This is not a ‘neoliberal’ age. This is an age of hyper-statism
And yet, there is one market which seems to consistently defy the law of diminishing marginal utility: the market for books moaning about the evils of neoliberalism and free markets. We are flooded with titles like How Politics Makes Us Sick: Neoliberal Epidemics, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution,Postcapitalism, Austerity, Breadline Britain, Why We Can’t Afford the Rich, and Captive State: The Corporate Takeover of Britain.
Blaming neoliberalism for all of society’s ills might shift copies and provide a neat straw man for left-wingers, but the line of thinking these books are capitalising on is pure nonsense. Here’s why:
1. The state is larger than ever
It has often been pointed out that resistance to immigration is inversely related to the number of actual immigrants, and strongest in places where there are hardly any of them. Something similar is true for resistance to neoliberalism. It is strongest in France, where, with government spending approaching 60 per cent of GDP, there is actually not much of a market economy left. It is also ludicrously strong in Britain, where the state has never been larger in size, never been more encompassing in scope, and never been more intrusive.
Forget the waffle about “austerity”: The long-term trend has been one of almost continuous government expansionism. When A.J.P. Taylor said that “Until August 1914 a sensible, law-abiding Englishman could pass through life and hardly notice the existence of the state”, he was exaggerating, but not grotesquely so. Up until the First World War, government spending used to account for less than 15 per cent of GDP. It then rose to around 30 per cent in the interwar period, and still did not cross the 40 per cent mark until the mid-1960s. Today, despite five years of so-called “cuts”, it still stands above that level. At the outbreak of WWI, only about one in twenty people worked for the public sector, today, the figure is closer to one in five.
2. The state is more centralised than ever
There was once a time when “government” usually meant “local government”. Today, it is almost synonymous with “Whitehall”. Ninety-five per cent of all tax revenue accrues to the national level, which makes the UK one the most centralised countries in the world. The tradition of local autonomy, of voting with one’s feet, and of tax competition between local authorities, has been almost completely wiped out. Local governments are now so devoid of any real autonomy that we might as well abolish them, and replace them with Whitehall branch offices.
3. The state is more active than ever
Yes, there have been a few privatisations in the 1980s and 1990s, but let’s not forget that private provision was once the norm, and government involvement the exception – including in areas like infrastructure, education and healthcare.
The state has not just grown hugely in size and scope, it also interferes more heavily in areas which are still nominally “private” matters. Up until World War II, the annual volume of new legislation was small enough to be printed on fewer than 2,000 pages. By the allegedly “neoliberal” 1980s, this figure had already risen to more than 8,000 pages per year, and it now stands at about 15,000. Whether it is in the name of public health, of health and safety, of “diversity and equality”, of “sustainability” – the state always finds new areas of activity for its legions of meddlesome busybodies.
4. The state crowds out everything else
Government largesse comes at a cost, over and above the financial one. It crowds out private initiative and enterprise, as well as civic engagement, self-organisation, private philanthropy and voluntary solidarity. The labour movement once had a proud tradition of grassroots mutualism, enabling people of modest means to provide for ill-health, old age and unemployment. Today, it has been reduced to a cheerleader of ever-larger government. Britain once had a thriving charitable sector, but today, most large charities are just campaign groups for more public spending.
This is not a neoliberal age. This is an age of hyper-statism, where the state has far more control over our lives than it should do. Think that by buying yet another anti-capitalist tome means you’re somehow “thinking outside the box”? You’re wrong. Anti-capitalism is the box.
Dr Kristian Niemietz is the IEA’s Head of Health and Welfare. This article was first published by the Independent. For further reading, see Ryan Bourne’s The Paragon Initiative Opening Paper.