During the Occupy événements in 2011, I happened to be passing the protest camp at St Paul’s Cathedral, and decided to stop for a chat. The activists were a mixed bunch. Some were obviously full-time agitators – sour, sun-burned and sinister. Others, though, were bright, idealistic youngsters who seemed motivated by an uncomplicated desire to help the less fortunate.
A few of the protesters recognised me from television, and our conversations were – for me, at any rate – enormously educational. Almost everyone I spoke to began from the proposition that, as a Right-winger, I must have been in favour of the bank bailouts.
This is, if you think about it, a very curious piece of logic. Two things that almost everyone knows, or ought to know, about Right-wingers is that we oppose state intervention and dislike subsidies. The bailouts had been decreed by Labour and, while the sense of emergency that followed the collapse of Lehman had created a measure of cross-party consensus, such opposition as there was had come from free-marketeers – including me.
When I pressed my elf-locked friends for their reasoning, it boiled down to a conviction that all Rightists were “on the side of the rich” and, since the bailouts represented a transfer of wealth from ordinary taxpayers to wealthy bankers and bondholders, conservatives must have been behind them.
Now we free-marketeers can react to this attitude in one of two ways. We can patronise our critics, laugh at their small-mindedness, sneer at their narcissism. Or we can address their prejudices.
The Occupy crowd may be further along the spectrum than others, but almost all Leftists are actuated by the belief that they are standing up for the have-nots against the haves, for the oppressed against the oppressors. The psychologist Jonathan Haidt has carried out large-scale tests to find out what motivates people on different sides of the political divide. To simplify his findings a little, he discovered that Leftists are consciously and overwhelmingly interested in championing underdogs. That sentiment is the core of their belief system, and explains their every other inconsistency: why immigration and multiculturalism are a good thing in Britain but a bad thing in the Amazon rainforest; why discrimination on grounds of sex is detestable, but gender quotas are desirable; why nationalism is a destructive force in the West, but a liberating one in Palestine. Everything becomes about imagined hierarchies of victimhood.
Concern for the underdog is not confined to the Left; it’s shared across the spectrum. But, broadly speaking, the further Left you go, the more it crowds out every other consideration – such as concern for reciprocity, for liberty or for loyalty.
If we want to win the argument, we have to engage in some, so to speak, Occupy tactics ourselves. We need to stake out a goodly chunk of the “underdog” territory. We must show that, far from being “on the side of the rich”, we favour an economic system that benefits everyone.
It shouldn’t be difficult. Ponder, for example, the marvel that makes baked beans available for 68p a tin. Think of all the labour that went into that product, from the smelting of the alloy in the can to the chopping down of the trees that made the label. Think of the ancillary labour, too: the making of the chainsaws used by the lumberjacks who felled the trees, the childcare that allowed people to take jobs at the cannery, the delivery vans that brought the beans almost to your doorstep. And then stop and think for a moment about the miracle that lets someone on the minimum wage buy them with seven minutes’ worth of work.
What have the state planners to set against this wonder? Name one socialist measure – one redistributive tax, one hike in welfare spending – that has done more for people on low incomes than the miracle of 68p baked beans.
As the economist Joseph Schumpeter observed, the achievement of capitalism is not to provide more silk stockings for princesses, but to make them available to factory girls. In every alternative economic model, you prosper by sucking up to the right people: kings or commissars, priests or state officials. The free market, uniquely, rewards people who provide a service to the general population.
So what of the model favoured by Occupy types? Far from benefitting the little man, almost every tax, almost every regulation, tends to disadvantage ordinary people to the benefit of some privileged group. The bank bailouts were a notorious example, but the same principle pushes up energy bills to subsidise wealthy landowners, pushes up food prices (through the CAP) to reward agri-business, pushes up council tax to pay inflated salaries to local authority chief executives.
Our task must be to show people that it’s unreasonable to judge socialism by its textbook version while judging capitalism by its necessarily imperfect outcomes. Compare like with like. Would you rather be poor in North Korea or South Korea? Would you rather be a grungy street protester in East Berlin or West Berlin?
In short, we need to respond to our critics courteously and patiently. When they say, “But you’re just on the side of the rich”, don’t roll your eyes dismissively. Explain that, in a system which makes almost everyone better off, a system that has raised living standards to a degree our great-grandparents couldn’t have imagined, a system now spreading its benefits across Asia, Africa and South America as tariffs fall and competition spreads, the fact that some rich people get richer is an almost trivial side-effect. Explain, moreover, that the rich generally get richer by enriching the rest of us: when I downloaded Microsoft Word, I enriched Bill Gates, adding fractionally to his net wealth; but he also enriched me, allowing me to type these words. Finally – and still politely – ask them to name an actual, functioning example of a successful socialist state. You might find yourself waiting a long time for an answer.