The state is as large and active as it has ever been, yet millions of us sincerely believe that we live in a Thatcherite/Reaganite dystopia
Pick up any bestselling left wing political book or listen to any prominent left wing commentator on television or radio today, and chances are that you will almost immediately be confronted with the N-word.
No, not that one. The fashionable N-word of today is “neoliberalism”. You’ve probably heard or seen it blaring from Guardian editorials, phlegm-lobbing anti-Tory activists and Owen Jones’ YouTube channel.
The basic argument goes something like this (I paraphrase):
We live in a neoliberal age now where the Corporations and the Bad people and the Profit do bad things to the Society and the Good People and the Community. Rich people take money from the pockets of poor people because neoliberalism.
Neoliberalism is destroying Our NHS with the profits and the privatisation and the One Per Cent. Local shops and artisan bread makers and steel manufacturers are put out of business because neoliberalism and the giant supermarkets and the GM food. George Osborne gives your money to millionaires and billionaires because neoliberalism, and wants to socially cleanse London because neoliberalism and the housing crisis. Heartless Iain Duncan Smith kills disabled people in his spare time because neoliberalism. Save Our NHS from neoliberalism, Saint Bevan [genuflect].
Britain only re-elected this hateful neoliberal Tory government with an increased majority and share of the vote because the neoliberal media confused the minds of the people with their neoliberal propaganda and made them forget just what a star-spangled awesome prime minister Ed Miliband would have been.
Words to this effect are poured forth on Twitter and Facebook by the second, tapped out by young, moralising left-wingers who are utterly oblivious to the irony of using the creations and commodities made available to us by capitalism in order to protest against…capitalism. We saw these words made flesh on the streets of London last night, when Anonymous held their risible anti-capitalist Million Mask March.
And until now, it has been difficult to fight back – partly because it is difficult to have a rational discussion when the other person is screaming and spitting in your face or swearing in BLOCK CAPITALS and then blocking you on Twitter before you can respond.
But countering these cries of “neoliberalism” has also been hard because the current usage of the word “neoliberal” is a relatively recent interpretation, plucked from a part of the left wing anatomy where the sun don’t shine, and so has no real fixed definition. Literally meaning “new liberal”, it is instead used by virtue-signalling leftists and preening social justice warriors as a catch-all insult against people who believe in small government, conservative or libertarian ideas, in all their rich diversity.
But now those of us on the libertarian right who are used to silently seething with rage every time Owen Jones or some other left-wing commentator blithely talks about the evils of “neoliberalism” while going shamefully unchallenged by their interviewer have a new champion – Dr. Kristian Niemietz from the IEA.
Niemietz took to the Independent (where his article inevitably went down like a lead balloon with that paper’s readership, scoring only thirteen comments and barely a thousand shares) to patiently explain to the wobbly-lipped Left that actually, if it is Big Government and a paternalistic state that they really want, they have never had it so good.
It has often been pointed out that resistance to immigration is inversely related to the number of actual immigrants, and strongest in places where there are hardly any of them. Something similar is true for resistance to neoliberalism. It is strongest in France, where, with government spending approaching 60 per cent of GDP, there is actually not much of a market economy left. It is also ludicrously strong in Britain, where the state has never been larger in size, never been more encompassing in scope, and never been more intrusive.
Forget the waffle about “austerity”: The long-term trend has been one of almost continuous government expansionism. When A.J.P. Taylor said that “Until August 1914 a sensible, law-abiding Englishman could pass through life and hardly notice the existence of the state”, he was exaggerating, but not grotesquely so. Up until the First World War, government spending used to account for less than 15 per cent of GDP. It then rose to around 30 per cent in the interwar period, and still did not cross the 40 per cent mark until the mid-1960s. Today, despite five years of so-called “cuts”, it still stands above that level. At the outbreak of WWI, only about one in twenty people worked for the public sector, today, the figure is closer to one in five.
I’m not entirely comfortable with the rose-tinted comparison back to 1914, since huge numbers of British working class people (particularly women) at that time were in domestic service, with little remuneration and almost no prospects for real economic or social advancement. But the 1960s comparison and the bulwark of 40 per cent seems very reasonable as a high-water mark for the growth of government that should not be exceeded.
Niemietz continues with this withering critique of the vast over-centralisation of British government:
There was once a time when “government” usually meant “local government”. Today, it is almost synonymous with “Whitehall”. Ninety-five per cent of all tax revenue accrues to the national level, which makes the UK one the most centralised countries in the world. The tradition of local autonomy, of voting with one’s feet, and of tax competition between local authorities, has been almost completely wiped out. Local governments are now so devoid of any real autonomy that we might as well abolish them, and replace them with Whitehall branch offices.
This criticism is absolutely valid, as the over-centralisation of government in the UK is one of the chief drivers of political disengagement, never mind the lack of competitiveness in the regions and cities beyond London. When county and local councillors exist for little reason other than to implement directives from the national government, with no tax raising powers of their own, their ability to drive competition and innovation in their local areas is almost completely stripped away, making a vote in your local elections about as democratically useful as a vote in the X Factor.
The one mitigating factor here would be that some of this centralisation (the emasculation of local government in particular) came about under the Thatcher government, which felt compelled to take decisions out of the hands of local authorities which were in thrall to the far left.
You can argue the rights and wrongs of this, but it is difficult to see how the Thatcherite turnaround of Britain could have succeeded in the face of daily filibustering from socialist councils. Conversely, one wonders if local councils had possessed greater power to make decisions for their local electorate, the negative consequences of the Thatcher economic reforms might have been better mitigated, and the Tory brand might not still be toxic in Northern urban areas. You can probably argue these points to a draw.
Regardless: the state remains nearly as large as it has ever historically been, and takes far too many decisions at a national level, undermining our democracy and increasing voter apathy. One need look only at the SNP’s record in devolved Scottish government to see the same authoritarian instinct at work, with the abolition of regional Scottish police forces and their amalgamation into the centralised, inept Police Scotland.
This is not a neoliberal age. This is an age of hyper-statism, where the state has far more control over our lives than it should do. Think that by buying yet another anti-capitalist tome means you’re somehow “thinking outside the box”? You’re wrong. Anti-capitalism is the box.
Absolutely. One of the most amusing things about listening to contemporary lefties speak and campaign is the endearing way that they honestly seem to believe that their ideas are original, bold and visionary. Their political philosophy can basically be summed up as “lots more wealth redistribution, please, and to hell with wealth creation”, as though that had never been tried and found wanting before, yet they successfully portray themselves as radical insurgents who want to see their new ideas implemented for the good of mankind.
Niemietz’s article shows that this is pure nonsense. Big government, statist ideas have never been more widely embraced in our society, from the compulsory worship of Our NHS and government-provided healthcare, the perks showered on wealthy pensioners, to government backtracking on welfare reform in the face of social media outrage.
Our present Coke Zero Conservative government even campaigned for re-election by promising a dystopian “plan for every stage of your life” while promoting the sickening idea that economic growth is only good when it funds our insatiable public services.
But this is how the Left plan to win the argument. In truth, it’s the only option they have. Owen Jones loves to talk about the Overton Window, the theory that there is a relatively narrow range of political ideas that people will accept. But while the perpetually victimised Left believe that their ideas are cruelly cast outside this window, the opposite is true.
Socialised healthcare. Cradle-to-grave non contributory welfare. A whopping 45 per cent top rate of income tax, 20 per cent VAT and sin taxes on absolutely anything fun and pleasurable. These are not the ideas of small government fundamentalists like me. These are the foot-stomping demands of the anti-neoliberal left, etched in stone and made into law.
The current over-use of the word “neoliberal” as a form of insult shows that deep down, the Left know this to be true, and that they now plan to move the boundaries of the Overton Window in British politics even further, shutting out small government and libertarian-leaning ideas from the debate entirely by rendering them “unacceptable” or “problematic”.
Unable to bolster their case with examples of centralised, paternalistic, statist countries that reliably deliver innovation and increasing living standards every year, all the anti-capitalist protesters can do is work to toxify the idea of “neoliberalism” as much as possible before flinging it at anyone who believes in freedom, economic liberty or personal responsibility. It’s all the Left have.
But it’s not an argument. And for the sake of enlightening our political discourse instead of casting more false shadows, it is time to finally put the N word to bed.
No, this is not a new “neoliberal age”. If only it were.
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