Tuesday 4 October 2016

Monopolies and fierce Liberalism

I wrote an article in the Guardian today defending Liberalism from the otherwise invariably correct Martin Kettle, and trying to distinguish it from neoliberalism.

I made the mistake of reading about 200 comments below the line afterwards, which is always a depressing business, but could - in the midst of all the other rage - discern something of an argument emerging. There was a similar pattern going on in the Lib Dem Policy Debate Facebook page.

The argument was about how much Milton Friedman was right that most monopoly was caused by governments - and whether, therefore, we are about to be stuffed, trussed and chopped up by the new private monopolies I mentioned.

It is true that a number of the oligopolies that rule us, and most are the result of the wrong kind of regulation - the banks, the mega food corps, for example. Or is it that the government simply failed to regulate their market dominance, which would lead to a different conclusion?

But where are the market monopolies, ask my critics online - at least the ones on the right? I have a choice whether to use Visa, Amazon or Google, after all...

But do I really? I could go to huge lengths by refusing to sign Google's customer agreement or refusing to buy from Amazon when most of their high street rivals are closing their doors. I could theoretically avoid any company using Visa's payments system, but don't think I would achieve it.

It is true that, as the situation stands now, the sins of those three are the same as the sins of Christopher Columbus (the monopolistic sins anyway) - that he wanted to take a share of every transaction involving the New World (the court case took two centuries and the Columbus family lost). They want to so insert themselves into the global economy that they can rake off a percentage of everything we buy.

I don't believe that government regulation has caused that. Quite the reverse, it has failed to tackle it.

I realise I make people extremely cross when I say - as Hilaire Belloc said before me in The Servile State - that we are on the verge of a whole new kind of slavery. That is the message of my book (written with Joe Zammit-Lucia) The Death of Liberal Democracy? It is a slavery that will raise costs, lead to far worse customer service, but will have a far more dangerous effect over half a century.

It is in fact a threat that will catapult us into chains. The European Union was blind to monopoly power - the impression I got from their competition regulators was that their main concern was building up European champions to take on the American behemoths. The Liberal parties of Europe, which should have been the main opponents of monopoly, have forgotten the issue. So who will defend us?

I don't think the defence will come from Jeremy Corbyn, who it seems to me is equally blind to monopoly and giantism as the Labour Party has always been, and despite 'neoliberalism' having become the insult of choice for his supporters.

I suppose I am hoping that we can, between us, build up a political head of steam behind the attack on monopolies, public and private - but without getting too over-excited about services which have to be delivered as such. Local councils and the NHS will have to be made responsive in other ways.

And if we do that, then we will have brought a fiercer kind of Liberalism back to life.

See my book Cancelled! on the Southern Railways disaster, now on sale for £1.99 (10p goes to Railway Benefit Fund).

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