On February 20th, David Willetts gave this year’s Oakeshott lecture.
Like most of Willetts’ speeches, it makes many good points and is well
worth a read, even though I’m about to disagree with him on a couple of
The thesis Willetts advances in this speech is roughly as follows:
a) Free markets are important, but they are not enough, alone, to deliver a healthy, functioning society.
b) This has long been recognised in theory, including by Oakeshott
himself, and was given witness to in the example of post-communist
Russia. In addition to freedom, we need some adequate moral and
c) Late in her time in office, Mrs Thatcher came to be
particularly interested in what extra one needed over-and-above
markets. Her solution was to make use of Christian principles, such as
the concept of the Good Samaritan or the Parable of the Talents.
d) Since we live in a secular society, religiously-based
principles can’t work. Instead, we need a new non-religious “Civic
e) One place we might derive non-religious principles is from game theory.
f) Game theory illuminates for us that in many situations there are multiple “equilibria” (situations that are stable in that each person is doing the best thing given what everyone else is doing). A key example might be the equilibria in the “driving on the road” game. In this game we choose whether to drive on the right or the left. There is one equilibrium in which everyone drives on the right (a happy outcome); one in which everyone drives on the left (a happy outcome); and one in which everyone picks at random whether to drive on the right or the left (a potentially very unhappy outcome). If we took a set of people at random and asked them, unguided, to play the “driving on the road” game, then all three of the above equilibria are possible outcomes.
g) Government has a role in guiding us as to which equilibria will occur. [It was not Willetts’ language, but we might say that government policy provides a “focal point”, guiding us towards a particular equibrium.] He believes that anti-discrimination legislation is a good example of this.
h) If policy attempts to impose a situation that is not an equilibrium, there is a good chance that the policy will not achieve its intended effect. Failure to recognise this is a key weakness in much Socialist policy-making. [Steps (g) and (h) are probably the key insights of the lecture. Although they are familiar ideas amongst game theorists, they are not often expressed in this way (or indeed recognised at all) amongst politicians.]
i) Another place we might derive non-religious principles is from evolutionary biology.
j) An interesting example is the vampire bat. Vampire bats that have had the chance to eat more blood than they need regurgitate some for other bats that have not eaten.
k) Such reciprocal altruism is valuable, and relatively straightforward to establish and sustain (through “punishment mechanisms” such as the withholding of “altruistic” assistance if it is offered back in return) amongst small groups. Amongst slightly larger groups, reputation allows the extension of reputation-sustaining altruism. Amongst even larger groups, cultural customs become important.
l) Cultural customs reflect the deeply ingrained habits and practices of people.
m) Among the English, the use of a very unusual family form – the nuclear family, in contrast to the extended family – has necessitated our developing rich customs that allow us to engage with, evaluate, and place trust in strangers.
n) He finishes with the metaphors of the dry stone wall and the masonry arch – held together without mortar by the interrelationship of the stones.
As I mentioned, I think this was a very good speech, and made a number of interesting points, and some that I think absolutely correct and important (particularly (g) and (h)). I do, however, want to challenge him on two related issues, as follows:
- I consider step (d) above as straightforwardly a non-sequitor. It does not follow from the fact that society is secular that Christian principles cannot serve to hold it together and to guide policymaking.
- As he himself concedes, nothing he says tells us which are the “good” equilibria. Therefore without having some further (moral or other choice) principle, he has not addressed his original problem. The idea that he could achieve a “Civic Conservatism” that does not appeal to Christian or some other not-universally-accepted moral system proves to be a delusion.
Let me take these points in order. First, it is simply not the case that most people in society must be Christian for us to be guided by Christianity. Indeed, I hazard that at most times and places in which various versions of Christianity have been used for this purpose, the specific doctrines employed rarely carried majority acknowledgement. Rather, Christians converted the Kings, and the ruling elite were either themselves Christian or were prepared to accept Christianity as useful for guiding policymaking.
For if Willetts is right, then in a sense there are no good or bad equilibria. But there may be advantages in having some idea of how policy is likely to go – some guide to the future, that reduces policy uncertainty. It is enough for this purpose that we know what the rule is likely to be, which equilibria are likely to be preferred. That rule might be that the equilibria a Catholic would prefer will be chosen. It might be those preferred by an Anglican, a Sunni, a Pagan, whatever. We just need a rule. We don’t all need to share the preference ourselves.
The use of a system chosen by the ruling elite that is not shared by the masses is quite normal, even in democracies such as ours. English liberalism is not a doctrine shared by most of the public, who would happily execute murderers, castrate paedophiles, lock away accused terrorists without trial almost indefinitely, torture convicted terrorists for information on their allies, and many other unpleasant things that our ruling elites would not even contemplate. It has never been thought necessary, for English liberalism to be a key driver of policy-making, that most of the public subscribe to its doctrines.
Again, what proportion of the public in 1979 believed in free markets? Did their disbelief mean that it was unthinkable that free market ideology might be a guide to policy? Willetts’ search for a secular solution is just unnecessary. We know what body of doctrine serves our type of capitalism well – the fount from which it sprang: Protestant Christianity. If we don’t fancy that any more, then I would recommend that we try as alternatives Sunni Islam, or, failing that, Roman Catholicism – both have proved compatible with tolerant dynamic societies (albeit not as successful as Protestantism). Either could be made to work here if our elites committed to them sufficiently.
Next, as well as being unnecessary, Willetts’ secular solution is a delusion. It solves nothing. For as he points out in many situations there will be multiple equilibria. So how does a secular “Civic Conservatism” choose which equilibrium to favour? He is silent. He seems to regard as two possible equilibria (i) us all being a bit racist; and (ii) almost all of us being anti-racists who frown upon anything vaguely racist anyone says. But isn’t one of these better than the other? And isn’t deciding that and acting upon that decision precisely one of the things we have politicians for? He says that there will be “normative” political judgements. All I can think that he means is that we end up with the judgements made by whichever politicians happen to be in charge at the time. But this is a theory of democracy, not a theory of Conservatism.
I submit that if our policymaking is to be coherent, we need to reflect a political or moral or religious philosophy that is unlikely to be shared by most of the public, and that it is by no means necessary that it should be so shared. Consistency and predictability are extremely valuable commodities for policy-makers, allowing society to function much more efficiently. We just need to know on what basis our policy-makers are going to proceed. We don’t need everyone to agree with them.