Whether it’s your local Council, blocking suburban roads with impassable barricades, feigning concern for neighbourhood tranquillity; or imposition by central government of the most intrusive behavioural prohibitions outside of war – this vile syndrome of “what-you-can-do-and-what-you-can’t-do” is the real power-struggle on today’s political stage: survival of the individual in the face of overweening state trespass.
Exiting from Covid-related civil incarceration will be highly instructive, and we need to remain watchful. Officialdom, in its various guises, has grown accustomed to wielding the power bestowed by “emergency” executive diktat rather than cumbersome democratic processes. And it likes it!
Relaxed restrictions, or mere prison reform?
Don’t bet on the outcome. Reasonable, unbiased citizens may expect that the success of our vaccination programme will allow for step-by-step dismantling of the ragbag of ill-considered measures designed to safeguard us against the pandemic’s spread. But, in the immortal words of George Gershwin’s lyric, “It ain’t necessarily so”.
Remain alert to the “direction of travel” of the steps purporting to reclaim your personal freedom. Are the concessions genuine? Or do they remain conditional? Do they emanate from the “prison-house” mindset, with which far too many of us have grown comfortable? And, most important, are we still able to recognise the meaning of “free” before it is lost – yet again – in the fogginess of slavish compliance? Covid-19’s most commonly cited symptom is the loss of taste and smell. Well, we shall soon discover how many still remember the whiff of freedom.
In my last essay I trumpeted the virtues of a free-market economy and low regulation. As a corollary, it’s worth highlighting some of the consequences of being lured into a culture of unbridled statism without even realising that it’s happening.
Complaints that the government is not doing enough to protect any particular grouping, class, industry or sector, are all premised on assumptions about government’s role. Such considerations come to the fore most feverishly when the Treasury, ostensibly to rescue businesses and their employees from the consequences of enforced closure, has swamped the economy with mountains of “helicopter” money– whether in the form of outright subventions or as “bounce-back loans”, “business interruption loans”, “recovery loans” or any others in this euphemistically-styled range.
But was it effective? Where’s the money gone?
It’s deeply ironic that what the commentariat finds most galling is an ever-widening gulf between rich and poor, while failing to understand its inevitability: the fact that this hated gulf is an inescapable consequence of the very monetary largesse intended by compassionate governments to protect disadvantaged citizens and businesses. (It’s the old story: always ask yourself who gets the initial bite? If you don’t know, just look around you: out-of-reach domestic property prices; stock market booms; iconic E-types and DB4s at £300,000 a throw. Just join the dots!)
Government in the European Union
The corrosive impact of excessive government power is clearly evident in Brussels, where fearmongering has been elevated to an art-form. “I’m from the government and I’m here to help” remain the nine most terrifying words in our language, as Reagan eloquently put it. Squawking about vaccine legitimacy in the guise of concern for public health has become a political blood sport. It has certainly taken priority over saving lives in the frenzy of post-Brexit petulance. We should not be surprised. The EU’s constitutional origins, and its unwavering trajectory of liberty curtailment, provide an exemplary case study on “tyranny-by-expert” rule.
In his recent letter to New York Times Review of Books, Professor Patrick Barron highlights three traits shared in the English-speaking world that are not found in the European Union: “(i) that the people bestow ultimate legitimacy on government through representative bodies; (ii) that human rights are God-given and inalienable, and not the gift of privileged political elites; and (iii) that law emerges organically from society (the Common Law) and not from the administrative state. All three of these traits spring from perhaps the greatest political document in the history of the world: Magna Carta.”
But power is seductive. Its ego-boosting adrenaline gathers spurious legitimacy and any threat to its sway is fought with commensurate tenacity. But at what a price! Autocratic government has an unquenchable thirst for spending without restraint. Count the zeroes! At this level it’s quite obviously beyond any economic reckoning – for one simple reason: it’s not their money
A lone voice of sanity
Leslie Chapman was a rare exception – a civil servant who dedicated his professional career to the reduction of Whitehall waste and bureaucracy. His famous book, “Your Disobedient Servant” (a bestseller for which he refused any payment), described a level of pervasive wastefulness both bizarre and terrifying, such as an army depot that stored enough mule shoes to re-fight the Crimean war, and kept them in a shed that was heated. He declared that the full Civil Service panoply was applied to performing tasks that could be done far more cost-effectively by private sector contractors with skin in the game.
In every government department he visited he had one question: “I want to know what everybody – every single person – is doing at this minute.” He found that departmental chiefs were always able to justify their resistance to any reform of the status quo by citing factors such as timing, validity or applicability beyond the immediate focus – even claiming that “there are no staff available to investigate whether there are too many staff”!
This mindless imperviousness to waste was attributed by Chapman to a combination of sheer inertia (“upholding the Departmental view”) and immunity from personal consequences, guaranteed by complete job security.
Here we are, forty years on, and can safely say that centralised state power has become more firmly entrenched than ever and Burkean individualism is now in shameful retreat.
Heaven help the “public interest”
Don’t ever be misled by government enactments “in the public interest”. Civil administrations have little idea what is in the public interest. Is it in the public interest to inflate the price of housing by imposing a tax called “stamp duty”? And then to create a pandemic bubble by granting a stamp duty holiday? And then to burst the bubble by removing the tax holiday? The sickening truth is that they don’t have a clue about the public interest while citizens are left to second-guess what’s coming next in this incoherent stream of regulatory debris.
It was announced, aptly enough on All Fools’ Day, that millions of UK workers will receive a pay increase as the government raises both the “minimum wage” and the “living wage”. In economics, wage levels are related to production, not some politically contrived statistic. But legislators, protected from the consequences of their inanity, are unconcerned that small, struggling enterprises will simply “go under” if forced to pay the new living wage while also having to comply with all the other time-wasting regulatory paraphernalia.
Icing on the crony cake
Then, finally, there is the Gupta lobbying scandal, a classic in latter-day crony capitalism. A tycoon with a sprawling multinational complex of highly leveraged steel-related businesses, and his supply-chain financier, are permitted to dangle their self-seeking financial wizardry before suckers in Whitehall’s upper echelons. They get their overdue come-uppance when an Indian credit insurer pulls the rug on Credit Suisse, exposing their supplier-supporting banks to potentially fatal losses. Then they have the gall to seek a £170 million taxpayer bailout from the Treasury, despite having been feeding on state subsidies all along.
Warren Buffet’s aphorism is irrefutable: When the tide goes out you can tell who’s swimming naked! But when government is feeding the nudists with our money isn’t it time to question the role of government?
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file