Tony Judt and the confusion of the modern Left
It is with a little sadness that I write this. I am going to comment on a recent essay by Tony Judt. Even though he is an anti-Israel Jew, he is a brilliant mind and a most knowledgeable historian. He is now however suffering from a severe physical disability and the essay I wish to comment on could well be his last substantial work. So, with respect:
The essay boils down to two things: A rejection of "economism" and a dreamy glorification of 20th century democratic Leftism. And he ends up saying that Leftists should be conservatives. A more confused, though lucid, set of ideas would be hard to imagine.
For a start, his central dilemma is one that is ever-present on the contemporary Left: He argues for moral values while also believing that there is no such thing as right and wrong. If self-contradiction is a mark of insanity, the modern Left is terminally deranged.
It is purely in the name of some unspecified moral order that Judt rejects "economism". And what he condemns as "economism" boils down to being concerned about your financial state of affairs. It is wrong, apparently, to be concerned about how much money you have in your pocket. It is no doubt an outcome of Judt's own privileged life that he literally seems unable to understand why people would have such concerns.
It was one of my correspondents who alerted me to Judt's essay and the comment he sent with the link was simply: "A moron". One can understand that judgement. Let me be a little more professional about the matter, however, and say that Judt's moral ideas are seriously underdeveloped and that a full elaboration of his moral beliefs and reasoning would be needed for anyone to draw any reasonable conclusions from his essay.
He goes on to glorify government-provided services generally but once again seems not to be living in the real world. Who has not experienced the horrors of dealing with large bureaucracies and who does not find small businesses easier to deal with? He seems unaware that you get much better treatment as a valued customer than you do if you are a mere number to some bureaucrat. You are virtually powerless against a bureaucracy but you have some weight as a person who can take his business elsewhere.
Judt's primary example of a service that should be government provided is the railways. He thinks that they are "an essential public service". That people in some places get along quite well without them and that the vast majority of Americans hardly use them at all appears to have had no impact on his thinking. His argument seems to boil down to saying that railways run purely for profit would not serve isolated regions or the poor very well. He is probably right about that but does it follow that a government-run railway is the answer? If we are going to subsidize anything, why not subsidize small buses to run on the route concerned? That would undoubtedly be a lot easier on the taxpayer's pocket.
So his final plea that we remember the past glories of socialism is as deranged as his moral ideas. Leftists should hope that people do NOT remember how awful past government services have been. What Judt wants us to "remember" is a dreamy ideal that never existed. His closing assertion that "The left, to be quite blunt about it, has something to conserve" is undoubtedly a common Leftist belief but it is just another example of his moral incoherence and blindness to the actual past.
In an effort to do justice to the man, however, I will happily concede his point that privatizations of government services have not always worked well. And since he seems to have railways on the brain, let me mention the privatization of British Rail. I remember the shabbiness, erratic services and awful sandwiches of British Rail well so am perhaps in some position to comment. Who could believe train drivers who drove off while people were still trying to board? I do because I saw it. I was one of the passengers concerned.
There is no doubt that rail services in Britain today are often very poor but that is a consequence of their very PARTIAL privatization. The infinitely better rail services of the Victorian era were provided by companies that OWNED not only the trains but the tracks they ran on. In Britain today, however, the private rail companies own very little. They bid for the privilege of providing a service and get a government-controlled monopoly in return. So, once they have obtained their monopoly, it makes sense for them to screw passengers for all they can. Roadspace and parking are severely limited in Britain so passengers usually have no real option of other forms of transport.
In the Victorian era, by contrast, railways DID compete (and also co-operated when that was useful). There was more than one set of tracks running North and if you wanted to get from (say) London to somewhere in Scotland, there were competing ways of doing so. So it seems reasonable that a recreation of the completely private Victorian ownership structure would give results comparable to the Victorian experience. But modern Britain is too socialist for that to be contemplated.
And as for government-sponsored or government-run train services in Australia these days, don't get me started. The Melbourne services are run on British lines and just ask any Melbourne commuter how that works out.
There many more points in Judt's essay that I could contend with but the eloquence of the essay hides such a poverty of ideas that I cannot justify spending more time on it.