Monday, 26 September 2016

On conservatism - a personal view

Old Polish saying: Umiesz liczeć? Licz na siebie. - 'Can you count? Count on yourself'. Counting on others - counting on the state - to bail you out when times are tough is not a good idea. Self-reliance is, I believe, the cornerstone of conservatism. Not nationalism, not traditionalism, not allegiance to a leader, but the notion that you are the master of your fate, and that this ownership should not be delegated to any higher authority.

I was inspired by Margaret Thatcher the most when she spoke of conservatism in terms of a household's balanced budget, of taking responsibility for your own actions - or indeed inactions.

I've written several times about the differences between British and Polish conservatism, and how as a British conservative I cannot feel at home around Polish conservatism.

On the spectrum of individualist vs. collectivist, I veer towards individualism. Obviously no man is an island, we need roads, schools, hospitals, security, territorial integrity. We need the rule of law to defend the sanctity of private property. Courts to enforce it fairly. Yet these are the constructs of a society, of a collective. Good to have; a framework within which an individualist can thrive and prosper. I'm glad that such a framework was there for me as I was growing up in the UK, and I'm delighted to have been able to witness such a framework being created around me here in Poland.

But I expect nothing from anyone. No help, no cheery word of encouragement, no free lunch, no Christmas presents. Should these things happen - hey! I'm delighted. I am truly thankful. As I am for health.

But I can't - I don't - expect these blessings. As Jacek Koba commented on my blog a few months ago, happiness is when the ratio of your expectations to reality is 1:1.

Suddenly, a crashing change of gear as this post takes another direction.

I read that the output of the construction sector in Poland is down 20% compared to last year. I look out of my window and see this (below). Dear readers, this is the private sector at work. Individuals, privately owned companies, operating for profit. Hard at work. A skyline of cranes. Warsaw is full of them - in the centre, in the suburbs. A barn. A distribution centre. A car showroom.

So why's there a big fall in Polish construction?

Because the public sector is postponing its investments.

The money (from the EU, mostly) is there - but the local authorities, the government agencies, the national infrastructure operators - don't know how to spend it. They don't have the know-how in project management. They don't have the people. Those that are involved in having to spend public money to procure projects live in fear of being sacked for taking the wrong decision. For taking any decision. And so construction companies who were counting on the state to give them work are going hungry. Licz na siebie. Trakcja PRKiI, the company that's modernising the Warsaw-Radom railway line, has just announced that it will be laying off several hundred people come next July, as this and other rail modernisation contracts comes to an end. There's plenty of money for further projects - it's just that the tenders have not been issued, decisions are being postponed.

Conservatives want to see a small, efficient state, not a bloated bureaucracy that's employing people for the sake of giving them jobs - that add little or no value for the taxpayers' money.

At a conference I'm speaking at this week, I gaze down the delegate list and a certain local authority will be sending nine people, when most private-sector firms will send one or two.

The public sector should be a tight ship, everyone pulling their weight for the public good, getting paid a competitive salary with the private sector, but with the expectation that their employment will be for the common good.

The dobra zmiana promised by the current government is merely a replacement of one lot of party political placemen with another - though the new ones lack the expertise or experience to do their job properly.

This is not conservatism. This has nothing to do with small-state government, nor promotion of self-reliance.

My brand of conservative government focuses on education - giving a solid grounding in basic facts for the bright and the less-gifted up to high-school level, then universities that teach students to think for themselves, to question, to push the boundaries of human knowledge. My brand of conservatism focuses on delivering a world-class infrastructure, which would enable private business to thrive and create new jobs and wealth. Not just railways, roads, airports and waterways, but broadband internet connections. And a paperless state, where you don't have to visit your local urząd twice when you simply wish to register a vehicle. An environmentally friendly state that is awake to the danger of climate change and wants to step back from burning fossil fuels to generate electricity and power vehicles.

It's easy to hold a view about abortion, in vitro fertilisation or gay rights. Anyone can launch into a heated discussion on these subject. You don't need to be an expert. However, you do need to be an expert to plan urban drainage systems, balance the nation's energy needs with carbon emissions, negotiate trade deals with emerging nations or set the optimal monetary-policy course for forthcoming years. Wise regulation, balancing the interests of different groups, is crucial. This government is focusing its energy on those issues that merely raise heat and social division rather than on doing solidly those things that a modern state needs to do to provide a strong framework for a strong economy and happy (yes, happy) society.

A final point about British conservatism. Since the days of Mrs Thatcher, the dividing line within the Conservative party seemed to have been Europe. Now, after the EU referendum, it's now clear the split lies far deeper than arguments that have their roots in the shape of post-war Europe. No, we now go back to the 1840s, to the repeal of the Corn Laws, where the real argument is Free Trade vs. Protectionism. The supporters of Hard Brexit (i.e. the UK leaves the single European market and imposes visa restrictions on visitors from the EU) have roots going back to the landowning classes who wanted the British market in wheat protected from imports. Those militating for a more open trading relation with the EU are heirs to the free-traders who wanted the Corn Laws repealed, so that traders could trade freely and consumers would benefit from lower prices. In this configuration, who are the 'Wets' and who are the 'Dries'? It looks like the free-traders are being branded 'wets' by the protectionist, nativist wing of the Conservative party. How times change.

I am for free trade - I am an economic liberal (and for the record a social liberal and environmental illiberal).

This time two years ago:
Between equinox and equilux

This time four years ago:
Heritage or high-rise?

This time five years ago:
Shopping notes

This time six years ago:
My grandfather

This time eight years ago:
Surreal twilight, ul.Karczunkowska

This time nine years ago:
From Warsaw to Seville, via Munich and Madrid


Jacek Koba said...

Belated comment … I am proud of having changed my mind several times over the course of my life and being open to further change yet: a rebel in my teens and 20s (who isn’t?), a sentimental (sanctimonious?) conservative in my 30’s (don’t ask me to explain), a secularized liberal in my 40’s (a loser by most accounts as I still travel to work by metro, don’t have a smart phone or a TV, but I own valuable property in Warsaw debt-free!). The one, incontrovertible, motivating, happiness-inducing and dearest principle in my life spanning all those periods has been: self-sufficiency. I am also proud of all the mistakes I’ve made – I own them! I take responsibility, and that warms my heart.

I went to a wedding today where a Dominican priest lectured the congregation on how accepting Jesus can rid us of fear, and how fearlessness can help us live fulfilling lives. What tripe! (The fact that I continue to blame the Dominicans for the Inquisition didn’t of course put me in a receptive frame of mind, but that’s by the by.) Fear – couldn’t possibly swap it for anything as a motivating force in life! Self-sufficiency without fear is substance without form.

I am unemployable – that is, I must forever be self-employed – because I can’t put ‘great team worker’ on my CV. That would be such a blatant lie! Cooperation with conditions attached is an anathema. Charity – by all means! There is a sense in which I embrace the thinking behind Brexit – but, boy, only in this one respect, and only if I concede that swashbuckling comes before caution.

In Poland, self-sufficient people are a threat, if you read the message from the establishment today. Worse still, if they are eloquent and educated. They put truth over tribalism and future ahead of past. Alas, the sponger, the collectivist and the distributist shall always be among us – and you can spot them on the playground as early as in nursery school

Michael Dembinski said...

@ Jacek Koba

Taking the Metro to work? Not having a car? You, sir are a Winner! You sir, are in the vanguard of society - five gold stars for adopting a lifestyle that eschews the bloated, polluting show-offism of car ownership. I stopped driving to work in July 2009, and finished with being a car owner in October 2013. I have a growing collection of 125cc motorbikes, however.

The self-sufficient are a threat to those who seek power. Their blandishments are straightforward: "Vote for me, and I shall take from those that have, and give to you." This message appeals to the lazy, who'd happily put themselves in chains so as to avoid having to fend for themselves.