John Blundell writes for The Scotsman

WHEN anthropologists first studied peoples in semi-arid areas around the world they found most groups had shamans or priests or medicine men who devised rituals to bring down the life-giving rains. There was no more an important task … nor a more fraudulent one.

You could dance at dawn. You could sacrifice a goat. You could sing to the clouds. You could sacrifice a child. Any ritual would do providing it had drama and a substantial “fee”.

If the rains came then the magician had performed his duties with diligence and skill. If the skies did not open then it was the fault of his customers. Either they had been sinful in some way or had not made sufficient sacrifices. As a confidence trick it is difficult to beat.

Apart from cricket, perhaps we go without rain-making rituals but we do have tricksters attempting comparable frauds. We call them trade unions.

Tony Blair has all but broken the umbilical cords between trade unions and the Labour Party. He has made no attempts to reverse the Tory legal changes that brought unions back within the law.

Nonetheless a certain primitive folk memory survives. But for trade unions, the idea goes, the workers would be earning far less and possibly living in destitution under the exploitation of the cold-hearted capitalists. At a superficial level this argument still has a coherence.

However, it is worth reciting why trade unions achieve the opposite of their nominal purpose, which I offer as another example of Blundell’s Law. They are worse than any tribal rain-makers because they achieve the impoverishment of all working people.

“The power of any trade union to push up the wages of its members, that is, to make them higher than they would be without the activity of the union, rests entirely on its ability to prevent entry into the trade of workers willing to work for a lower wage.

“This means that the power of any one union to raise the wages of its members rests on their preventing the movement of workers from points where their marginal productivity is high. This must result in the overall marginal productivity of labour, and therefore the level of real wages being kept lower than it would otherwise be.”

The quote is from F A Hayek and I think the most succinct exposition of why trade unions impoverish us all – including their loyal members. Working class solidarity may have a certain poetic appeal. It is entirely bogus.

If trade unions are malignant what about more respectable combinations in restraint of trade? The middle class professions are as determined to preserve their restrictive practices as any blue-collar conspirators.

We have seen some middle class agencies performing union-like roles blown away. Cecil Parkinson’s “Big Bang” exploded the stock market’s cobwebs. The late Keith Joseph de-privileged the opticians. It turned out optical skills were fairly rudimentary and we could buy spectacles at a fraction of the cost without the profession’s confusions.

We all know lawyers operate subtle restrictive practices at every point in their work. I don’t readily see how this can ever be reversed while lawyers dominate Parliament.

Medics and the para-medical professions including dentistry and veterinary roles are severely infested by restrictions akin to trade unionism. We all hold medics in awe and we can be utterly bamboozled by their thickets of jargon. Yet after several hundred years all medics still seem to be grinding on about their modest pay and heavy workloads. Could it be we do not have enough medics as the supply is permanently strangulated? Much of all doctors work could be performed by assistants.

In some senses reciting why trade unions ought to be dissolved seems unkind. They are busy evaporating down from 50 per cent of all employees in 1979 to 20 per cent now. They largely survive only in the white collar underbelly of public agencies.

Yet this dragon is not yet slain. The European Commission, taking its cue from the International Labour Organisation wants to invest more powers in trade unions and to make membership compulsory. While criticism of the EU remains “politically incorrect” it remains difficulty to get these threats believed.

Nobody can object to firms having staff clubs. Nobody can object to friendly combinations – but trade unions are the precise opposite. They are nothing but unfriendly combinations.

John Blundell is director general of the Institute of Economic Affairs. He does not belong to any union or professional body.