Sunday, 3 May 2009

How do you cut without cutting votes?

Hillaire Belloc identified an important influence on modern politics when writing about a boy being eaten alive by a lion (here). He ended the poem with the words "always keep a-hold of Nurse for fear of finding something worse". This sums up a widespread attitude to the State machine in Britain and presents one of the greatest difficulties to those who wish to take a sharp axe to both the scope and cost of big government.

Some aspects of the government operation, such as the use of expensive consultants, cause little difficulty because they don't involve the public directly and can be eliminated without any risk of losing votes. Perhaps more pertinently with an election due in the next year, such cuts can be announced without fear of alienating potential voters. The same can be said of numerous relatively small areas of spending which are essentially either purely bureaucratic or little more than ministerial navel gazing. The amounts spent are, I would expect, measured in the millions but are a tiny drop in the putrid pool of government debt. To make real inroads requires changes to the whole method by which the State operates. Current favourite topics in this field are education and health. The Conservatives are dipping their toes in the water with suggestions about changing the way these services are provided and are careful always to say that the amount spent at the point of delivery will not be reduced. I believe they face an uphill battle to persuade the voters.

Their greatest difficulty is the culture of reliance on the State to provide these services and much more besides. Say it was proposed to abolish all the national and local government jobs relating to "healthy" lifestyle so that we were not any longer paying for people to tell us what to eat and what not to eat, what to drink and what not to drink, how much and what type of exercise to take. I doubt that it would have any effect on health at all. Can there really be anyone who does not know that a balanced diet and reasonable exercise are generally good for their health and an unbalanced diet and sloth are generally not? That is quite an important question because whatever the answer it proves the case for getting rid of the naggers. If everyone knows, the jobs are not needed because everyone knows. If some people don't know, the jobs are not needed because they are not achieving what they aim to achieve despite every effort having been made to get the message across to everyone.

What would happen if the Conservatives proposed getting rid of all such jobs? It is a fair guess that there would be uproar on the BBC and the other more left-leaning media with allegations that the party doesn't care about peoples health. From there it will be suggested that this would be the first step to dismantling the NHS, no doubt the reasoning would be that a party that is happy to get rid of supposed preventative measures would be just as keen to dispense with treatment for those whose lifestyles lead to ill health. It's all a nonsense, of course, but the overarching nannying by all aspects of the state health regime has, I believe, led to a culture that the more the government does the better our health will be. Any attempt to remove part of the apparatus is portrayed as an attack on it all and, more worryingly, the argument seems to be accepted by a large number of those the Conservatives need to woo into the voting booth.

If the same issue is addressed in a different way the result should be different, but I wonder whether it would be. Instead of saying these jobs will be abolished, what if they ask people whether they benefit from the work done. Ask Mr & Mrs Ordinary whether they need someone to tell them what a "healthy" diet is and that exercise is good for them and the chances are they will think you are stark raving bonkers. Ask them whether other people need such advice and they might say they do. Ask them whether those other people are likely to follow the advice and I suspect the answer will be in the negative. If my assumptions about their answers are correct, they should support attempts to cull these worthless non-jobs, yet that does not necessarily follow.

Curious though it might be in an age when trust in politicians has never been lower, I believe there is still a general feeling of trust in the government's judgment about the range of so-called health services that are necessary. Once something has been added to the list it is presumed to be beneficial and so it is also presumed that its removal will be detrimental. Of course there is a logical flaw in that approach because a government that says something is not necessary is exercising the same judgment as its predecessor that said it was necessary, if government judgment were the crucial factor a change of judgment should lead to a change of public perception. So there must be a secondary factor at work causing expansion of government-led services to be considered wise judgment and contraction to be error. My view is that that secondary factor is the great myth that sustains the majority of State expenditure, namely that it must be beneficial because it is being done and if it is beneficial today it must also be beneficial tomorrow.

In essence we are seeing the precautionary principle in operation, in other words that we should do something just in case not doing it will make things worse. It is not just in relation to five-a-day counsellors and all the other modern naggers (without whom human life existed quite happily for millions of years) that this point arises. More generally in relation to the big expense areas of health, education and welfare, any attempt to change the method of delivery faces the same objection - "it might not work perfectly now but if they change it things might get worse". Ironically this attitude could be enhanced by the continual failure of increased State expenditure to deliver proportionate improvements in services - "they spend all this money and it only gets a bit better, it can only get worse by cutting the money".

I believe the general population has little if any idea of the convoluted spaghetti-heap of bureaucracy lying between Westminster and their local school or hospital. Layer-upon-layer of committees, quangoes and paper-pushers suck-up cash. Any attempt to save money by dispensing with these intermediaries can only satisfy the precautionary electorate if it is spelled out clearly and forthrightly where the savings will come from and why eliminating bureaucracy will not adversely affect the service delivered to the public. It is not an easy task. All exercises in persuasion have to battle against contrary arguments and the Labour Party paymasters in the public sector trade unions have very loud mouths and very deep pockets. That makes it all the more important for plans to change the structure of the NHS and State education to be detailed and fully thought-through, as well as fully costed.

At the moment Mr Cameron and his merry men are putting out feelers with a view to judging the mood. They might or might not want to take a hachet to the public sector as I do. Whatever their desired position, it cannot be achieved unless they win a general election with a working majority. Fighting against the force of the precautionary principle there is only so much they can propose and remain electable.

1 comment:

Chalcedon said...

No-one cares about Quangos. In fact a lot them seem to be complete wastes of space and money. Getting rid of all of them would save 180 billion bar any job seekers allowances for those displaced from their sinecures.