IT is the perceived view that socialism and its big sister communism expired in the 1990s. The success of western capitalism, the collapse of the USSR, the astonishing conversion of China to exuberant markets, followed by India, leaves only crazed North Korea and blighted Scotland holding the torch for an omni-competent state.
Yet there are subtle forces changing the nature of British business life. The United Kingdom may have abandoned the model of nationalisation. It has adopted a more pernicious policy regulation. There will not be a reader of The Business who has not encountered regulators during the course of their week.
Prime Minister Tony Blair and his team have renounced the old ploy of direct ownership of the commanding heights of the economy, as Lenin called them. The government does no longer own British Gas, British Steel, British Rail, British Petroleum, British Telecom, British Airways or the water utilities and the electricity companies. It regulates them. In some cases it regulates them so tightly their status as private plcs seems an illusion.
If I were to attempt to nominate the most intrusive and meddlesome regulator I select the Financial Services Authority (FSA). Its prissy and sanctimonious activities are slowly smothering the British insurance and savings industry in great candyfloss mountains of nominally benign rules. Selling life insurance needs the panache of salesmanship. Better a family has a less than perfectly tailored policy than none at all.
One company I still regard as a model of virtue, Equitable Life, was brought down by the neurotic application of rules to the great loss of its owners its policyholders.
Stock market transactions, banking and other money services are controlled in a more detailed and heavy-handed manner than they have ever been.
The most important aspect of any market is its freedom of entry. Over-regulation constricts this. Can new entrants play the game? Access is a definition of a healthy market. This involves the lifeblood of capitalism risk. With compliance officers poised to swoop at every innovation everyone becomes more risk averse.
And as always it is the poor who suffer both from the lack of access to existing products, as regulation increases their costs, and from lack of access to new, less expensive products as regulation stops them coming to market.
One in four British workers is employed by the state now. The rest of us are regulated by the state. We are also taxed by the state for half of our earnings. We are toiling for our superiors for longer than