Wednesday, 30 July 2014

"Neo-liberals" and "progressives": never the twain shall meet?

I was asked to give evidence on behalf of the Fabian Society to the Beveridge Committee on Broadcasting, and although I refused on the grounds that I was not a Socialist (this was countered by saying that there was not a specifically Socialist point of view on broadcasting), I did in fact prepare the first memorandum considered by the Fabian Society Committee on broadcasting and which was the basis from which their discussions proceeded.

Ronald Coase 1961

There is an interesting new working paper out on Ronald Coase and the Fabian Society: Competitive discussion in liberal ideology by David M. Levy and Sandra J. Peart. Levy and Peart open the paper by saying:
Ronald Coase wrote the 1949 memo that guided the discussion of the Fabian Research Group on broadcasting. In the evidence presented to the Beveridge Committee on broadcasting, the Fabians endorsed his recommendations by and large. These two facts have previously escaped notice and, as a result, our understanding of post-war economic thought has been misinformed. The stereotype of post-war economic thought divides the profession into two groups, “neo-liberals” and “progressives”. In this stereotyping “neo-liberals” are said to advance a policy agenda in which markets, rather than governments, provide services; “Progressives”, by contrast, are said to favor a greater role for governments in the provision of services. In this admittedly broad characterization, there is little room for “neo-liberals” to collaborate with “progressives”.

Coase is said to typify the “neo-liberal”, while the Fabians do the same for “progressives.” As such, we would expect that they would have nothing in common in the dimension of policy recommendations. The evidence presented below, however, demonstrates that Coase and the Fabians proposed a third alternative, one that avoided the government-market dichotomy that has been so important in stereotyping post-war thought. Instead of proposing a market or a government solution, Coase and the Fabians recommended that broadcasting in Britain be fragmented to break up the BBC monopoly whose origins Coase had so carefully studied (Coase 1950). When the Beveridge Committee recommended a continuation of the monopoly, Coase was, not surprisingly, distressed. Moreover, he was not pleased with the minority report that recommended commercializing television because Coase thought that policy would be outside the British consensus.

Coase’s willingness to allow public consensus to trump the theoretical rationale for market provision of broadcasting suggests a deep problem with the stereotype of post-war market liberalism. In both the memo for the Fabian Society and his book, Coase used a recently coined word—totalitarian—to describe the theoretical rationale for a broadcasting monopoly presented by the spokesperson of the BBC, Lord Reith. By the word “totalitarian” Coase meant something more general than the policies advocated by Hitler, Mussolini, or somewhat nearer at hand, Mosley, but rather the view that state policy can ignore the legitimate wishes of the citizens of the state. The idea that there are “democratic goals” that can be separated from “democratic means”—a view that Lord Reith articulated frequently as we document in note 8—is the heart of the danger which Coase always and everywhere opposed.
Interesting stuff. The idea that a socialist group like the Fabians were willing to go along with Coase on breaking up the BBC monopoly is not something we would expect to see given the standard division of post-war thought into two, non-intersecting, groups of socialists and (classical) liberals. Coase's opposition to totalitarian thought is somewhat less surprising.

Levy and Peart continue,
The first two paragraphs of the Coase memo reproduced in the documents section below (p. 20) speak to the heart of the issue. What is needed, Coase urged, is sufficient public information to allow an informed discussion to take place. In Coase’s view public discussion had been stymied. Perhaps for strategic reasons, those in authority have not revealed the requisite information about possible alternative arrangements. The issue Coase stresses is not the efficient satisfaction of wants by market processes but public knowledge with which people can work out what institutions seem best to them. In his 1950 British Broadcasting, Coase closes the chapter “Public Discussion of the Monopoly” with the consequences of systematic suppression of information:
Though the programme policy of the Corporation gave the lower social classes what they ought to have, it gave the educated classes what they wanted; or, at any rate, more of what they wanted than they thought they would obtain with what was believed to be the only alternative—commercial broadcasting (1950, p. 177)
The paternalism of the BBC is obvious in that the "lower social classes" got what the BBC considered they should have, rather than what they actually wanted and the "educated classes" got an amount of what they wanted decided by the BBC.

The first two paragraphs of Coase's memo referred to above read:
Memorandum by Mr. R. H. Coase

1. The task of the Beveridge Committee

What is wanted is an entirely new approach to the problems of broadcasting policy in Great Britain. The present attitude is one of uncritical acceptance of the existing organisation. This can largely be attributed to the way in which previous Committees worked. The Crawford Committee, which led to the establishment of the BBC, made (so far as I have been able to discover) no detailed examination of alternative schemes. And we know from Lord Elton that the Ullswater Committee (of which he was a member) came to their conclusions without questioning the basic assumptions on which the case for the existing organisation (and in particular the monopoly) rested.

The present Committee should take a different view of its responsibilities. Alternative arrangements should be examined. And most (if not all) of the evidence presented to the Committee should be published. The lack of information on what is possible has greatly handicapped public discussion. Publication of the evidence would permit an independent assessment of the conclusions reached by the Committee and would assist in the development of an informed public opinion on broadcasting policy.
Here we can see the typical Coaseian call for comparative institutional analysis. And a call to make sure that people have the information to basis such analysis on. We should always think about the role that alternative institutions play in ameliorating or exacerbating conflicts in a world of positive transaction costs - including broadcasting.


Jim Rose said...

Thanks, I got this on my pile to read, I will get to it sooner now

Paul Walker said...

Yes its worth a read. The Fabians and Coase agreeing is just too weird for me!