Opposing the false assertions of the statists will make us all better off

Opposing the false assertions of the statists will make us all better off

by Eben Wilson
article from Monday 2, March, 2020

I HAVE STARTED to read the Guardian; lucky me, but my journalism tutor always said we should “read the opposition” and not sit in the comfort of our own silo for ideas. 

Leaving aside the pessimism that percolates through it, I look for the roots of ideas within the toolbox of the left.  It’s tough going. But the effort is worth it; leftist axioms do need re-rehearsing.  Classical liberals must always assume that we could be wrong.  Here are some baseline tenets of arguments favoured in the Guardian:

  • The low-paid, disabled and welfare claimants are all equally deserving because “people” are all of equal merit with an equal right to “social justice”.
  • There is a culture war underway in which progressive social values in favour of the oppressed are being attacked. 
  • The less well-off are insecure and so do not feel free; they need to be given control over their future. 
  • The spending by statist policy imbued governments is costless.
  • Constraints on state spending are a “slash-and-burn assault” on the public sector. 
  • The “rich” have a lot of wealth, high incomes and money that could be taken from them and used to better the lives of more deserving people. 
  • The national state can do a better job of running large service industries. 
  • There are “well-paid jobs” that need to be created and then be open to anyone who wants to do them. 
  • We are all going to roast alive within a decade or so due to global warming. 

These social and economic axioms are really assertions, not arguments. As such, they drive the policy choices of the left (including the SNP). And here lies the problem – they are evidentially untrue. 

It would take too long here to provide synopses of the empirical studies showing that these ideas are dead wrong, but if they are – and I am pretty sure they are – what does it tell us about the state of the left and its policies? 

One of the findings from analysis of the recent election has been that most people do not believe in these assumptions and the policies based on them.  Could this be one of the reasons that the statist left are in such dire political trouble? They’ve invented the assumptions to suit their aspirations, and they only talk between themselves about them – self-reinforcing the wrongness. 

A counter argument could be that in Scotland the SNP, who essentially adhere to these tenets too, should not be so electorally successful.  But this forgets that the Scottish Government is really only in statute and in practice an administrator of public service processes. As a purveyor of free lunches, it’s no surprise that a lot of people vote for it, so it inherits of both a large cohort of disillusioned Labour Party voters and, through Brexit, quite a few middle-class “blue bourgeoisie” voters who earn a crust from the EU-supported parts of the Scottish state.  

If you look at the Scottish Government’s budget with its “commitment to the creation of a more successful country” it’s easy to see that SNP governance founded on the tenets above, encapsulated through the epithet of “Westminster austerity”, is based on a lie. Despite “austerity”, last year’s 4.7 per cent rise in spending has another 2.9 per cent on added this year to £29.15 billion with £500 million of added borrowing.  The UK state is awash with public money, and a lot of it is washing through Scotland. So much for a “slash and burn assault on the public sector”; the Scottish budget uses the terms “invest” or “investment” 70 times in its synopsis alone.  Of course, in 95 per cent of these uses they don’t mean “invest” they mean “spending” – using other people’s money for vote buying disguised as social goals.  

There is a gap here through which the centre-right can make some progress in Scotland. Let me put it in terms of a mad proposal by Lisa Nandy for a wealth tax in her bid for the Labour leadership.

The wealth tax is based on the tenets above; that there are a lot of “wealthy” people around and that tearing some of this wealth from them will be costless; then positing that re-distributing this to insecure poor people, serviced by a large national welfare industry will provide more comfort and good jobs.  

Lisa Nandy could start by looking at the data. Wealth taxes across Europe have largely been abandoned. They are expensive to administer, produce little revenue, breed endless exemptions, and appear to destroy enough innovation to create a large amount of unemployment. 

But taxing wealth sounds logical from within the silo of left-wing tenets. And here is where the gap lies for the centre-right. Wealth tax is a false tactical  response to a false perception of the world that completely ignores ordinary voters’ strategic ambitions. 

And voters do have a strategy; it’s what Adam Smith called “the natural effort of every individual to better his own condition”. Not all, but the vast majority of us, put ourselves and our family first; recognising that self-reliance and taking opportunities to create wealth and prosperity are how we create a comfortable future; in doing so we “advance the interest of society”. 

These strategic ambitions are sound, based as they are on the evidence of human nature rather than Utopianism, and policies which appeal to personal self-governance are attractive – think Brexit. The centre-right must find the rhetoric to champion a future for all, and castigate those who wish to pillage the successes of the past.  And by future, I mean championing the long view … so much of policy discussion falls down the plughole of financial expediency, but that does not win votes. The strategic view of any family looks a generation ahead, any business model at least a decade; those are the realities through which policies must trigger sympathies; voters do not vote for budgetary detail, they vote for a future.  The chattering left vote for Utopian aspiration; ordinary folk vote for their children (and, sadly, to some extent for free lunches, but the centre-right should not compete with the left in the provision of those – Boris please note). 

A new centre-right rhetoric can be caustic about the “progressive” immersion in aspirations to design social justice and inclusivity; but it must not compete by offering detailed tactical calculations proving such ambitions are wrong-headed; the facts have never dissuaded socialists from self-belief.

The aspirations to be offered are those of hope and advance for friends and family. I see the world as one of inevitable trial, ridiculous error and delicious muddle, in which optimistic and creative humans keep calm and carry on; the dark cloud of critical disgruntlement cloaking a leftist perspective is tiresome and, post Brexit and the election, frankly, too often imbued with hate and contempt.  Voters who urge to vote strategically will see the difference. 

Illustration, Milton Friedman whose book dispels the myth of the free lunch.

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