Why are Conservative free market ideas so hard to sell?
In spite of the recent crisis of capitalism, the left are unprosperous. Hollande’s approach in France, which still backs austerity just in different ways, has shown us that there is no real alternative approach. The left right divide of the last century has been unable to revive itself in the worst crisis since the Great Depression. The figurehead of twenty-first century socialism, Hugo Chavez, approaches death with his country in turmoil.
There appears a consensus in all of this, which is that capitalism works. It may be going through a tough patch, but it will prevail as the only functioning system. It appears the right of the left right fight of the last century have won. In spite of this, their ideas prove an impossible sell. Austerity could easily rebranded as releasing the circumstances for the private sector to flourish. Given we know the private sector is inherently more efficient, why is it so hard for David Cameron to say he’s taking money out of the public sector in order to boost the private sector? During the New Labour years boasts were continually made about ’investment’ in public services. They presented it as a solution but in reality it was a trade off against rising debt and a squeeze on the private sector. The opposite rhetoric, that money will be moved back to the people in the first place seems an impossible sell. Why is this? Why is the conservative premise linked to free markets the hardest idea to sell?
I would posit that there are three reasons for this. Firstly, when one pound goes into the public sector, it is impossible to remove it because it is argued as necessary. Secondly, the role of intention based morality, people like to believe in the paternal state with good intentions rather than the malicious intentions of businessmen, in spite of the results. Finally the Conservative premise is a more negative view of man compared with the liberal or socialist one.
Firstly, most linked directly to the current crisis, once a pound enters the public sector it is deemed a necessity and a part of the welfare state which cannot be dismantled. Recent spending levels aim to reduce spending its level in 2006. At the time Labour were boasting about their record levels of investment in the public sector, and nobody was saying a great deal more investment was necessary. There were even calls among some for a comprehensive spending review. At the current time of austerity opponents of cuts lament loss of vital services, when at its most spending has fallen by less than 1%. The Coalition aim upon taking office was 4.4% in four years. Recent figures show spending is actually increasing. That we are in an era of austerity is among the greatest myths currently circulating. The method that opponents of the free market use to dismantle cuts are to cite valuable and necessary services in the public sector and equate them with all aspects of public sector. Whenever someone on the right mentions that the public sector does not produce wealth and is inherently less efficient, the comments are misconstrued as an attack on doctors, nurses and teachers. The basic libertarian premise is actually as benevolent as their ideas that the state must provide. The basic libertarian premise is that the state should do what the market cannot, and if there exists a situation where something should be produced by both, then the private sector should deliver. In the public sector it is inherently more difficult to shed excess jobs, because when the Government is shedding them it appears cruel and avoidable. The private sector endured its austerity between 2008 and 2010 and the same levels of complaint were not heard.
Secondly, perhaps due to psychological reasons, people are fond of the paternal state. In the days of Ricardo and Malthus, the free market was seen as a regrettable necessity. After the truth of Darwinian theory was discovered the market was embraced as a place in which the weak were separated from the strong. This idea did not last long beyond the Second World War and the Depression. The Great Depression serves as the major change in economic ideas. It began the idea that the state could solve problems. There is simply something enjoyable about this idea, from Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s promise to save capitalism from himself, to Lyndon Johnson’s promise to cure poverty all the way to Obama’s promise of change. The idea of a great man changing history is one which we inherently enjoy. A key aspect of this is intention based morality. We like the idea of a well intentioned state rather than a nasty one. This explain why sympathy with the October Revolution is still viable in some quarters whereas sympathy with fascism is not. People like the aims of the October Revolution as they were initially stated, to reduce poverty and carry out change on behalf of the workers, whereas aims of fascism were repugnant right from the offset. The same can be said with the supply of services. If necessary services, such as education or healthcare, are provided by the state, it is seen as arising in good faith. When a private company provides the service it is presumed to be for the wrong motive and as such impure in some way. The argument goes that the state should provide what is necessary. The same of course does not apply to food, a necessity for all and yet nobody questions the morality of a supermarket, which provides a variety of food at cheap prices with sublime effectiveness.
Finally, the Conservative premise is the most negative one of mankind. The socialist premise is that man only behaves badly due to behind deprived of private property. When private property is abolished, man will behave impeccably. The liberal premise is that man’s problems are institutional. If institutions are fixed man will behave better. In the event that man behaved badly, either a socialist or a liberal can blame circumstance. The Conservative however must blame, at least in part, man himself. Linked into this flaw is the notion that a better future is dubious, all that can be avoided is a worse outcome. As Thomas Sowell posits, there are no solutions only trade-offs. As a vision this is simply harder to sell, it becomes even harder in times of prosperity.