Monday, April 20, 2009

Lefties for effective public spending

Tom P, in a comment at Stumbling & Mumbling, says:

I wouldn't mind seeing a left-wing TaxPayers Alliance. Something that focused on genuine waste and inefficiency at taxpayers' expense, without being refracted through a right-libertarian ideology and suggesting that anything done by the public sector is inherently shit.

He’s right. It makes obvious political sense for right-wingers who see the state – even in a democracy – as an illegitimate, alien imposition that shackles the economy and stifles society to want to sneer at its every (debatable) failure, inefficiency and overreach.

But left-wingers who think there’s real need for what the state does ought to be keen to cut down on waste and inefficiency. If we think the public sector is so vital, then we should view the taxpayers’ money that funds it as sacrosanct. (Tom might be interested in The Other TaxPayer’s Alliance, although they seem to be mostly about critiquing the original TPA.)

Despite the right-wing caricatures, we don’t – not even Gordon Brown, not even Polly Toynbee – believe in taxing for its own sake. We believe in what can be achieved with the money raised in tax, and so we should want the maximum bang for the public’s buck. This is very different from being generically anti-state and highlighting waste as ground for reducing the scope of the public sector. It’s about maximising effectiveness in terms of good outcomes rather than merely minimising inefficiency.

The only worry (at least, for Labour) is political: in taking up the cause of making ‘cost savings’ – as the government intermittently does – would we help to legitimate the small-state brigade or cut the ground from under their feet? A lot depends on language. Phrases like ‘trimming the fat from the wasteful state’ have very different overtones from ‘making our public services more effective’.

Then again, I’m a bit of a verbose pseud and probably not the best person to be devising slogans…


Liam Murray said...

I won't defend the TPA - they're frequently over the top as far as I'm concerned.

Not sure about you're assertion that few on the left like the idea of tax for its own sake. Any notion of redistributive taxation (use the word progressive if you like) is essentially that - it's taking money from people with quite a lot of it and giving it to those with a bit less and that's the explicit aim. It's not about addressing any particular ill or social problem - it's purely about adjusting that balance.

Also don't buy the idea that the default or reasonable position here is a moderate centrist one, based on some level of taxation. You don't have to be a TPA nut to accept the premise that taxes represent the state forcibly taking something that belongs to the individual.

The burden of justification for that should be very, very high and not something we just accept up to a certain level. It's a bit like criminal justice - we recognise that the power of the state is considerable so the hurdles they have to clear to deprive someone of their liberty are significant. We accept that even with the knowledge that people who should be in prison are free.

There should be a similarly approach to anything that uses public money for the same reasons. Cue blanket sweeping comment but that's why I think things like SureStart need far more scrutiny - there are always heart-warming stories of the 'kids saved'' by things like this but spending on that scale needs a cold & dispassionate cost-benefit analysis and if it doesn't clear the bar....

Tom Freeman said...

"taking money from people with quite a lot of it and giving it to those with a bit less" [emphasis added]

And plenty of people (including, he claims, David Cameron) think that large income differentials in and of themselves are a social ill...

But I certainly agree that the burden of justification shouldn't be based on departures from some supposedly 'reasonable' level of taxation.

For any area of government spending requiring taxes (ie all areas), we should ask 'will whatever harm these taxes do to the economy be outweighed by the benefits to society from the spending?', 'is the state (in whatever form) the appropriate agent to be providing this social benefit?' and 'is the loss of money to those paying the tax warranted by the benefits to those receiving the public service?'

It's very common for either the tax or spending sides of these questions to be skated over or ignored, but they are the trade-offs that have to be looked at. Lefties and righties will obviously tend to answer the questions differently and these differences will often come down to brute matters of opinion.

Incidentally, I see that Reform are very directly arguing that "politicians will have to go beyond waste to achieve necessary reductions" and positively reduce the scope of government. I may not agree (I've not read the report), but that argument seems commendably honest.

Tom P said...

hola Tom

I had another go at this a while back -

ad said...

After twelve years of Labour government, I don't think any left-wing government will ever try to maximise the efficiency of public spending, reduce the costs of government regulation, or reduce the deadweight costs of the tax system.

I do belive they will make big promises, though.

Gregg said...

right-wingers who see the state – even in a democracy – as an illegitimate, alien impositionEven in a democracy? You really think they'd feel the same antipathy towards the state if this wasn't a democracy - or, at least, if we didn't have universal suffrage?