Misguided crusade for a private good

The National Wealth

January 21, 2000

This is a hugely ambitious and deeply flawed book. It is a missed opportunity. It sets out to provide an anatomy of Britain in the manner of Anthony Sampson, but it is much more superficial and lacks Sampson's supreme ability to understand how social actors see their institutions as well as how outsiders see them. Sampson used interviews to great effect; Dominic Hobson makes little use of them. The title of his book is a misnomer, since it is only partly a factual account of who owns the national wealth. The best feature of the book is the tables that summarise who has what. Unfortunately, in order to extract this information the reader has to wade through an ocean of highly prejudiced, highly selective and mostly unsubstantiated impressions of contemporary Britain. The book could have been 1,000 pages shorter without much loss.

Near the beginning, Hobson says that he propounds no theory and expounds no doctrine - surely one of the most misleading statements ever used to introduce a book, since so much of it is given over to an ideological rant against the state and its evils. The treatment never rises above the anecdotal (no systematic evaluation of evidence or theory is attempted anywhere in the book).

It has the same market fundamentalist standpoint as Saturn's Children , which Hobson co-authored with Alan Duncan, and divides the world into the good - shoppers, tax-payers, entrepreneurs, private organisations and markets - and the bad - voters, tax eaters, professionals, public organisations and institutions. For all its worldly cynicism it is at times quite breathtaking in its naivety.

The cynicism is of a familiar kind. Hobson assumes that all individuals are self-interested and that the primary objective of their self-interest is money. Getting money is the unacknowledged motive behind what is said and done in the name of something else. This allows everyone and everything to be debunked. Self-interest and greed rule all human activity, and are tolerable only when disciplined by competition in free markets based upon individual property rights. When free markets are suppressed or interfered with by the state, the result is corruption, waste, extravagance and inefficiency.

The book starts with inherited wealth - the crown, the aristocracy, the church (which gets a good kicking), Oxbridge, the public schools and the medieval corporations; then it tackles the state - central government, the nationalised and privatised industries, and local government; then it looks at people - the rich, company directors, public and private-sector professionals, farmers, middle England; then business, although surprisingly it has little on industry; and finally, finance. The most rewarding impressions are about the City, of which Hobson has some direct experience and where his heart is. This is very much another City view of British capitalism. On the City Hobson is mostly content to describe how things are done, and who gets what, without passing too many judgements. If the whole book had been written in this way it would have been better. But in large chunks of it Hobson is not content to describe or understand; he is fighting a holy war.

Any institution touched by the state is irredeemably corrupted. The chapter on the universities, described as now the greatest of the nationalised industries, is laughable, a flimsy caricature, remarkable mainly for its unremitting bile against academics. He devotes a separate chapter to Oxbridge, which he believes still has a chance of being saved provided the colleges privatise immediately, but he holds out no such hope for the rest of the universities, which he treats as one homogenous, under-performing lump. He sees them as wholly dysfunctional, producing graduates that no one wants to employ, staffed by moonlighting, idle and strike-prone lecturers, teaching irrelevant, dumbed-down and non vocational courses that no one is allowed to fail, and operating with over-used, run-down and obsolescent buildings and equipment. There are many things wrong with British universities, and Hobson touches on some of them; there is also a serious case for reforming the basis of university finance to make universities independent of the state; but this wild polemic misses the target in spectacular fashion.

Hobson thinks that the universities are an example of the British sickness, the triumph of justice over excellence. Justice and equality are political values, the product of democracy not markets, so he is against them. The salvation for every institution is to go private, starting with the still-nationalised industries - like the Bank of England, the BBC and the Post Office. The solution to the transport problem is to privatise the roads, selling them off to a Highways Agency modelled on Railtrack (Hobson is apparently beyond irony). He has no time for charities or for mutuals, the heritage industry, ramblers, the National Trust, or for local government, indeed for any elected body.

He is positive solely about individual private property rights. Only what is private can be excellent. Nationalisation failed because it destroyed property rights; privatisation succeeded because it restored them. Regulation is the continuation of nationalisation by other means. These simple mantras are the key to his enthusiasms and his hates. He devotes a panegyric to the British public schools ("the one institution in the British system of education where excellence still counts for more than justice"); somehow they escape the corrupting effect that the state concession of charitable status ought to produce. The public schools, he protests, are not "reactionary bastions of class privilege" but businesses selling a professional service. He loves the British aristocracy for their hard-headed self-interest and adaptability, and writes with deep dismay about leasehold reform in the 1980s - "a political definition of the public good triumphed decisively over the rights of private property". He gushes about the stock market and its flawless operation. The City, he writes with pride, is the only tax district in the country where the mean taxable income is measured in six figures.

Yet amidst all this there is an argument. Although the worst offender in suppressing individual property rights is the state, not far behind comes the public limited company. Hobson, although besotted with his free-market utopia, is enough of a realist to see that the way in which British capitalism is organised hardly conforms to it, and that it is not all the fault of the state. He identifies the divorce of ownership and control as the most important question in contemporary capitalism. The plc he asserts (with, as usual, considerable exaggeration) has become the only form of social and economic organisation standing between the family and the state. The problem is that no one owns it. Both the managers who direct the business and the fund managers who buy and sell the shares on behalf of institutional investors are fundamentally irresponsible and unaccountable. He describes in great detail the "fat cat" practices of the boardrooms, and the corruption, venality and rent seeking of the lawyers, accountants and consultants who now infest the City. It is an unflattering portrayal of modern corporate capitalism. Everyone has their snouts in the trough.

The radical libertarian in Hobson would like to sweep all this away. It is easy to imagine him calling for the repeal of limited liability (more misguided state intervention). He writes approvingly of entrepreneurs such as Richard Branson who have bought back their businesses and made them private companies again. He is naturally opposed to any reform of corporate governance whether proposed by business or by government. He has no time for stakeholding, or for the third way. Government cannot be run as a business, as new Labour hopes, he argues; it should be dismantled so it can do the least possible harm. But this does seem to leave him with a problem.

Unless his brave new world comes about spontaneously, it needs a guardian class of disinterested citizens who define the public good as the protection of individual property rights. But how can this be if everyone in politics is as venal and self-interested as he suggests? This is the Achilles' heel of all anti-

political free market utopias. Hobson deplores the state, deplores the plc, would like a world in which property rights were much more equally distributed, and everyone an individual owner, but recoils in horror from the only activity - politics - by which this could be achieved. In a democracy, he writes, only egalitarian strategies can succeed, which means he has to be against democracy. He cannot bring himself to speak well of the state, yet only the state could provide the foundations for the kind of society he craves.

Andrew Gamble is professor of politics, University of Sheffield.

The National Wealth: Who Gets What in Britain

Author - Dominic Hobson
ISBN - 0 00 255913 7
Publisher - HarperCollins
Price - £29.99
Pages - 1350

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