As someone who once reported for a distinguished British publication on the internal affairs of a small and distant country after a residence there of precisely eight hours, I am only too aware that not all that one reads in distinguished publications about foreign affairs is either deeply considered or broadly informed. But I have rarely read such nonsense as a recent New York Times column entitled MAKING PROGRESS IN BRITAIN.
The columnist, Thomas L. Friedman, was right in thinking that Tony Blair will win a third term in the forthcoming election, but his judgment in all other respects was spectacularly wrong.
Friedman presents Blair as a model for the Democratic Party to follow. He portrays him as a convinced but flexible liberal, an economic realist and friend of freedom, whose wise leadership has produced a healthy and growing economy. He also calls the finance minister, Gordon Brown, “deft.”
The British economy is far from healthy. Its growth rests on vast personal indebtedness secured by rising real-estate prices. It perennially produces less than it consumes. It is thus a kind of pyramid scheme that is liable to sudden collapse. Its supposedly low unemployment rate is a myth: the unemployed have simply been moved onto the disability rolls—there are now more alleged invalids in Britain than after the First World War. Half the jobs created in the last eight years are in the public sector or are directly dependent on it, and the vast majority of those jobs are not merely non-productive but anti-productive. Their only economic function is as a Keynesian stimulus that cannot long be sustained in the absence of other, genuinely productive economic activity, which these jobs preempt. Not only is the budget deficit increasing fast, but the proportion of the GDP taken up by the public sector is now relentlessly rising. As for the deftness of finance chief Brown: consider that, against all advice, he sold most of Britain’s gold reserves just when gold was at its lowest price for years (depressing the price still further) and just before it was about to double. His taxation of pension funds (in effect, a violation of the prohibition against ex-post-facto legislation) means that they yield 25 percent less than they did before he turned his attention to them. In an aging society, this is no small matter. It is building up poverty for the future.
Government regulation is increasing rapidly in almost all spheres. Hardly anyone, from the liberal professions to small shopkeepers, does not feel the increased weight of such government interference, which results not only in inefficiency but in a much-reduced quality of life. From the point of view of civil liberties, Blair’s government is the most illiberal in recent British history. It has abolished the legal prohibition of double jeopardy and wants to introduce the preventive detention of people deemed dangerous by doctors but who have never committed an offense. It has recently extended the use of absentee ballots, with the utterly foreseeable result of wholesale electoral fraud—in Labour’s favor, of course.
The Times’s Friedman says that expenditure on schools and hospitals has risen in Britain, which is certainly true: but, as in America, rising inputs don’t necessarily produce improved results. The opposite is in fact the case, as a visit to a British hospital would quickly establish.
Insofar as the Blair government has not failed comprehensively, it is because it has not yet totally undone the reforms of the 1980s and 1990s: reforms which Messrs. Blair and Brown built their careers opposing.
Friedman hopes the Democrats will learn lessons from Mr. Blair: I hope so too, but not the lessons that he hopes they will learn.