How can the economy work for the benefit of all?

I received the sad news this week that Dr. Peter Bowman had been taken by COVID-19 in the prime of his life. Peter was Head of Economics at the School of Economic Science (SES).

The SES was founded in 1938 by Labour MP Andrew McLaren to teach courses on economics with a focus on Land Value Taxation policies. McLaren’s political hero was Campbell-Bannerman, and he often repeated CB’s pledge “… to make the land less of a pleasure ground for the rich, and more of a treasure-house for the nation …”.

The MP was firmly against the welfare state, believing it merely appeared to be necessary due to the prevailing inequities in the economic system. When not in parliament he poured his effort and talent into education, hoping to make people see how land value taxation could relieve society of many unhelpful economic tendencies, and provide economic freedom for the common people.

Dr. Peter Bowman followed in the footsteps of McLaren in giving freely of his time and energy in trying to make this world a better place. Peter was instrumental in developing the work of the All-Party Group on Land Value Capture under the Chairmanship of Vince Cable and overseeing the preparation of the group’s first report.

Social justice was Peter’s passion. Speaking in this ten-minute video Changing Paradigms in Economics: Economics as Relationships, Peter emphasises that a just economy is about relationships in society and how we treat fairly with people. Justice prevails in an economy that is based on honesty; trust’ loyalty; a sense of service and satisfaction. Too often what we have is the opposite.

Peter gave the 2015 School of Economic Science Annual Economics Lecture How can the economy work for the benefit of all? The lecture asks how can the economy work for the benefit of all and gives some simple propositions.

The first is that Economic Life is governed by law. By this is meant natural laws, laws that are inherent in the nature of things, and particularly the laws governing the relations between people in society. The task, the duty even of the economist is to discover and formulate these. The challenge for the legislators, policymakers, and CEOs of the institutions that are the main players in the economy is then to formulate rules and regulations so, as far as possible, they are in accord with these natural laws.

The second proposition is that justice implies a fair portion of knowledge, happiness, health and freedom for everyone. This gives a simple criterion to judge the suitability of a particular policy.

The third proposition is that everyone has the same essential need for access to nature’s material and for access to land.

Peter followed this with his 2016 Lecture Economics for the real world.

New York Governor, Andrew Coumo has said that we cannot go back to the way things were after this Pandemic. If this crisis wakes us all up to what is truly important in society – our relationships with each other and society in general, as Peter Bowman taught – then perhaps some good will come of it.

RIP Peter and thank you for the generosity, kindness, and gifts of knowledge you bestowed on so many of your fellow human beings in a life well-lived.

* Joe is a member of Hounslow Liberal Democrats and Chair of ALTER.

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9 Comments

  • A fascinating article, Joe, and as you say, a great loss.

    Do you know whether Andrew McLaren was ever involved with the Liberal Party in Glasgow before WW1 ?

  • David Raw,

    If not a Liberal, he was a fellow traveller. Born in Glasgow in 1883, on discovering Glasgow’s single tax movement and reading Henry George’s “Progress and Poverty” (c 1905) he was set ablaze. From then on, his fine oratory was used to demand that everyone looked to the one issue that he believed could solve the social and economic problems and hence set men free: Land Value Taxation. He moved to London in 1914 and joined the nascent Labour Party. He resigned in 1943 to stand for Independent Labour.

    These are some quotes from the former Labour MP:
    “I suppose that for a very long time men will be emotional and sentimental. They will shed sad tears when they see men moving down the centre of the stream. They will devise well-meaning schemes to pull those fellows out of the stream, but they never think of going up the stream to see who threw them in.” HANSARD, 6th May 1931

    “Poverty is not a normal state of society. It is a disease produced by the stupidity of men.”

    “You cannot be charitable until you have been just.”

    John Stewart wrote a biography of McLaren that carries a description on the leaf of his life:
    “A radical, Andrew MacLaren MP fought not for right or left, but for justice. Long before George Orwell, he recognised the dangers of bureaucratic socialism, while attacking the Tories for blocking the one reform that would eradicate the poverty and social injustice of the 19th century, without diminishing the liberty and sturdy independence of the individual.

    Born in Glasgow the year Karl Marx died, his was not a privileged beginning: aged ten his first job was a tailor’s errand boy, followed by an engineer’s apprenticeship at sixteen, though he had little feel for engineering. Art was his love, but times were hard and he had to help support the family. However, his fierce denunciation of the degrading effects of poverty and his gift for public speaking soon brought him to the fore.

    Two men dominated the thinking of radicals at the time: Karl Marx and Henry George. The latter is scarcely remembered today, but his was the inspiration behind the Liberal government that swept to power in 1906. George’s influence was also considerable in the emerging Labour Party, enjoying the support of Ramsay MacDonald and Phillip Snowden, respectively the first Labour Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer.

    MacLaren entered parliament in 1922 as a Labour member, supporting the Georgist approach to social reform rather than bureaucratic socialism. He was an outstanding constituency MP, twice winning against the national swing. So what was this approach?

    The way MacLaren described it was that, “whist a man had the right to possess what he produced or received in exchange for his work, there is no such right to private ownership of the elements upon which all men depend – air, water, sunshine and land. Indeed, he held that the right of access to these basic elements is as strong and equal for all men as the right of life itself, and that if such private ownership of the basic elements is permitted, the suppression and exploitation of one class of the community by another is inevitable. The consequent hardship and injustice must become more acute as the community develops”. The accuracy of this forecast is borne out by the fact that the gap between rich and poor has continued to widen during the 20th century, despite the huge increase in wealth and all the efforts to redistribute income through taxation and welfare.
    This biography is a timely reminder of an unbureaucratic method of undoing the social injustices of the 19th and 20th centuries.

  • Thanks, Joe, that’s helpful. Is there any mention of a Robert Shanks in the McLaren biography ?

    If you look Shanks up you’ll find he was a land tax campaigner, a Quaker and a leading light and Councillor in the Camlachie Division Liberals – where J.M. Hogge was the parliamentary candidate. Shanks opposed WW1 and LLG’s illiberalism and it led him to the ILP. His papers are at Caledonian University and (from home) I’m doing some work on him for St Andrews.

  • Yes, indeed, Joe, thanks for that. Much appreciated and fascinating to read Land and Liberty. Shanks’ own papers are in the archives at Strathclyde University (rather than Caledonian – that was a senior moment because I was rushing).

    Shanks succeeded Hogge as Liberal candidate for Camlachie after Hogge went to Edinburgh…. but after the outbreak of war became involved in the U.D.C. as so many radical Liberals did….. and then transferred his allegiance to the I.L.P.., again as so many of them did.

  • Katharine Pindar 18th Apr '20 - 10:08pm

    Joe, thank you for telling us about Dr Peter Bowman. I have just read his 2016 lecture, entitled Economics for the Real World, and found it most interesting and refreshing. It sounds as if he made a considerable contribution to intellectual life and society, and that his work is part of a radical continuum, which I am glad to have learnt of.

  • John Littler 22nd Apr '20 - 5:03pm

    It seems that Dr. Peter Bowman was a great loss having managed to apply economic principles in favour of people and their needs. This contrasts with some arguing that the gig economy is a benefit because it exists and fills many workers days as part of a liberal market economy. That is a Tory Neo-liberal argument that should be out of place for any progressive party, when it is detrimental to the interests of 60% of the people forced into it.

    The gig economy makes people little better than the recently “liberated” slaves in USA, who found themselves even worse off after they were freed, as other opportunities were unrealistic or cut off along with the money tap of a share crop, while employers no longer felt obliged to look after them.

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