The perils of economic vandalism

Phillip Blond's arguments may be eloquent, but heavy-handed government meddling is not the answer. Breaking up Tesco would make the recession worse than it's already going to be
February 28, 2009

Philip Blond's reinvention of British Conservatism has more in common with French solidarism of the 1930s than it has with Burke and Disraeli. Solidarism was, according to Ludwig von Mises, a form of pseudo-socialism, and its supporters "laid down their social-philosophic views in brilliantly written essays, which reveal all the splendour of the French spirit." Certainly Blond displays an eloquence and colour rare in today's political discourse.

He also shares two assumptions with the solidarists. The first is the mistaken belief that liberalism elevates the individual and his and her freedom over society. To quote von Mises again, "freedom is a sociological concept. It is meaningless to apply it to conditions outside society."

The second is a form of economic determinism more usually associated with Karl Marx and his heirs than Conservatives—with either a big or small "c." Although Blond's cultural preferences and vision of what society should be differ from those on the left, both he and many left-wing thinkers blame the state of society on the structure and ownership of capital. For Blond, firms are too big and too globalised. To create a good society, they need to be broken up and economic relations need to be reorganised and preferably localised. Blond's "good society" is one with fewer supermarkets, more local banks, and one that is free from what he terms "licentious, pleasure seeking drones." Instead of looking to education policies to improve school performance or welfare reform to address welfare dependency, Blond proposes a magic bullet to cure society's ills: heavy-handed government intervention in the economy.

But this diagnosis ignores the true purpose and scope of economic activity. People earn to consume and they save to consume at some point in the future. It is a narrow, materialistic goal—which is why the French solidarists, many of whom were deeply religious, felt repelled by it. How people should best dispose of the resources they have acquired and the leisure it affords them to improve their moral worth is a field for moralists, philosophers and preachers rather than economists. What the economist can point out, however, is that the greater the restrictions on people's freedom to generate and dispose of their earnings, the less that will be produced.

Any market is made up of constantly adapting chains of mutually advantageous exchange between buyer and seller. Blond could only achieve his goals through sustained government interventions to prevent buyers and sellers, borrowers and savers, making the bargains they would otherwise have made. As a result, the economy would be smaller, living standards lower and taxes higher to support a high level of public spending. Similarly, trapping a proportion of people's savings for local government, or for investment in local business, as Blond suggests we should do, would simply mean savers earn lower returns for higher risk.

Government intervention invariably has unintended costs and consequences. The more intervention there is, the greater the scope for individuals and interest groups to manipulate public policy. As the financial crisis moves from the banking system to the real economy and the public finances, it will fall to the next government to take tough decisions on tax and spending. Blond's proposals provide no guide on how best to face this challenge. At best they are irrelevant, at worst, they are destructive. Ideas like breaking up Tesco, one of Britain's best-managed organisations, would be a piece of economic vandalism, seriously damaging Britain's ability to deal with what looks to be a horrible recession. It is all a million miles away from meeting the enormous economic and fiscal challenges that confront a future Conservative government.

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