This book is a must for anyone with an interest in the role of government and the extent to which it can, and does, detach itself from the purpose of serving the population over which it presides. James Madison, the USA’s fourth President and the “Father of the Constitution” must be turning in his grave, having been able to say at the time “Hitherto charters have been written grants of privileges by Government to the people. Here they are written grants of power by the people to their Governments.”
Today, all three of the UK’s main political parties believe in the first template above as regards the size and reach of central government. Yes, one may prefer a little more of the Welfare State and fewer military exploits around the world; another may prefer to shave a penny or two off taxes and rely a little more on state regulation instead; while another may prefer to make a small move towards decriminalising drugs and prostitution and to spend more on greenery. The common thread is that the overall size and reach of the state will not be significantly reduced, even though it has multiplied by a factor of at least ten in the past 100 years.
The unique qualities of The Alternative Manifesto (apart from Eamonn Butler’s feat of putting it together in an incredibly short timescale) are firstly that it is a genuine alternative, and secondly that it includes nearly all the major issues across the traditional (and bogus) Left versus Right spectrum. It shows that every single one can be downsized to a level well beyond anything that the politicians can begin to contemplate. The issue is Small versus Large and not Right versus Left; this is truly refreshing.
Thus, as one might expect, there are chapters covering The Economy, Finance, Education, Healthcare, Welfare, Crime & Justice, and Taxation. (In several of these fields it would be more accurate to insert the words “Lack of” before the descriptor!) But Eamonn also examines Politicians (and their role), Bureaucracy, The Bully State, and Regulation. In each case there are the relevant facts and figures, presented crisply, aided by interviews with specialists in the various fields. There is no shortage of solutions either, all pointing to very substantial reductions in the government’s role. The simple fact is that big government means huge areas left without market price signals and therefore open to pure whim as well as waste. It also means big taxes which destroy great swathes of the division of labour and thus reduce living standards. The UK government now spends more than 50% of GDP. Since 100% would mean the total absence of trade and exchange, internally as well as externally, it doesn’t take a genius to realise that halfway to the obliteration of all exchange (i.e. to individual autarky) means a huge devastation of the aggregate living standards that would be available under low taxes.
Perhaps the most interesting chapter is that on Politicians; naturally the ongoing scandal of inflated expense claims is dealt with, but more important is a significant examination of constitutional issues. Both in the UK and the USA, Madison’s claim has reverted to type. Thus the ultimate issue lies with immediate constitutional reform or an inevitable decline into dictatorship.
Thank you, Eamonn Butler, for pointing this out so clearly and forcibly.