2014年5月3日 星期六

Samuel Brittan ; Ode to Sam



Ode to Sam

Every week or so, in my previous job as comment editor, I would chat to Sir Samuel Brittan about his column. Samuel would have two or six suggestions and he was too polite to let on whether the conversation was mere courtesy. Despite his incredible ability to arrive at my desk five minutes before deadline, it was invariably one of my favourite moments; the FT can be a special place to work.
I would occasionally suggest to Samuel that he write about, say, the latest development in the eurozone crisis or the most recent announcement by the UK government. He would give the uncanny impression of someone contemplating what I had said. But soon enough, I had been enlightened as to the irrelevance of the ephemeral. More than once, Samuel explained as follows: “I’m more interested in ideas.”
Today, Samuel will retire from the FT. This offers a chance to celebrate his biscuit-fueled stamina; and to reflect on how politics, economics and journalism have changed since he joined the newspaper, as it then was exclusively, in the late 1950s. But let’s not overdo it. For in a sense, he will not have retired at all. His writing still provides a humane guide to the world of ideas for any reader curious enough to want one.
In part, this is because the issues Samuel writes about are staying put. One of his first reporting assignments was “to a French automated car plant in response to one of the periodic alarms about machines displacing human beings”. His writing on the European Union, inheritance tax, widespread share ownership, wellbeing and welfare remain urgent – and that is just with reference to some of this week’s stories. Samuel was also an early advocate of basic income, an NHS tax and nominal GDP targeting, three ideas wrongly considered voguish. Take an issue and Sam will probably have considered it thoughtfully and honestly.
Re-reading his essays and columns this week, I was struck by those two aspects: thoughtfulness and honesty. Most journalists engage with proper intellectuals by summarising and popularising their work. Samuel engages with them as an equal. There is a fearless curiosity to his writing; he forages in the thicket of ideas on the left and right, terms he disdains when used one-dimensionally. (There is also dry humour: “I am no Hegel scholar; life is too short”, he once wrote.)
It is a testament to his open-mindedness that I would commend Samuel equally to a Conservative looking for an introduction to Keynes and Rawls as to a Labour supporter curious about Hayek and Popper. He is able to find what is worth keeping in a range of intellectual traditions. One of his legacies should be an appreciation that we do ourselves a disservice if we believe that these thinkers are the exclusive preserve of one side of a debate, like players on a football team.
Not that Samuel’s pluralism approaches post-modernism, which he calls “a retreat from reason”. Nor is his the flight of a magpie, swooping for sparkling ideas for next week’s column. Rather, it reflects, I think, his core belief: that, following Mill, individual liberalism comes first and that individuals should be free to feel, think, suffer and rejoice, so long as no harm is done to others. We must make up our own minds.
And so he does. During a career when many of his peers celebrated abstractions such as “the market” or “capitalism” or “the state” or “the nation” or “society”, Samuel has argued that these matter only to the extent they advance or impede human freedom and interests. (I’ll neglect his more specific economics writing for the sake of brevity.) Consider his beloved Schiller’s Ode to Joy, which he gives by way of example. “All men will be brothers”, the poet wrote. “Brothers”, Samuel observed, not “units in a cosmic whole or parts of some pantheistic utility tank”.
As he put it in A Restatement of Economic Liberalism (1973) “the right kind of market economy can be an instrument of human freedom as well as a way of satisfying human wants.” So, “the market” comes second to the individual, and “capitalism” comes third, as the only proven manifestation of a market economy. He reflected later that: “to an economic liberal, what has gone wrong with the movement to market economics in our day is not that it is too extreme or not extreme enough, but that it has been divorced from a wider commitment to personal freedom.”
These arguments have a firm philosophical footing, beginning with a “heavily circumscribed” utilitarianism, i.e. where a desire of one individual to coerce another carries no weight in the calculation. But since “there is no established liberal position on the distribution of income and wealth”, utilitarianism needs to be “heavily supplemented”, too. Here, Samuel turns towards Rawls or as he pithily puts it: “redistribution, yes; equality, no”.
I haven’t done justice to a lifelong – and I know, unfinished – attempt to reject arbitrary authority while arguing for, as he writes, capitalism with a human face. Anyone who cherishes the freedoms of western society while worrying about their contradictions should spend time with his writings. Suffice to say, thanks to Samuel, the FT’s Settembrini, I’m more interested in ideas, too.