Thursday's General Election saw millions of first-time voters give their support to Jeremy Corbyn. Apparently, they felt his pledge to stick it to the rich and increase public sector spending equates to justice and decency, and they’re very much about these things. History has demonstrated time and again that big government is a bad idea, but hope springs eternal. The imbecilic idealism of youth ensures that each time socialism is tossed into the dustbin of history, it crawls out again to entice the another generation of fantasists.
For doubting the wisdom of eternal state expansion, conservatives are seen by the Left as heartless knaves, who walk on the backs of peasants. Or as Thomas Sowell put it, they “seem to assume that if you don't believe in their particular political solutions, then you don't really care about the people that they claim to want to help”.
Leftists find it useful to conjure up evil conservative straw men, because they like having something dark and satanic to define themselves against. In truth, however, conservatives do care about other people. They’re just more interested in doing good than feeling good. The reason they doubt the ability of a benevolent state to banish all our social ills isn't just down to their lack of faith in the omnipotence of bureaucrats, but because they have a grasp of economic reality.
To illustrate this point, allow me to borrow an example from philosopher Jamie Whyte. Suppose I took a portion of your income and did your weekly shopping for you. Chances are, I’d buy plenty of things you don’t need, be extravagant where you’d have economised, and frugal where you’d have splashed out. Even if I stayed within your usual budget, what was left wouldn’t be enough for you to afford the things I'd neglected to buy. You’d be left worse off than if you'd done your own shopping.
Now imagine this scheme was rolled out nationwide, with the government buying groceries for everyone. Soon enough, retailers would tailor production to the government shopping list, and variety would vanish from the shelves. With no competition or consumer choice to worry about, there would be few controls over costs, and nothing to drive productivity, quality or innovation. With everything free at the point of use, demand would be effectively infinite, but budgetary constraints, growing inefficiency and spiralling costs would hamper supply. Rationing and shortage would be inevitable. Eventually, you’d have to queue around the block for loaf of bread that used to cost a pound, but now costs a tenner and is full of weevils.
This is why it’s absurd to claim a little less efficiency is a fair price for a little more equality. Truth is, the state makes everything so expensive that it can only be afforded by the state. This may not bother you if you think someone else is picking up the lion’s share of the cost, but when government plays provider, prices rise and quality falls to such an extent that you’d still be better off paying your own way.
To understand the magnitude of this effect, consider Venezuela. Even having the largest oil reserves on earth couldn’t save it from the consequences of socialism. Its economy is in tatters, not because of interference by scheming gringos, but because of its statist policies. This is the eventual fate of any country that goes down the route of providing the public with too much 'free stuff'.
Once statism takes hold, it’s very hard to dislodge. Because the NHS has a near-monopoly on healthcare, for instance, it dictates and drives up the cost of medical procedures nationally. Private alternatives compete in this inflated market, so their prices tend to be high also. They have a limited pool of potential customers (because most people can’t afford private healthcare after forking out for the NHS), so there is insufficient competition or demand to apply downward pressure on prices. The net result is that only a relative few buy private health insurance, and everyone else is stuck in the gravitational pull of an NHS doomed by the mechanism described above.
The only way to break the spell is through privatisation. But that is a poisonous word for people concerned with ‘social justice’, who (getting things entirely the wrong way round) associate it with bad value, shoddy service and diddling the poor. Instead, they call for more public spending, preferring short-term good they can take credit for supporting, than long-term good they did nothing to bring about.
The same people probably wouldn’t dream of using government mobile phones, eating in government restaurants, or going on government holidays. They understand how expensively second-rate those things would be, but refuse to view our monolithic public services the same way. There are none so blind as those who will not see.