Thatcher – Saw Everything But the Utterly Obvious

Thatcherism and Populist Capitalism. Virtually synonyms. The idea is that you turn everyone into a grocer, funding the project out of the sale of all those enterprises put together in over two centuries for the public good – water, power, broadcasting, railways and much more. Create shares for them to own, and trade in, giving everybody a chance to become even wealthier grocers.
It’s a brilliant idea and it works. Unless you’re no good at being a grocer. Then, you’re stuffed.
Well, the grocer economists respond, people must accept that if we are to be a strong and prosperous society people must get up to speed, stop expecting the state to watch out for them. We have provided the means, now get on with it.
Unfortunately Thatcher in England, Reagan in the US, and Roger Douglas in New Zealand who, it can be strongly argued, did it first and gave those other big fish the idea in the first place, were all blind to one toweringly obvious fact, something that any first year psychology student could have told them. Some people are just too thick. Low IQ. Born that way. Hardware, not software, and unfixable.
The old system had a place for those people, and not just paternalistically. It gave them simple, lowly paid but utterly secure jobs in the public service. The man behind the counter at the Department of Railways was dull, unambitious, knew his place and was happy to stay there stamping pieces of paper. Actually, the pieces of paper did need to be stamped, so we had a society that had an honourable use for everyone from the high flyer to the lowly plodder. It was a perfectly good system, and it worked.
Until, let’s be frank, greedy, selfish and corrupt unions wrecked it. Take careful note of the qualifier corrupt; I’m certainly not anti-union, but corruption will ruin anything. In the post-war era we had rotten trade unionism and it needed to be taken out. For that the United Kingdom owes Margaret Thatcher a huge debt, although the pendulum, probably inevitably, swung too far and needs correcting. Strong, honest unions are an essential component of a fair and successful democracy.
But back to the thesis. The neo-capitalists respond that society can take care of the incompetent with welfare support, a specious idea shot full of obvious holes. For one, a supply of money that can be ratcheted freely up and down is no substitute for essential services, because the services tend to be absolute, rather than unitised. You either see a doctor, or you don’t. In NZ if you don’t have any money you, or your child, simply does not get to see a doctor. The visits may be subsidised but they are not free. There’s no such thing as a part of a doctor’s visit, or a tap out of which water partly flows, in the way that a pound or a dollar can be reduced or increased in infinite fractions. So there’s that.
Then, there’s the opprobrium. Sure, we used to look down on and make jokes about the dummy behind the railway counter. But we did not vilify him as a parasite.
Worst, there’s the fear. When there is a real possibility of falling into utter destitution simply because you’re not bright enough to make the right choices at the right time, you feel fear. Fear which further cripples the already compromised ability to comprehend and succeed.
By creating the society we have to day, in which the least talented have no place, the neo-capitalists have worked evil.
Since the brightest and most avaricious will never choose to work for the Inland Revenue, there will always be an echelon of human swine smarter and more motivated than those we hire to collect their share from them. They may always make obscene amounts of money and pay little or no tax, growing inexorably wealthier at the expense of the rest. But in creating a society which venerates the individual acquisition of money as the greatest of all goods, the neo-capitalists have removed the stigma from these people, the true parasites. In this too they have worked evil.
Trust me – they were and are not stupid. They surely foresaw this, and see it now, and choose it. It is a simple, moral truth that these people, the Thatchers and Camerons of this world have been the agents of a great evil, and not unwittingly either.
Actually, there was another aspect to the great and failing neo-capitalist experiment. It was the choice to reject as superstition the old saying that money is the root of all evil, and instead turn to money for a single yardstick by which absolutely anything could be measured. And yes, they added, absolutely everything can in fact be numerically measured. Who is the best doctor? Why, the one who treats the most patients for the least amount of money. Reward that man or woman. Which is the best school? The one that educates the most pupils for the least amount of money. It may be squalid. The teaching might be rubbish. The doctor’s patients may be sick and in pain. No matter. The providers are heroically productive (and wealthy), and there is no greater good than that.
It is surely time to recognise that the experiment is a failure. The patient is miserable, possibly dying. Call it off.
If only we could unbreak that egg. In a better world we might set our minds to rebalancing the operational structure of society so that we intentionally created honourable work for everyone. I refuse to believe that human beings, who have learned to manipulate systems of far greater complexity than a modern economy, can’t do this. The solution is actually as simple as it is apparently unachievable: end the worship of money. Although in fact money is just the measuring stick. The underlying dehumanising principle is that idea of universal measurement, the belief that absolutely everything can be quantified. In business it is a time-honoured principle – if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it. In that limited sphere the proposition stands, but you simply cannot measure the kindness of a nurse, the ability of a great teacher to inspire. The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle applies even on this scale: it is impossible to absolutely measure anything without altering it, so it is theoretically and practically impossible to know everything about anything. Teachers preparing reports into the small hours, teachers who are restricted to dispensing named and quantified units of information according to an iron-clad curriculum cease to be great teachers. Nurses and doctors, a similar lot.
There are societies which seem to have a better grip on this – Sweden is one. And what do you know? They are not only happier places than most, they are also wealthier. Odd, that. I believe – no, observe – that a caring society where no-one has to live in fear of destitution enjoys a collective lightness of spirit which transcends the crude maths of economics and produces genuine prosperity.
A synonym to start, a tautology to finish.
Goodness is good.

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