Tag Archives: welfare

Politics has no place in a charity

Robert Henderson

There are many aspects of modern charities which run contrary what is still, despite all the bad publicity charities have had in recent years,  the general public’s  idea of what a  charity should be;  an organisation which is doing good works by raising money from individuals,  is the reverse of self-serving  and  a morally good thing.

There is much dislike about  modern charities. They   are frequently incompetently run, often too much of a charity’s income goes on administration, especially the pay of the senior staff, embezzlement by the staff of charities  is too frequent for comfort  and larger charities often take much of their funding from the state.  However, those weaknesses are not the subject of this piece.  What I am concerned with here is the political aspect of charities in Britain, an aspect which seems to loom ever larger.

Charities in Britain are very often overtly political, using much of their income to lobby politicians, pay for what are essentially political adverts  and research which is no better than  propaganda.  The Charity Commission’s rules forbid charities being set up for a political purpose ,  charities campaigning for a political party or charities campaigning for a political end which does not accord with the declared  purposes of the charity. Charities may lobby politicians and engage in campaigns which are inherently political to their heart’s content  provided they observe  these rules.  The full Charity Commission Guidance on political activity by  charities can be found here . In summary it is :

To be a charity an organisation must be established for charitable purposes only, which are for the public benefit. An organisation will not be charitable if its purposes are political.

Campaigning and political activity can be legitimate and valuable activities for charities to undertake.

However, political campaigning, or political activity, as defined in this guidance, must be undertaken by a charity only in the context of supporting the delivery of its charitable purposes. Unlike other forms of campaigning, it must not be the continuing and sole activity of the charity. (Section D5 provides a fuller explanation.)

There may be situations where carrying out political activity is the best way for trustees to support the charity’s purposes. A charity may choose to focus most, or all, of its resources on political activity for a period. The key issue for charity trustees is the need to ensure that this activity is not, and does not become, the reason for the charity’s existence.

Charities can campaign for a change in the law, policy or decisions (as detailed in this guidance in section C4) where such change would support the charity’s purposes. Charities can also campaign to ensure that existing laws are observed.

 However, a charity cannot exist for a political purpose, which is any purpose directed at furthering the interests of any political party, or securing or opposing a change in the law, policy or decisions either in this country or abroad.

In the political arena, a charity must stress its independence and ensure that any involvement it has with political parties is balanced. A charity must not give support or funding to a political party, nor to a candidate or politician.

A charity may give its support to specific policies advocated by political parties if it would help achieve its charitable purposes. However, trustees must not allow the charity to be used as a vehicle for the expression of the political views of any individual trustee or staff member (in this context we mean personal or party political views).

 As with any decision they make, when considering campaigning and political activity charity trustees must carefully weigh up the possible benefits against the costs and risks in deciding whether the campaign is likely to be an effective way of furthering or supporting the charity’s purposes.

 When campaigning, charity trustees must comply not only with charity law, but other civil and criminal laws that may apply. Where applicable they should also comply with the Code of the Advertising Standards Authority.

A charity can campaign using emotive or controversial material, where this is lawful and justifiable in the context of the campaign. Such material must be factually accurate and have a legitimate evidence base.

The principles of charity campaigning and political activity are the same, whether the activity is carried out in the United Kingdom or overseas.

These rules allow charities to quite legally act as campaign groups and lobbyists and in practice charities often  get away with  throwing over even the mild restraints that the Charity Commission imposes.

Why should their politicisation be a concern? Because  such behaviour  undermines the very  idea of a charity, which generally is to pursue unambiguously beneficent ends.  Bring the pursuit of political  ends into the picture and  the moral purity of the charity is tarnished.  I would also doubt whether the general public would want the state the state to  provide privileges such as tax breaks for charities  while they  press their own political agendas.

Which charities now existing should have their status removed?

Where a charity receives a substantial part of its income from state bodies, as many of the larger ones now do, the use of the money to campaign for a political end is doubly unwarranted, for charities which receive money from public funds are not really charities at all but subcontracted arms of the state.   Receipt of state money should mean no charitable status. (The practice of politicking is strong amongst charities which receive substantial funds from the public purse).

The donation of money by non-state bodies such as limited companies or organisations which are not commercial enterprises , for example trade unions,  should  be banned where the donations are such as to promote the interests of the donor.

Individual  donations  should be left to the discretion of the donor, but the charity should be legally obliged to provide  the name of any donor providing more than 5% of a charity’s donations in any financial year, together with details of the person’s background including their political and commercial interest if they have them.

Some types of charity are  too  inescapably  political to be charities. These include those concerned with human rights,  immigration, race relations and   charities which promote the cause of particular groups (especially ethnic minorities).

Charities which support criminality either directly through or indirectly, for example, by supplying goods and services which release funds to be spent on criminal activities such as terrorism.   Good examples are Islamic charities which overtly or covertly support terrorism. There is also the problem  of ostensibly legitimate mainstream charities donating to other  charities which have links to terrorists.

Think Tanks which do nothing but produce reports and papers for discussion  should not be charities  because by definition they are not providing active relief  of suffering or directly promoting something which is socially valuable.

Charitable status should only be granted for charitable work undertaken in the UK. The British taxpayer  should not subsidise by the  granting  of tax relief work which does not benefit Britons.

Whether or not  a charity currently  pursuing political ends under the present rules receives money from the  state, they should no longer have charitable status if they insist on political campaigning.  They should sail under their true colours as political organisations  and be subject to the same rules as other non-charitable bodies.  Such organisations could be profit-making or non-profit-making and be treated as other political organisations which are not charities are treated.

None of the exclusions I have proposed mean that people will not be able to donate funds to whatever cause they wish to donate. All it means is that such donations will go to organisations which  no longer have the tax privileges or  the moral status of a charity.

What  work should charities do?

They should be reformed to be what the general public thinks a charity should be, a beneficent organisation giving active help to people  and other indisputable good causes which draws  its money  not from the state but from private donations drawn only from individuals.  To this end charities should exist simply to provide goods and services to ameliorate the deficiency that they ostensibly were founded to lessen, whether that be the alleviation of an obvious need such as poverty or sickness  or to provide something which is not an absolute need but which will be socially valuable such as specialist types of education such as music schools.

What would this mean in practice? Let me give a few examples.

1. Oxfam would cease to engage in political campaigning and concentrate solely on providing help to the poor.

2. Medical charities would cease to lobby for more government spending on medicine and concentrate solely on providing treatment and support to sufferers.

3. The RSPCA  and the RSPB would confine themselves to providing for the welfare of animals by funding care  for abandoned animals and  purchasing land to  provide habitat  for specific wild species .

The advantages of these  changes

The removal of politics from charities and of  the state subcontracting  to charities would change the relationship between  the public and charities for the better, because the reality of  charities would then be much closer to both their traditional role and the present day perception of what a charity should be  in the public mind. That would be likely to increase donations.

Charities would  be much  less susceptible to political or commercial influence if they do not take money from the state or private corporations.

The changes would  remove large swathes of charities which are manifestly not in the national interest . Any work overseas would not be classed as charitable and the army of human rights, immigration and ethnic minority charities would cease to be charities.

The type of person attracted to charity work would probably change significantly if the political aspect was removed.  The charities which were left would have to concentrate on providing practical  aid to the causes which they espouse.  People would join because they wanted to be ministering directly to ends of the charity.

Wall Street, the Wolf of Wall Street  and the decline of moral sense

Robert Henderson

 

Wall Street (1987)

Main cast

Michael Douglas  as Gordon Gecko

Charlie Sheen as Bud Cox

Daryl Hannah  as Darien Taylor

Martin Sheen as Carl Fox

Terence Stamp as Sir Larry Wildman

Hal Holbrook as Lou Mannheim

Sean Young as Kate Gekko

James Spader as Roger Barnes

Director Oliver Stone

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The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

Main cast

Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort

Jonah Hill as Donnie Azoff

Margot Robbie as Naomi Lapaglia

Matthew McCaughey as Mark Hanna

Kyle Chandler as Patrick Denham

Rob Reiner as Max Belfort

Director  Martin Scorsese,

Twenty six years lie between Wall Street and The Wolf of Wall Street (TWOWS) hitting cinema screens. Wall Street is fiction, although there are reputedly people in real life from whom the film’s main characters were developed, for example  Sir Larry Wildman is supposedly drawn from  on the British financier Sir James Goldsmith. The Wolf of Wall Street (TWOWS) is based upon the autobiography of a Wall Street trader Jordan Belfort. How much of that is fact  is debatable, although the general tone of the man’s life given in the book  is plausible.

Both films  begin their action in 1980s. Both deal with the shady world of finance. Both are vehicles for the unbridled egotism of their main characters.    There the similarity between them ends.  Wall Street is about  corporate raiders, men who seek to take over companies and then  asset strip them,  sell them on  quickly for a profit or run them as a business for a while, reduce costs (especially by cutting jobs ) and  then sell them . The main criminality involved in the film is insider dealing.

TWOWS  is simply about making a fast buck and the faster the better, with not even a show of doing anything beyond making money.   These people use   any method from the huckster selling of penny shares to insider dealing and celebrate each success in the spirit of the man successfully  running a hunt-the-lady scam in the street.  They are the masters of the universe and those who lose out are suckers.   There is zero concern for or even awareness of the greater general good of a society in the film.

The protagonists in Wall Street are a young stock trader Bud Fox, and a corporate  raider  Gordon Gecko.  Bud idolises Gecko and manages to work his way into Gecko’s circle by passing on privileged information to him, information which he has received from his father Carl who is a union leader at Bluestar Airlines.

Once inside Gecko’s circle  Bud  sheds  his morals and is content to help Gecko  engage in insider trading until the point where he discovers that he is being used as a catspaw by Gecko , who is trying to take over Bluestar  to dissolve the company in order to access cash in the company’s overfunded pension plan. Bud rediscovers his conscience after a fashion and outmanoeuvres Gecko by making an agreement with  Wildman – whom  previously he had helped Gecko to  defraud  through insider trading when Wildman wanted to take over a steel company –  to buy a majority shareholding in  the airline on the cheap  and run it as a going concern.  In doing this his  motivation is more revenge for being betrayed than suddenly being disgusted with what he had become under Gecko’s influence.

DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort is a trader who loses his job  with a Wall Street broker when the firm crashes, moves into boiler-room trading in penny shares (which are barely regulated and allow for huge commissions to be charged to naïve investors who are often buying shares which are next to worthless). He makes a small fortune doing this.

Belfort then decides to strike out on his own account in rather more up-market  surroundings. With a friend , Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill),  he sets  up  a suitably Ivy league sounding firm of brokers Stratton Oakmont.  They operate on the principle of “pump and dump”  (artificially inflating a company’s share price by tactics such as spreading false rumours or simply buying heavily and then selling the shares rapidly). Stratton Oakmont is given lift off by an article in Forbes magazine which calls Jordan a ‘twisted Robin Hood and the “Wolf of Wall Street”,  which appellations prove a first rate recruiting sergeant for Stratton Oakmont  with hundreds of young stock traders flocking to make money with him.  From that point on he becomes seriously rich.

What the films do admirably  is show the difference between the cinematic portrayal of  the American financial world  in films released  in 1987 and 2013.   To refresh my memory I watched Wall Street again before writing this review. The striking thing about the film is how restrained it is compared with TWOWS.

Michael Douglas’  Gordon Gecko is far more disciplined than DiCaprio’s Belfort.  He  has some semblance of intellectual and arguably even moral  justification for what he does, most notably in a scene where he is addressing a shareholders’ meeting of a company he is trying to take over. This is where Gecko utters the most famous words in the film “Greed is good”. The words have serious context. Gecko is peddling  the laissez faire  line that competition is an unalloyed good because it is the agency which creates natural selection amongst companies and it is only that which keeps an economy healthy. He also  puts his finger on a real  cancer in big business: the development of the bureaucratic company where the company is run for the benefit of the senior management rather than the shareholders. Gecko  rails against  the huge number of senior managers on  high salaries  in  the company he wishes to buy, a business  which has done little for its shareholders.  Whether you agree with the raw natural selection argument in business  – and I do not – at the very least it shows that the likes of Gecko feel the need to  justify what they do, to provide an ethical cloak for their misbehaviour.

There is also a serious difference in the general behaviour of  Gecko and Belfort.  Gecko  for all his faults is not a libertine. For him money is both an instrument and an end in itself. It gives him power and status, a medal of success in his eyes and the eyes of the world he inhabits.  There is purpose in Gecko.  He enjoys the material trappings of wealth but is not overwhelmed by them. In Belfort there is merely an ultimately empty grasping of licence  with drugs,  whores  and absurd status symbols such as an outlandishly large yacht , which his ego drives him to wreck by ordering the ship’s captain to sail in weather which the captain tells him is unsafe to sail in. He acquires a trophy girlfriend , He dumps his wife. There is no solid foundation to any part of his life.

The other big general difference between the films is ethical.  Wall Street has a moral voice which acts  as a  foil to Gecko’s amorality.   Bud Fox’s father Carl puts the case against capitalism red in tooth and claw. After Bud’s  discovery of Gecko’s attempt to buy Bluestar Carl’s dissenting ideological  voice  is added to by Bud. In TWOWS there is no moral voice or pretence by Belfort (or any other character) that what they are doing has any social function or ethical content. Instead the public are simply viewed as a bovine herd to be milked as ruthlessly as possible.  The fact that what is being done – whether it be selling penny stocks in a boiler room or using insider information in more sophisticated company –  is no better than a confidence trick does not cause Belfort and his fellow participants the slightest discomfort only unalloyed joy. They are getting rich at the expense of suckers. It’s all a game whose only end is to make the individual rich and to be rich is a validation of their existence.

Gecko and Belfort end up in prison, so in that respect at least they honour the old American  film tradition of never showing the criminal getting away with it, although  in the case of Belfort he ends up in a place which is not so much a prison as a country club.

Both films are strong in all the technical ways – script, plot, characterisation and acting – that are used to judge films. Michael Douglas’ is a more studied performance than that of  diCaprio who brings an amazing energy to the role.  But arresting as Douglas’ performance is  the film the film has ample space to fill out other characters. Indeed, in terms of screen time it is Bud who wins out.

DiCaprio’s   Belfort has strong claims to be the  best performance in an already  long career, but it utterly dominates the film and consequently the other characters have little room to develop than TWOWS.  They either remain one rather dimensional or like Matthew McConaughey  appear only in cameos.

The quality of the films as films is reason enough to watch them, but their primary value , as a pair,   is their charting, unwittingly,   of the decline of moral  sense between the 1980s and now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wages and welfare benefits are not comparable

Robert Henderson

The Coalition’s line on benefits will not hold water.   The Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith claims it is unreasonable for benefits to rise in line with inflation when wages are not doing so (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/9787094/Iain-Duncan-Smith-raising-benefits-with-inflation-would-be-absurd.html). This ignores two things: what it costs to live even at a subsistence level and the effects of those in work drawing benefits, especially working tax credits.

To compare benefits with wages is nonsensical. Wages may be at any level from the plutocratic to that which is insufficient to fund  even a basic standard of living.  Benefits are fixed and are far from generous.  The real question to ask when considering the uprating of benefits is not whether they are too generous but whether they are sufficient to allow someone to live at the subsistence level.  To do this the distribution of expenditure at  different levels of income must be taken into account. The poorer a person is the more of their money will go on essential such as housing, food, clothing travel and energy.  These are items which apart from clothing have been rising rapidly over the past year or two. It could reasonably be argued that those on benefits (whether in work or not) require an increase much larger than the average wage rise.

The idea that people can live the life of Riley on benefits  does not hold water. For those who have signed on as unemployed the Jobseekers Allowance is £56.25 (single person under 25), £71 (single person over 25)  and £111.45   (couple both aged over 18),    £71  (Lone parent 18 or over) £56.25  (Lone parent under 18) https://www.gov.uk/jobseekers-allowance/what-youll-get .  If you are single without children or a childless couple,   living on benefits is self-evidently not going to be a great deal of fun. (The figures and qualifications for benefits I shall give are those under the  present circumstances. These will change when the Universal Benefit goes live in April this year).

What pushes benefits payments up to the high figures often cited by the media are child related benefits and above all housing-related benefits to pay   mortgage interest or  rent and Council Tax. But to bring in the money for  children you need quite a few.    Child Benefit is £20 for the first child and £13.40 for each subsequent child.  If a family has ten children this would mean they received £140.60. Useful, but not a vast amount when applied to the costs of raising ten children.  The benefit goes in full  to anyone with children whether working or not, provided their income does not reach £50,000 and in part for anyone earning between £50,000 and  £60,000.  (http://www.hmrc.gov.uk/childbenefit/payments-entitlements/payments/rates.htm#1).  In addition, both the unemployed and employed can draw Child Tax Credit for dependent children (under the age of 18) , which can be up to £2,690 for an able bodied child and up to  £4,140 for the most disabled children (https://www.gov.uk/child-tax-credit).   Those figures are of course dependent on the family’s total earned income where the claimants are in work and the amount of savings whether in work or unemployed.  Someone claiming Job Seekers Allowance or Income Support  and not breaching the maximum savings  before benefit starts to be withdrawn  (currently £6,000),  the parent (or other responsible adult) will receive  £64.99 per week for each child (http://tinyurl.com/anpea3u).  The notional family with ten children would get £650 a week in addition to the £140 child benefit, but of course  such a family  would be very much the exception.  The average family with two children wholly dependent on benefits would (excluding mortgage interest or rent and council tax benefit) have £274.85 (£111.45 for the couple; 2 x £64.99 for the JSA/Income support payments for the children  and £33.40 child benefit).

The real poison in the benefits system is the cost of Housing Benefit.   Those who are unemployed or on low incomes are likely to be living in rented accommodation. Rents have gone through the roof in the past few years as mortgages become hard to get and new build housing has slowed to a trickle. (http://www.standard.co.uk/news/london/families-facing-squeeze-as-rents-rise-fastest-in-the-suburbs-8442313.html). To get private rented accommodation in London suitable for a family of four  ( a minimum of a three bedroom flat) would cost between £1-2,000 per month even in the cheaper areas.  A rental of £1,500 per month is £18,000 per year which takes around 70% of the new proposed cap of £26,000 for total benefits paid to any family.  Outside of London rents are not so high,  but in many places , especially the South East, they have risen substantially.  Here is an example from Croydon in Surrey:

“Henrietta Bergman-Janes lives with her husband Michael and their daughter Adelaide, three, in a privately rented two-bedroom flat in south Croydon.

The family survives on an income of about £19,000 from his job in a bank and £400-a-month housing benefit. The rent of £825 a month leaves just enough to live on — but nothing more. They hardly ever go out, cannot afford holidays and saving for a deposit is out of the question.

Mrs Bergman-Janes, 24, said: “We would love to buy our own place and stop being at the mercy of the whims of a landlord, but we can’t even stay out of our overdrafts or pay off our credit cards, how are we supposed to magic up a £25,000 deposit?”

She said rents in Croydon were rising steadily. When the couple were first looking in 2008 small flats were about £600 to £650 a month. “But before we moved into this place we were going to estate agents and said £800 was the most we could afford. They just started laughing at us saying ‘you can’t get anything for that price’.” (Ibid)

An added complication is that millions of those who work also draw various working tax credits or income support (paid to those working less than 16 hours a week – https://www.gov.uk/income-support/overview) which raise incomes to subsistence level. In addition, many of the employed also draw housing  (vide the £400 per month claimed in the example above) and council tax benefit.  If all benefits are claimed, no individual or couple without children  should  probably be no worse off than those under state retirement age who are unemployed because in work benefits are on a sliding scale. A  family with children  or a single parent could be worse off  if they have to pay a professional child minder, although even there the state provides subsidy through Childcare tax credits  with up to 70% of the costs up to a maximum of  £175 per week for a single child and £300 for two or more children. (https://www.gov.uk/help-with-childcare-costs/childcare-tax-credits) .  However, those in work will often be no better off than someone  who is unemployed.

The Working Tax Credits for the low paid are substantial.  For example, a couple with three children  with an annual income of £10,000 would qualify for tax credits of £11,815 (http://www.hmrc.gov.uk/taxcredits/people-advise-others/entitlement-tables/work-and-child/work-no-childcosts.htm ). Working Tax Credit can be paid if a claimant is off sick (http://www.hmrc.gov.uk/taxcredits/keep-up-to-date/changes-affect/work-changes/no-work-illness.htm).

There is the intriguing possibility  that a single parent in work  or a  couple  in work on a low income  with  two or more children might  receive more in overall benefits through Childcare  Tax Credit, Child Benefit, Child Tax Credit and Working Tax Credit than the £26,000 cap for the unemployed coming in with the proposed Universal Benefit in  April 2013.

There are pernicious effects of working tax credits.  These have the effect of a very substantial subsidy to employers who can keep their wages below subsistence level in the knowledge that the taxpayer will make up the difference between what they pay and what is needed to live.  Even if a worker is in full time employment,  this is highly unsatisfactory because it distorts the labour market and places an ever growing burden on the taxpayer.  It also provides encouragement to the immigrant  to work in Britain over and above the great incentive of earning even the minimum wage in the UK which allows them to save a few thousand a year, savings which are worth multiples in terms of purchasing power in their homelands of their purchasing power in this country.

But working tax credit are not restricted to full-time workers. At present the  rules for those under 60 who are able bodied are:

What hours do you need to work?

You don’t have children

If you’re not responsible for children, you need to work the following hours to get Working Tax Credit:

if you’re aged 25 or over, you need to do paid work of at least 30 hours a week

if you have a disability and are aged 16 or over, you need to do paid work of at least 16 hours a week

if you’re aged 60 or over, you need to do paid work of at least 16 hours a week

How to work out usual working hours for your tax credits claim

You have children

If you’re responsible for children you need to be aged at least 16, and work the following hours to get Working Tax Credit:

if you’re single, you need to do paid work of at least 16 hours a week

if you’re in a couple, your joint paid working hours need to be at least 24 a week, with one of you working at least 16 hours a week

So if you’re a couple and only one of you is working, that person will need to work at least 24 hours a week.( http://www.hmrc.gov.uk/taxcredits/start/who-qualifies/workingtaxcredit/work.htm#1)

These rules provide strong incentives for people to do just the minimum hours needed to qualify for the tax credit.  Imagine the temptation for a single parent who only needed to work for 16 hours a week  or a couple with one working who was only required to work  24 hours a week to prefer to do only the hours needed rather than a full week’s work.  If it is a mundane low paid job,   which almost certainly it will be,  in either case the pay for the hours worked plus working tax credit would probably be the same as if the person worked a 40-hour  week.

The rules also  provides an incentive to employers to offer  minimum wage part-time jobs with the minimum qualifying hours, which should also allow the employer to avoid both the employers’ and employees’  national insurance (http://www.hmrc.gov.uk/paye/rates-thresholds.htm#1).

The reality is that no firm line can be drawn between the working and the unemployed. The attempt at resurrecting  the Victorian idea of the deserving and undeserving poor, a part from being obnoxious,  is a non-starter when so many want a job or are forced  to work part-time or take jobs which do not pay a living wage.

Britain’s low wage economy

The problem is really Britain’s low wage economy.  This is a consequence of mass immigration , which has risen to alarming heights in the past ten years  and has resulted in both a reduction in wage levels and increased competitions for jobs,  the offshoring of huge numbers of jobs, the contraction of  public sector employment since the crash following Lehmann Bros failure in 2008 and the reckless inflation of the cost of housing, both purchased and rented, resulting from massive immigration, the loose monetary policy of the Blair and Brown governments and the failure of all governments since Thatcher to build sufficient social housing.

To remedy these ills Britain must regain control over its borders by leaving the EU and repudiating any other treaties which give foreigners the right to settle here; engage in a programme of social housing building on the scale of the 1950s;  reserve social housing for those born British citizens;  penalise private developers who  hoard land by placing a tax on the land while it remains unbuilt on ; subsidise public transport more heavily and engage in judicious protectionism to preserve necessary commerce and  industry.

The  new social housing and  further subsidy for public transport can be easily funded by reducing current public spending massively by  ending foreign  Aid (saves £11 billion); reducing the per capita Treasury payment to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland by reducing it to the English figure   (saves £16 billion)  and leaving the EU (saves £11 billion  on the difference between what the UK pays in and what it gets out  http://www.express.co.uk/posts/view/336667/Now-our-payments-to-the-EU-hit-53m-each-day) . That releases  £38 billion for the Government to spend.

These steps will have the effect of reducing the price of housing and raising pay both in real terms and because much less of a wage or salary will have to be spent on housing and travel costs.  That will gradually reduce the dependence on Working Tax Credits which ideally should be abolished because of their pernicious effects.  Higher wages  and reduced housing and travel costs will also mean  less pressure for women to go out to work when they have pre-school age children. That will reduce the need for highly paid childcare.   The long-term aim should be to reach a situation where it is  the norm for  a single wage to be  enough on which to raise a family.

Public and private confusion (and, yes, there is an alternative)

I wrote Public and Private Confusion in 2006, before the credit crisis, before even Northern Rock was saved by the taxpayer. NuLabbour’s mania for privatising anything in sight was in full spate, mostly, because the Tories had privatized all of the great state industries,  through contracting out public services piecemeal and the greatly expanded use of private money in public projects to build things such as new schools and hospitals using the Public Private Partnerships (PPP) and the Private Finance Initiative (PFI). Public spending was still burgeoning , although anyone who looked closely at the still continuing fool’s paradise which was Gordon Brown’s boom could see that NuLabour’s public spending was seriously out of control as they looked at the deficits Labour had been running since 2002 – http://livinginamadhouse.wordpress.com/2011/10/02/labour-re-writes-the-past-their-economic-management/ . But the British public did not know the half of it when it came to the government debt being built up, because the frighteningly large PPP and PFI obligations were  still largely hidden as they were mostly off the government books Enron-style.

The latest quantification of PFI liabilities alone is £300 billion (http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2012/jul/05/pfi-cost-300bn) and that could well be an under estimate because of many of the contracts have renegotiation clauses at certain points and the PFI contractors,  or those who have bought PFI contracts as they are sold on by the original supplier,  hold the taxpayer over a barrel because the state no longer has the capacity to either undertake the work itself.  Even where a re-negotiation clause does not exist or does exist but the point is years away, it is a common PFI practice for contractors to threaten to walk away from a contract unless their terms are improved. There are also the costs arising where contractors do walk away from a contract and the state has to step in or pay another contractor even more inflated prices for the work.

The most troubling result of PFI costs is hospital trusts unable to fund themselves adequately because of the ludicrous amounts they have to pay for PFI work (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-2165011/PFI-Cancel-contracts-MPs-signed-dock.html), but there is another major problem: the inability of PFI contractors to undertake work efficiently or, as we have seen with the G4S fiasco and their inability to provide security for the Olympics. So lax were their recruitment methods their chief executive could not say if all those recruited could speak English fluently  or even at all (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/olympics/news/9399841/Olympics-I-dont-know-if-guards-speak-English-says-G4S-chief.html).

Despite a change of government, PFI contracts are still being signed in large numbers by the Coalition (http://www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/press_22_11.htm). More and more public core services which the vast majority of Britons would think naturally belong in public hands such as police support and large scale security operations are being taken from the public sector and given to private contractors. In addition, strategic assets such as the Government’s stake in stake in nuclear power giant Urenco continue to be sold off (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/newsbysector/energy/8817089/Taxpayers-3bn-windfall-as-Urenco-nears-10bn-sale.html). In short, nothing but nothing, including even the armed forces, can be considered safe from the mania for turning public service into private business. The situation is substantially worse now than it was in 2006  in terms of the PFI debt being run up, the privatisation of essential public services by stealth (especially the NHS) and the intention to sell off  what remains of substantial public assets, most notably the Royal Mail,  in the medium term.

The purpose of Public and Private Confusion was and is to examine what needs to remain in public hands, what should be brought back into public hands, how public service might be improved and the effects of privatisation in all its guises.

Robert Henderson 23 July 2012

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Public and Private Confusion

(And, yes, there is an alternative)

Robert Henderson 2006

Contents

1. Introduction

2. What are governments for?

3. Why do we need public provision?

4. Public provision is a good deal

5. The moral value of general provision

6. Why should those who can pay for themselves pay for others?

7. What things should be public?

8. What should be provided directly by the state?

9. What should be provided indirectly by the state?

10. The railways – a classic public service

11. Safety

12. Public and private efficiency

13. What do we mean by efficiency?

14. Private enterprise providing public service

15. Public service inefficiencies and politicians

16. Other public service inefficiencies

17. What should public service workers be paid?

18. The right to strike

19. The ability of private companies to manage public services

20. Private money in public projects – “Buy now, pay later”

21. The London Underground – PPP in action

22. Capita

23. The morality of privatisation

24. Our general experience of privatisation to date

25. Private money in public service = a democratic deficit

26. When private becomes public by default

27. Corruption in public service

28. The behaviour of private companies

29. Charities

30. Does the market produce greater choice generally?

31. How government takes on obligations

32. Making personal private provision – the problems of investing

33. Supporting old age

34. The housing crisis

35. Social housing

36. Education ?

37. Healthcare

38. The Post Office and Royal Mail

39. How do we pay for better public services?

40. Does social provision corrupt?

41. Why is public provision being repudiated?

42. The nation state – the only vehicle for democracy

43. The future of public provision

44. Conclusion

1. Introduction

I was provoked into writing Public and Private Confusion both by the Blair Government’s manic dismantling of directly provided public services and increasing signs that political support for public services however provided is waning.

Those with a public voice who oppose such developments all too often wail and gnash their teeth and say how unfair and immoral it is but fail to provide detailed arguments against those who have swallowed the propaganda of private is always best. They lament privatisation and the increasing introduction of private money and

companies into public services, yet defend their position solely by moral exhortation and displays of emotion, as though to merely be on the side of direct public provision, any public provision, is argument enough.

How did we reach this state of affairs? The four decades after 1945 seemed to have made substantial public provision part of the national furniture. Even the Thatcher years did not seriously suggest that it would be generally undermined. The privatisation of the nationalised industries were one thing for Thatcher; services such

as the NHS and the Post Office quite another. Her government was driven by the batty idea of introducing entirely inappropriate private enterprise practices such as the NHS “internal market” into public service, but there was through her long period in office no reason to fear that fundamental services like the NHS and Post Office would be privatised. Indeed, Thatcher said that the privatisation of the Post Office would be “a privatisation too far.”

The consequence was that the supporters of public provision became smug. They assumed that the core elements of public provision were inviolate and consequently not in need of defending. Most damagingly, at the political level they failed to prevent both the Labour and Tory Parties from being firmly captured by those determined to introduce the supposed panacea of the disciplines of the market into public life. By the time Blair came to power in 1997 the supporters of direct public provision in politics and the media found themselves marginalised.

Since 1997 it has become increasingly clear that direct public provision is viewed by those in control of the major political parties as a bad thing in itself and that the only way forward is to subcontract private companies to do the work the state was previously doing. This is a consequence of several things: the failure of greatly increased public spending since 1997 to improve public services; the increasing demands of the EU to reduce direct state funding; and the seemingly religious belief in globalism displayed by Blair himself. (I expand on these issues in section 41).

To facilitate the move from direct public to subcontracted public provision, the public is being fed a continuous diet of bad news about the directly provided public services by the mainstream media, the majority of which is all too willing to climb on the “public service bad, private enterprise good” bandwagon. (The mainstream media has overwhelmingly bought into the free-market propaganda – ask yourself, when did you last read a newspaper article or watch a TV programme which concluded that “free markets” and “free trade” are undesirable because of their adverse consequences for substantial parts of the populations of the First World, whose natural employments are lost and whose lives are made generally insecure).

Because of its natural importance and central place in the hearts of the electorate, the NHS is the biggest and most gory source of “shock horror” stories. Every horror story about the NHS is paraded on the front pages, while the frequent errors made by private medicine rate barely a mention. The fact that any organisation as gigantic as the NHS – it employs the better part of a million people – will inevitably be the source of regular errors is barely mentioned and almost no attempt is made to place the level of failure in that context. Not only that, many of the “scandals” are less than scandals when they are looked at in detail.

There is also an increasing loud and ever more unguarded attempt by politicians and sections of the media to suggest that the Welfare State is “too expensive” in its present form to survive and that people must make much more private provision for things such as pensions and healthcare.

Sadly, the direct public provision case is now largely going by default, which is enraging because it is very strong, both as a moral necessity for a civilised and free society and as a practical necessity to maintain the efficient functioning of a modern industrial state. That is case which I have attempted to supply.

2. What are governments for?

The traditional areas of government have been defence, foreign affairs, policing, the provision of justice, the execution of legal judgements including criminal sentences, the collection of taxes and the allocation of those taxes to the public enterprises mentioned above. But long before the rise of the modern industrialised state, the more organised and effective governments recognised that something beyond this minimalist role of government was desirable, not least because underlying any society is a fear of civil disorder (which might overthrow the status quo) and crime if there are too many have-nots (this was one of the primary reasons for Imperial Rome providing a daily dole of bread to its citizens.) England has had a legally enforceable national welfare system since 1601. In the sixteenth century, enclosure of mediaeval open fields and the dissolution of the monasteries drove many from the land and removed most of the informal welfare system which had long existed through the charitable works of monasteries. The consequence was the creation of a large number of “sturdy beggars” (a substantial rise in the population of England at the time was a considerable aggravating factor). This drove the Tudors to introduce various Acts which attempted to both restrict the movement of the poor and to provide for them. These efforts culminated in the 1597 and 1601 Poor Laws. These Acts, for the first time anywhere in the world, created legally enforceable provision for the poor for an entire nation (although it took half a century or more to get the Poor Law generally enforced).

Along with the fear of social disorder ran the natural feelings of pity and moral obligation, feelings bolstered by the custom of hospitality and of a religion which enjoined a duty of alms-giving to the poor. Such sentiments were gradually assimilated into public policy.

Of course, the national and political desire to provide for the poor and the unfortunate has been massively enlarged in the centuries since the Elizabethan Poor Law was passed. In Britain, we think that everyone in our society should have the necessities of life – food,shelter, warmth, clothing, preferably from their own efforts in part or whole, but where necessary from the taxpayer. The vast majority of Britons believe that these things are desirable, although there are differences of opinion over the extent and nature of the provision.

But most Britons – both at the political level and as a large majority of the population – also think that a good deal of other state provision should exist, not merely for the poor or unfortunate but for every citizen. We recognise that there are other things which the state should do beyond maintaining the integrity of the state and providing the basic means of subsistence. These are enterprises which are deemed to be both for the public good and in need of public action because private provision will not do them at all or only do them inadequately.

We expect the roads to be maintained by the state because that increases the efficiency of commerce and industry and enhances private life (most of the population probably think the same of railways.) We believe that no one should be left without medical treatment within the limits of what can be reasonably afforded. We think it necessary that the population should be educated to a certain level because that is essential for the individual’s chances in life and because a modern industrial society requires educated people. The more thoughtful see education as a civilising process which has general value for a society.

Equality before the law, or even justice itself, is a special case of social provision because it requires social provision for it to exist. Unless the state provides the means for each individual to have equal access to the law to remedy a wrong and to have equal access to professional legal assistance when they are a defendant in either a criminal or civil case, there is no equality before the law. All legal assistance must be free, because otherwise there is no equality for an individual will either not be able to afford the assistance or be deterred from seeking it because of the cost.

Law exists to provide a peaceful alternative to private action to right hurts and no defendant has a choice of whether they are defendant. Those two facts should be remembered by those who balk at the idea of universal legal aid. Sadly, legal aid in Britain, although still generous compared with many countries, is inadequate and is being reduced.

All social provision, from the supplying of basic needs such as food and shelter to education, has a further role. In a reputed democracy, each person is supposed to be an autonomous human being capable of both existing and of making decisions about who shall govern and what shall be done. A person constantly wracked with the uncertainty of poverty and the fear of ill-health or insecure employment will have little time to devote to anything other than surviving. A person denied a formal education will probably be illiterate and have a poorly developed intellect. To possess such disadvantages in our world is effectively to be excluded both from the more comfortable and influential parts of society and, consequently, from politics. And such disadvantage follows down the generations, with the children of the poor taking on the privations of the parents.

If we are to have a meaningful democracy, or more exactly a representative system (elective oligarchy) which allows the masses to exercise meaningful democratic control over the elite through their votes, every member of the electorate has, ideally, to be in a condition whereby they both have the time to consider matters beyond the everyday and the education to understand matters of public policy. The ideal is of course unobtainable, but many more will be brought closer to such a condition if supported and encouraged by public provision than if left solely to the vagaries of private provision. It is worth noting that historically elites have generally been opposed to expanding the intellectual world and material standing of the masses. There is a good if immoral reason for this: the poorer and less educated a population, the easier it is for the elite to control it.

3. Why do we need public provision?

Why do we need public provision? Why cannot we live in the type of world envisaged by extreme libertarians, who imagine that everything could be supplied through private arrangements and charity? The short answer is that private provision never provides universality of provision or anything approaching it. We know this because all the experience of history shows no case where private provision has met the general need.

Most societies at most times have had no state provision for welfare. In those societies private charity has invariably fallen not merely short but far short of meeting need. Periodic famine, illiteracy, untreated illness and poverty have been the all too common lot of the masses throughout history. Unless a society is willing to allow people to starve, suffer and remain uneducated – and no politician in a modern western country would openly espouse such an idea – the only answer is state provision to assist those who cannot afford to pay or who are unable to find charity. Consequently, it is pointless asking the question could private charity and individual effort provide a better general service in the provision of this or that vital service than public enterprise because private charity and individual enterprise will and can never provide comprehensive provision.

The extreme ideologues who advocate private action as the only legitimate means of providing social goods invariably fail to meaningfully acknowledge the elephant in the room, namely, what happens to those who are unable to buy what they need or who cannot obtain charity? When pressed they claim that the abolition of tax, or at least its reduction to the low levels needed to maintain a minimalist state, would allow charity to rise to a sufficient level to meet all demands for social provision. The fact that this has never happened in the entire history of the world does not concern them. Like Marxists who still claim that communism only requires the right circumstances to be realised, the supporters of private provision remain convinced that their utopia is just waiting to be realised if only society was ordered by their rules (It is worth noting that a utopian libertarian society could only exist if all other political ideas were suppressed).

What can we say to these vaulting optimists who appear to be oblivious to the facts of human psychology and sociology? These extreme disciples of the free market, civil society and private charity should remember that even the Messiah of laissez faire economics, Adam Smith, allowed that there were things of purely economic concern which could not be left to private provision because it was inadequate, for example the maintenance of the roads. Smith also recognised that there was more to life than economic relationships and that the social consequences of economic decisions sometimes mean that unfettered economic arrangements are unacceptable, for example, in the provision of war materials which have a strategic value as well as an economic one. In more modern times, one of the creators of neo-liberalism, F. A. Hayek, acknowledged the need for public support of the needy, for example, “We shall again take for granted the availability of a system of public relief which provides a minimum for all instances of proved need, so that no member of the community need be in want of food or shelter” (The Constitution of Liberty Routledge pp 300-301).

It is difficult going on impossible to envisage a time when the poor (relatively speaking) will not be with us. In the most benign social circumstances, there will always be substantial numbers who through illness, injury, age, bad luck or general incapacity will need and deserve taxpayer provision. To take but one example of a widespread and unalterable disadvantage: approximately 10% of the population of Britain have IQs of 80 or less. An IQ of 80 is the point at which most psychologists consider an individual begins to struggle to live an independent life in an advanced modern state such as Britain. Because of the way IQ is distributed – more or less as a Bell Curve – most of that 10% will always be drawn from the poorer sections of society (attempts to boost IQ with enhanced environments, for example Headstart in the USA, have persistently failed to do so by more than a few points and often the gain is not permanent. The implication is that IQ is to a large extent genetically determined). The low IQ poor will be likely to need substantial social provision because their families and friends will not have the resources commonly available to the low IQ individuals within better-off families. If substantial public provision is not available to them, the likely outcome will be increased anti-social behaviour from those unable to cope or earn a living capable of supporting them. The moral to be drawn is that any society should, simply as a matter of prudence let alone morality, provide a viable life for all of its people, not merely the fortunate or able.

There is a further consideration: the responsibility of governments for the general conditions in which people live. For example, the position of low IQ individuals in poor families is considerably worse now than it used to be. British Governments over the past 25 years have changed, primarily through a commitment to free markets and free trade and increasingly uncontrolled immigration, have removed many of the circumstances which previously gave Britons with a low IQ the chance of living an adult life largely independent of the state.

Manual jobs, especially in heavy industry, long-established working-class communities, cheap housing and a tight labour market have all been greatly diminished or have vanished altogether.

Mass immigration, especially from the new EU members, is especially disadvantageous for the low IQ, low skill Briton. The immigrants, even the well-qualified, are happy to take the low paid unskilled jobs which would be suitable for those Britons with low IQs. They do this because the money they can earn in Britain doing a menial job is considerably more than the average wage in their own countries. For example, £3,000 a year in Poland is a good professional salary. A Pole earning even the minimum wage in Britain can often save that in a year because his money will probably not be taxed and he will be living either in squats or in very overcrowded conditions which cost him little. (Give native Britons the chance to save the equivalent of a doctor’s salary in Britain by working in a menial job in a foreign country and watch them flock there.)

The consequence for the low IQ, low skilled Briton is not only competition for the sort of jobs he or she has traditionally filled but reduced wages and even exclusion from part of the British job market altogether, because certain types of job become effectively reserved for immigrants of a particular ethnicity – this is particularly the case where foreign gangmasters operate for they commonly employ only people of their own ethnicity.

Of course, the effects of the actions of governments go far beyond the low IQ individuals in a population. To take another example which affects most, if governments engineer, as has happened in Britain, a decline in the state education system through demands that the same formal school exams must be sat by all pupils or that 50% of school-leavers should go onto higher education, then the politicians who introduce the policies take upon themselves the responsibility for any inability of the ill-educated to lead productive and socially useful lives. (A fully discussion of the problems with education can be found at section 36).

4. Public provision is a good deal

The essentials of life are food, water, clothing, shelter, healthcare and a livable income in times when a person cannot work through want of a job, disability, illness or old age. Most people most of the time can afford to pay for shelter, food, water, heating and clothing from their private resources. Most could not afford the rest of the essentials and very few indeed could survive long term unemployment without state aid.

It is important to realise what small incomes the majority of Britons have. Take these figures from the Government’s Regional Household Income Comparison 2004:

“Inner London had the highest disposable household income (after tax) per head of population (£16,500) in 2004. The area continued the trend of previous years and in 2004 was 29 per cent above the UK average of £12,800. This was lower than in earlier years. In 2000 it was 36 per cent higher than the UK average. Tees Valley and Durham in the North East had the lowest household income per head at £10,800. This was 16 per cent below the UK average in 2004.” (http://www.statistics.gov.uk).

The uncomfortable truth is that even the average disposable British household income is insufficient to comfortably bring up a couple of children, pay an average mortgage and make substantial pension contributions. Worse, much of the population has less than average household incomes, many very substantially less. But even those with household incomes substantially above the average – many of whom support the idea of private provision for those “who can afford it” – would find themselves deeply embarrassed if they did have to meet the cost of everything they now receive from the state.

To take a concrete example, that of a middle class husband and wife with two children with a net annual household income of £40,000. At present they can, if they choose, educate their children free at state schools. The entire family can be treated under the NHS. Until they are sixteen, the children will not even pay prescription charges. If their children go to university, as they probably will being middle class, much of the cost of the education will still be met out of taxes (tuition fees even at their new levels do not come near to meeting the full cost of a university education). If either parent falls ill or is injured, the taxpayer will provide basic support. The same applies in the case of unemployment. If any member of the family isunfortunate enough to be the subject of a criminal assault, the Criminal Injuries Board will compensate them. The family will receive child benefit which is not a means tested benefit.

Just imagine what it would cost to either provide such services by buying them directly or through insurance if one could find an insurer willing to issue cover.

A decent private day school education would be at least £12,000 for two children and could well be a good deal more. A university education would cost tens of thousands of pounds. Private health insurance for a family to cover everything covered by the NHS cannot be obtained, but even the best that could be purchased – and it will provide a much inferior cover to that of the NHS – would cost several thousand pounds a year and will not cover existing conditions either at all or for several years – those who doubt this should check out the BUPA website and see what even their most expensive plan does not cover (you will get a very nasty shock). Drugs, including prescription drugs, will have to be purchased at their full cost. If the family has a member with a chronic condition requiring regular treatment or a condition requiring expensive one-off treatment, they will soon find their private insurance will not cover the treatment or will do so for only a restricted period. Mental health problems and long term nursing care are rarely if ever adequately covered by private insurance. Where private insurance will not pay, the family will be left with bills which at best will severely constrain their lives and at worst bankrupt them. (The most common cause of personal bankruptcy in the United States is medical bills.)

Private insurance for sick pay and unemployment pay is both very expensive and strictly limited in the time it is paid – a year is normally the longest period covered. The same applies to mortgage insurance cover. There would be no child benefit or criminal injuries compensation available without public provision.

If the cost of providing for the family is restricted to just the items discussed above the family would be hamstrung by the bills even if no major disaster such as a serious operation hit them. A mortgage to purchase even a modest house in most areas would be out of the question. University education would become a very big gamble for the children.

If a major disaster did hit the family, they would not be able to cope for an extended period because any private insurance they could purchase would soon run out.

The family I have described is by normal standards comfortably off. It might be able to struggle along provided it did not hit a catastrophe which robbed the household of its breadwinner(s) or an emergency such as a serious medical condition which swallowed up vast amounts of money, but it would not be a materially comfortable or psychologically secure family. Most families (and individuals) have considerably less income than this fictional family and a substantial minority live on an income well below the average, while half the British adult population have no meaningful savings or occupational pensions. The large majority of the population would be utterly unable to provide for themselves in times of hardship such as sickness, old age and enforced unemployment.

Those who claim that all the poor in Britain are only relatively poor should reflect on this stark statistic: the latest Inland Revenue figures for marketable wealth distribution ( 2002) show the top 1 per cent own 23% of national wealth and the bottom fifty per cent of the population have a staggeringly small 6% (Office of National Statistics (ONS) website – published 2004).

In short, the majority of the British population live as they have always lived: from one pay packet to the next. They do not have the resources to withstand the withdrawal of state provision and are very vulnerable to the competition of immigrants and offshoring, which either destroy their employment or reduce their pay.

What applies to what might be termed social provision applies to all other public charges – such as defence, policing and the justice system. Most individuals do not have to bear the full cost of these because they pay far less tax, direct and indirect, than is needed to finance a per capita share of total public expenditure. A quick calculation will demonstrate this. The projected public expenditure for 2006/7 is £488 billion. There are approximately 45 million adults in Britain. £488 billion divided equally between them runs out at nearly £11,000 per adult head.

The future is even bleaker because of the absurd cost of housing, the rising cost of a university education and the likely high cost of energy and water supplies. There are even suggestions in current price movements that cheap food may be a thing of the past and the price of manufactured goods from China and its Asian cohorts is also showing signs of inflation as their populations’ wages and living standards rise and they consume more of what they make.

The effect of everyone “paying their way” just for things such as education and healthcare would have a severely depressive effect on already dangerously low Western breeding rates as people had fewer children because of the increased costs falling on the individual.

5. The moral value of general provision

If public provision is necessary should it be available to all? Why should it not be granted only to those who through a means test show that they cannot support themselves from their own resources? The answer is threefold: personal dignity, practicality and the engendering of social cohesion.

Anyone who has had the misfortune to claim means tested benefits or who has assisted someone to claim will know what a frustrating and degrading experience it can be. The rules relating to claiming are Byzantine in their complexity and a simple error on a form (which can run to 20 pages or more) can result in benefit being withheld or delayed. But even when the forms are correctly completed and the criteria for the benefit are met, the delivery of the benefit is frequently seriously delayed because the volume of claims and their complexity simply overwhelms the administrative capacity of the public servants dealing with them.

If all public provision was means-tested, including NHS treatment and education, the administrative cost would be massive and the efficiency of the delivery of the provision greatly reduced. The additional administrative costs would have to be set against any saving gained by denying provision to people.

General provision also underpins social provision. Where all are eligible, all feel that they have a stake in the Welfare State. That improves social cohesion. Exclude the better off and the odds are that eventually political circumstances will arise which allow those with the power to reduce or even destroy utterly public provision. At best, if social provision is seen as only for the poor, it will gain a stigma and the quality of the provision will be of little or no account to those who do not benefit from it.

The provision of public services gives everyone rich or poor the assurance that if the worst comes to the worst they will not be utterly without the means to live. That is the bottom line of having the privilege of being a British citizen.

Apart from simply making life more pleasant and secure, a socially cohesive society has considerable cost benefits, because it will experience less anti-social behaviour. That translates into fewer police, fewer trials, fewer people in prison and, indeed, fewer laws to moderate social behaviour to administer – regrettably many laws are passed in response to moral panics.

6. Why should those able to pay for themselves pay for others?

The most obvious reason for not allowing anyone to opt-out from that part of taxation which is devoted to public provision is that no one can be absolutely certain that they will not meet some calamity in the future which will leave them unable to pay. The experience of medical care in the USA shows how easy it is even for the rich to find their wealth shrinking to a point where they cannot get all the treatment they need – the Superman actor, Christopher Reeve, one of the highest paid Hollywood actors, found his resources exhausted within a few years of suffering the injury which paralysed him.

But there is a more subtle reason. The wealthier members of society should always remember that they owe their privileged position to the restraint of the have-nots and the power structures of society which are overwhelmingly weighted in favour of the haves. Individual effort and talent do of course play a significant role

in the lives of everyone, but it is also true that most people’s lives are to a large degree determined by the circumstances of their birth. If you are born into a wealthy family, the odds are you will live the life of the wealthy throughout your life. A person born into poverty will probably remain at the bottom end of the social spectrum. The same applies in varying degrees to those born between the top and bottom of the social pile.

No one needs academic studies to prove the truth and potency of inherited advantage. All people require is the evidence of their own experience. Let any man examine the lives of all those he knows and he will find that most will occupy a similar social position to their parents.

A simple way of understanding how much inherited social position determines lives is to consider crime. Proportionately, the working-class commit crime much more often than the middle classes (and even within the working class the frequency of offending rises with the degree of poverty). That cannot be because the working class are innately less able, intelligent or self-controlled, because we know that many of the middle class are also dim, incompetent and socially inept, yet they rarely end up with a criminal record.

The only plausible explanation for the greater criminality of the working class can be their different material and social circumstances. These are much more precarious than those of the better off. They lack money and the social network which eases access to better jobs, while the opportunities to intellectually develop that are commonly open to the middle class are denied them. Give every person the means to live a middle class life and crime would drop dramatically simply because the press of material necessity would not be there and because the alienation of the poor through being poor would have been removed.

The better-off also need to admit to themselves that there is no moral basis for inherited wealth. The person who inherits money and possessions has by definition done nothing to earn it. The person who earned the wealth, if it has been gained through moral means – and often wealth, particularly great wealth, has not been so gained – has a moral right to it, but no one else. The same applies to non-material advantages such as social connections.

There are, of course, those who attempt to treat inherited wealth as a moral matter. They claim that a person has the right through the consequence of ownership to pass on what he or she has to whoever they choose. That, of course, begs the question of how the wealth was obtained. But let us assume it was achieved entirely morally and by the direct efforts of the person – the best possible case for the supporters of inherited wealth. Even in that instance the effect of the transfer of wealth to others is to create a situation which is manifestly unfair, namely, the establishment of privilege for someone who has done nothing to earn it. Taken at the level of a society, that rapidly results in a permanent class privilege for the haves and their descendants. The fact that the development of hierarchies is an inevitable consequence of human society is neither here nor there when considering whether the consequences of a hierarchy is moral. Clearly the deliberate disadvantaging of some to the advantage of others is not a moral act, any more than enslaving a man is (the group now living who have by far the greatest moral claim to reparations are not the descendants of slaves but the descendants of the poor).

The American philosopher John Rawls in his book A theory of justice resurrected the idea of the social contract which was much in favour in the 17th and 18th centuries. He posed, in so many words, the question “Suppose a group of people were to form a society from scratch, what society would they favour if each person knew nothing about the other people and had no idea where they personally would fit, socially and economically, into the society?” He concluded that the only rational choice would be one in which people had equality because no rational man would chose an inferior position for himself and no agreement would ever be reached which created an unequal society, whether in terms of social status, rights and duties or material circumstances.

Note that Rawls did not rule out a man or woman choosing an unequal state – some might do so thinking it would be worth the gamble to have a chance of gaining one of the favoured positions in an unequal society – he merely thought that it would not be a rational or normal decision.

Although Rawls’ hypothetical state (“The Original Position”) was not realistic, his thought experiment does demonstrate that what we have now as a result of the organic development of society is not what many, if any, would risk for themselves if they had the choice Rawls’ offered them.

Why not take away all inherited wealth? All of historical experience shows that such a cure is worse than the disease. Where the state controls (at least in theory) the totality of people’s lives, such as in the Soviet Union, the consequence is privilege and abuse not by the possession of money but by the wielding of state power. There

is also something peculiarly degrading about the idea that everything a person does is to be ordered and permitted by the state. A degree of private wealth is a bulwark against state power. The trick is to ensure that wealth does not become too concentrated in the hands of the few, producing an uncaring and oppressive plutocracy.

As for the wealth which individuals create for themselves, to tax to produce material equality would plausibly have a deleterious effect on society generally. If a person is not to benefit from their own legitimate enterprise, why should they bother to make any extra effort or take risks? The obvious answer is they have no incentive to do so. However, that is to take to nakedly a material view of humanity. Even in circumstances where what someone did had no effect on their income, people would vary considerably in their willingness to work regardless of the material outcome because personalities differ and there are rewards other than material ones such as the approval of others and celebrity. Nonetheless, it is reasonable to assume from the experience of communist societies that the overall effect would be to substantially reduce the individual will to work and take risk.

Of course, absolute material equality is improbable in any society, but the disincentive effect applies incrementally as the personal tax burden grows. Once tax reaches a certain level people either work less or become dishonest and evade the tax. That applies not only to the obvious case of the entrepreneur but to jobs generally, for people will be generally disinclined to take the more demanding jobs if the material rewards they offer are not significantly better than those for unskilled and easy employment.

It is also true that Man being a social animal will always form hierarchies because social animals necessarily organise themselves in that way (if they did not, sociality would never arise because the members of a species would be in constant antagonism to one another and could never reach the point of sociality). Even if all material advantage was removed there would still be the advantages and disadvantages of genetic inheritance, the differing qualities of individual parents and pure accidental circumstances, such as the work available at a particular time and place, to create a socially layered society with patterns of dominance and dependence.

But that does not mean that societies should simply be allowed to develop without any state intervention to ameliorate socially determined disadvantage. Without social provision of necessities the poor are left to live hopeless lives which struggle from day-to-day, while untaxed or very lightly taxed wealth of the most successful results in a plutocracy within a few generations.

Plutocracy at best produces wider private charity – which is always inadequate – and at worst an uncaring attitude towards the masses which sees nothing wrong in allowing them to starve if that is a consequence of the economic circumstances of the society and times or even simply God’s will. Plutocracy is in fact one of the most oppressive forms of society and one of the most difficult to end because it cunningly presents itself as being the society of individual opportunity (“the Ritz is open to all”) and is not nakedly oppressive in the same way that, say, Nazi Germany or Stalin’s Russia was oppressive. Consequently, there is no obvious focus for discontent, no single hate figure and it has a much greater enduring power than an overt dictatorship.

What a society can safely do to narrow the differences in life chances at birth is to act to ensure that all have access to education, healthcare and the means to live in a decent manner. That is the minimum. A society can go further with the greatest public resources being directed at those in the poorest circumstances, for  example, more money for schools in “sink” areas. It would even be possible to devise a scheme for those who inherit little or nothing by way of money or possessions to receive a payment from the state to remove to a degree the disadvantage of inheriting nothing.

7. How should public service should be determined?

It is easy in principle to decide whether something should be left to private or public enterprise. Simply ask five questions:

(1) Is the service or product generally considered to be a necessity?

(2) Will profit compromise safety?

(3) Is the service obviously inappropriate to be left in private

hands, for example policing or defence?

(4) Can the service be provided by private enterprise without subsidy?

(5) Can free enterprise be reasonably expected to deliver the necessity universally?

If the answer to any of (1)(2)(3) is YES or the answer to either (4) or (5) NO, then it should in principle be provided either directly or indirectly by the state.

8. What should be provided directly by the state?

Certain things should be reserved to the state as a matter of absolute principle. They are defence, foreign policy, policing, justice, the implementation of judicial sentences and decisions and the administration of welfare. They should be reserved absolutely because either they involve the use of force or the threat of force, punishment or the distribution of taxpayers’ money in areas such as unemployment benefit.

For reasons which I shall shortly examine, the state should also directly control any essential service which is a natural monopoly. What counts as a natural monopoly? Railways and utilities such as water and energy are examples They are natural monopolies because it is simply not practical to have competing lines running to the same destinations or competing utility pipes and cables supplying the same area.

It is possible, as has happened in some of the British privatisations, to allow different companies to compete to supply services such as trains, energy and water, but that is at best an insufficient or incomplete competition and at worst a wholly bogus one because the actual lines of supply – the railway track and the pipes or cables – still have to be maintained and owned by some organisation, private or public. That means the infrastructure has to be either owned publicly or, if owned by a private company, the company must be rigorously controlled by the state, as is the case with the British telephone landline infrastructure which is owned by the privatised British Telecom.

British government interference with natural monopolies since privatisation has gone far beyond controlling the infrastructure. In the case of the railways, a considerable public subsidy has been paid and continues to be paid to the private operators. In every monopoly industry a regulator has been appointed to control both prices and, in theory at least, to force companies to do things such as provide a certain level of investment in new equipment and to be conscientious when it comes to maintenance and operation of the infrastructure. To pretend that these monopoly industries are private companies working in a free market is patently absurd. They are effectively public services contracted out to private contractors.

A few services only work as monopolies, the classic example being the universal letter post, that is, letters delivered to any part of a territory for the same price. This only works if it is a monopoly because if there is competition from private companies or municipal postal services they will take sufficient of the profitable trade in the towns and cities to make it impossible for the universal supplier, in this country the Royal Mail, to subsidise the loss making deliveries to parts of the country outside the main urban centres. No private company would ever provide universal coverage unless they had a monopoly.

Why should the state directly control essential monopolies? Firstly, because there is no opportunity for meaningful competition and consequently the state must step in to prevent abuse of the monopoly position. To do that, as we have seen, it has to interfere very strongly with the running of the monopolies. In practice, it can only efficiently do this if it directly controls the monopoly.

If the state subcontracts an essential monopoly to private business or allows private business to buy a monopoly two general problems arise. The first difficulty is that a private business may at any point fail as a business or simply refuse to continue with a contract if it is not making money for the business. If that happens the state is over a barrel because it does not have the resources to immediately take over the enterprise, nor is it probable that another private company would be able or willing to step in at a moment’s notice – the worst outcome would be the cessation of a vital industry. Nor, if a company failed, is it obvious how a Government would prevent its assets being sold by a liquidator. In principle when Railtrack failed – the company which after privatisation had the responsibility for maintaining the infrastructure of the British rail network – the shareholders owned the assets (the railway infrastructure including much highly profitable land) and the creditors had a legitimate charge on them.

Clearly no government could allow the railway or vital industries such as water, gas and electricity simply to go under, either at the national or regional level. Hence, any government will, when shove comes to push, have to pay through the nose (your taxpaying nose in fact) to maintain the threatened industry, whether that be through enhancing a contract to make it more profitable, granting more profitable contracts to a new private contractor or through the payment of outright subsidies. A government is in a similar bind if a company is doing a bad job: they cannot simply sack them because who is to take their place?

Natural monopolies also raise other problems if they are in private hands. There is insufficient public control over areas such as maintenance and strategic planning. Good British examples can be found in the privatised water and energy industries. In the case of water the privatised companies have failed to invest adequately to stop the considerable loss of water from cracked pipes. Nor has a single major reservoir been built in England since privatisation. These investment failures have occurred despite the water companies consistently making healthy profits. The Water Regulator huffs and puffs but achieves little because the water companies know he can do little. Indeed, he has to date not even fully used the powers he has despite issuing many warnings to the water companies. And the Government? Well, they could pass a new law giving them direct powers over the water industry but what then? If a water company simply refuses to do what is needed where does the Government go? Nowhere fast is the answer.

With energy it is the strategic planning which is emasculated. Successive British governments have allowed Britain to sleepwalk into a position where the country went rapidly from being self-sufficient in energy to becoming a net importer. This was entirely predictable as it was known long before it happened that North Sea oil and gas was going to decline substantially from the beginning of the century. Despite this no meaningful strategic planning has taken place since privatisation with governments until very recently childishly claiming that it was not for them to interfere in the actual provision of energy now the industry is privately owned (the Blair Government has just woken up to the strategic danger of being dependent on foreign supplies but even now -2006 – no definite decision has been made on future British energy policy). The upshot of this lack of planning has been rapidly rising energy prices since 2005.

If water and the energy utilities had remained in public ownership, the fact that politicians had ultimate responsibility for them would have ensured that maintenance and strategic planning was not neglected because no politician or government could afford to be blamed for a water crisis or soaring power prices. Government could also subsidise  prices, something it cannot do now even if it chose to because of EU  competition rules. . The same principle applies to most of the privatised industries – take away the political responsibility and the profit motive rules.

Certain things are simply too important to be left to private efforts. Natural monopolies such as the railways, water and gas are literally essential to the survival of an advanced state such as Britain. Because of that stark fact alone they need to be treated as something much more than a commodity which can be simply left to the market. They should to be seen for what they are, strategic assets, and placed firmly under national control.

There is a further general reason why essential monopolies should be in public hands – the need for general provision. Left to private enterprise, even with an unfettered monopoly only the profitable parts of an industry would be supplied. Roads and railways would only be maintained if the traffic warranted it. Gas, electricity, water and telecommunications would only be supplied where sufficient profit could be made. The problem is we do not want roads and railways only over profitable routes, or the utilities such as gas and water supplied only to urban areas. We want them over the entire country. Only public provision can truly satisfy that need. Of course, private companies can have a duty to provide a general provision placed on the them but what if none is willing to take it or they take on the responsibility but then fail to meet it? The government then has to decide to either subsidise the company directly or to loosen the contract conditions to which the company has agreed.

The final type of enterprise which the state should always take in hand are those which experience tells us are beyond the resources of private business. Private enterprise can never be trusted to handle Tunnel. Margaret Thatcher insisted that no British public money would be involved and that private enterprise would bear the entire cost. It soon became clear that this was a nonsense. The Tunnel itself was completed but the companies which built it were not so much bankrupt as on another planet called Debt. And this was despite the very serious amounts of money pumped into the enterprise by the French Government,  both directly and indirectly. The situation was rescued, if one can dignify what happened with the word, by the banks and other  creditors rescheduling debts so far into the future that they all but vanished and the French Government surreptitiously pushing in more money via the French banks. To this day, the Channel Tunnel is the whitest of white private enterprise elephants, with the latest ” debt restructuring” always just around the corner.

Direct provision also has a further benefit. While assets are publicly owned and employees directly paid by the state, it is politically much more difficult to reduce or abolish that part of public provision. If the provision is supplied by a private company their contract can simply not be renewed or cancelled. If the provision is directly supplied, the government has the ticklish problem of having to take responsibility for the redundancies, something which greatly raises the profile of the removal of the provision.

The best example of the dangers of losing direct provision is the gradual privatisation by stealth of the NHS. To suddenly privatise the entire NHS would be impossible, but salami slice it over ten or fifteen years by continually increasing the private sector involvement and the position is completely different. Then the politician can use excuses such as “So much of it is in private hands now that the rest might as well be,” “We can’t have such a comprehensive service because private companies can’t provide it” and “Costs have risen so much that we have to cut this or that”. The whole system will be such a confused mess of public and private that the public will not know what to think. Also, the privatisation by stealth may have surreptitiously changed the way the public view the NHS so they see it no longer as a national institution but merely as a provider of medical care through disparate means. That in itself would reduce the moral outrage needed for any successful public protest.

9. What should be provided indirectly by the state?

Just because something is a necessity does not mean that the state must or should provide it directly. In fact, the less direct provision the better, because in a free society government should only touch that which it needs to touch. For example, whereas there are not many possible suppliers of air traffic control systems or railways, there are many possible suppliers of food. Government may safely leave food distribution to the private supplier and provide assistance where it is needed through payments to those in need. It should be noted that it is not the market or private enterprise which provides the general provision in cases such as food but the giving of taxpayers’ money to those who need it which provides the general provision.

Service is really the crucial criterion. Governments should become directly involved in industrial work very rarely – the exceptions are defence suppliers, utilities such as water, gas and electricity because of their status as natural monopolies and their immense importance. No nationalised industry making or extracting anything has ever been an economic success. Governments running manufacturers, farming or the extractive industries such as coal mining are neither necessary nor desirable, because private enterprise will always do the job adequately and more efficiently provided the economic circumstances are right,that is, vital industries are protected through tariffs, quotas or subsidies to the extent necessary to make them profitable.

But such vital industries are the Government’s business because they have both a strategic and a social and economic value. Consequently, governments do have is a responsibility to ensure that they are maintained.

Any country which cannot feed itself, produce all essential manufactured products and services, is not self-sufficient in energy and does not have substantial reserves of essential raw products such as iron ore, is constrained in what it may do both nationally and internationally and the greater the reliance of imports, the greater the constraint. Of course any advanced industrial state will not be completely self-sufficient, but it is possible for a country to have a large degree of self-sufficiency in the essentials especially food. With modern crop yields and modern animal husbandry, Britain could feed itself at a pinch if her market for food was protected to allow reasonable profits to be made by farmers using not merely the best or most convenient land, but the more marginal land as well.

Where a country is severely dependent on imports, as is the case with Britain, they are utterly at the mercy of international blackmail and events. Even the most powerful state in the world, the USA, is much restricted because of its reliance on imported oil. Such constraints have the most serious of consequences. Would George Bush  have invaded Iraq if the USA was not reliant on Middle East oil? I doubt it.

The free trade dream of buying where a product can be produced cheapest is based on the absurd premise that never again will international circumstances arise which will place any country at risk of war or blockade. There is also the question of what happens when raw materials run short and the scarce materials either remain in the countries of origin or go to the richest and most powerful countries with the rest left to go hang. Free trade is not merely a fantasy but a dangerous one in the long term.

There is also the economic and social case for protection. Cheap imports from countries which have labour costs many times below those of the mature industrial states, goods made cheap by state subsidies and plain old-fashioned “dumping” means that no company in the West is able to compete with the imports. The effect of allowing such imports is twofold: either the workers in the importing countries must take lower wages or, more probably, watch the obliteration of the domestic industry.

The same thing happens where mass immigration is permitted. If the immigration did not occur the wages for the type of jobs which immigrants take would be higher. That in turn would lessen or end the shortages of native workers willing to do them. For most jobs all that is needed to solve a shortage of labour is a wage sufficiently competitive with other employments to attract enough applicants. A good example in Britain are nurses: a shortage of native applicants a few years ago has been turned into a surplus now by a substantially increase in their pay.

The loss of jobs and suppression of wages through cheap imports, outsourcing, or large scale immigration has considerable social and economic effects. Those who lose their jobs either remain unemployed or take jobs which pay much less, are less secure and have lesser benefits. Those who remain in their jobs but whose pay is suppressed suffer similar difficulties. Both groups find their spending power is reduced. They pay less tax. If they are unemployed the Treasury is a net loser. New immigrants compete for scarce public goods such as free healthcare, education and social housing. Most particularly they compete most directly with the poorer native members of society who have most need of such social supports.

Poor pay, insecurity, unemployment and competition from mass immigration all place a severe strain on the social cohesion of a country.

Neither the Left or Right need recoil in horror at the idea of a judicious protectionism and a strong immigration policy. The Labour Party has been strongly protectionist throughout most of its history. The Tory Party was protectionist before the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 and protectionist again between 1931 and the advent of Margaret Thatcher. For most of their history both parties have been in practice opposed to mass immigration.

10. The railways – a classic public service

The railways in Britain are not simply a private enterprise. They are a necessity to maintain general economic activity. Take away the railways and a substantial part of those employed in London could not continue to work there because the roads will not take the extra traffic. The same applies, to a lesser degree, to other large cities and towns.

The railways also fulfill an important social functions in providing transport to those without cars, by reducing car use generally and moving much heavy goods traffic from the roads. Finally, railways have a strategic value in times of war or blockade.

Without massive public subsidy the railways could not be maintained. No national railway system in the First World operates without taxpayers’ subsidy. Parts of systems may be profitable but not the entire system. It is not that our railways would simply shrink if left entirely to private enterprise, most of the system would not run

at all. Commuter traffic is running at near capacity in the South East of England and fares are already so high generally that the massive price hike needed to meet the full cost of rail travel would result in a vicious circle of decreased traffic and decreased revenue.

The cost of maintaining Britain’s railways is simply beyond the private sector. Profit can be made on some intercity routes but that is about it. Even with the massive subsidies given to private companies since privatisation – ironically substantially larger than the pre-privatisation subsidies in real terms – private companies have signally failed to invest adequately. Indeed, the companies have radically reduced staffing levels – which may well have contributed to some crashes – and have constantly failed to meet their timetables.

The farce of the company with responsibility for railway maintenance immediately after privatisation in Britain, Railtrack, is a cautionary tale in itself. It created a completely different culture from that under the nationalised railways. Instead of employing most of the labour directly, they engaged subcontractors to do most of the work. The army of skilled workers built up by the original private companies and inherited by the nationalised British Rail was dispersed in reckless fashion and, inevitably, control over standards of maintenance became much diluted as it always does with subcontracting.

To put the cherry on the Railtrack story, the financial resources of the company, even with public subsidies, proved hopelessly inadequate. In 2002 the plug was pulled and it went into administration to eventually re-emerge restructured as a not-for-profit company  Network Rail. But before the administration was done and dusted, the taxpayer had to cough up a great deal of money to compensate  shareholders because the government was faced with legal  action by the shareholders alleging maladministration, an  action which looked as though it might not only succeed but in the  process wash some very dirty government linen in public over exactly why and how Railtrack went into administration.

11. Safety

There is a further consideration with public services – safety. It may be that the public will have greater confidence in, for example, a state run railway simply because it is state run. The public’s confidence might be completely unfounded but that would not matter: theconfidence itself is a valuable thing.

The experience of all privatisation has been to make money by enforcing massive job cuts. Of course there was overmanning during the nationalised industry days. The trouble is that the cuts made since privatisation have often gone beyond improving efficiency. They went to the limits of safety, and probably past it, in pursuit of profit. Maintenance staff were reduced and consequently maintenance was reduced. The facts which have emerged since the Watford train crash in 2000 shows beyond doubt that many of the people involved in rail track maintenance are inexperienced at best and completely raw at worst.

When the state does not take direct responsibility for a service which has inherent safety consideration, the danger is that governments will respond to any safety fears by imposing ever more onerous obligations on the private suppliers of the service. The private companies are also susceptible to being overly cautious after an accident has happened or a possible danger becomes the subject of public comment.

Train crashes in Britain have been thankfully rare under both nationalised and privatised regimes, but when they happened under the nationalised industry the government was able to keep the show on the road because the public had confidence that safety was not being compromised simply to save money. Since privatisation crashes have been met with absurd caution by both the bodies responsible for the infrastructure and the Government, with the national rail network being reduced to a farce after cracks in some rails were found after the Watford crash mentioned above. For the better part of a year, rail travel became a misery as hundreds of emergency speed restrictions were introduced and rails were tested for cracks and a massive programme of ail replacement was begun. The consequence  was horrendous delays and vast numbers of cancelled trains. The effects are arguably still being felt in 2006.

Perhaps the classic industry to which the safety consideration applies is the production of nuclear energy. Despite this this Government is saying that if a new generation of nuclear power stations is built it must be with private money and run by private companies. A clear case of  ideology – private is best – driving common sense out of the window. (It should be added that Labour said the same when in office.)

Foreign ownership further complicates matters. When a massive explosion devastated a fuel storage and refinery complex in Hemel Hempstead in 2006 and further parts of the complex were thought to be in danger of exploding, it was impossible to get the necessary information quickly because the company which owned the complex was French and no one with  sufficient authority could be immediately contacted.

12. Public and private efficiency

Having worked both as a civil servant and for private companies, large and small, I always raise a wry smile when the advocates of private enterprise claim, with a look of religious certainty in their eyes and the ringing voice of the true believer, that private enterprise is by definition much more efficient than public endeavour. In fact, private enterprise can be every bit as wasteful and often far more reckless than public service.

Take a couple of blatant examples of crass incompetence by private enterprise from the past ten years. The directors of a major defence and electronics company Marconi managed in a few short years to reduce the company from one with several billion pounds in cash reserves and astock-exchange value of some £30 billion to a company with billions of pounds worth of debt and shares which were effectively worthless after the creditor banks took ownership of what remained of thecompany.

How did Marconi management accomplish this stupendous feat? They decided that their highly successful core business of defence equipment was just too boring and “not now” for words and sold off most of this highly profitable business. They then ploughed into telecommunications, a business in which they had little experience, which was “utterly now” and “obviously” on the brink of a mobile phones bonanza. There they caught not so much a very bad cold butcommercial double pneumonia.

The second example is the assurance company Equitable Life. In the 1980s and early 1990s this firm offered financial products with an attractive guaranteed return. Unsurprisingly, they proved very popular. Come the time to meet these obligations Equitable found they could not do so. They tried to renege on the guaranteed return promise but, after several years of legal battles, the House of Lords decided against them. At that point they were arguably insolvent. Instead of going into administration, they began a series of actions which made a mockery of that for which they supposedly stood – assurance.

For fear of trading fraudulently or even whilst insolent – any new business might well have been considered fraudulent because of the possibility of a failure to meet existing obligations – they closed their books to new business. Then by stages – the torment for the policy holders was extended – they reduced payouts to those who had not had the guaranteed return and by stages considerably raised the penalty for clients taking their money out of the Equitable. Their customers were left with the ghastly choice of losing a large slice of what was already a reduced pot of money or taking a much lower income. Most choose the latter course. Equitable said in so many words take what we offer or be fined (or even worse, drive us into liquidation and lose most or even all of what is left). Those unlucky enough to be coming up to retirement during this time were left with pensions and lump sum payments much less than they reasonably anticipated when they took out the policy and substantially below the level which could be blamed on the general stock market fall. All of this was of course quite legal, but the shareholders who did not have the guaranteed return could have had no inkling of what might happen to their policies when they took them out.

I do not claim that public service is wondrously efficient and economical. Rather, I say that private business, at least at the larger end, is much the same. In fact, any big organisation displays the same characteristics of bureaucracy, a lack of imagination, organisational inertia and less than optimum manning. Marks and Spencer, until the late 1990s one of the reputedly best run of British firms, suddenly fell prey to just these traits and has only just got back on the rails.

But large organisations also have their advantages. They are capable of providing a wide range of services. They can provide those services over a large area. They have a degree of “slack” which allows emergencies to be dealt with and bottlenecks due to variable demand to be managed when they arise. Such “slack” is very important in industries such as gas and electricity and services such as the railways. As we shall see when I turn to the experience of privatisation, the slack in many of the privatised industries has either vanished altogether or been reduced to dangerous levels.

13. What do we mean by efficiency?

There is also the question of what we mean by efficiency. Private business ultimately judges that by profit. But is profit a good indicator of efficiency generally? More particularly, does it have any place in public service?

Many a company does well for a period because it strikes lucky with a product and then plummets when the good luck runs out. Or a company may have a good profits run simply because there is a general boom in the economy and it is easy to make profits.

Then there are businesses where it is virtually impossible not to make large and regular profits, for example, the clearing banks, because the goods or services they are supplying are too essential for people not to purchase them and the number of competing companies is small, either because a few companies have been able to destroy the competition or because the cost of getting in the business is too great for new competitors to emerge. The problem of greatly reduced competition through expansion of an existing company rather than takeover of other companies is a growing one, a problem exemplified by the relentless march of Tesco in Britain – in practice British anti-monopoly law only deals with takeovers – the only thing which halts Tesco is planning permission. Once a company has a really large share of a market efficiency becomes less of a pressing problem because customers in an area dominated by the likes of Tesco often have little choice but to use the dominant company because it has destroyed local competitors.

It can also be very difficult to find out from the published accounts the true state of a company, vide Enron and WorldCom. Even where outright fraud is not practised there is still a great deal of scope for accountants to engage in “creative accounting” and massage accounts to inflate the profit in a given year. As directors are commonly paid a large part of their remuneration in the form of shares which they canpurchase at a later date at a discounted price (share options), companies have every incentive to inflate the share price in the year when the share option can be exercised.

But even if it is allowed that profit is a good yardstick of efficiency for most enterprises, a highly debatable proposition, it does not follow that it is a good yardstick for all enterprises. The provision of universal public services is by its nature not susceptible to the notion of profit because the unprofitable work must be undertaken as well as the profitable, for example the Post Office delivers letters to hideously costly rural addresses as well as to highly profitable city haunts for the same price (that service incidentally subsidises all private business in the UK because they can deliver anywhere for the same price).

If profit is not the yardstick what should be? I suggest that the real tests for public service competence should be (1) is the service being delivered to all who need it? and (2) is the cost reasonable in comparison with equivalent operations in other countries? By these tests, the NHS, for example, still compares well with the health care in other advanced countries, providing both a universal service for the vast majority of treatments and operations and doing so at a significantly cheaper cost than most, despite the great amounts of extra money pumped into it since May 1997.

14. Private enterprise providing public service

What is rarely if ever taken into account when complaints about the inefficiency of public bodies are considered is how efficient private enterprise will be or is when it is offered the opportunity to provide a public service. Take the Post Office as an example. For a century and a half it has turned a profit and ensured a level of universal service well nigh unique in the world. It has done this because it is a state monopoly.

No private company would ever provide a universal one-price service without massive public subsidy and the halfway house of part private part public merely weakens the public provider. The government first loosened the rules governing private delivery of parcel, then bulk letter mail went to full competition and in 2006 private companies moved into the delivery of letters over a certain weight. That competition alone will cripple the universal post. The Post Office has already been forced to drop the second delivery as a general service and will now provide it only for a fee, whilst the last time for collection has become earlier and earlier in the day and the single free delivery later and later.

As a second example take the BBC. Suppose the licence fee was abolished or reduced and the BBC had to introduce private finance on a large or an entire scale. The inevitable result of that would be the BBC increasingly turning from its public service role, not immediately but in time, towards commercial programming. The dismal example of how commercial terrestrial television “meets” the public serviceobligations written into their prospectuses when they bid for licences shows you what the BBC would rapidly become (the obligations/promisesmade when gaining licences are substantially ignored once the licences are granted).

There is nothing wrong with employing private businesses to perform specific functions such as road building because that does not produce a conflict between public service and profit. A road is simply a road,which will be used regardless of who built it. Once it is built,there is no ongoing direct service to the public beyond whatever maintenance is required and the maintenance of roads is completely different from the maintenance of railways, because the use of roads is free in all but a few instances and the safety issue is nothing like so important for a car can be driven on a potholed road while a train cannot be run on a faulty piece of track. Where conflict arises between the provision of a general service and the profit motive is in cases such as the NHS where the delivery of the service is directly to the public.

Private business is poor at providing services where there is no direct link between the provision of the service and the payment for it. If a service is provided to a person and they pay the provider, private enterprise will generally do a decent job if the customer has a reasonable choice of provider. Where a private business provides a service on the basis of a contract signed with a contractor, that is, it is a sub-contractor, the relationship between the customer and the provider becomes nebulous. It is true that the sub-contractor may have a contract cancelled or not have a contract renewed if too many complaints are received by the contractor, but often enough the contractor will wear any number of complaints provided profits remain healthy.

15. Public service inefficiencies and politicians

We can all recount bureaucratic horror stories and in truth there are a host of them. What most people never ask is why they exist. The answer is very often found in the irresponsible behaviour of politicians. They pass too many laws, introduce laws or other measures not requiring legislation which are administrative nightmares and demand action such as the meeting of “targets” which are simply beyond meeting.

A fine example of the “too many laws” syndrome is tax law. No living human being is a master of British tax law in its entirety or anything approaching its entirety. There is an excellent reason for this, it is beyond the capacity of any person to encompass so vast and complex and ever changing labyrinth of legislation. When the public deals with the best trained and most experienced Inland Revenue inspectors or employs the highest-powered tax consultant in private practice, they will still be dealing with people only competent to advise in particular areas of tax law. Worse, the law is frequently less than lucid because of the poor drafting of Acts of Parliament or of the statutory instruments which give administrative power to enforce Acts.Consequently, tax law is frequently open to plausible differences of interpretation. The upshot is that the Inland Revenue can often appear incompetent or unreasonable, despite the best efforts of its staff, simply because politicians have created an impossible situation.

The same applies to Customs and Excise (now amalgamated with the Inland Revenue).

To the complexity and opaqueness of most laws and regulations can be added the fact that most of the administration of such laws and regulations is not undertaken by highly educated, highly trained, highly intelligent people, but by the rank and file who find the complexity and opaqueness far more difficult to cope with than the highly educated, highly trained, highly intelligent few.

It is rare to encounter a politician who considers the administrative implications of laws before they are passed. Many laws on the statute books are largely dead letters because if they were enforced generally the effects on policing, the justice system and prisons would be dire. Imagine the numbers of prosecutions if the police religiously enforced the law on wearing seat belts for example. The magistrates courts would grind to a dead halt. Our present prison overcrowding is to a substantial degree the consequence of ever more laws with severer prison penalties being passed blithely by Parliament and the practice of Home Secretaries, both Tory and Labour, encouraging courts to be more severe in their sentencing. Either policy would be administratively defensible, whether one agreed with the principle or not, if governments ensured that the additional prison places were made available before the laws were passed or the instructions to courts on sentencing policy were issued by the Lord Chancellor’s Office. This has not been done. Extra provision is either inadequate or non-existent.

The prison population has also been significantly boosted by other government decisions. The first was the “care in the community” which closed most long-term accommodation for psychiatric patients and the seriously mentally deficient. Many of the people who fall into those categories unsurprisingly now end up in prison. The second was allowing massive immigration in the past ten years which has driven the foreign component of our prison population up to over ten per cent. To these causes could be added the government sponsored destruction of many of the jobs available to the lower IQ and poorly educated members of the population and the inadequacies of the state education system (see section 37). .

A classic of “unjoined up” Government thinking was the Community Charge known more popularly as the Poll Tax. To produce the required tax, around 90% of the adults living in Britain had to pay the tax. To anyone who understood the general problem of the tax collection, this was a non-starter. It would have been a non-starter had the system generally been seen as fair simply because people will understandably avoid tax wherever they can and tracking people to their private addresses is the devil’s own job, both in terms of identifying the addresses and in having the manpower to chase up non-payers.

The fact that the tax was seen as generally unfair provided its opponents with a ready made propaganda tool. Apart from the obvious difficulty of justifying a new tax not obviously linked to ability to pay, many suffered genuine hardship because people on very small incomes were suddenly asked to pay two or more times what they had previously paid under the domestic Rates system, which the Poll Tax replaced. Opposition politicians and parties quite naturally did everything they could to oppose the tax and soon magistrates’ courts were overwhelmed by hordes of non-payers and the receipts from the tax fell well short of what was anticipated. The coup de grace was given by a violent protest in Trafalgar Square.

A current administrative nonsense is the recent introduction of AS Level exams. For our purposes forget about whether not these are a good idea. It may seem obvious that if you introduce additional new general exams for schoolchildren you will need many more examiners. Not to our politicians. The upshot is that there is a crisis in ourpublic examination system because of overstretched examiners.

Then there are the laws which have unintended consequences. There is a beauty currently wrecking havoc throughout the land. In his 2002 budget, Gordon Brown announced changes to allow sports clubs to claim rate relief by becoming charities. The consequence has been that local authorities in many places have withdrawn or reduced the discretionary rate relief they were allowing sports clubs unless those clubs become charities. But becoming a charity is a complicated and expensive business and most sports clubs cannot afford it. To take one example of additional cost and complication. Charity law does not allow charities to sell alcohol. Most sports clubs gain a good deal of their income from bar receipts. To maintain the ability to keep a bar, the club would have to set up as a charity and then run a separate limited company for the bar takings.

Governments in the past twenty years have introduced two new forms of interference which are destructive of public efficiency. The first results from the mistaken belief that private enterprise methods can be generally applied to public services. The second is “league tables” and “targets”.

Private business practices, that is commercial practices rather than merely questions of efficiency common to both private and public organisations such as the utilisation of staff, are completely inappropriate in public service. Take the introduction of the “internal market” to the NHS and its effects on hospitals. This was a scheme introduced by the Thatcher Government with the idea of making the NHS more accountable and cost-efficient. Before it was introduced Governments decided how much was to be spent on health in a given year and, broadly speaking, the money was spread evenly throughout the country. NHS hospitals were given a budget and left to operate within it. Accounting for the expenditure was to use a favourite civil service term “broad brush”. This system worked because hospitals knew where they were at the start of a year and had the further advantage of seeming fair – everyone, NHS staff and the public, could see that each part of the country got more or less the same provision. GPs referred patients to their nearest hospital as a matter of course – which naturally set a fairly constant level of demand for a hospital – and administrative costs were low.

The “internal market” and subsequent reforms changed all that by making money follow the patient – which meant a hospital did not know exactly how much money it had to spend – and consequently required very detailed monitoring of expenditure. Worse, it also created competition between hospitals. The result is a massively bloated NHS bureaucracy which is both very expensive and a major cause of poor morale amongst medical staff, who object both to the added paperwork and procedures and the constant administrative supervision of their activities.

Similar “value-for-money” accounting schemes have been introduced elsewhere into public enterprises with similar dire results. The experience of these suggests strongly that when dealing with public service it is best to decide what is desired and what the taxpayer can afford to pay and then pay it. That does not mean money should be given out without regard to how it is spent. Rather, it means that costs should be determined by rational criteria before funding is decided upon and then the organisations should be trusted to spend the money provided they deliver what they are supposed to deliver. Provided the costing is realistic, the taxpayer can be sure that the money is being spent reasonably efficiently and no-corruptly. Gross inefficiency or corruption on any scale would show up through funding shortfalls within the budgetary year of the public institution concerned. Funding based on proper estimated costing is in effect a pre-audit which achieves essentially the same result as an audit but does so at the other end of the financial process. If a degree of inefficiency or corruption is not identified by this process, the loss both in terms of money and misapplied man power will be far less than the cost of an inflated bureaucracy and the demoralisation of public servants which arises from close scrutiny of expenditure.

Realistic costing requires that funding within an organisation is broadly similar for equivalent parts of the organisation. For example, in present circumstances any NHS hospital outside London of a similar size and range of medical treatment should cost broadly the same to run because national wages are paid in all places but London where a “weighting allowance” tops up the national salary.

League tables are an idea which has a superficial attraction. What could be more reasonable than to know which are the best local schools through their exam results being publicly available so parents can compare schools? A great deal. The effect of league tables has been to lead to a substantial rise in exclusions from schools, increased de facto selection of pupils and the restriction of the exams children may take. Faced with parental and state judgement of their performance, schools have understandably been unwilling to have children in their schools who will perform badly in exams. Inferior exam results at a school equals fewer and less able children applying which equals fewer pupils which equals less state funding. Nor, of course, are private schools immune from the pressures, for the lower their position in the “league table” the more difficulty they have in attracting pupils, especially the brightest.

The consequence of league tables in schools is that education is distorted. Children are denied the opportunity to take exams if it is thought they will do badly. 16-year-olds who do less than well in their GCSEs are denied an opportunity to take A levels at their school. Children who are seen as academically unable or disruptive are excluded from the better schools and effectively left to rot either in a state of permanent truancy or in schools which are essentially doing no more than child minding. More profoundly, the concentration on passing exams, including the National Curriculum tests, has not only narrowed the academic curriculum as schools “teach to the test”, but has led to the exclusion of non-academic activities such as sport and music. The broader idea of education has been largely lost.

Of course, unfairness and ineffective education existed prior to the “league tables”. The point is that the position has been made ineffably worse by the “league tables.”

The “league table” distortion which has arisen in schools will be and, indeed, is mirrored elsewhere because the same general pressures apply. Hospitals seek to avoid operating on high risk patients, councils want to divest themselves of “tricky” work such as running council houses and school examination boards and universities inflate exam marks to both attract students and to guard against a growing tendency for students to demand good exam results because “they have paid for them”.

The first cousin of league tables is “targets”. Government targets are of course not new. In the immediate post war years Governments delighted in announcing that so many hundreds of new houses would be built. What is new is that “targets” have become so prevalent that they seriously effect public policy. Targets to reduce street crime force the police to divert resources regardless of whether it is the greatest priority. Targets to reduce hospital waiting lists force hospitals to manipulate their waiting lists and concentrate on non-urgent treatment at the expense of more serious conditions.Targets to expel failed asylum seekers lead to the reclassification of asylum seekers. And so on for any number of public agencies.

On the privatised industry side, targets set by the various regulators are largely cosmetic and are inexorably downgraded when their honest application would severely damage or even ruin a company.

Of course, most targets, whether for public or privatized organisations are not actually met even with the strenuous massaging of figures. They are then swept aside as being of no consequence. The result is a growing public scepticism about any government plans or promises which they increasingly treat as Russians treated “five-year plans” and “potato harvest figures” in the Soviet Union. This is decidedly unhealthy because if the electorate cannot trust any promise made by a politician what is the point of elections?

16. Other public service inefficiencies

It would be idle to pretend that public service does not have substantial shortcomings which have nothing to do with political decisions. These are an over-extended a command chain, the cult of the generalist and the too ready movement of staff.

The modern British Civil Service was founded in the nineteenth century with a tripartite division based on Plato’s Republic. (This is not asbizarre as it sounds because most of those in public life then had a classical education). The Administrative Grades were the philosopher kings who planned and directed, the Executive Grades were the mechanics who put into operation and administered the plans of the  Administrative Grades and to the Clerical Grades were left the task of being the metaphorical hewers of wood and drawers of water.

This consequence of this structure was that chains of command and responsibility became ridiculously extended. In modern times there have been 13 mainstream Civil Service grades (and others peculiar to particular departments and offices). In addition, the distinction between the Administrative/Executive/Clerical general grade functions produces an artificial separation. Many jobs cannot be neatly fitted within one of Administrative/Executive/Clerical, yet the Civil Service attempts to do so. The result is that instead of having one person doing a job in the most efficient manner, the job is arbitrarily divided between different grades.

In recent years attempts have been made to reduce the numbers of grades, but without great effect. They need to be reduced to six or seven. That would put them broadly in line with large private corporations.

When the Administrative/Executive/Clerical division was devised the idea was that the Administrative Grade would be staffed by generalists who could apply themselves to any task without needing any particular expertise. Rather the Admin Grade Civil Servant would be of high intellect which he would apply to analysing any problem and producing solutions to the problem. There is of course a place for such people, but it is very limited. The trouble is that the Civil Service still largely operates on the idea that the Admin Grades should be generalists. Worse, the idea has spread to the other grades to a considerable degree. The consequence is that Civil Service jobs tend to be allocated by grade rather than the relevant experience of a civil servant. The position is aggravated by the fact that people are often placed in positions novel to them without adequate training. Much greater attention needs to be paid to both the suitability of people for posts and to the provision of training.

The frequent placing of unsuitable and untrained people in posts produces a “culture of incompetence”, whereby those in positions of authority are reluctant to criticise their subordinates. This reluctance stems from (1) the fact that they are not often insecure in their own ability and knowledge and (2) because they know that their subordinates are often in posts for which they are unsuited or untrained.

The other great structural bugbear is the all too frequent movement of staff (anyone who has had regular dealings with public bodies will recognise the frustration of dealing with a new person every time they write or phone and the immense amounts of time and effort wasted.) Most Civil Service work is administrative. Continuity is a boon when it comes to administration. Where staff are working to implement very detailed regulations, as is the norm in the Civil Service, continuity becomes vital.

Regular movement of staff, human nature being what it is, is also a device to avoid responsibility. Once a public servant has moved to another position his successor can simply say “nothing to do with me guv. Now, let’s start from scratch”. It is also rare for a civil servant to be meaningfully disciplined once they have moved jobs.

Civil servants know this and it affects their behaviour for the worse while in a job because they know that if they make a horlicks of it, they will simply be moved elsewhere or even promoted to resolve an embarrassing situation. This reinforces the “culture of incompetence” . Keeping people in post for a reasonable length of time and holding them to account for error after they move would concentrate the minds of civil servants wonderfully.

In varying degrees, the defects of the Civil Service are found in public service generally.

Any large organisation requires periodic shaking. Small businesses rarely need it because they are always subject to the pressures of the market in a way that a large company is not. A large company has greater reserves both of capital and credit than a small concern and can weather economic storms more easily. The consequence is the gradual accretion of inefficiencies and costs. What applies to big business does so with greater force to government departments, which have even less external pressure on them to be efficient. However, the shaking should always be within the context of a public service ethos not a private business one.

17. What should public service workers be paid?

“Tube drivers, who now earn £31,300 for a 36-hour week, along with six weeks’ holiday a year, a final-salary pension and free travel for their families….The Tube drivers’ salary is almost twice as much as a nurse or an ambulance worker gets for working longer hours on more complex jobs. It is half as much again as a bus driver, who works 50 hours a week, a firefighter, who works a 42-hour week, or a police officer, who works a 40-hour week – each of them doing very stressful work for the payment they get.” ( The Evening Standard commenting on a prospective tube strike 02.10.02).

Driving an underground train on a partially automated system cannot  realistically be considered as more skilled, dangerous and stressful than that of a firefighter. Most people would say the Tube driver had the easier job by far. But is the firefighter’s job more stressful than that of a bus driver who has day in day out to deal not merely with London traffic but in many cases has to take fares as well? And what of a nurse or ambulance crews? Is the emotional distress they suffer more of a burden than the fear a firefighter may feel when goinginto a fire? Going outside public service jobs, a trawlerman’s job is considerably more dangerous than that of a firefighter’s and the ordinary crew member will not earn as much as an Underground driver. In short, comparability is a minefield.

All our experience shows that “fair” job evaluation never works because no one engaged in the employment evaluated can ever objectively agree on their place in the job hierarchy. Hence, even where deals are struck, dissatisfaction soon breaks out again about “comparability”. As for the public, the pay and conditions arrangements of public service workers are generally so opaque that most people can make neither head nor tail of them. The result is an unstable situation which satisfies no one for long and leads to the general public having an unrealistic conception of what public employees earn, both by underestimating and overestimating pay.

Even in a society where there is a strong natural commitment to public provision, as was the case in the quarter century after WW2, the public servant has a vested interest in working to retain public confidence. Unless the taxpayers generally continue to think that the money being spent is worthwhile, there will come a time when a government will be elected, as happened in 1979, which will substantially reduce government expenditure and the opportunities for public service. Worse, circumstances can arise as they have done now, where not only the government but also the main opposition party are hostile to direct public provision. Therefore, it is especially important at the present time for public servants to persuade the public that they are both necessary and giving value for money. The best way of doing this is to arrive at a pay structure which is both simple for the public to understand and constructed in such a way to ensure that pay and conditions are adjusted automatically by reference to an objective standard to keep them in line with wages and conditions in private business.

What is needed are criteria based on broad similarities, which the general public can understand and support. Most jobs are much the same in terms of the general demands they make on people – stress, responsibility, intellectual effort and special knowledge or skill. Moreover, those jobs which demand more than the norm also fall into readily identifiable categories. (Anyone who doubts this should try an experiment. Produce a list of twelve disparate jobs of the same general status – all non-management or all management and so on – and which have no emotional plus or minus against them in the public mind – exclude nurses, estate agents etc. Then get people to assess their worth in terms of wages. Most people will judge the value of the jobs to be similar).

Public service jobs are even more readily categorised than the totality of occupations in a society because the range of work in public  service is much more limited. In a way the civil service already recognises this because the standard civil service grades cover an immense variety of job titles. The civil service division of grades into administrative/executive/clerical provide a starting point for the broad criteria mentioned above. These could then be augmented with categories based on danger, stress, responsibility etc. If recruitment becomes a problem in a particular area, the problem can be solved byraising pay through re-grading.

The second problem with public pay is keeping it up to a realistic level. Previous attempts a pay formulae have not been linked to the average male wage and that has been the primary cause of their failure. It has meant that periodically public sector workers have fallen behind private sector workers as governments run into financial trouble.

What is required for all public service jobs is a formula which uses the average male worker’s earnings as a baseline, with the various public service grades being a percentage of the average male worker’s earnings – the percentage could be less or more than 100% depending on the grade of the job. Such a system would mean regular upgrading of pay and avoid the demands for very large percentage increases when pay falls behind.

Should pension entitlements, holiday entitlements and security of employment be taken into account when calculating public sector pay? Only to the extent that they differ from the arrangements of large private corporations. Historically large private companies have offered non-salary benefits very similar to that enjoyed by public servants. That is changing, in particular final salary pensions are rapidly becoming extinct in private business, and any grading of public service jobs should reflect any difference which arises between public and private in the future. However, care must be taken to avoid a situation where public servants cease seeing public service as a secure career. Most of what Government does benefits from having career employees because continuity is a great deal in administrative work, which forms the great bulk of public service employment.

The third major problem is national pay. This is perhaps the most sacred of cows of public service workers and unions, but there is no logic or fairness in such arrangements. If everyone in the NHS receives the same pay for the same job regardless of where they are living, there is in reality no national pay because of the considerable regional differences in cost of living. There are parts of the UK where, for example, teachers earn below substantially below the local average and others where they earn well above the local average. Hence, we have regional pay but quite perniciously the lowest pay is paid in the highest cost areas. The consequence is that there are often staff shortages in the higher cost of living areas and the quality of staff employed in such areas may be below the standard required simply because no one else can be recruited at the pay levels. The answer is to introduce regional RPIs (Retail Price Indices) – which would include housing costs – and vary wages according to those.

Regional RPIs would solve much of the present difficulty for public service workers in high cost areas. It would not be politically possible to reduce the pay of existing employees, but it could be held static in the lowest cost areas and differential increases given in other areas until regional pay was established. For example, suppose area A is the cheapest area and area Z is the most expensive. Area A gets no increase until its pay level reaches that which matches its Regional RPI, while Area Z immediately gets an increase which raises its pay level to that required by its Regional RPI. Ditto for all areas between A and Z. If their pay is beyond that required by their regional RPI, it remains pegged until pay and cost of living equalise: if below their Regional RPI, they get a rise to match it. As time goes on, the higher pay of the higher cost areas will be balanced by the lower pay of the lower cost areas. There would be no massive extra ongoing expenditure as eventually the lower and higher pay levels would broadly cancel each other out. However, there would be an initial cost because no one will have their pay immediately reduced while some will have it increased substantially.  [RH 2012: although I am still in favour of regional pay, this is something which should be accomplished in good economic times not the times we have now. That is because some areas are much more dependent on public sector jobs than others, something which affects the economy of the area generally.  Even though the reduction in money would be gradual under my scheme it might still in present circumstances be the straw which breaks the camel’s back in areas struggling to move out of recession.]

Much of the problem of regional cost variations could be obviated if the cost of housing was substantially reduced. Government can take the lead by making more housing available in the areas in which it is scarce – see section for detailed suggestions. In particular, a ready supply of housing both to let and buy at reasonable prices would largely overcome the problem of the young who have yet to buy. A middle-aged person who brought their home 20 years before requires far less to live comfortably than someone trying to buy their first property. The latter have near insuperable problems in many places.For example, in inner London, an income of £50,000 would not be enough to buy the most basic family home because a three bedroom property would be in excess of £300,000 in even the cheapest areas.

The cost of any re-grading could also be offset by reducing the numbers of public servants in some areas. This would naturally meet with resistance from public servants, but if it is done without compulsory redundancies – and it could be – the objection to it is not strong. Staff can be redeployed to other posts and new recruitment to the remaining departments reduced to accommodate them. Attention has to be paid to the age structure of a workforce – no large organisation wantsto find itself in the position of having a sizeable proportion of its staff retiring at the same time – but with an employer as large and diverse as the Government, this should not be an insuperable problem.

Why not simply have wages set by what the market will bear  in any particular place? If there is a shortage of nurses in London why not pay them £30,000 if that is what it takes, but only £10,000 if that is a competitive wage in, say, Cornwall? That begs the question of the quality of the recruits you attract and their long term retention. You may get enough recruits at the low rate but they may be of poor quality. There is also the question of motivation once employed. Poor motivation equals less efficient working. Pay should be high enough to avoid those two evils. If higher wages produce greater motivation and ability in the staff employed, the number of staff could be reduced.

The great advantage of adopting a system of broad definitions – tying pay to the average full time wage and Regional RPIs – is that it would be both stable and largely self adjusting. Problems could arise where recruitment becomes an issue. Then, as mentioned above, re-grading might have to occur to raise pay in a particular area of work or region.

All the Public Service Unions and many public servants will instinctively reject what I have suggested because such things as national pay scales and the preservation of jobs are part of the emotional scenery in public service. But public servants do not have a right to determine how many people will be employed by the Government and they should always remember that a public servant must have a necessary and useful function to maintain public support.

What public servants do have is a right to a decent living wage for what they do and to reasonable working conditions which includes the assured opportunity for a career and staffing adequate to carry out the tasks Government sets them. If they start from those two premises they have a much greater chance of achieving their ends than they have in merely maintaining the status quo.

Above all, it should never be forgotten by the public servant that the taxpayer is the paymaster for all government spending. A statement of the blindingly obvious perhaps, but one which tends to be glossed over by governments who speak as though they are spending their own money when they talk of “an extra £3 billion for the NHS” or “£200 million to  take crime off the streets”. Public money is not unlimited nor is the level of public spending without consequences for the general economic health of the country.

Most public servants know that there are pluses and minuses in public service and that moving to private employment has its disadvantages as well as being very difficult in areas where private businesses are not thick on the ground. There is also the example of public sector employees who have had their jobs privatised. They have frequently found that their new conditions of work are inferior to those they enjoyed when in public service. Public servants also know in their heart of hearts that security of employment is still considerably greater in public service than in private business. Consequently, the government has a strong card to play if they choose to play it, namely, continued security of employment in return for the radical changes described above.

18. The right to strike

Some public service workers do not have the right to strike – the police and the armed forces. Is it unreasonable to deny them this right? I think most people – myself amongst them – would say no. They would see that the right to strike has to be balanced against the public good of having the streets policed and soldiers,sailors and airmen who will be unquestionably available to provide national defence and to attend to national emergencies.

If we decide as a society that the police and servicemen cannot strike, there is no reason in principle why the removal of the right to strike cannot be more widely extended for we have already decided it is not an absolute right. The question is how far to extend the denial of the right.

There is a case for a general ban on striking by public service workers because they are funded by the taxpayer and ultimately responsible to the taxpayer or at least the electorate. But before any such ban could be reasonably considered the general pay and employment conditions must be made fair and secure in the manner described in the previous section – their pay and conditions would have to be such that the majority of the population would think them reasonable. That would leave the problem of union action over unfair dismissal or other disciplinary action, but it is difficult for a union to argue that there is not adequate recourse through Employment Tribunals or, if the union wishes to fund a case brought by one of their members, through the courts.

If a general ban is thought too severe, there is good reason to ban strikes in those organisations which provide services which are both vital and immediately necessary. It would be difficult to argue that all-out strikes by NHS staff or firemen would cause less public damage and chaos than strikes by the police or servicemen.

Because of privatisation there are also private companies whose employees in principle need to be banned from striking, particularly the utilities such as gas, water and electricity. That raises another objection to the placing of utilities in private hands: it makes action such as ruling strikes illegal for certain workers very difficult, even impossible in practice. The utilities being private companies,  governments cannot control their wages and  conditions of employment  as they can those of public bodies. Or rather, they could do so, but then they would be taking so much of the control of a fundamental part of a private business out of its management’s hands (this would be in addition to the areas already covered by the various utility regulators) that two questions would arise: (1) could any private  company operate under such constraints? and (2) if a company has to be so constrained by government, what is the point of it being a private company? The answer to (1) is probably no and to ((2) no point.

19. The ability of private companies to manage public services

Take the case of the NHS. It is the largest employer in Europe, employing not far short of a million people. No private company has any experience of managing an organisation anything like that size. In fact, very few private companies have any experience of managing a workforce of even 20,000. A fair number of Government departments and agencies are considerably larger than the 20,000 employee business. On the grounds of size alone the transfer of large scale public service activities to private sector control is problematic because the private sector simply does not have that many people with experience of running such large concerns.

An even more fundamental difficulty is the fact that much public service work is specific to public service. The administration of complex legislation and rules present an employee with a far higher learning curve (for even rank and file staff) than would be found in the vast majority of similar level private sector posts. To this is added the need to keep up with the ever more frequent changes created by government to the law (this is partly driven by the innumerable EU directives). Consequently it is not a simple matter to substitute private sector workers for public sector workers because the private sector workers have to be trained from scratch.

Of course, when public sector work is shifted to the private sector public sector staff often move to the private employer. But private companies are profit driven and when moving into public sector work almost always seek to maximise profits by severely cutting staff. This both reduces the number of experienced staff and frequently demoralizes those who remain because they have an ever increasing burden. This in turn leads to many of the experienced staff leaving and the expertise available to the employer to continually diminish.

20. Private money in public projects – “Buy now, pay later”

The introduction of private money into public projects, whether under the title of the Public Private Partnership or its successor the Private Finance Initiative, is a fraud on the public. As Hire Purchase used to be advertised in my youth, it is “Buy now, pay later”.  Private companies put up the money for, say, a hospital, build it and  then lease it back to the NHS.. The taxpayer then pays through the nose for twenty or thirty years as the lease is serviced. For example, Tory health spokesman Andrew Lansley has just elicited the truth from the Government about the cost of the new hospitals built under PFI. For hospitals worth £8 billion the taxpayer will pay the private sector companies responsible for them a total of £53 billion over thirty years, a return on capital of 540% (Daily Telegraph 27 10 2006).

The honest way for Governments to finance projects is to raise taxes or increase the national debt. Then the public can see clearly what is being done and judge the cost. With PFI and its ilk, the cost does not appear as government spending immediately. It is “Enron accounting”, the removal of expenditure from the balance sheet for the present but not the future. The expenditure only appears gradually as the debt is met by charging the government for the services provided or alternatively by charging the customer directly. For example, if toll roads are built and/or maintained by private capital, the contractors could charge the motorist directly to recoup their costs.

But the deceit goes beyond the hidden deferral of expenditure. Much of the detail of the contracts made with private companies is not being made available to the public on the spurious grounds of “commercial confidentiality”. Even the Government has had to admit that the cost of PPP and PFI projects will be considerably more than if they were undertaken directly by the Government using taxpayers’ money. The deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, made such an admission in his speech to the 2002 Labour Party Conference. What we cannot be sure of, because of the lack of public openness in revealing the contracts, is how much more expensive PFI and its ilk will be. What we can be sure of is that the difference is likely to be considerable.

The Government’s justification for paying over the odds is that it allows things to be provided quickly rather than having to wait for the money for direct public funding to become available. As more public money will have to be found in the future to fund PFI projects set in train now, the consequence will be much less money for public provision when the PFI bills come in. Therefore, at best, future generations will be paying more in tax for less in public services. The real justification for PFI is of course that it allows a government to claim credit for what is provided now in the knowledge that when the bills come in the people making the decisions cannot be held responsible.

Many of the contracts being granted to private companies are for periods of 15, 20 even 30 years. The life of a politician in government is short on average, either because of election defeats or sacking by the PM of the day. Five continuous years as a cabinet minister is good going. In the vast majority of cases the politicians who made the decision to go ahead with PFI will be out of office not merely long before the final bills are paid but in all probability by the next Parliament after a contract is signed. Once out of office, they can ignore any problem which arises and the sad truth of the matter is  that nothing can be done to make them take responsibility for their decisions as things stand. At worst, all that will happen is the electorate in a constituency throwing them out at the next election, which for an ex-minister is no great loss. It should be added that it rarely happens that an individual MP is thrown out by the electorate for his or her personal failings because the power of party label is too great.

Why are private finance schemes so much more expensive? They have to make a profit of course but there are other reasons. The private concerns financing the projects have to borrow money at a higher rate of interest than the Government can, perhaps 1-2% more. That is because the risk is greater for the lender . The borrower has to make a profit on the borrowed money so he must charge more than he is paying for the money to finance the scheme. That is the obvious extra cost. But there are many hidden additional costs.

Most problematic is the fact that private business will not accept all risks. For example, the company bidding for the Tube maintenance contract will not accept the financial risk of tunnels under the Thames being flooded. The consequence of this is that contracts exclude the really high risks. The Government has to cover them. So it ends up with both the major risk and paying more for the construction work.

The actual position is even worse than that. Private companies may accept risks and obligations in their contracts which they simply cannot meet. The Government is then forced to step in. Thus the Government in practice underwrites the whole business, either officially or unofficially.

Much of what is happening is a halfway house to public disengagement. Hospitals can be granted “Foundation Status”. This allows them to raise whatever money they can on the private market on terms they decide upon with the lenders. That in turn implies that they may l have to start charging for services if Britain’s economic circumstances  alter seriously for the worse – thus reducing tax revenue – or a government’s attitude to the NHS changes. . The difference between an unambiguously privatised NHS and what is likely to occur some years down the line is very narrow. And, of course, the closer the situation gets to full privatisation, the more probable will become full privatisation, because the financial structures required for it will exist and the moral argument against it will have largely eroded by the failure to stoutly defend the principle of public service.

21. The London Underground – PPP in action

Christian Wolmar’s book “Down the Tube – the battle for London’s Underground” points the way to the shape of public/private things to come. It is a truly depressing future.

Ignoring the shambles which are our privatised railways, the Labour Government has forced a PPP on the London  nderground, one of the largest Metro systems in the world and a transport conduit absolutely necessary to London’s functioning, carrying as it does millions of people a day. They have added insult to injury by retaining the running of the trains in public hands while putting the maintenance of the infrastructure – track, stations, signalling etc – in the hands of private companies. The fact that it is the maintenance of the infrastructure which has caused the most serious of the problems in the privatised overground railways has simply been ignored.

This PPP has just about every flaw that one could imagine. The contract is very long – 30 years. Even if everything goes to plan, the cost to the public is unknown. Right from the start the taxpayer will be paying a subsidy to the private consortium of œ1 billion a year, despite assurances originally that no subsidies would be paid. Worse, even the Government admits that it does know what level of subsidy will be required throughout the 30 years of the contract. Nor can it give any figure of cost to the taxpayer if the PPP fails, that I, the private companies either liquidate or walk away.

“Walk away?” do you say? But surely the companies have accepted the risk and are legally liable for any failure to meet performance targetsor for any catastrophic events such as flooding of the tunnels under the Thames?  Actually, no. Their liability for cost overruns is capped, more or less, at £50 million for each quarter of the 30 year deal and they have written into the contracts a disclaimer for events such as flooding. If the private companies really run into trouble, the taxpayer takes over responsibility for 95% of the loans taken out by the private companies.

Then there is their profitability. The private companies have a “guaranteed” rate of return on capital of almost 20%, a return twice that considered to be a good commercial profit.

On top of all that cost and potential risk to the taxpayer, there will be a truly daunting administrative burden. The contracts to set up the PPP run to some two million words.  Responsibility is diffuse and the criteria for assessing the performance of the private companies opaque. The PPP will require a large additional bureaucracy just to oversee the workings of the contracts and the inevitable disputes between the private companies and the public body as to interpretation of the contracts will be a bonanza for the lawyers.

22. Capita

We already have a great deal of evidence of the effects of private enterprise on public services. The results generally have been less than sparkling. Remember the Criminal Records Bureau fiasco of September 2002 when schools were prevented from opening for the new term because those working in the schools had not been vetted for criminal convictions in time? Or how about the Individual Learning Accounts scheme which resulted in a loss of at least tens of millions of pounds in the past few years? If you are a resident of the London Borough of Lambeth you may recall housing benefit being so badly run by a private company that it was rapidly returned to the control of the council. Or how about the maladroit administration of the London Congestion charge which makes London drivers’ lives a misery? All these are examples of a private company taking over the administration of public matters and making a pig’s ear of things.

More worryingly, they were all the responsibility of a firm called Capita. I say worryingly, because Capita, far from being shut out from other public contracts, is positively cornering the market for such business. In addition to the contracts mentioned above, Capita collects the BBC’s licence fee. It also runs the written part of the Diving Test in parts of the country. The “Connexions” card being promoted to schoolchildren by the Government, a Trojan Horse for a general ID card, is run by Capita, who also supply management software to 23,000 UK schools. Capita even have the contract to run the pension scheme of the Inland Revenue.

Had Capita proven itself to be a model of competence, such a concentration of work in one company would be disturbing for it suggests at best that the competition for these contracts is extremely limited. It would be interesting to know who else tendered and what the tendering process was. But even if these details were made public, the old cry of “commercial confidentiality” would almost certainly prevent any meaningful public examination of the merits of the various tenders.

Capita is far from being the only company rewarded with new contracts despite clear evidence of incompetence . The people who brought you the Railtrack maintenance fiasco, Jarvis, have just been awarded the contract to build a new surgical and heart care unit for an NHS hospital in London, the Whittington at Archway.

There are two possible reasons why poor performance does not disqualify a company from future contracts. The first is structural. Many of the contracts being offered are of a size and complexity to reduce the number of realistic bidders to at best a few and at worst one. Thus the idea that private input into public business will ever generally equal greater efficiency is doomed. All that has been created is a form of public/private monopoly.

The other possible reason for continued contract winning regardless of performance is corruption. That is not to suggest that corruption has occurred to date, merely that the possibility exists. It deserves a section to itself (see section 27) .

A company bidding for public contracts may well quote a price which is simply too low to maintain performance. They may deliberately bid too low. Having gained the contract, the company confronts the Government with a claim that they can only make a profit (or even break even) unless they reduce the service from that for which they have contracted or receive more favourable payment terms. The government is then left with a decision: can they afford to drop the contractor? Is there another contractor which could take over? The answer to both questions is almost certainly no.

23. The morality of privatisation

Does a British government have the right to sell off industries and property owned by the state? In Britain the answer legally is yes. Barring restrictions agreed to in treaties, most particularly the Treaty of Rome and its successor treaties, a British government may legally do what it wishes. It may also repudiate existing treaty obligations. Parliament may in principle pass any law it wishes. That demonstrates the danger of having a political system without any constitutional bars to government action.

But if privatisation is legal, it does not follow that it is morally justified. These are enterprises and property which were either developed from scratch by government or were taken over by the state, often from municipal undertakings which were public developments in themselves. In each case taxpayers’ money was used to either start or acquire them. For Britons who bought shares privatisation was a form of taxation. They paid money for that which the state already held on their behalf. Non-British taxpayers purchased that which was not morally the State’s to sell. But the deceit went beyond this. By selling that which was held in common for the British, they robbed those Britons who did not purchase shares and the future generations who would have no stake in that which was sold before they were born.

Privatisation could perhaps have been morally justified if every British citizen had been issued free shares in each privatized industry, which they could then have held or sold as they chose. The Government would not then have had the proceeds, of course, but it should be remembered that the prime reason given by Margaret Thatcher for privatisation was that it would modernise great British industries through the invigorating blast of free enterprise. Ostensibly at least the raising of money for the government was not the prime motivation.

The money received from privatisation has simply vanished into general government expenditure. Had the money been earmarked for particular projects dear to the public’s heart, such as new hospitals and schools or placed in a separate fund to help pay the state pension in the years when it is anticipated that those working will substantially decline in relation to those who are retired, at least the public would have something concrete and identifiable to set against the loss of public assets. As it is the public as a whole has nothing.

It is of course impossible to prove whether taxes would have been higher or that government expenditure would have been lower if there had been no privatisation proceeds, but it is a fair bet that extra money in government coffers has simply meant additional government expenditure without a proper regard to whether the expenditure was warranted. That is the common experience of governments and public money.

The money obtained through privatisation should not be viewed as pure gain in terms of government expenditure. Privatisation has caused agreat deal of what private business euphemistically call “downsizing”. The resultant unemployment costs – unemployment pay and other benefits – have to be set against the privatisation receipts. In addition, a large proportion of those who have gained alternative employment have found themselves earning a good deal less than they did previously. That equals less tax paid.

24. Our general experience of privatisation to date

The prime problems with privatisation are (1) the provision declines,(2) the taxpayer has to pick up the bill when things go seriously wrong and (3) privatised industries are often left in a situation of naturally restricted competition.

The best example of what happens when the state simply opens up amarket to private interests is probably bus deregulation. This happenedin the mid-eighties. The consequence has been predictable and devastating, with the countryside being virtually denuded of buses and even the big cities apart from London – where a massive public subsidy has continued – have experienced a decline in services as bus operators concentrate on only the most profitable routes. In addition, on the profitable routes, there are so many competing buses that the buses themselves can become a cause of congestion themselves – Manchester is a good example of this phenomenon.

The railways are the most disturbing example of cost to the taxpayer after privatisation. Not only has the taxpayer paid larger subsidies to the rail companies since privatisation than were paid to nationalised British Rail, and absurdity in itself, several billions of taxpayers money have been required to rescue the company responsible for maintaining the track and associated equipment, Railtrack, after it became insolvent and was put into administration. (The company has now been reborn as a strange hybrid creature, anon-profit making company called Network Rail.)

Another example is the immediate difficulty suffered by the National Air Traffic service (NATs) after partial privatisation in 2002. The new company had barely started trading before the Government had to extend a £30 million loan to it.

As for competition, the government appointed regulators are supposed to remove the natural abuses of restricted competition by controlling prices. Whether it is possible for even a genuinely disinterested person to determine objectively what a reasonable or efficient price for a product or service is in such circumstances is dubious,  because what constitutes legitimate profit, the right level of investment or the desirable level of service to be offered are ultimately matters of opinion.

But these problems of definition are in practice redundant, because regulators are subject to pressures from politicians, the public, the industry they regulate and business in general. The result is that pricing frequently bears little relationship to any considered view of what is necessary, but is variously a response to what the government wants, a reaction to higher than anticipated profits being made by the regulated industry or threats from the private companies of dire consequences if prices are not raised.

What are the unambiguous successes of privatisation? Telephones, perhaps, most older people would probably say as they remember the absurdly long wait for a new line and the complete lack of choice of phone in the days of the nationalised British Telecom. Beyond telephones, it is difficult to see any privatisation in which the balance of advantage has been clearly in the country’s or the individual’s favour. The railways have been an unmitigated disaster, basic industries such as coal and steel have either collapsed or effectively been exported – with a massive loss of jobs inducing structural employment in places. The gas and electricity companies produced cheap power for a while but that was largely the result of Britain’s because of North Sea gas. When that self-sufficiency began to wane energy prices rose dramatically. In the case of water, prices have risen substantially since privatisation while shortages have grown and customers are now facing the prospect of compulsory water metering – some areas already have it. Investment has been inadequate – for example, no new reservoir has been built to serve the water starved SE of England since the privatisation of the nationalised water utility – and service, especially on the maintenance side, is widely perceived to have declined because of the dramatic cuts in the workforce.

Even in the case of telecommunications the picture is blurred. Nationalised British Telecom might have been a something of a disaster on the marketing and customer front, but it did ensure that coverage with landlines was near universal in Britain, something which would have been impossible had their provision been left to the market – how many private companies would have laid and maintained lines to small villages or even small, isolated towns? So when BT was privatised it started with the immense advantage of a near universal infrastructure which existed because of public provision.

But the rise of the mobile phone has made any proper comparison between the pre and post privatised situation virtually impossible. Even if BT had never been privatised and the landline phone market had remained a  monopoly, they would still have had to face private competition from mobiles. In other words, privatisation in that case largely pre-empted what would have happened naturally.

25. Private money in public service = a democratic deficit

The employment of private companies to carry out public tasks necessarily involves heavyweight contracts between the companies and the Government. These invariably carry a large compensation provision in the event of a government or a lesser political authority such as a Borough council deciding that it does not wish to honour a contract to its end. If they did not carry such compensation provision no private company would accept the contract.

The practical effect of such contracts is to create a democratic deficit. Because the compensation to be paid is very substantial, politicians are understandably reluctant to cancel contracts. Consequently, it becomes very difficult for a party to change a policy if it involves the cancellation of a contract. A first rate example is the introduction of the Congestion Charge in London by the Mayor of London , Ken Livingston. In the next mayoral election his principal rival, the Tory Steve Norris, promised to abolish the charge. It is dubious whether he could have done so if he had won because, according to Livingstone, £80 million in compensation would have had to be paid to Capita.

If an enterprise is run directly by public servants, it is in principle much easier to change policy because there are no contracts which require compensation if they are cancelled.

26. When private becomes public by default

Any really large private company by virtue of its size takes on aspects of the public. It does this because it becomes too important to be ignored by Government. If Barclays Bank was in danger of going bust no British Government could allow it to liquidate because of the effect on general confidence, both national and international, in the British economy. To confidence may be added cases where very large job losses would result from a liquidation or a vital domestic industry would be severely damaged by a company’s failure.

The implications of this for government are clear: they cannot simply stand back and ignore the behaviour of large private companies. That means governments should recognise that they may need to act to protect domestic industries – even in rare cases taking them over – and, where there is a strategic interest such as arises with a major domestic defence supplier, to place legal restrictions on what the company can do, for example by requiring export licences for weapons.

27. Corruption in Public Service

In modern times the British Civil Service has been remarkably free from corruption (local government is a different matter), a fact made all the more surprising because of the truly colossal amount of money it disposes of each year – government spending for the financial year 2006/7 will be around £500 billion. There are two reasons for this. The first is the hard-won tradition of public service which in which the Civil Service as an apolitical institution and as such serves no political ideology or party but provides politicians of all stamps with disinterested advice and executes their policies. This tradition has been underpinned by the lifelong working careers which public servants, especially senior ones, have commonly had. Of course, that was merely the ideal and, as with any human institution, the reality fell some way short of the ideal. Nonetheless, such sentiments and conventions have affected the behaviour of public servants for the better, especially in the area of honesty.

The second reason for a lack of corruption has been the direct provision of most the services provided by central government. This has meant that the number of large central government contracts offered to private business has been small in relation to the money spent on the direct provision of public service in all its aspects. In such circumstances serious fraud becomes difficult going on impossible for most civil servants because they do not have access to large amounts of taxpayers’ money. (Where they do have access, for example in the Inland Revenue, in most instances there are strict accounting procedures which make the embezzlement of large amounts of cash  extremely difficult). Moreover, where there are few government contracts, most civil servants are not in a position where someone would find it fruitful to bribe them because they have nothing to sell.

Unsurprisingly, where serious corruption amongst public servants employed by central government has occurred in the past, it has been overwhelmingly in those areas where large government contracts exist, most notably in Defence Procurement and building contracts. It is a reasonable assumption that the more public contracts offered to private companies, the greater the corruption will be simply because the opportunity for corruption increases.

The Thatcher and Major Governments began the attack on these two anti-corruption pillars of public service – the public service tradition and direct provision – by appointing people from outside the civil service to senior posts within the civil service, introducing private enterprise culture to public bodies (for example, the NHS “single market”), privatisation and by increasing the use of private finance and contractors in public services. But what they did pales before the Blair Government’s behaviour, which has done the same things but on a much greater scale. In particular Blair’s Government has shown a truly obsessive drive to replace direct public provision with private money and private firms. Literally nothing seems to be off limits, with public provision as disparate as the Prison Service and logistical support for the NHS being treated as suitable.

The Blair Government has also done two things the Thatcher and Major Governments did not do. First, it has radically altered the terms of employment of new civil servants, especially with regard to their retirement age and pensions, thus undermining the unspoken pact between government and civil servants that relatively poor pay was balanced by a relatively generous pension. Second, the Blair Government has classified “special advisers” that is political advisors, as civil servants, the most notable of whom is Blair’s erstwhile Press Spokesman, Alistair Campbell. These people have been given authority over career civil servants.

All this change is undermining the British public service culture. The appointment of special advisors as civil servants is destroying the apolitical nature of the civil service. The idea of a career civil servant is falling into disuse because no one can be sure what is next to be privatised or where a department may be moved to. The morale of civil servants is generally depressed. All of that translates into less commitment to the job, on average less time in a job and probably the employment of fewer able and trustworthy people as civil servants because the more able and trustworthy are now less willing to come into public service and standards have had to be lowered to recruit sufficient staff.

The weakening of the public service ethos and the probable lowering of the quality of the people employed is likely to have increased the number of civil servants willing to behave corruptly if the opportunity arises is increasing at the very time that the opportunities for corruption are multiplying because of the large number of private companies being given government contracts. Put those two circumstances together and it is odds on that civil service corruption has increased substantially.

What is applicable to national politicians and civil servants applies to other public servants, at both the national and local government level, and politicians below the national level.

In theory competitive tendering for public contracts should be a guard against corrupt practices. The problem is that in most instances the number of firms tendering will be small. Quite often there will be only two bidders. On occasion the process lapses into farce and only one firm will bid. This happened in the London borough of Camden where a £62.5 million contract for renovating an estate called Chalcots attracted only one bidder, a consortium going under the name of United House. The council’s housing director Neil Litherland claimed bizarrely that talking to just one bidder would lead to “better uses of [council] resources by reducing the negotiation and evaluation period” (Camden New Journal 12 12 2002).

There are good reasons why the number of bidders is often small. First, the size of the operations and their frequently unusual nature (often there is no comparable private sector work) means that there will only be a few private companies able to plausibly bid for a contract. Second, the bidding process is very expensive both in terms of money and time, especially management time. These two entirely rational and legitimate reasons for a paucity of bidders build great opportunities for corruption into the system of bidding. Where there are, say, only four companies capable of undertaking work in a particular area such as social housing, they can act as a cartel and effectively deal out public contracts amongst themselves by agreeing who will put in the highest bid for any contract.

Corruption is more than people receiving money in brown envelopes or material benefits in kind such as  expensive holidays. It is also the  granting of jobs years down the line, directorships for politicians and civil servants who have controlled the granting of Government contracts or who have used their influence to progress things such as planning applications.

The current rules regarding ministers and public servants taking posts in private industry are so lax as to be next to meaningless – they can take up posts after a year or two, regardless of how closely the private sector job is linked to their previous post. Moreover, the definition of which private industry posts are sensitive enough to demand even that slight obeisance to common decency is open to an elastic interpretation by those supposedly enforcing the rules if the secret view of politicians and senior public servants is that the rules are simply a public fig-leaf to cover their indecency. In effect, successive governments have legalised corruption and of course the more government contracts offered to private business the more opportunity there is for this type of “legalised” corruption.

Corruption can also be the giving of an honour or public service appointment in return for corrupt behaviour. For example, a contract could be granted to a private contractor corruptly through a conspiracy between the contractor, a cabinet minister and a senior public servant near retirement. The public servant corruptly facilitates the granting of the contract, retires and is rewarded with a quango sinecure. Again, the increase in contracts offers greater scope for such corruption.

That which is corrupting national politicians and the Civil Service is also evident in other public bodies, both national and local.

28. The behaviour of private companies

The blurring of lines between the public and the private arguably has a general effect for the worse on the behaviour of those in the public sphere, the bad practices of private enterprise being imported into the public sphere.

Private business is very prone to corrupt practices, from outright bribery to the formation of cartels and tricks such as industrial espionage, but the legal behaviour of private companies is frequently morally scandalous.

Directors of even the largest and ostensibly most publicly accountable companies commonly act in a manner which to most people’s  minds is immoral. The executive directors have absurdly generous and long-term contracts which are so undemanding that no matter how  badly a director performs, if they leave the board they can expect  the outstanding period of the contract to be paid in full. In many cases they receive more than their contract entitlement to persuade them to resign and go quietly.

While on a board, they executive directors receive performance bonuses set at targets which are simple to achieve. They will probably have  share options which, even if accounts are honest, are a one way bet for the director. If the shares rise above the discounted price of the option, the directors sell and pocket the profit. If the shares fall below the discounted price, they simply do not buy. It is of course easy enough to manipulate shares to boost their price at a particular time.

Why do directors get away with such behaviour? Simple: they can effectively control the company for their own purposes. In large public companies, directors’ remuneration is normally decided by a remuneration committee, which is normally composed of non-executive directors. Non-execs are supposed to act as a restraint and a check on executive directors. In practice they do not – try to find a case where a non-exec has blown the whistle on even criminal action within a large company. When it comes to directors’ remuneration, they know the score, produce the right executive director contracts or run the risk of being excluded from the lucrative non-exec gravy train.

The matter is complicated by the fact that many non-execs are executive directors with other companies where they have overly-generous contracts. What more natural than to think that because I earn this someone in another company should be similarly paid? Finally, especially in the largest companies, there is also a good deal of you-scratch-my-back-and-I’ll-scratch-yours. Executive directors of one company will expect to be non-execs of companies in which their non-execs have an interest.

Most of these practices cannot of course be imported directly into public service – inflated salaries, perks, bonuses paid on soft targets and generally overly favourable contracts are three which can and have been imported, for example, Johnston McNeil, the former head of the Rural Payments Agency, left his post after farm payments to English farmers were left in chaos early in 2006 but is still being paid his £114,000 salary in October 2006 (Daily Telegraph 18 10 2006). But the mentality rubs off on public servants (particularly the senior ones) who now deal with private business far more often that they use to and are urged by government to follow supposedly superior private enterprise practices. Sometimes the values are directly imported by the parachuting of people from outside of public service into senior public service positions. Where some part of public provision is subcontracted to a private contractor the ills of private business are imported wholesale.

29. Charities 

Most people when faced with the word charity attached to an institution are inclined to be well disposed to the organisation regardless of what the charity is supposed to do or how efficiently it does it.  If it is a popular area of work, such as medical research or the provision of services to disabled children, rationality goes out of the window. Hardly anyone questions how the money is spent or how much of it actually goes to the people the charity are supposedly helping. Nor do people distinguish between the sources of charitable income and many perhaps most are unaware that much of it is public money. This means that governments can support unpopular policies, such as those associated with political correctness, without the general public being aware that public money is being used to promote the policies.

The use of charities by politicians has other pernicious effects. It allows a government to evade responsibility even more effectively than the employment of private companies does because charities, especially popular ones, throw up a moral shield. As mentioned above people feel that money spent by a charity is a good in itself. That applies even when it is taxpayers’ money. A government can also make charitable donation part of their PR because they can gain kudos from the public by publicising their donations of taxpayers’ money to popular charities.

There is general  objection to the use of charities as publicly funded providers. They have a moral and civic role. The whole point of a charity is that it is the product of the individual will, a conglomeration of the active decisions of those who choose to make a contribution. It is part of what academics like to call civil society, those institutions which men naturally form in a free society and which fall outside the ambit of the state. Lose or even seriously diminish those institutions and the state determines all, for there is nothing to oppose it or offer an alternative.

Making a charity simply or largely a client of government undermines the very idea of charity. There is every chance that if charities are seen as arms of government, private donations to them will begin to dry up. That in turn would have spending implications for the taxpayer, because although often inefficient, charities do fund a considerable amount of what would otherwise be described as public provision. The taxpayer would end up footing the bill for extra public provision. State funding also makes charities forget their original role and become dependent on the state funding.

Government already channels gigantic wads of public money to charities for the purposes of research and active provision of services. This fits in with the drive to subcontract public provision which is now officially supported by not only the Labour Party and Tories but half-heartedly by the LibDems. Whoever is in power for the foreseeable future, it is a fair bet that the relationship between charities and the Government will broaden and deepen.  That will remove charities ever further from their original moral purpose.

Charities also epitomise the practical difficulties of mixing private and public. It is true that as non-profit making bodies they share some of the ethos of public service and the profit motive is absent. The problem is that charities, even large ones, are often very inefficient. The poorly run ones spend a great deal on administration. Many of the largest use professional fund raisers who take between 15-50% of what they collect from the public (the young men and women who increasingly infest our pavements on behalf of charities are paid employees of a professional fund raiser). They spend inordinate amounts on advertising. They hoard money rather than spend it. They manage their money poorly. They fail to modernise their service. Their accounts are inadequate.

Take the case of Scope, the charity previously known as the Spastics Society, which aids those with cerebral palsy. It is a mainstream charity of just the sort to attract public sympathy in large measure. The first thing to note is that it changed its name in 1994 from something everyone could immediately understand – the Spastics Society – to something which most people would not have a clue about. The charity had allowed itself to be seduced by the marketing sirens. It is difficult to imagine this confusion did not have some effect on fundraising.

In January 2006 Scope announced it was shutting 50 of its shops because it had a predicted £310 million deficit. (Daily Telegraph 13/01/2006). The Telegraph account went on to disclose that Scope’s last accounts showed that it was budgeting to spend £35.6 million more than it received in the financial year 2006/7, that there was a hole in its pension fund and that its buildings suffer widespread dilapidation through lack of investment. I think most people who think about it would be somewhat disturbed by the idea that a charity had a pension fund of any size and that a substantial part of their donations are going to fund it. Charities in the public mind are thought of as institutions where people offer their services either free or at a discounted rate. The idea that their paid employees are just like any other employee does not fit comfortably with the public’s idea of charity.

One of the directors of Scope Jan Hildreth (also a former director-general of the Institute of Directors summed up the mentality of his and many other charities: “Like many charities, the concern of the society has always been its activity and not its finances.”

Interestingly, Scope blamed part of its plight on ‘the Government for underfunding services it provides, such as residential and school places. “It wants our services, but it doesn’t want to pay for them,” the spokesman said. “This is a drain on our coffers.” ‘

The idea that charities will generally be more efficient than direct public provision is simply laughable. Not only do they suffer from the structural ills of public service they lack any proper public accountability. Charities are audited each year, but that audit is much less demanding than the audit required of large public companies. Moreover, their frequent failure to keep adequate records makes any audit of the use of public money very difficult. It would also be a very expensive job to monitor their spending of public money meaningfully.

As the Scope complaint quoted above suggests, governments may also see charities as a cheap means of public provision. Whether it is or not is another matter – personally I would doubt it because of the widespread incompetence in the charity world.

There is a further problem wih charities, namely what is a legitimate charity? Take our public schools. They are overwhelmingly charities. They also have in most cases a history of one hundred years or more. This means that the profit motive is absent and a quasi public-service (civil society) ethos has had time to evolve. Yet public schools – which get around £100 million tax relief – have always subsidised the education of the poorer middleclass children rather than the education of the truly poor. Why should they have status of a charity?

There are also many questionable cases where the charity exists to fund something which is essentially, even in principle, a private or sectional interest, for example the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Why should the taxpayer subsidise such institutions?

[RH in 2012 There are more than 200,000 charities in the UK. Does anyone honestly believe that there can possibly be that number of good causes? http://www.ncvo-vol.org.uk/networking-discussions/blogs/116/09/10/06/how-many-charities-are-there. Many disburse little of the money collected or, in quite a few cases nothing, to the causes they ostensibly support. Quite a few are set up by the wealthy who gain tax relief on donations to their charity and then use the money donated to finance their pet projects and/or draw substantial payments in the guise of expenses or pass on some material benefit to friends and relations by getting the charity to employ them].

30. Does market competition produce greater choice generally?

One of the prime arguments for introducing business practices, private money and private business into public provision is that it improves choice. British citizens, increasingly referred to as consumers or customers rather than patients, passengers or any other appellation which emphasises the public nature of the provision, supposedly want choices of schools for their children and to go to the “best” hospital or to enjoy the “superior” service coming from private companies with public provision contracts such as those running the railways or utilities such as water or gas.

Take the case of the privatised railways. Before privatisation all a passenger had to do was buy a ticket and get on a train. The only thing the passenger had to consider was whether there was a time or date restriction on the ticket. Now, the passenger has to not merely worry about time and date, but whether he or she is getting on a train run by a particular company – how many people have been on an intercity train when the ticket inspector has got into a dispute with someone who has bought a ticket for the train’s destination but it is the wrong ticket for that particular train? The customer is also besieged by a bewildering array of pricing, far more than was on offer when the railway was state owned.

I doubt whether the average passenger welcomes either the multiplicity of carriers or ticket prices. A person can have too much choice. Human beings want some but not a vast amount, which merely becomes confusing. If you want to travel somewhere you do not want it to be a demanding exercise in both finding out what the cheapest fare is and ensuring that the terms of the ticket are not inadvertently breached.

Does market competition produce greater choice even in a “free market”? There is a good argument to say it does not. The natural tendency of a free market is to produce reduced competition. Governments of all colours in countries which have a large free enterprise component to their economy recognise this by maintaining anti-monopoly legislation. (What are called free market economies are in fact state regulated economies and regulated in the most fundamental way, that is,  the prevention of increase of market share beyond a certain point).

But anti-monopoly legislation only prevents the worst anti-competitive excesses. There is still very wide scope for anti-competitive forces, especially in capital intensive and technologically advanced industries – think Microsoft and operating systems or airliners in a market of two or three suppliers.

But the process is a general one. Even enterprises which are not innately capital intensive are affected. Retailing is a good example. A hundred years ago department stores were still in their infancy. Supermarkets and shopping Malls unknown. The vast majority of purchases  were made from small, privately owned shops or from open air markets.  Most of the shops specialised in a narrow trade.

Today we have far fewer shops and markets. Supermarkets and Shopping Malls abound. The chain stores of at most a few dozen companies become  ever more pervasive. There are many fewer specialist shops. The private retailer is assaulted from all sides by the large  multiple-store retailers and increasingly succumbs as the public is seduced by the immediate temptations of price and convenience without regard to the social long-term consequences of what they do. The  =privately owned shop does not even have to be in the immediate vicinity of a giant chain store to suffer. It merely has to be within reasonable driving distance of the chain store. The consequence is that the poorer areas of larger towns and cities and country villages and small towns are denuded of their shops. The choice of the poorer residents of such places is tremendously reduced. The wealthier do not of coursecare about this because it has no direct effect on them. They have the wherewithal to either live in areas well serviced by stores and services or can afford to drive to the large supermarkets or have goods delivered from far afield. Such developments fall within the remit of government. It is not for Government to operate supermarkets but it is within their remit to prevent commercial behaviour which is anti-social.

What constitutes choice anyway? Is it, for example, having more shops offering a smaller range of products or fewer shops offering a greater range of product? In practice fewer shops will mean reduced variety of product as well as service. But what of all the choice in giant supermarkets you say? Do they not have a much greater range of product? Surely they provide more choice. They may provide a greater range in one place but that is all.

The advent of industrial-style agri-farming, the bringing in of increased amounts of imported food from around the world and introduction of new manufactured foods may give the impression of greater choice, but is an illusion. The number of varieties of staple fruits and vegetables has been massively reduced, as have the various breeds of farm animals.

Of course, the providers of anything which sells can always say “If people didn’t want it they wouldn’t buy it”. But that begs the question of what alternatives are available. If only three types of washing powder were available doubtless they would sell massively more than any one brand does now. That does not mean they are more popular merely that people have to have such a product and were forced to buy one of the three brands available. Such restriction of choice is increasingly commonplace.

31. How Government gratuitously takes on obligations

Governments regularly make rods for their own backs. Social policy is an area more prone to this sickness than most.

When a government urges the electorate to take action it places itself under both a moral and democratic  obligation. It may even in certain circumstances place itself under a legal obligation when a government sponsored supervisor such as those supervising the financial services industry, fail to act to prevent the mis-selling of pensions.

Since the 1980s British governments have pressed people to buy houses, take out private pensions, pay for private healthcare and insure themselves against unemployment. The consequences have been at various times, negative equity in houses and widespread repossessions, pension scandals ranging from the Maxwellian hand-in-till to an attempt to renege on the conditions of policies by the Equitable Life and ever more expensive private health care and unemployment insurance. The consequence has been that time and again the taxpayer has had to come to the rescue either by paying compensation in cases such as Barlow Clowes or through increased benefits paid to those who have lost their saving or investments. In those cases where the Government has forced private companies to compensate people directly, such as the various mis-selling scandals in the pension industry, the result has been higher premiums for all and frequently reduced pensions, annuities and endowment payments for many.

The sensible course for a government is to allow people to make private choices completely unhindered by state propaganda. That way they do not incur any moral obligation if things go wrong. It also ensures that the electorate does not automatically blame the government when investments turn sticky.

Of course, the state does have to regulate those who offer private insurance, mortgage and pension schemes to prevent outright criminality, such as that which occurred in the Robert Maxwell Mirror Pensions Fund scandal. This regulation should consist of (1) laws laying out what can and cannot be done, (2) very strict auditing rules

for such businesses and funds, (3) laws placing responsibility firmly on the shoulders of those who administer the businesses and funds and (4) the efficient enforcement of such laws – those responsible for the businesses and funds must believe that there will be no walking away from a mess if money goes missing or reckless mismanagement occurs.

What, no regulators for financial institutions? Well, experience shows that having a regulator to licence such businesses is pointless at best – think of BCCI and Barlow Clowes – and may even help fraud and gross mismanagement by giving a spurious respectability and solidity to the firms they licence. Moreover, the rules which regulators operate by are frequently bent as circumstances dictate, for example, the solvency rules by which Assurance companies operate have been relaxed several times in the past ten years simply because, with the fall of the stockmarket, many of the largest companies would probably have gone under if the original rules had been enforced.

32. Making personal private provision – the problems of investing

To expect the vast majority of human beings to be expert enough in financial matters to make wise private investment decisions is absurd, as absurd as expecting every man to be his own lawyer. Therefore, all but a few of us will turn to supposedly expert advisors for advice. The problem with such people is twofold: they often have a vested uniters in selling or promoting a particular product and even when they do not, they are frequently bad judges of the financial future. (If investing was easy and certain for the so-called experts, all financial institutions would be permanently hugely successful).

When someone sells you a private pension plan or insurance, he does not do it out of the goodness of his heart. He does it because he earns a commission or fee from it. As the pensions mis-selling scandal of the Thatcher years showed, that incentive drives many, probably most, financial service consultants to sell the product most beneficial to their income rather than to the customer.

The customer can also get misled if he takes reputedly independent advice, whether this be from a self-described independent financial adviser or out of the financial pages of newspapers and magazines or investment newsletters. The advice given may be anything but independent. Unbeknown to the client, an advisor may get a commission for recommending an investment and media share tipsters often have no scruples about recommending shares which they know to be poor performers, either because of direct inducements from the companies or because they work for a company which gets business from the share tipped. Share tipsters can also make a profit by “ramping up” a price in shares they hold by recommending it or depress a share by criticising it and then buying at the depressed price.

Those recommending shares or financial products are in a wonderful position: they can tip to their heart’s content without taking any responsibility for their tips. No tipster has a consistent record of predicting successful investments. Quite a few have utterly dismal records over years. Indeed, so poor is their general performance that one might ask whether it is any worse than randomly selecting investments. It may even be worse. As Woody Allen once remarked, “A stockbroker is someone who invests your money until it is gone”.

The Daily Telegraph put the matter of share tipping to a sort of test in 2001. It employed a professional tipster, an astrologer and a four year old child to notionally invest £5000 in the stock market. The professional tipster applied his supposed expertise. The astrologer selected her shares using her star charts. The four year old child chose by repeatedly tossing (at the same time) a number of pieces of paper in the air with the names of shares written on them. At each toss she caught one. After a year all the investments had lost money, but the four-year-old-child lost least, followed by the astrologer with the supposed financial expert bringing up the rear quite some way behind.

A rational examination of the actual performance of tipsters and advisors could only lead to the conclusion that predicting the future economy is a mug’s game. Why would an expert do worse than a four-year-old child and an astrologer? Well, it could have been a fluke, but an unlikely one as both the child and the astrologer did better. More probably the financial advisor’s knowledge is a positive hindrance. A parallel is with the football pools. Many people have a very considerable knowledge of the form and general state of professional football clubs. Yet these people do not appear to be any better at predicting results than the punter who knows nothing about football and does the pools by putting a pin in the matches or has fixed numbers.

The truth is that no one can guarantee investment for a secure future or even come anywhere near to it. All calls for private provision replacing public in whole or part should be placed in that context.

33. Supporting old age

The most problematic of all public provision is what to do about the old. The value of actuarial calculations – the statistical analysis of risk based on instances of the risk occurring – made sense for pension calculations when life spans from generation to generation were fairly stable. Because of our ever increasing ability to cure and prevent disease and to provide a more materially certain livelihood for the majority, life expectancy in the future is no longer easily predicted. Even if the wilder extremes of SF are avoided, it is reasonable to assume a significant rise in life expectancy in the next forty years. The rise does not have to be dramatic to make a nonsense of pension provision made today – even a five year rise in the average would have dramatic consequences for pension planning.

A substantial rise in the average lifespan does not necessarily imply some major scientific breakthrough to slow or even reverse ageing. All that would be required is for scientific advances to reduce the diseases which kill many before they reach the average age of death. In other words, more people survive to the ages which are now the average lifespans. It is quite conceivable that within the next 40 years simply reducing early death could extend the average lifespan by ten years.

More dramatically, it is conceivable that science may extend human lifespans substantially beyond their current limits. Work on animals such as mice have resulted in greatly extended lifespans simply by restricting food intake from early in life. If human lifespans are extended greatly all pension bets are off. In such circumstances no meaningful actuarial prediction for pensions could be made for the odds would be that further, unforeseeable increases in life span would occur continuously after the initial scientific breakthrough was made. The fact that such scientific advances are possible in itself makes current pension planning hideously uncertain.

What should we do as a society to plan for the future lives of the old? Let us assume that average lifespans are extended simply through the diminution of early death rather than from any radical scientific discovery, what then? If the average lifespan of Britons rises to, say, 90, over the next 40 years, an obvious move would be to delay retirement. But that raises a problem. Most people could probably work to 70, but beyond that the incidence of severe but non-fatal disease rises steeply. Keeping people alive longer does not at present equal keeping them fitter. More 70+ year-olds means more people suffering from various forms of dementia, crippling diseases such as arthritis and people simply too physically weak to undertake work which could provide an income to support them. Hence, extending the retirement age, for both state and private pensions, is only a partial answer unless science advances enough to massively reduce the infirmities of old age.

It is also true that many people are struggling to cope with their job long before the current age of retirement. People in manual jobs cannot be expected to work to 70 and those in heavy manual jobs or those in jobs which require physical strength and fitness such as grassroots policing, are probably past useful employment by the age of 50, certainly by 55. In principle they can retrain to lighter work, but in practice this is very difficult. People who have spent their lives working with their hands in a workshop or in the open air often do not take easily to working in an office or shop. Moreover, the pay they will get from such “second career” jobs is likely to be low, which is both a disincentive to work and may leave the person unable to support themselves fully.

But even if a person can adapt to new ways or has been throughout their lives in the type of employment which can be carried on into old age, the odds are that they will struggle to remain in employment as they reach late middle age. Employers are prejudiced against the older worker for various reasons. Part of that reason is financial – the cost of employing them is high compared with a youngster – but it is also in large part to do with the adaptability and energy of the young compared with the old. In a time of ever increasng technological change the natural resistance to change and learning becomes ever more of a handicap than it was in the past. Government can pass whatever age-discrimination laws it wants but employers will still find ways to employ who they want to employ without falling foul of the law (short of a law which insists that a percentage of people in an organization had to be in various age categories).

However much as we may like to believe – and I write as a budding wrinkly myself – that experience compensates for youthful enthusiasm, the truth is that all of us become much less receptive to new ideas as we get older, energy falls, physical strength fails, our memory diminishes and concentration becomes harder. Consequently, employers have good cause for employing younger people in most jobs. Of course experience does count and in some jobs can be valuable well into old age, but in most jobs it does not count for much after the age of 60. Even in “people” related employment, which the older person is supposedly better equipped to handle, experience may be a positive disadvantage. For example, suppose an employer wants to employ someone serving the public. It may well be that the average customer for the business prefers to be served by someone young and employing the old would be the kiss of death for the business.

The position of the older worker is being further undermined at present by the high levels of immigration, both official and unofficial. Most of this immigration is of the young, much of it young males. These young workers will tend to take much of the work which would otherwise be available for the old.

Even in the most benign likely circumstances – an extension of the average lifespan by five or ten years through the deduction of early death, it is clear that many people will require support for a very long period of retirement or reduced employment. Some of that may well come from private pensions and savings. But clearly for a very large part of the population adequate private resources guaranteed to support someone for 30 odd years will be beyond their grasp. Hence, state provision sufficient to allow people to live in old age is a must.

If great scientific advances are made which greatly extend life we shall simply have to start planning again from scratch. Obviously if average lifespan was increased to, say, 150, the whole perspective of a life would have to change. There are any number of exciting or disturbing possibilities. For example, it might be that only the newly conceived or newborn children could have their lives increased by a new treatment. We would then be in a position where that generation and succeeding generations had the increased lie span while anyone born before the treatment became available lived to an average age of 90.

The other great concern about pensions is demographic. The population is ageing and the British birthrate is substantially below (around 1.7 children per woman) the replacement level (roughly 2.1 children per woman). The doomsday scenario is insufficient working people to pay the pensions of the old in the future. If we were talking about a demographic change which was going to take place overnight I would be worried. However, we are not. Rather, the demographic effects will be worked out over thirty or forty years. Past experience suggests that society will evolve to make the necessary arrangements. We cannot foresee what the birthrate will be in five years let alone twenty or thirty.

However, we should not put all of our eggs in basket. It would be wise now for the Government to begin a state pension fund into which one per cent of GDP (currently around £11 billion) was put each year. This fund would not be touched for 20 years at least and would be used to ease any future pension problem arising from a tax shortfall due to a smaller working population.

The currently fashionable solution for the future pension bottleneck – importing large numbers of young immigrants – would be no answer in the long term. The young people who arrived in this generation would eventually grow old and would need people of working age to support them which would mean more immigration which would mean more old people  to support in the next generation and so on ad infinitum, a literal absurdity because any territory has a limit to the number of people it can support. In other words, confronting the problem of a demographic  imbalance would merely be delayed for a generation or two by immigration.

34. The housing crisis

Because it is one of the essentials of life, government clearly has a moral responsibility to ensure, directly or indirectly, that there is sufficient housing. It also acquires responsibility because it interferes considerably with the housing market, often with the effect that new building is discouraged, for example, by overly strict planning laws.

The government sets the rules for building new homes, renovating old ones and adapting non-residential buildings for residential use. The provision of taxpayers’ money for social housing is dependent on government. The rules by which social housing is allocated are the government’s rules. Planning permission is in the gift of politicians. The terms on which property may be rented and leased are set by them.

Then there are the measures which indirectly the housing market. To a very significant degree the government still controls the economy by the use of taxation, the indirect setting of interest rates through Bank Rate (the targets for the so-called independent Bank of England to meet – at present merely the inflation rate – are set by the Chancellor), the obligations placed on employers, subsidies to industries such as farming, the size of the public sector and the acceptance or otherwise of free trade obligations. All of these things feed through into the housing market by increasing or diminishing the amount of money in the public’s pockets and their confidence or otherwise in the future. Governments also determine the level of net immigration into a country – when it is running at the level Britain is currently experiencing substantially affects the demand for housing. In short, the cost and availability of housing is to a considerable degree determined by government policy.

The ongoing and seemingly inexorable rise in British property prices is rapidly making many parts of the country a desert for first time buyers (according to a Halifax survey the average house price has risen from £62,453 in the first quarter of £1996 to £179,425 in the third quarter of 2006, a rise of 187% – Daily Telegraph 28 10 2006) ). A combination of very low interest rates, lax lending rules by mortgage providers (some are lending up to 5 times salary), the introduction of easy to obtain “buy-to-let” mortgages, rising wages for substantial parts of the population, the continuing right-to-buy policy (RTB – the right of tenants to buy their council or other social housing properties at a discount) for those in social housing and a great diminishment in the building of new housing, both public and private, has led to a shortage of housing which can be bought by someone on average earnings in a majority of counties. In some areas of the country, most notably in the SE of England, prices have been further substantially inflated by the massive and ongoing immigration into Britain, most of which ends up in the South East.

The position in the rental sector mirrors that of home ownership. Social housing is in desperately short supply in those areas with higher property prices, particularly London, while reasonably priced private rental property is effectively non-existent. Every London Council has a waiting list of thousands for social housing.

The provision of housing, whether rented or purchased, that most people can afford is necessary for the simplest of practical reasons: every community, no matter how wealthy, requires large numbers of people who are not well paid. They must of necessity live fairly close to their jobs because, apart from considerations such as travelling time, those on small wages will not be able to afford the fares if they have to travel a long way. That means there must be reasonably priced homes for them to buy or rent not too far from their work.

There is also the moral and political case. There will always be housing segregation of people by price, but there is a big difference between not being able to afford to live in the most expensive parts of a town or city and not being able to live there at all. That is the point which is being rapidly approached for people on even above average incomes in a surprising number of English counties. In such circumstances free movement – one of the defining practices of a free society – becomes practically a dead letter. It is also very socially divisive, which is poison to the democratic process.

What can and should a government do to ease the problem in those areas where houses are in dangerously short supply? The first and most obvious move would be to stop mass immigration and restrict social housing to British citizens. Whether that could be done either legally or in practice if it could be done legally, while Britain remains within the EU is extremely dubious. However, other things could be done.

A Labour government of old (indeed, a Tory government of the fifties and sixties) would have turned to fiscal and practical measures to relieve the problem. They would have put controls on the amount of money mortgage providers can lend, used compulsory purchase to acquire  land in the property hotspots and engaged in an extensive programme of  council house building. Instead, we have the Blair government tortuously twisting and turning within the limits of the free market ideology with ill-thought plans to provide an inadequate number of “affordable homes” in the South East, without any mechanism to ensure  that they remain available to the people they are supposed to cater  for, that is, the likes of teachers and nurses. But even if the scheme for these “key workers” was successful, it would not address the general problem of house prices being out of the reach for the large majority of people working in the South East and it cannot be morally sustainable to say that only those with vital functions should be subsidised, a subsidy which would in effect subsidise those wealthy enough to live in the area who can afford to buy or rent a property at market rates because the services they received would only exist because of the public subsidy of “key workers” homes.

In areas with a shortage of housing, the Government should begin a massive programme of social house building with truly affordable rents, It should use compulsory purchase to acquire land being hoarded by private builders. If a builder has not built on land within a given period, it should become available for public housing or for another private builder who is willing to build on it. The Government should limit the amount of money a mortgage lender may advance to a level whereby a borrower can continue to pay if interest rates rise considerably. It should relax the planning controls for private developments. It should give priority in social housing to those local to the area and to workers with scarce and needed skills.

The question of RTB is a difficult one. I do not criticise anyone for exercising RTB because once such a scheme is in operation, for an individual not to exercise RTB is to place themselves at a massive disadvantage. It is also a fact that in a council tenant in a large block of flats may have a very real fear that if they do not buy, at some point in the future control of the block in which they live may be transferred to a less sympathetic and politically responsible landlord such as a housing association or a private developer, and they as a tenant would have absolutely no control over the landlord.

In areas where there is substantially more social housing than can be let, it makes sense to sell them and give purchasing priority to their tenants to maintain a community. But the selling off of council houses is self-defeating in areas where demand exceeds supply, which is now much of the country after twenty years of RTB and much diminished building of homes both publicly and privately owned. If council properties were sold at their full price it would be damaging enough, but the discount given pours oil onto the flames.

The Blair Government has (since January 2003) restricted the value of the RTB in areas of high demand such as London by reducing the maximum discount available to tenants. Such reductions are arguably open to legal challenge by existing tenants with a RTB. The RTB is a form of property in the same way that an option-to-buy can be considered a property. The question is whether the Government is entitled to arbitrarily reduce the value of the property. It has not been tested in the courts to date.

Similar considerations would arise if the RTB was simply abolished. The Government could certainly remove the RTB from future tenants, but if they were to try to remove the right from those who already have it, they could leave themselves open to legal challenge on the grounds that they were being dispossessed of property. If the courts upheld such a challenge, the Government would then be left with a choice of depriving only new tenants of the RTB or compensating those from whom they take an existing RTB. In the first case, this would greatly distort the effect of abolishing RTB – its full effect might not be felt for 40 years – or would result in a truly horrendous bill for the taxpayer as all those with the RTB would have to be compensated, not merely those who were actively seeking to exercise the right.

The desperation of the Blair Government is epitomised by their announcement on 6 January 2003 that it was considering taking to itself the power to compulsorily seize empty residential properties and let them. It is still kicking this idea around. This would probably be illegal because of the protection provided for private property under the Human Rights Act. Even if it is not, it is highly questionable whether property owned by private individuals should be compulsorily taken by the state in such an arbitrary manner. It is true that compulsory purchase has existed for many years, but this is different. It appears that the Government is thinking not of purchasing the properties for letting, but merely taking them for an unspecified period and letting them.

But even if these properties were to be compulsorily purchased before letting, it would go against the normal principle of compulsory purchase, namely that it should only be used where it is impossible to achieve a clearly defined general public good such as a new road or railway line which cannot otherwise be achieved. That is not the case with housing. To be a meaningful public exercise the forced seizures would have to be very substantial and thus not exceptional, and the increase of housing could be achieved by other means such as I have described previously.

35. Council housing

Nowhere is the hostility to direct provision seen more clearly than in the provision of council (municipal and state funded) housing. This type of housing was created to provide secure tenancies for decent accommodation at a rent the poorer members of society could afford. In the years after 1945 both Labour and Tory governments were committed to building a great number of such properties and ironically in view of their later Thatcherite policy it was a Tory Housing Minister, Harold Macmillan, who boasted in the mid 1950s that the Tory Government intended to build 300,000 council houses and flats in a year.

The rot for council housing set in under Margaret Thatcher. Many council properties (unsurprisingly disproportionately the more desirable ones) were transferred to private hands through Right To Buy (RTB). Most of the money from these sales was not used to build new council properties because central government forbad councils from doing so.

RTB had two consequences. It reduced the social housing stock and complicated the ownership and running of council properties. Councils were left with a housing stock which was gradually honeycombed with the private purchases of freeholds and leaseholds. This meant that a council had to establish a new relationship with their new leaseholders – a particularly fraught business in large blocks of flats where disputes over service charges, ground rents and external repair charges have been legion – which increased the costs of managing the properties.

More importantly RTB blurred the relationship, both legally and in the public’s mind, between what was public and what was private. There is a good deal of difference between saying here is a public asset and here is a part public part private asset. To move the entire housing stock of a council out of council control when it is just council housing is politically difficult because it is seen simply as the transfer of a public asset. That was particularly true in the 1980s when the public at large still had imprinted in them the idea that the state owning public goods for the public good was natural. But let that housing stock be sold off to private buyers bit by bit until, say, a quarter is privately owned, and the public no longer sees the council housing stock simply as a public asset. Indeed, with RTB much of the public sees possession of a council house as not a social good but something akin to a lottery win because of the substantial discount it brings – RTB has created a great deal of envy from those who have not been able to get a property. (This envy is misplaced in the majority of cases because, as many tenants who have bought properties in less desirable locations – especially on large council estates and in large blocks of flats – have found to their cost, the charges made by councils for service charges, grounds rents and most particularly external repairs – these are capped only for the first few years after purchase – are extortionate and the properties often next to impossible to sell at a reasonable price or even at all).

This blurring of the relationship between councils and council housing and the change in public attitude towards council housing has fitted neatly into the strategy of all governments since 1979 which has been to diminish the direct control of council housing by councils. The primary tactic used apart from RTB and a diminution of state funding for low rent housing, has been the transfer of government funding of most new build social housing from councils to Housing Associations which are non-profit self managing corporations. These, unlike council housing, are not subject to any degree of democratic control.

There has also been a push by governments to get existing council housing transferred to Housing Associations. This is somewhat tricky because tenants have by law to vote for such a transfer. To get round  this awkward and annoying piece of democracy the Blair Government has  been attempting transfer control of council housing stock into Arms Length Management Organisations (ALMOs). These are limited companies (limited by guarantee not by shares). The council housing stock is still owned by the council but the management of the housing stock is transferred to the ALMO board which is bound by company law. Thus the relationship between tenant and the council is completely changed because (1) local councillors no longer have any responsible for the management of the housing stock and (2) the ALMO board, being bound by company law, have to operate according to that law not a political agenda. Again, democratic control is broken.

A third tactic is to allow PFI companies into the management of part of a council’s housing stock. This again ties the hands of politicians because the contract with company means the council cannot act of its own volition.

The experience of tenants in Housing Associations and ALMOs has been mixed but there have been too many instances where rents and service charges have been raised to levels higher than those in directly owned council properties and where management of the property has left much to be desired. Worst, some Housing Associations and ALMOs have got into financial trouble. The only ways out of such a mess, after rents have been raised as high as they can, is for either a council to rescue the properties by taking them into direct control or for the properties to be placed in the hands of a private company, either through some form of PFI or outright sale of the property. The private option is the one almost all councils go for in such circumstances.

Whatever tactic is used – ALMOs, transfer to a Housing Association or PFI – it is always sold to tenants by councils insisting that remaining in direct council control is effectively a non-starter because central government money for renovations will not be available if that happens.

But even where council housing stock remains within council control there are an ongoing problems. The “affordable” rents plan of the Blair government will raise rents to considerably over the next ten years. In addition, council are increasingly seeking to charge additionally for services such security, cleaning and caretaking.

Service charges have the advantage for politicians of allowing them to say they have kept rents down to a lower level whilst effectively raising the rents. In addition, there are probably fewer legal restrictions attached to levying and raising service charges than there are attached to raising rents.

Council housing was never intended to make a profit for central Government or even local councils. It was social provision for the poor. This appears to have been lost sight of by Government, viz: “Your average council home generates roughly £2,500 a year in rent, £1,000 of this goes on management costs, £500 for repairs, leaving £1,000 being siphoned off by Government. Why can’t councils keep this sum?”. (Labour MP Austin Mitchell “Defend council housing” Camden New Journal 30 Jan 2003).

If nothing is done to prevent the privatisation/commercialisation of council housing, I sincerely wonder how long it will be before the poor are unable to afford council housing in London.

36. Education

Education is a first rate example of how quasi-commercialism can corrupt. It was a pincer movement from the bottom and the top, from schools to universities.

Prior to the end of the 1980s our universities had been funded for decades by the University Grants Committee (UGC) which was made up  academics. The UGC received an annual sum of money allocated by the Government to higher education. The UGC then allocated this to the universities. This was not a perfect system because the academics tended to favour the older universities over the older regardless of performance. However, broadly speaking it worked and most importantly there was no pressure on universities to tout for students regardless of quality. This in turn meant that academic standards were maintained. Indeed, the newer universities were very sparing in their granting of degrees because they wished to build their academic reputation.

The Thatcher Government changed all that. They first cut in real terms the funding of given to the UGC, then abolished the UGC in 1987 to be replaced by the University Funding Council (UTC) which was manned not by academics but businessmen. The money was then primarily attached to  the individual – a second criterion based on the quality of research was also introduced but it was the numbers of students which brought in the large majority of the money. This forced universities to actively compete for students. This might not have mattered too much if the numbers of students had remained static but it did not because the Thatcher Government began the push towards dramatically expanding student numbers without a corresponding increase in funding. This meant that spending per student was reduced and universities had to get as many students as they could to maintain income. That alone caused universities to drop their standards, both in terms of who they accepted and the class of degrees they awarded, because universities with a reputation for high entry standards and strict marking of degrees risked being shunned for those with a reputation for being laxer. To take on stark statistic: in 1970 less than 40% of degreesawarded by British universities were firsts and upper seconds: the figure for these classes of degree awarded in 2006 is over 60%.

The massive increase in student numbers from the late 1980s meant that the average quality of student was lowered. This is not a subjective judgement. IQ is distributed within the British population approximately as follows: IQ below 90 25%, IQ 90-110 50%, IQ Above 110 25%. In 1970 less than 10% of school-leavers went to university. They could all comfortably come from those in the 111+ range (they will not have done but most would). Raise the numbers to the current level of around 40% and as a simply matter of arithmetic, many must have IQs of less than 111 and because a significant part of those with above average IQs will not go to university, there must be significant numbers now going to university with IQs below of 100. The difficulty of degree courses had to be lowered to cater for the lass able.

Because the increase in student numbers has not been met by a proportionate increase in state funding,  staff-student ratios have increased, teaching time for each student reduced, both in terms of direct instruction and the time available to staff for marking.

To these attacks on university standards were added eventually the toxic effects of the poison injected into the opposite end of the education system. “Progressive, child-centred education” really gained a hold in the 1960s. Anti-competitive and ideologically driven, the grammar schools were first almost destroyed, ironically rescuing the public schools which were on their financial knees by the mid-sixties because of the drain of middleclass pupils to free grammar schools, and teaching methods gradually corrupted so that children were not challenged over errors and all opinions (at least the politically correct ones) became equally “valid”.

The progressive ideal was greatly furthered by the introduction in the 1980s of a single school-leaving exam (the GCSE) to replace the CSE and O Level’. Had assessment remained entirely by final (synoptic) exams, The introduction of the GCSE would still have been mistaken because no examination can meaningfully assess the broad range of ability displayed by those who sit it – there has been a tacit recognition of this by the inclusion of questions and course tasks of different difficulty within a GCSE subject and candidates can choose to do the hard or the easy and this is reflected in their grades. The exam consequently says nothing about the standard of the candidate as such because the mark tells you nothing about the difficulty of the tasks attempted: for example someone taking just the harder questions in an exam could score the same mark as someone attempting only the easy  questions.

Mistaken as the exam was in principle, it was further damaged by the inclusion of substantial amounts of coursework – cue plagiarism and third party out-of-school help – and coaching by teachers, licit and llicit (the licit includes teachers being able to take an initial piece of coursework by pupils and making suggestions for its re-writing) and the use of modular exams (exams which tested only part of the course) which can be retaken several times during a course.

The school examination system has been further contaminated by the various examination boards becoming nakedly commercial bodies who compete greedily for candidates. The result is similar to that experienced by universities: standards have been dropped to attract business. The old practice of setting percentages for those gaining a grade and for those passing was dropped allowing any number of people to gain any grade. Freed of this constraint grades have inexorably risen year after year for both GCSEs and the university entrance A Levels. So bad has the inflation become that A* grades had to be introduced because A grades were so plentiful that they allowed no distinction to be made between the better candidates. Predictably, theA* grade has now met the same fate as the simple A.

Finally, because so many more pupils were taking GCSE than O Level, the standard of the exam had to be reduced for the same reason that the standard of the degree was reduced: the number of less able students taking the courses increased dramatically. The dire failure of GCSE has begun to be acknowledged by even the Blair Government with first the Education Secretary Alan Johnson announcing that coursework would be reduced in some subjects and abolished in a few such as maths (the Times 6 10 2006) and then a junior education minister Lord Adonis announcing that consideration was being given to allowing state schools to substitute the International GCSE (IGCSE) for the GCSE (Daily  Telegraph 25 10 2006). The IGSCE is an exam closer to the old O  Level and is taken by pupils outside Britain and increasingly by private schools in Britain.

The upshot of all this is a decline in academic standards generally. The decline of GCSE standards meant A Level pupils began their A Level courses less well prepared than they had been previously which meant A-Levels had to be reduced in difficulty which meant that those arriving at university were less well prepared and the degree courses had to be made easier.

A further pernicious consequence of the gigantic expansion of university numbers is the abolition of student grants and the imposition of tuition fee to fund the much greater numbers. . This is not only discouraging students from poorer homes – there is now a lower percentage of workingclass students  in the British university population than there was in the 1960s (although many  more because of the increase in student numbers)  – and leaving most students with considerable debts, but also creating a mentality amongst students, politicians, educationalists and indeed the general public, that education is only a tool to obtain a better job, that it has no general value.

The irony is that even at the economic level this mentality is at odds with reality. Successive governments have claimed that the lifetime earnings of a graduate are on average £450,000 greater than that of a non-graduate. This may have been true of graduates before the great expansion in student numbers but it is not now. The £450,000 has been revised to £150,000, a pretty small sum divided by the 40 years of the average working life. Of course that figure, even if it is true, hides a multitude of difference, with some degrees being next to worthless either because of the subject or the class of degree obtained.

37. Healthcare

The NHS was founded on the principle that all treatment should be free at the point of use regardless of income. The amazing thing is that 58 years after its foundation the principle is essentially intact. We have prescription charges and charges for dentistry and the work of opticians. However, even these charges for the poor, old age pensioners and children are either considerably mitigated or waived completely. For the vast majority of illnesses and injuries NHS treatment is available and no one who is entitled to and receives it need fear that they will be bankrupted by the cost of the treatment and care or that at some point the NHS will say no more treatment because it is too expensive. There are increasing disputes over the funding of expensive treatment, especially drugs, but these affect only a tiny minority of patients. The sole major NHS blot is dentistry where it is difficult to find dentists who take NHS patients in many parts of the country.

But the NHS ethos is under severe attack. The introduction of the “single market” by Margaret Thatcher and then the Blair government’s version of “money following the patient”, league tables of medical outcomes at hospitals and schemes such as hospital trusts being granted “foundation status” (which allows them greater freedom of action) are seriously damaging the idea of a national health service, the stress being on “national”. Hospital trusts are now competing with each other for both patients and the “right” type of patients, the “right” type being those most likely to be easily treatable and to have a good response to treatment.

“Money following the patient” has also resulted in a significant number of hospital trusts running into financial trouble and different areas of the country offering varying levels of treatment, the “post-code lottery”. The variation has been amplified by devolution which allows the devolved assemblies, especially the Scottish, to allocate money independently of Westminster. This has resulted in some treatments being offered in Scotland and Wales but not in England, for example drugs such as Aricept, Reminyl and Exelon which are used to treat Altzeimers are being denied to early stage Altzeimers sufferers while it is available to such people in Scotland and Wales (Daily Telegraph 18 10 2006).

Then there are the targets for waiting times which distort clinical judgements because hospitals begin to treat the conditions which reduce government targeted waiting lists rather than the conditions which clinical judgement would suggest should be given priority. Waiting list targets also result in hospitals fudging figures by devices such as putting people on waiting lists on lists euphemistically called something else, or moving people in Accident and Emergency out of A and E when they have exceeded the target waiting time and putting them onto trolleys in corridors to wait for treatment, which device allows the person to be classified as having been dealt with in A and E within the target time. So desperate has the Blair Government been to reduce waiting lists that it has even adopted a policy of exporting patients to continental hospitals where their treatment will be paid for by the NHS. (This policy could lead to far more NHS patients being referred abroad with the taxpayer paying than the Government anticipated because challenges are being made in the British courts to refusals by individual British health authorities to fund particular foreign treatment.)

In the past twenty years the NHS has almost certainly been subject to more politically initiated upheaval than any other taxpayer funded body, with both Tory and Labour governments forcing major change after major change on the NHS. The introduction of policies such as “the single market” and foundation status” for hospitals have caused profound administrative changes, with people having to re-apply for their jobs over and over again as each new regime is introduced and a general sense of impermanence and staff insecurity has been created. This sense of uncertainty and insecurity extends to new medical staff such as doctors, nurses and physiotherapists. Some years ago the Blair Government correctly identified the underproduction of such people in Britain and quite correctly acted to increase their numbers, both by providing training places and by significantly increasing NHS pay scales. This has had the effect of producing large numbers of these previously scarce medical staff from Britain. All well and good. But supply is only one half of the equation. The Government neglected the demand side and the upshot is that in 2006 there are large numbers of expensively trained medical staff unable to find work within the NHS.

The reasons they cannot find work are four. First, large numbers of foreign medical staff have been recruited and they are still in position. Second, Britain’s membership of the EU means that any medically qualified person from any EU state can compete with the British for jobs within the NHS (large numbers from outside the EU are also competing for the jobs because of Britain’s generally lax job entry requirements for non-EU foreigners coming to the UK). Third, the shortage of money in many hospital trusts and the demand by the Government that each trust balances its books, means that trusts are cutting staff, for example, the Epsom and St Helier Hospital Trust which serves 650,000 people in Surrey and South London, are looking to lose 25% of their staff by early 2008 (Metro 24 10 2006). Fourth, insufficient numbers of particular types of posts have been created, for example, training posts in hospitals for junior doctors.

The general utility of the NHS for patients has been reduced and will, if government plans go through, be much further reduced by a policy of “consolidating” hospital care by closing smaller hospitals and concentrating resources on a relatively small number of “super-hospitals.” Many smaller hospitals have already been much reduced – especially their A and E services – or even closed and many more cuts are in the pipeline. For example, the Daily Telegraph reported (17 10 2006) that 80 cottage hospitals in England were marked for closure. The rationale for such “consolidation” is that smaller hospitals cannot provide the same range of sophisticated treatments as a much larger hospital. This may be true but most treatments are of the simpler kind which can be dealt with in the smaller hospitals and any really difficult case sent to a specialist centre. The consequence of such a policy is that patients have to travel further and further for hospital treatment, often fifty miles or more. There is also some grounds for believing the closures are politically motivated because the Sunday Telegraph (22 10 2006) “surveyed 177 hospitals already affected or likely to be affected by cuts, [and] revealed that Conservative and Liberal Democrats seats are two and a half times more likely to be affected by cuts than Labour seats.”

A special case of hospital closures for “clinical reasons” are the military hospitals, all of which bar one have been closed and the one remaining is waiting decommissioning (Daily Telegraph 17 10 2006). This has meant troops returning injured from places such as Iraq and Afghanistan have been forced to use ordinary NHS hospitals. This has caused problems of morale, security and access to treatment – servicemen best recover psychologically when they are with their fellows, there is nothing to stop any anti-war radical attacking or abusing them in hospital and the treatment they need is not always immediately available, with servicemen having in some cases to join NHS waiting lists.

An unpleasant mentality is also distorting the notion that the NHS is a national health service. Increasingly, politicians, the media and medics are taking the line that treatment can be legitimately withheld from people wicked enough to disobey the official disapproval of smoking, drinking, getting fat and so forth. For example, Norfolk Primary Care Trust has decided that confirmed smokers are to be taken off waiting lists for “all non-urgent operations such as hip replacements….[because] Smokers have three times the complications as non-smokers”. (Metro 23 10 2006) I think anyone needing a hip replacement would dispute the operation’s definition as non-urgent. It is worth adding that the story mentions the Trust is “£50 million in the red” and an unkind soul might conclude that the withdrawal of treatment to smokers is connected to the debt. Nonetheless, the fact that smokers have been targeted speaks volumes for the ideologically driven mentality within the present day NHS. It is only activities which come within the ambit of official disapproval and moralising that are the subject of such withdrawal of treatment – it is noticeable that no politician or health trust has suggested that treatment for AIDs or HIV should be withheld because it is in most instances the consequence of the individual’s behaviour.

The moralising which bolsters the supposed clinical case for withdrawing treatment from certain groups runs along the lines that people are being selfish and irresponsible by smoking, drinking,getting fat etc. Wild claims are made for deaths supposedly due to such behaviour – any smoker who dies at a ripe old age is as likely as not to be classified as dying from a smoking related disease. All this supposedly self-inflicted illness is portrayed as being a massive burden on society and especially on the NHS. Most absurdly and dishonestly, smokers are claimed to be a drain on the taxpayer despite the fact that tobacco taxes greatly exceed any additional costs smokers might place on the NHS.

But do smokers, drinkers and the fat, who on average die younger than those who do not display such traits, actually impose extra costs on the taxpayer? Writing in the Sunday Telegraph (22 1 2006) the historian Niall Ferguson baldly and erroneously claimed those who smoked, drank and got fat are being antisocial because they “tend to expire slowly and expensively”. Most do not and whatever cost to the taxpayer arises from such people it pales into insignificance compared with those who live to a ripe old age. Not only do the latter draw pensions and benefits for far longer than the shorter lived smokers, drinkers and the fat, but the most costly of NHS patients are those who live to extreme old age for they frequently end up in hospitals or nursing homes for months and years. The most antisocial thing a person can do from the taxpayers’ point of view is live to an extreme old age.

The most fundamental threat to the NHS is the creeping privatization of the NHS which ranges from the logistical and administrative to the medical. Hospitals are being built under PFI and their maintenance placed in private hands. Hospital meals are provided by private contractors. Medical supplies to hospitals will soon be distributed by the German firm DHL. Most disturbingly, private medical firms, often American, are being granted massive contracts to take patients away from the NHS, a policy made all the more dangerous for the long-term security of the NHS because the treatments the private firms take are the simpler ones. The NHS are left with a reduced patient base for the simpler operations, which can result in the closure of NHS departments or even hospitals, and leaves the NHS with the more difficult and expensive cases to treat.

But even after the chaos wrought by governments over the past twenty years and the vast amounts of additional money pushed into the NHS to no great visible benefit by the Blair Government – the Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt recently made the astonishing admission that “For all the extra money, all the extra staff and all the extra patients treated, NHS productivity has remained almost unchanged” (Daily Telegraph 21 9 2006) – the NHS still represents magnificent value. Anyone who has ever had private medical insurance will know how incomplete the cover is. Common exemption clauses are a two year waiting period for existing complaints to be covered, a complete exclusion of psychiatric treatment and severe restrictions on aftercare, which is frequently excluded when active medical treatment ends.

Those who have had chronic and serious illness soon discover that the amount of private active treatment and aftercare they can obtain is considerably less than they imagined. Many begin courses of treatment which end before the utility of a treatment is exhausted. They then transfer to NHS care. Frequently operations are funded by their insurance but not the subsequent nursing which is undertaken by the NHS.

Those in Britain who laud the idea of private insurance as a substitute for taxpayer funded health service should examine the effects of such a system in the richest country in the world, the USA. Around 40% of the population have no health insurance. Even those with insurance find themselves left high and dry more often than not. Here are the words of a British journalist living in New York, Zoe Heller,from the Daily Telegraph London 6/5/2000:

“One of my best friends was short of cash one month and  let her insurance lapse. That same month, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Seven years later, she is still paying off the credit card debts. Another uninsured friend was rushed to hospital for emergency intestinal  surgery. She will be paying her bill on an installment plan.  She counts herself lucky that the hospital has a relatively liberal policy about treating uninsured  patients…”

A recent study established that one in four of every  American declaring bankruptcy in 1999 cited illness or injury  as the main reason for his financial problems and that of  that group, roughly half were insured. In other words, paying extortionate sums to the insurance companies  doesn’t protect you from financial ruin if you happen to fall ill with something serious and expensive enough.

Even the rich in the US find healthcare beyond their means if the treatment is long and serious. The Superman actor, Christopher Reeve, one of the highest paid Hollywood actors, had exhausted his savings within two years of the terrible injury which left him paralysed. Private medicine will guarantee virtually any treatment – if you can afford to pay for it. That is the long and short of it. The NHS provides a remarkably wide range of healthcare free at the point of use. It mitigates strongly against “unfairness”.

The other great threat to the NHS is the media which is only too willing to feed the public with NHS “horror stories”. A good example occurred in the Sunday Telegraph recently. On 27 August 2006 their front page ran “Blunders by NHS kill thousands of patients a year”. Does anyone seriously imagine that any healthcare system in the advanced world does not suffer such casualties or that private medicine is generally more efficient or safer? Of course the NHS makes many mistakes and these add up to a sizeable bald global figure but when you are catering for a population of 60 million that is scarcely surprising.

The real question to ask is why is no public audit of the safety and efficiency of private medicine ever done? If it was it would make interesting reading because private medicine in Britain is notoriously prone to pushing any bungled private treatments back on the NHS without compensation. It also makes little investment in private sector facilities because it can rent NHS facilities for more complicated treatments, facilities which are purchased at well below any realistic cost. Private medicine also makes no contribution towards the cost of training medical staff. In short, private medicine in the UK lives off the back of the NHS and the taxpayer.

The Health Secretary should stop private medicine taking up scarce NHS resources. Even if private medical treatment using NHS resources was paid for in full, it does not follow that would be a good thing for the NHS because the money received may not adequately compensate for  the loss of the NHS facility during the time it is in private use. This is particularly the case where complex treatments, especially surgery, are concerned because the number of NHS facilities able to offer the treatment will be very limited. It is worth mentioning that a sizeable proportion of private medical treatments in the UK, especially the more demanding cases such as those of serious heart disease, involve the treatment of foreigners. It is morally indefensible toallow NHS resources to be hired to be used on a foreigner rather than used to treat a British citizen on the NHS. Where there is genuine spare capacity in the NHS, private medical providers should be charged a realistic price for it. In cases where private medical treatment goes wrong, the private medical provider should pay for the remedial NHS treatment.

The NHS consultants would doubtless froth and whine about reduced private work opportunities and it might be necessary to give their NHS pay a very large boost. But there are not that many of them and the cost would not be vast in the context of total NHS spending.

Apart from making private medicine pay its way, the NHS ideally needs to (1) not only stop further privatisation but to take back into its direct control that which has already been lost; (2) ensure that enough medical staff of all sorts are trained in this country and NHS posts reserved for them; (3) end the practice of money following patients; (4) fund NHS healthcare on the basis of an area’s population and demographic distribution; (5) retain and where necessary build new local hospitals; (6) restrict treatment to the hospital within a health authority area; (7) lay down a national schedule of treatments which must be offered throughout the NHS and (8) restrict NHS treatment other than emergency treatment to British citizens.

No 8 is necessary because a great part of the problem for the NHS in areas such as London is that it is being overwhelmed by the large number of foreigners who one way or the other either have a right to NHS treatment or who obtain it because NHS staff are unwilling to check whether some is entitled to NHS treatment. Of course, there are supposedly reciprocal arrangements for Britons to obtain health treatment abroad but the balance of advantage is all against Britain because the range and quality of provision in many of the countries which provide supposedly reciprocal treatment is inferior to that of the NHS. There are also potentially vastly more foreigners eligible for NHS treatment than Britons eligible for treatment abroad, for example,  400million non-British EU state citizens.

That is the ideal. How much of it could be achieved as things stand is debatable because our EU membership and other treaties severely restrict control over both our borders and what any British government may do. For example, while we remain in the EU we cannot stop any person legally resident in the EU from coming here (apart from special cases of crime or terrorism) and either working for the NHS or claiming NHS treatment.

The NHS goes to the heart of what should be public and what should be private. The prime distinction is between service and profit. Public provision is the provision of necessary services to everyone, which private provision never has nor can supply: private provision is simply the provision of services to those who can pay. This seems to have been lost sight of by successive governments.

Let the NHS become anything other than what it is, a national health service free at the point of use and you will never get it back. It was created in the extraordinary circumstances of the immediate post-war national solidarity when both the electors and the politicians were determined that Lloyd George’s boast of creating “A land fit for heroes” should not be mocked twice.

It is vital that the NHS survives because even with present life expectancies, there are going to be an awful lot of people who will need intensive medical support in their extreme old age. The cost of that will almost certainly exhaust the resources of even those who have made seemingly substantial private provision for their old age.

The NHS has many faults, but for most of the population, it is a better and more complete supplier of medicine than private medicine will ever be or could be.

38. The Post Office and Royal Mail

The treatment of the linked organisations of the Post Office and the Royal Mail epitomises the current state of public provision. The Post Office network has long been a source of social glue throughout Britain. It has provided not merely postal but a wide variety of public and quasi-public services acting as a conduit for such things as the payment of state benefits, applications for state issued licences, the payment of bills and the easy transfer of money. Recent governments have taken a significant amount of that work away from post office by such policies as encouraging the payment of benefits though bank accounts and the removal from post offices of applications for TV licences, which has made them less viable as self financing enterprises.

It might seem inevitable or efficient that benefit payments (including the state pension) should be made through bank accounts, but that ignores two things. First, it takes no account of the general utility of post offices, which utility could be judged to mean that the retention of benefit payments through the post office was justified because it helped maintain the post office network. Second, even today many people either do not have bank accounts or do not wish to have their benefits paid through a bank. The Daily Telegraph (25 10 2006) reported that two million pensioners rely on Post Office Card Accounts to draw their pensions and All Pay, one of the businesses which deal with Post Office over the counter bill payments, has stated that “Even though lots of people have some form of bank accounts, there are all sorts of reasons why people want to pay in cash….If post offices close, millions of people will be under served.”(Daily telegraph 21 10 2006).

Governments have been steadily closing main and sub post offices for the past twenty years but the pace of closure is increasing. The Blair Government is currently making noises which suggest that the current £150 million annual taxpayer subsidy may be curtailed or even dropped altogether. This would result in very large numbers of sub post offices and quite a few main post offices being closed. This would have a considerable effect on many local communities, particularly those in rural areas where often they are an essential part of a village because they will combine the function of sub-post office with that of village shop. Let the post office go and the shop will go. There is also a modern problem, namely, the increasing lack of outlets in rural areas and the poorer parts of towns and cities where someone can withdraw their money. Banks are rapidly deserting both, especially rural parts, and often the only place left where someone can withdraw cash is the local post office.

The fact that British governments over past fifteen years ago have been so casual in their maintenance of the post office network simply reflects the general political mentality of the modern British political elite which no longer sees politics as making pragmatic policies for the entire country but of dancing to an ideology (neo-liberalism) which reduces life to nothing more than economic relationships. This mentality means that the modern British politician does not ask when confronting an issue such as the maintenance of the post office network “what social benefit does this bring?” but “is it profitable.” The fact that we currently have a Labour government which has relatively little support in rural areas suggests that party politics may also play its part in ignoring the interests of the rural population.

This causal ignoring of the interests of some sections of the population can be seem more generally in the failure of Government to take into account the difficulties of those who through a lack of money, knowledge or intellect do not have access to the internet. This lack is increasingly making day-to-day living highly inconvenient as more and more organisations either insist on dealing with people through the internet or make it very difficult to do otherwise. Millions of people are in this position yet the government often seems oblivious to the fact that so many have not joined the digital age, a classic example being the decision to end the analogue TV signal in a few years. The idea that millions of OAPs will be able to negotiate the change from analogue to digital comfortably is fanciful  (there is also the likelihood that substantial numbers of people will not be able to get digital TV when the switch is made because even the engineers estimate that 2% of the country will not be able to receive the signal).

The Blair Government’s attitude towards the Royal Mail displays the profit-is-all mentality as well. They have not had the nerve to go for outright privatisation, but this may well come in the next few years – the Royal Mail chairman Alan Leighton, is currently lobbying for Royal Mail workers to be given a 20% share of the business. (Daily telegraph 14 10 2006). If the scheme goes through it would presumably make it much less likely that Royal Mail employees would resist outright privatisation as that would improve the market for their shares.

The hand of the EU is also to be found in Royal Mail. As mentioned before, the EU competition rules have forced Royal Mail to compete with private companies for much of their business and adopt inconvenient practices such as having to measure letters because Royal Mail can no longer do what it has done for a century and half, deliver letters under a certain weight no matter what their size.

39. Can we afford better public services?

The GDP of the UK is approximately £1.1 trillion (note trillion not billion – a trillion is a thousand thousand million). In the financial year 2006/7 the British government will spend approximately £500 billion. The size of the economy and the British budget alone suggests that there is considerable scope for economies and changed priorities.

 There are immediate substantial savings which could be made. The Treasury per capita funding of the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish is approximately £1,400 pa per head greater than the per capita funding of the English. If the Celts’ funding was reduced to the English level – note to not below the English level – that would save £14 billion.

Foreign Aid is scheduled to rise to above £6 billion pa in the next few years. After 40 years or so since decolonisation it is reasonable to ask why the British taxpayer is still funding supposedly independent states.

Britain’s present contribution to the EU is around £12 billion. About two thirds returns to Britain leaving a deficit of £4 billion. However, much of the £8 billion is only spent because we are within the EU, for example the agricultural support payments. It is not unreasonable to assume that at least half of the £8 billion would not need to be spent if we were not in the EU. Leaving the EU could plausibly represent a saving of £8 billion. Thus, those three areas alone – the over-funding of the Celtic Fringe, foreign Aid and the EU – could produce a saving of around £28 billion.

What departmental reductions could reasonably be made? Some departments are frankly difficult to justify at all in terms of any useful activity, for example, Trade and Industry, while others have large swathes of administration which exist only because of every modern government’s mania for trying to regulate everything, for example, the Department of the Environment. Such departments could be much reduced or lost altogether if a government was brave enough to make a bonfire of unnecessary regulations. It is also true that even in those public organisations which do a thoroughly necessary job, there is often genuine overmanning, ie, overmanning beyond that required to cope with all likely circumstances, to be found. For example, the heavylayers of bureaucracy inflicted on the NHS by “reforms” over the past twenty years could be substantially reduced if the “front end”financial controls advocated in section ? were introduced.

At the level of strategic decisions money could often be better spent. Take defence and large computer projects. Our armed forces are being shaped not to defend Britain but to engage in action abroad. A good example of this is the ordering of two giant aircraft carriers at a cost (with planes) estimated to be £13 billion, not far short of our present annual defence budget. Such carriers are also hideously expensive to run and require large numbers of ships to defend and supply them. They are also vulnerable to missile attack. By ordering them the whole defence budget has been distorted. Moreover, they have absolutely no military value in defending the UK for any defending aircraft can be launched from land. If our defence forces were restricted to the defence of the UK, our present defence spending would be sufficient at worst and at best might prove more than was necessary and could be cut.

Large scale government computer projects have been an unmitigated disaster, from passports to the ongoing farce that is the NHS computer system which is intended to link every GPs’ records with every hospital. Any large computer system changes the structure of how an organisation works. It means that the people have to work to the machines’ limitations rather than doing the job as best they can.

This means that vast amounts of resources of both money and manpower have to be devoted to training staff, maintaining the system and coping with thesystem when it fails. That alone should raise a question in any organisation as to whether any particular computerisation is wise or necessary. When an organisation is as large as the average government body, the questions looms very large indeed because the costs of such systems and their failures are vast.

Take the case of the NHS system mentioned above. The estimated upfront costs of this ran into several billions initially. That cost has already multiplied a few times and doubtless will continue rising. It is quite possible that if the system is ever completed more than £10 billion will have been spent – and that takes no account of the hidden costs of restructuring the organisation to accommodate the system. Even if it was a success the question has to be asked was it money well spent? Does it really add much to the smooth running of the NHS for hospital staff to be able to access GPs records immediately or GPs to be able to access hospital records? I would suggest it does not. If hospitals or GPs need such information they can get it rapidly by using email. Would not the œ10 billion or more have been better spent keeping wards and hospitals open?

The other problem with large-scale government computer systems is that they do not work properly or even at all. There is every indication from IT experts that this NHS system will not work as a national system and that all the taxpayer will get for his or her money are some remnants of the system which will work within limited areas such as a single hospital trust.

There is also a role for one-off hypothecated taxes, that is,  taxes earmarked for a definite purpose. Suppose £10 billion extra is needed to build and renovate hospitals. A government could impose a new tax to be collected once only to raise that amount. Most taxpayers would support such a tax if it was going to a cause of which they approved. It would also avoid the bane of the taxpayer that once a tax is imposed it normally remains indefinitely. As such a tax would be a one-off, it would not suffer the usual objections to hypothecated taxes, such as the fact that the amount raised could not be guaranteed to correspond with the amount needed for the designated purpose or that people would only support hypothecated taxes for popular causes if all taxes were hypothecated.

Finally, there a great deal of money to be saved by removing all the politically correct trappings from within public service. To give an idea of the scale of that expenditure consider the case of the Metropolitan Police. Last year they spent on “equality and diversity training” £187 million, one sixth of the force’s budget (London Evening Standard 27 10 2006). Apart from the money spent, there is also the loss of efficiency and morale created by the habit public servants have had to develop of constantly watching what they say and do.

40. Does social provision corrupt?

One of the favourite arguments against social provision is that it corrupts the receiver by making them dependent and ultimately damages society by significantly reducing initiative and making people selfish. The facts do not bear this out as a general proposition – there will always be some free riders in a welfare state. Today we have a society in which the self-help gospel is constantly preached, people work longer and longer hours and most mothers work at least part time. This has produced a society in which the birthrate has dropped well below replacement rate. During the period when state provision was most heartily endorsed as part of the national furniture (1945-1979) the birthrate was above replacement rate. The ability and willingness tobreed is surely the ultimate indicator of the health of a society.

But that is not to say all social provision is benign. It is one thing for a society to provide those things which most cannot be reasonably be expected to provide for themselves, but quite another to build dependency into the system. That is what has happened in Britain where more than half the population now draw some sort of public monetary support. Some of those benefits are part of the legitimate armoury of social provision, for example, child benefit, unemployment benefit, sickness benefit and old age pensions. Others are not.

The most pernicious of the current benefits is Working Families Tax Credit, which can be drawn by families with a household income of over £50,000. This is a scheme in a long line of similar ones dating back to the old Poor Law of 1601. It is the granting of state money to those in work. The best known Poor Law example was the Speenhamland System  of the 18th century which allowed outdoor relief to those (primarily agricultural labourers) whose wages fell below a certain level. The result was predictable. Where the scheme operated employers dropped the wages they paid to the level where the Parish (which administered the Poor Law) made up the wages through outdoor relief to those whose wages were lowered.

The Speenhamland System was a subsidy to employers. So is the Working Families Tax Credit. All it results in is employers paying lower  wages. That is not because they are all evil grasping men or women.  Lower wages are forced on all employers because there will always be a substantial number of employers who will take advantage of opportunity offered by any government subsidy to lower their wages. That means all employers must do so to compete.

Apart from the fact that it siphons off large amounts of taxpayers money, Working Families Tax Credit is a pernicious form of subsidy because it makes employers who employ many low wage workers dependent on its continuance, which obviously cannot be guaranteed. Either a  future British Government may decide to abolish it of their own free will or tax harmonisation within the EU may force them to do so.

If it is abolished, such companies will be left stranded because they will have to pay higher wages. Moreover, the subsidy they are receiving now will cause them to be less efficient than they would have been without it. On the other side of the employment coin, families receiving the benefit will also be left high and dry if it ends, for they will have altered their lives according to the income they have received.

This type of structural dependency has evil effects beyond the economic because it can distort the democratic process. If sufficient people become dependent on a benefit such as tax credits they may make it next to impossible for any party wishing to be elected to propose its abolition because to have such a policy will drive anyone in receipt of the benefit to another party which supports its continuance.

41. The future of public provision

The present outlook for public provision is dismal going on hopeless. The Blair Government, having aimlessly thrown vast amounts of extra money at direct
public services such as the NHS to no good effect, is attempting to cover its political blushes by funding much future public provision through private finance and private corporate involvement.

The policy is being introduced into every conceivable part of our public service from the running of prisons to the administration of NHS hospitals. This provokes remarkably little political debate despite the fact that it not only radically changes the relationship between the public and the service they are paying for, but has already proved to be more expensive than direct provision in many instances. Despite the ever more dismaying experience of railway privatisation, Blair’s Government in its second term permitted the part-privatisation of the Air Traffic Control system and careered on in mindless fashion with plans to part privatise the London Tube system and to introduce private finance into a multiplicity of public enterprises from roads to social housing. On the supply side of the public service coin, Labour increasingly stands aside from providing any new direct public provision, no matter how obvious the need in areas such as housing.

Despite David Cameron’s “Tories aren’t complete bastards, honest!” propaganda campaign, the Conservative Opposition are still immobilized in the morass of Thatcherism. Look behind Cameron’s “right on” language and it is clear that the party still instinctively feels the welfare state is bloated and views the direct state provision of goods or services as a recipe for waste and incompetence ay best and as ideologically unsound at worst. The Tory Party continues to advocate private provision wherever they dare and private finance in public projects for virtually everything else in those areas where they do not have the courage to go the whole hog and say that the individual should be left to fend for themselves. The distance between NuTory soft words and policy was nicely encapsulated by Cameron’s portrayal of himself at the 2006 Tory Party Conference as “the defender of the NHS”, while remaining quite content to allow ever more private business involvement in the NHS.

There is a further fly in the direct provision ointment. EU Competition rules are forcing Britain to destroy or greatly reduce in effectiveness some aspects of public provision, for example valuable and justified public monopolies such as Royal Mail (dying the death of a thousand competitive cuts – see section 38) and the 192 directory enquiries system (abolished).

The EU is also threatening public provision through attempts to restrict public spending, for example, Reuters reports (12 10 2006) that the European Commission (EC) is attempting to reduce public spending throughout the EU to prepare for the “pensions crisis” which is supposed to engulf the EU over the next half century.

The EC claims that unless something is done, public debt within the EU will treble to 200 per cent of GDP by 2050. This is reckless scaremongering because no one can meaningfully predict demographic trends that far into the future, let alone the immense economic changes that will happen over such a period. Sadly, that fact will have little bearing on whether the EC will be successful in their quest to cut public spending because that will be a political decision not a rational one. As cuts in public spending would fit neatly with the present “public service bad, private business good” ideology adopted by so many governments within the EU, there is a fair chance the EC will be at least partially successful.

If the EC is successful, any cuts in public spending would in theory bear heaviest on members of the Euro (and thus not Britain) because Euro members are legally committed to keeping their deficits within limits (pause for hollow laugh). However, past experience suggests that whether Britain is a member of the Euro or not, she will find the same rules imposed on her by EU hook or by EU crook to ensure “equality” throughout the EU. (It is worth noting that Britain is already morally committed to keeping within the Euro public spending deficit limits).

Mass immigration is also undermining public provision. It does this in two ways. First, immigrants compete for the social provision Britain offers because the British system allows many millions of foreigners who have not contributed anything to enjoy the full benefits of the considerable public provision available to a British citizen. Any person granted the right to reside permanently in Britain qualifies. That includes some 400 million EU nationals and anyone else legally resident within the EU. British citizens have reciprocal rights in other EU countries but these rights merely require each EU member state to grant the same social provision rights to Britons as they do their own citizens. The social provision in many of the EU states is, as a package, considerably inferior to that offered in Britain. It is also true that far more foreign EU nationals settle in Britain than Britons settle in the rest of the EU – Britain is particularly vulnerable to such immigration because English is the second language of choice for so many foreign EU nationals and the Blair Government, unlike almost all other EU states, made no attempt to stop immigrants from the EU new entrant states such as Polnd.

To the EU population legally entitled to settle may be added those granted asylum, the dependent foreign relatives of British citizens in Britain who are granted the right to join their relatives in Britain, the spouses of those who marry British citizens and those allowed to remain on compassionate grounds, foreign students from outside the EU and those granted work permits.

Finally, many of those who are here illegally manage to obtain access to British social provision by fraud. There is also the problem of “health tourism”, whereby foreigners come to Britain simply to obtain free treatment on the NHS – they are frequently successful because the NHS in practice rarely checks a patient’s immigration status.

All of this puts a tremendous extra burden on the British taxpayer and causes widespread resentment amongst the native population who naturally think that they should not be paying for foreigners or having to compete for the social provision which exists. The poorer members of society are particularly affected because they are the ones who most need social provision, especially in the areas of housing and healthcare – the poorer the area the more need for social housing and often the medical services available locally are meagre compared with more prosperous neighbourhoods. The success of the BNP in Dagenham at the local elections in May 2006 was due in part to the issue of social housing being perceived to be being swallowed up by recent immigrants.

The second way immigration weakens social provision is more subtle. If it is perceived by the native population that large amounts of money are being spent on foreigners, many, particularly those who are less in need of social provision, will begin to question its value at all. This is important because for social provision to be maintained in the long term it requires a general social acceptance. If the better off start to feel they should be paying less for that which they do not use (the better off actually get a very good deal out of the taxpayer – see section 4) there is the danger that necessary social provision will be significantly lessened.

What applies to first generation immigrants also applies to members of ethnic minorities who are born in a country. There are sufficient academic studies (for example, Welfare, Ethnicity and Altruism ed. Frank Salter) of how ethnicity affects the willingness to pay for public provision to tell a clear story: people generally are more willing to support public provision where the provision goes to their own ethnic group.

The public, which is generally in favour of the Welfare State and other public provision such as education, stands helpless, trapped by a stagnant political system which offers them no choice. The ordinary working man is alarmed and resentful to see whole swathes of British industry vanishing as his political leaders tell him this is “inevitable” as employers look abroad for cheap labour. He is nervous when he hears constant calls to introduce private money into public services. Yet he finds that whatever he thinks it does not matter because neither the Labour or the Conservative parties offers him a conduit for his political wishes for both parties disagree with him. Nor can he gain access to the media to express his dissatisfaction or engage in debate. In short, the ordinary elector is practically disenfranchised.

42. Why is the repudiation of public provision happening?

It is easy to see why the Tories are supporting private initiatives over public, but what about Labour? Why are they so determined to go against all their tradition? The answer lies in a mixture of ideological change, expediency and international treaties.

The Labour Party is engaged in an ideological war. New Labour believes it transformed itself into an electable entity in the 1990s by repudiating the Party’s past. Whether that is true is irrelevant for our purposes. (My own view, for what it is worth, is that the Tory Party simply came to the end of the political road and Blair came in by default). What matters is that the received opinion amongst those who control the party today is that the Blairite “re-modelling” was the cause of Labour returning to power.

Blair’s government has increased public spending considerably. The problem is that it has been done shamefacedly and without any clear sense of direction or commitment that neither those in the public services nor the public have any clear idea of what the Government wants or how it will achieve it. Money has been flung at public services and individuals haphazardly, in the manner of a man making a religious or charitable offering, the giving being the important act.

At the same time as direct public spending has increased, the Government has crashed on with introducing ever more private money and private business activity into public service. Those in the public service do not know whether they are coming or going and the public just see more and more money being spent apparently to no good purpose. The consequence is both a blurring of the lines between public and private and a general feeling, whether justified or not, amongst the public that the future is horribly uncertain for public provision, a feeling made more poignant by the absence of any meaningful political opposition to what is happening. The danger is that much public provision could fall by default in such circumstances with the public becoming defeatist about the power of the state to provide the basics where the individual cannot.

Old Labour was and is wholeheartedly pro-public service. New Labour has to a significant but one-sided degree donned the economic clothes of Thatcherism. They have not in practice retained the low tax, low spend part of Thatcherism, (although in truth that was often more observed in theory than practice during the Thatcher years). What they have accepted with the fervour of the religious convert is the Thatcherite commitment to introducing private enterprise into public matters, either directly or through sub-contacting. In particular they want the burdensome government responsibility for complex organisations such as the NHS to be placed either at one remove in so-called freestanding agencies or, even better, cast adrift entirely into fully fledged private business where the public will pay directly rather than through their taxes.

This is not done from noble or even purely ideological motives. It is largely grubby expediency, both at the national and international level. On the domestic front, if a service can be put entirely outside the public realm, the government loses a responsibility. It neither has to account to the public for the service nor raise the money to pay for it. The public pays directly and the one time public employees cease to be a charge on the public purse, both as employees and as future pensioners.

Of course, the provision of some services is so absolutely essential that the government cannot shuffle off all responsibility – such as health and welfare provision – but even there they distance themselves by placing responsibility with so-called freestanding units such as the Benefits Agency or by diluting direct public control through contracting out such jobs as cleaning, transport and food supply. The advantages for the Government are two. First, the government has the opportunity to muddy the waters by saying that the people providing a poor service, for example, hospital cleaners, are not government workers (thus giving the spurious impression that the government are not responsible). Second, overt long-term costs are reduced because no pension costs are incurred by the taxpayer. I say overt because often such savings are offset by increased benefit take-up by those made unemployed, take low paid jobs which qualify them for benefit or who require more state aid in old age because they have no adequate workplace pension.

Although Labour has accepted the distancing of government from direct provision of public services part of Thatcherism, it has not accepted the other half of the equation, that government control of private enterprise should be slackened as much as possible. Judged by their performance since 1997, Labour’s general economic tactic at present is to control business without owning it. This, ironically for a government supposedly of the left, is the classic economic tactic of fascism.

Those are the mundane, dirty causes of the trend towards a repudiation of public provision, but there is also the question of psychology. The most corrosive aspect of politics is ideology. (The only sane way of approaching politics is to ask what ends you wish to achieve and then seek the means to achieve them. The means are important in as much as they should not be immoral or their employment in some way to compromise the desired ends.)

By ideology I mean a political creed which purports to have the  answer to everything. Marxism does that with its attachment to the  inexorable march of the dialectic through history: Neo-Liberalism does it with its quasi-religious belief in the market. It is the latter which has captured modern British politics, at least at the level of those who control the major parties.

Neo-liberalism, like Marxism, has considerable emotional rewards for its disciples because it offers a complete explanation of and guide to action for its disciples. The need for hard thought is removed, all the disciple has to do is refer to set principles and interpret any situation in their light. It is the type of creed to appeal to the religious temperament such as Blair’s.

The Blair Government is reflecting a general trend in the First World. We are moving into an age of plutocracy, of a time when the rich use their power to advance their own interests without concern for the poor and the poor have no power to stop them.

Nor is it only the poor who are affected. The middle classes may ape the rich and parrot their ideology, but they are increasingly finding it more and more difficult to sustain the lifestyle which people in their position had previously taken for granted, such things as home ownership, private schools and even a university education having all become so expensive that even an income well above the average cannot meet them all.

There is nothing surprising in this behaviour. Elites as a group will always behave selfishly at best and be deliberately abusively at worst.There may be individuals within an elite who will have a genuine concern for the poor – Lord Shaftesbury in the 19th Century for example with his campaign against child labour – but their concern will be corralled both by the limitations of their social horizon and by self-interest. Often a humanitarian cause will be divorced from the general inhumanity of the conditions of the poor – Wilberforce’s anti-Slavery campaign is a classic example. Very rarely indeed do members of an elite give up t eir own material privilege – two examples are the philosopher Wittgenstein and the Victorian English missionary C.T. Studd who both gave away their inherited wealth. However, even they did not give it to the poor, but transferred it to other members of their family.

All human institutions become corrupted by elite self-interest. The German sociologist Robert Michels developed the notion of the iron law of oligarchy early in the last century. He intended it to explain why institutions and movements supposedly devoted to the promotion of the interests of the poor, for example Social Democratic parties and trade unions, invariably became corrupted into being vehicles primarily for the promotion of the interests of those who gained power within them. In fact, what he was describing was a general behaviour associated with any formal institution. They invariably become a vehicle primarily for the promotion of the interests of those who gain power within the institution. Its ostensible purpose will be pursued to a degree but only in so much as it does not clash with the interests of its controllers. If we accept that elites will always exist because human  society is inevitably hierarchical, the central political question becomes how far can the masses prevent thwart the naturally abusive tendencies of the elite? For most of history the masses have been generally very unsuccessful in this aim. Their only times of success have come within the context of the modern nation state.

43. The nation state – the only democratic platform

Democracy in the literal direct sense does not exist in the modern world, indeed for practical reasons cannot exist in a state of any size. What we have is what political scientists call elective oligarchy, a political system whereby the electorate is offered a choice ever few years between competing parts of a society’s elite.

That paints a dismal picture for the masses. However, even within an elective oligarchy, they can exercise considerable control given the right circumstances. What the masses can do and have done for most of the past century and a half in Britain is exert an ever increasing control over the elite through representative institutions. But they have only been able to do this because the representative institutions have operated within the context of the national state. Elites as groups have been forced to take heed of the masses because they relied upon their votes to be re-elected and the system worked by and large because the major political parties offered a meaningful alternative on the most of the great issues.

In the past thirty years our political circumstances have changed dramatically. Two things have happened. The freedom of action of the Government and Parliament has been greatly reduced and the political parties have become ideologically aligned.

Entanglement in the EU has resulted in a majority of British legislation ultimately originating not in Parliament but within the European Commission, while various treaties have removed whole swathes of political choice from the electorate, ranging from proper control over foreign policy and border control to the pursuit of a national economic policy. Most profoundly the European single market agreement and the GATT treaty arrangements and membership of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) have left British parties with no choice of economic policy, or as things stand they have to support the notions of free markets and free trade. Any party wishing to offer protectionism and state intervention in the economy cannot do it unless they commit themselves to withdraw from the EU and WTO.

The consequence of the our membership of the EU and our other treaties is that our politicians in practice can offer very little difference in policy to the electorate. And, of course, our politicians find it convenient to use our EU membership and other treaty obligations to excuse themselves from responsibility for unpopular measures or as justification for forcing through vast amounts of detailed legislation which Parliament, let alone the electorate, is barely aware is being passed into law.

The position is worsened by the careerism of the modern politician. This has always existed to a degree, but what we have now is of a different order of magnitude. The really depressing thing about the House of Commons now is the sheer narrowness of experience of the members, many of whom have never had a career other than their political one. Hence, once on the political career bandwagon they cannot afford to get off. The current bandwagon is the internationalist one.

Internationalisation od economics and politics dissolves national sovereignty. The left may cheer this but they are discovering by the day just how restrictive international treaties and membership of supranational groups can be. As things stand, through our membership of the EU and the World Trade Organisation treaties, no British government could introduce new socialist measures because they cannot nationalise companies, protect their own commerce and industry or even ensure that taxpayers’ money is spent in Britain with British firms. As far as economics is concerned, a British government can have any economic system they like provided it is largely free trade, free enterprise.

The Right are suffering the same sickness with different symptoms. They find that they are no longer masters in their own house. They cannot meaningfully appeal to traditional national interests because treaties and EU membership make that impossible. Control of national borders has gone.

A reversion to nationalism need not be a party political matter in Britain, but the modern British left are unfortunately conditioned to believe that the national state is at best outmoded and at worst xenophobic, racist even. This ignores both the history of the mainstream British left and mistakes form for content.

The Labour Party for almost all of its existence has been strongly protectionist and hence de facto in favour ofthe nation state. Indeed, Blair in the late 1980s was still an economic nationalist. Moreover, for most of the time Labour has been consciously in favour of the nation state and of Britain’s independence – few could give the likes of Attlee and Bevin lessons in patriotism.

As for mistaking form for content, it is simply a matter of empirical fact that the nation state does not produce a uniform behaviour – take Switzerland and Iraq from the present day as examples of that. The idea that nation state equals aggressive, xenophobic, badly behaved warmonger is a literal nonsense. In particular, there is good empirical evidence that where there is significant democratic control within a nation state, this makes aggressive war much less likely than where a dictatorship exists.

It is also true that supranational bodies are not noticeably better behaved than nation states. Worse, they have a large element of the sham in them, being invariably dominated by the more powerful component states, for example, the UN being heavily manipulated by the USA and the EU broadly controlled by its major members. Supranational bodies are not simply vehicles for the normal process of power-mongering, but, in practice, that is their prime function. That they give a spurious appearance of international agreement and legitimacy adds to the ability of the dominating states within them to exercise control over weaker states by direct threats, the withholding of money and, most insidiously, the development of bureaucracies which carry forward the policies forced on the supranational bodies by the most powerful members. ( It is often said that the UN has no power. This is utterly mistaken. It may not have an army but there is a vast web of agencies which allow a great deal of control and influence to be exercised over states which seek their assistance. Some such as the IMF and World Bank control client countries from the outside, while others such as UNHCR permit direct internal interference on the ground.)

44. Conclusion

Nothing I have written is meant to suggest that private enterprise is not the best way of managing most human economic activity. Being in favour of public services and the welfare state does not mean being in favour of spending for spending’s sake. Nor does it mean recklessly advocating public provision regardless of the cost.

History shows that governments are poor at managing enterprises in comparison to private business where proper competition exists and universal provision of the basics of life are not at stake. Nor should the government provide directly where the provision of money to those in need will solve the problem. It would be grossly inefficient, for example, if a government decided to supply food directly to people in need rather than give them the money to buy the food and even more outlandish if the Government decided they had to produce the food as well as supply it.

But there are some items which are beyond the realistic reach of most people. The provision of healthcare, education and a liveable pension in old age are absolute necessities because few of the population can undertake the cost of providing for these for themselves and their children. It is also essential that decent housing is available for all and the state should intervene to ensure its provision.

As a matter of policy direct public provision should be restricted to areas of service where universal provision is required and where it cannot be supplied by private businesses because of the need to make a profit.

It is also unhappily true that bureaucracies have no natural size. If a government is willing and the tax revenues sufficient, there is no end to the expansion of administrate for administration’s sake. Strict limits need to be put on the number of administrators, the limits to be set by deciding in advance what is to be provided and how much it will cost.

Universal provision has the advantage of simplicity and of maintaining the dignity of recipients. That rich and poor are eligible for the same provision is neither here no there because any seeming redundancy in providing benefits to the better off can be adjusted through the tax system, that is,  the richer you are the more income tax you should pay. (The very rich and the self-employed to a degree can avoid income tax, but most cannot).

Mixing public and private, as with PFI, fatally blurs lines of responsibility. This means that when things go wrong no one is held responsible. Politicians point the figure of blame at public servants running “arms-length offices” such as the Benefits Agency or the private companies which have supplied the service, civil servants point at private companies or even, whisper it softly, politicians, and private businessmen blame politicians and civil servants. The taxpayer is left with the worst of all worlds, the ultimate responsibility for picking up the bill but no meaningful control over how it is spent.

Necessary and desirable as public provision is, it should be, like private charity, a safety net not an end in itself. Monetary benefits to those of working age should not be so generous as to dull or even remove the desire and need to work where the individual is capable of doing so. Take away the need for private effort and the economy will suffer.

Supporters of public provision should always keep firmly in mind the fact that the money from the provision comes from the profits of private business. Take too much from that and the less there is for reinvestment and the starting of new businesses. In high tax, high regulation economies there is a considerable disincentive effect on business generally with a marked tendency for domestic companies to move to countries with a more friendly tax and regulatory regime and for foreign companies not to invest. That in turn will reduce the amount of future profit and private employment and consequently lessen the tax available for public provision. It is important not to kill the goose which lays the golden egg. This should be obvious, but all too often the supporters of public provision seem incapable of making the link between public spending and the ultimate source of the taxes which fund it.

In short, public provision should be kept to the minimum of what is  necessary for an advanced, civilised and stable communityand that provision should be adequate but not lavish. What needs to be understood above all is that if public provision is lost, the large majority of the population will find not that it is choice between public services and private services. Rather they will find the choice is between much reduced services or no services at all.

“Free markets and “free trade” = elite propaganda”

Note: I wrote this long eassay  in 2005. The financial crash and recession since provide added grist to my arguments as the rich get richer, most people get steadily poorer, public provision shrinks and the inequality between people swells.

The lessons of economic history tell this story: a strong domestic economy is necessary for sustained economic growth and stability. The freer the trade with foreign states, the less stable and secure the domestic economy.

Post-war economic experience illustrates this nicely. Britain experienced her strongest sustained growth in the period  1945-1972. This was a period of protectionism and much state intervention in the economy.  Problems arose in the 1970s, but these were largely due to the oil price spike  after 1973, a consequence of globalism.  However, even with the oil price spike, unemployment in Britain never went much above 1 million until Thatcher arrived and wilfully destroyed our heavy and extractive industries.
During the period 1945-1979, Britain did not suffer a serious sustained recession. From 1979 onwards, under the Thatcherite ideology we have had three serious recessions: in the early 1980s, the early 1990s and the present recession.
To our post-war experience I would add the fact that England  built her commerce then the first Industrial Revolution behind very restrictive protectionist measures such as the Navigation Acts.  RH

 

Robert Henderson 20 4 2012

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“Free markets and “free trade” =  elite propaganda”

Robert Henderson

1. Unquestioned ideas

2. The “Free Market” is a state regulated market

3. The “free market” as its proponents conceive it

4. How effective is anti-monopoly legislation?

5. Microsoft and Windows – a natural monopoly

6. The historical trend towards contraction of competition

7. “Free trade”

8. Has “free trade” ever been practised?

9. “Free trade” today

10. Does “free trade” deliver? The lessons of economic history

11. Is society materially enriched by “free markets” and “free trade?

12. What is meant by material enrichment?

13. How the market fails to provide what the customer wants

14. Relative poverty and wealth and happiness

15. Man does not live by bread alone

16. Geopolitics

17. The democratic deficit

18. Does “free trade” increase competition and choice in the long run?

19. The reality of our economic circumstances

20. Why elites are so keen on “free markets” and “free trade”

21. A sane alternative to globalism

22. Free trade as a religion

23. An elite ideology

 

1. Unquestioned ideas

Because they have the word free in them, the terms “Free markets” and “free trade” have seduced those of all political colours to treat them uncritically as ideas. They are considered good or bad but their intellectual coherence is rarely questioned.

Neo-liberals believe in a childlike quasi-religious fashion in the workings of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand”, which, moved by enlightened self-interest, supposedly creates the best of all possible material worlds through the operation of the market. Socialists see “free markets” and “free trade” as economic “state of natures” which must be ameliorated by the state before a civilised society can be realised. Conservatives in the traditional sense no longer exist as a recognisable political force in the West, but when they did exist they opposed “free markets” and “free trade” primarily on the grounds of national security and the general disruption to society that they caused. Nationalists of the fascistic kind have traditionally opposed the ideas because they see the nation as a single organism which can only be strong if it is master of its own destiny, something which can only be achieved (they believe) through state direction of both the internal  market and of external trade.

There are varying quantities of truth in all these ideological responses, but their utility is seriously tainted by the lack of any  objective or even properly defined and permanent prescriptive truth in the concepts of “free markets” or “free trade”. The reality of these ideas is that they are arbitrary chosen bundles of behaviours which  are excluded or included at the will of their proponents. Moreover, the bundles of behaviours are not static.

The widespread negligence in examining the coherence of these ideas is all the more remarkable because their incoherence as theories and the arbitrary and dishonest nature of their practical realisation is not only readily apparent but fundamentally undermining of the claims made for them by their champions.

2. The “Free Market” is a state regulated market

There is a splendid irony in the objection of the self-defined “free marketeers'” and “free traders” to state intervention for the natural end of a truly free market is monopoly – or at least greatly reduced competition resulting in oligopoly and the rule of cartels. All so-called “free market” societies recognise this by passing anti-monopoly laws. The “free market” is in fact a market controlled by the state in the most fundamental way, that is, to prevent its natural workings. It is one of the great propaganda triumphs of history that “free markets” have been successfully sold as being what happens naturally without state intervention. Call a spade a spade and substitute the truthful “state regulated non-monopolistic market” for “free market” and the psychological shape of the idea changes dramatically.  (Some casuistical “free marketeers”might argue that the “free” in free market applies to the workings of the market rather than the market as a natural phenomenon. That explanation falls because “free marketeers” invariably make the blanket claim that markets only work efficiently without government interference. Their honest position would be to state that they want state regulated markets to prevent monopoly. They will not do that because it would be an acknowledgement that state regulation of the market is legitimate and hence remove any general argument against regulation. That in turn would mean any form of state regulation would be potentially reasonable and consequently each form of regulation would have to be argued down individually on the merits of the case, rather than simply empty-headedly dismissed on the grounds of no regulation = good; regulation = bad.

The state regulated “Free Market” is not even a natural phenomenon made somewhat artificial by rules to exaggerate the natural phenomenon in the same way that we breed animals to exaggerate nature. Rather it is just about as far from being a natural phenomenon as anything can be for it goes against all Man’s inclinations, both individual and social.

Economic history is overwhelmingly a catalogue of market regulation, local and national, from guilds to governments. It would be surprising if it were not because human beings, like all other organisms, naturally behave to secure their own advantage or that of their group. Extended to the nation state, this natural behaviour has commonly resulted in domestic markets being protected against foreign competition. Whether this is a good or a bad thing is another matter – a question I shall deal with later – all I am concerned to do at this point is to nail down that the fact that protectionist behaviour is what is natural.

Historically, whether you were anything from a rich merchant to a poor day labourer  it was obviously not in your personal interest to allow others free access to your markets to offer the goods or services at a lower price or to work for lower wages. The merchant might be driven to bankruptcy by competition, the labourer from his job.  History also tells us that whatever their previous economic station, such people will probably not be able to find equivalent or better paid employment and often may not be able to find any employment at all where structural unemployment arises. What was historically true not only remains true today, but its effect is much magnified because the opportunities for competition are greatly increased by modern communications and the ease of travel and cargo transportation.

Of course, any individual or sectional advantage causes strains in a society and if the material privilege of any person or group becomes excessive, sooner or later there will be a successful revolt and the wealth in a society will either be shared more fairly through a change in the way the society is structured, for example, through the abolition of tolls, the ending of state monopolies or even through a removal of the rich as a class without any increase in the wealth of the majority.

But wherever wealth distribution through social change has occurred it has normally been done with the express intention of benefiting a particular group or even an individual in the case of monarchs. The odd thing about “free marketeers” is that what they ostensibly advocate is not to privilege any particular individual or group but to benefit society as a whole. Whether free markets do so is another matter, but that is their claim.

The “free marketeer” says to a population, do what I say and in time society will become richer. He does not say this person or that group will become richer or even all will become richer, but merely that the society as a whole will become richer. This is an extraordinary thing to ask people to trust in. It is also the most wonderful blank cheque ever written to a politician because not only does it absolve him or her of any need to take the responsibility for regulating the economy, it also means that he or she can never be held to account for dishonesty by any individual if that individual is personally worse off. All a “free marketeer” politician has ever claimed is that his economic way will make society richer. Provided society overall is richer, he has met his met his promise.

It is also telling for their intellectual credibility and honesty that “free marketeers” will oppose government interference in such matters as subsidies, quotas, embargoes, wage rates and working hours and grumble about tax rates and public expenditure, but are generally quite happy to see other gross distortions of the market deriving from government action. They not only tolerate patents, copyright and trademarks, but often defend them as property in themselves and as devices which actually improve economic performance because they encourage invention, investment and expansion. In addition, those who constantly bleat about Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” sorting out the business wheat from the chaff insist that limited liability is necessary. This of course is also a violent interference with the market because it means that the individual shareholder never takes full responsibility for their investment. (It is worth noting that the British industrial revolution – the one and only bootstrapped industrial revolution – took place before limited liability became legally possible (Limited Companies Act 1862) and at a time when patent rights were insecure and in practice limited to the domestic British market.)

It is true that none of these things are actually part of what the concept of a “free market” is and that they are inimical to such a market, but the fact that almost all modern “free marketeers” have tacitly incorporated them into their vision of what a “free market” is demonstrates their intellectual confusion (or dishonesty if you prefer).

3. The “free market” as its proponents conceive it

Let us put aside for the moment the fact that “free markets” are state regulated markets and ask the question what is a “free market” as it is conceived by “free marketeers”? A jolly good question. Even if market distortions which appear acceptable to “free marketeers” such as patents and limited liability did not exist, that would leave many other things which prevent unfettered domestic competition. In an advanced modern economy these include:

Taxes

Non tax fiscal measures, for example, control of interest rates

The state of the currency

Exchange controls

Overall Government expenditure

State Subsidies

Industry and trading standards, official and otherwise

Public sector employment

Transport costs

Public ownership

Defence

Direct and indirect Government intervention

Copyright, trademarks and patents

The moral and social climate, for example, a tradition of wWelfare or the feeling of the

people, for example, the national feeling of Japanese Practical cultural barriers

such as the difficulty of a language

Dumping

Transport costs

Working hours

Trading laws

Labour laws

Wage rates

Bureaucratic differences

Company laws – particularly the attitude towards foreign ownership

Banking laws

Banking system

Social policy – welfare, health and so on

Physical infrastructure

Honesty of public servants

Foreign policy

National strategic considerations

Education – The amount spent, school leaving age, curriculum,

Limited Liability

Environmental laws

Some of these things such as subsidies, patents, quotas and limited liability could be obviously and legitimately ruled out of order by a “free marketeer” because they are deliberate state interferences with competition, but what of items such as the provision by the state of education or the physical infrastructure of a country? They are undeniably distortions of competition at some level, but they are not deliberate attempts by the state to distort competition. A purist “free marketeer” could just about say such things were no business of the state and still be intellectually coherent because it is possible to conceive of a society without such state provision. But however purist they might be, sooner or later the “free marketeer” will run into features which undeniably restrict competition but which must exist simply because they are an inescapable part of society. The most obvious is tax.

Any modern state needs a large tax revenue to sustain itself, the only questions to determine being how large should be the revenue and what  it should be spent on? Some things such as defence and policing are inescapable expenditures for any state, although even there the amounts to be spent are debatable and elastic. Items such as education and welfare are more subject to variable expenditure. Nonetheless, substantial amounts are as a matter of contingent fact invariably spent on such items by all advanced states. Such countries also engage to a lesser or greater degree in all the forms of regulation listed above.

In theory, and even more in practice, the notion of a “free market” seems to rest on little more than anti-monopoly laws, wages and prices set by the market (although in practice this does not happen purely through the market because of welfare provision, tax regimes etc) and a lack (or at least a minimum) of state interference in such areas as health and safety, employment law and company law.

The inclusion of these narrow criteria are merely a subjective choice made from a much larger menu of man-made distortions of the market. Consequently, there is no objective coherence to the concept of the “free market” as it is conceived by the “free marketeers”. It is an arbitrary ideology based on subjective choice.

4. How effective is anti-monopoly legislation?

Anti-monopoly laws operate within the constraints of the type of social and economic circumstances described above. That alone means they are severely limited in what they can do. They must, for example, tolerate state granted monopolies in the form of patents and copyright.

Anti-monopoly legislation generally only effectively attacks the problem from one end. A company can be prevented from growing its market share by taking over other companies but there is normally no meaningful restriction on a company growing its market share simply by expanding the existing company. Microsoft and the domination of Windows is a classic example.

Where companies try to expand by takeover, experience shows that those charged with applying the legislation allow very large parts of a market – 25% or more – to be held by a single company. The consequence is that a market which would seem to be an obvious candidate for competition, for example, food and domestic supplies retailing, can easily come to be dominated by three or four major players (as is the case in Britain).

There are also those products which are either natural monopolies because of the physical location of their infrastructure – railways, roads, the utilities such as gas – or which are inevitably going to have few entrants in the field because of reasons of cost, for example, aerospace, motor cars, ship building.

Finally, there are those rare markets which are dominated by one company simply because of the nature of their business. The classic example of this is Microsoft and their Windows operating system.

5. Microsoft and Windows – a natural monopoly

In South Park: The Movie, there is a glorious scene where, under martial law, Bill Gates is executed for falsely promising that Windows 98 would be “faster, easier to use and more reliable”. Many long-suffering Windows users doubtless wish that life had imitated art in that instance. Yet despite widespread dissatisfaction Windows remains the overwhelming dominant operating system.

At first glance it might seem that operating systems should be just the type of product which is open to fierce competition because software is a market which potentially has low entry costs. It is true that most areas of programming are competitive – within the constraint of the dominant operating system (OS) – but operating systems are the odd man out. The reason is simple. Once a single OS gained dominance, the chances of any other system effectively competing were very small. This is because the weight of programs available to run under the dominant OS soon became much greater than those which could be run under any other OS. Thus, it becomes inefficient to choose any other OS. That in turn means most of the software is written in a way to make in “friendly” to the dominant OS systems’ users. This further excludes OS competitors and the software to run under them because users, especially employers, do not want to spend the time training their employees on completely new systems, converting data  and so on.

The consequence is that Microsoft still has a stranglehold on the pc market. Moreover, if anyone wants to write any other software, they are constrained by the practical need for it to run under the Microsoft OS if they wish to reach the mass computer user market.

The near monopoly has lasted a long time. It has done this despite considerable attempts by both rivals and the US government to diminish their market position. Windows’ dominance looks secure for the foreseeable future.

 6. The historical trend towards contraction of competition

As remarked previously, the logical end of a free market is monopoly. The reason is obvious: competition tends to reduce the number of competitors through the natural process of success and failure and the takeover of one firm by another. In some trades this does not create an obvious serious anti-competitive difficulty because the initial capital investment is small and entry to the trade within the reach of many. But entry to a considerable and growing number of areas of manufacturing and service provision is too expensive for all but a few.

In a significant minority of trades starting a business from scratch is practically impossible for any one individual or even a group of private investors. The car industry is a first rate example, the number of companies now being small (and becoming smaller) compared with the number of even 40 years ago. Moreover, many of the car companies which do still exist do so only because of state subsidy and protection.

7. “Free trade”

“Free trade” is frequently treated as synonymous with international trade. In principle it does not have to be restricted to international dealings because the concept may be applied to any market, whether that be within a global, regional, national or even a local context. The United States for example displays considerable differences in local tax rates between not only states but within localities within a state, and, indeed, the ultimate aim of the “free trader” is to create a single world market. However, there are considerable differences in practice between domestic markets and international markets, not least because the criteria which are deemed to fall within the concept of “free trade” are not identical with those which are said to be a necessary part of the concept of a “free market”, for example, laws to prevent monopoly are redundant when it comes to international trade because one country will either supply or not supply goods and services to other countries and a country with a monopoly of an important good or service can as a matter of fact only be persuaded to supply the good or service against its will by extra-legal action, ultimately force or the threat of force. Consequently, it is convenient to treat “free trade” as being economic intercourse between nation states and that is what I shall do.

What does and does not constitute “free” international trading? In times gone by, people would have pointed to those honest workhorses of restriction: embargoes, quotas and tariffs and navigation laws and not much else. But in the modern world things are much more complicated as we discover almost daily during the seemingly interminable EU squabbling and the GATT rounds.

Some things are obviously incompatible with “free trade” such as embargoes or state subsidies, but what of different tax regimes, welfare provision or labour regulations? Why should they be excluded from the things which should not be tolerated in a “free trade” regime? After all, a low company tax regime could be regarded as a form of state subsidy to business and all welfare provision could be regarded as a subsidy to wages.

But even such items are straightforward compared to others. What of national sentiment which gives a preference to home produced goods regardless of whether they represent the best value when judged purely by price and quality? Should a country be forced to take the cheapest of  any particular equivalent good or service, regardless of the wishes of the  people of that country, on the grounds that not to purchase that which  gave “best value” constituted “unfair competition”? A reductio ad absurdum? Well, consider the fact that public bodies within the EU (which for these purposes includes any organisation drawing part of their income from public funds) must allow any company within the EU to bid for any work put out to contract, and if the lowest bid is not accepted, the public body risks being fined for a breach of the Single Market rules.

Even more problematic are things which are simply effects of economic activity. Take true dumping, not the state subsidized export regimes which often pass for such, but a simple economic practice to maximise profit.

True dumping works like this. Imagine that a company can make 2,000 units a week. It covers its costs for all 2,000 units if each week it produces and sells 1,000 units at œ1 each. The company finds it can sell a maximum of 1,500 units in the home market at œ1. If it reduces the unit price to 75 pence it could sell all 2,000 but that would only produce the same amount of revenue as selling 1,500 at £1 each.

Consequently, it sells 1,500 in the domestic market at £1 each and the other 500 at 50 pence each (carriage paid by buyer) in foreign markets. Total sales are £1,750 instead of  £1,500.

That is a very simple model of dumping but something akin to it happens regularly with differential pricing from country to country (the European car market is a prime example of this). No state subsidy has been given, no state intervention of any sort has occurred. Why should it not be considered as reasonable a practice as the toleration of different national wage rates? In fact, why should it not be considered more reasonable because wage rates are directly linked to such hidden subsidies as those of welfare and low company taxation? (in fairness, the economic activity of the dumper would also be linked to wage and tax subsidies, but the connection would be more remote.)

Most contentious perhaps is the question of immigration. Does “free trade” require the movement of people as freely as goods and services? This is generally accepted as self-evident by purist “free traders”. Yet there is no logic to the claim. Economic forms are made for men not men for economic forms. We know as a matter of practical experience it is possible to have the exchange of goods and services without the mass movement of people. If a society decides that the benefit gained from the free movement of people is outweighed by the social disruption caused by such migration, it is a perfectly rational decision. A people may decide that they will have or not have free exchange or movement just as they may decide to have this or that level of taxation or welfare provision. It makes no more sense to say a society which restricts immigration – which all advanced states in practice do – is not a “free trader” than to say they are not a “free trader” because their income tax rate is higher or lower than that of their competitors.

The treatment of human labour as merely a factor of production (along with land and capital) is also incompatible with the liberal democratic tenets of the equal worth of each person and the rights and obligations of citizens. Allowing mass immigration to reduce wages or the exporting of jobs to cheaper labour overseas is treating human beings as being of no more account than inanimate objects. It is inhuman.

So what does “free trade” actually mean? Does it require merely that countries may trade with one another without any formal barriers such as tariffs and quotas? Or should it take into account all those items such as national tax regimes, non-tax fiscal measures, wage rates (where these are set by the state), standards of practice and manufacture (official and otherwise), and the size of the public sector. All of these are controllable either entirely or to some degree by men. In other words, they could be removed or altered.

If a definition of “free trade” is accepted which includes these and other non-traditional elements of market distortion, the ultimate logic of the definition is that “free trade” as a global concept cannot exist until all peoples and countries are reduced or elevated to the same general economic condition.

Those who run the European Union would say that is precisely what is required, at least within the EU. But the experience of trying to create unified trading conditions at a supranational level in the most advanced of supranational political and economic entities, demonstrates just how difficult it is to create a supranational market in which there is a broad uniformity in the trading conditions within its constituent national parts. Despite nearly half a century of trying through treaty after treaty and the covering of the EU members with an avalanche of EU directives, there is no meaningful economic uniformity within the EU, either in the circumstances of private enterprise competition or in the function of the state. The introduction of the Euro has painfully revealed exactly how disparate the economies of even the richer EU states still are with Germany needing low interest rates to re-inflate and Italy requiring high rates to control public spending and the European Central Bank paralysed by their inability to square such an economic circle.

The Holy Grail of “free traders” is comparative advantage. This is a first rate example of a neat and emotionally satisfying (to a certain type of mind) intellectual idea which bears little relation to reality. The idea is that every country concentrates on making what it is best at and the overall global product rises because of increased efficiency. Even in theory this is rather dubious because it ignores every other aspect of society than a narrow view of economic relationships and assumes tacitly that a comparative advantage will last. David Landes in his The Wealth and Poverty of Nations (Little, Brown and Co 1998) cites the instance of the Englishman John Borrow, who in 1840 urged the states of the German Zollverin to concentrate on growing wheat, and sell it to buy British manufactures and comments: “This was a sublime example of economic good sense: but Germany would have been the poorer for it. Today’s comparative advantage…may not be tomorrow’s.”

The truth is that any definition of “free trade” is as subjective as that of a “free market”. It has no natural boundaries because the implications of both ultimately embrace the whole of human material endeavour and there are no true natural variables on which to base a definition – even those which might at first glance appear to be objectively and naturally set, such as wages and prices, are determined by matters other than the market, for example tax regimes and welfare provision.

8. Has “free trade” ever been practised?

Between 1860 and 1914 Britain operated the best approximation to “free-trade” the world has seen. In the period 1840-1870 not only did she by degrees open her markets to all regardless of whether other countries reciprocated, but the size of the British state was so tiny that the distortions of government expenditure and taxation were minuscule compared with the present day. But achieving the best approximation to “free trade” was not difficult to achieve because no other country of any size has ever seriously attempted it for any length of time.

For a quarter or a century or so, Britain got away with the ill-effects of being a reckless “free trader” whilst other major countries remained protectionist to varying degrees. She escaped the consequences for three prime reasons: Britain’s industrial dominance, long distance transport of bulk goods remained cumbersome and expensive and the fact that America and Europe were strangely slow to follow Britain’s example and industrialise.

That all changed in the 1870s. Bulk transport was becoming much easier and cheaper. Railways – ironically more often than not built with British capital and technical expertise – had begun to have a considerable influence on the continent and in America and were beginning to snake across Australia and South America. Perhaps most importantly the age of the practical steamship and refrigeration arrived. Manufactured goods, food and raw materials could now move around the world in volumes which dwarfed anything which had gone before. British farmers were especially badly hit when the Americas and Australasia flooded the British market with food and wool.

To these developments, and arguably in part as a consequence of them, there was a widespread retreat into a deep protectionism in the 1870s, most notably by the USA and Germany. Britain failed to respond to these developments by guarding her own markets.

The period of 1870-1914 saw the predictable results of Britain’s quixotic refusal to guard her markets when all about her were assiduously doing so: she lost her general industrial predominance, well nigh destroyed her farmers and failed to dominate vital new industries, such as the chemical, which at one time she had led – Britain produced the first synthetic dye (Perkin 1856) and the first synthetic plastic (Parkes 1855). Two of the most enthusiastic protectionists, the USA and Germany, became the first to exceed Britain’s GDP.

Bismarck summed up what had happened in a speech in 1882 when he said: “I believe the whole theory of free trade to be wrong…England abolished protection after she had benefited from it to the fullest extent. That country used to have the strongest protective tariffs until it became so powerful under their protection that it could step out of those barriers like a gigantic athlete and challenge the world. Free trade is the weapon of the strongest nation, and England has become the strongest nation in the world owing to her capital, her iron, her coal, and her harbours and owing to her favourable geographical position. Nevertheless, she protected herself against foreign  competition with her exorbitant protective tariffs until her industries  became so powerful.”

But even the “free-trade” Britain practised was far from complete. Government contracts were generally given to British companies. Ditto municipal contracts. Moreover, there was a strong sense of patriotism in the country which, as with the present day Japanese, mitigated the effects of free-trade. Nor, of course, was there a WTO, EU or any other body to question and interfere with the internal economic workings of Britain such as taxation, interest rates or working conditions.

British “free trade” was further complicated by the existence of the Empire and a widespread imperial sentiment which created the opportunity and the desire to trade with members of the Empire rather than the rest of the world. It does not do to over-egg the effects of this because British trade with the world outside the Empire, especially the USA, always remained strong, but it undoubtedly significantly distorted British trade.

9. “Free trade” today

If “free trade” was a gigantic gamble for an industrially, commercially and politically dominant Britain in 1850, it is vastly riskier for any country now. Transport even after the arrival of railways and the steamship was still expensive, slow and cumbersome compared with now. The electric telegraph was the height of sophistication. Most parts of the world could not engage in international trade on their own terms because they were colonies, under the practical control of foreign powers or unindustrialised.

Today physical transport is fast and cheap. In place of the telegraph, we have the internet. Many countries have industrialised. The age of formal empires is over.

But there is more than political and technological change which makes a difference between our own time and the last outbreak of “free trade” mania. The “free trade” being advocated now is doctrinaire to the point of idiocy, namely the god of comparative advantage (the idea that each nation should concentrate on those products which are most profitable and forget the rest) is to be applied to everything, even (in the EU) to all public contracts, including those for weaponry. Childishly doctrinaire as they were as they played with their untried intellectual toy, even the most extreme “free traders” in the 1830s and 1840s saw that some parts of the economy could not be reasonably opened to competition for strategic reasons, military supplies being the prime case.

Let us suppose that we had a perfect “free trade” world now, a world in which there were no tariffs or quotas or embargoes or “standards” to meet; that all the artificial restraints on trade were removed; that no government subsidized productive employment in any way and all that remained to differentiate countries were market decided labour rates, carriage costs and the cost of nonproductive public works such as justice and the army. What then?

The consequences would be extremely dangerous for the West. Farmers in the First World would be on their knees and mass production of virtually anything in general demand would quickly become impossible because whatever a company’s efficiency, it simply would not be able to compete with labour which was a tenth or less of the cost of its own native workforce. All such countries could do is try to make high-value goods,

Even if the redundant working populations of the First World could find alternative employment, which is dubious, their countries would be left utterly at the mercy of those who now produced their food and most of the manufactured goods they consumed.

10. Does “free trade” deliver? The lessons of economic history

Free traders base their case primarily on the increase in prosperity which they believe will only come through increased global trade. The general answer to that claim is that Man does not live by bread alone. Moreover, even if there is a general rise in the global product at present, it does not necessarily follow that the same or better result could not be achieved by other means. The experience of all industrialised countries to date is that industrialisation is best achieved – perhaps can only be achieved by protecting the national economy. Indeed, there is a powerful logic in the idea that developing nations today require protection more than the early industrialising states because the early industrialising nations had little competition.

But even if it could be shown indubitably that the global product is increased more by “free trade” than by protection, it does not follow that it is in a particular country’s interest to adopt free trade. Consider the position in a national market which operates “free trade” within that market, but protects its trade and industry from foreign competition. Companies go bust if they do not compete. But successful companies take their place and continue to provide employment at broadly similar rates of pay. The logic of global “free trade” is that countries which cannot compete will go bust and not be replaced by others in the domestic market. There will be no replacement jobs within the bankrupt country because the successful competitor is abroad.

The most lethal ammunition to discharge at “free traders” is the fact that no country in the history of the world has industrialised successfully without very strong protectionist measures being in place. That includes the first industrial nation, Britain, which spent a couple of cosy centuries behind the Navigation Acts, the first of which was passed in 1651, before becoming a free trader. Not only that, but Britain only adopted “free trade” principles after she had become heavily industrialised and did so at a time when the country was still the dominant industrial power in the world by a long chalk and her exports were more or less guaranteed to sell in foreign markets.

Before Britain dropped her old colonial protectionist system in the mid 19th Century, she had industrialised in the modern sense from scratch and expanded her GDP massively. Perhaps most impressively she had managed to continue to largely feed herself without the price of corn going sky high, despite the fact that the UK population almost doubled between 1801 (the first Census) and the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846.

As described above, Britain’s experience during her most committed “free trading” period was one of declining market share and commercial and industrial dominance while rigid protectionists such as Germany and the USA experienced massive growth. Of course, Britain could not hope to remain so dominant but her decline was remarkably rapid. In 1870 Britain was the richest country by GDP in the world: by 1914 both Germany and the USA had larger GDPs. Moreover, by religiously adopting open markets, for capital as well as goods and services, Britain seriously distorted her economy. Vast capital exports resulted in underinvestment in Britain and foreigners manufacturers and traders took full advantage of Britain’s open doors. The result was that by the Great War in 1914 her farmers were on their knees and modern industries such as the chemical and pharmaceutical were sadly undeveloped because of foreign competition (this distortion of the economy was soon to be a great national embarrassment during wartime when many industries were found to be inadequate to replace imported goods).

Here is a German voice from 1913: “By its free trade policy England has been more useful to us than its numerous political machinations have been harmful to us. Where would our sugar industry – one of the first items to help us in our economical rise – have been today, or our textile and iron industries, had it not been for the free markets of England? Nowhere: we should have been entirely without our new German capital, our financial resources. On the back of free trade England we grasped at and secured our economical world-power….Industrial and political supremacy go together. Warships are machines, and the nation which succeeds in attracting the centre of capital is the nation that can afford to build most. The present rulers of England represent the fourth generation of dictators to the world. It will not be easy for them to give up the role of ‘primus inter pares'”. (Prof von Schulze-Gaevernitz quoted – p347 -in The fall of protection 1840-50 by Bernard Holland)

Britain limped on with “free trade” after the Great War until 1931 when the secular religion was abjured, at least temporarily, during the Great Depression. Although unemployment remained high by historical British standards until WW2, the British economy behind protectionist barriers recovered quickly compared with most of the rest of the world. Most interestingly, the newer high-tec industries such as the motor, chemical and electrical recovered and grew fastest following their protection.

From 1945 to the mid eighties of the last century at least, Britain continued in an essentially protectionist system, as did the rest of the world. The world economy grew strongly during the period despite the protection. Even within the EU the “free market” mania did not really get under way until the Single European Act of 1985.

It is true that since protectionist barriers have come down over the past 20 years economic growth has been strong in the First World, but then it has been strong behind protectionist barriers and, indeed, with state direction of the domestic market. Germany under Hitler in the 1930s recovered amazingly quickly, despite the fact that the Nazis pursued an economic course which was probably as close to autarky as it is possible for a major modern state to bear. Imports and exports were regulated according to what was perceived to be necessary to make Germany strong through self-sufficiency. What Hitler did not do was attempt to run industry directly. Instead, the Nazis allowed private enterprise to run commerce and industry whilst directing what was produced and supplied.

All that tells us three things: that “free trade” is not necessary for rapid economic growth, that state regulation of the domestic market and international trade is not a recipe for disaster and that being a “free trader” when the rest of the world is not reciprocating is a mug’s game.

11. Is society materially enriched by “free markets” and “free trade?

This is an impossible question to answer categorically because there is no way knowing what would have happened if protectionism had remained full blooded throughout the last century and a half. One can compare growth rates under stronger or looser protection regimes, but they really say little because the other determining factors such as public expenditure have varied so greatly. These variables also blur judgement about the comparative merits of controlled and “free” domestic markets.

The most certain thing one can say from the economic experience of the developed world is that governments running commercial industries such as coal and steel directly is generally a mistake. (Governments are the natural suppliers of universal services such as healthcare only because private provision of such things is never adequate.)

What is certain is the fact that the material effects of “free trade” are far from uniform. It is no consolation to those who suffer along the way that others may benefit from their disadvantage. The next generation or the generation after that may be richer but why should their benefit be brought at the cost of disadvantaging a prior generation? Certainly no politician or political party standing at an election would dare to do so on a platform of “we shall make many of you poorer to make future generations richer.” Those living at any point in time have their own moral context and needs.

The constant economic turmoil caused by “free trade” and its inevitable concomitant, the supranational corporation, undeniably leads to  circumstances which greatly disadvantage large swathes of the population in the First World through the removal of First World jobs to the rest of the world. At worst, these people become the perpetual victims of structural unemployment (try getting a job in an area where the main employer closes and you have no scarce or easily transferable skills or you are middle-aged or, indeed, try opening a new business or becoming self-employed in a depressed economy): at best they are driven into ill-paid and uncertain employment.

 12. What is meant by material enrichment? Britain as a case study

The assumption is that the material conditions for most have improved considerably over the past two hundred years. Any economics textbook will plot economic improvement in terms of rising real wages. But those supposedly rising real wages are based on measures which are often questionable, incomplete or derived from very narrow data such as corn prices. Even modern measures such as the Retail Price Index (RPI) are not static, their content and weighting being regularly revised. Nor do such measures fully represent the true costs of necessities, the most notable distortion in Britain being the failure of the Retail Price Index (and its successor index the Consumer Price Index) to reflect housing costs fully. Any comparison between different times based on such measures needs to be treated with caution.

Of course no one in their right sense would question whether there has been massive material advance in the past two centuries. A more  interesting question in our context is whether most people are materially better off now than they were in 1960s, by which time a fully fledged welfare state was bedded in, housing, both owned and rented, was reasonably priced, social housing was being built in massive quantities, university education was not merely free but students subsidized with grants, unemployment was tiny and inflation low.

Today the welfare state is constantly under attack by the British political elite and in some areas such as NHS dentistry already seriously inadequate, while the state pension is much reduced as a fraction of the average wage following two decades of increases linked to the cost-of-living pegging rather than increases linked to the average national wage.

Housing of all sorts in most parts of the country is presently absurdly costly and social housing is greatly reduced through Right-To-Buy and minimal new building since the 1980s.

The cost of university education is rocketing and grants are a distant memory.

Unemployment remains high today (2005) even by the official figures –  approximately 950,000 by the claimant count and around 1.5 million by  the most widely used international measure – figures which most  probably severely understate the real unemployment level because it ignores the considerable disguised unemployment within the 2 to 3  million people currently on long term sick benefit payments (the 1980  figure for such people was 600,000). The increase in those staying on at school after the age of 16 and going on to university has also reduced the present figures by taking hundreds of thousands out of the jobs  market for years. From 1945 to the late seventies unemployment never rose above a million on the official claimant count and for most of the time was considerably lower even with little disguised unemployment and far fewer people staying in education after the school-leaving age (which was only 15 until the mid sixties).

There are other fundamental social changes which bear upon the material state of the nation. Many more people today have to travel long distances to work than they did forty or fifty years ago. That is costly both in terms of fares and time. More generally, it is increasingly difficult for someone on the average wage to support a family on that wage. That often means both parents have to work not from choice but necessity.

Taxation bears much more heavily on the poorer part of the population now than it did in the past. Direct taxation – income tax, national insurance, inheritance duty – applies to many more people now than it did in 1960, primarily because a failure to maintain personal allowances and tax bands at a reasonable level. Direct taxation is also broader in scope, for example VAT compared to purchase tax. Such taxation takes proportionately more of the income of the poor than the rich.

It is a moot point whether overall people are generally materially better off than they in 1960. They may own more trinkets such as TVs and computers and some imported goods such as clothes may be at least much cheaper, but those are small advantages to set against the great increase in housing costs and commuting fares and the diminishment in social provision. Doubtless a section of society has benefited, but it would be a brave man who wanted to argue that the condition of the vast  majority has improved, especially the poorest third of the population.

Many will read this with astonishment, saying but we have so much more today, dazzled as they are by the many new products. It is important not to confuse technological advance with “free markets” and “free trade” or general material wellbeing. People are undoubtedly better off in 2005 in terms of being able to purchase such things as cars or electronic goods then they were in 1960. But people in 1975 were also better off in those respects than those who had lived fifteen years before. That improvement was long before “free markets” and “free trade” had become the elite ideology. It is worth adding that new products often result in additional expenditure regardless of whether the individual really wants the product – any product which becomes widely used is difficult to resist. Technological innovations are particularly prone to induce reluctant purchases.

13. How the market fails to provide what the customer wants

There is no better modern example of the market failing to provide what the customer both needs and wants than the computer industry. If it was driven by the customer, the computer industry would produce hardware and software which was easy to install, had continuity of use, was simple to use and was supported by adequate help lines and manuals. The industry signally fails to do any of these things.

Hardware and software are of course purchased in ever greater volume and computer services, including maintenance, continue to swell. But that is not an indication of customer satisfaction. Rather, it is simply a reflection of how computers have become an inescapable part of our lives, not only as obvious computers but also in the guise of so many of the other machines we use – everything from phones to intelligent clothes. Business and public administration have become so dependent on their use that they cannot do without them. That being so, whatever is on offer, however unsatisfactory, is bought out of sheer necessity. The computer companies have the modern world over a barrel.

It might be objected that although most people cannot completely escape computers at their work, they do not have to bring them into their private lives. Yet increasing numbers buy computers for private use.

Why do they do that if the machines are so unreliable and demanding? Simple: once a significant minority have private computers and business uses them very widely, it becomes very difficult for the rest to resist,  not least because businesses and government increasingly require those dealing with them to do so by computer. But there are other pressures as well.

We have long passed the point where a handwritten document is likely to be read by most people in business unless it is an order or payment. Now, except between social contacts, everything must be word-processed to be acceptable. A word processor or access to one has become a sine qua non for anyone who wishes to be taken seriously. Even amongst private individuals a letter is increasingly seen as unusual or even quaint.

With emails, we have not come to the stage that telephone ownership reached a quarter of a century ago when not to have a phone became considered eccentric, but we are rapidly moving towards it.

Employers increasingly wish to contact employees by email wherever they are and this means the choice is often between having a computer and email at home or not having a job.

Those with school age children, whatever they think of computers, find it next to impossible to deny their children not only a computer but access to the internet, both because the children want it to match their peers and because they have been brainwashed into believing that a computer is essential.

In short, people are increasingly being driven to become computer owners and users not because they actively want to, but because they feel isolated and excluded if they remain computerless. Again, as with the analogy between telephones and emails, within the foreseeable future, someone without a computer is in danger of becoming in the eyes of the majority as much as an oddity as someone without a TV is now considered.

14. Relative poverty, wealth and power

Even if most people or even all people were in absolute terms better off as a consequence “free trade”, that does not mean that their general situation has improved in power terms.

Wealth is not merely an advantage for what it can directly buy but also for the power it brings. The poor are doubly disadvantaged by their poverty by their restricted ability to purchase what they want and their subordination to those who can purchase anything they desire. Consequently, the ordinary man or woman may well be happier and freer in a society which is materially poorer overall but which is less oppressive through the absence of great differences in wealth. Charles Darwin in the Voyage of the Beagle describes a port in South America which suffered an earthquake while the Beagle was there in harbour. The town attached to the port was virtually destroyed and its inhabitants were reduced at least temporarily to the same material level. Darwin noted the happiness, almost gaiety, of the population after this happened.

The example of Britain is instructive when it comes to relative wealth. Until the 1970s inequalities in wealth were narrowing. Despite all the puffing of the “trickle down” of wealth which supposedly results from Thatcherite “free market” practices, wealth distribution has not changed dramatically over the past quarter century of “free market” policies by successive British governments.

A Royal Commission (1976-79) on the distribution of income and wealth found that in 1976 the top 1 per cent of the population owned 25% of all personal wealth, the top ten percent raked in 60% and the bottom eighty per cent had a measly 23% (Penguin Dictionary of Sociology p72). The Inland Revenue figures for wealth distribution in 2002 are show the top 1 per cent own 23% of national wealth and the bottom fifty per cent of the population have a staggeringly small 6% (Office of National Statistics (ONS) website – published 2004). Those figures, eye-opening as they are, conceal the fact that wealth inequality in 2002 would be much greater than 1976 were it not for the increase in home ownership and the rise in house prices.

Another ONS report (2005) entitled “The long shadow of childhood” (TLSOC) based on research by the London School of Economics concludes that there has been remarkably little change in social mobility in Britain over the past 30 years. The study was based on census records between 1971 and 2001.

TLSOC also demonstrated how the social and economic status of children is very much tied to that of the parents. For example, more than two thirds of those with parents in professional or managerial jobs managed to take a degree: of those with semi-skilled/unskilled parents, 14 per cent had a degree.

15. Man does not live by bread alone

Even if the “free traders'” claims of an overall increase in the wealth of a society were true, there would still be strong arguments against the policy because a society is more than its crude economic relationships.

Human beings do not like too much uncertainty. A certain amount of stress is good for them, but only so much. Like masochists and physical pain, human beings are comfortable with stress only in so far as they feel it is within their control. Manifestly, for many people the uncertainty they experience is utterly outside their control. This widespread insecurity leads not merely to individual suffering but damages the social fabric by generally diminishing confidence in the future and the ability to cope in the here and now.

A 2005 study (Molly Watson Western Mail 31 9 2005) by a Cardiff University Department of Psychology team led by Prof Aylward Mansel suggests that the general level of happiness in the Depression was greater than it is now (the team analysed data from surveys of assessing happiness and contentment from the past 70 years.) This conclusion might seem absurd to most people living today who, if they have any conception of the Depression, it is one of a dire time packed with the most horrendous stress. Yet the findings of the report have a certain plausibility because in the 1930s there was undoubtedly a greater sense of social solidarity, especially amongst the working class, than there is now and civil society was far stronger then – the working class not only lived in close-knit communities which offered support to those who fell on hard times, but they were woven into supportive institutions such as the co-operative movement and unions. They were anything but socially isolated whereas today people are often isolated. Social involvement, the Cardiff University study found, was the single most important cause of happiness or unhappiness.

One must be cautious with such studies because however scrupulous the researchers a degree of subjectivity is inevitable. Nonetheless the equation of isolation with unhappiness will, I think, strike a strong chord with most.

There is also the question of a people’s self-confidence. If a nation’s visible and everyday manufactures are predominantly foreign, it tends to produce a sense of dependence in the individual. A man looks around and can find next to nothing he can identify as produced either in his own country or made by companies owned by his countrymen. Not unnaturally he begins to lose confidence in the ability of his own country to stand alone. Peoples throughout history have allowed themselves to be conquered simply because they believed themselves to be generally inferior to those who confronted them and slaves have been routinely controlled by owners who deliberately attempted to reinforce their sense of inferiority.

16. Geopolitics

Free trade is postulated on an absurdity, namely that the world will no longer see wars which will significantly disrupt trade, or at least the trade of the First World. It is a fool’s paradise.

Those with memories greater than that of a goldfish may recall the help and support Britain received from her supposed EU “partners” in the Falklands. Remember how France supplied military equipment in the form of missiles to the Argentine during that war. Imagine what would have happened if Britain at the time had relied largely on equipment which was either wholly or partly produced abroad. Suppose, for example, her main fighter aircraft had been produced by an EU consortium (as it soon will be), what guarantee could Britain have had of fresh supplies of spare parts and weapons during the Falklands war?

The dependence on foreign suppliers affects even the greatest states. The New York Times (29 Sept 2005 – “More US weapons have foreign roots”) documents the reliance of the US military on foreign suppliers. This is still small as a percentage of the whole defence budget but it is growing and already encompasses important areas such as bio-chemical warfare protective suits.

17. The democratic deficit

“Free trade” emasculates democracy. It does this by confining politics within narrow limits. The present “free trade” agreements mean that no political party can easily stand on a platform of extending state intervention, whether by nationalisation, trade restrictions such as embargoes or the subsidy of its own industries. A party which wished to do any of these things could of course propose to withdraw from the treaties, but that would be in practice a very difficult course to follow, especially where the treaty obligations go beyond mere trade such as those involved in membership of the European Union.

Loss of democratic control is obviously to the disadvantage of the masses. However, it also has implications for competition. The prevention of the formation of monopolies and cartels can be done at the national level, but it is impossible when companies become supranational. You offend against America’s anti-trust laws? No problem, you remove your manufacturing abroad to countries which are happy to have you (or at least their clients are) regardless of what arrangements you may have made with competitors or the any monopoly position.

18. Does “free trade” increase competition and choice in the long run?

In the industrialised world at least, the experience of less restricted trade since 1945 is that competition has reduced not merely in the capital intensive industries and occupations but in those which are not obvious. The numbers of farmers has greatly contracted, but so have the number of storekeepers as chain stores and supermarkets have overwhelmed the individual proprietor. In fact, it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to find a mature field of economic activity, that is ,  one which has not sprung up since 1945, which has not displayed reduced competition within the post-war period.

Some of this reduction in competition is simply due to the working of the domestic market towards monopoly, for example, the growth of chain stores, but much of it is directly related to the removal of protection for First World economies.

It is true that large parts of the world have industrialised and increased the number of international competitors, but the overall number of businesses in the developed world has been reduced. multinationals control much of the economic activity of the Third World and, in some industries, dominate the national markets of the First World.

The car industry is a wonderful example of the squeezing of competition. All over the world car companies are being taken over by the giants and many car companies which do exist rely on state aid and favours. The number of companies now being small (and becoming smaller) compared with the number even 40 years ago. Moreover, many of the car companies which do still exist do so only because of state subsidy and protection.

Other traditionally important industries where competition is greatly reduced are aerospace, aviation, shipbuilding, oil, chemicals, steel and farming.

19. The reality of our economic circumstances

What we have does not even fall within the arbitrary and narrow definitions of “free markets” and “free trade” which most of their adherents espouse. States still protect their economies with state subsidies, favourable tax regimes, quotas and tariffs. Nonetheless, protectionist barriers have been reduced sufficiently to severely damage first world industries through products from the developing world with their absence of labour laws and wages many times less than those of developed economies.

First World economies have also exported vast numbers of jobs to the developing world. These range from manufacturing to skilled white collar work such many IT functions. The old middle-class belief that they were immune from the effects of globalisation has received a rude buffeting.

At the same time as jobs and industries have been exported, the industrialised world has increasingly allowed the purchase of native companies by foreigners. Perhaps the most dramatic example of this has been the complete transfer of London merchant banks to foreign ownership.

The fourth strand in the modern “free trade” web is immigration. Since 1945, with the exception of Japan, the First World has allowed through a mixture of design and neglect of border controls, vast numbers of immigrants into their territories, most of whom have been unskilled or low-skilled.

The primary consequences of the slowly evolving post war international economic regime have been two. The first has been the gradual growth of dependence on the imports of vital goods and services by the developed world and a loss of governmental control of companies within their borders, not least because any large multi-national can hold the threat of upping sticks to another country if a government does not play ball.

The second consequence has been the degradation of the economic circumstances of those whose jobs were most at threat from the internationalisation of trade. Those affected are mainly the poorer and less qualified workers and their dependents. They have found their opportunities for work much reduced and the pay and conditions for the suitable work which remains eroded by extra competition from both native workers chasing fewer jobs and immigrants competing for the same jobs.

Those whose jobs opportunities have been degraded have suffered a form of theft. Had mass immigration and the export of jobs been prevented, the wages for the jobs taken by immigrants would have been higher than they are when subjected to the additional competition of immigrant labour and the exported jobs would not have been exported, which in itself would have tightened the labour market. In societies of rising aspiration, this could result in jobs considered menial being better rewarded than those which enjoy high status under “free trade” circumstances. It might be necessary to pay a sewage worker as much as a doctor. Doubtless many would throw their hands up at this. But there is no logic to such a response, because in a society with a large private enterprise component a wage is simply a response to the value the market puts on a job. Unskilled workers may not earn as much as the average doctor or lawyer at present, but skilled tradesmen such as plumbers and builders often do.

20. Why elites are so keen on “free markets” and “free trade”

“I just think that a lot of modern corporate capitalists — the managerial class basically — has no loyalty to any country anymore, or any particular values other than the bottom line.” (Pat Buchanan quoted by Daniel Brandt in his article “Class Warfare” in issue 13 of Namebase Newsline -http//www.namebase.org/news13.html).

Buchanan is grasping a demon which he only dimly apprehends. What is happening is vastly more significant. We are presently witnessing the creation of an international class of plutocrats who care for nothing but their own class. They have the potential to form a true international aristocracy. If that happens, the imperfect democratic control the masses have been able to exert over their elites in the past century will end. The prime tool for the creation of such an international aristocracy is “free trade”.

There are parts of Western elites which are more or less reluctant to embrace “free markets” and “free trade”, but the general economic trend is clear: the internationalist, globalist creed is the dominant philosophy when it comes to trade and increasingly the idea of “free markets” in the domestic sphere is being accepted in practice if not in overt political policy.

Why have these elites moved from their previous socially oriented nationalism to internationalism? The answer to this question reveals the nature both of elites generally and the particular philosophy they currently support.

In most circumstances throughout history the wishes of the mass of a population have been of little or no account in any formal sense. The masses made their presence felt through rioting and social disturbance or as pawns in the service of elite members who wished to rebel. An elite took note only when they were frightened enough – the creation of a form of national public assistance by the Poor Law of 1601 is a classic example of such behaviour.

Eventually, representative government evolved to the point where the masses began to have a direct say in the political process through the vote. The elite as a group did not welcome this but felt it could not be resisted. It was not democracy to be sure but elective oligarchy, which was buttressed by elite constructed devices to exclude new entrants into the political process such as first past the post voting, election deposits and a very strong party system. Nonetheless, once the franchise was broadened the masses were able to exercise a large degree of democratic control because politics was still national and a political party had to respond to the electors’ wishes. The elite resented this control over their behaviour as all elites do and looked around for a way to diminish democratic influence. They found the means to do it through internationalism.

In a sovereign country elected politicians cannot readily say this or that cannot be done if it is practical to do whatever it is. That is a considerable block on elite misbehaviour. So elites decided that the way round this unfortunate fact was to commit to treaties which would remove the opportunity for the electorate to exercise control. The most notable example is the Treaty of Rome and the subsequent treaties which have tied Britain into the EU.

Vast swathes of policy are no longer within the control of the British Parliament because of these treaties. Add in the treaties tying Britain to the UN and the WTO and the commitment of every mainstream British party to them, and democratic control has essentially gone.

But internationalism is not simply a bureaucratic elite device to weaken democratic control, it is a sociological event in itself. An elite thinks of itself as a separate group, a group which may in some circumstances extend beyond national boundaries and jurisdictions. The medieval aristocracies of Western Europe thought themselves part of a chivalric whole. When Charles I of Egland was executed in 1649 the monarchs of Europe were horrified because they thought it would set an example for other royal killings.

The ruling elites in the First World today have a class interest which binds them more closely to one another than to the people they rule. Indeed, there is arguably a greater sense of international elite solidarity than ever before. This is because modern communications allow people, goods and ideas to move with an unmatched ease. Because of this the international class can constantly revitalise and extend their group solidarity.

The advantage to the elites of this culturally based international solidarity underwritten by many personal elite relationships across national boundaries, is that it allows them to weaken even further their dependence upon their immediate (native) populations, because not only does a particular national elite have a ready made excuse for not doing something – our treaty obligations will not permit it – but the personal relationships and the growing sense of class solidarity increases the confidence and hence the willingness of the various national elites to act ever more in the international elite class interest.

Indeed, the more they are together and the more they act together, the more natural it will seem.

It is important to understand that elites are not engaged as a group in a conscious conspiracy against the masses. What happens is that the psychological and sociological forces which press upon us all lead the elite to adopt policies which always lead to their retention of power. It is not difficult to see how this happens.

All human beings have a powerful ability to write a narrative in their heads which will persuade them that they act not from self-serving or disreputable reasons but honourable and socially useful ones. The consequence of this is that while individual members of an elite will consciously comprehend the likely effect of their ideology, the majority will simply accept their ideology at face value. This helps to bolster and stabilise the elite’s position because no elite ideology ever overtly states that the masses will be disadvantaged if the ideology is followed, and in the case of formal democracies, the ideology positively claims to materially better society as a whole. This will emotionally reassure most elite members, who will bolster their acceptance of the ideology through inter-elite conversations – if most or all those in a group are positive about something, that is most powerful social reinforcer.

21. A sane alternative to globalism

Economic history suggests that the most effective general strategy to promote economic development in a country is to allow competition within the domestic market (where it does not create serious social discord) whilst regulating international trade through protectionist measures sufficient to maintain the general capacity of a country to point where it can maintain itself in an emergency such as war or blockade and be sovereign in most circumstances.This would require the judicious use of embargoes, tariffs and quotas to ensure that all the vital industries remain as a presence in Britain.

A few industries should be in principle wholly supplied from the British market. These are defence equipment and the various energy sources. The reasons for defence equipment provision being domestic are simple: any foreign supplier can cease to supply goods for political reasons or simply be unable to produce the goods when wanted at all or in sufficient quantities.

Energy supplies should be domestic because if they fail the whole of society is brought to a halt. Self-sufficiency in energy in any advanced country could be achieved in the medium term by nuclear power supplemented perhaps by new sources of energy such as wave and current power and bio-fuels.

A country should also build up a stockpile of essential materials such as metals and the minerals used in the chemical industry. Five years national supply should be a minimum.

A country should be able to feed its population from its own production at a pinch. In Britain this is possible with modern crop yields and animal husbandry. Crop yields are considerably greater than they were even in WW2 and the opportunities for increasing the volume of animal products have multiplied greatly over the past 60 years, for example, in the massive development of poultry farming since 1945.

75% of the market in every other vital industry should be reserved for the domestic market. What is a “vital industry”? Try these for starters: metal (especially steel), chemical, biotech, computers, robotics, motor vehicles, shipping, aerospace, clothing, building, machine tools.

I would also reserve to domestic production at least 25% of the market for goods that are useful but not vital to provide a base for an expanded home production in times of emergency. Trade in wholeheartedly nonessential goods – Christmas trees, pogo sticks and suchlike – could be “free”.

I am not arguing for autarky. What I am advocating are trading circumstances which allow a nation to defend its national interests, particularly in time of war or international crisis. The measures I propose would produce self-sufficiency in food where necessary, the maintenance of the ability to manufacture a complete range industrial goods and most importantly the maintenance of an arms industry which can produce a full range of weapons necessary for the defence of the country.

Such a system would provide the security the state requires and permit very substantial international trade even in essential goods.

Obviously such a regime could not be followed in its entirety by most states. However, all could exist within those parts of it suited to their circumstances, for example, Britain could manage the entire regime, many third world countries could be self-sufficient in food.

22. “Free markets” and “free trade” as a religion

Free marketeers fancy themselves to be rational, calculating beasts. In reality, their adoration of the market is essentially religious. They believe that it will solve all economic ills, if not immediately, then in the medium to long term. Armed with this supposed objective truth, they proselytize about the moral evils and inefficiencies of public service and the wondrous efficiency and ethical outcomes of private enterprise regardless of the practical effects of their policies or the frequent misbehaviour of those in command of large private companies. Their approach is essentially that of the religious believer.

Like the majority of religious believers, “free marketeers and traders” are none too certain of the theology of their religion. (I am always struck by how many of them lack a grasp of even basic economic theory and are almost invariably wholly ignorant of economic history). They recite their economic catechism sublime in the concrete of their ignorance.

The religion has its roots in the first half of the 18th century when there were occasional attempts to suggest tariff reform, but the idea only became a serious political policy in the 1780s with the advent of Pitt the Younger as Prime Minister in 1784 who long toyed with “economical reform”.

The 18th century also provided the religion with its holy book, The Wealth of Nations by the Scottish philosopher and economist Adam Smith. This strongly argued for “free markets” and “free trade”, but Smith also recognised the demands of national security, the need for government to engage in social provision such as road building and maintenance which would not otherwise be done and, must importantly, the nature of a society and its economy. Here is Smith on the Navigation Acts: “…the Act of Navigation by diminishing the number of buyers; and we are thus likely not only to buy foreign goods dearer, but to sell our own cheaper, than if there were a more perfect freedom of trade. As defence, however, is of much more importance than opulence, the Act of Navigation is, perhaps, the wisestof all the commercial regulations of England.” (Wealth of Nations Bk IV. ch ii)

But Smith and his book suffered the fate of all those who found religions, secular or otherwise. As the decades passed Smith’s cautious approach was redrawn in the minds of his disciples to become a surgically “clean” mechanical ideology in which all that mattered was the pursuit of profit and the growth of trade and industry through the application of the “holy edicts” of open markets and comparative dvantage. The disciples, like other religious believers, avidly quoted the passages from their holy book which suited their purposes and ignored those which did not. They also found a further holy text in homas Malthus’ Essay on Population of 1802, whose predictions, although unproven by events, could be used to demonstrate that economic expansion was vital if widespread starvation was not to occur.

The clinical, soulless and inhuman nature of the laissez faire idea as it evolved is exemplified by the English economist David Ricardo. Here is a flavour of his mindset: “Under a system of perfectly free commerce each country naturally devotes its capital and labour to such employments as are most beneficial to both. The pursuit of individual advantage is admirably connected with the universal good of the whole. By stimulating industry, and by using most efficaciously the peculiar powers bestowed by nature, it distributes labour most economically, while increasing the general mass of the production it diffuses general benefits, and binds together by one common tie of interest and intercourse the universal society of nations”. (David Ricardo in The fall of protection p 174).

The Napoleonic wars largely foiled Pitt’s wish for broad reform and placed “free trade” in suspended animation as a serious political idea until the 1820s, when cautious attempts at tariff reform again were made. But underneath the political elite was a radical class who were very much enamoured of wholesale economical reform. With the Great Reform Act of 1832 they were given their opportunity to become part of the political elite. They took it with both hands, their most notable and extreme proponents being John Bright and Richard Cobden backed by the intellectual power of David Ricardo – all three became MPs.

Within a dozen years of the first election under the Great Reform Act’s passing, Parliament had been captured by the disciples of Adam Smith and the pass on protection had been sold by of all people a Tory prime minister, Sir Robert Peel, an action which kept the Tories from power for most of the next 40 years.

Such was their religious credulity that the “free traders” advocated not merely opening up Britain’s markets, both at home and in the colonies, to nations who would allow Britain equivalent access to their markets, they advocated opening up Britain’s markets regardless of how other nations acted. The consequence was, as we have seen, disastrous for Britain.

Disraeli in a speech on 1st February 1849 cruelly dissected this insanity:” There are some who say that foreigners will not give us their production for nothing, and that therefore we have no occasion to concern ourselves as to the means and modes of repayment. There is no doubt that foreigners will not give us their goods without exchange for them; but the question is what are the terms of exchange most beneficial for us to adopt. You may glut markets, but the only effect of your attempt to struggle against the hostile tariffs by opening your ports is that you exchange more of your own labour each year for a less quantity of foreign labour, that you render British labour less efficient, that you degrade British labour, diminish profits, and, therefor, must lower wages; while philosophical enquirers have shown that you will finally effect a change in the distribution of the precious metals that must be pernicious and may be fatal to this country. It is for these reasons that all practical men are impressed with a conviction that you should adopt reciprocity as the principle of your tariff – not merely from practical experience, but as an abstract truth. This was the principle of the commercial negations at Utrecht – which were followed by Mr Pitt in his commercial negotiations at Paris – and which were wisely adopted and applied by the Cabinet of Lord Liverpool, but which were deserted flagrantly and unwisely in 1846″. (The fall of Protection pp 337/8″).

Ironically, the “free traders” make the same general errors as Marxists. They believe that everything stems from economics. For the neo-liberal the market has the same pseudo-mystical significance that the dialectic has for the Mar ist. Just as the Marxist sees the dialectic working inexorably through history to an eventual state of communism (or a reversion to barbarism to be exact), so the neo-liberal believes that the market will solve any economic problem and most social ills. Neither ideology works because it ignores the realityof human nature and its sociological realisation.

The one track economic mentality of the early “free traders” is well represented by the father of J S Mill, James Mill:”The benefit which is derived from exchanging one commodity for another arises from the ncommodity received rather than the from the commodity given. When one country exchanges, or in other words, traffics with another, the whole of its advantage consists of the in the commodities imported. It benefits by the importation and by nothing else. A protecting duty which, if it acts at all, limits imports, must limit exports likewise, checking and restraining national industry, thus diminishing national wealth.” (The fall of protection p 174). And to Hell with any social or strategic consideration or changing economic circumstances.

After the Great War and the fall of “free trade” as public policy in 1931, the religion went underground for nearly fifty years. When it re-emerged as a political idea in the 1970s the politicians who fell under its spell were every bit as unquestioning and credulous as those of the 1840s. Tony Blair’ statement on Globalisation, ie, free trade, at the 2005 Labour Party Conference shows that it is alive and kicking today.

Scorning any attempt to discuss Globalisation, Blair said of those who wished to oppose it “You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer”. (Daily Telegraph 1 10 2005.)

None of this would matter very much now if those who believe in “free markets” and “free trade” were without political power. Unfortunately, theirs is the elite ideology of the moment and the past 25 years. In Britain, the Tories may be more fanatical in their devotion to the market as panacea, but Blairite Labour have caught more than a mild dose of the disease. A good example of this is their response to house price hyperinflation where they desperately and futilely attempt remedies within the constraints of what they perceive to be “free market” disciplines rather than opting for the obvious state generated remedies such as restricting immigration, building a great deal of social housing and forcing developers to release land for building.

Both the traditional Left and Right have been duped by globalisation. The Left initially welcomed globalisation as a dissolver of national sovereignty, but they are discovering by the day just how restrictive international treaties and membership of supra national groups can be. As things stand, through our membership of the EU and the World Trade Organisation treaties, no British government could introduce new socialist measures because they cannot nationalise companies, protect their own commerce and industry or even ensure that taxpayers’ money is spent in Britain with British firms. A British government can have any economic system they like provided it is largely free trade, free enterprise.

The Right are suffering the same sickness with different symptoms. They find that they are no longer masters in their own house and cannot meaningfully appeal to traditional national interests because treaties make that impossible.

But there is a significant difference between the position of the two sides. The traditional Right have simply been usurped by neo-Liberals in blue clothes: the traditional Left have been betrayed by a confusion in their ideology which has allowed their main political vehicles to be surreptitiously by the likes of Blair.

The left have historically objected to “free-trade” on the grounds that it destroys jobs and reduces wages. But what they (and especially the British Left) have rarely if ever done is walk upon the other two necessary planks in the anti-“free trade” platform: the maintenance of (1) national sovereignty and (2) a sense of national cohesion. The consequence is that the Left has been and are still struggling with two competing and mutually exclusive ends: internationalism and the material improvement of the mass of the people.

23. An elite ideology

The best way of judging any political ideology is to ask cui bono? (who benefits?) The obvious answer in the case of “free markets” and “free trade” are those who believe (with good reason) that they nor their dependants will never be amongst those who will suffer the ill-effects of free trade. These people are and will continue to be overwhelmingly drawn from the middle and upper classes for the same reasons that such classes have always maintained their superiority, namely that such people will have inherited wealth, social connections and superior opportunities for education which are denied to the majority.

The new international elite is neither left nor right. Its ideology is simply designed to promote the interests of the elite. It has aspects of right and left, but they are merely the policies which allow the elite to both disguise their true intention and to give a pseudo-moral camouflage to their ends. They speak of the internationalist equivalent of “motherhood and apple pie” with exhortations to “end world poverty” and fund a “war on disease worldwide”. If I had to find a term to describe this elite I think I would settle for neo-Fascist because so much of what is proposed is reminiscent of fascism.

It is also telling that Western businessmen who ostensibly support the idea of the positive effects of competition arising from “free markets” and “free trade” never want it for themselves. They always happily grab a state subsidy or an embargo if it is to their advantage. None of the US airlines had any hesitation in grabbing billions of dollars from the Federal government after 911. Large companies publicly complain of government regulation while secretly welcoming it because they can bear the cost of it more easily than their smaller competitors. Multinationals shamelessly play one country off against another in their search for massive subsidies and other favours before they deign to operate in a country.

Countries play the same game, cheating wherever they can. And the more powerful the state the greater the cheating, both in terms of helping particular industries with direct state aid and in the formulation of the treaties governing world trade. Hence, the USA presents itself as the ultimate champion of free enterprise whilst being both now and throughout its history one of the greatest of protectionists and state subsidisers of its industries – that it is seen widely as an enterprise society is one of the great propaganda triumphs of history. Its behaviour after 911 is symptomatic of the unequal nature of modern “free trade”.

The US not only handed, as mentioned above, billions to its ailing private airlines, but put up protective tariffs to protect its steel produces.

It was ever thus. The two greatest names of the early Industrial Revolution, Josiah Wedgewood and Matthew Boulton, were happy to climb on the Enlightenment bandwagon with its beliefs in the universality of Mankind and advocate lesser tariffs and freer trade -until the proposed freeing threatened their own businesses.

What goes for businessmen goes for the individual worker. Who has ever met someone whose job was threatened by “free trade” speaking in favour of it?

Abe Lincoln’s used to put this question to pro-slavers who said slavery was a boon for the slave because they were provided for and were free of normal responsibilities: “What is this good thing that no one wants for himself?” An equivalent question should be put to the “free traders”.

The truth is simple: “free markets” and “free trade” are simply part of an elite ideology and like all elite ideologies they serve the purposes of the elite first, second and last. Those not of the elite who espouse it act merely as useful idiots to promote the interests of the elite.

Opposition to globalisation should not be a Left or Right issue. The socialist and the Conservative should both resist it because it removes the ability of the electorate to control those with power and the power of their political movements to realise their ends.

The credit crunch: an effect not a cause

Robert Henderson

 How did we get  into this economic hole?

What we are experiencing is a direct consequence of the dominant economic ideology of the age, laissez faire, an ideology which underpins the general political ideology of political elites in the West, the form of liberal internationalism we call globalism.

This neo-Liberal mentality has brought us to the brink of what is probably the most dangerous economic crisis since the Depression. Perhaps it may turn out to be even more disastrous because countries throughout the world (including Britain) are now so much less self-sufficient than they were in the 1930s, while the scope and speed of communications are beyond anything in existence during the Depression.

Most problematic are the immense and entirely novel opportunities permitted by digital technology, a technological development particularly pertinent to the money markets which are at the root of the credit crunch. No one remotely understands the medium-term let alone the long-term implications for the money markets of the creation of a universal market for every form of financial instrument, which is what the Internet potentially provides, or its potential for destabilising currencies. All that can be done at present is to guess, and guessing when the lives and prosperity of entire populations are at stake is a criminally reckless gamble.

 The consequences  of Thatcherism 

There have been outbreaks of  free market and free trade ideological  dominance in Britain from  the 1840s onwards,  but  since  Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979 the worship of the laissez faire god has become more devout than ever.

Thatcher introduced something quite new. For the first time in history, a British prime minister and government actively welcomed the wholesale destruction of strategically important industries on the grounds that they could not compete. The doctrine of comparative advantage was pursued by the government in an advanced economy to a degree never previously seen. At the same time she emasculated the unions and began

recklessly selling the family silver with  her introduction of  the idea of privatisation which rapidly placed  almost all of the important nationalised industries in private hands.

Mrs Thatcher was also responsible for one great political act of folly in the name of laissez faire when she successfully fought for the Single European Market. The consequence of this was to rob Britain of its ability to favour its own industry economically (beyond what was already being done) and gave any citizen of another EU country the same rights as a British citizen to be employed in Britain or for any foreign corporation to bid for any public sector contract offered in Britain.

Her ultimate triumph was not only to drive the anti-laissez faire strain from her own party, ( a strain which had survived during previous bouts of  laissez faire dominance) but to eventually force the rest of the British political mainstream to follow suit. The upshot today is that the three major political parties in Britain have as articles of faith both a commitment to free trade and the belief that private enterprise is preferable to public provision in virtually every area or life.

The latter belief has created a novel situation in Britain. Great swathes of economic activity which were once controlled by the state – everything from the great nationalised industries to prisons – have been either sold off or contracted out to private companies.  Once privatised, these erstwhile public operations have become prey to foreigners. Because of post-1979 British governments’ commitment to laissez faire, anyone is allowed to purchase any British company, no matter its strategic importance, and most public contracts are given to the highest bidder regardless of their provenance. Nor in most instances (because of Britain’s membership of the EU) can the privatised industries be subsidised by the taxpayer, a particularly telling restriction in the case of the old public utilities when energy prices are rocketing.

Today, British utilities such as gas, electricity and water are largely in foreign hands, our major airports are owned by Spaniards, we no longer have serious mining or shipbuilding industries, and our largest native owned car manufacturer is the company which produces the Reliant Robin. In addition, many of the iconic names of British business – Bentley, Roll-Royce cars, Tetley Tea, ICI, Cunard, British Steel – have fallen to foreign buyers, while the supposed flagship of the British economy – the City of London – has seen the wholesale transfer of British merchant banks to foreign ownership. The present government has even stood sanguinely by while the London Stock Exchange has come under persistent foreign take-over attempts.

What the credit crunch  is not about

It is not about levels of government spending, although that is probably the next great economic shock which will hit Britain as the economy slows, tax revenues stagnate, the  Public Sector Borrowing Requirement grows and the Enron-style ‘off the books accounting’ involved in the Public Private Partnership (PPP) and Private Finance Initiative (PFI) schemes becomes impossible to hide.

What this crisis is about is the virtually unrestrained working of private enterprise, which has created a titanic pile of indebtedness ranging from dangerously generous mortgages to unsecured debt, much of it promiscuously and casually granted with a significant proportion going to people providing false information.

At the heart of the crisis lies the bundling of risky loans (especially mortgages in the United States – the so-called sub-prime mortgages) into financial packages. These have  been sold on and treated not as toxic debt but much better quality debt, debt which could be used by the banks as collateral against which to borrow. Eventually the game was up as people (especially in the United States) began defaulting on payments and banks stopped lending freely to one another because much of the debt they held was seen for what it was, toxic. Banks had to write off bewilderingly large amounts in bad debts and their store of useable collateral to set against future loans was much reduced.

This crisis is a peculiarly difficult thing for free marketers to explain. They cannot rationally blame it on too much government interference, because British financial institutions have been allowed to run their affairs largely unchecked by government for the better part of a quarter of a century, a process begun by the Thatcher governments when they threw away credit controls, permitted the de-mutualisation of building societies and their transformation into banks (which placed them under less rigorous rules regarding what they could borrow and lend) and generally slackened financial controls and state oversight.

These practices have been assiduously followed by successor British governments, who have failed to control the development of exotic financial instruments such as derivatives and by relinquishing the power to set Bank Rate (Bank Rate being, in theory at least, set by a body independent of the government, the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) of the Bank of England) and by embracing fiscal restraints imposed by the EU, such as restrictions on state aid to industry and restrictions on the setting of VAT rates.

The upshot is that the present government is left with only two very general means of controlling the economy, the variation of taxation and of government borrowing and spending. These are hopelessly inadequate instruments to deal efficiently with the multifarious financial problems which arise in an advanced economy. For example, if  credit is growing too fast, raising taxes to take money out of the economy may actually fuel further borrowing, at least in the short term, as people try to service the debts they have and to maintain their standard of living, while the additional taxation will have the unwanted extra effect of depressing the economy.

Alternatively, cutting taxes could conceivably reduce borrowing, although human nature being what it is people might actually feel more confident about the future and hence even more willing to borrow. However, even if such action reduces borrowing it will tend to worsen inflation because the amount of money put into the economy will probably be larger than any reduction in borrowing.

The setting of Bank Rate by the MPC is arguably a third weapon in the government’s armoury, because the MPC works to a narrow government set remit of controlling inflation within certain limits and the government has a considerable say, both directly and indirectly, in the appointments to the MPC. The behaviour of the MPC in crisis conditions suggests that they will do what they think politicians want rather than sticking to their remit. For example, they have dropped interest rates in the past eight months when inflation is rising. However, even if the setting of Bank Rate is a third weapon in the hands of the British government, it suffers from the same deficiency as the other two, namely, that it is too broad a measure to deal with many economic difficulties. Worse, since the credit crunch began, the interest rates charged by the banks and other lenders (especially on mortgages) have not shadowed the reductions in Bank Rate as history suggests they should do, but have stayed stubbornly and significantly above Bank Rate.

Of course, all economic interventions by governments have consequences which go beyond the narrow desired ends of the intervention, but the more economic weapons in a government’s hands, the greater the likelihood that they will be able to find one which is best suited to solve a particular problem with the minimum of unwonted side effects. For example, if the multiplier of salary for mortgages had remained by law no more than two times salary throughout the past quarter century, the housing market would have been pegged back by what most people could afford to borrow.

The money supply

There is a vital technical reason why government should control credit: it increases the money supply. To understand why this is of fundamental  importance, it is necessary to comprehend  what constitutes money, a concept which is far from straightforward in the modern world and growing more complex by the day.

A currency based on precious metals formed into coins is a relatively simple thing, because it is to a large degree self-regulating. The practices of debasing the quality of the metal or of clipping the edges of coins to remove some of the metal may be common, but such things can be tested objectively by anyone with the requisite knowledge, for example, by weighing the coin.  Moreover, the amount of physical money is limited by the availability of the precious metal(s) used in the currency.

Once a country moves from a physical currency based entirely on a precious metal to one which remains, in theory at least, fully convertible to the precious metal but which uses paper money alongside coins made of the precious metal, government’s role is expanded in importance because it is ultimately the guarantor of the currency’s integrity.

The final stage of physical money is when the link between a precious metal and the currency is broken and the entire currency rests upon trust. At that point a currency is entirely at the mercy of governments because there is no natural restraint on how much money is printed or coined in base metals.

Describing physical money is the easy bit. The concept of money becomes complicated the first time someone makes a loan. That has the same effect as someone depositing money with a bank: where one person had the money before, now two have it. Once a society develops a banking system, government needs to intervene both because of potential fraud and an expansion of the money supply. That applies in principle even in a supposedly 100% precious metal based currency, because even then there are primitive financial instruments such as bills of exchange which effectively act as money.

The more advanced a society is, the less important physical cash becomes as the instruments by which the money supply is multiplied increases. To see what a confused state we are in today we need only reflect on some of the various measures of the money supply which have been used in modern times in attempts to quantify the money supply:

1        M0 is the total of coins and notes in circulation plus banks’ deposits at the Bank of England.

2        M1 is M0 plus current account deposits

3        M3 is M1 plus all other types of bank accounts (deposit accounts, foreign currency accounts, public sector accounts)

But there are many other financial products which none of these measures catches that

arguably have aspects of money. Anything which can be readily traded for money can in effect be used as money in certain circumstances: shares, the vast array of derivatives, debt itself. For example, if I wish to buy a house in theory I could do so by swapping shares I own for the house.

The Northern Rock Debacle

September 2007 saw the first run on a British bank since the 19th Century with people literally queuing round the block to get their money out. A converted building society, Northern Rock, had been operating a reckless business plan whereby their core business of mortgages was predominantly funded not by deposits but by borrowing on the money markets. When the credit market tightened, Northern Rock were left stranded and were forced to go to the Bank of England (BoE) as the lender of the last resort, which made a loan of 25 billion to them.

Once that news became public, the panic began and the government was forced to guarantee all Northern Rock deposits which committed the taxpayer to a further £25 billion, a total of £50 billion including the loan. The Government then left the bank in limbo until February 2008 as it desperately tried to find a private buyer for the bank. Eventually, it had to admit defeat and nationalised the bank, exposing the taxpayer to another £50 billion of risk as it took over responsibility for the bank’s mortgage book. The taxpayer is now in for a potential liability of £100 billion. To put the scale of the risk in context, the  Treasury  Red Book forecast  for total government expenditure in 2008/9 is £617 billion, so the Northern Rock risk amounts to around 18% of total Government expenditure for this financial year.

All this is worrying enough but just imagine what will happen if a few more banks go belly-up. It is as reckless an act by a chancellor as you can find in British history, for not only are massive liabilities being put around the neck of the entire population, a precedent has been set. If other banks (and quite possibly much larger banks) get into the same position, it is difficult to see how the government could underwrite another Northern Rock let alone one of the clearing banks, especially in the light of the extensive borrowing facilities the BoE has extended to the banks generally. Of course, we are constantly told by the government that the taxpayer is not really at risk as the assets of Northern Rock are solid and that the loans extended to banks generally are held against sound collateral and will cost the banks a pretty penny in a premium on the interest rate they pay. Frankly, why should we believe them when the government cannot even give a guarantee of when the Northern Rock liabilities will be cleared.

Yet it is difficult to see what else the chancellor could have done. If Northern Rock had folded, the rest of the banking sector would have been placed in real danger. The position was not helped by the drawn-out attempt to find a private buyer for Northern Rock (a symptom of the laissez faire mindset of the Government), but that was merely a detail, not the heart of the problem. Had the government nationalised the bank immediately the problem was known, the liabilities would still be on the taxpayer. The scandal is that the lax credit situation was allowed to arise, something which could have been prevented by proper government behaviour over the past quarter of a century.

The developing crisis

Not only have governments been forced in practice to abandon laissez faire, there have been few if any calls for the central banks to stand back and do nothing. Even in the case of Northern Rock the supporters of the “invisible hand” have been loath to let it go to the wall.

Faced with the dangerous mess they created, the banks and big business asked the government to rescue them. The consequence is that the ordinary person gets the worst of all worlds, for they not only have to suffer a contracting of the credit market, but they also have to fund the rescue of financial institutions, either directly in the case of Northern Rock by nationalisation or indirectly through the extension of credit by the Bank of England (as lender of the last resort) to introduce money into the market for the financial institutions to borrow. The ordinary citizen also has to pay in terms of lost jobs, lower pay, poorer conditions and higher prices.

Commercial banks throughout the developed world have run squealing for help to governments, while the major Western central banks have reacted with behaviour ranging from the dramatic to the reluctant. The Federal Reserve has led the way, slashing interest rates dramatically and making tens of billions of dollars in loans to the banks available to the money markets, much of it on distinctly questionable collateral. The European Central Bank (ECB) has been more cautious on interest rates but has also made vast sums in loans available to banks.

Britain has somewhat tardily followed suit, reducing Bank Rate by three quarters of a per cent since September and belatedly providing billions in loans to the banks on collateral of ever decreasing value. The disquieting thing is that no matter what action has been taken, the flow of credit remains stubbornly locked and governments, including Britain’s, are reduced to throwing more and more money at the banks with less and less assurance that the money the taxpayer is risking will ever be repaid.

On 19 April it was reported (for example, The Daily Telegraph) that not only will the Bank of England inject a further £50 billion into the market with the banks using some of the sub-prime mortgage products they invested as collateral, but that the British government will also underwrite credit card debts held by the banks – all this on top of the eye-watering Northern Rock liabilities.

The most frightening thing about the crisis

The truly frightening thing about this crisis is that the people who are supposed best to understand the financial markets, the central bankers, are completely at sea. The Bank of England (BoE) has admitted that its understanding of the money markets is inadequate. Amid accusations that it failed to respond quickly enough to the crisis at Northern Rock, the Bank has admitted that it is struggling to determine the impact of the credit meltdown on the economy.  Charles Bean, chief economist, said assessing conditions in the economy is “subject to considerable uncertainty”. Writing in the Bank’s quarterly bulletin, Mr Bean also stated “One important step in analysing monetary demand and supply shocks involves improving the Bank’s information about credit conditions”.

The Bank’s admission that it needs to improve its understanding of the credit markets comes as John McFall, chairman of the Treasury Select Committee, voiced his frustration following the appearance of Bank of England staff before the Parliamentary watchdog. In an interview with The Daily Telegraph, Mr McFall said: “The responses that people gave were unconvincing as a whole. I’m looking at the system and asking the question: Is it working? And it’s not working” (The Daily Telegraph, “We don’t understand the markets, BoE admits”, by Jonathan Sibun, 24 September 2007).

A failure of oversight by central banks both here and abroad has been compounded by the long period of very low interest rates led by the central bank rates of the leading currencies, most notably by the Federal Reserve (“the Fed”) in the USA, which kept money too cheap for a long time, thus encouraging people to borrow. The prime author of this cheap money was Alan Greenspan, who was treated with quasi-religious awe by politicians and so-called financial experts alike while he was running the Fed. Come the credit crunch and the knives came out for him, vide the famous American monetarist Professor Anna Schwartz: “It is clear that monetary policy was too accommodative. Rates of one per cent were bound to encourage all kinds of risky behaviour…..the Fed failed to confront something that was evident. It can’t be blamed on global events” (Daily Telegraph, 13 January 2008).

The inability of everyone from bankers to governments to provide a solution or even understand what is happening is palpable. In April, Gordon Brown ordered a “summit” with bankers to discuss a way out of the mess and his chancellor Alistair Darling railed against the irresponsibility of the banks for reckless lending, carefully overlooking government’s irresponsibility in this area. Massive amounts of public money have been ploughed in ever more desperately, without the squeeze on lending loosening – “The Bank confirmed it would swap treasury bills for premium asset backed debt owned by the banks. Banks have six months to use the facility. The swap is for 12 months and banks can ask for two year-long extensions, making a total of three years….. The Bank has put no ceiling on the scheme” (Daily Telegraph, 22 April 2008, “Banks hail £50bn boost to liquidity”). That it has had no effect is unsurprising, because the banks have used the money to shore up the holes in their balance sheets.

The effects of the credit crisis

The entire economy is rudely affected by a sudden shortage of credit. Apart from hyperinflation, there is no more toxic disease which can affect a modern economy, especially one dependent on consumer spending. The reduced availability of credit at any price causes an economic slowdown. More expensive credit causes people and organisations to draw in their borrowing horns. The reduction in the amount of money available to spend reduces demand. Reduced demand and more expensive credit drives down profits at best and puts companies out of business at worst. Wages are depressed and jobs are lost. This reduces demand even further.

People habituated to debt find they cannot service what they owe, and default. That is especially important in an economy like modern Britain’s where a large number of people have built their lives on a continuous stream of credit. Things which are heavily dependent on credit, most notably property, lose value. People either cannot pay their mortgage or find them selves unable to sell at all or that the price they could get would be much less than they owe on the property. Even those who are do not end up in a position of negative equity find they have great difficulty in selling both because prospective buyers cannot get a mortgage or because other people are unwilling to sell. Those wishing to move, especially if they wish to trade up, find they cannot easily get a new and larger mortgage.

Britain is more exposed to recession than most because her economy is built primarily on consumer spending, much of which is on non-necessities. Such an economy is inherently more fragile than one which is primarily rooted in the production and consumption of necessities because it is very responsive to changes in economic circumstances. In the language of economists, demand for much of what is purchased in Britain is very elastic.

The economic fragility of most peoples lives

Ever since Harold MacMillan famously declared in 1959 that “We’ve never had it so good”, British politicians have been religiously telling Britons that they are getting wealthier. To support this claim they point to such things as the growth in owner-occupation, the myriad of electronic consumer goods, holidays taken abroad and cost of living indices such as the Retail Price Index (RPI) and the CPI.

Most people have tended to take this at face value until fairly recently. They have ignored the fact if it takes two incomes to maintain a family where one was sufficient before, that is not wealthier. That if most people cannot afford to get on the housing ladder when once they could, that is not wealthier. That if the price of most essentials is rocketing that is not wealthier. And that if the Government uses bogus cost of living indices which ignore housing costs and council tax that is not a true measure of purchasing power.

Data released by the Office of National Statistics showed that household incomes fell last year in real terms, and have risen by only £2.25 a year on average since 2001. The reality is worse because these figures are based on the bogus CPI measure, which excludes housing  costs and council tax . In addition, a majority of the British population do not have savings which would allow them to survive for two months if they lost their jobs, and a large segment of the population lives on incomes well below the average wage, which is still below £30,000. A true recession will consequently hit millions of people very hard indeed.

How do we escape this mess?

The honest answer is there is no certain escape. Nor is a ‘soft’ economic landing likely. Circumstances are forcing more prudent lending behaviour onto private financial institutions, with substantial deposits being required before mortgages are granted, the feckless multipliers of six or seven times salary for mortgages vanishing, credit card limits being reduced, cards withdrawn and new card applications being refused. Unsecured personal loans are being subjected to the same type of scrutiny. The problem is that this is all happening in a rush which creates a tremendous shock to the economic system rather than a controlled decline of credit.

All this will probably cause a sharp contraction in the economy.  This creates a dilemma for the BoE. Its remit is to keep inflation close to 2% as measured by the Consumer Price Index (CPI). Inflation is significantly above that and showing every sign of rising. According to its remit, the Bank should be raising rates not lowering them. Yet the BoE has cut Bank Rate by three quarters of one percent already and is being urged universally by private business and many politicians to cut further and quickly. The likely outcome of such a policy would be our old friend stagflation. Indicatively, the growth in UK output was down to a miserly 0.4% in the first quarter of 2008.

The great problem is the dependence of housing to drive the economy. There is consequently no painless way out of our present predicament. If house prices are kept high by low levels of house building and continuing mass immigration an entire generation will find them selves stranded in a no man’s land where they cannot find good rented accommodation at a reasonable price.

Contrariwise, if there is a correction which brings housing within the reach of first-time buyers we shall have a massive problem of negative equity which will mean existing home owners cannot move and if their homes are re-possessed, being burdened with ongoing debts as their homes are sold for less than they owe. That is the bind governments over the past quarter century have got us into.

What can be done to make a safer future?

There needs to be a sea-change in the mentality of politicians. They need to recognise that government has a vital role in controlling the economy, not via the heavy hand of nationalisation or hideously complicated regulatory regimes, but by simple and effective measures such as restrictions on credit and the use of exotic financial instruments and the protection of strategic industries such as farming and energy supply.

Back to the future is the answer. We need to create a different moral climate. As little as 30 years ago, people still tended to look upon debt as something to be avoided. For the most part people saved up for things they wanted. Part of that caution was enforced because credit was nowhere as readily available as it is now although we were already into the age of the credit card. But much of the frugality was simply cultural; people had been brought up to feel debt was something loathsome and bankruptcy next door to theft. This was a Britain where the morally vital mechanism of shame still had its place.

The credit which was on offer almost always came with some strong strings attached. If you wanted a mortgage you had to save with a building society for quite some time to establish your credentials. When a mortgage was eventually granted, the amount you could borrow was restricted both absolutely (there was an upper ceiling of £13,000 in the 1970s) and by sensible multipliers of household income (commonly twice income and often the mortgage multiplier was applied only to the main wage earner’s pay). 100% mortgages or anything approaching them were not to be found. A deposit of 10% of the property’s price would have been the minimum required and in many cases more would have been asked. Bank loans required a similar establishment of creditworthiness over a decent period and credit card limits were modest. If anything was bought on hire purchase, a substantial deposit was required. The consequence of such a regime was that far fewer people got into serious financial trouble than today.

1        Here accordingly are a few examples of what might be done. Mortgages – the multiplier of salary used to calculate mortgages should be a maximum of three and a minimum deposit of ten per cent required. The re-mortgaging of owner-occupied property to release capital and buy-to-let mortgages should be outlawed.

2        Hire purchase – a minimum of 20% deposit with the monthly repayment no more than ten per cent of the monthly net pay (net pay to be that left after deduction tax, National Insurance and the repayment of any existing debts).

3        Personal loans other than mortgages – a maximum of 10% of net income.

There is also a need to tighten up checks on creditworthiness. Lenders have been incredibly lax about the information that prospective borrowers supply to them. That is a particular problem with credit card issuers who tend to accept whatever the lender says, but it is also a significant problem with mortgages with people allowed to self-certificate their earnings in some cases. The laxity has its roots in the belief by the lenders that they can reliably calculate the percentage of borrowers who are poor credit risks who will default and in the case of loans secured against property, that house prices will continue to rise rapidly, thus increasing the equity the borrower has in the property. The events of the past year have shown that lenders cannot reliably make calculations of defaulters nor rely on house price inflation to increase equity.

What now?

Is there a chance that the laissez-faire mentality of the elite will change and that common sense will prevail? Or will we stagger on in this ideological straightjacket until a true catastrophe strikes?

On the level of common humanity the hope must be that the crisis is contained reasonably quickly, although I think that unlikely. (I am writing this article in May 2008. By the time it is published the danger of a full blown depression may have been averted, although that is improbable because after more than eight months of increasingly desperate governmental pump priming around the developed world there is no sign that the credit crunch is lessening, let alone coming to an end. )

But there is danger in a rapid resolution for if it happens the underlying reasons for this economic trauma may not be addressed by those responsible for the operation of the economy and things will go on as before until the next crisis occurs. The credit crunch is simply the latest in a line of dangerous economic crises stretching back a century an a half which were brought about by the same fundamental problem, the abdication of government responsibility for the economy.

The globalist lies about the British Labour market

Robert Henderson

One of the great lies of the modern liberal is that in developed countries such as Britain unskilled  and low skilled jobs are a rapidly shrinking commodity.  Daniel Knowles of the Daily Telegraph  was at it  on 17 November with Our greatest social problem: there are no jobs left for the dim (http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/danielknowles/100118217/our-greatest-social-problem-there-are-no-jobs-left-for-the-dim/).  He tried to explain  away Britain’s growing problem of youth unemployment by arguing that the less bright, less educated British youngsters of  today are unemployed because “Robots and Chinese people have taken over the sorts of jobs that 16 year olds could get without any qualifications straight out of school and work in for a lifetime.  The only jobs left for the under-educated, or often just the less academic, are in service industries: serving coffee, cleaning toilets, stacking shelves. These jobs are not the first rung on the ladder. There is no ladder; no one hopes to work in Pret a Manger for life.”

There are several interesting aspects of Knowles’ comment. First, he assumes that offshoring jobs to places like China is something which cannot be reversed and the practice carries no moral opprobrium.  Second, he makes the assumption that everyone wants a career rather than just a secure job which allows them to live independently. Third, he makes no mention of the role mass immigration has played in creating unemployment amongst the young, something which can only be explained by  Knowles being of the generation which has been brainwashed into pretending that the ill effects  of immigration do not exist.

Knowles’ ideas about the young could be as readily applied to British workers of all ages if one accepts his interpretation of  the state of the labour market.  He is right on the superficial detail that  less well-qualified Britons British workers are increasingly being left without unskilled and low-skilled work, but wrong in understanding of why this is and his implied assumption that Britain’s economic circumstances cannot be changed.

The “we have to live in a globalist world” lie

Britain does not have to be,  in the cant of the globalists,   a post-industrial society.  To begin with Britain still undertakes a good deal of manufacturing, albeit  this has become across too narrow a range of goods.  The base to expand industrial production is still there if only Britain’s politicians forsook the globalist fantasy and concentrated on protecting the domestic British economy,  for example, by having a policy to be self-sufficient in food and energy or by making it illegal to use a call centre outside of Britain to serve Britain.    This would  necessitate  Britain  leaving the EU.   Withdrawal from the EU would also allow Britain to re-establish control over immigration. Turning off the immigrant labour tap  would force British employers to take on native Britons.

Such actions  would place  restrictions on what Britain could sell overseas and lessen  the opportunity for Britons  to work abroad,  but  it would be a case of economic swings and roundabouts . The swings of being an independent judiciously protectionist nation again would most probably exceed greatly exceed the roundabouts of  other nations’ restriction.  This is because the central lesson of economic history is that  a strong domestic economy is  necessary for a country to be economically successful.  It is worth adding that Britons who go to work abroad today  are, unlike the majority of foreigners who come to work here, amongst the better qualified part of the population.  Consequently, any restriction on their ability to emigrate would be to Britain’s advantage.

Being more self-sufficient as a  country also has considerable political advantages. There is less opportunity for  diplomatic bullying, especially of small countries by the powerful. Domestically, the more things which are within the control of  a government the greater the democratic control,  because politicians cannot blame ills on international treaties and circumstances to the same extent.  For example, suppose the controls over British financial sector had remained as they were before the Thatcher government’s relaxations,  the present financial mess would not have touched Britain to anything like the same extent  because lending by British financial institutions would never have got out of hand.

As for people not being prepared to do run-of-the-mill jobs for all of their lives, this is what used to happen routinely and, indeed, many  people  continue to do just that  today.  Nor is this  something restricted to the  unskilled.  Any skilled craftsman – a builder, plumber or carpenter – or someone with a skill such as HGV driving  will do the same basic job all their lives unless they choose to go to another form of employment.  The fact they are skilled does not necessarily  make the job intrinsically  interesting , although it will be better paid generally than those in a low or unskilled employment.  It is also a mistake to imagine that skilled jobs which are  non-manual are generally fulfilling or prestigious.  A country solicitor dealing largely with farm leases and conveyancing or a an accountant spending most of their time preparing final accounts  are scarcely enjoying working lives  of wild excitement while a The truth is most jobs, regardless of their skill level, are not intrinsically interesting to the people who do them, the interest in working arising from the money reward and the social interaction which comes with the work.

The “there are not enough  low skill jobs”  lie

Nor is it true that unskilled and low-skilled jobs are diminishing.  The large majority of jobs today, require little or no specialised  training.  Very few retail jobs involve a detailed knowledge of the product; driving a vehicle other  than an HGV comes with the possession of an ordinary driving  licence; undertaking a routine clerical task can be done almost immediately by someone who is literate.  Until the advent of general purpose robots which can do most of the jobs a human being can do, there will continue to be a plentiful supply of low-skilled work. (http://livinginamadhouse.wordpress.com/2011/07/01/robotics-and-the-real-sorry-karl-you-got-it-wrong-final-crisis-of-capitalism/)

The existence of low-skilled or unskilled work has a positive benefit beyond the work itself.  It provides a means of independent living for the least able. In Britain the average IQ is 100. The way that IQ is distributed – in  a good approximation of normal distribution – means that 10% of the population has an IQ of 80 or lower. An IQ of 80 is thought by most experts in the field of intelligence testing to be the point at which an individual begins to struggle to live an independent life in an advanced industrial society such as Britain.  Without  low-skilled and unskilled work  the low IQ individual is left with no means to live an in independent life. That means in all probability a  heavy dependency on benefits with a likelihood of antisocial behaviour because they cannot live a life of norm al social responsibility.  Full employment is a social good which goes far beyond the overt material product of the employment.  The nationalised industries may have had a significant degree of over -manning in strict

The “ immigration does not lower wages or take jobs from Britons” lies

The immigration aspect of British unemployment is particularly potent. Since 1997 the large majority of  new jobs in Britain  have been taken by foreigners ,  with those coming from Eastern Europe being particularly drawn to low-skilled employments, viz.:

The ONS figures show the total number of people in work in both the private and the public sector has risen from around 25.7million in 1997 to 27.4million at the end of last year, an increase of 1.67million.

But the number of workers born abroad has increased dramatically by 1.64million, from 1.9million to 3.5million.

There were 23.8million British-born workers in employment at the end of last year, just 25,000 more than when Labour came to power. In the private sector, the number of British workers has actually fallen. (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/election/article-1264333/GENERAL-ELECTION-2010-Under-Labour-nearly-UK-jobs-taken-foreigners.htm l  -8th April 2010).

The situation has not changed since the 2010 general election. In November 2011 there are 147,000 more foreign born workers in Britain than there were in November 2010. (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/jobs/8894148/Extra-150000-foreign-workers-in-Britain-as-unemployment-rises.html. )

Most of the immigrants to Britain who have entered employment since 1997 have taken low-skilled jobs: -

In the first quarter of 2011, around 1 in 5 workers, or 20.6 per cent, in low-skill occupations were born outside the UK. This figure has increased from around 1 in 11 workers, or 9.0 per cent, in the first quarter of 2002.

This represents an increase of 367,000 non-UK born workers in low-skill jobs, with 666,000 in the first quarter of 2011, up from 298,000 at the start of 2002.  Over the same period there was little change in the number of workers in low-skill jobs in the UK, which stood at around 3.2 million. However, the number of UK-born people in low-skill jobs fell from 3.04 million to 2.56 million.

There were also increases in the percentage of non-UK born workers in each of the three higher skill groups, although the increases there were not as large as that in low-skill jobs. Low-skill jobs are those that need a basic level of education and a short period of training, while high-skill occupations normally require a university level of education or extensive work experience.

The 1.7 million increase in the number of non-UK born workers is comprised of:

• 88,000 from EU 14 countries ((Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden)

• 585,000 from EU A8 countries(Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovak Republic, Slovenia)

• 1,010,000 from rest of the world countries Looking at workers at each job skill level, the majority of workers at each level were also UK-born, at 79.4 per cent, 87.2 per cent, 87.6 per cent and 86.1 per cent in low, lower-middle, upper-middle, and high-skill level jobs respectively.

Majority of workers born in EU A8 countries in low-skill occupations As there was a rise in EU A8-born workers in low-skill jobs over the last decade, it was also the case that workers in this group tended to be in low-skill jobs. In the first quarter of 2011, of all those born in EU A8 and working in the UK, 38.3 per cent were in low-skill jobs, while only 7.8 per cent were in high-skill jobs.

Majority of workers in the UK are UK-born Looking at all workers in the UK, the majority were UK-born. However, over the last decade, the number of UK-born workers fell by 223,000, while the number of non-UK born workers rose by 1.7 million. As a result, UK-born workers as a percentage of all workers fell from 91.5 per cent at the start of 2002, to 86.1 per cent at the start of 2011. (http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/dcp171776_234559.pdf)

Those are of course only the official figures. There will also be a substantial number of immigrants taking jobs by working in the black economy.

If the  1.7milliion  official count jobs filled by immigrants since 1997 had been filled by Britons,   UK unemployment would be officially around 900,000 today, not good but still vastly better than what we have.   The vast majority of the jobs taken by immigrants  could have been done by Britons because they are low-skilled or unskilled.  This gives the lie to the idea that the movement to a service dominated economy would mean  a famine of jobs suitable for the less able and more poorly qualified.  The wilful destruction of much of Britain’s  manufacturing and extractive industries in the 1980s   and the later offshoring of  jobs dealt a severe blow to British employment opportunities,  but it did not in itself mean large numbers of Britons would be unable to find work.  It is the permitting of mass immigration which has brought that about.

It is not only unskilled  British workers who are  being squeezed out.  Certainly in London where I live, the building trade has been taken over by foreigners, especially those coming from Eastern Europe.  The takeover has been achieved very simply: the immigrant plumbers, carpenters, painters  and builders  have been willing to grossly undercut the wages of the British craftsman.    Despite  supposed shortage of midwives, British  midwives cannot find posts in Britain (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/healthnews/8889007/Student-midwives-struggling-to-get-jobs-despite-shortage.html) and there are examples of skilled Britons being sacked as foreign companies bring in staff from their own country  ( http://www.theinquirer.net/inquirer/news/2125178/huawei-accused-racial-discrimination).

For most of the decade from 2000 politicians of all stripes and the media refused to accept that immigrants were lowering wages. Around 2010 they began to accept  what the laws of supply and demand should have told them,  more people seeking work equals lower wages and poor non-money conditions of work. (http://www.allbusiness.com/labor-employment/compensation-benefits-wages-salaries/12699472-1.html). This was deeply ironic because following Blair’s election as Labour leader, the left liberal fraternity religiously espoused worship of the market.

The “Britons won’t do the work” lie

Phone-ins, social networking and the individual experience of those around you tell the same story: there are very large numbers of Britons desperate for work, often any work,  who just cannot find any.  Again and again people tell of how they have  tried  for dozens, sometimes hundreds of jobs without getting even an interview. Media reports of employers  getting large numbers of applicants for even menial jobs are a regular feature( http://www.londonlovesbusiness.com/25-people-chase-every-job-in-some-areas-of-london/423.article).  Many new graduates are finding that they have been sold a pup about the increased employability of those with a degree and are lucky to find any sort of  job. ( http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2011/jan/26/fifth-graduates-unemployed-ons).

It beggars belief that British employers are  employing foreign workers because they cannot find suitable people. Even if there was a problem with the attitude of young Britons, for which I see no evidence for as a general problem, it would not explain why older workers with a good work history are being overlooked.   The most likely explanation is that British  employers find foreign workers are cheaper and easier to lay off when they want to.

It is also true that where large numbers of people are needed,  gangmasters will be used and these are often foreign and only recruit people of their own nationality.  There is also the growing practice of foreign companies in Britain bringing  in their own people (http://www.theinquirer.net/inquirer/news/2125178/huawei-accused-racial-discrimination). There is also the possibility of corruption especially where public service organisations are concerned, with foreign agencies and the British people doing the hiring enter into a corrupt arrangement whereby the Britons ensure foreigners are recruited and receive a kickback for that from the foreign agents who supply the labour. The foreign agent gains through the fees for finding and supplying the foreign staff.

During the Blair/Brown bubble years there may have been an element of Britons unwilling to do some of the menial low paid jobs, but in our present dire financial straits that cannot be the case now even for low-skilled workers.  Moreover even during the Blair/Brown bubble , the rapidly rising property prices and rents and falling wages  often made it impossible for a Briton who had social obligations such as a family to support to take those jobs because they would not provide a means to support the family.  Most of the immigrants who came in, especially those from Eastern Europe,  were young men with no obligations beyond supporting themselves.  They are able , even on the minimum wages, to save a few thousand per year  and that money in their own country is worth multiples of  what it is worth in Britain.   Such immigrant workers  found that  they could work for a couple of years in Britain and save enough to buy a property in their own country. (Give Britons the chance to go abroad and earn enough to buy a  house in Britain and you will be trampled in the rush). In short,   there was never a level playing field between British and foreign workers.

The obligation of democratic governments

The first responsibility of a government in a  democratic country is to promote the well-being of its  citizens above those of foreigners.  To take the view, as successive British governments have  in practice taken since 1979, that immigrants are, in effect,  entitled to the privileges  accorded to British citizens is to render British citizenship null and void.  To think of the world as a single marketplace with labour, goods and services drawn from wherever is cheapest or most immediately available, is to reduce Britain to no more than a residence of convenience which can be used for the purposes of the individual without any concern for Britain as a society.  That is what Britain’s politicians  and her broader elite are dragging the country towards.  All sense of nation has not been lost ye, t but Britons are increasingly seeing themselves as abandoned by those who are supposed  to wield power on their behalf and for their good and are in desperation increasingly  looking for their own advantage without regard to the effects of their behaviour on the society they live in. .

If Britain had a political elite which acted as an elite should do in a democracy, they would cast aside the globalist fantasy and begin to rebuild a stable British economy and with it a much stronger and more settled society.  They would recover Britain’s sovereignty by withdrawing from the EU. They would end mass migration. They would allow Britain to re-industrialise behind protectionist barriers.  In doing those things they would produce a situation which would allow Britons to be employed in jobs which were secure and paid well enough, even at the unskilled level, to live a normal family life because Britain would become a high wage economy. This would be because even the least skilled in society would have a value , for  the unskilled  work would still need to be done and  there would not be an immigrant army  to do it . This would either  put a premium on those willing to do the unskilled work who would command higher pay or the unskilled work would have to be done as incidental work by those  doing more skilled work, for example, cleaning the workplace in addition to being  a draughtsman.  A fantasy? Well, it is what happens in Norway , a very high wage economy.

Housing and the Coalition’s dirty secret

Robert Henderson

There is a dirty secret which none of the mainstream parties is willing to publicly reveal: those who are owner-occupiers with mortgages are being heavily subsidised at the expense of those who live in private rented accommodation. This is being done by  the supposedly independent Monetary Policy Committee (MPC)  of the Bank of England (BoE)   keeping of British  interest rates at dangerously low levels (Bank Rate kept at half of one per cent since March 2009) while inflation is driven well above the MPC’s sole remit to keep inflation within one per cent above or below a  two per cent per annum target (http://www.bankofengland.co.uk/monetarypolicy/pdf/chancellorletter110323.pdf) by a mixture of  low interest rates and the Quantitative Easing (printing of money in effect http://www.bankofengland.co.uk/education/inflation/qe/video.htm) practised by the BoE with £200 billion put into the economy so far with another  £75 billion on the way (http://www.bankofengland.co.uk/publications/news/2011/093.htm).

Low interest rates and quantitative easing are just what the Coalition Government would have ordered had they been formally making the MPC’s decisions for them,  because the Coalition’s  focus has been on ensuring demand stays healthy to  prevent recession and promote   growth to reduce the massive and rapidly growing national debt.  As the MPC has spectacularly failed to keep within  the Committee’s   inflation remit for over two years,   with Retail Price Index (RPI ) inflation now at  5.6% and the Consumer Price Index (CPI)
inflation at 5.2% in September 2011,  (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-15344297) it is not necessary to be unduly cynical to suspect  that the MPC is less than separate from
government.   This is scarcely surprising because of the way the MPC is recruited, viz: “The Bank’s Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) is made up of nine members – the Governor, the two Deputy Governors, the Bank’s Chief Economist, the Executive Director for Markets and four external members appointed directly by the Chancellor.”   (http://www.bankofengland.co.uk/monetarypolicy/overview.htm).

The effect of low interest rates and governmental pressure  on mortgage providers to not  foreclose quickly on those who default on their mortgages  has been to maintain (so far)  most people with a mortgage in their homes.   At the same time, the financial crisis has seen the  ending of easy-money mortgages  with little or no deposit and their replacement with mortgages which require a substantial deposit, commonly in the region of 20 per cent.

Because there is a general housing shortage in the UK,  the sky-high property bubble  prices have not collapsed dramatically enough to make the saving of such a deposit  practical for  most  people who are not on the housing ownership  ladder.  This has caused a  great  increase in demand for rented housing . The vast majority of that demand can only be satisfied by private rented properties because of the depredations on the social housing stock of Right-to-Buy (RTB)  and the failure to build much social housing since the 1980s.  Add in the additional  demand of the net two million immigrants  who have arrived in Britain since 1997, most of whom have gone to London and its environs,  and the result has been a massive hike in private rents since the  failure of Lehmann Brothers in 2008 fired the starting gun for the financial turmoil which still grips the world.

The private rental figures are bad for the whole country, but for London are  truly astonishing:  “FindaProperty.com  publishes a regular rental index. The typical monthly rent in London is now £2,075 compared with average net pay in Britain of £1,924 …” (http://www.thisislondon.co.uk/standard/article-24000371-renting-in-the-capital-tops-average-take-home-pay.do).

The proposed change to a so-called Universal Benefit (in reality many  benefits lumped under one heading) between 2013-2015 will have a cap on total benefits which “is
expected to be £350 a week for single person households and £500 for all others”. (http://www.thisislondon.co.uk/standard/article-24008380-130000-homes-face-rent-crisis-under-reforms.do).  That will  clearly make it impossible for people on benefits dependent on  private rented accommodation  to live in London, but the rents do much more than that. They bar people even on an above London average pay packet from living in private rented accommodation in London.  The £500 limit is equivalent to a gross pay of about  £35,000. London median  gross pay  is less than £35,000. ( Go to Office of National Statistics and search for Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings Pension Tables – 2010 Provisional Results).

The cry is increasingly heard that if people cannot afford to live in an area they have no right to do so. If you feel that way just sit and think about the consequences of such a mentality.  Large towns and cities do not run themselves. They need an army of people to service them who are on pay which would not allow them to buy a property or rent decent accommodation  in the private sector within the town or city.  That means  people doing such work who do not live in social housing have to choose between  travel ling a fair distance to work (increasingly expensive), living in indecently crowded accommodation or squatting.  It should be added that the large majority of people servicing expensive areas such as London fall into this category.   Make it impossible for people to work in expensive areas either because they cannot live there or afford the fares to commute and sooner or later things will fall apart.

Places like London are surviving at the moment because there is still a good deal of social housing there and large numbers of people of relatively modest means purchased properties before  house prices reached their  present absurdly high  levels.  But that situation will worsen steadily if the Coalition Government puts into operation their  proposal to massively raise social housing rents for new tenants  (80% of  the market rate is being mooted),  who will also have time-limited tenancies, the renewal of which will depend on things such as whether the tenant is in work and if they are,   their income remaining below a level deemed to be poor enough to warrant social housing.   (It is clear that the Coalition want to move those they consider  “unproductive” away from expensive areas  – http://www.totallymoney.com/news/index.php/2011/10/coalition-plans-to-uproot-unemployed-from-their-homes/).   There is also the likelihood that an 80% of market rent regime would make the rents too high for workers on average or below average pay in places like London and the South East.

Under the proposed new regime. the power to decide conditions will rest with the local council which  could in theory  still award lifetime tenancies and keep rents low. (http://propertydrum.briefyourmarket.com/Articles/Specialist-new-home-sales/The-end-of-council-tenancies-for-life-.aspx).  However, neither of those courses of action are likely to be followed because it is obviously not in the interest of councils to keep rents low or have tenants on long tenancies  who are very difficult to  remove.  Nor would it be logical to allow life tenancies to new tenants while adopting the policy line that a tenancy should be only for the less well off.

Bizarrely, the Coalition proposes to increase housing by reviving sales under the Right-to-Buy  (RTB), which affects council and housing association properties,  by increasing discounts  with  the money raised being used to build new “affordable housing “. This has obvious flaws.  The most obvious is that if social housing properties are sold at a heavy discount,  by definition they will not  provide sufficient funds to build equivalent properties to those sold  in the same area, because the new properties would have to be built at the  full market price.  It is also likely that a new build property would be more expensive than an existing council  or housing association property.

The next difficulty would be the acquisition of land. In many  places, especially  London,  it is unlikely that there would be  sufficient land  available on which to build replacement properties, and,  if the land had to be purchased rather than building on publicly owned land,  it will be prohibitively expensive to purchase.

To those objections can be  added the fact that even if like for like properties were built, the overall stock of social housing would be reduced because the new build properties would take time to  complete. During the building time  the social housing stock would be reduced because the property sold would be removed from the stock and no replacement added to it.

The upshot of these difficulties would be almost certainly significantly  fewer properties built than were sold and, most probably,  many properties not built in the area where the sales took place.

It is also  far from clear that  a new surge of RTB sales could be engineered. To begin with most of the desirable social housing has already been purchased through RTB . Buying flats in large blocks  on leaseholds is not an attractive proposition when the freeholder (the council or housing association) can hit you with massive  repair bills to maintain the fabric of the building and substantial service charges and ground rents.  To that barrier  can be added the outlandish property prices, especially in London. Even if the very generous discounts which used to be given for RTB were reinstated,  it might  well be that the discounted prices would still be beyond the reach of  most  social housing tenants. There is also the question of whether the proposed fixed term  tenancies will they have the RTB.   If  there is no RTB for new social housing tenants that will to a substantial  degree sabotage the plan to use RTB proceeds
to build new housing because the pool of potential purchasers will be considerably reduced over a relatively short time because there is a substantial turnover of  social housing tenancies.

If RTB is allowed for new tenancies how would this work? Would a tenant on a two year tenancy have the RTB or would they have to gain an extension of the tenancy?  If tenant’s financial circumstances improve substantially during a fixed-term tenancy, would that disqualify the tenant from RTB?

There is also the idea of providing social housing for “essential  workers” . This would be the city or town equivalent of the servants wing in a country house , with of course the threat of eviction if the person ceased to be an “essential worker”.  Entire towns and cities could become  a form of gated community, the gate being the possession of money or the lack of it, with housing being provided to the poor who serve the rich.

There have  always been parts of Britain which are more expensive than others, but the idea of whole towns or cities or even regions being beyond  the reach of not merely the poor but  people on average earnings or, in the case of London, people on double the average earnings, is something new.

London used to be noted as a place where  wealth would live cheek-by-jowl  against dramatic poverty,   Buckingham Palace a few hundred yards from Pimlico; Bloomsbury  next to the slums of Kings Cross.  The cost of housing, both rented and purchased reflected such differences.  Even 15 years ago London  (even  central  London) was  not a diabolically expensive place for property.  In 1996, The average house price in Greater London   was £84,000 (http://www.home.co.uk/guides/house_prices.htm?location=london).  In 2011, the average London price is £438,000 (http://www.houseprices.co.uk/london).  If prices had remained stable since 1996  in real terms,  the average price of a London property in 2010 would have been £123,000 (http://www.bankofengland.co.uk/education/inflation/calculator/flash/index.htm).

The Coalition shows no sign of understanding how devastating  the present housing shortage is.  What is needed is a programme of  council house building on the scale of that in the 1950s, a time when a Tory Housing minister Harold MacMillan could boast of building 300,000 homes in a year.  There are  plenty of brownfield sites in our towns and cities, much of it owned by councils.  The land which is held by private  companies, especially that with planning permission given but no building started , should be  subjected to a substantial tax every year
while it remains undeveloped.    Second  homes  and  unoccupied residential property  such be subject not to full council tax (as is already being considered by the Coalition) but council tax at one and half times that of fully occupied property. Those measures, together with a massive cut in new immigration, could save the day. Unless something radical  is done we could end up with armies of homeless on the streets in ten years. The situation is that serious.

A secure home is the most precious thing a human being can have. A society with  large numbers of people denied that will always be an unhappy and fractious one.  The present situation is simply immoral.

The Great Charity Scam

Most people when faced with the word charity attached to an institution are inclined to be well disposed to the organisation regardless of what the charity is supposed to do.  If it is a popular area of work, such as medical research or the provision of services to disabled children, rationality goes out of the window.  Hardly anyone questions how the money is spent or how much of it actually goes to the people the charity are supposedly helping. Even fewer ask where charities get their money from, the public commonly  subscribing to the  benign but erroneous assumption that it is collected largely from money put into collecting boxes or donations made by the living or the dead directly to charities. There is a further commonly believed  fantasy that those collecting for charities are  unpaid volunteers cheerfully giving their time out of  pure altruism, a fantasy which quite incredibly often extends to  that  persistent nuisance known as  “chuggers”  who aggressively buttonhole  people in the street.

The truth is a great deal more complex and murkier than the general public imagines.  The most dramatic subversion of charities comes in the form of national and local governments directing taxpayers’ money to charities to perform work which would otherwise be undertaken either directly by the public body or through the employment of a private enterprise contractor.  The charities who accept  public money – and the vast majority of the larger ones do – become no more than subcontractors  to  government.

The extent of  public funding is massive:  In 2010 the Charities Commission (which oversees charities in England and Wales) concluded  “that almost a quarter of the large charities consider public sector funding to be their most important source of income. (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/government-cutbacks-could-wipe-out-25-per-cent-of-charities-1926155.html). In February 2010 ‘ Cardiff University’s school of social sciences on behalf of the public services union Unison predicted that many charities will go bust” [because of coalition cuts in funding]’ and concluded  that ‘More than half of charities’ income now comes from government contracts to deliver public services.’  (ibid).

The use of charities to provide public services  fits in with the Coalition Government’s  drive to subcontract public provision. This means that all three major British political parties officially support the use of charities as government subcontractors, albeit  half-heartedly by the LibDems. Whoever is in power for the foreseeable future, it is a fair bet that the relationship between charities and the Government will broaden and deepen.

As for fundraising from the public, “chuggers”  are paid, a basic and sometimes  bonuses.   They work for fundraising firms who receive payments from a charity for every recruited donor. (http://www.pfra.org.uk/face-to-face_fundraising/do_you_object_to_chuggers/they_are_paid/).  Many of the larger charities run regular raffles. My experience of these is that once a raffle a raffle has been entered  they will not only send  details of all future raffles but in many cases send out second letters urging entry into the raffle if an entry has not been received a few weeks before the closing date. I  have also been positively bombarded with requests, both by letter and email, for  donations not only from charities to which  I have donated , but also from  charities to  which I have never contributed .   This can only mean charities sell on donors details to other charities and quite probably to private business.

The other prime problem with  charities, even large ones, is the fact that they are often very inefficient. The poorly run ones spend a great deal on administration.  They spend inordinate  amounts  on advertising. They hoard money rather than spend it. They manage their money poorly. They fail to modernise their services. Their accounts are inadequate. The idea that charities will be more efficient than direct public provision  is simply laughable. Not only do they suffer from the structural ills of public service they lack any proper  public accountability. Charities are audited each year, but that audit is much less demanding than the audit required of large public companies. Moreover, their frequent failure to keep adequate records makes  any audit of the use of public money very difficult. It would also be a very  expensive job to monitor their spending of public  money meaningfully.

Take the case of Scope, the charity previously known as the Spastics Society, which aids those with cerebral palsy.  It is a mainstream charity of just the sort to attract public sympathy in large measure. The first thing to note is that it changed its name in 1994 from something everyone could immediately understand – the Spastics Society- to something which most people would not have a clue about. The charity had allowed itself to be seduced by the marketing sirens.  It is difficult to imagine this confusion did not have some effect on fundraising.

In January 2006 Scope announced it was shutting 50 of its shops because it had a predicted £310 million deficit. (Daily Telegraph 13/01/2006). The Telegraph account went on to disclose that Scope’s last accounts showed that it was budgeting to spend £35.6 million more than it received in the financial year 2006/7, that there was a hole in its pension fund and that its buildings suffer widespread dilapidation through lack of investment.  I think most people who think about it would be somewhat disturbed by the idea that a charity had a pension fund of any size and that a substantial part of their donations are going to fund it. Charities in the public mind are thought of as institutions where people offer their services either free or at a discounted rate. The idea that their paid employees are just like any other employee does not fit comfortably with the public’s idea of charity.

One of the directors of Scope Jan Hildreth at that time  (he was also a former director-general of the Institute of Directors summed up the mentality of his and many other charities: “Like many charities, the concern of the society has always been its activity and not its finances.”(http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1507717/Scope-to-close-50-charity-shops-as-10m-loss-looms.html). Interestingly  Scope blamed part of its plight on ‘the Government for underfunding services it provides, such as residential and school places.  “It wants our services, but it doesn’t want to pay for them,” the spokesman said. “This is a drain on our coffers.” ‘ (ibid).

To inefficiency add fraud. The National Fraud Authority estimates  internal and external fraud against the charities costs £1.3 billion a year ( http://www.charity-commission.gov.uk/about_us/contacting_us/p_brief_charities_fraud.aspx).

The use of charities as government sub-contractors has other pernicious effects. It allows a government to evade responsibility even more effectively than the employment of private companies does because charities, especially popular ones,  throw up a moral shield. As mentioned above people feel that money spent by a charity is a good in itself. That applies even when it is taxpayers’ money.

Often the public is not even aware that public money has gone to a charity. This means that governments can support unpopular policies, such as those associated with political correctness, without the general public being aware that public money is being used to promote the policies. A  government can also make charitable donation part of their PR because they can  gain kudos from the public by publicising their donations of taxpayers’ money to popular charities.

As the Scope complaint quoted above suggests, governments may also see  charities as a cheap means of public provision. Whether it is or not is another matter – personally I would doubt it because of the widespread incompetence in the charity world.. There is a further objection to the use of charities as publicly funded providers. They have a moral and civic role. The whole point of a charity is that it is the product of the individual will, a conglomeration of the active decisions of those who choose to make a contribution.  It is part of what academics like to call civil society, those institutions which men naturally form in a free society and which fall outside the ambit of the state. Lose or even seriously diminish those institutions and the state determines all, for there is nothing to oppose it or offer an alternative.

Making a charity simply or largely a client of government undermines the very idea of charity. There is every chance that if charities are seen as arms of government, private donations to them will begin to dry up. That in turn would have spending implications for the taxpayer, because although often inefficient,  charities do fund a considerable amount of what would therwise be described as public provision. The taxpayer would end up footing the bill for extra public provision.

State funding also makes charities forget their original role. The  natural tendency for charities who become heavily dependent on public money is to  cease to view their organisation as a charity and see it simply as a business.  There was a good example in the news this week.  The St John’s Ambulance (SJA), a charity which provides medical services at most major public event in Britain and which is much admired by the public has decided to “rationalise” the charity by moving from a system of localism with money raised in an area being spent there to a centralised  treasury which will collect all the money raised throughout the UK  and distribute it as their  central management sees fit.  The volunteers fear that the change will make people less willing to volunteer for unpaid work.  As the SJA has 1,600 paid staff and 40,000 volunteers, the effect  of the change could be dramatic.  (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/healthnews/8684165/St-John-Ambulance-abandoning-volunteers-over-restructure-project.html).

The SJA also displays another unpretty trait of modern charities; the expansion of highly paid posts. The proposed SJA  reform will involve  the creation of “ eight regional directors will be created on salaries of £80,000 a year plus benefits to represent London, the south east, south west, East Midlands, West Midlands, East of England, North-West and North East.”  (Ibid).  Salaries exceeding £100.000 for chief executives are common (http://society.guardian.co.uk/salarysurvey/table/0,12406,1042677,00.html).  Sometimes the percentage of donations taken by senior staff is astonishing. Take PACT, a charity run by the wife of Sir Anthony Meyer, with Cherie Blair – a close friend of Lady Meyer – as patron. Here is the Mandrake column in the Telegraph reporting on 25 May 2011 “… all but £9,500 of the money received in donations by Pact, which stands for Parents & Abducted Children Together, was paid to the Chanel-clad Catherine Meyer, who is the chief executive, and to one member of staff.

“Lady Meyer, who is also its president, and her employee were paid a total of £49,586. Lady Meyer received almost 70 per cent of that sum. Pact’s income from donations was £59,056 and it received a further £38,234 in grants…

“We are doing a huge amount of work for very little salary,” she said. “I used to work in the City and earned much more.”

Her husband, and six of Pact’s 11 trustees, added in a letter: “We consider it to be at the low end of the pay scale for chief
executives of charities with a demanding brief. “(http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/celebritynews/8534133/Cherie-Blair-is-in-no-hurry-to-speak-up-for-charity-boss-Lady-Meyer.html).
The example beautifully demonstrates the inability of those running charities to understand the difference between a business and a charity.

The danger for charities which lose their popular base and become dangerously dependent on public  funding is that they  run the risk of being left stranded when the economic tide goes out.  When, as is happening today, public funding is cut many will find that they cannot fill the gap because they have put too many of their campaigning eggs in one basket.

There is a further serious  problem, namely what is a  legitimate charity? Charity is big business. According to the Charity Commission, as at June 2001 there were 161,978 registered charities in England and Wales with a combined income of £56 billion (http://www.charity-commission.gov.uk/About_us/About_charities/factfigures.aspx).   Is it
really possible that such a vast number of good causes exist which deserve the considerable privileges granted to them by the state?

Take our private schools (many of them bewilderingly for foreigners called public schools).  They are overwhelmingly charities. They also have in most cases a history of one hundred years or more. This means that the profit motive is absent and a quasi public-service (civil society) ethos has had time to evolve. Yet public schools – which get around £100 million tax relief – have always subsidised the education of the poorer middle-class children rather than the education of the truly poor. Why should they have status of a charity?

There are also many questionable cases where the charity exists to fund something which is essentially, even in principle,  a private or sectional interest, for example the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Why should the taxpayer subsidise such institutions?

The biggest charitable status bone of contention is political action.  The Charities Commission permits political campaigning  “Yes – any charity can become involved in campaigning and in political activity which further or support its charitable purposes, unless its governing document prohibits it” but bans charities having a political purpose “A charity cannot have a political purpose. Nor can a charity undertake political activity that is not relevant to, and does not have a reasonable likelihood of, supporting the charity’s charitable purposes”  (http://www.charitycommission.gov.uk/publications/cc9.aspx#11).  This is completely impractical. For example, how can  a charity whose purpose is to support immigrants in applications for asylum, fight deportation and so forth not  have a political purpose?  There can also be the complication of  public funding which is a political matter in itself. Take the Immigration Advisory Service (IAS) which is currently insolvent,viz: .

” The Immigration Advisory Service (IAS), the largest provider of publically funded immigration and asylum legal advice,  advised today that it had been placed into administration. The IAS, a registered charity, has been in existence for 35 years, and employs 300 staff at 14 locations across England and Scotland. It is renowned for a large number of important legal precedent cases which have been taken through the Courts, including to the Court of Justice of the European Union and the European Court of Human Rights.

“The Governments reforms include the removal of immigration from the scope of legal aid, and a 10% cut in legal aid fees for refugees seeking asylum within the UK. Immigration accounts for around 60% of IAS’s income. There are few organisations that could cope with the compound effect of removal of immigration from the scope of legal aid and a cut in fees for asylum clients.

“The IAS has been in discussion with the Legal Services Commission (LSC) in an attempt to gain support for a solvent restructure of its operations. IAS had also tried to reach an agreement with LSC for an extended period to repay monies which (in common with many other firms) had been claimed in error, partly, in IAS’s view, due to the complex funding rules in place. The legal aid cuts put IAS in the position of needing to fund any repayment of these monies, from a much reduced income base, and as a result it has not proved possible to reach agreement on a way forward.” (http://www.iasuk.org/home.aspx).  How can that not be an organisation with a political purpose?

Charities epitomise the difficulties of mixing private and public. It is true that as non-profit making bodies they share some of the ethos of public service and the profit motive is absent, but their entanglement with government has utterly undermined their charitable status and moral stature.   How do we return them to  their proper purpose? Charitable status should only be granted to those who raise their own money. Paid fundraisers should be banned.  Limits should be put on the amounts spent on administration and advertising.  Charities should only be registered which undertake their entire work in the UK. Those currently registered which are inherently political should have their charitable status removed.  Only  those with a purpose which could potentially benefit anyone should be registered.  Examples would be those dealing with medical research or care of the old.

Impractical? A recipe for chaos? No. Much of what charities now do is what government should be doing. Governments would have to do their duty and either employ what are now charities as simple  subcontractors without charitable status or make other arrangements. A great deal of the rest is simple political action under the guise of charity or the subsidy of of particular  interests without any wider social benefit.  Some charities such as the IAS are directly opposed to the UK’s interests.  A radical review is required of what should constitute  a charity.

Robotics and the real (sorry, Karl, you got it wrong) final crisis of capitalism

Robert Henderson

Humans and Robots

Robotics is advancing rapidly. Probably within the lifetime of most people now living – and conceivably within the next ten years – there will be general purpose robots (GPRs) capable of doing the vast majority of the work now undertaken by human beings. When that happens international free trade and free market economics even within a closed domestic market will become untenable.  The final crisis of capitalism will be the development of technology so advanced that it makes capitalism in the Marxist sense impossible because machines make humans redundant.

Robots are already undertaking  surprisingly sophisticated work, but almost all are designed to undertake a limited range of tasks(http://www.sciencedaily.com/news/computers_math/robotics/). None is a true GPR. That makes them expensive because of the limited nature of their possible uses and the restricted production runs they can generate. Many of the most sophisticated are either one–offs or counted in single figures. (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/space/8330246/Japanese-robot-could-be-sent-to-Space-Station.html).   A GPR will change that. They will be able to work across a wide range of tasks which will both enhance their utility and result in massive production runs. GPRs will become cheap, much cheaper than human labour.

The cost of GPRs will also fall because GPRs will sooner or later reach a stage where they can replicate one another or design and build new types of robot.  This is potentially startling in terms of what might be produced. Let us say that it takes one week for one GPR to create another. At the end of the first week you have two GPRs. At the end of the second week you have four GPRs. Let us suppose you keep on doubling up every week. In thirty three weeks you have more GPRs that the entire present population of the world. In thirty four weeks you have more than twice the population of the world. The only restrictions on production would be government curbs or a shortage of materials and energy to build and run them.

Economic history to date shows that technological advance creates new work. It may have very painful consequences for individuals whose livelihood disappears – the hand-loomweavers of the early industrial revolution are a classic example – but new opportunities for employment arise as an economy becomes more sophisticated and variegated. The hand-loom weaver found work in the new factories; the redundant western factory worker of today in a call centre. At worst they might only get a MacJob but at least it was a job.

But if the GPRs can do the MacJobs as well as the more demanding work, then there will not be any new jobs for humans, not even much supervisory work because GPRs will need little supervising, and less and less as they become ever more sophisticated. Hence, this technological advance will be like no other. GPRs will not only take away existing jobs, they will devour any new work; the easier work first, then the more complex.

The normal human response to such ideas is not reasonable scepticism, but rejection based on a refusal to accept the reality of change, a rejection expressed with ridicule along the lines of the Victorians’ response to the car:  “It will never replace the horse”. Mention robots and people commonly scoff “Science Fiction” to get rid of the matter without further debate. This type of response is natural enough because human beings, apart from disliking change, do not like to think of themselves as dispensable or redundant. Moreover, incessant propagandising by western elites has made it a received opinion of the age that work is becoming ever more demanding and requires an increasingly educated and knowledgeable workforce, something which seems to most humans to make them uniquely capable of doing the jobs of the future and, by implication, this excludes mechanisation (and robots) from the majority of future human employments.

If that were true the dominion of GPRs might be at least delayed. Unfortunately, the reality is that the large majority of modern jobs, in both the developed and developing world, are non-skilled or low skilled. Just sit and ponder how many our jobs need a great deal of intelligence or knowledge. Think of the huge numbers who are employed in call centres, shops, cafes, cleaning, driving car, on farms picking fruit and vegetables or assembling items on production lines which require no more than a repetitive task to be performed. These may be hard work but the training or innate skill required is small. Even work whose nature suggests that it is more demanding of education, training and knowledge such as much clerical work can be readily done by anyone with a reasonable facility with the 3Rs and a familiarity with basic computer operations, such as using a word processor and a search engine, something which the large majority of those in Western labour markets at least should possess. If twenty per cent of jobs in a developed country require an above average IQ or a long period of specialised training I should be surprised. In places such as India and China it will be less as they have taken on much of the repetitive factory production of the advanced world and are less inclined to substitute machines for labour, which is still by western standards very cheap.

The overproduction of graduates in both the developed and developing world is a strong indicator of the predominance of simple jobs.  In Britain there is a target of getting 50% of school-leavers to university. At present that does not look like being achieved because the figure has been stuck around 40% for years and the recent massive increase in university fees for UK students is likely to cause even that figure to drop in the future. But even with 40%, experience shows that is far too high a figure because large numbers of graduates are either unemployed or employed in jobs which do not require a degree-level education. The latest Office of National Statistics figures show 20% of recent UK graduates are without jobs, but even before the present  recession began in 2008, graduate unemployment was twice the UK unemployment average at 10.6%  (http://www.statistics.gov.uk/cci/nugget.asp?id=1162). The  figures are worse than they look because graduates in employment include those in jobs for which a degree is unnecessary. In 2010 one in three new graduates were forced to take menial work  (http://www.thisismoney.co.uk/money/article-1697466/Stop-gap-graduates-forced-into-menial-work.html).

The picture is similar elsewhere. In China there are more than six million unemployed graduates (http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/10_37/b4194008546907.htm); the USA  had 2.4 million unemployed graduates unemployed as of June 2010  (http://www.usatoday.com/money/economy/employment/2010-12-06-collegegrads06_ST_N.htm) and the Eurozone generally experiences a high level of graduate unemployment  (http://www.barcelonareporter.com/index.php?/comments/graduate_unemployment_rate_one_of_eus_highest/).  The position in less developed countries is considerably worse because the number of graduate-level jobs is meagre and often only available in government funded positions.

Employability also varies according to education below degree level.  Take the country which started the so-called “Arab Spring” uprisings, Egypt, as an example. In 2011 Egyptian high-school graduates accounted for “42% of the workforce, but 80% of the unemployed.” (http://www.afripol.org/afripol/item/237-africa-middle-east-the-jobless-graduate-time-bomb.html?tmpl=component&print=1). Most startling, a 2007 report found that the rate of unemployment in Egypt is ten times higher in the educated section of the population than among illiterates. There education equals disadvantage.  (,http://www.huliq.com/29092/unemployment-in-egypt-highest-among-literate-population).

The hard truth is that most modern work requires less knowledge and skill than was required in the past. A peasant four hundred years ago had to know about his soil, his plants and animals, the seasons, the weather, where natural water was and be able to do a hundred and one practical things such as ploughing, sowing, harvesting, making and repairing of fences and ditches, using tools and turning out cheese and cream and dried meat and vegetables How many jobs today require a tenth of that volume of knowledge? Nor did more demanding work stop at peasants. A 17th century craftsman would have served a long apprenticeship. Jobs which did not require an apprenticeship would have probably required some manual skill. Those who aspired to intellectual employment had to laboriously write and amend their works rather than enjoying the immense convenience of a word processor. That and the cost of writing materials forced them to become precise in a way that virtually no one is today. Perhaps most importantly,  modern division of labour with one person doing a repetitive job was not king. A person making something four centuries ago would probably make the entire item and quite often a variety of items, for example, a 17th century blacksmith would not merely shoe horses but make a wide range of iron goods.

GPRs would arguably have much more immediate difficulty in displacing human labour in a sophisticated pre-industrial society such as England in 1600 than they would today, because of the more complex demands made by 17th century employments. The large majority of  English people in 1600 were employed on the land where subjective judgement rather than decisions made on objective facts were pre-eminent in the days before science and advanced technology entered farming. A very sophisticated GPR would be needed to make such judgements. (I am assuming that GPRs sent to England in 1600 would only have the knowledge available in 1600). Conversely, GPRs today could take over a great deal of employment in Western economies and much of the industrialised parts of the developing world, especially China, because there are so many simple jobs which would be within the capabilities of very basic GPRs.

But that is only half of the story. If most jobs are not demanding of much by way of learned skills and even less of intellect, they do need diligence. Human beings are generally more than a little reluctant to put themselves out in work which has no intrinsic interest for them or which is not very highly paid.. Most people do not have a vocation, or at least not one at which they can make a living. Left with  work which is seen as simply a livelihood, most  just want to do enough to live what they think is a comfortable life. If the job they are doing is laborious and boring and pays not a lot more than is needed to feed and clothe and house them, then it’s a certainty that they will be more than a little resentful. (An old Soviet joke about low wages ran that the communist government pretended to pay the workers and they pretended to work). Resentful equals careless equals idle equals dishonest equals loss of custom equals loss of profit. So what will an employer do when he can employ a robot instead? He will go and gets himself some GPRs which will not get awkward, do what they are told, keep working all the time without being watched, does not make regular mistakes and requires no wages or social security taxes or holidays or sick leave. And it will not be able to sue you for being a bad employer.

The GPRs will have all the capabilities of computers. They will be able to compute and model and display and manipulate data to your heart’s content. They will absorb unlimited amounts of data in the blink of an eye. You need a GPR to speak French, the GPR will speak or translate French. If you want a GPR to explain quantum mechanics, the GPR will produce a lecture by an eminent physicist. You need to fix your car, the GPR will fix your car.

Now, how could any human being compete with that? At that level they could not, but in the beginning at least there will still be a sizeable chunk of jobs which GPRs will not be able to do. These will be the jobs which cannot be reduced to quantifiable tasks; jobs which cannot be done by following an algorithm; jobs which require judgement and jobs which require motivation to achieve a complex end which is not obvious from the units of means which are required to achieve it.  But those type of jobs are only a minority of jobs, probably a small minority, perhaps 20% of the total. If the earliest GPRs could only undertake fifty per cent of the jobs which humans do that would be catastrophic. Human beings will not be able to kid themselves for long that everything is going to be all right.

There will be two further advantages enjoyed by GPRs over humans. In principle there are no limits to increases in the capabilities of GPRs; there is no such human potential in the present state of knowledge. It may be possible in the future to enhance human capabilities dramatically through genetic engineering or a marriage of human and machine to produce a cybernetic means of advancement, although in both cases the question would arise are such beings human? But for the foreseeable future there is nothing to suggest that human capacity can be raised dramatically through education and training, not least because attempts to raise IQ substantially and permanently through enhanced environments have a record of unadulterated failure over the past fifty years or more. Most tellingly, all the claims for raised IQs through enhanced environments involve people without well above average IQs. No one has claimed to have demonstrated that those with IQs of over 150 can have their IQs raised by environmental means. Nor do adult IQs increase as people experience more and learn more. That suggests humans have reached an intellectual plateau in terms of an ability to comprehend by the middle teens. With GPRs as many robots as were wanted of a certain ability uld be created.

The second advantage is that GPRs will come with a guarantee of performance. An employer gets what it says on the tin. Moreover, the performance will be consistent. Humans beings do not carry such a guarantee. The individual’s qualities only become apparent once on the job and are subject to variation according to the physical and mental wellbeing of the person.  This makes them a gamble for anyone who employs them. A faulty or rogue GPR could be repaired or replaced without moral qualms; sacking a human being raises all sorts of ethical questions and matters of sentiment.

The social and economic effects of GPRs  

When the first GPRs appear those in political authority will probably try to say everything will be all right when they are first presented with the problem. Now it might be thought that it would be pretty obvious that a GPR which could do everything the average human could do and then some would spell trouble for the human race, but it never does to underestimate the power of custom, ideology and the sheer unwillingness of human beings to face troubles which are not immediately upon them.  The tired old and worthless comparison with technological change in the past will doubtless be made, namely, that new jobs for humans will be generated by the GPRs. But that will not last long because the reality of the situation will very rapidly force elites to accept the entirely new circumstances.

There would be a dilemma for the makers and distributors of goods and services.. At first it might seem attractive to use GPRs, but as humans lose their employment and purchasing power the question for private business would be who exactly are we producing for? Very few would be the answer. For politicians the question would be how can we finance government including public services when our tax base has collapsed? The answer is we cannot as things stand.

As GPRs threaten to destroy the world’s economy, politicians will be faced with an excruciating dilemma. If GPRs are allowed free rein by governments the consequence will be a catastrophic collapse in demand as humans lose their employment en masse and an inability of the state as it is presently constituted to provide welfare to those put out of work or even to maintain the essential services of the minimalist state such as the police and army.

The situation will be pressing no matter how supposedly rich a country is because the majority of people even in the developed world are actually poor. They are only a few pay packets away from destitution (http://www.retirementsolutions.co.uk/many-britons-have-little-or-no-savings). Even those who own their own home will not be able to sell it because who will
there be to buy?

To begin with attempts will probably be made to control the crisis bureaucratically by instigating rationing and price controls. But that will not go to heart of the problem which is how do you sustain an economy in which most people are not working. In the end politicians will be faced with two choices: ban or at least seriously curb, the use of GPRs or adopt a largely non-market economy. Banning GPRs completely would create a particular problem because some countries would continue to use them and this could lead not merely to cheaper goods and services but technological leaps which exceeded anything humans could do. For example, suppose that a country produced GPRs to their fighting. A country which relied only on humans would be at a hopeless disadvantage.

The widespread banning of the use of GPRs in national territories would severely shrink international trade, because as sure as eggs are eggs not all countries would stop using GPRs  to produce items for export.  Any country using GPRs could undercut any country which banned GPRs. Protectionist barriers against countries using GPRs freely would have to be erected, although human nature being what it is, this would doubtless result in GPR products being supplied through a third country which had ostensibly banned GPR produced goods and services. The likely outcome of such a situation would be for protectionism to grow beyond the banning of GPR products to the banning of products simply because they were suspected to be GPR produced. This would also be a convenient excuse for simply banning imports.

As free trade (or more accurately freer trade) and internationalism generally has been the Holy Grail of politicians in the developed world for a generation or more, the re-embracing of protectionism and state control might seem to be a tremendous psychological blow for western political elites to accommodate.  In practice it is unlikely to give them any great emotional difficulty because elites only have one fixed principle, namely, to do what is necessary to preserve their position. Think how the British mainstream Left, most notably the Labour Party, happily embraced the idea of the market and globalism in the early 1990s after having been resolutely opposed to both only a few years before. Here is Blair in the late 1980s: “We will speak up for a country that knows the good sense of a public industry in public hands.” (The Blair Necessities p52 1988). Dearie me, who would have thought it?

The alternative to a protected economy in which GPRs are banned or severely restricted is a society in which the market is largely defunct. A perfectly rational and workable society could be created in which human beings stopped thinking they had to work to live and simply lived off the products and services the GPRs produced.  The GPRs would do the large majority of the work and the goods and services they provide would be given free to everyone whether or not they had formal employment. No GPRs would be allowed in private hands. Such a situation would mean the market would not make the choice of which goods and services were provided. Rather, the choice would be made by the consumer through an expression of what was needed or wanted before products were developed or supplied.  This could be done by anything from elected representatives to online voting by any member of a community for which goods and services should be supplied. For example, all available items could be voted from by the general population and those which were least popular dropped. The provision of proposed new lines or inventions could be similarly decided.

As for allocating who could have what in such a world, money could be issued equally to everyone in lieu of wages (a form of the social wage). Alternatively, in a more controlled society vouchers or rations cards could be issued equally to everyone for specific classes of goods. Greater flexibility could be built into the system by allowing the vouchers to be swopped between individuals, for example, a voucher for footwear swapped for food vouchers.

In such societies there would be scope for a limited use of private enterprise. People could be allowed to provide personal services, for example, entertainment, and produce goods just using human labour (human-made would gain the cachet that hand-made has now). There would also need to be some greater reward for those who occupied those jobs which still required a human to do them such as political representation, management and administration. The reward could either be material or public approbation. It would not be unreasonable to imagine that in a society where necessary work was at a premium quite a few would take on such positions for the kudos.    There could also be some legal requirement to undertake work when required.

The greatest change resulting from such a social upheaval would be the removal of most of the advantage the haves now enjoy over the have-nots. Because the vast majority of things would be provided by the state one way or another, the advantages of wealth would be greatly diminished. Those with wealth at the time the GRPs forced a change on society might still have their money, but what would they spend it on? Not the goods and services provided by society because they would be sufficient for any  individual? On the luxury goods and services offered by human-labour enterprises? Perhaps, but that would be a petty pleasure. What the rich would have lost is what they prize most, their power. They would not be able to hire other humans easily because why should anyone work as a servant when they already have the means to live? Instead they would have to live as “the little people do” (copyright Leona Helmsley). The historical experience of those with privilege relinquishing it peacefully is something of a desert, but in the circumstances of where no one has to work simply to live they would have little choice.

It would be difficult to build up a great fortune even where money remained the means of exchange, because all that would be permitted outside of socially controlled provision would be that which humans could produce without the aid of GPRs or perhaps without any form of robot, would be items which because of their means of production or provision would be expensive. This would make them luxury items. There would also be an incentive for most people not to buy them because the socially produced items would be much cheaper, in effect free because no work would have been done to earn the money to buy them. Money in such a society would have much of the quality of a voucher.

Perhaps some entertainers and artists might still command high incomes but fortunes made from business would be next to impossible. The vast fortunes made in banking and other financial service providers would not exist because financial services would become redundant in a society which has decided to provide the means of living without working for it. But like the rich generally, what would it really buy them?

Could an economic system akin to those which depended heavily on slaves not be created with GPRs taking the place of slaves which might be owned by anyone? The answer is negative. No slave society has ever relied overwhelmingly on slaves.  In slave societies there is always a good deal of free labour, both because of the scarcity and cost of slaves and the inability of owners to trust slaves to do all work or work without the supervision of free men and women. The demand created by the free part of the population through work or accumulated wealth provide the basis for a market economy in a slave-owning society. In many slave societies, slaves have acquired rights to earn money, own property and have families, all of which bolsters the demand of the free part of the population.  In the case of the GPRs, they would undertake so much of the work there would be insufficient realisable demand to sustain a market economy. There would be no point in private business using GPRs on a large scale because there would be no mass market to serve.

Who would be best placed to survive? 

It might be thought that the people best placed to survive would have been those in the least industrially developed states because they would be less dependent on machines. But the trouble is that there is scarcely a part of the world which had not been tied into the global economy. If a country does not manufacture products on a large scale, it exports food and raw materials and accepts Aid.

The fundamental trouble with Aid is not that it breaks the initiative of the recipient or props up dictators or alters traditional trading patterns or drains countries of money through everlasting interest, although all those are important features. . The killer fact is that it produces a level of population in the Third World which the Third World cannot naturally support. If the  economies of the industrial nations collapse, the Aid will stop and the market for their export of food and raw materials dry up. All of a sudden the Third World will find they cannot feed their populations and their elites will no longer have the means of maintaining order because they will not be able to finance forces to subdue and control the population.  The chaos which will ensue will be aggravated by the fact that the old economic and social relationships have been fractured so that even maintaining a population appropriate to the traditional ways of living will be problematic.

Low-wage developing countries such as China is now will be struck particularly hard because when GPRs are available their labour cost benefits will disappear.

The future

The rate at which robotics evolves will play a large part in how the story unfolds.  The speed with which GPRs replace human beings could be truly bewildering. The example of digital technology to date suggests that the stretch from a primitive GPR doing simple work which can be broken down into physical actions to a GPR with some sort of consciousness or a facsimile of what humans think of as consciousness will not be massive. Such development could well be speeded up by GPRs assisting with development as they attain more and more sophisticated abilities. The faster the development of  really sophisticated GPRs, the more chaos there is likely to be because there will be little time to plan and implement changes or for the human population to accommodate itself psychologically and sociologically to a radically different world

How sophisticated GPRs will get is unknowable, but the development of Artificial Intelligence programs which allow a process of learning are already well established. These have the potential not only to produce the wide-ranging intelligence which would allow value judgements, but also for GPRs to develop in ways which humans cannot predict. (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/microsoft/8344028/Xbox-Kinect-foretells-computers-of-the-future.html).

It is reasonable to assume technology will develop until GPRs are showing behaviour which suggests consciousness. They will make decisions such as what would be the best way of  achieving ends which are loosely defined, for example, an instruction to design a city redevelopment in a way which would have the greatest utility for human beings. At that point the GPRs would be effectively making value judgements. Perhaps they already are doing that at some level. (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/roger-highfield/8587577/The-big-plan-to-build-a-brain.html).

This is a real danger with potentially catastrophic world-wide consequences. The problem is getting people in power to address the subject seriously. There needs to be discussion and  planning now about how far GPRs,  or indeed robots or any type,  should be allowed to displace human beings in the functioning of human societies. Nor should we assume humans will happily tolerate GPRs  for reasons other than the economic. Robots which are too like humans make humans uncomfortable, probably because it is difficult to view a machine which looks like a human and acts like a human simply as a machine.  (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/8494633/Japanese-robot-twins-fail-to-bridge-the-uncanny-valley.html)

Apart from the economic consequences, GPRs also offer dangers such as the possibility of the realisation of the tyrant’s dream; an army of unlimited and utterly loyal and obedient servants who will refuse no command and GPRs developing intelligence and human-like qualities so profound humans have difficulty in treating them as slaves.  But those are subjects for another day…

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