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Wednesday, March 1, 2000

The Third Way: The Renewal of Social Democracy by Anthony Giddens

An Inconsistent and Ineffective Defense of State Intervention

The Polity Press • 1999 • 166 pages • $19.95 paperback

The importance of this book lies in the fact that its author is often and with good reason described as the guru of British Prime Minister Tony Blair. It tells us much about the thinking of politicians of his kind.

The social democratic parties of the European mainland were all originally Marxist, committed to socialism in the sense of public ownership and control of the means of production, distribution, and exchange. By the 1930s, however, the ruling Social Democratic Party in Sweden had abandoned socialism in favor of a third, or “middle,” way between capitalism and the full-blown socialism of the USSR. The British Labor Party had never been a truly Marxist party (despite some Marxist elements), but clung to many categorically socialist aims. After four successive defeats at the hands of the Conservatives, in the early 1990s Blair, as its leader, was able to get Labor to abandon its official embrace of socialism. But its intellectual leaders, like Giddens, remain wedded to the interventionist state and the need to produce a replacement “third way” between free and totalitarian societies.

Giddens attempts to distinguish his “third way” objectives from the goals attributed to unidentified “neo-liberals,” “new rightists,” and “market fundamentalists.” One signal difficulty is that his own objectives are frequently inconsistent. For instance, he writes, “The democratization of democracy first of all implies decentralization, but not as a one-way process.” Somehow, he thinks that decentralization may be furthered by moving in opposite directions at the same time. The egalitarian in Giddens wins out over the democrat since he regards it as a decisive objection against a policy of greater self-government that “Some cities or regions could thereby forge ahead of others, worsening the marked regional inequalities that already exist in the U.K.” Having paid homage to the leftist deity of equality, he goes on to say that social democrats “should move away from what has been in the past an obsession with inequality, as well as to rethink what equality is. Equality must contribute to diversity, not stand in its way.” What’s it to be? At least one knew where the old Labor Party stood.

When Giddens’s objectives are consistent, he still does not tell us how, on social democratic principles, they might be achieved. Thus he recognizes that “welfare benefits can create perverse consequences that undermine what they were designed to achieve,” and allows that it is “surely correct to worry about the number of people who live off state benefits.” Yet he continues to insist that welfare expenditures “should remain at European rather than U.S. levels” without so much as mentioning Charles Murray’s Law of Unintended Rewards, much less suggesting any possible means of preventing its consequent operation. The author does mention the unprecedented growth in the numbers of single mothers, but refrains from noting that this must have been due at least in part to the availability of hopefully unintended rewards from the state.

The adverb “hopefully” has to be inserted above since he writes that “Sustaining continuity in family life, especially protecting the well-being of children, is one of the most important goals of family policy.” Yet Giddens immediately insists that “This can’t be achieved, however, through a reactionary stance,” such as trying to reinstate “the traditional family.” He pointedly encloses that phrase in smear quotes. What he says he means by that expression is an institution “based on the inequality of the sexes and the legal ownership of wives by husbands.” This is of course a straw man, and Giddens admits on the very next page that “when rightist critics speak of the traditional family, they don’t mean the traditional family at all.” Yet this recognition does not lead him to withdraw his irrelevant dismissal of their actual criticism of the consequences of state welfare.

The book proves no less confounding when the author turns to international matters. Giddens asserts that “in the context of the European Union, the nation state is not disappearing.” It would be difficult to say anything more misleading. Certainly the number of nation states has recently increased due to the collapse of the Soviet and Yugoslav empires. But the ultimate intention and purpose of the European Union has always been the creation of a centralized superstate, a United States of Europe, embracing all those previously independent states that eventually become its members.

Giddens’s “third way” turns out to be no better than any of the many previous works purporting to show that state intervention can improve upon a free society. It is riddled with inconsistencies and demonstrates again that socialists, whether moderate or extreme, learn nothing from their own mistakes or from the criticisms of their program made by advocates of liberty.

Antony Flew is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, University of Reading, England

  • Antony Flew was an English philosopher. Belonging to the analytic and evidentialist schools of thought, Flew was most notable for his work related to the philosophy of religion. During the course of his career he taught at the universities of Oxford, Aberdeen, Keele and Reading, and at York University in Toronto.