The nasty party just got even nastier

by Chris Bertram on June 9, 2012

I’ve blogged about this before, but the UK Coalition government’s proposals to restrict the immigration of spouses of British nationals just came a step closer to being enacted. Though packaged as a measure against forced marriage, this is a proposal that will drive into exile or separation many people whose personal income falls below the £25,700 threshold and who happen to have been unlucky enough to fall for a non-EU citizen. Sheer evil. The Guardian:

bq. British citizens with foreign-born partners are to be given the choice of indefinite “exile” in countries including Yemen and Syria or face the breakup of their families if they want to remain in the UK, under radical immigration changes to be announced next week, MPs have been told. The home secretary, Theresa May, is expected to confirm that she will introduce a new minimum income requirement for a British “sponsor” without children of up to £25,700 a year, and a stringent English speaking test for foreign-born husbands, wives or partners of UK citizens applying to come to live in Britain on a family visa. Immigration welfare campaigners say that the move will exclude two-thirds of British people – those who have a minimum gross income of under £25,700 a year – from living in the UK as a couple if they marry a non-EU national. They estimate that between 45% and 60% of the 53,000 family visas currently issued each year could fall foul of the new rules.

It is hard to have any hope that the Liberal Democrats might decide this is a line they cannot cross, but they have to be put under pressure. People have to write to their MPs of whatever party and make their disgust known, as well as trying to get the Labour Party in the shape of Chris Bryant and Yvette Cooper to take a stand (rather than trying to be more nationalist than the Tories). I wonder also whether the academics who are members of the UK Border Agency’s Migration Advisory Committee shouldn’t be being asked tough questions by their academic colleagues and urged to resign.

Red Plenty or socialism without doctrines

by John Q on June 9, 2012

Among the many reasons I enjoyed Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty, one of the most important is that the story it tells is part of my own intellectual development, on one of the relatively few issues where my ideas have undergone an almost complete reversal over the years. I was once, like most of the characters in the book, a believer in central planning. I saw the mixed economy and social democracy as half-hearted compromises between capitalism and socialism, with history inevitably moving in the direction of the latter.

While I was always hostile to the dictatorial policies of Marxist-Leninism, I thought, in the crisis years of the early 1970s, that the Soviet Union had the better economic model, and that the advent of powerful computers and new mathematical techniques would help to fix any remaining problems. At the same time, I was critical of the kinds of old-style methods of government intervention (tariffs, subsidies and so on) that are now called ‘business welfare’.

Over time, and with experience of actual attempts at planning on a smaller scale, I became steadily more disillusioned with the idea. On the whole, I concluded Hayek and Mises had the better of the famous socialist calculation debate of the 1920s and 1930s, and that their arguments about the price mechanism had a lot of merit. This didn’t, however, lead me to share their free-market views, particularly in the dogmatic form in which I encountered them studying economics at the Australian National University.

Although I hadn’t read him at the time (and I wonder what Corey Robin would have to say on the subject), I agree pretty much with Oakeshott when he says ‘This is, perhaps, the main significance of Hayek’s Road to Serfdom — not the cogency of his doctrine, but the fact that it is a doctrine. A plan to resist all planning may be better than its opposite, but it belongs to the same style of politics’. This aspect of Hayek is even more pronounced in Mises, for whom free-market economics is a matter of logical deduction, and taken to a ludicrous extreme by their propertarian followers today.

The same kind of thinking was evident in much of the financial ‘rocket science’ that gave us the global financial crisis. The belief was that sufficiently sophisticated financial ‘engineering’ could overcome the realities of risk and uncertainty, producing untold wealth for its practitioners while making society as a whole more prosperous – only the first part of the promise was delivered.

So, rather than switching from central planning to free-market capitalism, I’m now, in Andre Metin’s description of Australia in early C20, a believer in ‘socialism without doctrines’, starting from the historical premise that Keynesian social democracy has delivered better outcomes than either free-market dogmatism or central planning, and looking for ways to develop a new social democratic vision relevant to our current circumstances.

As Red Plenty shows, my enthusiasm for and disillusionment with central planning was about fifteen years behind the same developments in the Soviet Union itself. Spufford gives us a sympathetic picture of their hopes, and of the promise generated by new mathematical techniques like linear programming and optimal control (although entirely free of actual math, the book does a better job than any I’ve read of conveying the feel of these techniques). In 1956, Kruschev makes his famous promise of overtaking the US, and it seems quite credible, but a decade later, all belief in the promise of plenty has been lost. As the book ends, the mathematical programmers charged with making the plan work are pushing the benefits of prices – some at least, like Janos Kornai, would complete the journey to the free-market right, and advocacy of the ‘shock therapy’ approach to post-Communist transition.

Red Plenty is a great book. It would be fascinating to see Spufford tackle the post-Soviet transition and particularly the way in which liberal reformers like Chubais and Berezovsky transformed themselves into oligarchs, with the aid of Western academic economists like Andrei Shleifer. The pattern of naïve faith and disillusionment with free-market economics would make a perfect counterpoint to the story of central planning presented here.