Monday 27 January 2014

Pro- or anti-business? It's the wrong question

The phrase ‘anti-business’ is being flung around again and I’ve been puzzling about what it means. I’m equally confused about what ‘pro-business’ might mean too.

Does it mean pro-Barclays? Or pro-entrepreneur? Does it mean pro-Tesco? Or pro-Tesco’s suppliers of apples in the UK?

So when Ed Balls is being accused of being anti-business because of his support for a 50p tax rate for people earning more than £150,000, I’m wondering if the phrase has any meaning at all.

There are a whole range of reasons for disagreeing with Ed Balls on most things. Nor is a 50p tax rate likely to do much for ending the great rift between the ultra-wealthy elite and the rest of us.

The richer you are, the more income tax becomes a voluntary business – it means you can afford the tax avoidance measures and the tax lawyers to bypass the grubby business of paying tax.

We may prefer this to be otherwise, but income tax tweaking has become little more than a symbolic gesture towards equality rather than a hard-nosed policy likely to achieve much.

But despite all this, the idea that people earning more than £150,000 should pay a fairer share is hardly anti-business, or is it?

The difficulty is that the phrase is bandied around by business lobby groups whether it means anti-big business or anti-small business, whether it is anti-enterprise or anti-monopoly.

These are emphatically not the same. As a Liberal, I am absolutely in favour of enterprise, of entrepreneurs who – as Anita Roddick used to define it – are able to “see the world differently”.  Of business trying to re-think the way the world works from below.  Of creative destruction.

That does not make me automatically in favour of feather-bedding the monopolies, forcing us to do business with one company – or allowing a handful of companies, like Amazon, Tesco or the payment systems owned by the big banks, to extract percentage of an increasing number of transactions.

These two versions of being pro-business are mutually incompatible. If you are pro-enterprise, then you must be in favour of controlling the forces of monopoly to let competitors in and lower their costs. If you are in favour of protecting monopolies, in what sense can you be said to be pro-enterprise?

So whether Ed Balls is pro- or anti-business is beside the point. The real question is to stop pretending that is where the fault line in the argument lies.

Is the coalition pro- or anti-enterprise? David Cameron said today that his government has reduced bureaucracy for small business. That is certainly pro-enterprise – but is he doing enough to tackle the banking oligopoly which constrains them? Is he tackling the payments system, or Amazon, trying to rake off a percentage of every transaction? Is he pro-competition or pro-monopoly?

Is the CBI pro- or anti-enterprise? And if it is pro-enterprise, how can it defend the interests of the huge aspiring monopolies it has as its members?

So let’s articulate the business issue as it really is – can we support enterprise? Or only as far as competition is tolerated by the really powerful players?

No comments: