Some Reflections on Freedom

SIR MARTIN JACOMB: Freedom should be the keystone of a successful government

Sir Martin Jacomb maintains that a successful government must have a clear sense of purpose and direction – and that “freedom of the individual should be that ideology”.

In a short essay for the Centre for Policy Studies, Some Reflections on Freedom, Sir Martin explains the danger of the current “ideological vacuum”:

“You can see the need for a clear sense of purpose and direction in the contrast between the organisation of the Olympics, where those in charge had to take thousands of decisions but had a single clear goal, and the present Coalition, with no clearly visible ideology, making numerous blunders and u-turns. Issues such as the privatisation of forests, decisions about airport expansion, decisions about changes to planning controls, about the taxation of charitable gifts, are but examples. There are many others. The Coalition’s appetite for setting up Inquiries – banking, Heathrow and the media to name only three – is another sign of an ideological vacuum. The leader of any organisation or business knows that a clear sense of purpose and direction is essential for success. It is a prerequisite for successful government also…

The idea that a purely pragmatic response to issues which emerge day by day is enough is misguided. The practice of responding to problems by reference to populist opinion, as if constant popularity were a worthwhile goal, is never going to lead to good government. Indeed it is frequently the cause of misguided regulation. In any event popularity today, in the context of politics, leads almost inevitably to unpopularity tomorrow. This is because decisions based on trying to achieve instant popularity often turn out to be wrong and, therefore, become eventually unpopular.”

He applies this principle to the regulation of banking:

“Unfortunately the approach to bank regulation which has been taken since the 2007/8 crisis has been directed entirely to restriction. There has been no attempt to incentivise prudence… The approach stems from the idea that depositors must not lose their money, and the view that some banks are too big to fail. However if depositors and other creditors do not have to worry about which banks are safe, they will obviously be tempted by better returns offered by riskier banks. The incentive to run a bank prudently diminishes. The increase in risky behaviour inevitably follows and this brings with it the need for restrictive regulation. But the cost of all this, which is large, and the enormous cost of bank failures, falls on the innocent public. 

If only those in authority had had the foresight to stick with the principle of preserving as much freedom as possible, to allow caveat emptor to prevail, and to prevent banks from becoming too big and to let the badly managed ones to fail, a great deal of waste would have been avoided and rewards would have gone in the right direction. Preserving freedom would have provided the guideposts.”

He also shows how removing restrictions and restoring freedom can produce beneficial results in other areas, for example education:

“When government authority over spheres of activity is given up, and trust is placed in those running the activity, the result can often be good. Schools provide a good current example. If the governors of a school are trusted, and authority is given to them, the results are usually better than remote public authority control.

A contrary example is the creation and imposition of a body to control or influence admissions to universities. This is a decision which is inconsistent with the idea of freedom. Universities should decide on their own admissions and they should be trusted to recruit the best students for themselves. After all it is in their own interests to recruit the best and they should be given the freedom to do so. They can do their own social adjustments in the process so that able but poor students (which all universities need) can still gain admission.

A reference to the history of universities in France and in Italy would make it clear that government control of university admissions leads inevitably to decline. No one who was guided by ideological attachment to the preservation of freedom could have made the decision to create an ‘Admissions Tsar’.”

He concludes:

“Steps which remove barriers so that anyone can rise according to their merits and efforts are to be welcomed. This most certainly includes good education. Such steps to promote equality of opportunity are consistent with the basic principle of preserving freedom of the individual. This should be the constant keystone.”

Tim Knox, Director of the Centre for Policy Studies comments:

“It is extraordinary how the words “freedom” and “liberty” have been deleted from the political lexicon recently – neither Cameron not Osborne nor Clegg nor Cable nor Miliband nor Balls mentioned them once in their Party Conference speeches this year. This is a missed opportunity: when the UK government is spending just under half of national income, now is the time to make the case that the state should relinquish power and give freedom back to the individual.”

Sir Martin Jacomb - Friday, 4th January, 2013