23 August 2019

Why freedom is the bedrock of prosperity – and how to defend it

By John O'Connell

Freedom is underappreciated in the UK. As CapX readers well know, free markets and free people have made the whole world richer and more equal, and have helped bring freedom of speech and freedom of choice to billions. Everywhere from the United States to Hong Kong have benefited from capitalism creating prosperity, improving our living standards and the environment.

But we don’t talk about it, nor celebrate it, nearly enough. Margaret Thatcher did; but of course the backdrop of the Cold War made it rather imperative to do so.

We all know that freedom works. For the economy, lower taxes and minimal but robust regulation create the space for innovation and rapid growth. Rich societies mean less poverty and greater equality. Perhaps the mega-rich fly by private jet or first class, but many people in the UK on lower incomes can now afford to fly off for a summer holiday. The well-heeled might eat regularly at Michelin-starred restaurants, but dining out is by no means beyond everyone else. The gap between what the rich and poor can enjoy has rapidly diminished, even if it differs at the margins. At every level of society in Britain, we enjoy the benefits of economic liberty.

And worldwide, greater freedom has helped literacy rates more than double since 1940, propelled by an increase in girls’ education all around the world. Childhood mortality is a tenth of what it was in 1900. The global supply of calories per person went up by over 500 per day between 1961 and 2013. People are even getting taller, with the average height of a male up by 9 centimetres between 1896 and 1996. Put simply, no other single policy driver has done so much good for the human race – created so many jobs, filled so many bellies, built so many homes and saved so many lives – as freer markets and freer people.

Tackling our impact on the climate is also important. But what is too often ignored is that capitalism is leading the charge on improving the environment. Global sulphur emissions, for example, have fallen by 95% since 1990. The ozone layer meanwhile has shrunk by 10.7 million kilometres since 2000, and is now expected to heal completely by 2060, whilst global tree cover has actually increased by nine times the size of the UK since the early 1980s.

These improvements are not state-driven, but were made possible because of the free market. Big business sees significant benefits in an environmentally-friendly corporate responsibility strategy. At the same time, the profitability of mining less clean fuels has decreased as the profitability of cleaner natural gases and renewable energy has risen.

Just a few vital developments for humanity, then. Freedom means health and prosperity for the many, not the few.

So freedom definitely works. We should say so, and often. With a new government and a world beyond Brexit in sight, there is a chance to make this case afresh. A big part of the problem is that politicians have occasionally talked about freedom and low taxes, but they proceed to do the opposite. Aggressive sin taxes on lifestyle choices, the sugar tax and a general genuflection to the High Priests of the Nanny State, with their fringe diktats, spring to mind. (They’re after meat, next.) Instead of just paying lip service to it, our politicians should be signing from the hymn sheet of freedom.

But all too often they don’t. New freedoms, opportunities and technologies we have yet to even experience are being clamped down on. Millions of people enjoy the freedom as consumers to shop around online, order takeaway food and find the cheapest deals. The Digital Services Tax on online transactions will try and stop that with higher prices. Politicians talk of the threats, not the opportunities these innovations bring. High streets are struggling, so online shopping must be stopped. If sky-high business rates are killing high streets, why is taxing other types of businesses an answer? That doesn’t matter to some. Just look at Corbyn’s answer to boarded-up shops – simply seize the private property of others. It doesn’t matter that councils are hoarding empty properties, preventing developments and keeping up prices. A free market online must be to blame.

How has politics drifted in this direction? Why do so few people champion freedom?

One notable exception, of course, is this very fine website, which on a daily basis dispenses stories and articles celebrating the good that freedom brings. What’s more, Boris Johnson has often made the right noises, so he now needs to put that into practice.

Perhaps we need a clarity of purpose. A reference guide to freedom that is as important to us as Mao’s Little Red Book is to the shadow chancellor.

That’s why we at the TaxPayers’ Alliance have decided to pick up the baton. Against a backdrop of constant drift towards statism, we launched the Stand Against Socialism campaign to make the case for freedom.

Our last publication, ‘The Little Red Book: How socialism destroys freedom and prosperity’, was well received by supporters, journalists and politicians alike. We are unashamed in pointing out the pitfalls, dangers and atrocities which can follow from a government hell bent on forcing socialism on its people. Whether it be the economic catastrophe of the Winter of Discontent, the illiberal oppression of Soviet Russia, or humanitarian misery of modern day Venezuela, statist policies have horribly (and sometimes brutally) failed.

As well as fighting back against the myths and lies of socialism that are permeating our politics, we want to lay out the positive case for economic liberty.

Hopefully our newly launched Freedom Factbook can do just that. Pocket-sized, clear, to-the-point, impactful – we’re sending it far and wide, to parliamentarians, journalists, businesses and our grassroots network across the country. If you want a copy, get in touch, or find an e-copy of the factbook here.

Freedom works. So let’s work for freedom, and make the case once again.

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John O'Connell is the Chief Executive of the TaxPayers' Alliance