The first question to ask about a political system is: what are the checks on the uncontrolled exercise of executive power? Britain does not have a written constitution with a formal division of powers, but the traditional answer would have been parliament, which, by successfully asserting the right to authorise spending, was able to check the absolutist claims of the monarchy.
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.
Throughout history there have been governments without central banks. But until the European Central Bank was set up, there have never been central banks without governments. Central banks are modern inventions: governments are very ancient.
Conspicuously missing from the coming British general election will be a debate about the size of the state. An uneasy consensus rules that the present scope of activities is about right. The government spends or dispenses 40 per cent of the national income. That is quite a bit more than in 1960 but a lot less than it might have been had the Thatcher privatisations not happened. True, the Conservatives talk about shrinking the state but they are not willing to take political risks to do so.
A hundred years ago all the main countries of the world adhered to a fixed-exchange rate system known as the gold standard.
Review of Capitalism with a Human Face by Samuel Brittan
Published by Edward Elgar, £49.95
This collection of essays by the UK’s leading financial journalist ranges widely, from studies in utilitarian ethics to technical macroeconomics. Samuel Brittan is as much at home with John Rawls as he is with Milton Friedman.