Thursday 2 February 2023

Time to stop taking the medicine


Folk memory tends to associate ‘snake oil’ with the Wild West but, whilst it’s true that travelling medicine men peddling their quack remedies lasted longer in the US than elsewhere, the idea of patent ‘cure-all’ medicines wasn’t limited to the US. The UK had its fair share too; indeed, it was in the UK that ‘patent medicines’ were first licensed. Although the idea of snake oil seems to have been imported from Asia, and China in particular, where oil made from snakes was indeed used in traditional medicine to cure specific ailments, the various concoctions sold in the US and UK rarely contained any snake products at all. They weren’t completely ineffective either, however – many contained doses of cocaine, amphetamines and/ or opium, which means that they may well have helped people feel better even if they did little to address the causes of any pain. And people bought them – what’s not to like about a medicine which cures all ills? The appeal is obvious: no diagnosis needed, no need to see a doctor, just keep taking the potion. Having sold their wares, the travelling medicine men moved on to the next town before the inefficacy of their remedy became too obvious.

One of the closest twenty-first century parallels is to be found in the swivel-eyed faction of the Tory Party, a faction which believes that tax cuts are the solution to all economic ills in all circumstances. If there is deflation in the economy, the solution, according to them, is tax cuts; if there is inflation in the economy, the solution is tax cuts; if there is low growth in the economy, the solution is tax cuts; and if there is high growth in the economy, the benefit should be shared out through tax cuts. They claim that it is about making people feel good (the equivalent of that opium and cocaine in that snake oil) because they will have more money in their pockets and therefore feel able to spend more, but that isn’t quite the whole truth, and doesn’t address the ailment. Another way of putting more money in the pockets of those who need it most would be by ensuring that wages, pensions and benefits kept up with prices. Apparently, however, giving people more money by increasing their pay is inflationary, but taking less from those wages in tax is not. It’s a form of magical thinking (it’s tempting to wonder whether they’ve been taking their own ‘patent medicines’ with who knows what ingredients). In truth, of course, the modern-day snake oil salesmen know full well that their product is inefficacious. It’s not about ensuring that ‘people’ have more money in ‘their’ pockets, it’s about which people and whose pockets. In practice, it’s a surprising and little-known fact (or so they hope) that the people who benefit most from tax cuts are the people who pay most tax. The sort of people to be found supporting that strange faction of the Tory Party, by sheer coincidence. And the people who benefit least are the lowest-paid and those on benefits. But then again, transferring wealth from the gullible poor to the exploitative snake oil sellers was what the industry was all about in the days of the Wild West. Not much has changed in the interim.

Sadly, however, there is one important difference. In the olden days, people eventually realised that the medicine they had been sold was worthless, and governments started to regulate the content of what could be sold (what today’s purveyors of snake oil tend to refer to as ‘unnecessary red tape’ preventing people from exercising their right to be conned). And having sold all they could in one town, the salesmen moved on to the next in search of a new set of gullible people. The modern equivalent seem determined to stay put. There is another custom from the Wild West which we might usefully deploy in the circumstances – driving the exploiters out of town. We just need to ensure that those who replace them aren’t simply selling another brand of snake oil in a different coloured bottle.

1 comment:

Gav said...

In the old days the snake oil guys needed to keep moving on before the people ran them out of town on a rail. We're probably not allowed to do that any more.