Magazine article The Spectator

The Role of the State

Magazine article The Spectator

The Role of the State

Article excerpt


by Tony Judt

Penguin, £20, pp. 256,

ISBN 9781594202766

Tony Judt is a vivacious and controversial historian. He is Jewish but has turned against Israel. He is a thinker of the Left who has ended up in the USA. And now he has been struck down with a grievous illness, a virulent form of motor neurone disease which has left him paralysed from the neck down. As a result he has composed his latest book in his head and then dictated it to an aide, using the classic memory device of setting the text in different rooms of an elaborate building. This elegant essay is the result.

Judt's illness has left him determined to restate his belief in what he calls social democracy. It is above all aimed at the younger generation. He fears that, because of the dominance of neo-liberalism, they have lost an appreciation of the good that the state can do.

This book is rather like a modern version of T. H. Marshall's classic 1950 essay, 'Citizenship and Social Class'. It is an attempt to mount a sustained argument about the pattern of human progress in which the state is a key agent for the expansion of prosperity and freedom. But this Whiggish narrative of human progress is interrupted by the rise of Thatcher and Reagan: it is their doctrines which he hopes to defeat.

I do not believe he quite carries it off.

Oddly enough for a historian, it is his historical narrative which lets him down at two key points. His first mistake is his account of post-war Keynesianism. He regards this as an expansion of the role of the state compared with the pre-war period and the source of our post-war surge in prosperity and employment. This is ironically a caricature he shares with some Thatcherites who dismiss the entire period from 1945 to 1979 as pinko socialism. Robert Skidelsky's magisterial work has demolished this picture of Keynesianism. Instead we should see Keynes as reversing the intrusive micro-economic corporatism of the interwar years. What Keynes showed was that Government could take responsibility for managing the macro-economy without getting into micro-economic controls.

The desperate resort to prices and incomes controls in the 1960s and 1970s was a break with his original model.

Monetarists and Keynesians share an aversion to this micro-economic interference by the state. The difference between them is that monetarists believe that power lies with monetary policy and Keynesians believe fiscal deficits can be the stimulus. …

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