Either / Or

by Quinn

There have been some interesting posts over at The Filter^ recently. This one, on the subject of drinking, harks back to an earlier post on the same subject, and follows the author’s usual line that government action will invariably make matters worse, that there are free market solutions to our problems. As usual, Anthony makes some insightful points, most of which I agree with, but I think he seems to just take things a bit too far and reveals what I feel are some of his prejudices.

My attitude to the recent relaxation in the licensing laws is that it is a good thing. Just because some people will overdo it with 24 hour drinking doesn’t mean I should be prevented from having a beer after eleven. The idea that every town centre is a war-zone at the weekend is a myth; I regularly go into Stockport on a Friday (and to a dreaded Wetherspoons to boot) and I cannot think of the last time I saw any trouble there. However, I also work for one of the emergency services, and I know that there is plenty of violence and disorder every night that is entirely drink related. I suppose my attitude is that we should let the free market do what the free market does, but accept that there will likely be externalities as a result, and that we may have to accept an increased role for the public sector, not in opposition to the private sector, but as a consequence of it.

I think that is pretty much my opinion in general; that the free market is the best way of organising things, that is should certainly be given the first go at providing our goods and services, but that we shouldn’t get bogged down in an ideology that the market always knows best. It makes sense to me to accept that the pursuit of profit does not necessarily provide the perfect desired outcome, and that when it fails we shouldn’t begrudge the fact that a public sector solution may be required, and should be valued for what it provides. At the same time, we must be aware that public sector involvement may very well make a situation worse than it was in the first place; we shouldn’t place all of out faith in either sector.

Returning to The Filter^ then; it was this part of Anthony’s original post that got me thinking. Considering an archetypal weekend night he says

The emergency services can complain all they want about how expensive it is to look after us all on a Saturday night, but this merely hints at the underlying problem. If you wish to nanny, expect children. With no financial penalty for drunkenness and irresponsibility – if the public purse picks up the bill, then of course people will make unwise decisions. For those who advocate socialised services that erode personal responsibility, funding A&E is a fair cost.

It is a well written paragraph, and but it seems to start from the point that government and all its agents are to blame and deserve no sympathy for their predicament; but aren’t they really just dealing with the consequences of standard human nature and behaviour? Is there any reason to believe that the welfare state’s nannying has influenced disorder at the weekend? Is it not just down to drunks getting lairy (on drinks bought from private sector providers!)? It sounds as if Anthony believes that the emergency services almost deserve their fate; as if because they are government employees they are complicit in the dependency culture that spawns disorder (when in fact we are far too jaundiced to have a benevolent attitude towards welfarism).

Anthony’s answer is of course that the free market can sort out our problems. It is licensing restrictions and local government red tape that mean only large companies can get planning permission for large bars; cut red tape and a thousand pleasant cafés will bloom (perhaps). But there has been a relaxation of just such regulations in recent years, and with it we have seen an increase in violent disorder and alcohol related crime; I am not suggesting there is a definite cause and effect here, but the facts seem plain. In his response to my comments on his most recent post Anthony suggests that scrapping the NHS and getting people to take out private health insurance will mean people may be hit in the pocket if they kick off and so are more likely to behave; but there already is a financial disincentive in the form of fines and possible imprisonment if you are drunk and disorderly or commit a public order offence, and how many people who get into scrapes will think about the financial implications of responding to a drunken taunt in a pub? How many even bother to go to A&E as it is for their split lip or bust eye? Anthony also suggests the police shouldn’t take drunken brawls between people who like a battle too seriously, and I am sure they would agree; but the police (unlike private sector companies) cannot, and arguably shouldn’t, pick and choose what they deal with. Surely they shouldn’t judge but should just uphold the law and deal with any transgressions they see? I don’t really see how else they should operate.

Anthony is a staunch advocate of the free market, and rightly so; but I think if he has an Achilles heel it is because he doesn’t realise that I am too. He seems to resent almost any action the state may engage in, and to see any argument in favour of public sector action, or any criticism of free market realities, as betraying a statist “government knows best” attitude.

But I have worked in the public sector long enough to know that I don’t fancy any casual extension of the government’s powers, I don’t want the state running more than it has to. The problem is that I have also worked in the private sector long enough to know that they seem little better, and that they share many of the problems and frustrations you find working for the state. To criticise one needn’t mean you have unquestioning faith in the other

Is it impossible to marvel at and embrace the market economy, to be grateful for what it provides us both on its own terms and certainly when compared to the alternatives; and yet to also acknowledge that there is a limit to what it can achieve, that it isn’t perfect, that there are times when the only solution may be government action, and that we can welcome and value that just as highly? It needn’t be a case of either/or, but both, working in partnership to create and protect the wealth and liberties that surely we all value?