Much as it pains us to say it, Tony Blair was actually right about the Third Way

Not that we agree with the goal: a high tax and large welfare state society is not something that we desire. Rather, a low tax and richer one where welfare isn’t needed to the same extent. But we do find ourselves agreeing with Tony Blair in a manner that we don’t with the Corbynites or the Sanderistas. If a higher, or large, welfare state is what you desire it is that third way that can deliver it. Other options, from predistribution through to market rigging just don’t work.

Another way of putting this is that if National Review have got it then Scott Sumner’s message is being heard:

Socialism has two relevant features: Central planning of the economy by political powers and the public provision of ordinary goods (as opposed to public goods such as national defense and judicial systems). This is distinct from welfare-state policies such as those found in the United States, Canada, and Europe. Sweden has a large and expensive welfare state, but it has a robustly capitalistic trade-driven economy that in many ways is more free-market than our own, with lower corporate taxes and fewer trade barriers. The difference between welfare programs and socialism is the difference between food stamps and the state-run groceries that were the bane of the common people’s existence in the old Soviet Union and in modern Venezuela. The former is imperfect, the latter catastrophic.

We would, of course, prefer perfection, as far as that is possible in any human endeavour. A low tax, low welfare society in which the general level of wealth makes public provision for any other than the truly incapable unnecessary. But our message to those who disagree with that idea is that Tony Blair really was still right about that third way. If you do want to do it then you really do have to do what the Nordics have done. Let markets rip (entirely different from allowing capitalism to run amok) and then tax it to produce the transfers.

Another way of putting this is that those who insist that others should have more of what they have should be put to the test. Are you willing to give up what you have that others may have it? If not then perhaps you don’t quite believe your rhetoric then, eh?

And a third way of putting this is that redistribution has to be redistribution: the taking from some to the giving to others. And our intuition on this is that those being redistributed from tend to object when it’s put in such stark terms. When members of the 1% change their minds on this perhaps we will too.

Or, you know, maybe we won’t.

The death of the solar subsidy

This looks like a good idea:

Britain’s solar boom is over after ministers announced they would offer virtually no subsidies for people to install panels on their homes.

For there’s no actual reason for the UK to offer such subsidies. Despite these claims:

Alasdair Cameron, from Friends of the Earth, said: “From California to China, the world is reaping the benefits of a solar revolution, yet incredibly in the UK David Cameron is actually trying to shut rooftop solar down.
“These absurd solar cuts will send UK energy policy massively in the wrong direction and prevent almost a million homes, schools and hospitals from plugging in to clean, renewable energy.”
Dr Doug Parr, from Greenpeace, said: “The timing couldn’t be worse as the young and potentially booming solar industry is on track to go subsidy free but if these cuts happen, it will be too sudden, too soon and too dramatic. It is highly likely to irrevocably damage the domestic solar industry.”

Solar power has indeed been getting cheaper at a remarkable rate. But it’s been absolutely nothing at all to do with any subsidies being offered by the UK government nor any feed in tariffs gouged out of the energy consumers of Britain.

This is not, by the way, anything at all to do with the arguments over global warming exists, whether we need to do something about it nor anything else like that. It’s a simple public goods argument. Let us assume that the problem is real and we do want to do something about it. That something being, well, we’d like solar power to become cheap enough to use effectively.

So, should British people have to pay more for their electricity to make this happen?

Nope, they most certainly don’t need to at least. How cheap solar becomes will be driven by technological breakthrough. And that will be driven by the wall of money that countries like China, Germany and the US are throwing at it. The technology, when it arrives, will be a public good: we Brits will be able to use it when it arrives just like everyone else will.

So, the correct thing to do is let everyone else spend their money on such subsidies and we install it when it actually works. The removal of the British subsidies makes no difference at all to the date at which this wonder-technology will arrive but it makes us all better off while we wait for it. Thus a good decision.

Owen Jones is entirely right here: refugees’ lives matter too

It’s not often that we write with unreserved praise for Owen Jones but his piece today deserves it:

As the news of up to 200 dead refugees, drowned off the coast of Libya, filters fleetingly into news coverage, the only guarantee is that more will drown. And with news of more than 70 refugees found dead in a truck in Austria – to try to imagine their last living moments triggers a horrible feeling in the pit of the stomach – we know that more bodies will be found in more trucks. Those of us who want more sympathetic treatment of people fleeing desperate situations have failed to win over public opinion, and the cost of that is death.

For those who believe that hostility to human beings from other countries who lost the lottery of life is somehow hardwired into us, there is evidence to the contrary. Germany takes in around four times as many refugees as Britain does; and for every Syrian asylum seeker received by Britain, Germany gets 27. And despite German generosity comparing starkly with our own, half of Germans polled support letting in even more refugees.

Like Alex Tabarrok, I am not aware of any mainstream moral theory that does not tell us that all humans matter, not just the ones who look like us or were born near us. I often wonder how different our approach to trade and immigration policies would be if we took it as axiomatic we don’t just care about people lucky enough to be born in Britain. This is the ‘big assumption’ I ask people to make when I talk to them about liberalising immigration – and if we made it, the debate about immigration’s impact on natives’ incomes would be a mere sideshow.

There are valid questions about the most humane policy towards the asylum seekers trying to cross the Mediterranean or English Channel. And I am much more optimistic than Owen about the potential for migration to reduce global poverty. But, as he rightly says, the baseline for all of these debates must change. When people are dying from drowning and suffocation, we have to accept that we are not the only ones who matter.

Ruth Davidson speech to Adam Smith Institute

This week the ASI hosted the feisty Ruth Davidson to deliver a lecture on lessons from Scotland’s founding father of economics – Adam Smith – as she outlined her vision of an alternative to the SNP’s statist agenda.

Good Evening Ladies and Gentlemen.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you this evening.

It seems to me that there is a rather long and – if I might say – inglorious tradition of Scottish politicians hanging speeches round the neck of Adam Smith and his legacy.

I’m sure you’re familiar with them, but – for me – there seems to be two main types.

The first type is what I would refer to as the Gordon Brown method.

The Brown method is where you examine Smith’s philosophy from three hundred years ago and demonstrate that, astonishingly, it coincides almost exactly with your own policy agenda here in early 21st century.

Yes, it turns out that Adam Smith was a kind of New Labour prophet, just waiting to be discovered all this time.

Which shows your current policy platform isn’t a tricksy wheeze to triangulate left and right, all the better to scoop up the votes of middle England. Oh no!

It turns out that it has a “golden thread” linking it right back to the heart of the Scottish enlightenment where, before the words “Tony Blair” were ever heard, it was first discovered that liberal economics and social justice could go hand in hand.

The fact that Smith actually came from Kirkcaldy is just the cherry on top of the cake.

I can only say that if I was Gordon Brown looking for some kind of ballast to hold my political beliefs together, I probably wouldn’t have been able to resist either!

But that isn’t the only type of speech of course. There’s a slightly shabbier version of the Brown method which adds a great dollop of parochialism mixed with hubris.

This is the one where Politician B seeks to assert that pretty much everyone has got Adam Smith wrong from Day One. Apart, of course, from the speaker himself.

And why have they got him wrong?

Broadly speaking, continues Politician B, this is because they are not Scottish.

And, in not being Scottish, they therefore fail to understand the true meaning of Adam Smith.

Target number one is, of course, the Adam Smith Institute.

(Read the full speech here.)

Taking Corbynomics seriously…and stop giggling at the back there

One of the joys of Corbynomics is that it’s all largely the invention of Richard Murphy. We therefore know that it is wrong on any specific subject, we’ve just got to work out how it is wrong on any specific subject. Which leads us to the idea that this peoples’ quantitative easing will be able to replace the private finance initiative. The idea being that if the Bank of England just prints money with which we can do nice things then we won’t have to go off and borrow expensively from the hated bankers and kittens will ride sunbeams once again.

The problem with this being that PFI really has very little to do with the price of the finance used to build these lovely things. Sure, bankers get their cut of the interest, as do investors, but that’s really just not the point of it all. Instead, the point of PFI is to get some people into state run projects who are worried about losing all of their money. That is, it’s really about getting equity partners in.

The point of that being that we all know how projects work out if they are funded by the magic money tree. They come in late, vastly over budget and thus waste vast amounts of real resources. And the only way we’ve ever figured out how to introduce some rigour into the management of these sorts of projects is to make sure that someone is indeed sweating over the idea that they could lose all their money. PFI is thus far more about bringing the strictures of value for money, completion on time and to budget, into public procurement than it is about either gaining the finance to build something or the price that is paid for that finance.

Thus, changing the price paid for the finance doesn’t change the argument in favour of PFI at all. Yes, it’s superficially appealing to pay nothing to the Bank of England for the finance rather than 5% to hte City, but compared with things like the 276% cost over run of the Humber Bridge it’s not the point at all.