In defence of the Pursuit of Happiness

Jonah Goldberg, author of ‘Liberal Fascism’ had this to say of the state of US politics, ‘America’s political system used to be about the pursuit of happiness. Now more and more of us want to stop chasing and have it delivered’. Faced with the rise of Jeremy Corbyn and his Marxist Labour Party, this is increasingly true too of British politics.

The Conservative Party has a responsibility and a duty to advocate for the ‘pursuit’ instead of the ‘delivery’. Whilst we have tentatively, and unsuccessfully, talked about the non-existence of a ‘magic money tree’ we never articulated this argument properly. There are many fiscal and moral reasons for a low tax, low public spending economy that the electorate need to hear if they are going to be inspired by Conservatives. If Labour are going to offer voters the world, we cannot be content merely to present them with a spreadsheet.

With a truly socialist Labour Party continuing to gain members and support, there is a significant amount at stake. A Corbyn administration, once unthinkable, is now gaining credibility with the electorate. It has been decades since there was last an administration with a truly Marxist vision for Britain in 10 Downing Street, and the public has forgotten the consequences of such governments. To claim that we cannot solve all of the country’s problems, as there is no magic pot of gold hidden somewhere makes us look complacent and unimaginative at best, and at worst plays into the stereotype that Conservatives are defending the interests of the richest.

For the length of this parliament, the prospect of another election will hang over us like the Sword of Damocles. As Labour’s membership and activist base continues to surge, the temptation would be to conclude that we need to broaden our appeal to young people and make further concessions in economic policy. The notion of a public spending spree must not be far from the Prime Minister’s mind as she looks to claw back credibility and popularity. But, we must resist! Our challenge is to articulate properly our own convictions, to highlight the dangers and realities of socialism and to present a more ambitious long-term vision for the country.

We began to lose the argument when we refused to accept that austerity was an ideological choice. It is, as Daniel Hannan has said this week, imperative that someone looks after the public finances. We have not adequately explained that the cost of high government borrowing and an increasing national deficit hurt the most vulnerable in society disproportionately. As the cost of living increases; higher income tax, national insurance and VAT hit personal spending and wages fail to keep up with inflation; it is those without savings that suffer. That is why food banks are used, because those on the lowest wages do not have an adequate personal safety net. In abandoning our principle of low tax, we vacate the moral high ground to state; it is our economic policies that benefit the poorest, not those of the Labour Party.

Further problems are encountered when dealing with funding for the NHS and education. The Conservatives are pumping more public money into these institutions than ever before, but that argument did not help us. Why? Because Labour were offering more money for what they deem are underfunded systems. Again, we neglected to articulate the great organisational difficulties that are at play inside education and health care, and this cost us dearly when designing policy, particularly on social care. Socialists are disturbingly obsessed by money, but it is obviously not the solution to providing outstanding health care for British citizens. We should have the courage and the tenacity to talk about this more.

What of personal responsibility? When the Conservative manifesto outlined plans to remove universal free school meals in Primary schools there was a public outcry. Why? How is it that we have come to accept that it is for the state to subsidise all families in order to feed children at school. Where are the arguments to say that parents are better placed to decide what is best for their children and that it is plain wrong to expect those on the lowest incomes to subsidise school meals for middle class students?

The same can be said of tuition fees; a University education is not a right and nor should it be. If an individual feels that they want to enter Higher education in order to improve their prospects then they should do so, but it is no-one else’s responsibility to pay for you. Further, the state already enables you to earn a degree by loaning you the money, only collecting fees once you begin to feel the benefit of your efforts. The social benefits of a more educated population are evident, but that does not mean that this can only or should only be achieved through the public finances. The Left possess a cognitive dissonance; higher education, pursued by the individual, has enormous social benefits and is righteous to pursue; but that the same benefits that are born out of seeking a profit are evil.

A party that is going to offer ‘free stuff’ to the electorate is always going to have a seductive appeal. Our challenge is to create a discourse of the choice between a society that empowers people in their pursuit of happiness or one that shackles them in the expectation that it can be delivered.


Daniel is a Secondary School teacher in Buckinghamshire and a member of the Wycombe Conservative Association. Follow him on Twitter: @danielrdownes

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The views expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Conservatives for Liberty