History is repeating itself, though whether as tragedy or farce awaits to be seen. As our economy enters another of its periodic recessions, caused as ever by government meddling in the economy, politicians race to solve the problem with further doses of the same poison.
Sadly, in an age where politicians fear differentiating themselves from one another and parties squabble over a consensus they disingenuously call the middle ground, there seems to be no real debate over how best to ensure that the recession that we are now in is as brief as possible. Just as President Hoover’s failed interventions were succeeded by President Roosevelt’s even greater interventions, so today politicians seem to be in a bidding war to intervene in the economy.
The latest dose comes from the Liberal Democrats, who have joined the chorus with their latest call for action. Nick Clegg has announced a Green Road Out of the Recession that is built on the same errors that underpin Labour’s proposals and the $4.61 trillion US bailout.
It is a simple error, summed up by Henry Hazlitt when he notes that “The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups.” It is the error of looking at the immediate results of what one does but not the damage that doing it causes; specifically, of believing that one can utilize a resource (in this case, money) for one purposes without denying it to another.
So let us be utterly clear: when the Lib Dems say “Now is the time for big investment to get the wheels of the economy turning again”, any rational observer should immediately ask “From where is the money coming, and what will be sacrificed so that this investment can be achieved?”
It is an impressive list the Lib Dems have compiled: new trains; new railways; new track; social homes; insulated lofts; smart meters. It will “create jobs and ensure that once this recession is over, we have something to show for the money we borrowed.” All of which is true, but what it does not show is all the jobs that will not be created because the money that would have been spent creating those jobs has been siphoned off by government to pay for its own projects.
There is absolutely no reason why government spending of £12.5 billion (as the Lib Dems propose) should create more jobs than private spending of £12.5 billion. On the contrary: while markets operate specifically to maximise economic efficiency – by, for example, allowing people to spend money on projects that will maximise their own utility – government’s have no such built-in discipline and no means of weighing the efficiency or efficacy of different projects. In fact (as the sorry litany of failed government projects demonstrates) governments all too often blow vast sums of taxpayers’ money on projects that promise big benefits but deliver dubious or disappointing outcomes.
I should add that this is not a criticism of any individual project and certainly not of the environmental (“green”) thrust of the proposals. That the “road out of recession” is “green” is irrelevant. We could as easily talk about the white heat of technology or indulge in some blue-skies thinking. The point is that this is being sold on economic, not environmental, grounds; if the Lib Dems were as keen on agriculture as we are on environmentalism, we could as easily advocate policies akin to President Hoover’s New Deal farm programme, and the proposals would be no less flawed. Government cannot spend the country out of recession.
The reason for this is that government money must come from somewhere, and not matter what its source, it merely transfers money from one use to another. If we spend £12.5 billion on new trains to “create jobs” and “stimulate industry” then the money, workers and materials that are diverted to those ends are no longer available to make shoes, televisions, meals or whatever else we might buy. The net effect in jobs created, wages spent and economic activity stimulated is zero.
Indeed, while we may scoff at the 2.5% cut in VAT and say that the £12.5 billion could be better spent insulating lofts, it ignores the fact that the £12.5 billion would otherwise have been spent by consumers on (for example) carpets. The criticism that the VAT cut would not in fact encourage people to buy is valid in as far as an individual price reduction of 2.13% is not going to make a product hugely more attractive to buy. But the fact that the money remains in people’s pockets means that it will eventually be spent somewhere. It will still represent an increase in consumer demand and so will stimulate growth.
Thus the one part of the Green Road Out of the Recession which is sound is the bit that promises “big, permanent tax cuts”. It is the bit that has been policy for over a year and upon which conference voted. It would transfer spending from inefficient governments to efficient consumers and so allocate resources in the marketplace (that is to say you and me and our respective savings) most efficiently.
A couple of additional points need to be made, to head off possible comments (welcome though all comments are, of course!). Firstly, it makes no difference if the government gets the money through taxation, inflation or borrowing. Borrowing has exactly the same effect as taxation in as much as it diverts savings from being invested in industry and instead invests it in public services; there is still no net gain. It also lands future taxpayers with a bill, so diverting money from future generations to the present. Inflation is effectively a flat tax: if we “print” an additional 1% of money, we are reducing the value of everybody’s savings and wages by 1% - an “inflation tax” that falls as heavily on the poor as it does on the rich (except that rich people are more likely to own commodities or foreign assets that are inflation proof, so inflation may actually be regressive). It also creates imbalances in the economy that will lead to further crises in the future.
Secondly, it makes no difference that this is supposedly “investment” rather than mere “spending”. It is certainly true that this sort of government spending will ensure that “once this recession is over, we [will] have something to show for the money we borrowed.” I have a house to show for the money I borrowed in December, but it does not follow that I made a sound “investment”. Had my internal chancellor not borrowed and spent, my internal taxpayer would not now be saddled with debt.
As Adam Smith noted over two centuries ago, “What is prudence in the conduct of every private family can scarce be folly in that of a great kingdom”. What is more, the fact that we can see what the borrowing has financed should not blind us to the fact that we cannot see the things that the borrowing has denied us: other investments will have been sacrificed. And finally, even spending on consumer fripperies stimulates long-term investment: if demand for MP3 players and trainers increases, so does investment in the production and retailing of these (so creating jobs) and in the infrastructure needed to move them about. Indeed, as taxes/inflation/borrowing tend to make it particularly hard for new businesses to arise, because capital formation (i.e. saving) is harder and credit is absorbed by government, new start-up businesses such as those marketing new solutions to environmental problems struggle to get off the ground. Big government spending may therefore be counter-productive even environmentally!
I also ought to add that members of other parties shouldn’t’ take too much pleasure in seeing me demolish my own party’s latest policy initiative. Neither Labour nor the Conservatives have exactly covered themselves in glory during the present economic crisis and both are participating in the flawed concensus politics outlined above. This article focuses on Liberal Democrat policy only because errors are doubly galling when they come from within one’s own camp and I would like to see the Lib Dems taking a braver, more distinctive and more honest approach to the current crisis that did not argue that more government can get us out of a problem that government made in the first place. The alternative norm of passing money through the hands of politicians instead of citizens has been Labour and Conservative policy for the last century and it has been a tragic disappointment.