Thursday, June 05, 2008

The evidence of creeping economic socialism in Britain

Over on The Observer, Martin Jacques has some interesting points regarding the car and what it tells us about society. I don't agree with everything he says but I don't disagree either. I certainly agree that the car is a status symbol, but it always has been - the difference is that what we choose to say about ourselves in our choice of car is different now. There is one point which Jacques makes where he gets it completely wrong in my opinion.

Public transport – after being shunned for decades (you may recall that Margaret Thatcher refused to travel by rail – none of that collectivist nonsense for her) – is now back in fashion, with London leading the way and the railways full to bursting. The pendulum is shifting: public and collectivist notions of transport look set to be the trend of the future, with the car in retreat, especially in its more anti-social and anti-environmental forms.

What Jacques fails to realise - or perhaps realises but fails to point out - is that the car was also much more than a personal symbol of status, it was a national symbol of wealth and outward evidence of capitalism working. The increase in car use was entirely due to two things - people having more wealth and people having more choice.

The shift towards public transport is happening not because there has been a sudden change in peoples thinking. Very few people choose public transport because of social or environmental concerns - they do so because they actually have no choice.

Public transport wasn't "shunned", certain forms were just not preferred because the car offered more flexibility, more comfort and more reliability and was affordable. The car still offers more flexibility, comfort and affordability - public transport has not got any better (if anything, it is worse) - and it is still expensive, but government interference has nibbled away at the cost advantage of the car to the point where public transport, for all its many faults, is the only option for more and more people.

Public transport, when it was good, reasonably priced and easily accessible, has always been in fashion - air travel is public transport and grew enormously while other forms of public transport were "shunned". People preferred to fly to Glasgow rather than get the train or drive because it was affordable, quicker and better. That's how capitalism works.

But in a planned economy, that is not the case. In a planned economy the government dictates how we are to travel and they enforce it in various ways - price control being a favourite and that is what we have today. Not directly - they do not set the cost of a car in a showroom - but they do dictate how much it costs to use that car and therefore control the cost of driving.

What we are seeing in the increased use of public transport is simply evidence of the substantial leftward lurch both politically and economically.

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