Rising to prominence as one of the key intellectual driving forces behind Thatcher’s sweeping privatisation of state industries in the eighties, the Adam Smith Institute (ASI) – alongside others – was a harbinger for a newfound symbiosis between the think tank movement, public policy and government institutions.
Today it is one of London’s most well-known and respected think tanks, free market to its core. The ASI’s executive director, Sam Bowman, who many readers will recognise from these pages is leaving the ASI after seven years, to enter a role that (somewhat enigmatically) he cannot yet discuss.
Aged just 29, the changes Bowman has overseen during his time in the top job are significant and modernising. From libertarians to neoliberals in one fell swoop, the ASI under his leadership has stopped shouting radical concepts from the sidelines. Today, the ASI is a synapse within the hive mind of UK political debate.
State of debate
“I think you need to take part in the debate that other people are having,” says Bowman, above the ASI’s office in Westminster.
“It’s about trying to say look: there is a version of free market liberalism that’s quite flexible, that’s self-aware, and that’s focused on the actual pressing policy issues of the day – rather than worrying about how you privatise the courts and the police. As interesting as those things are, they’re not where the debate is.”
Bowman’s decision to reclassify the ASI as a neoliberal, rather than libertarian think tank, was met with some criticism but has paid dividends, Bowman insists. Much of the move, he says, was about mischief, winding up those who use the term pejoratively – as a lazy slur – to evade understanding free markets.
And while the move also served the purpose of disassociating the ASI from the “nativist, quasi-racist, alt-right” that has hijacked the libertarian cause, Bowman had, and still has, a vision of waking up swathes of society to the neoliberal movement he advocates.
“For me, it was this big group of younger people who consider themselves to be classical liberals, or free market liberals, but don’t see any vehicle for that – don’t see any movement for that,” he says. “And the neoliberal thing is saying: ‘this is us, we are flexible, pragmatic, non-fanatical, free market liberals’.”
Broken supply chain
Creating a movement is one thing, but influencing policy decisions, says Bowman, is harder under Theresa May than previous governments, and one of many reasons for her dismal electoral performance.
He refers to the supply chain of politics being broken.
“You need to have a process where there’s a public discussion about policy before the politicians embrace it themselves. That was just completely abandoned, weirdly. Nick Timothy [May’s former chief of staff] worked for the New Schools Network, so clearly had been part of the supply chain at some stage. But they abandoned that, and all these untried policies, which had absolutely no testing in the real political arena, were included in the manifesto. It was backwards.”
While policies presented by the ASI were adopted by Blair, one might assume its natural home to be within the Conservative party. But Bowman says many Tories espouse free market credentials out of blind obligation, like the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
“It’s a bunch of arguments that you learn off to remind you about why all the apparent inconsistencies don’t actually matter. And free market dogma seems like that for some people within the Conservative party. They’ve learned by rote: ‘free markets are good, of course I’m a free marketeer,’. But everything they do on the campaign trail speaks otherwise.”
The independence from party allegiance works in the ASI’s favour though, he says. “It might be one reason that we’ve managed to slightly punch above our weight. We have fewer people to let down.”
In Bowman’s time at the ASI, a position he says he fell into accidentally, he has lived and breathed free market policy. He’s championed causes from immigration to tax reform, planning reform to defending high executive pay. On the latter his ideas matter particularly, he says.
“It matters because if executives are being systematically overpaid then that implies much bigger things about markets in general, and how good we think markets are at pricing things. So even though it seems like a trivial or obscure debate to a lot of people, it’s important. Because if we’re wrong on this – and I don’t think we are – then we’re quite possibly wrong on much bigger and more important issues. So I think it’s important to be right about it.”
The matter that keeps Bowman “up at night” though, is planning. He argues that the figures often touted as evidence of housebuilding are massively overstated, due to relying on national, rather than regional figures. The job market for most people in the City, and for most people in London, is not transferable to other parts of the country – the high value jobs they do, can only be done in the capital.
“It doesn’t matter to you or me that you can rent a house in the Lincolnshire countryside for an eighth of the price that you can rent an equivalent place in central london for. It’s irrelevant. Really, what we care about is building in the places where people want to live for economic reasons.”
Bowman’s preoccupation isn’t just housing affordability though, it’s a question of productivity. If people
can’t move to fast growing, high productivity cities because the rents are so high, then they’re unable to get the sort of jobs that will increase their productivity.
“We know that people who are productive coming into a city make the other people productive through basic Smithian mechanisms such as the division of labour,” he says. “It allows us to specialise more, and that is the number one thing we can do to boost productivity.”
Continuing on the theme of productivity, as one gets the impression Bowman does regularly, he switches to immigration. Unlike many on the economic right, he is expressly pro-immigration, and pins the future success of the UK on not kowtowing to the more extreme voices proposing migrant caps and the like.
“Virtually every economist alive,” he says, “accepts that highly-skilled immigration is good for the migrants and good for us – not just because it makes us more productive in the short run, but because immigrants can be very innovative. To me the immigration question is the lowest hanging fruit in terms of making global poverty much less awful than it is.”
It’s interesting, I suggest, that given the negative associations of the neoliberal tag – that of greed, corruption, and laissez faire free marketeering, that he aligns the movement he envisions with issues of social mobility, immigration, and alleviating poverty. He replies that it’s partly resultant of the disassociation from the more swivel-eyed libertarians of old.
“The thing I’m most proud of is the emergence of quite a big movement of flexible, self knowing, self aware, pragmatic and evidence based neoliberals in the UK. People who I believed had always been out there, and I believe more and more of them are beginning to think of themselves in that way.
“They may not use the word neoliberal, but more and more people are beginning to see that this is a legitimate way. This was what Friedman was like. He called himself a libertarian because there wasn’t a better word at the time.
I’m very happy about getting away from the really ugly, and the really fanatical parts of the libertarian world.
The ugly parts of the gut. And making them feel like we are on our own – a force for good”. Bowman is likely to remain a force of his own for some time.
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