We’ve all heard the cry. “Our ideas have not failed; they were never tried!” But if you wish to use such a slogan it is wise to state what your ideas are, and complain that they aren’t being applied, before the failure (of whatever ideas are being applied) has become obvious to all.
The advantage of such preemptive pessimism is that you will later be able to present yourself as a prophet of doom proved right, instead of merely as a rat leaving a sinking ship.
The danger of preemptive pessimism is that you may disown something that subsequently succeeds. The ship may not sink. So be it.
I do not know whether the Conservative government that has just won the general election of June 9th 1983 will “succeed” or not. I do know that if it gets beaten in the general election of 1988 (or whenever) many things libertarians believe in will be thought to have failed.
Many people think that the present government really is going to go flat out for “economic freedom”, and therefore that if this government fails, “economic freedom” will have failed with it. All those who now believe in economic freedom, such as all the members of the Libertarian Alliance, will then have been “proved” wrong. Others think that economic freedom already has been proved wrong.
Some libertarians insist that there is simply no affinity whatever between libertarianism and the Conservative Party. Like me they are concerned that the Conservatives should not discredit libertarianism. But these people are surely being rather dishonest. Faint libertarian noises have been emerging from the Conservative Party for some time now, and the notion that effective libertarian propaganda can proceed merely by libertarians pretending otherwise is silly.
It is precisely because of the Conservative-libertarian connection that the differences between the policies favoured by libertarians and the policies that the Conservatives are now all too likely to rely on need to be so clearly spelled out.
The issue that dominated the period from 1979 to 1983 was inflation. Some say that the government’s success in this matter was more luck than judgement, but success it nevertheless was. Libertarians favour a free market in currencies, with all the laws compelling traders to accept pounds sterling in exchange for goods and services (the socalled “legal tender” laws) being scrapped. Inflation would then become a question of taste. Those who, like me, prefer to trade in a non-inflating currency would choose such a currency. “Keynesians” could make other arrangements. Nevertheless, given that the Conservatives are in this particular business ardent not to say fanatical supporters of nationalisation, they did at least run the business the way they said they were going to. And whatever you may think about the Falklands war (libertarians favour a free market in defence services as in currencies) Thatcher did at least win it. Libertarians can admire these things, just as others can who would have done things differently.
Unemployment will dominate the coming period as inflation did the last. If, come the next general election, unemployment is still very high and rising, then the Conservatives will surely be well beaten.
There are basically three plans for dealing with unemployment, the Labour one, what appears to be the present Conservative one, and the right one.
The Labour plan is to beg, borrow or steal huge amounts of money from all who have it, including all those who now run profitable businesses, and spray it over those least likely to do anything useful with it. This is called “producing our way out of recession”.
The Conservative plan is a negative one, namely to avoid, so far as is politically possible, doing the above. Politics being politics, there’ll have to be a few hundred million quid thrown away on a motor car company here, another few hundred million on a “youth opportunity” scheme there. But aside from such diversions the basic plan will be to do nothing, and simply hope for the best. God willing, the “world recession” will end. The “new atmosphere of realism” and “improved productivity” now claimed to exist by the more optimistic type of cabinet minister will bring down unemployment, while the government sits and watches, making the occasional encouraging speech.
But what if the world recession continues? Or gets worse? What if all this new realism and improved productivity are the results of, rather than the cure for, high unemployment?
In the aftermath of the Conservative victory a few allegedly typical examples of the new Conservative intake were interviewed on television. In technical parlance they were all impeccably lacking in “wetness”, that is, they opposed Labour “job creation” and favoured “real” jobs instead. But when I was at school we used “wet” to mean anyone who merely hoped for the best without doing anything active to get it, and in this archetypal sense these new Conservatives are wetness personified. They make poor old Michael Foot look like Winston Churchill, for at least Foot wants to do something about unemployment, however wrong-headed. What were these mild mannered little political rodents going to do to get all these “real” jobs they spoke of so yearningly? We must, one of them said, “pray” that unemployment will go down, that the world recession will end, that …
There was no hint from these people that there might be things that they could do about unemployment, things that might actually work.
REMOVING THE OBSTACLES TO EMPLOYMENT
Plan three for cutting unemployment is based on the recognition that unemployment is largely the creation of government, and could thus, by further government actions of a different kind, be diminished and in due course virtually wiped out.
A major step towards abolishing the practice of being unemployed would be to stop paying people to do it. Most would consider this cure worse than the disease, but the point should be made from time to time. Libertarians oppose the government taking money from people, however much others may need it. Few libertarians would press for this as the next item of government action, for there are too many other government installed obstacles to employment, the removal of which would cause no hardship. If paying people to do nothing is temporarily excusable, there can be no excuse for stealing money from the lowest paid of those who do work. Libertarians oppose all taxation, and removing these particular taxes would undoubtedly cut unemployment. More people could afford to work. From time to time articles appear in the newspapers about this particular horror, for the problem is well understood. It even has its own name: the poverty trap.
Cutting taxes means less government money to spend on other projects, but abolishing minimum wage laws would cost nothing. Where is the sense in forbidding certain deals that those involved would otherwise like to make? A tiny few on the borderline get slightly higher wages. But mostly the result is that many rather undesirable employees, worth only a small wage, don’t get offered any wages at all. Charming.
Just as wicked are the so-called “employment protection” laws, which also result in potential employers not offering certain kinds of employment in the first place. People are reluctant to hire workers they will later be unable to fire without first convincing the government that such firing is “fair”. Other regulations require job conditions to be safe, which means that certain “unsafe” jobs may not be offered at all. Why not let workers be the judge of safety? If they think a certain job too unsafe they can get another, can’t they? Perhaps they can’t. But if that’s so how will denying them this job help? Job safety has steadily improved during recent decades, but this has been because people could afford more of it, not because of the government.
The notorious rent acts, which have virtually wiped out the free market in rented accomodation, are worth a pamphlet on their own. Both the finding of work in places more than a day’s journey away from home, and then the doing of it, have become projects resembling military campaigns. Moving house, in the absence of temporary rented accomodation, is like moving to the other end of Europe. No wonder thousands sit tight, on the dole, rather than face all that.
And so on and so on and so on. Two sides of A4 cannot possibly accomodate all the laws in this country that forbid people from doing harmless things, and which result in them doing nothing at all. Yet at another point in the same television program that showed those new wet/dry Conservatives it was revealed that of the eight new legislative tasks the government is now engaged in, four consist of further restrictions. There’s the new police powers act, a data “protection” act (which will strip away the protection from data), something to stop naughty videos, and, a perennial favorite, laws to smother trade unions in the same restrictions that everyone else suffers from.
In an amazing post-election article in the Sunday Telegraph of June 12th, leading High Tory Peregrine Worsthorne makes a virtue of the intellectual vacancy at the heart of the present Conservative Party. He favours the ruins-with-Union-Jacks solution, and doesn’t even apologise. “Materially speaking there is very little that any Government can do to give the unskilled unemployed a good life. Their standard of living is bound to be depressed.” But this “very little” (which is actually a very great deal) is still worth doing. Isn’t it?
There are quite a few Conservative MPs who understand how foolish this mentality is. But too many either don’t know about the benefits of freedom, or don’t care. Taking the right action against unemployment would be just too exhausting. There are too many self-righteous fools to be outargued, too many books and pamphlets to be read that they should have read ten years ago, too many dinner invitations to be turned down. How much more relaxing to drench the unemployed in Falklands spirit and forget the whole business. Many Conservatives favour rent acts, minimum wage laws, taxes on low pay and so on, because like their political opponents they consider these things to be “compassionate” and “caring”, instead of utterly wicked.
Now that the Conservatives have such a large parliamentary majority, some have predicted that factions within the Conservative Party will make a more public nuisance of themselves than is normal. Let’s hope so, and let’s hope that if there is a faction favouring an effective attack on unemployment it will complain loudly when, as I fear, it fails to get what it wants.
Political Notes No. 6
ISSN 0267-7059 ISBN 1 85637 186 7
An occasional publication of the Libertarian Alliance, 25 Chapter Chambers, Esterbrooke Street, London SW1P 4NN http://www.libertarian.co.uk email: email@example.com
© 1981: Libertarian Alliance; Brian Micklethwait.
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