Over thirty years ago I was both obliged and fortunate enough to attend a week long seminar at Cambridge University on the future of the British Welfare State. There for the first time I met a neoconservative professor. Before then the right wing had yearned for the past. They were neither theorist nor revolutionary.
The professor subsequently became famous and an influence on Margaret Thatcher but for the life of me I cannot remember the Christian name of this professor. I can still picture his thin frame, dark hair and thick moustache and his surname Harris is ingrained in my brain. But I have a mental block on his Christian name which is because my sub-conscious is determined to remember him as Frank. Harris, the definite Frank, was famous, of course, for writing an erotic novel that he claimed remembered his own sexual experiences. For many years this fantasy tormented young men whose sparse experience was actually much different. Well, this young man, in particular. It is not mere intellectual sloth on my part that links the two men, the pornographer and the architect of the social policy of Margaret Thatcher. No prizes if you have guessed already what they had in common. They were both fantasists.
Who would have guessed that the economic dreams of the one nutty least impressive academic I met that week would come to pass. We all know the results. Productivity increases halved since 1979, the poor are now poorer and the worldwide economy is on the edge of collapse because the rich have so much money it prevents the rest from being circulated properly. Our economy is as constipated as our inadequate materialist dreams.
But as we discovered when challenging Professor Harris over thirty five years ago statistics to the neoconservatives were of little consequence. Statistics would only be considered acceptable when the free market had been established in its entirety which it never would be. Marxists had used the same defence about Russian Communism.
Nobody in a 1000 word blog can define neoconservatism adequately and this is neither the place nor the time. Neoconservatism is already being challenged by the future and the young and we still need room to consider Elvis. So we can settle on the simplest of defintions – small state, low taxes and deregulated business. This definition is mentioned only for those who are curious and because I feel I have to. But within the key principles that neoconservatives believe justify ultimate faith in the market and hatred of government there are two that interest. These are the belief that all decisions made by consumers are rational and that this is perfectly reflected in price and production and that the market will ultimately provide the best of all outcomes.
The notion that price is a sensible reflection of rational decisions always reminds me of when I first bought ‘From Elvis In Memphis’ in 1969. The price at the time was thirty two shillings and six pence. Did this price reflect what I and other Elvis fans were prepared to pay for the album? No, because this was the first serious studio album made by Elvis since he had recorded ‘Elvis Is Back’ in 1960. We were desperate and would have paid a lot more. In fact, the market was clueless when it had to apply an accurate price to what was a creative work by a gifted talent. Instead, the price was determined like most records at the time by companies calculating their unit costs and usual demand. This calculation was inadequate because no one other than like minded Elvis obsessives could understand my dependency on the music of Elvis. Such obsessions are beyond the price makers and it may explain why they are rich and I am not but it does not mean they can always determine accurate outcomes.
Neoconservatives may not like it but their beloved entrepreneurs only understand so much and that understanding inevitably means huge errors in the multitude of prices that their free market requires to operate efficiently. A similar misunderstanding occurred in record company executives who pointed to the superior sales of the Elvis albums that contained only sentimental ballads. The same executives argued for a while that the album ‘Elvis Is Back’ should be deleted. This was because all they understood were isolated numbers. What they failed to realise was that the classic albums created fans that would become obsessive and crawl around the Elvis catalogue buying even more Elvis records. I may have purchased the same number of copies of ‘Indescribably Blue’ as I have of ‘Reconsider Baby’ but it was hearing the latter that led me to spending so much to support RCA.
The second principle of neoconservatism is that the market will always produce the best of outcomes. Elvis is a chilling reminder of why this is false. He was cursed with a manager who lived by the turnover and income aggregates in his accounts. We all know what happened. None of the accountants noticed that the only man with the capability of actually earning the money they so liked was bent on self-destruction. There is a marvellous neoconservative irony in the seventies phase of the career of Elvis. When he was at his most self-destructive he actually earned more money than when he was responsible and conscientous. It is obvious now that what the career of Elvis needed was someone capable of making decisions that included data other than pure finance. Someone like Jerry Wexler at Atlantic would have helped or, to paraphrase Jerry Leiber, somebody who wanted to make history and not just another buck.
The parallel may be pretentious but these blogs because of their nature sometimes leave you no alternative. Maybe this is what today our neighbouring urban occupiers are saying to their elders. We need information other than what is contained in the financial accounts of the remote and, above all, we need compassion. Otherwise our growth curves will only ever relate to money and that means we will all ultimately become pigmies. If that sounds unreasonable, think about why Elvis destroyed himself.
A final neoconservative irony needs to be mentioned. Although he was born in the middle of a depression Elvis the performer was not the product of a neoconservative society. He emerged ten years after social democracy had been successfully introduced into the western world. His generation had a belief like mine that life, because we only have one, should be enjoyed and this meant having fun and recognising we needed to feel as well as do. Somewhere it was lost in excessive materialism. Maybe Elvis like the rest of the rich would have welcomed neoconservatism but he paid his ninety per cent taxes and never complained. This, of course leads to a final neoconservative irony, their belief that high taxes inhibit us from wanting to earn high amounts of money. It never stopped Parker, more is the pity.
Before I began this I searched for the Christian name of Professor Harris on Google. I could not find it. I find this embarrassing but reassuring. The leading reference to Margaret Thatcher is now a website that is causing a scandal because it is prematurely claiming she has died. I would hate to be premature myself and I am no expert on the lyrics of Bob Dylan either but for those who remember the sixties it now feels awfully like what he said back then. ‘The times are a changing.’