Saturday 7 March 2015

We don't have free markets. Let's keep it that way.

Free markets: a load of old bull

This isn't the first time I've kept a blog. I used to run a hard-line libertarian blog back in 2008. How things have changed. I still consider myself a libertarian but reality often intrudes on isms and libertarianism is something that frequently clashes with reality in such a way that the arguments, if honest, don't really stand up even with some impressive mental gymnastics. Complex societies need governance - and that needs enforcement. A lot of it. It's invisible to most, but it's everywhere. There's no getting past that. Consequently government is big, and it's expensive.

I caught a television programme yesterday which reminded me of this, which shines a torch on port inspectors testing anything from imported Disney crockery for formaldehyde to tinned fish for botulism. We test to rigorous standards to protect our people and our environment - and it protects our markets from fraudulent goods. The primary defences are not based on testing though. Modern defences rely on continuous process control, rather than "end of pipe" testing, which is expensive and of limited value.

Without the process, we'd never have known fraudsters were feeding horse meat into the food chain. It may have slipped the net for a while but it was detected. There is a reason for this. The chain starts back in the country of origin. The crucial part of the system is the international surveillance and warning system which tell the inspectors what to look out for, and only then a tiny sample of incoming produce is actually sampled. Thus, the BBC is only giving a us half the story.

None of it works without international standards, international cooperation and a lot of inter-agency coordination. Many of these standards are international standards and part of the tapestry of law which largely bypasses scrutiny or debate. Much of it ends up on our statue book without an MP or MEP having ever cast an eye upon it because most of it is perfectly sensible - and that which isn't we accept in the name of the common good - for the purposes of reaching agreement. So that inevitably means some law will be bad law and there's not a whole lot we can do about it.

Consequently some people get screwed over. It is that which has seen the closure of small slaughterhouses, electronics producers and the gradual strangulation of agriculture. We call it "cost of doing business". It is from that we get a steady flow of bad headlines regarding EU and international regulation, much of which seems absurd, but ultimately the world works better with than without. And as much as we are fed a media diet of government not working, not least social services, it's the invisible government that we don't hear about that continues to work and continues to do its job without making the headlines, enforcing standards that make life better. It makes our lives simpler as we can buy with confidence knowing the things we buy, from cars to food, breast implants, medical equipment and clothes, probably won't kill us.

In fact, I cannot imagine anything worse than a genuinely free market where criminal gangs can freely import horsemeat and call it prime beef, packaged in lead soldered cans or Chinese toys with arsenic in the paint. And having worked for six years in airline repairs, I cannot imagine how many fatalities we would see without botheresome "red tape".

But it's not just on that level that markets and products need regulating. We also have aspirations beyond safety. Global warming or no, there's every advantage in regulating for more efficient lightbulbs and fridges that use less energy. Left to their own devices, producers would continue to produce what they always have - but regulating for more efficient lightbulbs mean more people in the world can afford basic lighting while those in the developed world can reduce the need for unnecessary power stations - and consequently reduce reliance on unstable regimes for their energy supply. Who loses?

But in this we get the growing feeling that things are now out of our control. They are. The laws we live by that affect us are made at the global level by the anonymous and the unelected. As we become more globalised more and more everyday minutia is regulated, and just one small international standard can change absolutely everything. It can transform societies for the better but at the same time homogenises in ways that don't respect our heritage or culture and leads to the feeling that what makes us unique is being erased. A view I have some sympathy with. The fundamental question of our age is how we preserve that which is distinctive against the tide of progress. But we have more control than we think we do.

It doesn't matter if there are international standards on the VHF frequency of radio equipment on lifeboats any more than it really matters what the diameter of manholes are. These are certainly not things I'm going to go to the barricades over. Do I really give a toss what kind of lightbulb I am forced to use? Not really. Is it the EU's fault that our towns are being hollowed out by corporatasim and homogenisation? No. The French don't have this problem. So why do we?

A memory that makes me chuckle is my dad in full on rant mode on the way to the pub last Christmas as he pointed to two empty shops on the highstreet. And in one small microscopic example, most of the libertarian dogma I believed in was up for re-evaluation. You see there used to be a hardware shop in the village. It had been there for all of time. The sort of place where you could get a snow shovel at short notice or a tin of varnish or a pair of pliers. But a couple of years ago, a fly-by-night rival popped up next door. Sure, for a short while, competition might have brought prices down but the long standing shop then closed down. And shortly after, so did the fly-by-night. The result: there is no longer a hardware store. If you want a snow shovel you now have to drive down the motorway to the B&Q - and the highstreet is diminished. Not much of a win for either business or the consumer.

That's where a parish planning committee could and would have intervened. France does it. We don't. And what do we get in reward? Every town is much the same, and our villages and market towns are boarded up and shuttered. Of course the internet does take its toll on the high street, but I've yet to buy a snow shovel or a tin of varnish from Amazon.

We have forgotten that the market is not the primary master of us. There are human considerations: character, tradition, continuity. And these are the things that help us endure and add to our distinctiveness. That is why I have made a strong argument for not building on the green belt and retaining our planning laws.

The market is about renewal and reinvention. The state is about continuity. We cannot thrive without both. And that's really what has made Britain great. I often have scoffed at the notion that Britain is becoming a "neoliberal free-for-all" because the notion of free markets exists only in myth, but in many respects our retreat from local democracy is creating exactly that. The removal of civics from the decisions that have a direct impact on us has made local governance a matter of detached managerialism in accordance with some misguided devotion to free markets. But that's not at the heart of it. At the heart of it is the base assumption that we are not to be trusted to run our own affairs and the control that matters has been snatched away from us.

We have seen some token efforts to license power back to communities but it's a sham. Our definition of "devolution" is a warped one and we are suckered in by it. There is a new initiative afoot to "allow" parish councils to be set up, supposedly giving people "a voice". A voice is all it is. A voice without influence is just a voice. A protest. Moston in Manchester has fallen for the con and as per the link, we find a clue... "The first issue on the table at Moston Town Hall will be pressing Manchester council to put a ceiling on the number of licensed premises on Moston Lane."

What that suggests is more a Potemkin village of devolution where talking shop parish entities are thrown a bone and a bit of spending money to piss away, but in themselves have no power to restrict licensed premises. That is not a sovereign entity. And that really shows just how little say we have when what were once small villages are now small towns in their own right, and have to go with the begging bowl to corporate level councils to plead their case for governing their own high street - only to have their voice drowned a out by 90 other councillors from elsewhere. And this we laughingly call "local" democracy.

The bottom line is that Britain doesn't do isms. We don't do capitalism or socialism or libertarianism or Marxism or any other ism you can think of. Britain is a persistent muddle of contradictions and competing ideas. That's our politics. And it is that which keeps it on an even keel. But we're losing what makes us distinctive because we're losing our democracy on those issues which really matter to us and really affect us. In or out of the EU we will still be spectators in our march to globalisation. That is an inevitability. But nowhere does it say that we must surrender our democracy. That is our own doing.

Everyone wants to blame something for our predicament. Be it the EU, the "LibLabCon" or the banks and multinationals, but nobody wants to accept responsibility for idly neglecting their civic responsibility to get involved and demand the sovereignty that is rightfully theirs. It's time for the public to grow up, realise they are not passive actors in their own governance and get real about what the true nature of their complaint. It's not that government is too big. Society has evolved beyond the childish fantasies of libertarians. The real issue is that the government we have operates beyond our control. We should resign ourselves to the fact some of that is inevitable, but not where it really matters. That it has drifted beyond our control is ultimately the fault of you, dear reader.

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