After her first meeting with Friedrich von Hayek, Margaret Thatcher reputedly said that she had found his observations fascinating, adding, “but he couldn’t tell me what to do.” Gerard Alexander’s review of my book (“Interests Have Consequences, Too,” Vol. III, No. 1), draws perhaps the central and least understood lesson of the Thatcher revolution: the importance of knowing, when the time comes, what to do and how to do it. Disengagement by government is much harder than intervention. It calls for exhaustive causal analysis, meticulous policy design, innovative political management and that greatest of gifts for leaders, an accurate imagination. As Alexander points out, the dependency culture created by incessant government intervention makes disengagement extraordinarily difficult. The fish-hook goes in more easily than it comes out. This problem exists to some extent in virtually all developed economies, and most notably now in the sclerotic Germany of Kohl and Schröder. As Harold Laski said 50 years ago, albeit from a Marxist perspective, “Vested interests do not abdicate before logic.”
During the ’80s, Britain’s pitiful productive economy was almost completely reconstructed and is now the healthiest in Europe (which is not saying much). But the second stage of the Thatcher revolution, the reform of the welfare state, was barely started and has preoccupied—and baffled—the Blair government ever since the 1997 election. Large-scale intervention has become the governmental norm in most developed countries since the 1950s, though Britain was unusual in crippling its productive sector at the same time.
Intervening again, in order to ease this month’s “problem,” is a waste of time. The history and dynamics of a collapsing UK National Health Service (or a Medicare, perhaps) must be understood as a whole, however imperfectly, before you can know where to start. That requires sufficient elapsed time and well-managed thinking by people who know what they are trying to do and have the analytical skills and mental stamina to do it. Their occasional systems jargon will doubtless irritate. But once domestic “regime change” is seen as the only option, a few insights from cybernetics will prove more useful than most of the political folk-wisdom learned from long years of interventionist failure.
Suffolk, United Kingdom
Adam Wolfson mostly praises Sharon Krause’s Liberalism With Honor (“Honor’s Call,” Vol. III, No. 1), and is right to do so. Her attempt to rehabilitate honor for the liberal regime is admirable, and is no small task. As she has it, respect for honor has been in decline since the French Revolution: an understatement, thinking farther back to that hero for a liberal age, Falstaff, for whom honor is only “a word,” “air,” a “mere scutcheon.”
Wolfson’s praise, however, may be overdone. He criticizes Krause a bit for what she does not say, especially insofar as she overlooks the “important” role religion plays in supporting her perception of honor. This is debatable: Falstaff, after all, calls his destructive analysis of honor “my catechism.” More worrisome, however, is Wolfson’s failure to attend to much of what Krause does say. He notes, almost in passing, her “puzzling” choices for exemplars of honor—civil rights advocates and women but no generals and neither Roosevelt—and queries her about how “problematic honor can be when divorced from political principles.”
But he leaves things at that.
This obscures how Krause’s interest in individual agency—i.e., in liberal regimes, individuals will act honourably because it makes them feel good about themselves—displaces interest in discerning what ought to be considered honorable politically. In her version of honor, toleration and individualism trump the age-old concern for standards of political conduct. The question of what makes us feel honorable takes priority for Krause to the question of what is honorable.
Thomas Hobbes makes clear the position of honor in liberal regimes when he says that “in commonwealths…they that have the supreme authority, can make whatsoever they please, to stand for signs of honour.” If Krause wants to get beyond this notion for liberals, she cannot avoid the question of what may be honorable outside of what “pleases” us.
University of California, Davis