I’ve just become a father for the second time, and I find myself wondering what kind of a world my daughter will grow up in. From my perspective, we’re living in an age of decline. Not just economically, but culturally and spiritually. We have come to believe that people are unruly children in need of supervision by their elders and betters. The differences between us are not due to differences our abilities or efforts, but because some people take more than their fair share – a situation that can only be put right by redistributing life’s bounty more equally. As P.J. O’Rourke put it, the people who have money are hogging it, and the way for the rest of us to get money is to turn the hogs into bacon.
Most of us believe, to some degree or another, that we can’t do without the government. We think that we could never afford healthcare, schooling, pensions and the rest, if we had to pay for them ourselves in full. Without the state to offer us a helping hand, the grasping fat cats of commerce would put these things beyond our reach. While they smoked cigars, quaffed champagne and had money fights with their Tory buddies, the rest of us would be dying in the streets, to the sound of screams, sirens and breaking glass. A benign state is all that stands between us and the tyranny of other people’s selfishness and greed.
Don’t believe the hype. This is an illusion; a con job; an ancient grift that has hoodwinked generations. Here is the truth of the matter: you don’t need the state – not as much as you think you do, anyway. To paraphrase Brendan Behan, there is no situation so bad that it cannot be made worse by the government. When it tries to raise things in one place, it always drags them down in another. For all its money and power, and all the experts at its disposal, all it does is blunder into our lives like an clumsy toddler through a picnic. It doesn’t know what we want, or what we’d do given a choice. The best it can manage is to second-guess us and force its attentions on us, like (at the risk of overdoing it on the similes) a beery uncle at a wedding.
Using government spending as a guide to how much things like healthcare and schooling cost is like using the Sultan of Brunei’s restaurant bill to calculate the price of a square meal. The only reason public services cost so much is that they’re public services. They are designed to solve a problem created by their own existence. The state can’t control costs to make things affordable to the masses. All it can do is make something so expensive that it can only be afforded by the state.
Plenty will tell you that the financial sector needs regulating to spare us from another crash. But without the central banking system, the big state safety net, and government encouragement to spend and lend, the banks would never have got into such a mess. When everything went belly-up, things were made worse by the structural weakness of the economy, caused by years of government overspending. The economic waters receded to reveal the bloated form of the state, flapping helplessly on the beach. Its supporters rushed to its aid, beseeching the public to save it, but those with any sense asked why we’d needed such a large and useless beast in the first place.
This isn’t just about money, either. Whatever quality of service the state sector provides is not achieved because it puts care over profits, but in spite of this. Anyone who eschews efficiency and profitability because they deem them vulgar considerations, antithetical to value and good service, is an idiot. The empty-headed cult of love-versus-greed has for far too long been used to manipulate our feelings and provide a mandate for empowering the state and its supporters.
It shouldn’t need pointing out, but simply wanting to have lots of money is not enough to persuade people to give it to you. First you have to give them something they want, and it has to be cheaper and/or better than what the next guy is offering. So how do you cut prices without losing money? You reduce costs by becoming more productive and efficient. And what if you can’t or won’t drop your price as much as your rivals? Then what you’re selling needs to be superior to the alternatives. All this is good news for those with money to spend, because it means they have people falling over themselves to satisfy their needs; who are striving to be more proficient and inventive; who want to make their products cheaper and better.
Ever wondered why personal computers are continually becoming faster, cheaper and cleverer? It’s not because the hippies of Silicon Valley have decided to evoke the spirit of the Summer of Love and do the world’s computer users a favour. It’s right there in the paragraph above. They want your cash and will bend over backwards to ensure you spend it with them, rather than anyone else.
It’s the same with food. Forty years ago, our culinary tastes in Britain were as grey and lumpen as the food itself. You were more likely to put olive oil in your ear than on your pasta – if only because your pasta probably came out of a tin. As our tastes became more sophisticated, supermarkets responded by stocking more varied produce, and competition between them drove prices down and quality up. Now, you can buy the kind of foods that were once the preserve of the wealthy for knock-down prices. For the first time in our history, obesity is a symptom of poverty, and campaigners are calling for food to be made more expensive to curb our appetites.
Falling prices mean rising living standards, because people are able to buy more with less. As they spend their surplus cash, they create fresh demand, which results in new jobs and more people with money to spend. It’s a virtuous, self-sustaining cycle. There will be ups and downs, of course, as people make misjudgments, but the overall trend is one of improvement.
The key to this process is competition. Unless you fear being trumped by someone else, you’ve no incentive to be helpful or efficient. You can serve up whatever crap you like for whatever price you please, and the public will have to suck it up. Which is fine if people are happy to take or leave what you’re offering, but not so great if you’re selling something essential to them. I don’t care if you’re Ed Miliband, Mother Teresa or Santa Claus – good intentions are not enough. Only the constant fear of failure and the promise of success can make you work to the best of your ability.
A surly, foot-dragging NHS receptionist wouldn’t last five minutes in the private sector, because her employer would fear customers taking their business elsewhere. But when it comes to the NHS, there is no ‘elsewhere’, unless you’re wealthy enough to go private – and the receptionist knows this. She also knows that her superiors share her conviction that a lack of concern for profit and efficiency puts them on the side of the angels, irrespective of the service they provide. I don’t blame them, because it’s human nature to take the course of least resistance. I blame the people who are so stupid, naïve, or eager to sidestep reality that they think a good heart and a clever plan can make a difference.
Going to back to my (oft used) example of food, no sane person thinks the government would do a better job of producing it than the private sector. God only knows what a state-run supermarket would look like. Like something out of the Soviet Union, probably, with the addition of posters urging us to celebrate diversity. What certainly wouldn’t be celebrated or diverse is the food on offer. With an effectively infinite demand to cope with, supply would have to be rationed and choice restricted. You can forget about it being cheap, either. Oh sure, it wouldn’t cost anything at the point of use, but there’s no such thing as free money – we always pay in the long run. With no reason to control costs, they would inevitably spiral, along with our taxes.
Turning this example on its head, if government food markets were already a reality, you’d probably find the same arguments being made in their favour that you hear for the rest of the public sector. But knowing what we know, we can say with confidence that we’re better off with the status quo. The reason this doesn’t compute with many people is that they compare free-at-the-point-of-use with upfront payment, and conclude that the former is a better deal – which, I hope, I have demonstrated it is not.
As for our moral progress, do you honestly believe we have become a more tolerant country because of hate laws and anti-racist witch hunts? Have we bollocks. We’ve become that way because when people are left alone, they tend to set aside their superficial differences and focus on what they can do for each other. All those state-sponsored efforts to make us less prejudiced only highlighted difference and perpetuated bigotry. Moreover, they’ve fostered a culture of grievance and self-pity that has encouraged us to treat those who don’t share our skin colour or sexual orientation as a potential threat. So much for creating a more cohesive society.
We don’t need to be told what to eat and how much to drink. We’re capable of avoiding smoky places, if we’re worried about the risk to our health. We don’t need the government to plan for our happiness, to protect our feelings, to referee our relationships, or tell us how to raise our kids. We are more intelligent, resilient and responsible than we’re led to believe. We just need to ignore the maddening drone of propaganda that seeks to undermine our self-belief, and get on with our lives.
The ‘experts’ disagree with my calls for a smaller state. They want more government, not less. They warn of the dangers of too much freedom and too little top-down control. Well, of course they do. Without an interventionist state, they have no one to enact their ideas on a stage commensurate with their egos. The same goes for all the other apparatchiks of government: the diversity consultants, the community outreach officers, the health-and-safety führers, and the rest of the make-work mandarins who would have us believe we can’t do without them. There’s no spontaneous public demand for their ‘talents’. They know that without the government, they’d be driven back into the shadows, or would have to get real jobs.
So what to do? It’s a fair question, but to ask it is to risk being part of the problem. The root cause of our woes is too many people eager to ‘do’ something – not as individuals, working voluntarily together, but through elected officials. That’s how democracy works, of course, and that’s half the trouble. Electing people to make things better on our behalf only leads to an abdication of personal responsibility, and to the sucking bog of left-leaning muck we find ourselves in today. Democracy is not freedom; it’s tyranny with a respectable veneer. It’s an invite for the worst people to stick the badge of high office on their chests and start ordering us about.
Suppose your neighbours told you they were holding a vote to decide whether to demolish your house. But don’t worry, you’re allowed to vote too, so justice will be done. Just make sure you gather up your belongings before the wrecking crew arrives. Doesn’t seem right, does it? Because what your neighbours want shouldn’t matter. It’s your house, so yours is the only opinion that should count. That, in a nutshell, is the trouble with democracy. It is a defect which demands that power be devolved, so that we manage our own affairs and are no longer susceptible to the whim of others.
We’ll never be free of government, so given democracy’s shortcomings, the one we elect should seek to do as little as possible. The chief obstacle to this is that when people can vote themselves benefits paid for by others, they will invariably do so – but only if they think they would be worse off otherwise. And that is the thrust of my rant. People need convincing that they will be better off without the state lollipop in their mouths. This will require the election of a political party committed to scaling back the state and showing people why this is the right thing to do. And for that party to be elected requires as many of us as possible to keep making a noise – to keep presenting the case for freedom.
With this cause in mind, I’ll leave you with one of my favourite quotes – one I’ve used before – from Ronald Reagan. In this age of the bureaucrat, the technocrat and the bullying pundit, it is more important than ever that we try to invoke its spirit. Our children’s futures depend upon it.
“Let us be sure that those who come after will say of us in our time, that in our time we did everything that could be done. We finished the race; we kept them free; we kept the faith.”