Bet that title grabbed you… not! I don’t normally ponder the business section of the newspaper either, being a non-earning radical unschooling parent with barely a couple of ha’pennies to rub together for heating at this time of year. However, as one of Samizdata’s resident optimists, I couldn’t help but notice this Telegraph headline warming the cockles of my heart:
So what? I hear you all demand. Aren’t markets notoriously fickle? Don’t share indexes go up and down like yo-yos from one moment to the next?
Well, not exactly, no. They do react over-sensitively sometimes, including to mistaken theories and red-herrings and suchlike. But they do also tell us something about how economies are doing, in a general sense. And there are few things more important to a country’s success than its economy. And free-markets succeed where controlled markets never can, which is why Eastern Europe is still hobbling its way towards the 1980’s while in the West we enjoy Gameboy Advance, ever-improving standards of living and quite a few more Wonderbras per capita than you will still find in rural Transyllvania.
And also why looking at the economic news can actually tell us something about how free our country is. If things are booming, then of course lower taxes would help them boom even more: but something else is definitely still going right regardless (probably many things, in fact).
Freedom is about more than legislation. It’s also about how the state enforces its legislation, what methods for criticising and changing the legislation are in place (democracy being the best one anyone seems to have achieved so far, definitely more efficient for spreading ideas than fascist dictatorship), and how effective people are at doing this criticising and changing. Here on Samizdata, I’d say we’re pretty good. But it would be wrong to assume that everyone is as knowledgeable (or interested) as we are in the political process and evolutionary growth: interpreting widespread disagreement with our own ideas as hard evidence that evil Marxist brainwashing plots have tainted the Nation That Once Was Great is a big logic error (file under “conspiracy theory”).
Apart from anything else, if we’d really gone Marxist, that would be reflected in our shopping centres. Ever been shopping in a Communist state? I spent two hours searching for a supermarket in Krakow once. All I found was a single grocery store stocked with tins, sausages, Wodka and a small selection of slightly mouldy vegetables in one corner. And you still had to queue up separately for each item. And that was ten years after the fall of Communism. (Change takes a while, but no doubt they’ll get there in the end.)
I spent hours lovingly patting expensive pocket PCs. The shops in that street are so crowded you have to be really tough to get to the front.
And if good governments make for good markets, then good markets indicate that despite being wrong on many many things, the UK government has not actually sold the Greatness That Was Britain down some River of Stalinist Blood yet. And it will take more than the fact that Brits are mean enough to spend hours and months queuing for free (at source) medical treatment to convince me that we’ve transmogrified into Communist Russia. Disneyland is full of queues as well, remember, and that’s not an authoritarian state. (Although their song “Following the leader” does take on rather sinister undertones when sung in German, as a friend of mine with kids once mentioned).
To sum up, I would like to offer the following as a few indicators of the state of a nation, and suggest that they constitute harder evidence than the latest set of government and/or EU proposals that may or may not ever make it into the statute books and/or anybody’s real life in any kind of enforced or real sense.
- How many varieties of apple one can buy in the supermarket,
- How many expensive designer clothes shops natives can afford to go in, and, how many bargain-rails the cheap-and-cheerful shops have, all year round,
- How much force the government actually uses on the media to get it to say what they want it to say- whether the major newspapers are all of one party line, or diametrically disagree,
- Whether those newspapers perceive economic growth or otherwise (of course, most front-page news will be bad, but that’s the nature of news; good news isn’t any),
- Whether elections demonstrate that people change their opinions from time to time,
- How long it takes for cutting-edge technology to become a) available, and b) available at cheap prices.
That’s a random selection, not any attempt at a comprehensive overview. Samizdata readers can no doubt come up with various other capitalist freedom-indicators (how about; whether a country respects the rights of its minority groups, including their right to march against said country’s government).
And yes, I know economists get things wrong. We all get things wrong- human beings are fallible- but these days, in my view, you just can’t call a spade a spade without taking a look inside a hardware store first to see just how many sizes and colours of spades are available. Go capitalism!