown: that there is a crisis in the fine-tuning approach, a crisis that arguably should force some rather radical restructuring of the monetary and banking framework for a market economy.

Hutton’s praise for the European/American intervention in Libya may be his only discussion of international affairs, but it is a revealing one.  It indicates that his thinking is aligned with the global-meliorist mission that both the United States and Europe have set out on in recent decades.  It is a meliorism that is not content with giving economic aid, but extends as well to “nation building” (evident in the attempt to reorient male-female relationships in Afghanistan) and military intervention.    

Subject to the caveats inherent in what we have said, there is enough that is thoughtful and provocative in Them and Us to make it a book well worth reading.  It goes without saying that there is a great deal more in it than we have been able to mention. (We have, say, only spoken briefly of his rejection of the market fundamentalism that reigns in so much laissez-faire thinking in both Britain and the United States today; haven’t broached the subject of his desire to see government break up large financial and business concentrations to produce a competitive smaller-firm economy;[4] and, subject to what we have just said about his not seeing the need for deeper restructuring, haven’t reviewed his excellent analysis of the recent financial crisis and of reforms that he sees as desirable in its wake.)  A good portion of what Hutton has to say has real merit, albeit additional caveats are called for.  As with everything, a reader will do well to bring his own critical processes to bear.   


                                                                                                    Dwight D. Murphey


[1]   By “well-rounded” we mean one that would be fully adequate to addressing the prerequisites of a workable market system and the varied preconditions of a free society.  But that’s a vast subject that we cannot hope to explore here.

[2]   Instead, today’s American Right, and even the prevailing free-trade/globalist orthodoxy that is more broadly accepted than “the Right” per se, has by osmosis taken on the more salient features of the Austrian School of Economics, with a sweeping denunciation of “regulation” (viewed generically), a call for “no new taxes,” and the perception that the best remedy for the downside of the trade cycle is to “let the bottom fall out” so that new life can rise from the ruins.  We are assigning these observations about the American Right (which we gather from Hutton are descriptive also of much thinking in Britain) to footnotes because an extended discussion of them would digress from Hutton’s book.  It suffices just to notice that this shift further to the right by the Right is an important reason why there is not more of a convergence of viewpoints occurring.  


[3]   Peter Hitchens, “The Myth of Margaret Thatcher,” The American Conservative, March 2012, p. 12.

[4]    Smaller-firm competitive capitalism is what Woodrow Wilson sought with his “New Freedom” program in the U.S. presidential election of 1912.