The prohibitionists call it denormalisation. You take something you want to see the back of and make it look harmful and offensive. You stigmatise those who practice it as stupid and selfish. You push it to the margins of everyday life, so that it appears grubby and deviant. Eventually, it is no longer the done thing, leaving your preferred state of affairs as the only reasonable choice. A new order is established, which sets the tone of future debate, and determines which options are on the table and which are not. The denormalised thing is nowhere to be seen, while what replaced it takes pride of place, as something we could not possibly live without.
To witness this phenomenon in action, consider how our perception of the government’s responsibilities have changed over time. None of the major political parties, few journalists and a dwindling section of the public now believe that the state can or should be much smaller than it is today. They accept without question that the millions of people who rely on it for jobs, income and services would be unable to obtain them by other means. Maybe a bit of fat could be trimmed here or there, but the scope of the state’s duties are essentially set in stone. Anything less than the status quo would represent a step backwards, to a less generous era. Quite simply, the idea of a smaller state has been denormalised.
The Tories talk the talk on spending cuts (remember the promised bonfire of the quangos?), but they’re like someone who reduces his daily doughnut intake from ten to nine, and calls it a diet. And yet, the news is full of stories about queues at food banks, library closures and underfunded schools. The government’s belt-tightening exercise may be more like a half-hearted sucking in of the gut, but this is apparently enough to plunge the country into a state of Georgian squalor.
Back in 2000, when the nation was moving to the groove of Cool Britannia, grumbles about the size of the state were heard less often. Everyone was celebrating diversity and hugging hoodies. The Labour government was busying itself with such vital work as making it illegal to sell grey squirrels or to impersonate a traffic warden. Few people were wailing about miserly benefits, a threadbare NHS, dilapidated schools or a dearth of public sector workers. The Left was still pushing for more spending (when isn’t it?), but there were fewer tales of deprivation than there are today.
One might assume from this that the state was better-funded then than it is now; but between 2000 and 2013, public spending increased by a whopping 36 per cent in real terms, and public sector debt more than trebled. In other words, at a time when people were generally at ease with what the state was doing and spending, it was much smaller than it is today. In historical terms, the state at the turn of the century was still gargantuan, but even this Godzilla-esque benchmark has been denormalised.
The end-game of denormalisation is that we come to believe that it was ever thus. Take smoking in pubs, for instance, which has undergone this process. In a generation’s time, it will seem as much a practice of the modern world as dunking witches. “They sat in other people’s company and smoked cigarettes? Jeez Louise! Why not just urinate on them, then stick a dagger in their hearts?” Anyone who proposed a repeal of the smoking ban might as well call for the return of slavery. Similarly, the idea of people paying their own way through life now seems archaic. Everyone knows that things like schooling and healthcare would be unaffordable if they were left to the private sector. Everyone knows that, except for a fortunate few, no one can live tolerably without the government’s help. Perhaps in some dark, distant past, this was considered acceptable, but that’s not something we want to return to.
As I’ve stated before, the state cannot control costs to make things affordable to the public. All it can do is make things so expensive that they can only be afforded by the state. It stifles competition wherever it treads, encouraging inefficiency in the public sector, and driving up prices in the private sector. Then it takes a great chunk of your income to pay for its cack-handed endeavours, leaving you so impoverished that you have no choice but to put up with whatever it has provided.
In return, the cheerleaders of big state bumbledom expect us to be grateful for what we receive. They tell us that we are not self-made people, but beneficiaries of a benevolent system that we have a duty to pay for. Well I don’t know about you, but I never asked for the NHS, comprehensive schools or bank-busting benefits. They were established before I was born and have been expanded ever since without my consent. I’ll concede that a few functions can be better managed by government than by the private sector, but if I were only to pay for the services I benefit from, I’d be a lot better off than I am. As it stands, it’s as though a no-expense-spared party has been thrown in my honour, and I’ve been stuck with the bill. Thanks a million.
If the state were to limit its ambitions to what it does best (and that’s a pretty short list), everything else would be done more cheaply and to a higher standard by the private sector, or wouldn’t be done at all, due to a lack of demand. Unlike the public sector, which simply consumes money, the private sector would create new wealth, stimulating the economy, creating new jobs and increasing consumer demand. In turn, this would encourage competition, drive down prices and raise standards. Millions of people would be liberated from the yoke of government, and live as independent, self-respecting citizens.
Only, this is unlikely to happen. Not because it won’t work, but because the leading political parties have no interest in it happening. The lumbering GoBot of the British state is their employer, their plaything and their their pension fund. It’s the thing that gives them power and prominence, and spares them from a life of impotent obscurity. Most journalists and technocrats have little interest in a do-nothing government, either, because they see the state as a mighty robot to be programmed with their high falutin ideas. Nor is there much appetite for smaller government among members of the dependent class, who reason that it’s better to have the guarantee of other people’s money than run the risk of failure under their own steam.
This leaves the beleaguered middle-class propping up a system it didn’t ask for and doesn’t benefit from. The bourgeois vision of self-sufficient people, voluntarily cooperating to meet their individual needs, has been denormalised, and is unlikely to make a return to the mainstream anytime soon. The middle-classes are the Kulaks of the modern West: members of a despised social stratum, reviled as the selfish hoarders of wealth and power, who must bear the burden of solving the problem they supposedly help create.
Is there a solution to this seemingly intractable problem? Nothing easy, that’s for sure. One surefire way of bringing down the system would be mass civil disobedience. If the middle-classes stopped paying their taxes, the system would collapse. But in this age of pay-as-you-earn taxation, that’s easier said than done. Besides, we Brits are far too law-abiding to countenance such a thing.
The best hope lies with opening people’s eyes to the truth of the matter, so that politicians are eventually forced to respond – that truth being that the state is too large and too greedy. In a short order of time, the supersized state has become normalised. We must understand this as a mistake, an anomaly that has got out of hand, and try to envisage a different form of society: one in which the government is a barely-relevant administrative body; where the hopes and dreams of the citizenry are their own; where people make their own decisions, take their own risks, and shape their own futures.
Don’t be grateful that the economy is slowly recovering. Don’t be fooled into believing that this proves we can have our cake and eat it – that the free market can support the dead weight of an obese state. We need to recognise our economic recovery for what it is: the slow hauling forward of a leg manacled to a ball-and-chain. We deserve much better.