Walk into any bar - anywhere in the world probably, but certainly from personal and friends’ experiences, in Britain, New York, Toronto, metro Spain, and rural France. Say something like “Actually, fuel prices comparatively seem no higher than they were in the mid ‘70’s” and you may find yourself tossed out into the street. Once you have got up, dusted yourself off, and walked back into the bar, if allowed, you will hear such nostrums as: “capitalism has failed”; “we need to find a new system to run the world”; “the oil companies are greedy xxxxxxxs”. And also: “The government must do something”; “the authorities must deal with this problem”; “energy is too important to be dealt with by private companies.”
Capitalism, we are told, has run its course, has failed us. Not just in the field of energy, but in the costs and very poor design of housing, the gross disparities between rich and poor, the multiple failures of the health service, the stumbling railways, climate change; all of this the British government (and indeed many governments around world) must deal with, as private solutions have failed.
What do you spot about all these areas of failure – for indeed they are areas of failure? What is the common theme? It is, of course, that they are all matters in which the British government and others already intervene very heavily. Energy provision has suffered a series of disasters on every side; oil and its key products, diesel and petrol, have become hideously expensive; gas has too and could become impossible to procure at all next winter. Getting hold of coal in the UK is well nigh impossible – there was not a single coal mine producing steam-quality coal three months ago – though one has just temporarily reopened. Wind power is almost useless. Solar panels are not that great either but even if you want to install them there is a bureaucratic, planning, and cost nightmare to overcome first. Logs may only be used if kiln-dried first and soon UK domestic households will not be able to burn logs or coal on open fires. The cost of an average household’s energy use in 2023 may well exceed £2500, even with heating turned down and cold soup on Fridays.
Which is odd. The world has over a hundred years (including estimated reserves) of oil supply available, more of gas, less but sufficient of coal, (and pretty much an endless supply of logs). The reason energy prices are high (though indeed not so inflated if we go back fifty years or so), is not a failure of capitalism, certainly not of private enterprise. It is precisely because governments decided to intervene. In the USA and western Europe governments imposed a green agenda on users, which has to be paid for by higher cost power production, by special levies on bills, and by taxes, and by VAT on those taxes. They have also prevented domestic exploitation by mining, drilling, fracking. Traditional sources of energy are restricted to force consumers to convert to more environmentally green systems of wind and sun and ground heat. Whether this is the right policy or not, or whether it is being introduced too quickly or not, is a matter for learned debate, but what has happened to costs is not the fault of free enterprise; it is driven entirely by government.
Five years ago oil prices were their lowest ever – almost falling below US$20 a barrel. The supply side has not changed much – although Russian and Ukrainian oil is temporarily not available, alternative sources are readily to be found, but the price per barrel is circa $121 today. That is not oil company greed or a private enterprise failure – it is governments again, restricting supplies to get prices up and feed their governmental spending programmes. We are used to this from OPEC members such as Saudi Arabia and Iraq – OPEC is after all an organisation formed to try to impose a monopoly - but even the world’s pariah, Russia, has an interest in forcing the oil price as high as possible as it sends its supplies east instead of west. In the USA good ‘ole Joe Biden, whether deliberately or as a side effect of green policies, has effectively restricted supplies – reversing the policy of not so good ‘ole Donald Trump who started derestricting them. The UK has more or less banned further exploitation of oil and gas resources.
Governments thinking they can do it better interfere in, as we said, housing, health, economic management, transport, just to name a few areas of life. The effect is almost always to make things worse. Thank goodness that, so far, government has not decided to intervene in retail business – imagine the cost of shopping at your local supermarket in a government-directed retail world. Actually, it might not be such a problem; there would be so little on the shelves that it would be impossible to spend much anyway. Don’t think the threat is not there. In the UK, for your health the government taxes sugar, controls the size of chocolate bars, imposes (at least in Scotland) minimum pricing on alcohol (recent research pointed out that the main effect of that is alcoholics eat less and cheaper food to keep their booze input up), highly restricts the sale of cigarettes and is moving to ban them altogether. These policies may or may not be sociably desirable but in a free society isn’t it the right of consumers to make their own judgements and the role of business to supply them efficiently? Freedom is the right of things I don’t approve of to be done by you, so long as they don’t interfere too much with me.
Even the weakness of government-directed health services are blamed on private enterprise. In this case there are easy counter-arguments; there can be no sector in Europe and the UK (less so in the US) in which government so relentlessly interferes, but the contra arguments are rarely made - yet.
Years ago I worked for a very intelligent man with a first-class analytical mind, adept at getting to the nub of things. Every year the office Christmas Party took place in locations not the natural choice of senior management and developed into a semi-riot, usually with subtle (or unsubtle) abuse of any senior managers present. When questioned as to why this was permitted to go on, he said: “It is the job of senior management to pay for the Christmas Party. It is not the job of senior management to go to the Christmas Party.”
So it should be with public health; it is the job of government to pay for a universal health service. It is not the job of the government to provide health care. But, certainly in the UK since 1948, successive governments have thought they could, through that monstrous bureaucracy the National Health Service (“NHS”), run hospitals, surgeries, nursing homes, and provide basic and advanced health care better than the private sector. Every Conservative government is accused of wanting to privatise the NHS; if only they would! It is wonderful that there is a universal and free system of health care, that nobody need suffer because they cannot pay for a doctor, a hospital, an operation. That is truly the mark of a civilised society. But it is not so wonderful that the system is expensive, highly inefficient, underpays its key staff, employs far too many overpaid managers, is grossly resistant to change, and is unable to cope, as the Covid outbreak has shown, with surges in demand or indeed anything unexpected. Private enterprise does the job of provision much better in the USA and in Germany, and the present collapse of the NHS ought to finally bring about change to a private medical system and universal health insurance. Will it?
So why do we blame capitalism, private companies, for everything that is going wrong? They are not perfect. Of course not; nothing is. But for meeting our needs in the most efficient way, they are brilliant. The government’s job should be to ensure that private enterprise is restored to the pre-eminent role it used to do so well, and restrict governmental interference to ensuring that monopolies do not arise; or if inevitable, such as with railways, that there are robust safeguards in place to prevent abuse. (The partial privatisation of UK railways in the 1990’s and the scandalous government retaking of control recently we have not had room to tackle here, alas.)
And it is high time that private enterprise itself starting fighting its own corner, funding research and promotion of its supreme strength and utility, making its own case, blowing its own trumpet. That’s certainly one thing the current British government will not do for British business, as confirmed by then UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s overheard remark four years ago almost to the day: “Fuck Business!”
If loyal readers think they have seen the photograph at the head of this article before, they are not mistaken. I wrote in similar vein in my article of April 6, 2021 - To A Coy Boardroom* (only-connect.co.uk)