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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16 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.

  • I’m a student of Peter’s. Please allow me to talk briefly about my understanding. First, the development of human civilization, from different types of society to capitalism. Capitalism has greatly increased and liberated the productive forces, but morality and ethics are often ignored. As long as people get on the monopoly bourgeoisie, they will become arrogant and more crazy. Most people’s interests have been trampled on. Although China is a socialist country, it is actually taking the road of state capitalism. With the 40 years of reform and opening up, the senior management has realized this serious problem. Put forward the slogan of common prosperity. But this process will be a long-term process of adjustment and reform. Very slow. It can be said that China finally needs to achieve common prosperity, and this timetable is being formulated. I think in China and the west, we all have places to communicate together.

    I miss Peter very much. He is a wise, generous and kind man. I was his student in 2007. The way he spoke made people drink a bowl of very fragrant hot soup, which made people feel comfortable. I will always miss him.

  • Ming,

    it is nice to hear from a former student of Peter Bowman. Many of us, like yourself. miss his calm and wise appraisal of political economy.
    It is still unclear what President Xi Jiang and the Chinese Communist Party have in mind to deliver on the slogan of common prosperity.
    China’s property market seems to have become a gigantic bubble that threatens the financial stability and well-being of hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens. With Local Authority Finacing Vehicles so reliant on land sales as a source of public finance and households having invested almost all of their savings in property, a real estate crash of the kind Japan experienced in 1989 would surely be a source of great social upheaval.
    Let’s hope that President XI goes back and reads the writings of Sun Yat Sen who was himself an advocate of State Capitalism and looks to adopt his favoured system of land value taxation avoiding the mistakes we made with flawed property tax systems in the west https://www.economist.com/finance-and-economics/2021/10/30/chinas-long-wait-for-a-tax-everyone-loves-to-hate

  • Thank you for your opinion, Joe. I agree in part. As a pioneer of capitalism, your country is a model of a democratic country. It deserves our admiration and praise. There are many great giants, reformers and managers who have made the British Empire prosperous for hundreds of years.

    However, due to different national conditions, it can not be simply copied. China’s monarchy for thousands of years has led to the temporary inability to implement democracy. China has suffered too much suffering in modern times. We say that the economic foundation determines the superstructure. From the colonial period to the war of resistance against Japan, tens of millions of people’s lives in old China have been ravaged and slaughtered.

    Many visionary ancestors, including Sun Yat Sen, have also traveled across the ocean to the West for revolutionary study. However, China is exploring a suitable democratic system, which requires great political responsibility, courage and caution. In the west, socialism is often a forbidden language and an evil and corrupt regime. In fact, the socialist system implemented in China also comes from the West and Western Europe. Marx and Engels actually belong to a different kind of capitalism, including Deng Xiaoping, who also studied in France. It can be said that China’s system originates from many countries, draws lessons from the advantages and characteristics of Western Europe, the United States, Japan, Singapore and other regions, and is also avoiding their shortcomings. It is not because of ideology, opposes for the sake of opposition, adheres for the sake of persistence, and takes the interests of the people as the guide and governs the country according to law. These are the two cores, China has punished a large number of senior officials in accordance with the law in recent years. The last and a third core is that although the one party dictatorship and Party leadership can not stand scrutiny, it is only an appearance for stability and peace, because China has a large number of low-quality people, and if democracy is implemented, it will definitely be chaotic.

  • PART II
    Therefore, Xi is only a symbolic leader. All major decisions are not defined and made by him alone. Behind this is a very solid think tank, research scholars, institutions and participants and representatives of various industries. The purpose of collective decision-making is to be realistic and rigorous. Not for capital, but for the people. In recent years, China’s people’s living standards, infrastructure construction and industrial development have greatly improved, and China is moving towards shouldering the responsibility of a big country. The treatment of environmental pollution and the development and utilization of new energy are proceeding in an orderly manner every day.

    I haven’t discussed anything about politics in London. But human ideals are still so similar. When I was a student, I often thought about these problems and often bought magazines such as economists. However, with the passage of time and my rich experience, I no longer read these discriminatory and biased media articles. I think Martin Jacques, a senior researcher at Cambridge University, who knows China better, also praises his point of view. Capitalism is still the most efficient system in the world, especially in driving innovation. We can’t deny its contribution. It is surely wrong to completely deny capitalism, but there are fundamental contradictions and strange historical circles that want to reform but cannot be changed.

    However, after graduation and working as an oligarch in different giant multinational companies, I feel that this system has many defects. Similarly, I have also experienced Chinese state-owned enterprises, financial companies in Hong Kong and so on. This is a long way. We pay attention to economic development every day, but ignore the persistence in the field of morality. Take the United States as an example, many Americans even doubt the democratic system and lose confidence. If we really discuss system reform, China is the most real experimental field where great changes are taking place. We look forward to moving in a good direction. Some unknown scholars and officials with reform heart make their judgments, decisions and suggestions are particularly important.

  • PARTIII
    The ancients of China had two words about social development. The first was: “The water that bears the boat is the same that swallows it up.” Don’t worry, if the rulers cannot meet the needs of the majority of the people, the people will overthrow them. This is not outdated, because no matter how it is adjusted or even changed into a new normal, it can not change this truth. The second sentence is:“a man will die someday,or magnituder than Tai shan,or tinier than a feather.” We don’t expect everyone to shoulder the responsibility of history, but when there are major historical turning points, some people will bravely stand up and rewrite history.

    China is at this historical turning point. Young people’s thinking is more westernized, but people have become more rational about the democratic system. In the process of economic development, the government often carries out appropriate restrictions on capital and anti-monopoly through collective discussion, so as to benefit most people. Do not let capital penetrate into every corner. Let most people have the opportunity to develop, the basic space for survival and breathing.

    People have different ideas and different factions. I think in the information society, most people are not dictators, but people with ideals and dreams. These are beyond the control of even a few people. Even inside the system. As a young man in a new era, I hope this experiment will continue. Although this is different from chemical experiments. It will face a lot of confusion, doubt, and loneliness. Personally, I think China will realize democracy one day, but there will be a gradual process to find a democratic way suitable for itself.

    Sorry about my simple English. Thanks for sharing articles. I will read it in the evening once I get home.

  • Thank you Joe. Sorry I have to get back to the reality. I promise to make cornish pasty for my kids today. I wish you all with good health and family happiness, particular during this pandemic. If you want face to face conversation, or I could be your guidance in the near future.

    Please contact:

    +852 69384585 (whatsapp ID, HK shared office at habour city in 8th floor)

    +86 18024248131 (wechat ID)

    You could reach me through these apps.

    I really want to call or send an email to express my condolences. But I don’t know the contact information of his relatives. I still hope to pray for him from my heart.

  • Thank you Ming for the interesting comments about events in your home country. I will be in touch re: Dr Bowman.

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