An Independent View from the IEA: Enterprise needs liberalism – but are the Liberal Democrats liberal?

The Liberal Democrats should be applauded for focusing on business in their new policy paper, Enterprise in a fair society. In the context of the current economic crisis, the document reminds us that businesses produce the wealth that not only raises living standards, but also funds health, education and so on – a lesson arguably ignored by New Labour as they burdened firms with more and more taxation and red tape.

There are some excellent ideas. Of particular note is a proposal to incorporate a sunset clause into each new business regulation so that it is time limited. This could be an effective measure to rein back new rules that often prove costly and counterproductive.

Yet there is a problem here – that the majority of new regulation in the UK comes from Brussels. In this context the commitment to end the ‘gold plating’ of legislation from the EU is very welcome. Nevertheless, it is difficult to see how the sunset clause could be applied to directives set at supranational level. And while greater influence is sought over European policies, the experience of the current europhile government does not augur well in terms of the ability to prevent highly damaging EU initiatives.

The aim of cutting red tape is also rather undermined by a series of proposals to increase government intervention in the affairs of businesses. For example, there is the proposal to restore a public interest test to takeovers and mergers; the requirement for firms to produce a social responsibility report; a strengthening of planning laws (which are already among the strictest in the developed world and the strengthening of which will be a further impediment to competition in the supermarket sector); and far-reaching regulation of the banking sector. The approach to deregulation is therefore patchy and inconsistent.

More positively, there is a strong emphasis in the paper on reducing the budget deficit and bringing stability to the public finances. Indeed, it is stated that the emphasis should be on controlling spending rather than on increasing taxes – welcome recognition that raising taxes from already high levels would be counterproductive in the medium term.

When it comes to discussing concrete figures the document is divorced from reality, however. The £15 billion of savings identified are a drop in the ocean compared with an annual deficit of close to £170 billion. If the Lib Dems are to cultivate a reputation for honesty, they should be far more candid about the scale of reductions needed to balance the books. Unless economic growth over the next few years proves to be unexpectedly robust, severe cuts will be needed to the major areas of government spending – health, education and welfare.

The document also implies that cuts will be delayed until economic recovery becomes estabilished. It therefore appears to accept the Keynesian dogma that governments can spend their way out of recession. In fact every pound the government spends must be taken from the private sector through either taxation or borrowing. Worse still, the government spends this money inefficiently and public spending distorts the economy, making recovery more difficult.

Indeed, the emphasis on ‘picking winners’, whether through ‘balancing’ the economy away from the City of London or subsidising green businesses, is one of the most regrettable aspects of this policy paper. Clearly the Lib Dem leadership has still to learn that the best way governments can help businesses is by leaving them alone.

* Dr Richard Wellings is Deputy Editorial Director at the Institute of Economic Affairs and editor of the IEA Blog.

The Independent View‘ is a slot on Lib Dem Voice which allows those from beyond the party to contribute to debates we believe are of interest to LDV’s readers. Please email [email protected] if you are interested in contributing.

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49 Comments

  • Andrew Suffield 3rd Apr '10 - 9:31am

    the majority of new regulation in the UK comes from Brussels

    Citation needed.

  • Simon Titley 3rd Apr '10 - 4:23pm

    A more pertinent question would be to ask whether the IEA is liberal.

    In the IEA’s reductionist universe, ‘freedom’ is defined in purely economic terms but there is more to life than buying and selling. For most people, once their basic needs of food and shelter are met, the most important things in life are human relationships, appreciation of beauty and the arts, enjoyment of the natural environment, and hobbies and intellectual pursuits. The IEA’s economistic perspective has little or nothing to offer in this regard.

    For Liberals, the key political question is the distribution of power, specifically ‘agency’, the ability to make meaningful choices about our lives and to influence the world around us. The IEA presumably believes that markets can deliver agency more effectively than democratic politics. But with the best will in the world, the capacity of markets to do this is limited. The result when one tries to replace democratic politics with markets is that people find a bewildering array of choice when they shop online or visit a large supermarket, but find they have less control over the neighbourhoods where they live. For all the ‘choice’ that markets offer, people feel that nothing they say or do makes any difference.

    If one tries to live a more satisfying life by following the IEA’s route – which basically means reducing all one’s human bonds to economic relationships, and seeking fulfilment primarily through the acquisition of consumer goods – society gradually disintegrates and people feel more lonely, insecure and disaffected.

    It’s time we got things back in proportion. The market is nothing more than a useful mechanism for the exchange of goods and services. The market should never be an object of religious veneration. It is not sacrosanct. It is not the be-all and end-all of life. It is not an end in itself. It is not a value. It does not trump other ethical beliefs such as morality, justice, fairness, empathy, nobility or love.

    The IEA represents people who know the price of everything and the value of nothing. It is a morally bankrupt worldview. And since the IEA’s economic dogma brought us to the brink of disaster, it’s economically bankrupt too.

    So having advocated an ideology that, in Adair Turner’s words, is “a fairly complete train wreck of a predominant theory of economics and finance”, the IEA has a sheer nerve coming here and lecturing us about liberalism.

  • Simon Titley 3rd Apr '10 - 8:19pm

    @Richard Wellings – The financial crisis was a product of market fundamentalist ideology; classical liberalism reinvented by the Chicago School and Washington Consensus in the form of ‘neoliberalism’. It has been the dominant ideology for the past thirty years or so, and the IEA has been amongst its biggest cheerleaders. And now this ideology has crashed in flames.

    Neoliberalism is not only a demonstrable failure in economic terms; it is also a moral failure because it is economistic. By this, I mean that it is a form of economic reductionism, which insists that all social facts must be reduced to economic dimensions and that the forces of supply and demand trump all other considerations.

    Thankfully, the Liberal Democrats recognise this weakness, which is why we are a social liberal party that believes in positive freedoms and not just negative ones. This view is clearly expressed in the preamble to the party’s constitution, the first sentence of which reads: “The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no-one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity.”

    Therefore, the Liberal Democrats do not believe that liberalism is essentially about laissez-faire economics. There’s more to life than buying and selling. The economy is there to serve us, not the other way round.

  • Simon Titley 4th Apr '10 - 10:53am

    @Richard Wellings – You find the Liberal Democrats’ preamble “confused”? That is because you see liberty only in negative terms, i.e. the absence of obstacle, barriers or restraints. You do not recognise positive liberty, the ability to act in such a way as to take control of one’s life and realise one’s fundamental purposes, which cannot happen when one is “enslaved by poverty, ignorance and conformity”.

    You argue that, “it is up to individuals which goals they pursue.” Yes, the market can provide some freedom but, with the best will in the world, it cannot deliver all or even most of the agency that people need to make meaningful choices about their lives. The perfect market can never exist and, even if it did, it simply isn’t relevant to many important aspects of our lives, notably human relationships.

    Liberal Democrats tend to take a pragmatic view of the market. It is often a useful mechanism for exchanging goods and services but that is all it is – a tool. It should not be the primary governing value of society. As Paddy Ashdown often said, the market is “a good slave but a poor master”.

    You are entitled to your views but they are not those of the Liberal Democrats and you have no business lecturing us about purity of our faith.

  • Paul Griffiths 4th Apr '10 - 1:19pm

    It’s rather ironic that, in a time when people are constantly complaining that the main political parties are indistinguishable, when Dr Wellings is confronted by a fundamental philosophical difference, he appears utterly bemused. Perhaps he is beginning to realise that the choice facing the electorate is not merely between who can best manage a market economy.

  • “Clearly the Lib Dem leadership has still to learn that the best way governments can help businesses is by leaving them alone.”

    Clearly Richard Wellings has still to learn that the economies that have followed his particular dogma to its furthest extent (the US and the UK) have been among the ones hardest hit by the current crisis and the most destabilised by its results.

    The problem with the free-market jihadists is that their theories are not borne out by reality. The most successful economies with the happiest populations e.g. Denmark, the Netherlands are often ones where the state has a very active and large presence in the economy. But they never let nasty inconvenient things like evidence get in the way of a cherished theory, did they?

    The main function of such anti-state rhetoricians remains that of the ideological fig leaf of the greedy and the rich.

  • Malcolm Todd 4th Apr '10 - 3:31pm

    the document reminds us that businesses produce the wealth that not only raises living standards, but also funds health, education and so on

    Enough with this canard. “Health, education and so on” aren’t nice optional extras that we can afford to pay for because someone else is “producing wealth” – health, education and “so on” (is this a euphemism for the arts, perhaps?) are forms of wealth themselves. The only reason for not considering them to be so is that (in this country and most of Europe, anyway) the state is the main provider of them, and it wouldn’t do to let the state be seen as a creator of wealth, would it?

  • @ Sara Scarlett

    “The UK under New Labour can hardly be described as a bastion of free-market thought, can it?”

    Well, yes, it can actually.

    Privatised public transport √
    Privatised utilities√
    Free rein for foreign companies to buy what they like√
    Substantial private involvement in healthcare and education√
    Deregulated banking sector allowed to run out of control√
    Privately run prisons√
    Privatisation of major public investment projects√

    You must be completely out of touch if you think that New Labour hasn’t consistently genuflected to the mythology of “private good, public bad”. Take a look at the East Coast mainline. If they get back into power, they are even prepared to re-privatise that again, despite its miserable record under private ownership.

    Only when they have been faced with manifest, abject complete and utter failure on the part of the private sector have they been willing to step in as a last resort and sometimes, as with the railways, not even then.

  • @ Sara

    Oh, and I forgot to add that Labour have also followed, until the last year or so, the free market doctrine of not having any kind of industrial policy.

    It was slavish adherence to the doctrine of “no limits to the market” that got us into this crisis in the first place.

  • Malcolm Todd 4th Apr '10 - 9:10pm

    @Robert C

    I think you may be confusing (as many do) “free market” with “private sector”. Much of the problem with privatisation of utilities, for example, is that the market is no freer than it ever was, but accountability and control have become much more blurred than they were when utilities were in public ownership, and the chief beneficiaries are the shareholders in the new private companies. I don’t think many libertarians (of whom I’m not one) would have supported the way most of the things you mention were done. It’s not a simple either/or. (Well, there’s a surprising thing for a Lib Dem to say ;) …)

  • @ Malcolm Todd.

    You are right in making the distinction and since I have an economics degree from Cambridge, I am thoroughly aware of it, but as far as the free market right are concerned, it all comes as part of the same policy prescriptive package. They want neither public ownership nor public control and ascribe all the ills of the economy to either one or the other, which is an utterly absurd position to take.

  • “t should also be remembered that other free-market schools, particularly Austrian economics, have been vindicated by the current crisis”

    A joke surely ?

    “Thatcher and Reagan arguably only managed to postpone this trend (growth of the state) for a few years”

    Uh, no they failed even on their own terms.

    “In fact every pound the government spends must be taken from the private sector through either taxation or borrowing. Worse still, the government spends this money inefficiently and public spending distorts the economy,”

    Wrong again, governments create wealth, eduction being an example, what if businesses had to pay back the benefit they got form an educated work force or tax credits or state pensions

    Most people spend money “inefficently” – ever paid a plumber to £100 to change a tap washer ? Ever brought a second hand car which doesn’t work ? Ever brought some clothes you never wear again? Ever not spend hours searching for the cheapest item but just had a guess at what is good value ? Every been taken in by a supermarket promotion ? Ever had to have your own item, even though sharing a public one would have been cheaper?

    “competition in the supermarket sector”

    Not really much competiton is there? You can’t set up Tescos from scratch. YOu can’t compete with Tesco from scratch.

  • @ Richard Wellings

    “The fact that some heavily regulated semi-socialist economies such as Denmark and Holland may be a bit richer than another heavily regulated semi-socialist economy (i.e. the UK) tells us very little.”

    Typical of doctrinaire free marketeers. When the evidence contradicts what you believe, you just ignore it. What about Sweden, Germany, Norway? These are not just isolated examples.

    “And yes, long-term empirical evidence on economic development supports the free-market perspective”.

    I doubt it very much. The only empirical evidence I have seen about levels of social and economic development shows that it is precisely the economies like those in Scandinavia that consistently produce the best outcomes. Best schools in the world? The totally comprehensive, state run system in Finland. Happiest population? Denmark.

    These are the countries that we should be looking to emulate, not some fictional neo-liberal paradise.

  • @ Dr Richard Wellings.

    I presume you are an economics graduate. From which university? The IEA website says nothing about your background and I am curious to know.

  • Malcolm Todd 6th Apr '10 - 8:53am

    Jock said:
    “When the state keeps interest rates low, bankers know that is the signal to extend borrowing ”

    So the credit squeeze that businesses and first-time buyers are complaining about, while the state-set interest rate is just 0.5%, must have been made up by the media? Or what have I missed here?

  • @Jock

    “The financial crisis was the direct result of state intervention in the economy for political, electoral reasons”

    Totally ahistorical and lacking in evidence. The history of this is that there have always been booms and busts and financial crises and that is the nature of the free market economy. To say that economic and financial crises, which have occurred throughout history, from 1720 the South Sea Bubble and even before, are due to the government is completely deluded.

    Have you ever bothered reading Keynes? He had a thing or two to say about irrational behaviour in markets. A particular one I like is: “The market can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent.” How true.

    “Richard – bravo for trying to introduce some rationality! But you see what you/we are up against!”

    Rationality? What kind of rationality would you be talking about? A rationality that deliberately makes up false and contorted explanations and ignores vast tracts of economic history?

  • The IEA has a much wider agenda here. It is behind an ideological drive to delegitimise state involvement in the economy and to promote a neo-liberal doctrine and interpretation of events. Unfortunately, like the Jehovah’s Witnesses or the Moonies, they do manage to snare some vulnerable individuals into their web.

    Fortunately, there are enough people with a grasp on actual empirical economic evidence and history to act as an antidote to their teachings.

  • “More important than the proportion of regulation emanating from Brussels is the cost of the rules imposed on businesses and consumers (though once again it is problematic to measure this exactly).”

    The assumption being that all these regulations and costs are inherently unjustifable and that in their absence, there would be no alternative regulations. That should be self-evidently absurd to most people.

  • Completely agree, Mouse.

    So-called estimates of the “costs” of regulation by right wing organisations are usually skewed by including things like the costs of paying the minimum wage (which we were by the way assured would result in the loss of millions of jobs).

    However, I have to agree that too much complicated legislation is a burden on business. The right balance has to be struck. e.g. maternity laws where the employee is not obliged to say whether she intends to come back to work or not are utterly impossible and a huge personnel nightmare for those running a business or a department, particularly a small one. But saying government legislation is the cause of all the UK economy’s problems is blatant nonsense.

    In fact, if you look at reputable surveys of how good a place Britain is to do business (and also surveys of business owners themselves), over regulation is the least of our worries. What does come up is poor infrastructure, educational problems and financial instability. The free marketeers are pretty unconvincing when it comes to solutions to these problems.

  • Tom Papworth 8th Apr '10 - 5:01pm

    Coming to this party a bit late. Sorry.

    Geoffrey Payne: “how irresponsible the private sector can be when you enage in “light-touch regulation” in the city of London”

    Financial regulations run to over a million paragraphs of text. The FSA employs 4,000 regulators in addition to those working in the Bank of England and the Treasury. If that is light touch, I would like to know how you would define intrusive.

    Simon Titley: “In the IEA’s reductionist universe, ‘freedom’ is defined in purely economic terms but there is more to life than buying and selling… The IEA’s economistic perspective has little or nothing to offer in this regard.”

    Erm… It is the Institute of Economic Affairs. You might as well criticise the Institue of Physics for not looking beyond the physical sciences! The suggestion that “the IEA’s route …basically means reducing all one’s human bonds to economic relationships, and seeking fulfilment primarily through the acquisition of consumer goods…” is just nonsense. Indeed, many of the leading classical liberal economists explicitly contradicted this in their writings (incluidng Friedman, Mises and Rothbard).

    Your comments on neo-liberalism are (depending on how it is defined) is correct. Neoliberalism shares with classical liberalism an opposition to governmental intervention at the level of individuals, prices and production, but defends government intervention in the supply of money. This invariably leads to credit bubbles, as we saw in the years to 2007, as governments too often keep interest rates too low so as to stimulate temporary, vote-winning booms.

    Richard Wellings: “The growth of the state has continued…Thatcher …arguably only managed to postpone this trend for a few years.”

    That’s one way of putting it. The proportion of GDP taken by government was roughly the same in 1989 as it was in 1979, unemployment was at a similar level and inflation was still at 10%. The myth (perpetuated by both conservatives and social democrats) that Thatcher went about shrinking the state is utter garbage. She simply shifted spending to different areas. Similarly, while she did denationalise some industries, what remained in the public sector was ruthlessly centralised. I have never understood the ideolising of Margaret Thatcher.

    Okay. Time to go home. And I’ve only read the first half-dozen comments. I’ll bet this turned into a right royal row (as ever)!

  • A distant view from a foreigner: highy regulated economies like Greece and Italy have taken the hardest hit from the recession. Despite high taxation, Sweden, Finland and Denmark always run among the first ten places in the Index of Economic Freedom. There is a question of relative decline. When the state started to expand inexorably and the public sector reached 70% of the Swedish GNP, Sweden started to decline too and had the worst performance of OECD countries in the ’70s and ’80s. Then different governments /social democrat and conservative) slashed public spending by more than 15% of GNP and the economy grew up again. Sweden has always been in modern times a very rich country /like Switzerland): wealth has not been created by Social Democratic interventionism but rather it has been destroyed by it.
    Obviously economic liberals recognize that markets are not perfect, liberals believe that men are nor perfect and that we all are prisoner of a veil of ignorance and learn by trial and error. The fact is that markets ain’t to be perfect to work better than governments.
    I too agree, again from my distant peninsula, that Liberal Democrats are not free-marketeers and I believe it is a useless effort to convince their leadership to beome the equivalent of Thatcherite Tories: they will never be. Parties are subject to the laws of path dependance as anyone else.

  • Oh, well yes. In Italy we have a saying “never try to be too pure because you”ll find someone more pure who will purge you (in Italian “purge” sounds like “epure” which explains the rhyme)”. Sure, Whigs were the Left and they were the free-marketeers of the time. Thatcherite Tories didn’t practice 100% (or even 90%) classic liberalism purism. But the meaning of the assertion is quite clear. Lib Dems have not been, are not and are very likely not to be free-market, small governement types. This might happen, according to the Laws of Politics only if there is a void to be filled up, that is only if the Tories go too much towards the dirigiste side. Even in this case, British Politics has a distinctive feature that is euroskepticism, so that a complete exchange of roles remains very difficult.
    Yes, Cameron is already a mild Christian Democrat, not an economic libertarian, but still…

  • The role and size of the state is clearly a huge area of debate and one that we should be having right now. It is sad that a rational examination of this question is not more widespread at a time when the Conservatives are claiming to talk about ‘getting big government of people’s backs’. The question is: what exactly do they mean?

    I think we can dismiss some of the more barmy ideas from the market anarchists. Without irony, they argue for privatised armies and police forces. I think they have tried that in Sicily (Mafia) and Afghanistan (warlords), with obvious consequences.

    There seem to be a number of posters here who are confusing the Liberal Democrats with the 19th century Liberals, ignoring over a century of history and learning (ever heard of the Yellow Book anyone?). Basically, we agree with the idea of positive freedoms (i.e. giving people the resources to be able to do things and fulfil their human potential), not just negative freedoms.

    What I would like to hear from these small state advocates is where their empirical evidence is that the policies they advocate result in better outcomes in terms of social development and human wellbeing. All the evidence that I have seen is that these are best served in societies where there is strong state intervention. What matters is how efficient that intervention is and how well it is directed.

    @ Jock
    As for the most immediate question of who is to blame for the credit crunch, I would say a very big proportion of the blame goes to the destabilising deregulatory activities of the Tories in the 1986 Building Societies Act, which allowed them to demutualise. Senior Tories have admitted it was a huge mistake. Without it, there almost certainly would not have been the Northern Rock debacle nor the aggressive expansion of consumer debt. A large number of the worst affected organisations were these ex building societies, which were allowed to go on the rampage. The interest rate was only one reason why there was such a boom in debt. Ignoring the supply side as you do is to distort the debate entirely. The fact is that the culture of our financial sector was changed dramatically, and one of the prime causes of that change was the deregulation of which the Tories were the greatest advocates.

  • Robert C – just read Hayek’s Constitution of Liberty – and then hopefully you look at Hume, Burke, the entire oeuvre of Austrian economics, understand it, and then you’ll realise why Jock is basically correct and your views and the views of statists are entirely erroneous for both moral and practical reasons. You’ll note as you do so that the term you’re using ‘market-anarchists’ is entirely inapt! Well done Jock and Richard Wellings for trying, I salute you. Oh except Jock you’re not entirely correct about Dreadnoughts but we’ll let that one slide!

  • @ Whig.

    Having read widely as part of my degree in economics at Cambridge (where was your economics degree from, then?), I can tell you I was utterly unpersuaded by the arguments of the right.

    Jock is not “basically correct” and I resent your casual assumption that just reading more of the same is going to convince me.

    By the way, have you ever bothered reading Keynes? You should try. Then maybe the scales would fall from YOUR eyes.

  • @ Whig
    “Just read Hayek’s Constitution of Liberty – and then hopefully you look at Hume, Burke, the entire oeuvre of Austrian economics, understand it, and then you’ll realise why Jock is basically correct and your views and the views of statists are entirely erroneous for both moral and practical reasons.”

    I have just re-read this and I am stupefied by the pomposity of this statement. The idea that the business cycle is solely to do with the actions of the monetary authorities and nothing to do with the inherent instability of the capitalist system itself is completely confounded by reality and economic history.

    The “entire oeuvre of Austrian economics” is just a masking ideology used by the deluded serfs of rich people to justify why their masters get to walk off with the swag and other people get robbed blind. “It’s OK, that’s how the market works. It’s natural,” is their refrain.

    Why don’t you just go off to some site for rightwing ideologues and stop bothering the sane folk on this site?

  • Thanks Jock – and a sense of humour as well! The examples of the state interfering in one way, then creating a different problem unforeseen, then having to intervene again to ‘solve’ that problem are manifest in every single area of state action. The problems of arms races are more paradoxical – si vis pacem para bellum – so it’s not really a good analogy even, if you’ll permit me to say.
    Robert C – oh I’m so sorry! I didn’t realise you had a degree in Economics from Cambridge. I’m terribly sorry, of course that makes you correct in all you say and everyone else utterly wrong. Where and how I was educated is of no relevance, and nor is your education, merely your arguments which are flimsy in the extreme. You might also consider the possibility of auto-didacticism and critical thinking, instead of accepting the words of the all mighty Lord Keynes whole and undigested. Amongst many other flaws, Keynes had no understanding of price theory – try Hazlitt’s demolition of him. Naturally I’ve read Keynes, and I’ve also read the critiques of Keynes, and I’ve read the neo-Keynesians, and the neo-Classicists and much else besides. Having read and considered all that I have been able to I have found the Austrian school to have by far the most convincing, in fact the only convicing economic and philosophical approach to these any other issues. My own view is that anyone else who has genuinely done so and reached a different conclusion must be either a bigot or stupid or have some vested interest in denying the evident fallacy of the whole Keynesian and neo-Classical approaches to economics. But then I’ve met too many people with all three of those ‘qualities’ to really be surprised!

  • Hazlitt was just a journalist, not a trained economist, never studied it at university and clearly misunderstood what Keynes was trying to say. You clearly fall into a similar camp, never having had your ideas contested and not being able to evaluate opposing ideas on the same issue.

    Try re-reading Keynes’s General Theory and you will understand that his precise point was that in adjusting prices downwards (and there was considerable price deflation in the 1930s), the ceteris paribus (all things remaining equal) assumption is broken. As a result, the market fails to clear because real buying power of consumers falls and depression occurs. Going on about “market rigidities” just shows how he failed to understand Keynes’s central idea and demonstrates what a weak intellect Hazlitt had.

    Your idolatry of the market as perfect and denigration of all other forms of economic organisation that makes up your case (“go and live in North Korea”) is utterly deranged.

  • Most of the commenters here would be a perfect fit in a Marxist/Communist party. Class warfare, hatred of capitalism, utopianism and a disdain for boring, hard-working people- classic Marxism. There is no ‘Liberal’ in LibDem, judging by you lot.

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