Andrew Sullivan and the State

I neglected to respond to this post by Andrew last week.

Reihan puts it less cautiously:

If Cameron embraced an agenda like the one outlined in Grand New Party, he would likely be accused of being a libertarian radical hellbent on destroying the most cherished parts of Britain’s welfare state.

But this is largely a function of where Cameron starts from in a much more collectivist Britain, especially in healthcare and education, as Reihan concedes.

Actually, I don’t think I was conceding anything, though it’s possible that I was unclear. As I understand it, Andrew was saying:

I’m struck, in contrast to R&R, how restrained Cameron is. His policy prescriptions – more autonomy at the bottom of public services, more accountability within the public sector, a gentle tax incentive for marriage – are more in line with traditional conservatism than wage subsidies, for example.

That is, my understanding is that Andrew was describing Cameron as more restrained than the agenda outlined in Grand New Party, and suggesting that this meant that Cameronism was somehow preferable. (I could be wrong about this.) My argument is that it was natural for Cameron to be more restrained given that the British state is far larger. Implicit — actually, explicit — in this is the notion that in Britain, a Grand New Party agenda would be far less statist than Cameronism. It would involve, for example, radically paring back the National Health Service, shrinking employment in the state sector, decentralizing British government. So I’m a little confused as to how my observation is a concession. Similarly, I believe the state ought to be much bigger in Somalia because right now we have a very, some would say pathologically, un-collectivist Somalia. Too un-collectivist, I would submit.

To sum up: Britain, too collectivist. Somalia, not collectivist enough. America, somewhere in between, but much closer to Britain than Somalia. I should hope that conservatives in Somalia wouldn’t be pursuing, say, a Cameronian agenda, as it wouldn’t be very salient to the challenges that country faces. And I sense that a Grand New Party agenda would also be misplaced. Alexander Hamilton is a hero to many American conservatives. Yet he was a champion of centralization and a strong state. Of course, one assumes he would have stopped being a champion of centralization and the strong state once a state reached Soviet levels of power, or even Belgian levels.

For me, the Tory revival has been a tremendous source of ideas and inspiration. Oliver Letwin’s speech on the conveyor belt to crime had a big influence on me. The same goes for David Willetts, in particular his work on the family, Tim Montgomerie and Iain Duncan-Smith, and Danny Kruger, among others. Their ideas definitely shaped Grand New Party. Yet it was obvious to me that America needs different institutional reforms from contemporary Britain. Monica Prasad’s The Politics of Free Markets, a book I mention a lot, argues that though Reagan and Thatcher both drew on Hayek and Friedman, they governed very differently — they governed in response to very different circumstances, and at times pursued the opposite policies, e.g., tax cuts in the U.S., tax hikes in Britain, etc. That is to be expected.