03 Jun 2008

Has the World Gone Mad?

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The government that can’t pick up the garbage believes it should run your life.

Janet Daley asks rhetorically, faced with the astonishing proliferation of pettyfogging, counterproductive, and absurd new measures by the Labour Government. No, she concludes, what we are observing are only the death spasms of a failed system of belief.

What we are living through is nothing other than the death throes of 20th-century ideology: the idea that the state is the only repository of civic virtue and moral authority.

The notion that Big Government (whether in the central or the local form) could solve all social problems, and through its interventions achieve absolute justice and harmony, is collapsing. And in its last moments, in its disbelief and agony at its own failure, it is lashing out in every direction: if the earlier measures haven’t dealt with crime/public disorder/anti-social behaviour/under-performing hospitals/insufficient recycling, we must add yet more layers of official interference.

If government fails to achieve its objectives, it must be because it isn’t doing enough, isn’t being sufficiently pro-active – so let’s pass another law, bring in a further layer of intrusion, take away another dimension of personal responsibility from community life.

But somehow, everything that government does makes things worse: leads to more perverse consequences and unforeseen complications. And the panic increases and the desperation grows and we get yet more laws and rules and targets and misapplied regulations.

Because they have taken so much power over our lives, we feel free to blame the governing classes for everything that goes wrong. And they feel they must address our every difficulty because everything is their fault. (Indeed, their interventions so frequently exacerbate our problems that we are actually quite right to blame them much of the time.)

When there is a real crisis – not just dog poo or over-loaded wheelie bins – the solution always follows the same formula: take more power away from the people.

For example, the price of home-heating is now a serious problem, so what does the Government suggest? A return to zero VAT for heating fuel, which would lower the price instantly and significantly for everyone? Nope. What they propose is a hugely intrusive programme (at present illegal under data protection laws) in which private financial information about the poor would be handed to power companies, in the hope that the disadvantaged might be given more leeway in paying their bills.

So somewhere in the corridors of Whitehall, someone could have the power to decide which of us is deserving enough to have the confidential details of our hardship handed over to some anonymous manager at British Gas or Npower for their compassionate consideration. (Why not medical records, too? Surely the chronic sick could be given heating privileges?)

This madness is not all Gordon Brown’s fault. He just happens to be the man presiding over the final moments of a political philosophy that has reached a dead end.

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