The policies of Phillip Blond, David Cameron's 'philosopher king', are confused and wooly
Many of David Cameron’s favourite phrases — such as “a big society not a big state” — have been inspired by the new phenomenon, Phillip Blond. Although an Anglican, Blond himself claims Catholic social teaching, and particularly the Pope’s recent encyclical, for his cause, but Catholics should be wary of erring towards Cameron for this reason alone. Many Catholics will be suspicious of the encroaching power of the state, but Blond’s own particular philosophy is not the only way to address that. Indeed, in Caritas in veritate, the Pope repeated what has been said many times in the last 40 years in official Church documents: that the Catholic Church has no economic models to offer, only a critique of certain issues in the context of our times and the teaching of the Church. There is plenty of room for argument about how the state should once again become subservient to individuals, families and the institutions of civil society; not all Catholics will be comfortable with Cameron’s belief that it is for the state to “remake society”.
There are many reasons to dissent from Blond’s basic premises — as far as they can be understood. His economics and economic history seem patchy, at best. He does not like the supermarkets “squeezing out competition”. But he confuses “bigness” with “monopoly”. Tesco is less monopolistic than the sole proprietor pork butcher in my childhood village, whom Blond would admire. Tesco is big and competitive in a big market; the pork butcher was small and monopolistic in a small market. Yes, small shops may close down if people prefer Tesco — but that is competition.
Blond argues that the free market has destroyed mutuality in the financial sector, but this goes against all serious academic study. Mutuality and community organisations in finance have been pushed out by state regulation (a story that starts in 1850, not 1979 as Blond supposes). No doubt both Blond and Cameron would laud the 19th-century development of stock exchanges — mutual clubs with their own rule systems and strong ethos. These were purely private organisations, many of the functions of which were eventually taken over by the state.
Blond may be right to argue that some recent free-market economists have been too narrow in their thinking, but that is not a reason for him to ignore those with richer insights into the very matters about which he speaks. To paraphrase Harold Macmillan’s observation about the Liberals in the 1950s: Blond has many sound and original policies. Unfortunately the original ones are not sound and the sound ones are not original.