Book Review: A rational sceptic who is always his own man

Review of Against the Flow by Samuel Brittan
Atlantic Books, £19.99

Samuel Brittan has an unmistakable “voice”. In political philosophy, he is an extreme individualist: it is individuals, not groups, who “feel, exult, despair and rejoice”. A private person, intensely protective of his habits, he despises and fears crowds and manifestations of tribal passion. In economic philosophy, he calls himself a “redistributive market liberal”. The emphasis is on the “market liberal” but some redistribution of capital and income is justified to compensate for the inherent defect in private property rights. In international relations, he is a Cobdenite non-interferer, believing that we do not have enough knowledge to reshape the world.

This compilation of his Financial Times columns, occasional essays and reviews is a splendid introduction to the UK’s foremost analyst of current affairs. Brittan’s writing is marked by wide reading and a curiosity that eschews disciplinary boundaries. He stands out not just as a “translator” of others’ thoughts, like any good columnist, but by virtue of his own fine critical intelligence. He is always his own man. By training an economist who specialised in macroeconomics, he has become increasingly bored with narrow technical issues and has moved on to “ideas”, which he discusses with enviable economy and elegance.

One cannot read Brittan for long without being struck by his intellectual and verbal playfulness, although it could be counted a defect of his writing that it lacks passion. He has all the distrust for enthusiasm of an 18th-century rationalist, relying on scepticism and irony to deflate bombast. Brittan’s distinctive voice comes out most clearly in his extreme scepticism concerning collectivist remedies. Religious fervour arouses a particular horror in him, together with secular beliefs religiously held. His fear of the masses distances him from those Panglossians who regard more democracy as an infallible cure for the world’s ills. The title of one of his columns is “The awful lure of the grassroots”.

His familiar targets are here: the lump of labour and export drive fallacies, arms sales, stakeholding, communitarianism, “growthmanship” (“It is much better that the growth rate should emerge from people’s own choices”), the Third Way, Asian values, governance (“I hate that horrible word”). So are pet projects such as basic income for all, not just for reasons of redistributive justice but to give people a genuine choice between leisure (a high value for Brittan) and work. There is also a sprinkling of bright ideas, such as allowing taxpayers to indicate on their tax returns the reliefs they want to claim.

Three topics tackled in Against the Flow deserve particular notice. The first is Brittan’s scepticism about inflation targeting. He has long favoured a nominal gross domestic product (a combined prices and output) target over an inflation target, because it gives more scope for discretion and less to the “forecasting delusion”. Returning to the subject a year ago, Brittan wrote that “inflation targets (were) best suited to a period like the 1990s, when inflation has come down towards low single figures, but there is insufficient confidence that it will be maintained there”. They were less suited to periods of high inflation, when monetary contraction could be too costly, to periods when the risk was on the side of stagnation or to episodes of “irrational exuberance”. For these reasons, he considers – rightly – that inflation targets are unlikely to be “a permanent regime like the gold standard or even the post-war Bretton Woods system”.

Brittan’s hostility to religion is much in evidence. His claim that morality can do without the support of religion is logically correct but it seems to me false for most people at most times. Religion is a civilising influence. Religious fervour has been associated with outbreaks of savagery but the human condition might well have been much more brutish without it.

The weakest section consists of 13 pieces on international relations. Here Brittan has no expert knowledge, and first principles yield no clear policy prescriptions. By instinct and belief a neo-pacifist, he is surprised to find that “the characteristic American view of the world since September 11 2001, is, although uncomfortable, a good deal closer to the truth than the European Union one”. The reason lies in his conviction that “violent Islamic fundamentalism” poses a mortal threat to the west. Such an expansive (and absurdly exaggerated) view of the menace plays into the hands of those who want to start preventive wars all over the world or who grimly look forward to a clash between Christianity and Islam. I prefer the Cobdenite Brittan. It would be interesting to know what he thought of the Iraq invasion. He does not reprint a column on it – for the good reason that he never wrote one.