In his infamous 1944 work, The Road to Serfdom, FA Hayek warned of the dangers of continuing with war time levels of planning and state control when peace finally arrived. To continue in this war time vein, he claimed, would restrict the freedom of the individual and ultimately, the economic output of a nation. He wrote:
“If the state were to direct the individual’s actions so as to achieve particular ends, its actions would have to be decided on the basis of the full circumstances of the moment and would therefore be unpredictable. Hence the familiar fact that the more the state “plans”, the more difficult planning becomes for the individual.”
Sadly his views went largely unheeded until 1979. Industries were nationalised, government legislation went into overdrive with 44 laws being passed in 1949 alone (1945, when we were at war, saw only 15). As the famous Conservative election poster of 1929 had warned, Socialism really did mean ‘inspectors all round’. It’s hard to imagine now, but the state really did own an airline, coal mines, a telephone company, water, electricity, railways and countless other things a government has no business even being involved with, never mind owning – with the predictable repercussions.
Or is it hard to imagine? This isn’t 1979, it’s 2015, and there’s a state in Western Europe that employs bus drivers. It runs water into people’s homes (most of the time anyway). It owns the homes of 20% of the population, employs as many as 30% of the country’s workers and is responsible for 70% of GDP output. It alone decides which private sector organisations can set up in its jurisdiction by providing grants, raised from the taxation handed over by struggling, small businesses on a local level, to selected international companies in order for them to relocate. It builds sports stadia, quite badly. It also owns and draws rent from vast swathes of land.
Not content with the constraints placed on personal freedom by this overwhelming economic power, this government goes out of its way to actively constrain the social lives of its citizens. Largely Christian democratic in nature, it ensures that shops separate alcohol from other goods. It dictates that bars must not open during religious holidays and stops fundraising draws that might count as ‘gambling’. It recently turned down the offer of investment for a 400-job casino, for no clearly discernible reason. It’s equally prudish when it comes to sex. Under the guise of ending sex trafficking it made paying for sex an illegal act, a move which is already pushing the sex trade further and further underground, placing more lives in danger. You still need a licence to own a dog. It spends £12.3million annually on advertising, reminding people to be careful on farms, not to drive too fast and, most bizarrely, to walk more often.
How does the state maintain this power over people’s lives? Through an illusory democracy, where all the parties are in power at all times, with each holding the power of veto through the Petition of Concern. This style of government means that every party has a hand in washing that of the other, making it highly secretive and ensuring that consensus is more power and less transparency.
Where is this place? That would be Northern Ireland.
How did it come to this? The current Stormont establishment did not start with a blank page. The Unionist governments of the past were notoriously patrician, if only towards Protestants. When the old Northern Ireland Parliament collapsed, and subsequent power-sharing initiatives were brought down, Belfast was bombed to the edge of existence by the Provos and sectarian killers roamed the streets, the British Government was forced to step in to plug the gap created by the understandable collapse of the private sector.
Were we at war back then? No, but in economic terms, probably. For years the security sector was the second largest employer in Northern Ireland, after agriculture.
By 1996 we were already heavily state reliant, with our unemployment count reaching 11%. By 1999 (the earliest year for which figures are available) our public sector workforce was already 30%. From this starting point entered politicians who had no interest in a vibrant economy, having either made their bones destroying the one that had previously existed or pressurising the British government to intervene in it. Prepared to do whatever it took to keep the process from sliding backwards, the Blair Government set about writing a series of blank cheques to fund every whim.
However, politicians whose idea of running an economy is shaking a begging bowl in the general direction of the English taxpayer, was not the only curse landed upon us by the Good Friday Agreement. Tribal societies are also collectivist societies. We’re not overly concerned with the welfare of the ‘other lot’ but we need to ‘look after our own’ and the Stormont system where all the parties are in power all the time has only reinforced collectivism by institutionalising big-state sectarianism. For those people who identify only loosely with either community, or with neither, it’s a very unsatisfactory state of affairs. And it’s a state of affairs that has engrained dependency into our society
Standing as a candidate in the last General Election, I had the opportunity to meet plenty of community representatives who were all good people with a genuine love and affection for the communities they live and work in. However, the question was always where the money could come from to embark on the great projects they wished to pursue. There’s simply no notion of a big society here.
Take the prevailing attitude to the welfare state. Not one of the Stormont parties wish to enforce the welfare cap of £26,000, and only the financial sanctions enforced by the British Government have forced Unionists to accept the principle.
The victimhood was meant to end in 1998, but our attitude to welfare is on the verge of leaving us with our fourth generation of dependency victims. Martin McGuinness reportedly told Theresa Villiers to ‘put that in your pipe and smoke it’ recently, while referring to Northern Ireland’s shockingly high levels of child poverty. If Martin wished to prove our point even further, he shouldn’t have stopped there. He should conclude that such audacious levels of child poverty despite public spending per capita sitting at 23% above the UK average and welfare spending around £1,000 higher per capita than the UK average are no coincidence. It’s the welfare system that is trapping people in poverty. The answer isn’t more welfare.
It’s not a coincidence that we’re the most highly dependent and least free region of the UK, yet also one of the poorest. Our politicians want to see us cared for from cradle to grave, even though this means we ultimately achieve less for ourselves and those around us. For a long time it’s been argued that we are a ‘special case’, but this excuse has run its course. We have an emerging, highly skilled and talented workforce that have never known the Troubles. They look across the water with envious eyes and sometimes, perfectly rationally, they get up and go. Whether it’s because they can’t marry their partner here, or because they can’t get the type of job they are qualified for, or whatever reason, the flight of our brightest and best occurs because of the type of place our instinctively statist overlords have created. Smothering, aspiration-sapping and completely out of touch with the nations that surround us.
Northern Ireland needs liberty because we live in a society that is desperately wedded to its past. There’s no reason why anything will change unless we embrace political and economic freedom. In order for Northern Ireland to advance, the Executive needs to adopt policies that maximise the economic power and choice of individuals. Because a free individual, on average, serves the rest of us better than the state does. But a domineering state, as Hayek noted, limits our ability to plan for ourselves and restricts the progress of our society.
So by Christmas we’ll be proposing policies that the Executive could adopt, with the principles of liberty at their core, which will remove the barriers to individual freedom, encourage a shift away from collectivist political discourse and inject the language of aspiration into our political life, helping Northern Ireland grow and prosper.
If you want to play a part in putting together this manifesto for liberty then please let us know by emailing email@example.com.