‘All money is a matter of belief’ – Adam Smith
‘No man may with impunity outrage that human dignity which God himself treats with great reverence’ – Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum
‘Build back better’ – Boris Johnson (and every other tyrant round the world)
THIS expression ‘build back better’, constantly reiterated across the globe with suspicious synchronicity, seems to be the Prime Minister’s mantra du jour. Having taken a sledgehammer to the normal rhythms of life in the UK, Johnson (I don’t do the fake-familiar ‘Boris’ nonsense) is offering himself as the candidate to fix the problems he facilitated in the first place. You must admire the chutzpah: it’s as if Del Boy Trotter had offered to fix those chandeliers.
Johnson’s ‘lockdown’ ‘strategy’ assumes that an economy is a machine that can be switched off and on. It isn’t. A properly functioning economy is an organism which needs to be kept alive to maintain a natural immunity against the imponderable threats which might attack it. Johnson and the Lockdown Sanhedrin which prop him up have welcomed into that system a set of infections which have metastasised into a lack of confidence in what an economy is. Hence: inflation.
An economy is a system of live negotiations. The exchange between a seller of the Big Issue and the buyer has an intrinsic goodness about it, at least as much as the takeover by one multinational over another. ‘Economics’ belongs as much to moral philosophy as it does to science.
‘Lockdowns’ are deliberate subversions of those exchanges; they jackboot the natural order of things. They are morally wrong at the macrolevel and at the level at which they take place they are suffocating. I’ll deal with these in turn.
An economy is, as Adam Smith noted, an emergent phenomenon: an ‘invisible hands’ product of myriad and often bewildering acts of human creativity. To shut down an economy, or parts of it, in the name of preventive health is like stamping on the hand of an artist while he is painting on the grounds that he might hurt himself.
On the individual level, Johnson and the High Priests of Sage don’t understand that, as Pope Leo XIII implies, there is a certain dignity which attaches to work, one which is a gift not of government but of God. We are made to seek to provide for those we love. We are not made merely to receive. This administration’s ‘furlough scheme’ was an intergenerational Ponzi scheme intended to bribe people out of the habit of work, and was therefore an assault on human dignity.
In a confiscation of our right to do the risk analysis ourselves this government has generated a debt which is frankly unimaginable. I expect that my 12-year-old son’s grandchildren will still be paying it off. An exaggeration? If so it’s a piece of hyperbole which assumes that money means the same thing then as it does now. I suspect it will not, though. Our relationship with money – as a tangible thing we can invent rhymes about – seems to be vanishing. It has become a ‘contactless’ and distant thing. An abstract.
I have a horrible suspicion that the inflation which is alive and well and hidden within ‘official’ statistics will be used by this government to inflate away the debt it has engendered on the back of a panic it created. But, again, this would be not an economic error but a moral offence. Inflation is a function of people’s loss of faith in money. To weaponise it is an assault both on the concept of money and (therefore) the rest of us.
I don’t want Prime Minister Johnson to ‘build back better’. I don’t think that is his job. What I want him to do is step aside and allow the suppressed (by him) creative impulses of the UK polity to remove the drill from his hands and show him how it’s done.