Wednesday, August 25, 2010

On being progressive

I can't be bothered with the word or people who use it to describe themselves for two reasons:

1) It is a term used by people who used to be left of centre, no longer are, but are rather reluctant to admit it. Rather than acknowledging they've moved further to the right in old age, they prefer to pretend that these concepts of left and right no longer have much meaning. "It's not me who has shifted - it's the world around me that has changed." Amongst the many shortcomings of this analysis, it strikes me as being rather egocentric.

2) As a consequence of 1), the term has become so elastic, it seems there is no meaning that it will not bear. This is certainly its fate in the hands of our Deputy Prime minister - here whining about the IFS's 'partial' study of the budget.

The thing is, when it comes to fiscal policy, the term is still useful because it has a very narrow meaning. If the proportionate burden of a tax increases as income rises, it is 'progressive'; if it does the opposite, it is 'regressive'. It's as simple as that. Unless you're Nick Clegg, that is - in which case the whole picture gets a little more confused.

So, if you watch the clip embedded in the beeb piece above, you'll hear him complaining about the failure to take account of the Coalition of the Self-Righteous' plans to get people off benefits [emphasis his].

It would - I think you'll agree - be difficult to take any survey that produced findings based on what a government planned to do seriously - especially when these plans include objectives that have had a history of failure when attempted by previous administrations. Governments are always promising to get people off benefits - but usually any explicit effort to do so has only succeeded in shifting people onto one form of state sponsored subsistence to another.

Two of the biggest examples in my life-time have been the withdrawal of unemployment benefit and income support from 16-18 year olds and the series of reforms under Major, which included the 'rebranding' of unemployment benefit as 'Jobseekers' and the new restrictions on people's eligibility to it. The result of the former was a huge increase in the staying-on rate in education and receipt of the EMA; the latter saw a colossal increase in invalidity and incapacity benefit claims.

The only real shift I have ever seen from 'welfare to work' has been as a result of old-fashioned economic growth. Here governments can do little except avoiding making things worse. Whether this one will pass this meagre test of competence remains to be seen but like many observers, I don't rate their chance of success particularly high. In the interregnum, they are planning yet another drive towards reinforcing the ideal of 'less eligibility'. In my opinion, this is bad enough in itself because it fails to acknowledge a simple reality: unemployment - and periodic high unemployment - is an intrinsic feature of a capitalist economy, simply because it has no mechanism to prevent it.

But what adds insult to injury is the way in which its advocates insist that this attempted return to the Victorian era should be described as 'progressive'. Why can this lot not just say that equality forms no part of their concept of 'fairness'? Arguing with enemies that attempt to obfuscate this, as Tim Montgomerie does here, is becoming a little tiresome. They should come out from the shadows of their own convoluted prose where their professed concern for 'fighting poverty' would be seen for the indifference and contempt that it actually is.
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