The fundamental problem of politics is this:
The skills you need to get elected to government are completely different from the skills you need to govern effectively.
So we elect people who have one set of skills (perform well in front of a camera, exude easy charm, come up with attractive sound-bites); then when they form a government we find they lack the other set of skills (clear thought, compassion, respect for experts, assiduous attention to detail).
All our problems follow from this.
Whenever one talks of raising taxes and increasing benefits, a lot of people have this quite understandable reaction: “Why should people who work hard to earn money give it to people who don’t?”
But there is a good reason that every civilised country in the world has a progressive tax system — one where people with high incomes pay a higher proportion of that income in tax. It is that, other things being equal, there is a tendency for rich people to become richer and poor people to become poorer — and progressive tax systems are intended, at least, to ameliorate that tendency and prevent it from running wild.
But why does this tendency exist?
“The economy is the central, critical, irreducible core of this election”, wrote David Cameron in the run-up to the election. “Everything depends on a strong economy.” And although I am not inclined to agree with everything Cameron says, this seems pretty much unarguable. If we as a country want to do the things that civilised countries do — educate our young, heal our sick, feed our poor, care for our elderly — we need money to do it.
[This was written in hurry: please forgive any typos or other mistakes; better still, point them out in the comments, and I’ll fix them.]
As noted in part 1, the UK’s annual fiscal deficit (the difference between its income and expenditure) is about £100 billion. The population of the UK is 64 million, so that means that as a nation we are spending £1500 per person more than we’re bringing in. To put it another way, we each need to chip in one and a half thousand pounds a year to balance the books.
That’s why Liam Byrne, the outgoing Treasury chief in 2010, famously left a note saying “I’m afraid there is no money.”
Many thanks to all who have commented on part 1 of this series: very interesting discussion. Also to Millennium Elephant for fact-checking my statements about LibDem policies.
Today, I want to look at what government spending is for, and why we have it. The reason that’s important is that lots of people resent taxes, and feel that the government is taking their money away. That’s the means, not the end. It would be more true to say that the government is spending money on your behalf. Why does it do that? Is it a good thing?
First, a disclaimer. I am not very informed about UK party politics or about how our parliamentary system works. I know people who are much more informed in these matters (but I won’t link to them because they have party affiliations and I don’t want to advocate a particular party).
But I do want to talk about political principles. This is the first in what I expect to be a short series, where I want to tackle the very fundamentals that we vote on.
The key issue underlying much of the electioneering this time around seems to be the deficit. Continue reading