Polly Toynbee has argued recently that the explicit pursuit of wellbeing by government would lead to policy choices that were diametrically opposed to those desired by Cameron and Osborne. In this she makes several errors, one of which was demonstrated in the previous post.
As well as the error pointed out in the previous post, Polly Toynbee seems to assume that the Cameron/Osborne project will necessarily take us in a direction of greater inequality. Well, I don’t know about the Cameron/Osborne project specifically but, if that project involves extending economic liberalism (which is presumably what Polly Toynbee fears), there is no reason to suppose that it will involve greater inequality.
Clearly, a programme of liberalism must involve less explicit income redistribution – though our welfare state is not small even by Scandinavian standards. But consider the other policies that would be demanded in a liberal programme: government finance of individuals and families for education and health, rather than government provision; substantial reduction of planning controls; better incentives within the welfare state; abolition of all trade restrictions on food and other products and services.
Each of these is a “pro-poor” policy that is likely to reduce inequality. Only the first needs further explanation. When education and health are provided by the state, quality is detemined by the ability to articulate one’s needs, move house, take out private provision and so on. When the state provides finance, families are put on a more level playing field. And the experience suggests that there are benefits from educational choice programmes that are mainly felt by the poor, minorities, those with disabilities and those with special educational needs.
I do not believe in liberalism because I believe in equality but Polly Toynbee is wrong if she thinks that centralising ever-more power within a governing elite necessarily brings about more equality.
But there is something else that is curious about Polly Toynbee’s position. She is hostile to religion and to traditional family relationships. Probably the only conclusive result of the wellbeing literature is that family relationships and religion are crucial for wellbeing. If Polly Toynbee believes in central planning to promote wellbeing then, rather than focusing on inequality, she might want to focus on socially conservative policies – “neo-con” if you like. Personally, as a liberal, I believe that families are best served when not undermined by the welfare state – there is no need to promote them, just stop subsidising their destruction. But, if you want to use all the tools at the disposal of government to promote wellbeing, then you would promote prosperity, liberalisation focused on areas where the poor suffered from lack of access to markets (health, education, planning and so on) and then use the arms of the state to promote religion and traditional families. I am sceptical of the ability of the state to achieve the latter but Polly Toynbee is not: she is, in principle, a central planner. Surely it is Polly Toynbee who should do a volte face and become a Bush-admiring neo-con and move from the Guardian to the National Review.