In the recent Social Liberal Forum book, David Boyle asserts that “free trade and anti-trust lay at the heart of Liberalism and Liberal economics from the start of the party”. His essay overlaps with David Howarth’s contribution in returning Liberal and Lib Dem economics to its roots, rejecting the false claim that “neo-liberalism” in any way represents the liberal tradition.
David writes that: “The original Liberal idea of free trade was not a simple license to do whatever you want, if you were rich and powerful enough. It was thoroughly aware of Adam Smith’s original warning that collusion between entrenched businesses can end in “a conspiracy against the public”. Liberal free trade “was designed as a means of liberation – so that the small could challenge the big, the poor could challenge the rich with the power of the new approach, the alternative provider, the imaginative, liberating shift”.
So, what went wrong?
“Over the past century, the doctrine of free trade has become its own opposite – permission for the rich to ride roughshod over the poor, an apologia for monopoly and an extractive discipline that prevents the all-important challenge from below. The global economy has turned in on itself – instead of promoting economic liberation, as Adam Smith envisaged, it has become a tool of enslavement. Not just for the underclass or for the poor in underdeveloped countries, but for all of us – and especially for our children”.
David’s essay offers his top five priorities for “21st Century Radical Liberal Economics”. Top of his list is the need to “to build an economy which challenges the big, powerful and entrenched”. Reflecting Vince Cable’s essay on digital monopoly, David wants “to challenge the monopolies and semi-monopolies which are raising prices and undermining service across the Anglo Saxon world, in the name of self-serving ‘efficiency’. Liberal economics in practice means breaking them up, and turning the systems which privilege large-scale landlordism, monopoly, huge mergers and massive inhuman corporations upside down”.
With his fellow-contributors, David Boyle is proposing a basis for Lib Dem economic policy which challenges the conventional wisdoms of both the neo-liberals and those who want to cut us off from the real benefits of open trade and a global economy.
It’s a good read. And, if you want to know David’s other four top priorities, all you have to do is buy the book!
David Boyle is the author of many books including with Joe Zammit-Lucia “Backlash: saving globalisation from itself” (Radix; 2018). He is a former Lib Dem parliamentary candidate. His essay “Trying to remember what Liberal economics meant” appears in Four Go In Search of Big Ideas, available from the SLF website for £9.50 including postage and packing.