THE OTHER DAY I got a startled look from a Lib Dem canvasser at my door when I suggested that I was not minded to vote for yet another socialist party. Clearly, the twenty-something activist in question had an understanding of his world far removed from my Jo Grimond liberalism.
Should I despair about that? I don’t think so; what has been called “the failed idea that never dies” is clearly a genuine calling for young minds. However, it perhaps increases the duty of someone who passed through university in the 1970’s to explain why socialism is dangerous.
Shortly after leaving my university I was asked by its careers department to write about my experience in getting into broadcasting. In my piece I wrote that my journey had been totally circumscribed by the pre-entry closed shop in journalism. I had to spend a year in Cardiff on a journalism course to obtain union-mandated qualifications; I had to work in London on piece work – a zero hours arrangement, hours highly variable – then as a “semi-scab” desk producer and copy taker, then on a temporary three day contract with the BBC that luckily got repeatedly extended.
Throughout, the Union frowned on people like me working through such loopholes, causing me great anxiety as to whether I could stay in work, or when the frequent mandatory strike meetings were called by Fathers of Chapel (shop stewards) to which I could not attend; being a demarcation outlaw. In the interim I had to pay 1.5% of my low wages to the Union, never finding out whether they would admit me to become a “proper” journalist. I finally got my ticket – although I had to phone a shop steward in Glasgow who grudgingly said I could confirm I was in work in a news room and “write in for my ticket to the office”.
I lay that out at length because it is an often forgotten facet of socialism; that it relies on controlling people. Crucially, there is a logical connection within Corbynomics in how this comes about, rooted in political economy. For any young person thinking of supporting socialist policy I offer a set of benchmarks for decision making.
- Does the policy involve the spending of other people’s money on other people?
This is the easiest way to spend money, it costs the spender nothing and gains credits from those spent on. Worldwide historic evidence points also to the fact that this money also gets overspent. Today’ deficits and tomorrow’s debts – payable by young people in the future – grow accordingly.
You then have to ask yourself who does the spending and why? When more money is spent on the NHS, decisions are made by politicians and bureaucrats who have to pay heed to the interests of NHS doctors and clinical staff. There is good data to show that a rise in pay levels trumps productivity gains from this spending. The same applies across the public services especially when they are nationalised; free money breeds rent seeking at the consumer’s expense. The management of those services then becomes a series of controlling cabals.
Unfortunately, there is a secondary effect; the cabals run out of money. Public policy becomes a war game between political interests to avoid budgetary rationing. RAF F-35 costs compete with MRI scanner costs, housing subsidies compete with train subsidies. Budgeting becomes arbitrary, based on the political strength of the spender; in the process service users lose all control over their varied interests. The fixed pie of the state becomes a fixation of all public servants; because control of the pie by the state means that it cannot be increased in size.
- Does the policy involve priced public services?
Any time a service is offered as “free” two lies are used. The first one is obvious and static … nothing can be supplied to you for free, it’s only subsidised by money taken from someone else to lower the price to zero. The second one is dynamic, what happens over time. An unpriced service is an uninformed service, those managing it have no idea what the preferences of their service users are; they have thrown away the information system (prices) that allow them to judge these.
Through time, such services deteriorate. Producer interests take control, adjusting missions and often re-inventing them. Train services start to be run as train sets for managers, not for passengers, community care services stifle themselves with regulations that curtail elderly care and child care at great cost, quangos emerge with self-agreed mandates to control food, communications and educational goals. Soon enough, how you choose to travel, run your family, eat and even think becomes controlled. Your view on how such services should be provided is discarded; speak to any welfare recipient.
And if you think such methods help remove inequalities, think again, middle-class welfare and regulatory industry salaries are a very high fraction of “redistributive” budgets. Trains, mail services, energy and communications are supervised and maintained by skilled operatives earning a lot more than the average wage – with powerful unions who understand the losses they can generate through strike actions.
- Does the policy provide for any element of competition between suppliers?
Competition gets a bad rap, because leftists equate it with some sort of dog-eat-dog way of organising ourselves. Anyone in business will tell you that competition is a nuanced incentive that promotes being on-the-ball and innovating. It ensures it promotes visibility of knowledge about differences in methods of producer supply that those producers then use to improve their sales offer.
It’s also the counter argument to the mistaken notion of a “post-code lottery” in public services. Services are provided by people, and people always do things differently. You have to weigh up like-for-like; between top-down imposed restrictions on service to create “equality of performance” against bottom-up continuous re-invention of services based on knowledge that a difference used elsewhere would best be adopted. All evidence of our sclerotic bureaucratised public services compared to equivalent private services suggests that plural, independently operating and competing services provide consumer gains to all users.
Any young person enthused by Corbynomics should measure its “promises” against the political economic realities how those policy measures will develop through time. Too much sugar eventually gives you diabetes; nationalisation and free service provision through such monopolies offers similar chronic disability.
Believe me, I have lived and worked through it. I never did get the record of my experiences in getting into the media published by my University. A nice lady in the office said she felt it was not “pertinent” to student’s knowing what becoming a journalist would be like. I therefore refused to let them tell my story. I doubt this was in any way a leftist censoring of my story; rather only another example of blindness in academe to the damage that comes from socialist ideas.
That blindness was being lifted in my career. After getting into the journalist’s union I had to go through the same process with the television technician’s union – another pre-entry closed shop – at which point my ability to work (and 3 per cent of my income) was controlled by two Unions. I take some comfort from the fact that I think I also saw the death throes of these controls. I was working in Washington DC in 1982 and observed a White House lawn press conference. There, in the middle of the lawn was the world’s press corps, with about seventy separate TV video cameras. There in the middle of the pack was one, the only one, 16mm film camera, the two Mickey Mouse ears of its film stock magazines plainly visible above all the other modern electronic boxes – proudly sporting the logo of the BBC.
That archaic presence was controlled by a shop steward in Wardour Street, London, who made the industry cling on to historic craft technologies until the advent of Channel 4 and independent commissioning blew the entire controlled structure of television production apart and videotape took over. I offer this to all young people as a warning about Corbynism; since then, television production has morphed from tape through disk to streaming, to cell phone, to smart phone, to web, and instant messaging and social media; a diversity that has created enormous wealth and millions of jobs worldwide. If you are tempted to vote for socialism, use the rules above to assess whether its policies will be good for your life chances.
For individuals, take back control applies to more than just Brexit.