Gordon Brown's 'Adam Smith problem'.

Author:Watson, Matthew
Position:Features - Viewpoint essay


Gordon Brown has described Adam Smith as his 'hero of the Scottish Enlightenment' for providing a conception of the just economy. On another occasion he identified Smith as the most important figure in the development of social liberalism, the 'golden thread which runs through British history'--in Brown's depiction, from the intellectual life of eighteenth-century Scotland to the governing strategies of New Labour. He has also spoken positively of the vision of national renewal he takes from reading Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments alongside his more famous Wealth of Nations. This is a vision 'of competitive markets and social improvement underpinned by a desire for betterment and empathy, economic efficiency and social justice advancing together' (Brown, 2006b; 2005a; 2002).

Attempting to demonstrate the practical relevance of Adam Smith for contemporary politics, Iain McLean provides substantive support for Brown's efforts to reclaim Smith for the British left. McLean's case emphasises three themes that resonate repeatedly within Smith's work:

(1) the fact that he argued for the institutionalisation of commercial society specifically on the grounds of its politically progressive effects in civilising individuals, their leaders and their nations;

(2) the fact that he linked the health of commercial society to its establishment within a political order founded on the principles of moral egalitarianism; and

(3) the fact that he envisaged an active role for the state in ensuring the provision of the public goods that guarantee the sustainability of the commercial society.

The image of Smith that emerges is very different to the intellectual poster child of 1980s-style Thatcherism. McLean goes as far as to assert that a social democratic reading of his work reveals 'the truest Adam Smith' (McLean, 2006, 138).

McLean arrives at his conclusion on the recognition that Smith is both an economic and a social liberal. There is nothing in the least inappropriate in this characterisation, but it can be shown to pose something of a problem for Brown once it is investigated further. What it means to be an economic liberal in Britain today is inflected with the connotations of an altogether different political settlement to that of what it means to be a social liberal. Despite eleven years of Labour government, the ideology of British economic liberalism continues to contain the imprint of the idealised individual that came to prominence in the politics of Thatcherism. This is a ruggedly independent person who believes in self-help via upward social mobility and who pushes thoughts of social responsibilities very firmly to the background. Directly against such an image, the ideology of British social liberalism continues to be based on the notion of equal individual rights associated with the social responsibilities underpinning the post-war welfare state.

These two distinct articulations of liberalism are clearly difficult to reconcile. For evidence we need look no further than Brown's continual struggle to convince Labour Party supporters that he can successfully balance the dual demands of (economic) efficiency and (social) fairness. One potential reason why they are so difficult to bring together in a coherent programme for government arises--somewhat ironically perhaps--from Smith's own work. Adam Smith returned time and again to the question of the type of individual we all have to become if we are to thrive in the context of market life. At that level, it is possible to identify in Smith's writing a generic tension between the behavioural habits required for a dynamic market economy, and the behavioural habits required for a self-sustaining market society.

Brown's model citizen

Gordon Brown has striven to outline a conception of the model citizen most suited to his programme of British renewal. His is an idealised image of autonomous individuals who support themselves on most matters of everyday life, but who can be sure that the state will guarantee the robust provision of public goods necessary to protect that autonomy. This is pretty much the standard characterisation of the relationship between the individual and political society to be found in liberal philosophy from the seventeenth century onwards, especially as it is applied to the economic sphere. Brown has attempted to capture what he means in this respect by talking about his vision of 'the individual standing firm' in the context of assistance from an 'enabling government' helping them to make more of themselves (Brown, 2005a; 2003).

Brown's emphasis specifically on the economic autonomy of the individual is a clear echo of the Thatcherite doctrine of economic liberalism which continues to pervade contemporary British politics. Yet, this is not to say that the details of policy remain as they were in the 1980s. Thatcherite economic autonomy was defined relative to the tax burden imposed by the state, whereas for New Labour economic autonomy arises from increasing access to the labour market. The New Deal reforms and the introduction of complex systems of Tax Credits both highlight the significance that the Brown Treasury attached to enabling individuals to identify themselves first and foremost as workers. The roads to the autonomy prized so highly by economic liberals are different in the Thatcher and New Labour eras, but the ostensible destination is the same.

Of course, Margaret Thatcher's personal brand of tax-based economic liberalism was framed by the notion that there 'is no such thing as society' (Keay, 1987). Brown's brand of work-based economic liberalism implies something else entirely. In his conception of the idealised individual, 'to work' has two distinct dimensions. On the one hand it is to work on one's own behalf, seeking monetary rewards from waged labour in order to satisfy both current and future consumption needs. This is amply illustrated by the active labour market policies of the New Deal and its mechanism of obligation designed to incentivise incorporation into the labour force. On the other hand it is also to work on behalf of one's community, adding to the collective unpaid effort of ensuring that civic society is sufficiently vigorous to allow every individual to flourish within it. The commitment to nurturing people who give their time to voluntary activities serves as an obvious example (Brown, 1998; 2005b).

Brown thus envisions individuals engaging both consciously and conscionably with the institutions of civic society in an attempt to make life better for others. He has espoused the idea of 'the active citizen', 'the good neighbour' (Brown, 2006b). To become such a person involves a deliberate re-moralisation of the self, a process of enhancing ethical awareness designed to ensure a full contribution to an adequately functioning society. He has paid fulsome tribute to community activists whose selfless efforts in creating local networks of carers, mentors and coaches improves the life experiences of countless other people: 'Britain's everyday heroes: the kind of heroes who live next door, and in the next street, and throughout our neighbourhoods--the kind of heroes we might ourselves become' (Brown, 2008). From his perspective, the goal of a healthy civic society is to allow for greater opportunities of individual self-enhancement, both for those who maintain the structure of voluntary associations and for those who benefit from its services.

In this respect, Brown's model citizen appears to be a manifestation of the same generic ends as those associated with the prevailing doctrine of social liberalism in British politics, as it was with economic liberalism. Yet once more there is a certain distinctiveness about New Labour. The prevailing doctrine of social liberalism in British politics continues to owe much to the traditions of the post-war welfare state, which in turn embodied the sense that no person should be systematically penalised for reasons of social disadvantage. The aim of the post-war welfare state was to provide the ability for everyone to live securely, so that they could then use the knowledge that they would be fed, clothed and housed as the catalyst for bettering themselves. The welfare state was constructed on the basis of transfer payments, access to which was an entitlement of citizenship. Brown also envisions a context in which all individuals are helped to flourish. The difference today, though, is that such a context is created not merely by an individual exercising a right held against the state, but by combining this with other individuals repaying their responsibilities to the state through ensuring robust institutions of civic society.

So Brown's model citizen is someone who cherishes their personal autonomy and accepts that the world of work...

To continue reading