Economic Nonsense: 16. Government should own and run vital industries such as transport and energy

This is laughably untrue.  Where governments own and run industries, whether ‘vital’ or not, they pursue political rather than economic objectives.  In the case of things such as transport and energy, they will be tempted to keep prices below economic levels to gain electoral popularity, or at least to avoid unpopularity.

Such industries will tend to be under-capitalized, since capital expenditure is less visible to the public than are transfer payments such as pensions and welfare.  Governments cannot spend the same money on both, and the former attracts less support than the latter.  This under-capitalization threatens future supplies.  In the case of transport it means that there will probably not be enough infrastructure built to meet future demand.  In the case of energy it poses the threat of future power cuts.

If the state owns and runs transport and energy, those industries will be more prone to strike action.  Unions behave more cautiously with private firms because they do not want to risk the firms closing or going bankrupt.  This does not happen in the public sector, so the unions have more clout.  For the same reason state industries will also tend to be over-manned.  This is not mere theory.  All of these things actually happened in state-owned industries in Britain, including transport and energy.  Train services were unreliable and equipment was shoddy and outdated.  In the energy sector there were blackouts.

Although we use the term “public ownership,” the public cannot exercise any of the rights of ownership as they do when things are privately owned.  Instead it is politicians and bureaucrats who decide priorities, rather than businesses trying to anticipate and cater for public demand.  When people talk of the need for the state to run ‘vital’ industries, we do well to remember that few are more vital than the food industry.  One can imagine what it might be like if the state controlled the supplies, determined what should be produced, and only sold through state-owned outlets.  We don’t have to imagine this.  It happened in Soviet Russia and was characterized by shortages, low quality produce, and interminable queues at state shops.

Economic Nonsense: 15. Protection of domestic industries will safeguard jobs

Sometimes when jobs are threatened by cheap imports there are calls for government to step in and safeguard those jobs by subsidies, tariffs or import quotas.  The aim is to make the domestic goods artificially cheaper by subsidy, or to make the imported goods more expensive by taxing them. Some domestic jobs can be retained, at least temporarily, by this tactic.  But the more expensive domestic goods will not be able to compete on world markets outside the country.  They will find their foreign market share diminishes as people opt for the cheaper ones.

Where subsidies are used, domestic taxpayers are made poorer; where tariffs are used domestic customers lose access to cheaper goods.  In both cases they are paying to support the industry concerned.

Some years ago in the UK the Lancashire textile industry was protected in this way.  It might have prolonged its decline, but it did not stop it.  Mass-produced low-cost textiles were being made more cheaply by foreign competitors.  Eventually the UK textile industry moved to high added value luxury and designer products that sold at a premium in both domestic and foreign markets.  Some UK textile products have become world-beaters, without the need for subsidies or tariffs to protect the jobs they sustain.

The advent of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), which succeeded the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), outlaws most of this kind of protection by multilateral agreement.  This means that calls to protect domestic jobs by such means now fall upon deaf ears.  The government has signed pledges not to engage in such practices, in return for the agreement of its trading partners to refrain similarly.

There are still grey areas, though, with Boeing and Airbus each alleging that the other receives indirect government support.  It is generally true that when governments all try to protect domestic jobs at the expense of foreign ones, everybody loses.  The world found this to its cost in the era of the Great Depression.

Economic Nonsense: 14. Government can create jobs by spending

Government can certainly create the appearance of new jobs by spending.  The minister can be televised proudly cutting the tape to open a government-funded business employing 100 people.  The problem is that government has to take that money from the private sector in order to do so.  It can do so by taxation, inflation or borrowing, and the effect is to give the private sector less money to spend.  That, in turn, means lower demand for its goods and services, less economic activity and fewer transactions.  The net result is that jobs are lost in the private sector as a result.

Part of the political problem is that the government-funded jobs can be seen, with ministers taking credit.  The private job losses take place quietly, without people realizing that they are the result of government activity.

There has been much discussion in academic circles as to whether the publicly-funded jobs gained are more or fewer than the private sector jobs lost, but there is a respectable literature to suggest that they are fewer, and that 100 jobs created with public money will result in more than 100 jobs disappearing or not happening in the private sector.

Another part of the problem is that government-funded jobs are created in accord with political rather than economic priorities.  The projects sanctioned are those that find favour with ministers, rather than those created to meet demand.  They can be done to court electoral popularity rather than to satisfy economic needs.  Jobs funded by public money often need public money to sustain them afterwards, and risk disappearing if public subsidy is withdrawn at some stage in the future.  Governments are notoriously bad at “picking winners” to support with public funds; it is not their own money they are putting at risk, so they are less likely to do cautious and full accounting.  Private investors tend to be more hard-headed since they stand to incur any losses that come about.

Economic Nonsense: 13. Development and growth harm the environment and cause pollution

This is misleading.  The early stages of economic development can certainly adversely affect the environment and cause pollution.  When a nation is lifting itself out of abject poverty and subsistence-level life for its citizens, it values the wealth being generated more than it minds the environmental degradation that accompanies it.

The early stages of Britain’s Industrial Revolution saw factories going up, chimneys belching smoke, and land degraded by mining.  For people at the time these factors were less important than the improved standard of living it brought, a standard that lifted most of them out of precarious subsistence and the ever-present threat of starvation.

When Britain grew rich enough, they were able to afford a cleaner environment.  Money was available to spend on adequate sanitation and sewage treatment, on cleaning up land damaged by development, and by controlling emissions with legislation such as the Clear Air Act.  Other developing economies went through similar stages.  Today it is the rich countries that can afford to produce more cleanly.

Newly developing countries pollute more because clean production is more expensive.  Wood burning and coal burning pollute heavily; gas burning and electricity production can be done more cleanly.  Today China, which depends heavily on coal as an energy source, faces major air pollution problems in its cities and contamination of its rivers.  But development has lifted most Chinese out of malnourishment, and now they are at the stage where they have enough wealth to start redressing their environmental problems.

Development and growth need not cause pollution and environmental damage once countries become wealthy enough to use cleaner technology.  Wealth and technological progress can solve this problem; living more simply cannot.

Economic Nonsense: 12. Minimum wage rates raise living standards for the low paid

When minimum wage rates per hour are set by law, it can raise the wages of those already in jobs and who manage to stay in those jobs.  It has a negative effect on those who lose their jobs because firms no longer find them worth employing at the new rates.  It has negative effects, too, on those trying to enter the labour market who do not yet have enough skills to be worth the minimum wage to potential employers.

Firms employ people because they are worth more to the firm than the wages they cost it.  For low-skilled people their value to the firm might be quite low.  Very often it is by starting on low wages and acquiring on-the-job skills that people move up the employment ladder.  Someone who has worked has learned the importance of good time-keeping and following instructions.  They have learned how the firm likes to do things, and are more valuable than an unknown potential employee.  If the minimum wage is set at a level above that of their value to the firm, they find it difficult to secure those starter jobs.

In many countries those with low skills tend to be young people and sometimes those from ethnic minorities, especially if they have not had an adequate education.  When minimum wage rates are increased, there often tends to be increased unemployment among these categories.

When minimum wages were introduced in the UK, the level was initially set sufficiently low that it had a minimal impact on employment.  Subsequent increases are believed to have increased its impact, leading some economists to suggest that a better way of raising the take-home pay of low earners is to stop taking tax off them.  Raising thresholds for income tax and National Insurance increases their wage without it costing employers money and pricing their services out of the market.