The name of Nigel Vinson may not be one bandied across the breakfast tables of Britain, but he has done more, for longer, to promote the cause of personal and economic freedom than most. And, raised to the peerage (as Lord Vinson of Roddam Dene) for that and for his work in re-shaping and promoting British business, his impact continues.
So it is good to see a new biography, Making Things Happen, written by Gerald Frost and published by Biteback, which provides fascinating insights into Vinson’s quite remarkable life, ideas and approaches. He had a good start in life, but built up his own business – and fortune – from scratch.
In the 1950s, Vinson was one of the first to see the huge potential of plastics, particularly as an anti-corrosion covering for metal. Starting from a Nissen hut in Guildford, he overcame the technical difficulties to coat all sorts of metal objects, from refrigerator shelves to aircraft parts. He would later win the Queen’s Award for Industry in recognition of the company’s technological innovation.
Vinson’s abilities as a successful entrepreneur and enthusiast of the potential of better-managed British business, put him in demand elsewhere. He joined the Council of the CBI and became President of the Industrial Participation Association and Chair of the Wider Ownership Group – again promoting his idea that employees of a business should be participants in that business. Many other businesses sought him for their boards.
Never slow to back the things he believes in, Vinson was an early supporter of the Institute of Economic Affairs and the Centre for Policy Studies. In the early 1980s he also supported IOUS, an annual freedom conference for students: the new Culture Secretary, John Whittingdale, was one of its first participants. IUOS eventually grew into ISOS, a series of sixth-form conferences run by the Adam Smith Institute, and the Freedom Week student training course, run jointly by ASI and the IEA.
Making Things Happen is an uplifting story of how much one person with a vision can achieve – though it makes you yearn to have just a quarter of Vinson’s drive and energy.
If only we had introduced the Hard Euro, as the UK Prime Minister at the time, John Major, had suggested! Sadly his proposal came just too late, as the EU Euro enthusiasts were already pressing ahead with their own plans to create a single, Euro, currency that would replace domestic currencies such as the Frank, Mark, Lire and of course Drachma.
John Major’s idea can be seen working perfectly well here in Peru, which I have been visiting for the Mont Pelerin Society conference in Lima. Being close to the US in terms of trade, and reasonably close – well, in the same hemisphere – in terms of geography, and having a border with Ecuador, which uses the US Dollar as its currency, US dollars circulate quite freely here, alongside the domestic currency, Soles.
Dollars are most obvious in the capital and in tourist areas, and indeed the ATM cash machines at the banks will dispense them in everyday quantities. They are commonly accepted, particularly for larger transactions.
The result is that there is a competition between currencies, Dollars and Soles – just as Hayek proposed in the 1970s and as Robert Miller outlined, in a recent Adam Smith Institute paper ‘What Hayek Would Do’.
The effects are interesting. Because of the prevalence of Dollar usage, there are limits to the extent that the monetary authorities in Peru can overextend and devalue Soles. They know that if their currency loses its value, more and more transactions will be done in Dollars. We used to think that there would need to be a difference of perhaps 5% or more (and perhaps a widespread feeling that the gap would widen) between the value of competing currencies in order for people to shift from one to the other: which made a lot of people say that competition in currency would not work, because it would lead to big wrenches from one currency to another.
But the opposite seems to be the case. As one currency loses a bit of value, more and more people make their transactions in the other. The marginal differences in people’s currency use is enough to keep up the pressure on the domestic authorities. And the authorities know that they have no influence on the value of the Dollar – the value of which might, at any point, become inappropriate to local economic conditions – so the last thing they want is people rushing to take out Dollar loans and relying too heavily on Dollars, since then the authorities would lose all control over monetary conditions.
Equally, the public are pretty savvy about their finances. Announcements from the Federal Reserve in Washington lead to radio chat shows in which people debate whether they should be taking out mortgages in Dollars rather than Soles. Just the sort of competition that Hayek might have hoped for – no big wrenches, just lots of individual decisions made at the margin.
Wouldn’t that be nice in Europe? A currency that had to prove its worth to people by being at least as good, and maybe slightly more solid, than their own, and which people could choose (or not) if they desired. Indeed, even in non-Euro countries like the UK, it would be rather refreshing for people to have the choice over which currency they used. It might have moderated the reckless expansions of the early 2000s and made the post-2008 adjustment very much quicker and less painful.
Today is the 239th anniversary of the publication of The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith. For nearly a quarter of a millennium, we have actually known the principles by which wealth is created and maximised. The trouble is, that for a fair chunk of the same time, we have been trying to resist that information, thinking that we can somehow do better than the market.
The Wealth of Nations is a great book: most objective commentators would probably put it among the top five books ever written, in terms of its influence on humankind and the way we live.
Yes, it’s very eighteenth-century stuff, sprawling and wordy, with enormous digressions on things that do not seem very interesting to us today. Luckily, you do not have to read it, because you can download my Condensed Wealth of Nations instead.
And yet, Adam Smith’s original is the book which took economics out of its primitive phase and made it distinctly modern. With a bit of time and effort, any of us can understand what Smith says because what he is describing is all around us today.
The very first sentence of the book dismisses the old idea that the wealth of a nation was the amount of gold and silver that it had hoarded up in its vaults. Rather, says Smith, the measure of a country’s wealth is what it produces. In that first sentence, he had invented the idea of gross domestic product. In the second, he notes the wealth of individual citizens of that country depends on how many citizens are sharing this GDP. (So there,he had invented the idea of GDP per capita.) In the third, he talks about how many people are actually working to produce this wealth. (The concepts of the participation rate, and productivity.) Before we are past the first page, we can see that this is sensational stuff.
But surely his greatest breakthrough was the realisation that we do not have to conquer people or make things in order to increase our wealth. We can also increase it by simply exchanging things. If you have something I want and I have something you want, we are both better off by swapping it. And that is the foundation of market exchange and trade, and of the specialisation that makes our production and exchange system so spectacularly efficient, creating and spreading benefit throughout the world.
Free schools raise standards – not just in the schools themselves, but in the traditional state schools in their neighbourhood.
That is according to a new report from the think tank Policy Exchange. And it should come as no surprise. That is exactly what happened in Sweden, after it reformed its education system in 1991 and allowed charities, faiths, voluntary groups and private companies to open schools rather like the UK’s free schools.
Schools that are independently run but still supported by taxpayers – and paid by results, basically in proportion to the number of pupils they attract – are better motivated to think more deeply about the education they provide and how they provide it. Despite the fact that free schools are still highly regulated – much more so than their counterparts in Sweden – that is exactly what they do. So they stimulate other, unreformed, schools in two ways. First, they provide a model for what is achievable. Second, local state schools realise that they have to improve if they are to continue to attract pupils and justify their own existence. Simple really.
People make two arguments against free schools. First, they say that they are more selective than other schools and so it is not surprising that they get better results because they get more able pupils from generally better-off, better-educated parents. But look at another country, the United States, with its so-called charter schools. Often, these have been set up in the least promising areas, inner-city areas rife with drugs and violence, where all or nearly all pupils are from generally poor, minority families. The uplift in performance, though, is startling. Many of these schools are set up by parents, or parents and teachers, precisely because the existing government-run schools are do depressingly and young-life-ruiningly dismal. but those concerned local people make their schools secure places to learn, ban drugs and tolerate ‘no excuses’. And you know what? The children shine.
The other objection is that free schools in the UK are wasteful because they are often set up in places where there are already spare places in traditional state schools. Indeed: rather like the case in those American cities I have just mentioned. Setting up a new, different, better-motivated school in an area where there are only ‘sink’ schools is no waste: it is one of the most cost-effective things you could do. Preventing better schools from setting up is rather like preventing better restaurants from opening up when there are still spare tables in the local greasy-spoon.
The government says it will create another 500 free schools. Frankly, we should turn every school in the country into a free school.