Sunday, 20 June 2010

That disused off licence in the parade? I'm turning it into a hospital.

One of things I’ve always observed about evangelists for the free market is that few of them like to take their case to its logical conclusion. If they did, they would see their arguments quickly collapse under the weight of their own incoherence. Think of a robot in a cheap sci-fi movie overwhelmed with conflicting data and starting to smoke.

Let’s take the Con-Dem plans announced last week for the creation of ‘free schools’, for instance. The principle of the scheme – modelled on similar ideas in the USA and Scandinavia – is to allow pretty much anyone to set up an educational establishment. Ideologically, the premise is that the state should no longer have a monopoly on schooling or curriculum and that unpopular schools should be allowed to go to the wall.

I’m not going to get into the technicalities of whether all this can be made to work on the ground, but I do have a question. If anyone can run a school, why can’t they run a hospital?

Before you laugh and tell me that hospitals are completely different, it’s worth remembering that the Con-Dems don’t actually make it a requirement for people running ‘free’ schools to have any knowledge of education. It’s accepted that they can be a bunch of well-meaning do-gooders who buy in expertise from teaching staff and educational administrators. In fact, I don’t see any fundamental obstacle to a group of functionally illiterate yokels setting up a school that teaches barn dancing, provided they employ someone who can fill in a form for them.

So surely I can run a hospital? I may not be medically qualified myself , but I know people who are. There’s a disused warehouse a couple of miles away that would make an excellent outpatients’ clinic. I won’t follow any nationally agreed guidelines on how to treat people, but if someone wants to roll up, that’s their choice, isn’t it?

Let’s take things a stage further. What if I lived in an area where there was dissatisfaction with the standard of policing? Why should the state have a stifling level of control over the justice system? I could get together with a group of concerned residents and establish my own security force. If neighbours wanted to withhold the portion of their taxes that went to the local police authority, they could donate it to me instead. I’d give them a card – a little like membership of the AA or RAC – that would allow them to call me any time they liked.

Of course, I’m being a bit mischievous with all this. But truly free markets are an absurdity and people who advocate them are rarely guided by any coherent principles. If they were true to their intellectual logic, they would propose opening up the markets for prostitution, drugs and firearms. (In the loony days of Margaret Thatcher, there were a few libertarian splinter groups – the Federation of Conservative Students, for example – which did indeed advocate some of these positions, but they had to be disowned. Even the Iron Lady realised that pure market ideology would produce unacceptable social consequences.)

The reason we gradually established and entrenched state education in the UK is because ‘free’ schools founded by philanthropists, religious zealots and busy-bodies were hopelessly inadequate. Prior to the 1870 Education Act, large areas of the country simply didn’t have any proper educational provision at all. Those parliamentarians who didn’t much care for the moral arguments in favour of educating the working classes were persuaded by the functional economic need: Britain’s manufacturing base needed more people who could read, write and add up.

In the early part of the nineteenth century, there was huge opposition to the establishment of a national police force because it was thought to be a tyrannical instrument of state oppression. The kind of thing that Johnny Foreigner would do. It was only when the inadequacies of the old night watchmen began to be exposed – and crime started to rise in growing cities – that people turned to the state. Even then, Sir Robert Peel’s first police force was seen as a trial or experiment at the time it was launched.

In almost every area of life, people turn to government when the going gets tough and they discover that we can achieve more collectively than we can as individuals. You don’t have to be a red-blooded socialist to buy into this way of thinking. Just someone with half a brain in your head.

And talking of people with half a brain in their head, how exactly have Nick Clegg and his sidekicks like Danny Alexander got swept up so quickly with all the Tory free-market nonsense? Have they had a Paulian conversion? Absolutely not. They’ve always been on the economic right, but were previously constrained by the grassroots of the Liberal Democrats and the need to win elections. As I’ve noted before, the only way they could triumph in many constituencies was by claiming to be the anti-Tory party and soaking up the votes of Labour supporters, who were informed their party couldn’t win. Now, the Lib Dem argument is exposed as a hollow sham and its advocates as a bunch of self-serving hypocrites.

It’s very clear that the political cover provided by the Lib Dems is absolutely essential to Cameron and Osborne. In many ways, the coalition government is allowed to get away with deeper cuts because it is seen as being more representative of public opinion. But people who voted Lib Dem didn’t support Clegg so that free school milk budgets could be transferred to ‘free school’ milkers who are looking for state money to pursue their own vainglorious ends.

It will, of course, all end in tears – probably during the course of a second recession created by the savage public service cuts. Eventually, a proportion of the Lib Dem parliamentarians will realise they have been used to do the Tories’ dirty work and received precious little in return. The game will be up. But how much damage will have been done in the meantime?

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