Why lefties should question the role of the state


9:30 am - February 6th 2010

by Guest    


      Share on Tumblr

contribution by Luis Enrique

Sensible people may disagree, but they ought to agree on this

The appropriate role of government in the economy is a fundamental question, and one that should excite the interest of LC readers. In the interminable blog war between libertarians and statists, there are two polarized positions that all sensible people should disavow.

1. Government activity is generally undesirable (on one side)
2. Government programs with laudable goals should be supported (on the other)

These extreme views are paraphrased from this blog post, which was itself inspired by this blog post, in which a couple of libertarians try to persuade their fellow libertarians to embrace government.

I heartily recommend both articles.

They are not the final word on the subject (both operate at a reasonably simplistic and generalised level) but if the insights therein were more widely appreciated, well for one thing the standard of debate in the blog comments thread would improve no end.

One thing that might re-vitalise the liberal-left is some careful thinking about which problems are amenable to government solutions, and which aren’t. But the point here is not merely to shake up the left. These arguments also provide ammunition to demolish the witless anti-government instincts of the right.

To quote from the article linked above:

If your politics were about policy, and you were reasonable, then you’d support programs with high value impacts and easy coordination, and oppose programs with low value impacts and difficult coordination.

Ideologues who oppose all government programs no matter how valuable or easy, or who support all programs with laudable goals no matter now difficult their coordination task just don’t get it. That might signal their values …. but not their reason.

Be interested to hear your thoughts.

    Share on Tumblr   submit to reddit  


About the author
This is a guest post.
· Other posts by


Story Filed Under: Blog ,Economy ,Libertarians

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.


Reader comments


1. Sunder Katwala

The moderate libertarians argue (correctly) that opposing a specific policy or programme does not always imply rejecting the goal, eg universal healthcare.

However, that does depend on positing some plausible means to achieve a ‘shared’ goal. If one expresses concern about growing wealth inequality while proposing to restrict or remove policies which reduce asset inequalities (eg child trust fund, inheritance tax) then the charge of opposing the goal is a plausible one. Republican opponents of the current healthcare proposals might reasonably find the burden of proof is on them at the moment because of the way they have often articulated their opposition to date.

If one is trying to offer a sensible middle way between two ‘extreme’ views then they are usually posited as:

1. Government activity is generally undesirable (on one side): whoever governs least governs best.
2. Government activity is generally desirable: more state is better.

Almost everybody in mainstream democratic debate does fall between those two views. There are some in the Keith Joseph/Robert Nozick camp going a lot way towards (1) and they would say the same about a (highly caricatured) Fabianism, which isn’t promoting a gradualist route to North Korea.

However, that also casts some doubt on the value of this triangulatory insight.

It can and is used by a wide range of positions Blairite, social democratic enabling state, LibDems, ProgCon something-or-other, pragmatists and others to imply there are lots of people in the other two positions, whereas all common sense points to the wisdom of whatever particular “middle” positon is being adopted.

The effect of that truism is quite often to underplay or conflate significant policy and political choices over major issues: responses to a recession, etc.

I think it’s a shame that we tend to forget that the purpose of socialism was to enable ‘the withering away of the state’. I, personally, have found a lot to like in nineteenth-century anarchists like Benjamin Tucker or mutualists like Proudhon.

It’s unfortunate that libertarianism is associated with ‘the right’, as, historically, that’s not what libertarianism has been at all. Even now Devil’s Kitchen is well worth reading, and even Samizdata have Johnathan Pearce who often has interesting things to say. Their hidebound hostility to what they see (wrongly) as ‘the left’ often obscures that they are often right.

It’s a shame that there isn’t a movement of ‘libertarian socialists’ or ‘market anarchists’ in this country as there is in America. I think we could really do with a Kevin Carson (http://www.mutualist.org ), a Roderick Long, if only to provoke debate and to remind us on the left, that the state isn’t always our friend…

(Oh, I explore some of these ideas in a little more (slightly tipsy) depth here: http://pastichio.blogspot.com/2009/06/enough-is-e-fucking-nough.html

3. the a&e charge nurse

The first thing we must do is separate ideology from evidence whenever this is possible.

Take the NHS – NuLab have been in thrall to the market for some time now.
There is an unspoken assumption that the market can deliver a more efficient, cheaper service than comparable services traditionally provided by the state.

Yet despite untold billions spent on PFI initiatives, ISTCs, polyclinics and the like there is not one shred of evidence that these market driven systems are in any way better than their state counterparts – in fact quite the opposite, they have been a disaster both economically and clinically.

The money pissed away on these schemes, driven by ideology rather than evidence verges on the criminal.
http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/iiosi-special-investigation-how-government-squanders-billions-1877276.html

http://www.bmj.com/cgi/content/full/338/apr30_2/b1421

The elephant in the room is that we can all probably agree upon certain roles of government that have been neglected over decades. Provision of infra-structure comes to mind. Governments can foul up but our current third-world transport system is a symptom of free market ideology in action.

We too easily become bogged down by all the noise generated by interested parties and forget why we have government. Despite appearances its not to divert public cash into private coffers, that’s a recent aberration. Perhaps we should list what we consider the fundamental duties of government as a starting point?

If you’re looking to evaluate a liberal left critique of the state’s role in society, perhaps a better starting point than the libertarian right would be the libertarian left?

6. Mike Killingworth

[5] That’s part of the debate, isn’t it, Phil – that there just isn’t a libertarian left in British politics? Or even (by comparison with France, Spain or Italy) a lively anarcho-syndicalist tradition. Not that there’s much evidence that the absence of these has damaged our quality of life.

What I notice about “libertarians” is that they seem to be overwhelmingly young (and presumably fit) males – the group which puts more into society through work and taxation than it takes out, and which probably has the most to gain from the adoption of competitive rather than solidaristic values.

I would have more time for them if they put in the hard yards campaigning on behalf of, say, a gravely and chronically disabled woman who was trying to prevent the State from providing her with services tailored to her needs – or even if they leafleted hospital waiting rooms with pamphlets denouncing people in them for using the NHS.

I doubt there is a libertarian blogger in the English-speaking world who wouldn’t shut up altogether in return for a State pension of £1m a year. Or who hasn’t been rejected for employment by an investment bank or three in their time, come to that.

There’s a few problems with the approach laid out in the OP, not the least of which is different aims.

Say, for example, the the Right have a policy which achieves one of their social aims, and is low in terms of co-ordination requirements. The Left still may oppose it because it considers the aim itself to be undersirable – so whilst we might like to cast “ideology” out of the equation, the aims themselves are ideological, even over things the majority of both sides agree about.

The same is true in reverse; the Left wish to challenge poverty through wealth redistribution, and this is a relatively easy thing to do. But the Right will oppose it because they believe free enterprise will deliver jobs, and that any individual will, in a free-enterprise-based society, be able to work themselves up.

So we have a clash between doctrines of personal responsibility and collective solidarity.

When we’re asked to question the role of the state, and apply the above maxim, it’s usually only centrists who can ask it of us, because they’ve disguised ideology behind the mask of “common sense”.

8. Alisdair Cameron

A lot of truth in Luis’ post about the posturing on both extremes. The quote

If your politics were about policy, and you were reasonable, then you’d support programs with high value impacts and easy coordination, and oppose programs with low value impacts and difficult coordination

also appeals, but, and it is a huge but the term value impacts is so subjective.
It’s also akin to the perennial arguments over liberty and state intervention: just about all modern politicos will pay lip service to, say, J.S.Mill and his divide essentially between self-regarding/affecting actions (where the most the state should do is disapprove) and other-regarding/affecting actions (where state intervention is legitimate). Conceptually, there is a neat divide between the personal and the social, but there is a huge grey area in the middle in practice: for example take a drug-user who’s on heroin.His or her use of the drug is self-regarding/affecting, but some would argue is also other-regarding/affecting, through secondary impacts (eg on family or neighbours). So again, we return to interpretation and subjectivity. It is on this middle-ground or grey area that all of the current political argument lies, as both extremes (virtually no State, or an all-encompassing one) have in essence been dismissed in the UK.

@Mike,

What I notice about “libertarians” is that they seem to be overwhelmingly young (and presumably fit) males – the group which puts more into society through work and taxation than it takes out, and which probably has the most to gain from the adoption of competitive rather than solidaristic values.

I think you’re right about this, though I would also add that they’re usually fairly well to-do individuals. Although they may be working class in the sense that they have to sell their labour, they’re usually at the upper end of the scale in the sociological “middle class.”

And, to take the idea to its extreme, I’ve yet to encounter an anarcho-capitalist who was without capital. These ideas appeal to the rich for obvious reasons – they’re a front for selfishness and greed.

Perhaps that’s why a strong anarcho-syndicalist or anarchist-communist tradition is neccesary. If nothing else, it could show that individual liberty and collective solidarity are complementary values, and that you don’t have to make a choice between being (to take the choice to its extreme) Josef Stalin or Ebeneezer Scrooge.

2. “Government programs with laudable goals should be supported (on the other)”

One of my biggest beefs with statist is this idea that luadable goals (aka good intentions) are somehow a valid justification for state intervention. All sorts of people (Adolf Hitler, pol pot, Stalin etc etc) could justify their actions on the basis that they had good intentions. (I was hust trying to create a better/fairer/more equal society

My position has always been that intent is irrelevant, outcomes are what counts and as government is too large and remote to predict, let alone control outcomes, it should not intervene.

The default position of libertarians is therefore that the state should create the conditions for economic growth, and for social harmony, but nothing more. Government should not for example have “social policies” of any kind.

Beyond that the state should provide basic merit goods which the private sector is unable or unwilling to provide. Law and order, transport infrastructure, health, defence and perhaps, education.

Spot on, Luis. I have to say, things have come to a pretty pass when people have to start saying things like I’m in favour of government implementing policies that work.

I take the approach of “prove to me why the government needs to do this”. If you can, then fair enough. If you can’t, then why are you advocating it?

13. the a&e charge nurse

[10] “The default position of libertarians is therefore that the state should create the conditions for economic growth, and for social harmony, but nothing more. Government should not for example have “social policies” of any kind”.

Perhaps the main reason why the words ‘Libertarian’ and ‘government of the day’ are likely to remain strangers for some time yet?

As a matter of interest which country is most emblematic of the Libertarian mindset (Somalia aside)?

mike killingworth.

i reckon there is a libertarian left in britain. it’s just really wee. also the non-statist part of the left doesn’t stand for election and is excluded by the corporate media.

easy to miss them.

‘1. Government activity is generally undesirable (on one side)
2. Government programs with laudable goals should be supported (on the other)’

They’re not ‘extreme’ views. They’re not even incompatable. It’s perfectly reasonable to accept 1. but make exceptions for certain cases of 2.

1. Government activity is *always* undesirable
2. Government programs *should always* be supported

are extreme views.

Anarchism has many of the same goals that State socialists pretend they believe in: redistribution of *power* as well as wealth. The difference is that State ‘socialists’ see the State as the best tool for doing this despite history showing that it is singularly incapable of anything but gobbling up more and more power.

Bakunin recognised that State Socialism would present a far greater tyranny than any other form of government which had been seen before and he was right.

‘Perhaps that’s why a strong anarcho-syndicalist or anarchist-communist tradition is neccesary. If nothing else, it could show that individual liberty and collective solidarity are complementary values, and that you don’t have to make a choice between being (to take the choice to its extreme) Josef Stalin or Ebeneezer Scrooge.’

Exactly. Anarchism isn’t about atomisation, it’s about voluntary association – and what better place to begin than in the workplace, i.e. with anarcho-syndicalism?

Shared ownership and democracy in the workplace then forms a template for local democracy, which then forms a template for regional democracy (where decisions are required at that level), then up to decision making at national level, etc.

The State – such as it is – is then subject to the needs of employees and local communities rather than the other way round.

“As a matter of interest which country is most emblematic of the Libertarian mindset (Somalia aside)?”

The UK in the 1980s is the closest to it I’ve seen.

18. Shatterface

‘The UK in the 1980s is the closest to it I’ve seen.’

Since the Thatcher years saw a vast extension of State powers (the paramilitarisation of the police, the video recording act, clause 28 and censorship of Irish Republicans) I don’t see how they can be classed as ‘libertarian’.

I know quite a few libertarians, and can assure the people above who have articulated the view that they are predominantly prosperous white males with middle class backgrounds that this impression is quite wrong.

One of the reasons people have the above impression is that it is assumed libertarians adopt their political philosophy out of self interest. Again, there are some right leaning economic libertarians who may do this, but it is a small minority.

People tend to come to libertarianism with different initial drivers.

1) From a belief in free market economics.

2) From an intellectual interest in political philosophy.

3) From a desire for social liberalism.

What they find in libertarianism is, of course, the link between economic and social liberty. And that link is articulated as freedom from intervention by government (which is, by its nature, collectivist rather than individualistic)

Antipathy to the intervention of authority in their lives is the glue that bonds libertarians together.

Once that link has been made, the philosophy becomes stunningly coherent and at a libertarian conference it would be normal to find an unemployed musician rubbing shoulders with a retired naval officer and both agreeing on Friedmanite economics and the case for legalising heroin.

They have no shared background or personal interest- what they share, I would suggest, is a particular personality trait. But because that trait is only shared by a relatively small proportion of people, libertarianism can never become a mainstream political movement.

Ask people whether they would prefer a large government that promises them security or a small government that will allow them freedom and most will instinctively vote for the former. That contract will only break down if the population come to believe that government’s undertaking to look after them adequately has been broken or it becomes clear that that the cost of the promise being honoured is no longer sustainable.

So please understand that libertarianism is no real threat to the state or to the left and people here should be comforted that they are fulfilling a valuable role by giving libertarians a forum in which to express their frustrations.

Blogging is like therapy for the poor bastards.

Natural rights libertarians tend to be a lot more concerned with the legitimacy of institutions (which they equate with voluntarism). The first question for them is not ‘what good can the state achieve?’ but ‘who the fuck are you, and what is this “state” you are acting on behalf of, it sounds more like a criminal entity to me?’

Indeed an awful lot of libertarian theory at those sort of margins is on how a state COULD become legitimate, not that they ever are (whether from a contract, or a sort of emergent order that was the result of voluntary transactions). For the most part, the state as a voluntary institutions fails to be very plausible.

More pragmatically, there are two things that can improve anyone’s considerations of whether the government really should get involved in a particular area of life. The first is opportunity cost. If people accepted that ALL government actions have costs (because they have to seize money from somewhere) then the bar would be a little bit higher when judging whether its worth getting involved.

The other is the acceptance of the possibility and even likelihood of government failure. That is that the institutions of government will tend to fail to pursue the public good. It is no use comparing non-ideal ‘market failures’ with omniscient and beneficient government action because that doesn’t exist. You have to compare the probability of market failure with the probability of government failure. Often government failure is worse, and markets improve over time if left alone even they look pretty grim to begin with.

I think there are some pretty major examples of obvious ‘government failures’, one happened, one already in the making. One is drug prohibition which has made the problems associated with drugs worse ever since its inception. The upcoming one is content regulation of the internet. Which will be a fucking disaster and ruin what everyone can see right now is a miraculous commericial and social entity which emerged (more or less) spontaneously from voluntary actors. It is not that it is impossible to have good policies in these areas, just that you never will due to the fallibility and corruptability of government institutions. So it is better to have none.

Other things, like healthcare, are more contestable. Doctors make a powerful bloc, and the nature of the service they provide means it is possible that in the absence of regulation, they would be able to exert too much power over their customers. I am not convinced that public health provision was the solution to this, and the NHS certainly isn’t the best way of delivering public health provision. But I can’t point to an example of a wonderful medical system in an advanced country in the absence of regulation. So the argument for laissez-faire in that area is gonna be more speculative than the ones above.

Although economic freedom is not the most important kind of liberty, it so happens that around 8 out of 10 of these nations would figure as a pretty good example of libertarian institutions in action: http://www.heritage.org/index/TopTen.aspx

The obvious exception is Singapore (but still, great health system!).

Canada is an interesting one too because, for all its social democratic pursuits, it has a brilliant federalist constitution which prevents the central government from taking on too many powers. And they also have a great common law tradition which has done an awful lot to restrict the bad use of statutory law.

22. Shatterface

‘What they find in libertarianism is, of course, the link between economic and social liberty.’

Agree, in the sense that poverty places practical limits on your social liberty. I’m ‘free’ to jack my job in and go on a world cruise. It’s not going to happen though.

‘And that link is articulated as freedom from intervention by government (which is, by its nature, collectivist rather than individualistic)’

Disagree, in the sense you seem to be implying a binary oposition between government and collectivism on one side and liberty and individualism on the other, when it’s clear Thatcher combined strong government with individualism while anarchism is necessarily collective.

“If one expresses concern about growing wealth inequality”

Well, if one were going to express such concern it would be incumbent upon one to go and find out how much wealth inequaility there actually was. Unlike, for example, the recent Hills Report.

They committed a quite unpardonable sin in that. Looking at income inequality they (rightly) look at the inequality *after* the influence of the tax and benefit system.

With wealth they look at solely the market distribution. They do not even consider the way in which the welfare state makes wealth redistributions (as one particularly heinous example, the consider private pensions to be wealth but not state pension. This is of course bollocks).

Far from our having a 90:10 wealth ratio of 100:1 (as they say) it’s closer to 10:1 and can even be described as 5:1 or lower.

Which leads to one point: even if government goals are laudable and thus worthy of support there’s all too many people willing to lie about reality in order to offer that support.

“Yet despite untold billions spent on PFI initiatives, ISTCs, polyclinics and the like there is not one shred of evidence that these market driven systems are in any way better than their state counterparts – in fact quite the opposite, they have been a disaster both economically and clinically.”

Actually, we do have evidence. The market based reforms apply only to NHS England, not NHS Scotland or Wales. We can thus compare the English experience with the Celtic. This was done just recently and the English experience delivers better care at lower cost than the Celtic.

““As a matter of interest which country is most emblematic of the Libertarian mindset (Somalia aside)?”

The UK in the 1980s is the closest to it I’ve seen.”

Naah. UK (just) pre-1914. Basic welfare state in place (not great but pretty good for the time), government did the things that had to be done and that only government could do….and for the rest of it they pretty much stayed out of the population’s way.

“Agree, in the sense that poverty places practical limits on your social liberty. I’m ‘free’ to jack my job in and go on a world cruise. It’s not going to happen though”

That isn’t freedom, that is ‘capability’, you are talking about. But freedom from interference and rights to property are the surest way to increasing people’s capabilities as well.

If, on the other hand, you don’t have durable property rights, you don’t have any freedoms whatsoever. They might be interfered with arbitrarily by others and by government.

“Since the Thatcher years saw a vast extension of State powers (the paramilitarisation of the police, the video recording act, clause 28 and censorship of Irish Republicans) I don’t see how they can be classed as ‘libertarian’.”

Fair enough – but I said the smallest I’d seen ie lived through. Compared to now (when you can barely turn on the TV or radio without exposure to some state “message” or other), the state had a very small role in the average persons life.

“Ask people whether they would prefer a large government that promises them security or a small government that will allow them freedom and most will instinctively vote for the former”

Hmm You could argue that’s a function of conditioning – which is why statists are so keen to control education. If individuals perceive the state to solve all their problems they will of course continue to vote for it. Which is why statists find it so difficult to accept that any problem is beyond state control (anything from swine flu to global economis crises are difficult for statists to accept or comprehend). What’s intersting is what happens when big state breaks down – i.e post 88 USSR. People who haven’t succumbed to the conditioning prosper, people that have, flounder.

27. Mike Killingworth

One question for the libertarian apologists here: do you think that the way people bring their children up is any of the State’s business? And if, as a few sadly but surely will, some parents abuse their children to the point of torture/sex abuse, should the State intervene

– before the child has been harmed, i.e. on the basis of a risk assessment?
– only after the harm has occurred?
– not at all?

I don’t see how the first can be reconciled with libertarianism or the other two with any intuitive notion of “decency”.

@27 You’re assuming that state intervention is effective in reducing child abuse, when historically many abusers are in fact acting on behalf of the state. Abusive teachers, care home workers etc tend to get less media coverage than priests.
I might argue that state institutions and their interventions have actually created an environment in which abuse is more likely to occur in the first place. To then say that the state is solving the problem creates a circular argument.

29. Shatterface

‘That isn’t freedom, that is ‘capability’, you are talking about. But freedom from interference and rights to property are the surest way to increasing people’s capabilities as well.’

It’s a ‘positive liberty’ as I understand the term and since the primary function of the State is the preservation of property rights they DO interfere as a matter of course.

‘Hmm You could argue that’s a function of conditioning – which is why statists are so keen to control education’

To a large extent his is true of the education system but also of the prison system and of the military which seem designed to create institutionalised, State-dependent populations – despite having massive support on the Right. 30 years of shuffling work-capable people onto IB hasn’t helped either.

Deliberately, or accidentally, the State induces helplessness and infantilism. Their current obssession with alcohol and paedophiles is part of the same assault.

30. Mike Killingworth

[26][27][28] Well, it’s really pointless to continue this discussion, isn’t it? There is no conceivable evidence which will lead you to change your minds.

When I raised the issue of child abuse I specifically talked about parental abuse. You guys missed that word out in order to compare the abusive nature of priests and social workers.

And if anyone presents an objection to your thesis – for example, by suggesting that the people who benefited from the collapse of the Soviet Union were, in fact, robbers and gangsters – you dismiss it by saying that it’s “a function of conditioning”.

This conditioning you, unlike the rest of us, have seen through. So you are intellectually superior to us all. So why do you even bother to come here to “debate” with people you regard as no better than morons, by comparison with your perfectselves?

“And if, as a few sadly but surely will, some parents abuse their children to the point of torture/sex abuse, should the State intervene”

ANYONE can intervene to prevent the torture and abuse of an individiual, child or adult. We are allowed to defend ourselves and come to the aid of others. Indeed, we have a moral duty to. It is not a state monopoly. If in order to intervene, that involves breaking down the door of a private household and invading someone’s property, then you are liable to damages if you turn out to be mistaken. It is a risk you take. Some organisations might pool the risk so that individuals feel it is possible for them to risk damaging someone’s property in order to come to the aid of others.

In the event, I believe in the absence of government, sensible people would agree to some sort of juridical system within their own communities to co-ordinate this sort of activity. For example, a jury of one’s peers might be able to demand that someone’s home be opened up to investigators or that a child be shown to the court and interviewed. This would reduce the chance of violence breaking out when child abuse is suspected. Of course, none of these systems are going to prevent all child abuse. But it is hardly as if child abuse is absent in society right now, and state institutions have been some of the worst offenders in terms of allowing child abuse.

I am a socialist, I am also a liberal, and as Nathanial at Post 2 has already pointed-out, one of the prime objectives of socialism is to reduce state involvment to a minimum. The problem is that the usual discourse about socialism and liberalism is the fixed view about economic models, on the one hand we view Thatcher’s ideological neo-liberalism (yes she did expand the state) and the soviet model, and then an inbetween alternative based on Keynes.
But as other commentators have mentioned, but have not expanded the debate, there is a great difference between the social and the private, and it is here where both socialists and liberals can come to a working agreement.
This is outlined in ‘The Politics of Time’ by Andre Gorz, unfortunately, although he is highly regarded on the continent and particularly in his native France, he is rarely mentioned within political debate in the UK.

Matt @ 26

If individuals perceive the state to solve all their problems they will of course continue to vote for it.

I don’t think we’re disagreeing here. Libertarians will be unhappy with a nanny state but most people like to be nannied. Goo goo.

What’s interesting is what happens when big state breaks down – i.e post 88 USSR. People who haven’t succumbed to the conditioning prosper, people that have, flounder.

Agreed again.

Which is why libertarians spend so much time predicting and yearning for such a day- looking for the signs of impending anarchy so that they can be free of the state shackles.

Just don’t hold your breath because the grip of the state continues to tighten..

Mike @ 27

do you think that the way people bring their children up is any of the State’s business?

No.

Providing that the criminal law is not broken, people should be able to rear their children as they see fit providing that basic duties of care are carried out. That the state believes that it can prevent a crime from happening by predicting it in advance (and destroying families on such a hunch) is demonstrative of it’s God complex.

34. Shatterface

A lot of the arguments for the State seem to echo those in favour of God: that without it we’ll all fall into all kinds of wickedness, up to and including child abuse.

The State is omniscient, omnipresent and benevolent father figure to which we are ultimately accountable.

It’s a little creepy.

Mike @ 30

So you are intellectually superior to us all.</I.

Well…….

So why do you even bother to come here to “debate” with people you regard as no better than morons, by comparison with your perfect selves?

I already answered this @19.

Think of it as public service. While we are irritating the blogosphere, we’re not doing any real harm in the real world.

36. Mike Killingworth

[35] You seem to be on both sides of the debate at once. A truly anarchist position…

[34] Another straw man. No one has said or implied that.

[33] Oh come on. There was an article in the “Guardian” this week about a couple who had abused five of their children (and been punished for it) yet had given birth to a sixth. Are you seriously suggesting that there is no role for the State in such a case?

[31] Yes, let’s have a society where we all have to intervene if we think our neighbours are up to no good and are liable to condign punishment if we wrongly intervene or if we fail to do so. Government might well be unnecessary if everyone could agree what “sensible behaviour” amounted to and everyone practised it. Hopefully the pig that has just flew past my window will be passing yours soon.

“[33] Oh come on. There was an article in the “Guardian” this week about a couple who had abused five of their children (and been punished for it) yet had given birth to a sixth. Are you seriously suggesting that there is no role for the State in such a case?”

What are you suggesting? Forced sterilisation?

[31] It is how voluntary institutions have been formed in the past. People with some sense of common purpose come together and agree how they shall govern their arrangements. It is how the early cities developed and how things like monasteries were established. Before technology provided for the centralising power into a nation-state this is how people made communal life possible. It is how international trade is possible.

And I am not saying people should be punished for failing to intervene. A moral duty is not the same as an enforceable one.

For more pig-flying miracles of local self-government, try reading some Henri Pirenne: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henri_Pirenne

39. the a&e charge nurse

[37] What are you suggesting? Forced sterilisation?

No, but child protection might be a good idea?

40. Luis Enrique

I agree, as has been pointed out above, that all this thinking about what the state can do side-steps the political question of what we want it to do.

Out of interest, how many commentators have read the articles I link to in this post? Sunny suggested it might not be a great idea putting up a post that essentially sends people elsewhere, and I suspect he might be right. Did any of the board’s libertarians read the Reason article?

I’d like to expand on what Robin Hanson means by co-ordination problems. It might not seem terribly difficult, for example, to establish a state backed bank and ‘coordinate’ the disbursal of loans made with ‘social goals’ in mind. That’s not really what he means by coordination problems.

Put social motives aside for a moment, and consider the problem of coordinating the economy so that firms producing things people want in the most efficient manner prosper and firms producing goods people don’t want and/or in a wasteful fashion, do not. The standard free-market idea is that profit seeking firms funded by profit seeking banks will solve this coordination problem, even though they are competing and not cooperating with each other.

But lefties, quite sensibly, may not be satisfied with this outcome, where some people do very much better than others. But what’s the best to co-ordinate whatever improvements are desired?

A state-run bank the cares about social goals means caring about something other then profit which means tolerating losses if they’re doing some social good. Some of the problems a state-run bank might encounter include firms faking social goodness, or obtaining subsidies via political shenanigans (or politicians handing them out in return for support). I’m not really a government sceptic and think that professional bureaucracies can be effective things, but in the setting (state financing of firms) these kinds of problem are very hard to avoid. There are more fundamental problems too. If the bank is currently supporting a ‘non performing loan’ to a firm making good A, because it’s achieving the social end of employing workers, will it lend to a new more efficient firm also making good A who would put this firm out of business? These products may be socially desirable, like solar panels. The social bank’s subsidy of inefficient solar panel producers will effectively raise the barrier to entry for more efficient producers. (I think) the idea of a state run social bank is an inherently difficult coordination problem. It would actually be very hard to get it doing what we’d want it to do.

The point is that there are other ways to do things. If you want to promote employment, offer all firms a hiring subsidy. If you want to encourage ‘green jobs’, subsidise R&D, or offer customers a negative tax (rebate) on the final good price. It’s easier to change prices and let people coordinate themselves. These are just examples of easier to coordinate ways of approaching some of the same problems that, I think, make people think a state bank with ‘social goals’ would be a good idea.

In the other direction, there are some things that the private sector finds hard to coordinate. Imagine, say, building the infrastructure for a nationwide network of recharging stations for electric cars. Here each car manufacturer might try to free ride off the efforts of others, or interfere in some way to give themselves an advantage. It’s the kind of thing governments can usefully take a lead on – not by trying to design the thing themselves, but by putting up some money and applying some legislative pressure to get things going. There are tons of ways in which the government can intervene in the economy, to make useful things happen that would if the private sector was left to its own devices, and make the private sector function better.

These aren’t original ideas by any means. All I’m doing here is highlighting what sort of problems those proposing state-led solutions should, I think, be mindful of, and at the same time, asking those who prefer private sector solutions to spend more time thinking about the kinds of things governments can do and laissez faire can’t.

Since nobody has said it, I’ll congratulate Luis for writing a post that has generated mostly thoughtful comments.

I really didn’t like one of the arguments in the Overcoming Bias: Coordination is Hard post to which Luis links: “…and that coordination techs continue to improve, both in and out of government.” It is flawed to assume that technology and methodology will improve to provide better coordination of policy in the future. The last 100 years suggest entirely the opposite.

We should assume that government will only become more coordinated if it does less centrally; improvements in methodology rarely deliver anything.

Tim Worstall points to a recent report comparing health services in England with other bits of the UK, arguing that England scores higher because of internal market policies. Which could be considered as an improvement in coordination methodology. But without analysing the report fully, we can’t accept that. Health services in Scotland and Wales are differently organised to England in more ways than an internal market. Perhaps the analysis was unintentionally skewed to the English model. And it is only one report.

42. the a&e charge nurse

[40] “all this thinking about what the state can do side-steps the political question of what we want it to do”.

When you say “WE” do you mean the disparate and changing needs of 60 MILLION souls?

Asking what people want can be a recipe for disaster sometimes – especially when we have a spectrum of political/cultural views ranging from the BNP to the socialist workers party.
How on earth we can reconcile differences between such extremes?

“In the other direction, there are some things that the private sector finds hard to coordinate. Imagine, say, building the infrastructure for a nationwide network of recharging stations for electric cars. Here each car manufacturer might try to free ride off the efforts of others, or interfere in some way to give themselves an advantage. It’s the kind of thing governments can usefully take a lead on – not by trying to design the thing themselves, but by putting up some money and applying some legislative pressure to get things going.”

Hmm….unconvinced. Unless someone wants to tell me what were the government subsidies and interventions that got petrol stations going in the first place?

It seems bizarre that we lefties should need to be convinced that the state’s interests and ours very rarely coincide. From the Peasant’s Revolt to last year’s kettling via Peterloo, the machinery of the British state is pretty uniformly lined up against anyone proclaiming progressive values*.

With a brief exception in the middle of the twentieth century, which produced the NHS, the comprehensive schooling system, the BBC, maintenance grants for those attending universities, and unemployment insurance, the state has never been a vehicle for anything progressive. Quite the contrary, it has been a tool for repression, with those small gains being rolled back at every opportunity.

If the last 13 years has taught us anything, it is surely that there is no place in the British political system for any radical politics. There is a corporate politics of the centre, and it does not matter which of the three parties is running it. When it’s the Labour Party who introduce tuition fees; the Labour Party who removed the extra benefit payments to single parents; the Labour Party who banned tobacco advertising except in those sports where their friends had significant interests; the Labour Party who raised the rate of income tax on the lowest earners from 10% to 22%; the Labour Party who launch wars across the globe without UN authorisation; the Labour Party who want to introduce ID cards; the Labour Party who feel free to impose detention without trial; the Labour Party who sell off those bits of the Royal Mail that were profit-making then to whom are you going to turn for a good government?

Why not start thinking about actual ways in which we create the kind of world we’d like to see without relying on the government? Because for most of human history, and as most lefties throughout history have instinctively known, governments have been varying degrees of bad.

* Yes, I’m counting a demand for the end of serfdom as a progressive value.

Nat: I agree with the broad sweep of what you just said, but I hazard that the NHS was put in place mostly for the benefit of the doctors, not the poor. It didn’t create many new services, it just annexed ones that were already in place in the charitable sector.

46. Luis Enrique

Tim W

That’s a good question; I’d be interested to know the history of that. Presumably there were fuel merchants of various sorts around already, and also that the market developed fairly slowly.

Otherwise, this is a classic coordination problem, no? Until it’s easy to recharge, electric cars won’t be so attractive, and until there are lots of electric cars, investing in re-charging infrastructure won’t be worthwhile.

42 Excellent point about the logistics of co-ordinating the wishes of 60 million people.
40 The problem about this debate (see my post 32) is that capitalism is considered to be the default position and everyone is being constrained by perceiving just 3 economic models. Is being a liberal really only about how the public economy works? If, for example, you could pursue your own interests (within the boundaries of the law) and access the goods you wish to consume, would it matter to you, or any liberal for that matter, if the public economony wasn’t a capitalist model?

45
Doctors initially did not favour the NHS, as they became employed rather than keeping their self-employed status, it took several extra concesions to bring them on board, including the ability to keep a private practice within NHS hospitals

Nick: I’m afraid I don’t know enough about the creation of the NHS to argue with you there. Whatever the driving force behind it, though, my perception is that has been a good institution with reference to its outcomes.

The only example I can think of off-hand, however, is circumcision. (Can’t remember the source for it, however, I think it was a Desmond Morris book, but I’ll check) Before the NHS 80% of British male children were circumcised. The NHS, however, refused to reimburse doctors for non-medical circumcision, and the numbers dropped to 1 in 10. So, I’m not sure the NHS was run entirely for the benefit of doctors, nor that it didn’t have some good outcomes that would not otherwise have happened.

I should add that I have a lot of sympathy for people who want essential services run by democratic institutions rather than for-profit companies. I just don’t consider our government to be a democratic institution (except briefly once every five years); and would consider non-governmental institutions in which people really had a say a vast improvement…

(BTW – Thanks for the information on Henri Pirenne & Andre Gorz, I’ll have a good look through that later.)

And I’m going to stop saying ‘good outcomes’ like I’m some sort of massive Lord-Adonis-like prick.

I think it’s a good thing that has made other good things happen.

“If, for example, you could pursue your own interests (within the boundaries of the law) and access the goods you wish to consume, would it matter to you, or any liberal for that matter, if the public economony wasn’t a capitalist model?”

In one sense, no. In two sense yes.

1) Capitalism, whatever else one thinks of it, has proved itself (at least so far) to be very good at bringing the material goodies. A society without it might have less of those…..for whatever value you ascribe to that.

2) There is a sense in which capitalism is the default position though. Leave aside all the large company bit and think about a small company. A one person one. Which then expands slightly and needs a second person. If you “ban capitalism” in the sense that the first person cannot own the business and then employ the second, insist that it become a partnership rather than one hiring the wage labour of another……well, haven’t you just rather stamped on a) the personal wishes of the two involved (I’ve both owned small busniesses and been employed by them and there have certainly been times when I’ve much preferred wages rather than a share of both the profits and the losses of the total business) and b) made it a damn sight harder for a business to expand? Finding a partner is after all more difficult than finding an employee.

Expanding that last part of 2), an economy without the hiring of wage labour (which I assume to be a feature of “not capitalism”) would be an economy with much higher unemployment rates as well (and thus a poorer one). For such small businesses expanding are where pretty much all of the new jobs in an economy come from.

Steveb & Tim: I think this is where the analysis of someone like Kevin Carson comes in handy.

I used to assume (as it seems Steveb might, and apologies if I’m misrepresenting your views) that free markets led to large corporate entities, monopolies that could limit choice by exploiting unwieldy corporate power. I thought that, untended, markets tend towards monopolies because of economies of scale and barriers to entry. (Incidentally, I think some libertarians would agree with that, they just wouldn’t see it as a bad thing.)

However, Carson’s analysis has certainly made me question that view. He points out that we have never seen free markets, and he posits that the only reason large corporate entities can exist is because taxation on all of us subsidises their existence, through the provision of infrastructure in a country, and through regulation that, more than anything, prevents new entrants into a market. He suggests that the people who benefit most from government (from having a police force to a functioning transport system) are corporations, and that those who benefit most from regulation of an industry are those within it, as they make it more difficult for new competitors to arise.

I’m summarising badly, but it’s a compelling analysis, and one I think bears repetition (by someone more able to repeat it in its subtleties than me…).

One essay of his is here: http://www.liberalia.com/htm/kc_iron_fist.htm

I appreciate that there is left as well as right libertarianism, but the most vocal always seem to be on the right. In fact people admiring libertarian positions usually seem to be ultra conservatives, people disappointed that the Conservative and/or Republican Party has sold out to the state.

Matt Munro, you cited the UK in the 1980s as the closest thing you have seen to a libertarian society. Not only was Thatcher socially authoritarian, as Shatterface points out, her economic liberalism was an ideal more than a reality. The proportion of GDP spent by the state was higher in 1983 than at any time before or since. For a libertarian society you have picked one with a large and socially authoritarian state. That’s not libertarian, it’s just very right wing.

Tim Worstall suggests the UK in 1914. Great, a society where the majority are not able to vote! Infant mortality in 1914 compared to now? Not much liberty for children born poor in 1914.

So, any suggestions for a good libertarian society? Or shall we just say Somalia and have done?

“Tim Worstall suggests the UK in 1914. Great, a society where the majority are not able to vote! Infant mortality in 1914 compared to now? Not much liberty for children born poor in 1914.”

Hey! I gave you 8 examples up-thread!

Anyway, we are not talking about all the social or political institutions when we speak about one place. There is no political system in the world that could have delivered our current level of infant mortality to those in 1914. We weren’t as rich and we didn’t have all the technology we have now. It is not as if we become instanenously more prosperous the moment we adopt a good political system. These things take time to accrue and our prosperity right now is, in part, due to the role that relatively free markets have played in the past.

“These things take time to accrue and our prosperity right now is, in part, due to the role that relatively free markets have played in the past.”

A fair point. But the better infant mortality rate in the UK compared to the richer US shows that it is also about state intervention. Just having free markets is not enough, as your comment acknowledges. Which I suppose is the point of this article, that you need strong augments from both sides of the debate to make a good society.

Thanks for pointing out the link in your previous post. I accept that there is more to libertarian politics than just being right wing. But the more thoughtful parts of the libertarian spectrum seem pretty much marginalised by the Sarah Palin/Tea bagging ultra Conservative parts.

52 The clue to Gorz’s position is ‘time’. in that the socialist part of his theory (the economy) is, that it is not wealth that is redistributed, it is time. Obviously I could not possibly do justice to the theory in a post or indeed many posts, but redistributing ‘time’ would equate to nil unemployment. But the economy would be considered the ‘public’ so the NHS would still exist.
Nathanial (53) You are quite correct, there never has been a state of laissez-faire, it would be impossible in a truly competative sense, for example the emergence of monopolies, but the rise of large corporations has followed the emergence of mass production and economies of scale, although, no doubt government taxation has helped certain corporations.
I certainly agree that most government interventions have served the interests of the economic elite, laterly they are the multi-nats
As I have already stated, capitalism is always the default position. but then debate becomes determined by its’ preconceived assumptions,

46. Luis Enrique

Tim W

‘ That’s a good question; I’d be interested to know the history of that. Presumably there were fuel merchants of various sorts around already, and also that the market developed fairly slowly.

Otherwise, this is a classic coordination problem, no? Until it’s easy to recharge, electric cars won’t be so attractive, and until there are lots of electric cars, investing in re-charging infrastructure won’t be worthwhile.’

The early fuel stations grew out of pharmacies who stocked fuel as a sideline attached to their main business. Stocking liquid fuel for relatively few cars did not present much of an infrastructure problem for them. However, building the infrastructure for a nationwide network of recharging stations for electric cars raises an ‘ incentive problem ‘. As you said, the private sector will not incur the costs of building such a nationwide network without the existing demand from millions of consumers with electric cars. On the other hand, consumers as a mass market will not buy electric cars without the nationwide network being in place.

I don’t think the early fuel stations for petrol cars is in any way comparable to the costs and incentive problem associated with electric cars, as T. W. implies. The first cars were the beginnings of a new mass market and the filling station infrastructure could grow as the car market grew. However, the electric car market is an addition to an existing mass car market, but requires a new energy infrastructure. However, consumers already have a convenient alternative to electric cars so they will not suffer the inconvenience of switching without the nationwide network. Moreover, early car consumers could store fuel at home and carry a limited amount with them. Therefore, the early car market could lead the filling station market. The opposite will be required for electric cars.

“I thought that, untended, markets tend towards monopolies because of economies of scale and barriers to entry. (Incidentally, I think some libertarians would agree with that, they just wouldn’t see it as a bad thing.)”

Well, no, not really. there certainly can be economies of scale. There are also diseconomies of scale. So no, it won’t tend toweards large companies and monopolies right across the board. It depends on the product more than anything. Microsoft with Windows and Office is a good example of continuing economies of scale….but for most business sectors we think that diseconomies kick in at some point. Indeed, as they have at Microsoft when they try and do anytihng other than thosetwo.

Barriers to entry: we tend to think that most/some/all (depends on how hardcore you’re being) are a result of government intervention. Certainly a decent argument would be made that large companies like regulation, for they can afford to absorb the cost while small upstarts cannot. This acts as a barrier to entry in favour of said large corporations.

“Moreover, early car consumers could store fuel at home and carry a limited amount with them. Therefore, the early car market could lead the filling station market. The opposite will be required for electric cars.”

Erm, the early electric cars are to be expected to “fill up” at home overnight, surely?

“I thought that, untended, markets tend towards monopolies because of economies of scale and barriers to entry. (Incidentally, I think some libertarians would agree with that, they just wouldn’t see it as a bad thing.)”

I think you will find most libertarians abhor the power and influence large corporations have over their lives just as they detest the meddling of government.

There are also diseconomies of scale.

The problem is that markets tend to generate monopolies in areas like energy, financial services, utilities, media and food supply while the diseconomies kick in for unregulated industries like window cleaning and whelk fishing. Monopoly power is of course used to the detriment of both customers and suppliers as the whelk fisherman will find out when he tries to sell his catch to Tesco.

The pathetic performance of the competition authorities in preventing the development of monolopies and curtailing the excesses of oligopolies suggests to many libertarians that there has been collusion between corporations and government in creating and maintaining competition and building barriers to entry. For example I know that, in the industry in which I operate, there is widespread price fixing (completely unlawful under the Comptition Act) but the OFT completely ignore it, despite specific evidence.

The handling of the recent banking crisis does nothing to dispel the above theory. RBS and Lloyds should not have been rescued, and their monopoly positions preserved, they should have been dismantled and the assets sold off.

Utility distribution, yes….they’re known as “natural monopolies” for that very reason. There’s no point in wiring up two telephone networks to every house, two water pipes and so on. Which is why such are regulated.

But for example, with power generation: sure the Grid is a natural monopoly. But power generation isn’t. Which is why one is regulated and the other is a market based system.

I am no economist but surely the point of regulating or intervening in the operation of markets should be to ensure they work properly?

When Gordon Brown and Victor Blank did their deal on HBOS we got the worst of all worlds and anyone interested in the real world effect of monopoly banking on business should have a read here.

http://www.ianfraser.org/?p=910

63. Mike Killingworth

[60]

For example I know that, in the industry in which I operate, there is widespread price fixing (completely unlawful under the Competition Act) but the OFT completely ignore it, despite specific evidence.

That would be the building industry, would it?

[52] Capitalism is not defined by the employment of wage labour. Capitalist enterprises can exist in non-capitalist systems. Remember Lenin’s New Economic Policy?

[53] To the extent that A has more property than B, and a major function of the police is the protection of property rights, then, yes, the rich do benefit more from the police than the poor. To the extent that the other major function of the police is the prevention and detection of crimes against the person, everyone benefits equally. If you did not know this before you read a particular book/website then I can only suppose you must have been fast asleep. Indeed, if I were to be told that many of the posts on this thread had been written by sleepwalking undergraduates, I should not be at all surprised.

[63] Had your comment been made in response to what I had actually written rather then to a snotty periphrasis you erected as a strawman, your ideas about other people’s reading comprehension might hold a little more water.

Nathaniel @ 53 – it’s a pity the work of Kevin Carson isn’t more widely read in this country. Speaking even as a right-libertarian I find his analysis very compelling and wish the Left would begin to move towards his “free-market anti-capitalist” position.

@ 54 “The proportion of GDP spent by the state was higher in 1983 than at any time before or since. For a libertarian society you have picked one with a large and socially authoritarian state. That’s not libertarian, it’s just very right wing.”

The same point was made further upthread. Firstly I was referreing to the *closest” thing to libertarianism I have personally exoperienced

Secondly I disagree that Thatcher was socially authoritarian – I don’t recall government campaigns at the time exhorting me to eat less salt, walk to work, have 5 fruit and veg a day etc etc. I don’t recall the government trying to micro manage my life. Thatcher was socially laissez faire, perhaps not “liberal” in the modern (Here are your “rights”, now bloody well use them) conception of the word

Thirdly, the amount of money spend by the state in 1983 as a function of GDP was probably due to the early 80s recession, de-industrilaisation and very high umeployment, and low GDP In effect it was a hangover from the last lab govts ecomonic mess. If you look at what happened between 83 and 97 when the Tories handed nulabour low unemployment, a current account surplus and a balance of trade that balanced, it gives a more balanced picture.

“the Left would begin to move towards his “free-market anti-capitalist” position.”

Just for the avoidance of doubt….capitalism and “free” markets are indeed entirely different things. And if we *have* to make a choice to have only one or the other I’d go for markets and capitalism can go hang in a heartbeat.

I’m still entirely unconvinced that if you have anything even close to a “free” market in forms of organisation that you’ll end up with something all that different from what we’ve got now. Largely capitalist with a sprinkling of mutuals, partnerships and worker owned co-ops.

59. Tim Worstall

“Moreover, early car consumers could store fuel at home and carry a limited amount with them. Therefore, the early car market could lead the filling station market. The opposite will be required for electric cars.”

‘Erm, the early electric cars are to be expected to “fill up” at home overnight, surely?’

I was really talking in the context of the differences between the public infrastructure required for a national network for recharging electric cars compared to what prevailed with the early petrol cars. My point is that with distances traveled, an existing alternative., the modern network would need to lead the product market. For example, an electrical appliance goods market is not going to exist in the absence of an electrical transmission network. Historically as the transmission network evolved the product market took off. Therefore, the network led the products. This was not the case with the early car market where the products led the network.

Just a quick point: when Lib Con posts intelligent, well argued OP’s rather than personal attacks on someone the result is intelligent, well argued responses rather than personal attacks. I hope we see more like this – surely the Big Questions are about the relationships between the individual, the community and the State? Everything else flows from this…

‘Secondly I disagree that Thatcher was socially authoritarian – I don’t recall government campaigns at the time exhorting me to eat less salt, walk to work, have 5 fruit and veg a day etc etc. I don’t recall the government trying to micro manage my life. Thatcher was socially laissez faire, perhaps not “liberal” in the modern (Here are your “rights”, now bloody well use them) conception of the word’

I think many gay people might beg to differ: the aforementioned Clause 28. And surely the health campaigns New Labour are currently obssessed with began with the (legitimate) AIDS iceberg ads?

Also, as a horror fan I certainly felt the iron hand of Thatcher. I could have faced fines or imprisonment for possessing material I can now pick up for £2 from Asda’s bargain bucket.

nick.

“I am not convinced that public health provision was the solution to this, and the NHS certainly isn’t the best way of delivering public health provision. But I can’t point to an example of a wonderful medical system in an advanced country in the absence of regulation.”

so it’s not the best way but you don’t know of a better way?

also doctors were extremely opposed to the creation of the nhs.

“There is no political system in the world that could have delivered our current level of infant mortality to those in 1914. We weren’t as rich and we didn’t have all the technology we have now.”

we weren’t as rich?

in 1914 britain was the global cetre of payments and a creditor nation. it was richer then than it is now.

“…our prosperity right now is, in part, due to the role that relatively free markets have played in the past.”

free markets within a colonial empire.

@ 70 – You might well moan about the VRA. I was working in a video shop in the 80s when it came it and had to put a sticker on every single bloody film with the date it became either certified or illegal. One of the side effects was that a lot of independent film makers (who couldn’t afford certification) went under, which I’m convinced partly explained the growth of merchant ivory shite in the mid/late 80s.

I take the point about clause 28, although you will recall that gay *social* culture (FGTH, Culture club, the whole 80s club scene, fashion and film) was at something of a zenith in the mid/late 80s.

Richard W and Tim Worstall: To understand the origins of “filling stations”, you have to appreciate the limited capability of early automobiles. Most of them were capable of carrying far more fuel than they would use before breaking down. In the 1896 London to Brighton run, 33 cars started and 17 completed; we can assume that those who finished had a few mechanical adventures on the way.

In the years immediately after 1896, there were no “filling stations”. The majority of motorists were wealthy hobbyists without mechanical aptitude. They relied on a new trade, automobile engineer, to change tyres, solder radiators, tune the carburettor and magneto etc; these new tradesmen conveniently sold petrol and oil, but in those early days, that was a side line business.

The filling station that we recognise today *probably* emerged in the 1930s when mass production and greater reliability made automobile ownership more widespread. For 1930s US filling station, think of the gas stop and restaurant that hosts The Postman Always Rings Twice. In the UK, we had road side pubs or transport cafes on the main trunk roads, and there’d be fuel pumps a few doors away. However, the filling station that doesn’t sell second hand cars or perform repairs is largely a 1980s invention.

Mass ownership of cars was gradual (albeit much faster than any previous adoption of technology) as was the evolution of the filling station. With electric-powered cars, adoption may be rapid if it is possible to re-energise vehicles in 10 minutes at a filling station. The idea of recharging your car overnight at home (like a milk float) is so last century 😉

Filling stations that can provide this capacity will not be easy to build; by necessity, filling stations will have to be in remote places, possibly where there is no conventional electricity. Who wants to build them? Only the manufacturers of electric vehicles need them and they don’t show the will or expertise. All the same, I’m unsure how much I would want government to be involved.

One alternative to electric powered cars is hydrogen. BMW lease liquid hydrogen powered cars in the USA (California only?) and Germany. In each country, you can refill with hydrogen at a handful of locations; BMW conveniently allow the cars to run on normal petrol when the hydrogen runs out. BMW is about 5% of the market in wealthy countries and 0.5% elsewhere. I am unconvinced by this strategy too.

“The filling station that we recognise today *probably* emerged in the 1930s”

Not wholly convinced…..my g-grandpa opened the first one on the Belfast Dublin road and that was long before 1920.

However: if you’re saying that we need a network of electricity filling stations which don’t refill in 10 minutes, but take hours….and that those stations aren’t at home….then I think you’re nuts. The technology simply wouldn’t be worth having in the first place.

Say, you’ve got a 60 mile battery distance, yet you have to travel 150 miles. But it takes 3 hours to refill your batteries twice along the journey? That just doesn’t work at all. The technology is doomed whoever coordinates the filling stations.

If it can be done in 10 minutes then it’s simple enough to add it to existing petrol stations. Which means no coordination problems.

Ok, BTW, hydrogen powered fuel cell cars would be just fantabulous….I’d make a bleedin’ fortune.

The best form of automotive fuel cell uses the metal which in my day job I’m the world’s expert in (“the” not “a”). Heck, I even part funded the research that shows it’s the best.

53 65
I’ve only managed to have a quick look at Carson on Wiki, my other passtime (work) unfortunately makes my time here very limited. Carson appears to utilize the same approach as Gorz, he is not about to accept that political/economic thought needs to be pigeon-holed into opposing ideologies that can never meet, but in reality, realpolitic, usually demands that they do. Carson appears to assimilate socialism into liberalism whereas Gorz assimilates liberalism into socialism, when I have more time I will read more of Carson’s work,

@74/75 Tim Worstall: Did your g-grandpa sell cars or fix them as well as selling petrol? And my time scale was a guesstimate. Even today, nobody gets rich from selling petrol and diesel alone; the sneaky toads really want to sell you Cadburys and Ginsters.

I think that you misunderstood me about the 10 minute electric re-energising. There are boffins who believe that they can build cars with a 120 mile range that can be recharged in 10 minutes. To be proven, but we have to be optimistic.

Contemporary electric cars do fit your assumptions about 3 hour plus recharge times. Even the Tesla that looks good would be painful for a long journey.

If we accept that electric cars will have a range distance of 120 miles, we still need refuelling stops every 60 miles or so. As we have learned this week, some motorists don’t know that you should depress the clutch or select neutral when the accelerator pedal goes wappy. They will demand more help than contemporaries in 1896 or 1930.

The BMW cars that use hydrogen have conventional IC engines. No scandium, Tim. Are you thinking of metal hydride storage?

78. Golden Gordon

Nat: I agree with the broad sweep of what you just said, but I hazard that the NHS was put in place mostly for the benefit of the doctors, not the poor. It didn’t create many new services, it just annexed ones that were already in place in the charitable se
Read your history books Nick (you are Nick Cohen but haven’t the guts to admit it) Doctors opposed the creation of the NHS

I thought the NHS was a good example of building upon what already existed, rather than razing the ground and starting over again? What other approach could have had a chance of working, given the impossibility of the government saying “Right, all you doctors are working for us now for this rate of pay and if you don’t like it we’ll throw you in prison, and by the way we’re taking everything and not giving you any compensation.”
Also the NHS did do a lot more than previously had been done, from operations to eye checks and new glasses. More people had access to proper medical care than they had done.

People seem to forget how a lot of things in this country are based upon organic growth as need/ fashion/ emergency occurs.

And do you older posters agree that there has been a continual trend towards state power over the last 30 years? Even the police have not escaped tyranny by target setting. (And they introduced bonuses, the bastards)

“However, the filling station that doesn’t sell second hand cars or perform repairs is largely a 1980s invention.”

They actually grew up alongside the motorway network, starting in the 1960s. (Unsure why this has turned into a debate about the origins of the service station but throwing my two pence worth in anyway)

@ 78 – The NHS was part of the wider project of “cradle to grave” welfare. Funded entirely by the (then new) National Insurance scheme, it was indeed for the benefit of the poor (although pre NHS most of the middle class would have found a serious illness potentially ruoinous). Doctors were very much against it, presumably fearing regulation, restrictions of trade and ultimately a reduced professional status and earnings. In order to get doctors support they were given lucrative contracts and generous employment terms (e.g allowed to practice privately) the effects of which are still being felt today.

“we weren’t as rich?

in 1914 britain was the global cetre of payments and a creditor nation. it was richer then than it is now.”

Wealth and prosperty isn’t on a national balance sheet. That is the fallacy of blurring individual prosperty with the so-called national interest. People have far more capital, physical and human, than we had even 100 years ago. Your notion of wealth assumes it is zero-sum, someone in credit, someone else in debt. It aint like that. We are (nearly) all better off than a hundred years ago.

83. J Alfred Prufrock

@81

The NHS was part of the wider project of “cradle to grave” welfare.

Originally the tagline was going to be “from womb to tomb” ! Fact!

Beveridge originally siubtitled his report: “From sperm to the worms”, but it was changed in a particularly fractious Cabinet session. Nye Bevan was holding out for “From foetus until the Lord comes to meet us.” Non-fact!

85. Mike Killingworth

[80] Well I remember a lot (from my childhood!) that were nowhere near motorways – this was in the 1950s. They would consist of one or two pumps (and a very large sign) on the forecourt of a “general store” in a suburb or village. And of course they were only open when the store was.

As Matt says, the filling station as we know it to-day is a creature of the 1960s – although back then it rarely had a mini-mart attached. Where motorways come in is that IIRC the then Tory government insisted that more than one brand of fuel be sold at each service station (or perhaps it was different brands at different service stations, I forget) and the fuel was sold at a premium price. Therefore the “first” station off the motorway became a prime site – maybe this is what Matt is thinking of. But they were certainly also built well away from the (very few) motorways of the time – possibly so as to be able to trade on Sundays, which the “general store” forecourt couldn’t.

Why are we discussing this? Possibly because it’s an interesting example of how governments shape markets…


Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    Why lefties should question the role of the state http://bit.ly/9mOGRV

  2. john band

    RT @libcon: Why lefties should question the role of the state http://bit.ly/9mOGRV

  3. andrew

    Liberal Conspiracy » Why lefties should question the role of the state: Maff Woodford posted on BNP employ Neo Naz… http://bit.ly/bm8Xmw

  4. claire french

    RT @libcon Why lefties should question the role of the state http://bit.ly/dAwYoo





Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.