We need a new agenda for more radical reform

Core Values by John Blundell in The Business

Market liberals are far more optimistic about the philanthropic and benign potential of human nature than are socialists .

A favourite optimistic nostrum of Ralph Harris, an influential trader in ideas who died last year, was: “Don’t worry, everything is getting worse.” Optimistic, because his maxim was that the more dreadful political provision of services such as schools and hospitals, the greater the opportunity for reform.

Those of us who loved him will celebrate the life of Lord Harris of High Cross next Tuesday (20 February) at a gathering in Westminster at the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), the organisation he ran for many years. We will have a merry afternoon for a jolly soul.

Harris touched the daily life of all of us. Who demolished the absurdity termed “retail price maintenance”, which meant retailers couldn’t choose the price at which they could sell their wares? Harris has a good claim. The reform created the supermarket phenomenon and even gave Richard Branson his start in commercial life.

How was the tyranny of exchange controls relaxed? Harris harried the politicians. Who cajoled ministers to sell off the vast rusting hulks termed “nationalised industries”? And who dared to ask if trade unions were public bads rather than public goods? Harris’s fingerprints are on all the most important free-market reforms of the 1970s and 1980s.

Yet he would not want his fans to dwell on the past. Our mission today is to apply liberal free-market ideas in the many areas in which they are still suppressed. Free-marketeers believe in a competent state. The government must perform some roles – but as a referee, not as a player.

There are several areas which every political party now ducks where voluntary options can be far more diverse, rich – and truly compassionate – than the present statist alternatives.

It is a firm consensus that the National Health Service is inviolate. Yet it is a monster that devours ministers and billions. There are many options for change. One is to switch to health insurance – it could be obligatory, like car insurance, but premiums would be behaviour-related and responsive, and those who couldn’t afford them would be helped. There could be degrees of cover; a market would evolve and better and more efficient healthcare provided.

Most families in Britain are apprehensive about the inadequacies of their schools, which leave millions unable to read and write. It would