By Tim Montgomerie
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Yesterday I was defending conservatism from Matthew Parris. Today I'm worried about Charles Moore. Is it them or is it me?
Anyhow. In his column for Saturday's Telegraph Margaret Thatcher's biographer (and the man who, a year ago, thought it was better to have the Coalition than a majority Tory government) wonders if the Left has been right this past thirty years about capitalism. He writes:
"The rich run a global system that allows them to accumulate capital and pay the lowest possible price for labour. The freedom that results applies only to them. The many simply have to work harder, in conditions that grow ever more insecure, to enrich the few. Democratic politics, which purports to enrich the many, is actually in the pocket of those bankers, media barons and other moguls who run and own everything."
Let us take a step back for a moment. I think the Right is guilty of two big strategic mistakes and both are relevant to explaining why Charles Moore is wrong. The most relevant mistake is many conservatives tend to think things are always getting worse. Sometimes we give the impression that we'd like to live in the 1950s. I'm with Boris Johnson and Matt Ridley in rejecting this. Despite very real problems in our age there's never been a better time to live. Even people on fixed incomes are getting more access to livelier entertainment, tastier food and better medicine. Across the world life expectancy is rising. There's never been a better time to be alive and it's capitalism that has, in large part, done this.
The second mistake is to be anti-government. Too many Conservatives see no good in government. They are as bad as the Left-wingers who see no good in the private sector. Conservatives should state quite clearly that we believe in government but that it should be limited and focused. Limited to providing defence, law and order, basic infrastructure and welfare for the genuinely deserving. It should also implement a rigorous form of competition policy so that no banks or media companies get too big. If we had proper anti-monopoly policies many of the problems described by Charles Moore would not have occured. In two of the big examples he quotes of things going wrong – Murdoch's relationship with politicians and the cost of the €urozone – it's much more bad politics than bad markets.
I give the last word to Boris (quoting Matt Ridley's work against the pessimism of David Willetts). London's Mayor understands that – despite the terrible debts we've built up in the last two decades – things will carry on getting better:
"If you want to predict the course of the next 50 years, says Ridley, it is not unreasonable to look at the last 50. Let us go back to 1955, the year that baby Willetts and so many other babies boomed into the world. It was already an epoch of astonishing prosperity, with consumption proceeding at such a pace that the economist JK Galbraith complained of an "affluent society" that was over-providing for material wants. But look at what happened in the next 50 years, and the way those benefits were spread around the world. By 2005, average global incomes had gone up by one third, in real terms. Infant mortality is down by two thirds; life expectancy is up by one third as advances in medicine have helped to reduce cancer, heart disease, stroke and virtually every other affliction of humanity. The average IQ of the poor is steadily rising and – get this – the world's population is now expected to stabilise by 2050 rather than maintain a Malthusian progression. The average Mexican is now living longer than the average Briton did in 1955, and the average Briton is living longer still.
We are so much richer, as a society, that an unemployed man on benefit now receives more – in real terms – than the average working wage in Macmillan's Britain. London's air is far cleaner, and so is the Thames; and a car travelling at top speed emits less pollution than a parked car in the 1970s, mainly because cars no longer leak. Now the question is: will baby-boomer selfishness really call a halt to this progress? Are we really likely to see an interruption of the process by which human beings have been able to become, on the whole, richer, taller, healthier, more able to take holidays and pursue hobbies and – in important respects – happier?
…Ridley's key argument is that, whatever the economic difficulties of today, it is the baby-boomer technology that is delivering and will deliver incredible improvements in the standard of life of the next generation. Who gave us email and eBay? Who gave us Amazon, Starbucks, Walmart, iPod, Prozac, BlackBerry and spreadable butter you can keep in the fridge? It was the baby boomers. Who is responsible for the tolerance and openness that has helped to break down sexism, racism and homophobia? The baby boomers, that's who. Who ensured that you can read this article either on Finnish newsprint or with electronic technology sourced from around the world? It was us baby boomers, and our doctrines of liberal market economics.
Of course David Willetts is right to draw attention to the financial and environmental problems of the world. But then Matt Ridley is even more right to show how human beings have solved those problems in the past. Yes, we still face the challenge of pollution – but then someone once predicted that horse-drawn traffic was growing at such a rate that by 1950 London's streets would be under 10ft of manure. Where is that dung today? As Ridley says, there is no limit to our inventiveness. Solar-powered LED bulbs offer the hope of zero-carbon illumination for the 1.6 billion Africans who don't have mains electricity. Ever since Hesiod, ever since Isaiah, human beings have loved to listen to prophets of doom and they have loved to believe that theirs is a uniquely fallen and selfish generation. I don't believe it of the baby boomers, and in any case I am sure the next generation is well up to the challenge."