Wednesday, 14 February 2007

The road-user pricing to serfdom

Gridlock is coming, is both a literal and a figurative sense, and only Douglas Alexander can save us. If that doesn't send a shiver down the spine (or perhaps send you off into peels of laughter), the alternative should cause you to break into a cold sweat.

The petition to “Scrap the planned vehicle tracking and road pricing policy” has now received over 1.4m signatures. It says something of the pace and popularity of this petition that the editorial in today’s Times referred to just 1.3m signatories. Like the proverbial snowball, this is gathering ever more size and momentum as it cascades downhill.

I have explained before that the thinking behind this petition is confused and wrong. At the time I also warned, in passing, that no government could ignore a petition that garnered more than 30m signatures: the majority would have spoken, and to deny it its head would be all but impossible. The question, however, is whether a government can even ignore one with 3m signatures, or (the imminent test) half that. The pressure is clearly great: how often have opponents of the war in Iraq – Liberal Democrats among them – argued that the government should have changed its policy when a million people marched through London on 15 February 2003. But where would such a policy lead us?

If just 3.5 per cent of the voting public – just 2.5 per cent of the population – can divert a democratically elected government from its course, is this a sign of direct democracy in action, or is the government caving into a well motivated and vocal minority. It strikes me as no surprise that millions of people object to this, or indeed any other, government scheme – especially one that involves taxation. Every change has winners and losers, and both winners and losers will be numbered in millions. The question should not be whether the losers bleat most loudly, but whether the overall social benefit is greater than the cost, and (for those of us of a liberal bent) whether the proposal represents an abuse of the minority by the majority. Where road-user pricing is concerned, it is clearly a case that the social benefit outweighs the cost without the minority being unduly coerced. The government (in the form Mr. Alexander) should continue to make the case for road-user pricing and face down the protest.

This move towards “Direct Democracy” is in fact a dangerous trend. There is a good reason why we practice an alternative, “Representative Democracy”. We cannot all be experts in every field; decision-making is a full time business, and few of us have read the parliamentary committee reports, research institute papers and academic studies that underlie much of the decision making of government. Government also needs to be strategic, whereas the will of the majority (an amorphous body, constantly in flux, the make-up of which is constantly changing as it coalesces around new ideas and opinions) is momentary and fickle, precisely because the majority has no permanence.

More sinisterly, it can be anti-democratic. As both public choice theory and the petition about road-user pricing tell us, it is easier for minorities to mobilise than for majorities. Because minorities are smaller, they are easier to pull together, while the benefits of successful lobbying are shared less widely, so for any individual the spread between cost and benefit is closer than for a majority, where the benefits are spread broadly and the costs of mobilising high. This is why single-issues of dubious popularity often capture the media’s attention and bend governments to their will.

But if Direct Democracy lends itself to minorities, it lends itself to populist demagoguery even more. Caesar dominated Rome through plebiscites, a practice that was aped my Mussolini. To this day the German constitution bans federal referenda because they were the tools of Nazism.

And here I can see the real nightmare emerging. If the government backs down in the face of opposition form just a tiny fraction of the polity, it will set a trend that will lead to more than just motoring gridlock. Almost all important government policy is controversial, and all controversial policy will be paralysed by petitions and polls. A situation akin to that in Switzerland, where votes for women were blocked until 1973, or the United States, where differently-constituted majorities simultaneously try to cut taxes and increase public spending, would be the least of our fears. A government unable to legislate has a certain appeal to the libertarians among us, but it would undoubtedly be only the beginning.

As important and popular social and economic reform was stymied, and the government was rendered increasingly unable to respond to real problems, a new popular opinion would rise: that a strong government, a strong leader, was needed to push through change; to break the gridlock. We have seen it before. Popular frustration leads to the election of a strongman who offers to over-rule petty objections and push through progress. At first it is welcome, and the benefits are tangible: Hitler built the autobahns and Mussolini made the trains run on time; no need for road-user pricing when you have slave labour and threaten to shoot the train drivers! The benefits of today are paid for tomorrow, as freedom is lost and democracy forgotten. It is the road to serfdom.


Kit said...

This is The Registers take on the civil liberties of the road pricing scheme:

I just don't trust govenment. The simplist solution is toll lanes or roads - why is the government proposing the Big Brother solution? Where did I put my tin foil hat?

Tom Papworth said...

So we get the big brother state if we do, and a slide to populism and demagoguery if we don't.

Time to fish out the passport!