Thirty years ago, I felt that the state was the enemy of a free people; I still believe that is true even if liberalism has lost its way and become ‘neo’ which is an interesting pun if love The Matrix. Be warned – Rant mode is full on below this line!Thirty years ago, I felt that the state was the enemy of a free people. It stole money throughout taxation, by force because if you refused to pay the state could imprison you, and provided services which were at best inefficient and sometimes downright dangerous. Given the size of the bureaucracy, all it requires is one time serving idiot to gum up the work of entire services. The welfare state, driven by nanny statism, forces everyone to be a square peg because everyone must fit in a square hole.
The project to roll that back and allow the people to be free to chose what we wanted, to privilege ‘less government and a better quality ‘ was the right idea, and still is. Politicians have completely screwed on delivering it.
First of all, we don’t have less government, we have more. In spite of thirty years of privatisations, we are still forced to pay as much money in taxes for public services as was the case the seventies. Cash from privatisations, which should have been invested in improving services, was squandered on winning elections. It is fair to say that no public sector modernisation project in any developed nation has produced worthwhile overall improvements. We still pay over the same level of taxes for services which only work because most of the people who work in them are decent human beings whose time is often wasted by stupid procedures and the occasional utterly inept colleagues who can’t be fired. If anything, the state has become worse, because the rules and procedures have grown more complex and contradictory, rather than less.
The effort to improve choice by freeing the market has actually worked in the very opposite direction. We do not have a flourishing free market in which empowered consumers can chose between competing products and services. Instead we have markets in which decades of mergers have allowed the emergence of giant megacorporations which are as large, stupid, inefficient and totally devoted to their own survival above all else as any centralised state bureaucracy. Those megacorporations can avoid, often by unfair means, the mass of regulation which strangles small businesses. Some businesses develop innovative new products, but the majority rely on intellectual property lawyers to stifle innovation.
The aim of attacking to centrally directed welfare nanny states in the seventies was to produce a world in which small, agile, resilient enterprises- public and private- responded to public needs and created new opportunities. The aim was freedom.
What has happened in the developed world is that we moved from being ruled by the top 1% of the faceless technocrats in the civil service who believed that they knew what was best for all of us little people, to being ruled by those same mandarins who now share power with the 1% of the worlds richest plutocrats, who also believe that they know what is best for all of us little people.
Elements of the context have changed radically: globalisation, the Internet, the gulf between the Wall Street and the real economy, climate change, the probability that automation will eliminate at least 40% of the jobs that now exist but the fundamental issue is still about power, choice and freedom. The neoliberals either didn’t see these trends, or did but didn’t care because they were all ‘neo’ and not at all liberal.
One thing which has become more serious is the level interdependence in ‘the system’. In the Seventies, one idiot could mess up processes in a way that would waste millions and make life miserable for thousands of people. Now, an idiot in the wrong place can crash the whole system: a very small number of fools did that in 2008, and it was fixed by only printing vast amounts of money.
There are, of course, endless qualifications which could be made to this line of polemic, and people intent on wasting time, or those who cannot see the broad sweep of the problem will make those arguments.
The real problem remains the same: concentration of power in any hands reduces freedom, reduces choice, produces inefficiency and waste, inhibits innovation and reduces agility and resilience.
If you ask a good Frenchman when the Revolution ended, you’ll be told that it isn’t yet over.