Twenty-five people strode out onto the grass. Several of them were carrying balls, which ever-shifting groups proceeded to kick about among themselves.
As time wore on, an air of uncertainty seemed to descend, as though they were waiting for something. Eventually, one of them decided to make off up the grass with one of the balls, towards a goal post. There was a cheer from the spectators. But some of the others on the grass seemed not to have noticed; they were still occupied with different balls.
Gradually, however, a few more started to join in a repeat of the above movement, even passing the ball from one to another as they went. Others tried to stop them. But it wasn’t easy to tell who was on which team, since there were ten different colour schemes visible on the field.
After about ten minutes, one of the people deliberately tripped up another who had a ball, and then dribbled it around behind the spectators before coming round the end of the field and through a goalpost that had, in the meantime, mysteriously been replaced with one four times as wide as that at the other end of the field.
Some on the field protested vigorously, at which point they were set upon by the others, and a full-scale brawl ensured. Some of the spectators gladly joined in, while others lost interest and sauntered off home. The ‘game’ was eventually won by those who were able to punch the hardest, at a score of 13-0 and five dead.
Times of emergency often provoke people to face issues that they would rather not. Currently, that includes some pretty fundamental questions, such as whether it is possible to run a country under conditions where close interaction between its residents is potentially fatal.
One might also ponder the importance, or otherwise, of Trade in a situation where matters of mutual survival are suddenly of much more immediate significance. Public Opinion in the U.K. apparently still supports an extended lockdown until the risks of infection have fallen much further. When it’s a choice between cash and life, most people don’t hesitate to choose the latter.
But another rather existential question concerns the nature of human interaction. Since the time that there was first more than one person alive on this planet, there has been a need for some kind of accommodation of the possibly-conflicting interests of multiple sentient beings. It is evident, too, that by virtue of existing, those individuals cannot help but have an effect on everything around them, including other beings. The question is, what type of effect. It also apparent that individuals’ good can be furthered by interaction, thereby achieving things that neither could alone. It is not as simple as just allowing the economy to perish, since people do need to interact for all sorts of things, while isolating people totally is potentially to leave them to perish from all sort of other causes. This is the argument being made by some for ending the lock-down.
How to reconcile these two grossly conflicting needs is the conundrum that Covid-19 presents. It is also the subject of social and economic theory down the ages.
There can be few who would advocate running Premier League football along the lines described at the top of this post – and yet there seem to have been plenty over the past decades who thought it was a good way to run society more generally.
They are the ones who describe taxation as theft, who claim that there is “no such thing as society”, and that “the invisible hand of the market” is the best mechanism for running things. They tend to claim that competition is the natural dynamic of society, as of Nature itself – competition which they evidently intend to win. They are the ones whose attitude towards the State is hostile, who portray the organs of the state as either megalomaniac or lumpenly jobsworth, intent on depriving them of their “rightful” freedom to act as they alone choose.
These attitudes may reflect more on those who express them than anyone else: on what grounds might one really object to the presence of any form rules – except because one wishes to flout them? Most of the “bureaucracy” that such people wish to hack away exists to protect the many from predation by a few. Why else would one wish to loosen safety standards or conditions of employment?
Yet a version of such market-dominated views is prevalent in the U.K., to the extent that even the more thoughtful among the younger generations who have never known it otherwise, seem to find it very difficult even to conceive of society being run any other way. This is probably no surprise, since in that time, even the State itself has been run by those who held such views, and whose overriding aim was seemingly to remove its influence from as many areas of national life as possible. They argued that the State was inefficient and inept. At what, one might ask. Selling burgers – or saving lives?
I’m old enough to have been brought up with a different view, no doubt reinforced by the fact that most of my family has worked in various state enterprises. I grew up with a view of a benign State as the guarantor of basic standards and needs. It was the State that provided electricity and water, and co-ordinated train and bus services. It oversaw the provision of universal standards of healthcare and education. It underwrote those things that are necessary, but where profit is not the most important or viable consideration.
It might have been a bit dull, but it nonetheless had a showroom on every High Street rather than a call-centre in cyber-space, and you knew that the prices it charged were not fuelling the mega-profits of a few private individuals living in tax havens or the zero-hours contracts of unfortunate operatives. You knew that the head teacher was answerable to the County Council rather than his own pension fund. You knew that train fares would be consistent, not run by “yield management” techniques designed to maximise income for the operator.
You had some faith that the State would take a long-term strategic view of the needs of society as a whole, and plan accordingly, that it could act where there was no profit to be made. In short, the State was arbiter, the provider of the social goods that underwrite the basic needs of society, which it provided without fear or favour irrespective of people’s private interests.
I’m not naïve enough to believe that the State got everything right, or that the divide was always in the right place. It was probably never a good idea for the NHS to be the sole provider of spectacles. The consequences were visible on the face of every citizen with less than perfect eyesight. I also know that innovation can be messy and unpredictable, while self-interest is a strong (but not the only) motivator. The important thing is to balance conflicting interests.
I suspect that the shortcomings of the State peddled by free-marketeers since the 1980s were less inherent, and more to do with poor practice. The State is not inevitably bad: just look at the German, Swiss, Scandinavian or New Zealand ones. It is just that the British State has been badly run – not least because it was perpetually starved of funds by those who were able to avoid contributing, and often run (with little accountability, but plenty of condescension and entitlement) by those who had few personal interests in its working well, since they had already bought themselves out of it.
It is not as though the free market does any better. The myth of market efficiency has been exposed: what private companies crave is not competition, but monopoly: a private monolith instead of a public one. A situation where they have the rest of society over the barrel of their own corporate interests – and these they will conspire to create when the State is too weak – or negligent – to prevent it.
The pandemic response is simply the latest, most extreme demonstration of what happens when you try to run civil society without the impartial, logical, consistent organisation that only a disinterested entity can provide.
It is the “lean and efficient” commercial sector that largely replaced such an entity in the U.K. which has been exposed as having neglected investment and strategic planning. It should come as no surprise that when one promotes profit-seeking, it is entirely predictable that that is how many people will behave, both individually and in groups. It is inevitable when such organisations tend to be run by self-selecting, profit-seeking individuals whose personal perspectives align with that worldview.
The Coronavirus pandemic has put the shortcomings of this approach up there in huge, illuminated letters for all to see. When it came to the crunch, it was the large corporations who struggled to keep supplies rolling, who were ill-equipped to cater for a suddenly-much-wider range of needs – not that it stopped them propagandising as vigorously as any State, telling us how they were “here for us” and were “looking after the nation”. No: they just knew the alternative was oblivion.
It was quasi-commercial policies that deprived the NHS of the strategic reserves it needed to respond fully to the emergency – and the altruism of its ordinary employees that largely saved the day while the executives were struggling to work out what to do.
The same could be said of the government: at a time when the guiding principle has needed to be social solidarity and welfare, grass-roots society has largely risen to the need. But the libertarian free-marketeers in charge have found themselves bereft of the insight for far-sighted decision-making. Even now, their approach is more public-opinion than public-service. And as if that wasn’t enough, the experience is being daily rubbed in by the very different situation in those nations that never lost sight of the need for an effective social contract in the first place.
Perhaps the most ironic sight is now the self-same private sector that has spent the last decades demeaning the State and profiteering from its neglect, now coming cap-in-hand to the State for support, supposedly in the interests of its vital social function. So much for the “invisible hand of the market”: when the chips are down, it is the very visible hand of the State that is needed to save the day, just as ever.
Those who advocate competition fail to notice that in even nature, co-operation is at least as effective a survival strategy. When individuals compete, the strongest normally wins; when disparate individuals compete with an effective team, the team does.
Because those existential questions dictate that, whether it is a game of football or the functioning of a complex society, few things can operate properly and equitably without logical, consistent and fair rules – and their enforcement by an impartial Referee.