IDS is the heir to Beveridge

A jolly nice chap

“Iain Duncan Smith is scum” announced a former friend of mine on her Facebook wall recently. Actually, as anyone who has met him will attest, IDS is a perfectly affable chap. But he is sceptical of the present size and nature of Britain’s welfare state. This, apparently, makes him “scum”.

Between 2001 and 2007 British government spending increased by 54 percent in real terms. In nominal terms the coalition is actually raising spending even further, from £661 billion in 2010 to a projected £729 billion in 2015. What cutting is being done is coming from above target inflation so that, in real terms, spending will fall by 2.7 percent. And remember, that’s a real terms cut of 2.7 percent after a real terms increase of 54 percent.

But the reaction from sections of the left to this bare snipping has, as with my former friend, been nothing short of demented.

Nick Cohen frequently says very sensible things but at the end of the day he writes for the Observer and he has to sing for his supper – hence a steady flow of silly articles about barely existent ‘austerity’ and mythical ‘Tory cuts’. In a recent article he wrote that “Iain Duncan Smith’s universal credit poses a serious threat to women’s independence.” You actually have to ask how independent someone who is dependent on state welfare actually is in the first place, but to have done so would have been to intrude on the usual orgy of hysteria which accompanied the article.

One of Cohen’s Facebook friends commented, “Yes, yes, yes. Duncan Smith has a nasty agenda, fired by his own sense of Christian mission. A very creepy man.” Another warned that “The Tories especially are making attacks on the poorest, that are remarkably similar to the sort of thing the eugenicists of the nineteenth century used to say.” Sections of the left are currently consumed with lunatic levels of fear and loathing.

It never seems to occur to these people that someone could question the present size and nature of Britain’s welfare state from any motivation other than pure evil. It never enters their minds that someone might be critical of the welfare state as it stands for the simple reason that it is a massively expensive failure.

“Flat rate of subsistence benefit; flat rate of contribution”;

“Unemployment benefit will…normally be subject to a condition of attendance at a work or training centre after a certain period”;

“National assistance (a means tested benefit) is an essential subsidiary method in the whole plan…The scope of assistance will be narrowed from the beginning and will diminish”;

“Assistance…must be felt to be something less desirable then insurance benefit; otherwise the insured persons get nothing for their contributions. Assistance therefore will be given always subject to proof of needs and examination of means; it will be subject also to any conditions as to behaviour which may seem likely to hasten restoration of earning capacity”;

“The proposal to adjust benefit according to the rent actually paid by individuals should, provisionally, be rejected”.

These quotes, recommending conditions on eligibility for welfare, proposing a reduction of benefits over time, supporting the notion that benefits must not match employment income, and rejecting housing benefit, do not come from someone like Iain Duncan Smith who the contemporary left would brand as evil. They come, in fact, from the Report of the Inter-Departmental Committee on Social Insurance and Allied Services of 1942, written by William Beveridge, which laid the foundations for the welfare state.

Beveridge’s plan was, as James Bartholomew writes,

“very simple. Everyone would make flat-rate contributions to a national insurance scheme. Those who fell ill, became unemployed or reached retirement age would, in return, receive flat rate payments. That is it. The rest was detail”.

John Maynard Keynes reportedly told his friend Beveridge: “The Chancellor of the Exchequer should thank his lucky stars that he has got off so cheap”.

Keynes was wrong. Over the years Beveridge’s safety net became a vast hammock. Since the welfare state got under way in earnest in 1948, social security spending as a percentage of GDP has increased from 4 percent to nearly 14 percent; a 250 percent increase.

Source: IFS

Those on the right and this coalition government are often accused of launching an attack on the welfare state bequeathed us by Beveridge and the Attlee government. That ship has long since sailed. Beveridge’s welfare state died decades ago when it became the bloated, expensive, counterproductive monster it is today. And it wasn’t the right that killed it, the left did.

There is a new film out by dreary, overrated Marxist Ken Loach titled The Spirit of ’45. In it, among other things, Loach calls for the Brits of 2013 to resist coalition welfare reforms and redouble their commitment to state welfare spending. But that is not the spirit of 1945. The spirit of 1945 was of work, contribution, and insurance.

And that appears to be the spirit of 2013 too. As a recent report by the National Conversation found: “Wherever they stood on the political spectrum, we were told that the welfare system was broken, and that no one party held the answer to fixing it… A key concern, shared by respondents from different backgrounds, was the degree to which the modern welfare system had moved away from Beveridge’s original plans for social insurance. With the gradual erosion of Beveridge’s contributory principle, governments found themselves paying out ever larger welfare disbursements to people who had never paid into the system”.

Sensing this even Ed Miliband has begun making noises about “recognising contribution”.

Iain Duncan Smith is not “scum”. Rather, unlike Loach and Cohen and his loony friends, he is the heir to Beveridge. If the spirit of ’45 lives on anywhere, it is in the coalition’s welfare reforms.

This article originally appeared at The Commentator

Crisis of statism, not capitalism

In search of that magic money tree

t might not have been the ‘crisis of capitalism’ which some have been waiting so long for, but it is widely thought that the last few years certainly represent a “crisis of capitalism”. But if you think of capitalism as a system whereby profits and losses acting unhindered by the hand of government guide capital to its most productive uses, this is difficult to sustain.

The sectors which blew up and took the rest of the economy with them were riddled with intervention. Banks have their capital adequacy rates set and their bad investments covered by government. The housing market is kept inflated with all manner of tax breaks and politically motivated distortions like Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and the Community Reinvestment Act. Behind it all interest rates are set by a small panel of political appointees, much as the price of alum keys was set in the Soviet Union.

But as we see violence on the streets of Athens and Madrid, the Occupy protests in the United States, and unadulterated rage on the pages of The Guardian’s Comment is Free (Cif), there is certainly some sort of crisis afoot. It is, however, a crisis of big government.

Over the last few decades governments throughout the western world have made extravagant spending commitments. In Ireland the welfare budget was tripled. In Greece pastry chefs, radio announcers, hairdressers, and steam bath masseurs were included among 600 professions deemed so “arduous and perilous” that workers could retire at 50 on a state pension of 95 percent of their final salary.

But it wasn’t just small basket case economies doing it; big basket case economies were doing it too. France decided that its workers could work no more than 35 hours a week and still generate the wealth to pay for everyone to retire at 60 and spend a third of their lives as state pensioners. In the United States the Bush administration launched the largest expansion of Federal spending since Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society program of the 1960s. In Britain the Labour government increased spending by more than half in six years.

As long as you didn’t look either too closely or too far ahead, these massive spending commitments looked just about affordable as long as there was plenty of money to spend. And there was. In Britain tax receipts rose by 40 percent between 2001 and 2007. In the United States, Federal tax revenues rose by 30 percent between 2000 and 2007. French tax revenue increased by 30 percent between 2002 and 2008.

But these were the effects of the bubble. These were taxes swelled by property values, house sales, and bank profits on those house sales and the myriad ancillary transactions such as securitisation. With the bursting of that bubble that wealth is gone, if it was even there in first place, and it is not coming back. Nor should it.

That does mean, however, that lots of the extravagant government spending promises made before the bust now stand revealed for what they are; unaffordable in the absence of bubble taxation. And given the undesirability of bubbles, that just makes them unaffordable full stop. No amount of general strikes, protesting, occupying, or posting on CiF will change that. We do not have a mighty oak of a money tree, but a bunce bonsai and, in truth, that’s all we ever did have.

Since the crisis hit we have seen both the unavoidability of this truth and the reluctance of electorates to accept it. In the last few years the voters of Greece, Spain, and France have voted out ‘austerity’ governments only to have ‘austerity’ visited upon them anyway by their replacements (at least they were asked, unlike the Italians). There is a very good chance that this November and in May 2015 the voters of the United States and United Kingdom will discover that reality doesn’t just disappear because you tick a box marked ‘Obama’ or ‘Miliband’.

The amount of money spent by the government has grown inexorably. We have reached its limit. In Britain, since 1964, whether top rates of tax have been at 83 percent, as in the 1970s, or 40 percent, the percentage of national income paid in taxes has never exceeded 38% of GDP.

Whatever the designs of the politicians, the social democrats, the Labour party, the Guardian, or Polly Toynbee, the British people, collectively and unconsciously, seem to have decided that they are not willing to fund a state sector any bigger than this. When the share of state spending as a share of GDP reaches 45 percent or 50 percent, as it has recently, the only way is down. That is where we are now.

If the extravagant spending promises of politicians outstrip both the capabilities of even a well-functioning capitalism to generate the necessary wealth and the public’s willingness to pay for it, that is not capitalism’s crisis, but a crisis of big government. Its time is up.

This article first appeared at The Commentator

The private origins of public institutions

Welfare before the state

This is the first draft of the introduction to a pamphlet I hope to have published soon titled ‘Galloping Horses – The private origins of public institutions’

Public policy and the microeconomic theory which underpins it is replete with justifications for state provision of a wide range of services. Under the general heading of ‘market failure’ concepts such as asymmetric information, externalities or public goods are all seen to be solved in modern mainstream microeconomics by some degree of state intervention.

The message is that state provision of these public institutions is a necessity if they are to be provided at all. Obviously, the flipside is that no more state provision of these services means the services will cease altogether.

This concern has animated much of the opposition to the Conservative Party’s ‘Big Society’ agenda. Along with the predictable opposition from producer interests, much of the concern with the Big Society stems from the notion that if the state doesn’t provide these services they won’t get provided at all. The influence of the market failure paradigm runs deep.

Away from the models of economic textbooks we see that this is not, in fact, the case. We see, all around us every day, the results of human action taken in the private sphere to increase our welfare. And just as often as we see this private human action working to reduce our welfare, we see some state action doing the same.

Indeed, the idea that human action can, in fact, provide the services which mainstream public policy microeconomics and market failure theorists say it can’t is seen in the very fabric of some of our most hallowed and cherished public institutions who’s continued attachment to government, microeconomics tells us, is so vital to their continuance.

This pamphlet will take a critical look at some of the key concepts of market failure concepts. It will then look at three public institutions in three very different sectors; unemployment insurance, the National Health Service and the London Underground. The standard theory tells us that these could not exist without government but we will see that their existence actually predates state control and that the state did not create these public institutions, it simply took over what human action in the private sphere had already built. Or, as EG West wrote of the state intervention in education, “it jumped into the saddle of a horse that was already galloping”

Finally, we will look at the theory of the evolution of money developed by the nineteenth century Austrian economist Carl Menger and apply it to the evolution of public institutions more widely. It will help us to explain what the standard theory cannot; how unemployment insurance, healthcare and underground railways can be provided without the state.

For exactly 100 years, since the National Insurance Act of 1911 elbowed many perfectly good private arrangements for insurance against unemployment, injury and old age out of the way, the trend of British public policy has been that the state steps in and people step out. Reversing that trend is the goal of the Big Society. It is a large concept dealing with deep issues of psychology, sociology, history and economics. It has proved difficult to communicate which is one reason why it has proved so difficult to get off the ground. This pamphlet aims to go some way to redressing that.