‘What are the foundations of a free society?’ asks a recent IEA publication. What key components are essential for realising the common good, and how well does the United Kingdom meet this challenge?
The criteria for a free society, according to the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom, are rule of law, limited government, regulatory efficiency, and open markets - also listed in the IEA volume above, including two complementary factors, human rights and private property. Accordingly, the United Kingdom is ranked 14th world-wide and 5th in the European region (out of 43 countries). According to the Index,
‘With a legal system that enforces contracts and property rights effectively, the U.K. has long benefited from openness to global trade and investment. Reforms undertaken in recent years include measures to curb the growth of government spending and a series of corporate tax rate cuts... Ending the steady erosion of economic freedom during the past five years, Britain’s overall score took an upturn in the 2013 Index.’
Students of Public Choice will be quick to note that the criteria used are of especial importance when examined through the discipline’s own vernacular. Examples of ‘government failure’; the self-interests of politicians and bureaucrats; and issues of crony capitalism, rent-seeking, and legislative favouritism: all contribute to the loss of economic freedom. ‘The market may be unable to deliver certain things, but government action - beset as it is with all these problems - is not necessarily an ideal way to deliver them either,’ observes Eamonn Butler in another IEA monograph, Public Choice — A Primer. ‘Indeed, the problems that government intervention creates can be even more damaging than those it is intended to correct.’
But who watches over the government? — A free press; for, if the dissemination of knowledge is essential to maintaining a competitive market, it is no less essential in establishing the rule of law and good government. Without an enlightened public, both the economic and political spheres are open to abuse, manipulation, fraud, and exploitation. ‘In a world where openness terrifies the elites, we have embraced it with an alacrity that is rare among nations’, reports Benedict Brogan, who ruminates on the avarice of European politicians in contrast to their British counterparts - whether it be access to lavish aeroplanes or extravagant expense accounts:
‘In Britain, politicians have been taught to live in fear of popular displeasure. Elsewhere, they have learnt to exist in comfort and safety. So sometimes, when the urge to complain that they are all the same and not worth having becomes overwhelming, it is worth considering our success in putting politicians in their place - as well as the reputational violence we threaten against elites of all sorts.’
An appeal to Public Choice supports Brogan’s anecdotal evidence. Britain, in contrast to many developed nations, is marginally more attuned to what Public Choice would constitute as the marks of a free society: individual liberty, free-market competition, and legislative oversight (for the sceptical, though, many of these British socio-political virtues are best highlighted through global comparison). And apart from opposition parties in Parliament, much of this oversight is owed to the labours of Fleet Street.
‘The ferocity we reserve for the Establishment is directly linked to Britain’s long tradition of a free and ill-behaved press,’ Brogan writes. ‘It is often the first thing that visitors remark on, and certainly one of the issues that preoccupies foreign governments.’ But freedom of the press is under jeopardy.
‘Around the world we can see that impunity is one of the greatest obstacles to the spread of democracy and the fulfilment of the individual. It is a credit to Britain that we have taught ourselves to challenge impunity wherever we find it - and a moment of shame that politicians have reversed that process by giving themselves powers over the press.’
Public Choice teaches that regulation may just as often be enacted to serve the interests of the regulated - by keeping out competition through rent-seeking safeguards - as the interests of the common good. The political class may believe themselves entitled to a free pass, but isn’t the public’s entitlement to a free society, through a free press, the true purpose of politics?