Economic Theory

Attacks on Corbyn are a distraction – it is Corbynomics that needs tackling


“Nobody advocates socialism anymore. It is now all just about reforming capitalism.”

I must have heard this lazy cliché in hundreds of variations. I’ve never had much time for it; of course socialism is still popular in Britain. It has not suddenly returned with “Corbynmania” – it has never been away. There have always been people who wanted the state to take over the commanding heights of the economy, even if they have not always been at the immediate forefront of politics.

Regardless if you’re on the left or right, for anyone who isn’t interested in the state controlling everything there must be a concerted effort to tackle Corbynomics – not Corbyn – head-on. Corbynomics is vastly more popular than Corbyn, and unless somebody creates some headwind, it will always creep back in, even if Corbyn decided to retire with his disciples to Venezuela tomorrow.

Personally I couldn’t disagree more with Corbyn’s economic policies. I am an unrepentant free market fundamentalist with an unapologetic contempt for socialism in all its varieties. But I’m not so sure whether Corbyn really is “unelectable”. And if he is, it is not because of his economic policies. It is because of his questionable choice of “friends” and allies, and on his willingness to make excuses for unsavoury people if they happen to tick one of the left’s victimhood boxes.

A recent YouGov survey asked: “Do you think the following [industries] should be nationalised and run in the public sector, or privatised and run by private companies?”. Whatever the industry, at least two out three respondents wanted to see it nationalised. There is also widespread support for most types of price controls. Let’s face it: the median voter is much closer to Lenin than to Milton Friedman. When it comes to economics, Corbynistas are the mainstream, and free-marketeers like me are the lunatic fringe.

If you don’t believe me, you clearly haven’t been close to a university campus in a while, or, for that matter, in the politics section of any high street bookstore. Nor have you been paying much attention to mainstream political art or comedy. The wishful thinking embodied in all of this has made supporters of the market economy complacent for too long. Rather than making the principled case for capitalism, often counterintuitive and hard to explain, we have hidden behind lame phrases like “the alternatives are worse”. If “Corbynmania” becomes a catalyst for a more back-to-the-basics-style capitalism-vs-socialism debate – good, bring it on.

Whether such a debate will take place remains to be seen. I suspect that over the next years, British politics will be dominated by American-style culture wars. Jeremy Corbyn’s conservative critics will concentrate on his choice of “friends”, his foreign and security policies, and his attitudes to Queen and country.  In response, the left will rally even closer around their new messiah, dismissing any criticism of him as malicious smears. Twitter, which has already become the Church of Saint Jeremy, will become an even angrier place.

For free-market liberals – often wrongly grouped together with conservatives as “the right” – this is not an appealing prospect, because it means that economics will become almost a sideshow. Culture war issues are low-hanging fruits, the issues on which the Corbynistas are furthest away from “Middle England”. But a culture war does nothing to solve the more fundamental problem: Economic statism is insanely popular.

If Corbyn is able to persuade people that they have nothing to worry about his choice of “friends”, and that he wouldn’t be as much of a threat as the Tories have made out, then free-marketeers will need a completely new strategy. They should stop being apologetic, waffling technocratic nonsense, and ceding the moral high ground to their opponents.

The problem with socialism is not just that it is economically inefficient. It is also a complete myth that socialism represents a transfer of power from elites to working people, even if it’s democratic. The idea that nationalisation means bringing industries “under democratic control” is utter nonsense. As Arthur Seldon once explained, “the notion that ‘society as a whole’ can control ‘its productive resources’ is common in socialist writing but is patently unrealistic. The machinery of social control has never been devised. There is no conceivable way in which the British citizen can control the controllers of ‘his’ state railway or NHS, except so indirectly that it is in effect inoperative.”

Socialism has never anywhere empowered working people. All it does is empower the political class, senior bureaucrats, and well-connected interest groups, and this could not be otherwise.

Nor do you create a more “caring” society by inflating the size of the state apparatus. Selfishness and greed exists in any economic system (as do compassion and solidarity). It is only their manifestations that differ. In a socialist economy, people enrich themselves via political means rather than market exchange, that’s all.

Attacks on Corbyn are a distraction. It is Corbynomics that needs tackling.

Dr Kristian Niemietz is the IEA’s Head of Health and Welfare. This article first appeared in the Independent.

Head of Political Economy

Dr Kristian Niemietz is the IEA's Head of Political Economy. Kristian studied Economics at the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin and the Universidad de Salamanca, graduating in 2007 as Diplom-Volkswirt (≈MSc in Economics). During his studies, he interned at the Central Bank of Bolivia (2004), the National Statistics Office of Paraguay (2005), and at the IEA (2006). He also studied Political Economy at King's College London, graduating in 2013 with a PhD. Kristian previously worked as a Research Fellow at the Berlin-based Institute for Free Enterprise (IUF), and taught Economics at King's College London. He is the author of the books "Socialism: The Failed Idea That Never Dies" (2019), "Universal Healthcare Without The NHS" (2016), "Redefining The Poverty Debate" (2012) and "A New Understanding of Poverty" (2011).


3 thoughts on “Attacks on Corbyn are a distraction – it is Corbynomics that needs tackling”

  1. Posted 19/09/2015 at 10:21 | Permalink

    To the rich and powerful ‘freedom’ means their own freedom to rob and exploit the poor without restriction!

  2. Posted 19/09/2015 at 12:27 | Permalink

    Could it be you are both wrong? ” As Arthur Seldon once explained, “the notion that ‘society as a whole’ can control ‘its productive resources’ is common in socialist writing but is patently unrealistic. “” You don’t have to “control” ie nationalise common resources, there are other options. Rents are an efficient rationing device. They are not an ethical basis for distribution. So, what do we do with economic rents? Allow them to remain in private hands (free-market extremist), grab them and private capital by nationalising industries (socialist), or use them as the optimally fair thus efficient way of funding public services(geoist). Socialism is a reaction to the unfair and inefficient dogma of rent privatisation, which free-market fundamentalists are the defenders of. The result of which is not only excessive inequality but massive deadweight losses. You are both as bad as each other I’m afraid, resulting in a middle ground where we get the worst of both Worlds.

  3. Posted 19/09/2015 at 14:45 | Permalink

    If ‘we’, the people, want to ‘control’ the producers, the thing to emphasise is competition. Not everyone will appreciate Hayek’s description of it as a ‘discovery procedure’ but for once common sense does not lead us astray — it is competition from other producers, or the threat of it, that helps to limit poor behaviour by producers. Even in the provision of health services, if some people feel better protected by the government being involved, that’s fine as long as the rest of us can choose to shop elsewhere (and as long as the government provider(s) are required to compete fairly). And, of course, we need to keep a sharp eye on the actual outputs of various rival approaches. (For example, can children read properly after a dozen years in state schools run by ‘well-meaning’ teachers?) One of Adam Smith’s most profound insights is that we don’t need to rely on the goodwill or moral merit of business people if we simply allow them to promote their own interests by satisfying consumers.

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