Top critical review
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on 2 January 2011
Will Hutton's book attempts a comprehensive analysis not just of the financial crisis but of British society as a whole. Along with the analysis, he puts forward a detailed list of possible remedies. He aims to be as non-partisan as possible. As he says:
"...the proposition in this book is that neither the force of the market nor the capitalists and entrepreneurs who powered it would have been possible without the new Enlightenment openness and a range of emergent Enlightenment public democratic institutions." (P 122)
He thus bases his arguments in theories of social justice and, above all, the idea of 'just deserts' - that people have an innate sense of justice and fairness that has been warped by the politics of the last thirty years or more.
In the first part of the book, he attempts to reach an 'Understanding [of] Fairness'. He considers the ideas of John Rawls which he believes typifies the thinking of those on the left of the political spectrum and the ideas of Robert Nozick for those on the right. Applying these, along with modern, more psychological theories of 'just deserts', he analyses what he considers to be the unbalanced economy of the UK with its dependence on financial services and abandonment of manufacturing and technological innovation and entrepreneurship.
In the second section, 'Fairness Under Siege', he provides a short introduction to the development of Western capitalism roughly from the Enlightenment up to the present crisis, whereupon his analysis becomes almost too comprehensive, becoming breathless in its speed and detail, but his frustration at what he considers to be the idiocy of the pursuit of short-term profit by bankers and politicians at the expense of the wider economy and society certainly shines through.
In the third and final section, he becomes more prescriptive. He pours out a huge number of suggestions for the 'Relaunch of Fairness', every page scattered with 'shoulds' and 'musts' to an almost dizzying extent. He not only puts forward ideas for financial and banking reform but political, media and social reform also. Many of his comments on the media echo the criticisms raised by writers such as Nick Davies in his excellent 'Flat Earth News', to which Hutton refers approvingly.
Again, Hutton tries to be as non-partisan as possible, both criticising and praising New Labour and the current coalition government, but some of his ideas strike me as, at best, ill thought-out. For example, on page 371, he suggests that 'charging could be introduced into the NHS for delivery of all but the most urgent of treatments - but for which poorer patients could be excused.' This implies introducing means testing for the NHS, plus the possibility that people suffering from relatively minor complaints may not present for treatment until their complaints are sufficiently serious to warrant 'free' care. It also ignores the growing popularity of medical insurance as an employment benefit in many companies, helping to create a 'two tier' health care system.
In all, then, although Hutton bravely attempts a comprehensive analysis of the current economic, social and political crises, his ideas do not, to my mind, have any consistent theoretical underpinning, except a rather nebulous belief in Enlightenment values. In economics, he draws on Keynes and Schumpeter; in politics he has high hopes for some form of PR; in the media, he wants to beef up the Press Complaints Commission, change the libel laws to prevent 'libel tourism', ensure the future of the BBC and promote alternative sources of news. All of this is certainly worthy, but none of it really addresses the fundamental flaws in the capitalist system - in the end, all he offers are palliatives.