“In the end, you are either a big-state person, or a small-state person, and what big-state people hate about austerity is that its primary purpose is to shrink the size of government spending.”
So said Jeremy Warner (assistant editor of the UK’s Daily Telegraph) last year. Jeremy is a small state person, and I think many other small state people think like this. But the statement is wrong. There are a large number of people - I suspect the vast majority - who do not have any prior view about the size of the state.
In many ways the bipolar view harks back to a bygone age, where - at least in Europe - there actually was a large constituency on the left that wanted a large state as a matter of principle. In the UK that constituency lost all its influence with Margaret Thatcher and New Labour, and it has also lost its influence in the rest of Europe. However this decline in the influence of big state people on the left was matched by a rise to power on the right of those who want a small state as a matter of principle. George Osborne’s plan for the UK over the next few years is the apotheosis of this neoliberal view.
I think I’m like the majority of people in not having any fixed ideological position about whether the state should be large or small. The state is clearly good at doing some things, and bad at doing others. In between there is a large and diverse set of activities which may or may not be better achieved through state direction or control, and they really need to be looked at item by item on their merits.
My first major problem with small state people is that they are not prepared to look at these items on their merits. Instead they have a blanket ideological distaste for all things to do with government. The evidence that government is ‘always the problem’ is just not there. The idea that private sector activity is always welfare enhancing and is best left alone was blown out of the water by the financial crisis. My second major difficulty with many small state people, like George Osborne, is that they are using fear of a debt crisis (a possibility which for the UK and US is non-existent) to achieve their ends. This is political deceit on a grand scale. My third major problem follows from the second: reducing government spending during a liquidity trap recession does real harm. It wastes resources on a huge scale.
For the UK, the OBR estimates - conservatively - that austerity reduced GDP by 1% in 2010/11, and by a further 1% in 2011/12, so GDP was 2% below what it could have been in 2011/12. As there has been no offsetting fiscal stimulus in later years, and because monetary policy has been constrained by the zero lower bound, this waste of resources will not necessarily be eliminated in subsequent years. So the cumulative cost of 2010 austerity could easily exceed 5% of GDP. That is a colossal sum to waste. The estimated numbers in the Eurozone, where the austerity squeeze continues, are even worse - nearer 10% territory and counting. As I argue in this new short piece for the Economist, the fact that Osborne risks doing the same thing again from 2015 onwards is a sufficient reason not to give him the chance.
Which brings me to a final problem I have with small state people, which is their disregard for the evidence. It is true that most people are bad at acknowledging counter evidence, but those with an ideological conviction are worse than most. A common theme among small state people following Osborne’s Autumn Statement is to ask what all the fuss is about. In his rant at the BBC, Osborne says “I would have thought the BBC would have learned from the last four years that its totally hyperbolic coverage of spending cuts has not been matched by what has actually happened. I had all that when I was interviewed four years ago and has the world fallen in? No it has not.” He remembers it well, because he tried to intimidate the BBC back then as well. The claim of hyperbole is nonsense of course, as Tony Yates sets out, but I want to focus on the ‘world fallen in’ point.
Here is Janan Ganesh in the FT making the same claim in spades:
“[Osborne] has also made the spending cuts he promised without the country turning into a medieval wasteland. This is a deeper intellectual wound to the left than we currently understand; it will change the terms of debate about the proper size of the state long after Mr Osborne has gone.”
With both Osborne and Ganesh the intended meaning is that cuts have been achieved at relatively little cost. They clearly hope this idea will become received wisdom in the media. But is it true? Take the one area that Osborne has earmarked for further cuts: welfare.  The argument that the cuts made so far to welfare have been achieved without significant costs flies in the face of the evidence. The number of food banks in the UK has grown massively over the last five years. The Trussell Trust estimate that more than half of their clients were receiving food because of benefit delays, sanctions, and financial difficulties relating to the bedroom tax and abolition of council tax relief. As James Harrison relates in this excellent long article, the government simply denies the evidence. The Economist notes: “Welfare reform was intended to be one of the big achievements of the coalition government. But almost all of the radical ideas promised are turning out to be duds.” These are duds that create real misery. Now maybe this is all just teething problems, but the prima facie evidence is hardly that cuts have been achieved at little cost.
So how can small state people have the audacity to claim otherwise? Perhaps it reflects the power of an ideology that its protagonists want to see no evil. Perhaps it is because those hurt by austerity somehow do not count. But the claim that Osborne’s cuts have been such a success that they will cause a “deeper intellectual wound to the left than we currently understand” is simply delusional. These are fantasy ideas from those living in an imaginary world, while in reality the policies they support do serious harm.
 I choose welfare only as an example. It does not appear to be an isolated one. Here is an account of Chris Grayling, prisons and the Howard League, or see Alex Marsh on the UK justice system more generally. Or think of those who suffered from flooding as the government cut back money for flood prevention, while the government still pretends there were no cuts.