Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, and the Applicability of His Ideas in the United States

© 2010 Peter Free


14 December 2010



A leader with an apparently Reality-accepting political mind


Nick Clegg, the United Kingdom’s Deputy Prime Minister, is someone whom “progressive” American politicians would do well to emulate:


With less money, we need more focus.


The need to make choices is revealing an important divide between old progressives, who emphasise the power and spending of the central state, and new progressives, who focus on the power and freedom of citizens. . . .


Old progressives are straightforwardly in favour of more state spending and activity.


The question is not how much money the state is spending, it is how it spends it. The real progressive test for any state intervention is whether it liberates and empowers people.


© 2010 Nick Clegg, Inequality becomes injustice when it is passed on, generation to generation, The Guardian (22 November 2010)


In these short paragraphs, Mr. Clegg captured the socioeconomic immobility problem and the seed of its solution.



The implied elements of Clegg’s statement


The difference between old and new progressivism is the difference between:


(a) throwing money at superficial indicators of problems




(b) determining


(i) what the alleged problem really is and


(ii) whether it has something to do with the progressive goal of empowering ordinary people.


This is a usefully pluralist political vision that might lend the American political center some teeth.



Why Clegg’s “old” versus “new” distinction is a potentially persuasive guide to economically-defensible political action


With progressivism’s goal restated as the need to liberate and empower people, Clegg is able to challenge the idea that a budget deficit handicaps progressives from achieving social goals.


His empowerment philosophy allows him to add two elements of philosophical heft to fiscal responsibility.  He thinks that:


(i) Waiting to confront the deficit, as Keynesians and Paul Krugman advocate, ultimately increases the burden on taxpayers.


(ii) Empowerment applies across generations, as well as within each.


In his words:


I reject the idea that it is more progressive to pay off the deficit more slowly than to act decisively.


Delay means higher interest rates on mortgages, more money going to bond markets to service the debt and a bigger burden for taxpayers, both now and in the future.


Nor is there anything progressive about saddling the next generation with our debt. Progressive politics must also take into account fairness between as well as within generations.


© 2010 Nick Clegg, Inequality becomes injustice when it is passed on, generation to generation, The Guardian (22 November 2010)


These ideas provide philosophical justification for abandoning traditional money-throwing liberal ideas that have contributed to the deficit problem.


Being able to justify more effective courses of action on the basis of philosophical principles, reformulated in the view of past experience, is a valuable tool.



Does fairness imply raising the boat or its rowers’ opportunities?


Does social fairness require:


(a) raising the social boat just a bit, with redistributed money,




(b) empowering the boat’s rowers to raise themselves via enhanced opportunities to learn money-generating personal and professional skills?


Clegg’s revamped progressivism hones previously sloppy, purely redistributive liberalism.  His formulation is important in the distinctions it makes:


Old progressives see a fair society as one in which households with incomes currently less than 60% of the median were to be, in Labour's telling verb, "lifted" out of poverty.


The weakness of this approach is that significant resources end up being devoted to altering the financial position of these households by fairly small amounts – just enough, in many cases, to get them above the line. But poverty plus a pound does not represent fairness.


It represents an approach to fairness dominated by the power of central state to shift money around, rather than to shift life chances.


Tackling poverty is clearly about money, but it is also about ensuring access to the services that promote a better quality of life, and wider life chances.


Social mobility is what characterises a fair society, rather than a particular level of income equality.


Inequalities become injustices when they are fixed; passed on, generation to generation. That's when societies become closed, stratified and divided.


For old progressives, reducing snapshot income inequality is the ultimate goal. For new progressives, reducing the barriers to mobility is.


© 2010 Nick Clegg, Inequality becomes injustice when it is passed on, generation to generation, The Guardian (22 November 2010)



Implicitly concealed in Clegg’s idea about empowerment, is the Conservative principle that some people are not motivated or talented enough to succeed


Clegg’s empowerment thesis throws conservatives, liberals, and realists a “one more try” philosophical sop that it is difficult to reject out of hand.


What follows is facetious, but accurate enough to illustrate my point.


(a) Conservatives are prone to making up usually provably false reasons why generalized someones are homeless or impoverished.  These rationalizations, once in place, allow them to avoid thinking about government’s relationship to Life’s sometimes avoidable inequities.


In cases in which financially-responsible targeted empowerment fails, conservatives will be able to say, “I told you so” and go back to conspicuously gathering wealth, so that it clings to their more capable, sometimes charitable, hands. 


(b) Liberals, on the other hand, tend to think that everyone would succeed, if they had the necessary resources and opportunities.  They sprinkle do-gooding a little further than it can effectively go, given the unequal distribution of human qualities.


In cases in which Clegg’s empowerment works, liberals will sleep better and continue chiding conservatives for their avarice and lack of faith in humanity.


(c) Realists (and centrists) mostly think that people sink and swim based on the unequal distribution of talent, motivation, and circumstances.  Most of us are humble or confused enough to recognize that we cannot reliably predict Fate or the ways in which government can most effectively alter personal destinies.


In cases in which Clegg’s empowerment has a spotty record (as it statistically will), realists can say, “What else is new?”  And continue to act in our typically scattered, often unprincipled, and compromising ways.



Clegg’s kernel of genius for the United States


Deputy Prime Minister Clegg has remanufactured the core of old progressivism — a concern for enhancing the quality of common life — to work in an age in which government resources are scarce and plutocratic oppression ascendant.


Clegg’s reformulated progressivism, if properly articulated in the United States, would put America’s falsely conservative, plutocrat-supporting political leaders on less easily defended rational ground.




I say “false conservatives” because:


(i) this group’s alleged aversion to government spending has not kept them from repeatedly escalating debt to nation-destroying levels,




(ii) they have completely abandoned traditional Conservatism’s core idea that human beings are inherently flawed — which means that no one, including themselves, can be trusted to avoid the corruption that accompanies power and wealth.


By incorporating some historically conservative points of view, Clegg forges toward the American political center.


He says as much of his British context:


But perhaps the acid test for being progressive is political pluralism. New progressives are instinctively pluralist in their approach to politics.


The triumph of one tribe over another is not the singular purpose of politics. . . . In particular, new progressive politics is defined by an openness to parties working together.


© 2010 Nick Clegg, Inequality becomes injustice when it is passed on, generation to generation, The Guardian (22 November 2010) (paragraph split)



We would be wise to pay attention


Clegg’s concise thinking grants us the potential for renovating Americanism.


This is historical irony, in that Mr. Clegg is a Brit teaching us about social fairness and enhanced freedom.


It is opportunity, in that he is arguably right.