Monday, 18 June 2018

Spare us the "free market" dogma

It's all very well spouting mantras about low tax and small government. I am well versed in these arguments. The foundation of my political thinking is "that which governs best governs least". But that can only be a guiding principle - not a uniform stance.

The most effective governance is invisible - governance of things you use every day and take entirely for granted because they work. There are thousands of ways that regulation improves every day life. But it does cost money.

Most notably food safety controls. If you've ever walked into a Tesco express and grabbed a sandwich off the shelves in a hurry without really looking at it then that trusted transaction is a product of regulation. You are buying with confidence because of a regulatory regime.

That is the value that this kind of regulation adds. It's the same throughout the supply chain system. The key element in trade transactions is trust - and a well regulated, properly enforced system is what allows people to buy with confidence. That adds measurable value. High trust creates efficiency, and efficiency adds to productivity and so increases prosperity.

As much as it allows you to buy with confidence, it also saves you time - and it saves business having to deal with constant complaints. This system is what allows them to have no quibble returns policies. That's relatively recent in the UK and retail is better because of it.

Then there's the investments we made in the 90's. Our street furniture and road building costs are considerably higher than anywhere else in the world. That's because we build to a higher standard, factoring in everything from wheel chair access to navigation aids.

And then there's internet governance and all the regulated systems you and I are part of right now - from local intellectual property laws to global conventions on domain registrations etc. We are now regulating things that never existed 30 years ago.

It takes no talent to find waste in this system. Nobody is impressed at council CEO's obscene salaries and god only knows what we need cycling officers and diversity officers for. But that's really the low hanging fruit. Tories have been grumbling about this for 20 years.

That then is used to massage the narrative that government is too big and costs too much. You will get no argument from me that we need to eradicate waste and corruption - and the egregious white elephants but that isn't an argument for pruning the state to the bone.

Let's take immigration for example. We can't possibly monitor everyone coming in and going out and it wouldn't do any good anyway. An effective immigration policy has to be tied up with good governance. And that will cost money.

As Grenfell shows if we had regular inspections to prevent overcrowding and we would have a much better system of detecting visa overstays. This is also why councils need to investigate noise complaints - but don't. These are all quality of life concerns - things that used to be routine for environmental health officers. That function has gradually been degraded because the utility of such governance is undervalued and not understood.

The same goes for planning. We get idiot Toryboys telling us we need to deregulate planning - but when that happens we will see over-stressed sewage systems, unmanageable traffic and overcrowding on trains. We have hundreds of years worth of institutional knowledge on matters of good basic governance which is being eroded by the bean counter mentality. And things are worsening because of it. All on the somewhat crass notion that "the market will provide".

This became abundantly clear to me on a recent trip to Kuala Lumpur where roadworks are unplanned, not cordoned off, driving standards are poor, the certification system corrupt and they get standing water because of illegally blocked drains and gutters.

Malaysia's road fatalities are a magnitude higher than they are here - most of them preventable. Issues we have long forgotten about because we have a sophisticated system of regulation. Mandatory child car seats, seatbelts, MOTs etc.

It will take them at least another fifty or more years to get what we have because good governance is part of our culture - and part of our sense of order. It is built into the design of things rather than bolted on. And it shows. So I don't put any stock in this laissez faire Toryboy nonsense. Sophisticated modern governance is not cheap.

Moreover, you don't even pay for it. Most of you reading this will never be a net contributor. You know that dickhead cousin of yours who goes white-water rafting or climbing up the Cairngorms? Well, that Sea King rescue helicopter sortie costs £34,000 an hour, not including medical bills and paperwork. More than he will pay in a lifetime.

We can debate where and how markets could improve the efficiency of governance, but that is never going to make government small simply because of the range of activities which require governance and it is never going to be cheap. One way or another it is going to cost a lot.

So when I see some TPA bimbo on the telly whinging about regulation (completely oblivious to its utility in facilitating trade and improving our lives in lots of unnoticed ways) I know I'm listening to a simpleton reciting clueless tract from free market think tanks.

None of these people have ever had a real job. None of these people have a mind for systems or understand the value of what we have. They think we have what we have entirely by accident. Their phobia of regulation is based on teenage libertarian claptrap.

More to the point, it's not even conservatism. British conservatism is finding that balance between state and commerce. Maximising liberties but minimising externalities - ensuring my liberty does not trample on yours. It appreciates that some things do have intrinsic value.

As to the EU question there's a debate to be had about the trade off between sovereignty & trade facilitation. Both have merits and there is need for both. We need to know the form that relationship will take. Pretending none of it is necessary is ducking the debate entirely.

The reason I find ASI/TPA/IEA objectionable is because they rely entirely on libertarian dogma as an answer to complex problems, refusing to engage in the complexity - and that can only be the result of either stupidity or intellectual dishonesty. They trot out the same old meme driven Adam Smith inspired claptrap I've seen recycled in Tory think tank pamphlets for the last thirty years. It was crap then and it's crap now.

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