Friday, 10 February 2023

Avoiding debating alternatives


Following on from yesterday’s post, blind acceptance of the Thatcherite view of debt and the household analogy for government finances aren’t the only way in which the media aid and abet mainstream politicians in preventing the discussion of alternative economic viewpoints. They also do it in their choice of words, a choice which embeds a particular economic and political viewpoint into any discussion before it even starts. Here are a few of the more common ones:

All the money in the government’s coffers is, apparently, “tax-payers’ money”. Leaving aside the fact that it isn’t even true (taxes are just one way in which the government raises revenue), it manages to imply that anyone who pays no taxes (such as children, people living on the state pension, or people unable to work due to disability or sickness) have no stake – and by implication, no right to a say – in the government’s expenditure plans. We could see it instead as money which the government manages on behalf of society as a whole, a very different proposition.

Taxation is always, according to politicians and the media, a “burden”. In truth, it’s the price we pay for living in a civilised society which provides services and support to its citizens. It’s no more of a ‘burden’ than any other expenditure undertaken by individuals, but calling it such encourages the view that it is somehow an unnecessary and additional expenditure which should always be minimised.

Things paid for out of that common fund collected by the government, such as the NHS, are invariably referred to as being “free”, with the implication that people are getting something for nothing. But it isn’t the only way of seeing things. In truth, few things are ever really ‘free’, there’s always a cost; it’s about how we decide to meet that cost. An alternative view is to see things simply as being purchased collectively rather than individually, with contributions varying according to ability to pay.

And that last point about collectively rather than individually goes to the heart of the ideological basis for the use of those terms. Those using them – and I include in that the Tories, the Labour Party leadership, and the Lib Dems as well as the media – are deliberately promoting an ideology under which individual action is always to be preferred to collective action. Whether it is ‘better’ to act individually rather than collectively is a valid matter for political debate, of course. But it’s not a debate which the individualists are willing even to countenance, which is why they choose words which close out the alternative from the outset. The result is Tory austerity now whilst the opposition attempts to argue, without ever actually saying it in so many words, that future Labour austerity would have a kinder face. The question we should always be asking ourselves, though, is “Cui Bono?”. By an amazing coincidence, it emerges that it will always be the most well-off who benefit from a more individualistic approach. Who’d have thought it?


Jonathan said...

You refer to a divide consisting of "individual action is always to be preferred to collective action" but I think we need to keep 3 things separate
1: individual action: a tricky commodity. Can be good and can be bad. Not all individuals are good at it. So we need to think about individuals who don't have the knack or are too ill or too young.
2: collective action: consists of individuals who come together to solve the above. I'm thinking not the commercial company but the essentially charitable historically: school, hospital, church, sports club. Trades Unions, Coops! Add all this up and you have a culture, and a good one. Beyond providing regulation, or evening out maybe, governments are not required to fill these roles. But governments seem to envy individual+collective in combination, and control State force, and so we get -
3: Government action. This can come about because of excessive regulation/evening out or because of something else. Its this something else which worries me. Government nationalising the collective culture has, as we are seeing, so many downsides. Can be taken over by ideologues and taken way too far.
Come on Borthlas, you don't really want to go like Canada do you?

John Dixon said...


That there is something of a difference of opinion between us on matters ideological will, I'm sure, come as no surprise to you. Your comment opens up areas for debate which go wider than the original post, and which would take some space and time to develop. And, of course, in a short blog post, I do use a degree of 'shorthand' and over-simplification to make a specific point. In truth, of course, the real world is more complex; presenting it as a stark difference between individual and collective action is one such over-simplification - in reality it's a question of where to draw the line. And that drawing of the line will directly reflect our own perspectives.

What governments are for is a mega question to which I can't do justice here. But one way of looking at it is to see 'the state' as being (in part; it has other functions) the mechanism which enables and facilitates collective purchase of goods and services (such as the NHS) by pooling resources acording to ability to pay and sharing the things purchased with those resources according to need. But I entirely accept your point that there are other ways of taking more local collective action which can sit alongside that.

The suggestions (your point 1) that the government is there only to help those who can't help themselves, or that (point 2) "governments are not required to fill these roles" with an emphasis on charitable action, both start from a much more individualist position on the spectrum than I do. I entirely accept that you and I are not going to see eye to eye on this. The point of the post, however, was that accepting the terminology in which economics is generally presented in itself presumes that an individualistic approach is the norm. And I'm afraid that I read your comment as coming from that same perspective, illustrating the point that I was trying to make.

Spirit of BME said...

Surprise! Suprise I view Johnathan’s words are most valid, however, I am sure he would wish to distance himself by a few galaxies from some of my views.
You are right that this is a big issue, and this blog could not cover in detail.
My Capel Wesla upbringing tells me very clearly that the individual is responsible for their eternal soul and that is the biggest deal in town. Political structures are built from this Protestant belief within the UK and USA, but the US adds one dimension to the debate; that is the centre of power should be as close to the individual as possible, as a distant central power with one-size fits all decisions erodes the power of the individual.
In your last paragraph you are right that individual wealth does not benefit many – after all how many servants can you employ , but finance have always favoured the efficiency of private companies as opposed to collectives or worse still government run businesses.

John Dixon said...


"... finance have always favoured the efficiency of private companies as opposed to collectives or worse still government run businesses" That sounds a little bit like saying that 'capitalists prefer capitalism' to me. And it's therefore impossible to disagree. If the determination of 'success' is based on 'efficiency' (which I take here to be maximum return on resources, both capital and labour, applied to the task in hand), then empirical evidence favours your conclusion. Whether it is always and necessarily so is another question, but the far bigger question is whether that's the right criterion for defining 'success'. Capitalist ideology can't conceive of alternatives, but that doesn't mean they don't exist. But that's another topic far too wide to expand on in a brief comment.