Thursday, 9 November 2017

It's not capitalism we need to defend, it's freedom

Every now and then I get asked about why I'm in politics and, once I've done the self-deprecating bit about how no other business would have me, I get to the crunch. I am involved because free speech, free markets, free trade and free enterprise need defending. The systems of government, the lobby groups, the business organisations, the voluntary sector and 'thinking people everywhere' all conspire to limit and restrict your and my freedom to act. Challenging this sad truth is essential.

And the problem isn't capitalism, it's government. This isn't to say that big business is innocent - the amounts spent by business on lobbying government for law changes, subsidy, new trade barriers and more regulation remind us that many large organisations really don't like the idea of freedom. So when Corbyn-loving students tell me capitalism is corrupting, I get their point - hardly a day passes without one or other example of a big business getting some sort of protectionist fix or some new regulation aimed at preventing market entry. We've known this for a long while - it's the central theme of Adam Smith's 'Wealth of Nations' - mercantilism, market fixing, cartels and protectionism, all those things the technocrats try to justify, prevent the growth of wealth, the opportunity for equality and the raising of people out of poverty.

I also understand how those young people are disgruntled at being 'Generation Rent', at having great fat student debt they probably won't pay off and at seeing my generation sitting snuggly on a pile of assets (but still moaning at having to use those assets to look after ourselves in our old age). But when Corbyn or other socialists try to say that these problems are some how a consequence of free markets, free trade or free enterprise, they are lying - even when they use the catch-all term of capitalism.

Housing in London is expensive because for sixty years we've run urban containment policies around the capital and for forty of those sixty years, London has generated more new jobs than it has new houses. And if you provide just six new homes for every ten new households, housing is going to get more expensive. This isn't the fault of the market, it's the fault of government for rationing the land we've got to build houses on. They call this planning and it's the basic building block of socialism - instead of having a free market, some folk in an office with a computer model decide what the price should be, how much should be made and how it should be distributed. It limits your freedom and it doesn't work.

Defending freedom is not, therefore, simply about the moral imperative of liberty but is justified for straightforward and practical reasons. Those freedoms - speech, trade, markets, enterprise - should be defended because they work, because they are the things that made us rich and, right now, are making poor people everywhere richer. The only places - North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela, Zimbabwe - where people are getting poorer are places where these freedoms are comprehensively rejected. Places where socialism - the planned economy - is the chosen model.

Everywhere I look freedom is under attack. Technocrats and business lobbyists saying import tariffs protect domestic business. Local councils saying limiting procurement options supports local economies. Planners saying the problem is the wrong plan not the planning itself. Farmers saying they couldn't operate without subsidy. Public health groups wanting to ban smoking in parks or to fix booze prices. Police forces calling for new powers to seemingly arrest anybody for almost anything. Housing lobbyists saying the solution is to fix rents not to build houses. Schools snatching sausage rolls from innocent children's lunchboxes. Mayors enforcing public morals by banning pretty women from advertising or drinking from the train.

And then we're told the problem is capitalism? It's not, the problem is that government - in cahoots with a bewildering lobby of charities, businesses and 'campaigners' - takes away freedoms. And we can't subdivide these freedoms - be cross about the loss of one freedom that's important to us while cheering on a ban on something we don't like. For sure some of these losses of freedom are less damaging than others but each loss - from daft rules on advertising vaping to 'Public Space Protection Orders' that make anything an official doesn't like a crime - represents a further restriction and another barrier to pleasure, enterprise or exchange.

I'm happy to defend capitalism - the idea that the rewards from business success goes to the people who put up the cash - but it's not as important as defending free markets, free trade, free enterprise and free speech. Those freedoms constrain the worst urges of business, protect us from the busybody and limit the oppressive instincts of government. We have become too glib about each new loss of freedom - even sometimes to the point of welcoming it because of the NHS or crime or community safety or, the favourite all-purpose reason, because of the children.

So let's get less hung up about whether something's owned by the people who invested, by the workforce or by the community and worry instead about those who want to take away your freedom to organise business how you want. Let's be bothered about government and business wanting to fix gas prices or food supply or where you can buy gin and lemonade. The good life we enjoy and that we'd like everyone to enjoy, was made possible by that free enterprise, by those free markets, and by that free trade. And underpinning all this is free speech - our right to speak what we see as truth, to promote our business and to challenge the assumptions and presumptions of those who govern us. Freedom matters - let's defend it.



JoeP said...

Hear, Hear!

Anonymous said...

I see where you’re coming from.
But do you not see that the main driver of Conservative policy is to simply swap out [electable] government and insert [unelected] big business in its place?
That’s how I’m seeing our freedoms are being taken away.

Sam said...

One can also argue *for* the greenbelt in a logically coherent way which has little to do with freedom. Houses at the edge of Urban areas are typically very valuable, as they have access both to the opportunities that the city offers and the quality of life that comes with being near the large open areas offered by the countryside. These houses are positional goods and hence there will always the temptation to build a little further out, to leapfrog the development that is already there. The structure of this competition is zero sum, giving rise to urban sprawl, and I don't know if you've ever visited Houston, but it can make cities into truly horrible places, where nobody has the freedom to enjoy open space or the countryside. Regulation is one way to curb this competition so as to avoid sprawl.

So while I do largely agree with your point, I feel it is made too narrowly. It ignores externalities and doesn't address the possibility of zero or negative sum consequences arising from collective action problems which are enabled by the very freedom that you're advocating for.

Anonymous said...

How far would you extend "freedom" in the current economic system ? Would you, for example, abolish Ofgem ? Would you tell the Bank of England not to bother about the growth of unsecured credit or mortgage lending ? Abolish the minimum wage ? Remove all restrictions on immigration ?