Emily Carver is Head of Media at the Institute of Economic Affairs.
When Marcus Rashford first called upon the government to provide food vouchers to school pupils during the summer holidays, few dared to question whether it is the role of the state to feed our children.
Now, his campaign seeks to extend this benefit to all school holidays – a move which has garnered support from both the Opposition and the near 300,000 people who have signed his petition.
It takes a brave soul to suggest publicly that there might be unintended consequences to the government taking on the role of parent: if it is now responsible for putting food on the table, what further intervention might we expect from the state?
In a country already suffering from a bloated bureaucracy, the pandemic has emboldened those who argue that the state can, and should, control the economy. Increasingly, our personal lives are being micromanaged; the home, once the Englishman’s castle, has become yet another government-controlled facility. With polls showing that the majority of us favour strict social distancing rules, it appears that many perversely crave the security of ever stricter rules and guidelines.
Those in favour of a smaller state plead that the current crisis must not be used as an excuse for a permanent expansion of the state and that our freedoms must be returned as soon as possible.
However, recent Government policies suggest an acceptance that the economy can be controlled top-down; many fiscal conservatives have blithely accepted the deceit that politicians can pause the economy, put it into deep freeze and then simply resuscitate it.
The resurrection of old-fashioned Keynesian ideas, which may have been appropriate in the short-term, may prove very difficult to reverse; as Milton Friedman said, nothing is so permanent as a temporary government programme. And with the question of how we’re going to pay for all this kicked into the long grass, any mention of the deficit and the mounting debt pile is met with deaf ears.
Yet is this surprising when the government has ceded so much to the Left?
Despite the Chancellor’s promise to “protect the public finances over the medium term”, the last few months have shown the public that, if there’s political will, the deficit no longer matters – a dangerous precedent, and a hostage to fortune for the Conservatives who will soon enough have to justify taking back control of the purse strings.
Economic liberals and fiscal conservatives have never believed that this was the right way to run a free and prosperous country, yet while Boris Johnson may embrace free market rhetoric, his policy announcements are dominated by big state projects and ever more public spending.
Why not spend another £100 million on wind-turbines or extend the provision of free school meals, when the debt is already over £2 trillion? You found the money six months ago, the public will ask, why not now? To disagree with extra spending, particularly on social issues, will appear callous rather than prudent to a public becoming so used to the idea that the state bears ultimate responsibility for all our ills.
It is often said that crises accelerate prevailing trends; the shift from the high street to online shopping is one example. More troubling is the belief that government has the answer to all our problems, is responsible for protecting us from every conceivable risk, even the inevitability of our own mortality. With four years until the next election, restoring the conservative principles of personal responsibility and a small state should be the priority – an unenviable task perhaps, but what else is an 80-seat majority for?