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Back to the Future

In a recent blog entry (“Zeitgeist” from 2013-04-12) I discussed how certain ideas became unstoppable just because their time had arrived. The corollary to this is that an idea’s time also ends at some time (after all, when a new idea becomes popular it usually replaces an old idea which, in its turn, was popular in the past).

If we look around now what ideas do we see which might be getting just a little bit past their “use by” date? I think neoliberalism is on the way out. Specifically I am talking about the idea of non-interventionist economics, free markets, small government, extreme free trade policies, etc. Clearly these ideas still have some support and they won’t go quietly, because there is a class of people who are doing very well out of them currently. But as I said in “Zeitgeist” an idea whose time has come cannot be resisted.

Here in New Zealand our economic extremist party, Act, is practically dead and the party which would normally follow neoliberalism, even if to a lesser extent (our conservative party, National) has considerably toned down its ideology on the subject. Sure, it is still selling our valuable assets even though it makes little economic sense to do so, but at least these are only partial sales, unlike the irresponsible total “giveaways” of the 1980s and 1990s.

The opposition are promoting policies which would have been considered quite mainstream and possibly even somewhat timid before the neoliberal revolution. But the government are (somewhat predictably) labelling these as “backward steps” and “loony left”. Are these criticisms fair?

Well in a way they are because they do represent a step back to older policies and they do tend to come from the left rather than the right. But does this mean they are automatically bad, as the government suggests? Of course not. But it’s a lot easier just to assign a simplistic and unfair label to your opponents’ ideas rather than debate them on the actual issues, so that’s what many politicians will do, especially our PM who continually demonstrates gross intellectual dishonesty in this way. Still, he’s a politician, so what do we expect?

There does seem to be a gradual global trend towards more interventionist policies as people realise that the old ideas of laissez faire economics simply don’t work. Notice what i did there? It’s easy to criticise your opponents as having out-of-date ideas because these things tend to happen in cycles. The current policies did originate in the late 1970s and early 1980s so they can easily be seen as “tired old ideas from the past” just as much as the left’s ideas can.

In fact non-interventionist policies have caused massive economic disasters in the past which have only been fixed by application of political control over the economies involved. So accusations of particular ideas being “from the past” are irrelevant. Which particular cycle of economic boom and bust are we referring to?

So let’s look at policies based on their merits instead of consigning them to entirely artificial categories based on ideology. Printing money isn’t a bad thing, although it can be if it is used to excess. Government control isn’t a bad thing, unless it is used in a corrupt or incompetent way. Trade control isn’t a bad thing, unless it is used to support obsolete or grossly inefficient industries. Having controls to promote environmental and social issues isn’t a bad thing, unless they are used excessively. Tax isn’t a bad thing, as long as the taxation regime is fair and the income is used sensibly.

So let’s have a look at these ideas fairly and see if there is a way they can be used in a sensible way to actually promote greater fairness and stability in society. We don’t want to over-use them because that is just as bad as under-utilising them like we are doing now. But don’t just throw them out without thinking simply because they came from the left.

When an idea arrives whose time has come it cannot be resisted, and it doesn’t matter which part of the political spectrum it originated in. Back to the past? No, I think of it more as back to the future.

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