26 May 2017

Sleight of hand in The Pinch

Among other things, The Pinch is an apologia for the role of government. Not surprising, perhaps, given the author is a professional politician. But the way in which David Willetts tries to provide support for the state frequently uses sleight of hand.

In chapter 1, for example, having discussed the history of the British people (pre welfare state), Willetts explains the significance of John Locke, who helped define the individual’s right to property and freedom from interference. He then writes:

This English political tradition emphasizes the strength and importance of civil society, our country’s historic freedoms, [...]
Fine so far, but then:
[...] our country’s historic freedoms, a legitimate role for government in providing equitable justice accessible to all, together with a faith in evolutionary social progress.
Suddenly the “English political tradition”, the discussion of which had hitherto made no mention of welfare, supposedly involves the government providing it. The paragraph continues in the same vein:
[The tradition] sustained a political programme – spreading the rights of citizenship widely and generously – which still matters today. That meant widening the franchise and also spreading what Beveridge called social security – mutual insurance against the evils of Want, Ignorance, Disease, Squalor, and Idleness.
So we somehow jump from Locke, who wrote on the limits of the state and the right to private property, to the government having an important role in redistributing resources. This I call sleight of hand.