Kristian Niemietz, he of the IEA and the Twitter, has written a fairly condemnatory blog about communitarianism. It’s typically interesting and typically scathing, but I think there are a couple of points which pop out and are worth addressing.
The main thrust of Niemietz’s piece is that communitarians are far from unique in caring about community, having a sense of place, belonging. In fact, he argues, everybody does, and that’s why he never writes about it; it’s just assumed, trite, cliché.
I think this is probably a bit of a sleight of hand. I suspect the real reason Niemietz doesn’t talk about it is because he doesn’t really view it as something that politics ought to address. For the Institute of Economic Affairs, politics is economics. Political debate is about establishing the best economic model and everything else flows from that. All these other feelings that people bring with them; community, patriotism, happiness… well, they are certainly real, but what should politics have to do with them? In this economistic view of the world, Niemietz is not so far removed from the Marxists, nor from the Corbynites he so often derides.
But let’s give him his due. I’ve always thought that politics is to a large extent a matter of degrees of emphasis. Most people will be able to agree on most things in isolation, but how we rank one above another can vary significantly. Perhaps we can say communitarians are more likely to show interest in ideas of community and belonging; that they will place these things further up their list of priorities.
The key thing Niemietz gets wrong, I think, is that he waves away any relevance of liberal economics and economists to, well, anything. Liberal economists will not tell you that you are wrong if you prefer the community of your small town to the job prospects of the big city, he says. Sure, they won’t. But perhaps the pursuit of liberal economics these past four decades has led us to a place where this is no longer a choice for many people at all. You can’t stay and enjoy your local community if there are no jobs. Your hand is forced.
This, I think, is communitarianism’s value. It can ask more humanistic questions than liberal economics. If a Post Office closes in a small town, liberal economics says that’s just the market, it’s unviable, tough. If bus routes are poor in rural areas, it’s because there aren’t enough people to render them profitable. If high streets are boarded up, if elderly people no longer have a bank close to hand, if there are no decent job prospects anywhere nearby, well, shrug. Market says no.
And this is where communitarianism comes in. Should the decisions on what our towns look like be left to the market, or can the State intervene (either directly, or via devolved powers)? Should we look on local transportation in a purely economic way, or is it best viewed as a social good? Might we invest in local bus routes, in community spaces, in supporting local stores, in making sure all regions are connected and have good employment opportunities? Could we consider that pounds and pence might not be the only way of valuing the worth of something? I agree with Niemietz that the State cannot “make” a society more cohesive. But it can certainly create the conditions to render that more or less likely.
So if you don’t want to be dismissed as a “bean-counting philistine who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing”, don’t address every problem from a purely economic standpoint. People are not units of labour, they are human beings, and surely one lesson we’ve learnt these last few years is that economics is not sufficient, our politics is increasingly dependent on more. A failure to understand and appreciate this fully is one of the reasons that Niemietz’s economic liberalism is currently on the back foot, and no doubt why Boris Johnson’s Tories are backing away from Cameron Conservatism (certainly at least rhetorically) and talking about “levelling up” the country.
One thing I will agree with Niemietz on is that this is anti-liberalism; or, at least, anti-economic liberalism. It is a critique of free market capitalism, and it is also a dividing line in both main parties; the point at which conservatism and economic liberalism become uncoupled, and where internationally minded Labour members struggle to articulate solutions. Ultimately it is a recognition that, for all the prosperity that capitalism has undoubtedly delivered, it has also come with a cost, measured in dislocation, community breakdown, regional decay, a sense of loss. Communitarianism is not “an unwillingness to engage in economic arguments”, more an understanding that those debates are not the only thing that matters to people, that some things are more important than GDP. It is a politics that tries to give a voice to those on the wrong end of economic liberalism, and I think it is a voice worth hearing.