Prospect: I’m a Conservative neoliberal – but right now, the state needs to spend big on helping people

This article was first published in Prospect Magazine.

I am a Conservative and a neoliberal. That means I believe in keeping the state small and protecting individual freedom. Yet, I now find myself in the unusual position of whole-heartedly supporting near-unprecedented government intervention in the economy.

This week, the Chancellor announced an enormous package of no-strings grants for businesses that are struggling to cover their fixed costs. The government has banned the eviction of tenants and is reportedly considering a universal basic income to go alongside its harsh restrictions on people’s social lives.

Elsewhere in Europe, workers are having their payrolls directly subsidised by the state, with some countries offering to pay up to 75 per cent of their salaries.

I support all these decisions. That does not make me any less of a Tory than I was a month ago.

We are in a crisis. This is no time for principle or ideology. The only sensible lens through which to approach policy at any time is a consequentialist one. In the absence of an epidemic, that might mean thinking about long-term goals such as liberation, innovation and economic growth.

In times of crisis, it means doing everything within our power to offset short-term harms. In this case, that means a Conservative government doing things that might ordinarily constitute part of a radical socialist agenda. I have no problem with that.

Covid-19 is an unforeseeable disaster which will have a wide-reaching and hard-hitting economic impact. The role of the government is to do whatever is necessary to counteract that. This ought to be a key component of the state’s raison d’être.

As it happens, some of the sudden and profound changes that have come about in response to the epidemic would please liberty-lovers like me even in normal times. Take, for example, the fact that pubs and restaurants are now able to seamlessly transition into takeaway and delivery services, without having to jump through all the usual bureaucratic hoops, allowing them to stay afloat and making it easier for those who cannot leave home to get hold of vital supplies.

This is not as simple as setting capitalism aside and shunting to the left, and it is certainly not an admission that market economics has failed and it is time to move on.

This is consequential policy generation: people need food at home, so the government facilitates the production and delivery of food. This policy change did not come about because a government minister with libertarian leanings snuck it through. It happened as an urgent response to very real circumstances.

As much of a cliché as it may be, this is not a time for political point-scoring. The current moment is the worst possible time for people to take principled stands on any side of the debate. Supermarket shelves are not empty because of the horrors of capitalism or the evils of austerity. They are empty because people are panicking. That is a profoundly human reaction to a crisis of this magnitude and would be the case no matter who was in government.

We have just had a general election in which the public chose a centre-right government. It then—rightly—bulldozed its own economic policy in the face of this crisis, but is likely to return to it by the time of the next election in 2024. At that point, the public will have the opportunity to choose again between left and right.

If, as some seem to think is inevitable, coronavirus changes everyone’s minds about economics and precipitates a shift to the left as everyone realises that capitalism does not work, then the electorate will be able to express that fact at the ballot box. That is a debate for 2024. The midst of a crisis is not the time for grand, sweeping proclamations about the state of our politics to be made.

It is wildly inappropriate to point at the government response to these extreme and unprecedented circumstances and declare “Aha! I was right all along.” However, it is equally wrong to continue approaching politics in the way you normally would and fail to acknowledge the gravity of the current situation when responding to it.

Yes, the restrictions on people’s private lives and infringements on their liberty would, by any normal standards, be considered fascistic and totalitarian. Yes, the new spending commitments are extreme and will prove hugely costly. But these decisions are also a measured and proportional response which, if anything, do not go far enough. This is no longer normal, day-to-day politics. Lives are at stake on a colossal scale in the very near future.

So do not oppose government interventions on the basis of ideology, or even long-term considerations, such as the borrowing that will be required to pay for state help for businesses, or the budget deficit that might result. The emergency is now. The time to act is now. Policies’ merit should, for the time being, only be assessed in terms of their utility in the short term.

The Prime Minister put it well: “I am a believer in freedom. But let us be in absolutely no doubt that these are very, very important choices we are now making. The more closely, the more strictly, the more ruthlessly we can enforce upon ourselves, our families, the advice… the fewer deaths we will have.”

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