The British people should never forget the value of a free market economy. So said Theresa May, at a speech celebrating 20 years since the Bank of England became independent.
But despite May’s words, it seems many have forgotten – or at least have reason to doubt it. Earlier this week, Jeremy Corbyn and other Labour heavyweights repeated to adoring crowds their contempt for what they called “the failed doctrines of neoliberalism”. The opposite of neoliberalism, it was implied, was everything included in Labour’s platform: re-nationalisation, state ownership, higher taxes, wage caps, price controls, and more regulation.
Corbyn may have been exaggerating when he said public perception had shifted to the point where he now claims the centre ground, but there is no denying that capitalism has fewer and fewer supporters. Today, the Legatum Institute releases a report on “public perception in the post-Brexit era”. The results are staggering.
Up to 83 per cent of people support nationalising key industries, such as water and electricity – while 50 per cent extend that even to banks. Wage caps and regulation enjoy high support. Most crucially, the top words associated with capitalism were terms such as “selfish”, “corrupt” and “greedy”, while socialism was correlated with phrases like “for the greater good”.
Admittedly, communism was viewed far more critically, but it is clear that many have disassociated the tragic and disastrous consequences of communist states from the socialist ideology which underpinned them.
There are justifiable criticisms of capitalism, and certain markets which require some intervention to remain fair and open to competition, with standards set for the health and safety of workers and consumers alike. But the fact remains that markets have lifted millions of people out of poverty, raised living standards and life expectancy across the world, and enabled unparalleled wealth and opportunity. The comparisons are as stark as they are well-known: North vs. South Korea, East vs. West Germany, Cuba vs. Hong Kong, Venezuela vs. Singapore.
Yet despite the wealth of evidence, something has gone wrong. A void has emerged for those on the far left to fill with their rhetoric and promises. There is growing public consensus for the kind of government control Corbyn espouses, however detrimental it has proven to be.
Theresa May has finally spoken up for capitalism, wealth creation, enterprise and competition. But given the state of public opinion, it may too little – too late.
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