On the Today programme this morning John Humphrys repeated an ancient ideological trick of the right. He asked (1’24” in):
Why should the British taxpayer when they see that there’s not enough money for instance for hospitals or schools…why should they be expected to [spend on foreign aid]?
But why isn’t there enough money for schools and hospitals?
The answer, of course, is that the Tories have chosen to suppress spending on them. They could instead raise taxes to spend more on health: there’s a good economic case for taxing the moderately rich, and an even stronger one for taxing land more. Not doing so is a political choice.
And in the short-run there’s a case simply for borrowing to spend more on the NHS.
Whilst Humphrys was asking his question, others were reading reports that mortgage rates have fallen to a record low. They’ve done so in part because bond yields are near record lows. Government borrowing costs are negative in real terms: 20 year index-linked gilts yield minus 1.8 per cent, which means that for every £100 the government borrows today it need only repay £70 in today’s money. The simple maths of government debt means, therefore, that the government can both borrow more and reduce the ratio of debt to GDP over time.
If it makes sense to borrow to buy an over-priced house, doesn’t it also make sense to borrow to build new hospitals?
That the government is not doing so on sufficient scale is a choice. The overworked doctors depicted in Channel 4’s Confessions of a junior doctor are the result of policy decisions.
Which is why Humphrys’ phrasing is so odd. Simply saying there is “not enough money” invites the more gullible listeners to think this is an unavoidable fact rather than a free choice.
This, of course, is an old trick. The rich and powerful have always wanted underlings to believe their preferences and interests are natural and immutable. Aristotle’s idea of natural inequality (which persists today), the Divine Right of Kings, defences of slavery, Thatcher’s talk of “there is no alternative” during the 1980s recession and bosses’ crocodile tears about “unavoidable” redundancies, all fit this pattern. It’s part of system (pdf) justification (pdf). And there’s never a shortage of lackeys to promote the myth. As the old hymn (written by a namesake of Mr Humphrys) went:
God made them high and lowly,
And ordered their estate.
The Tories would love voters to believe that underfunding of schools and hospitals is a necessary result of big government debt. But this is a lie. And Humphrys is helping to propagate it – like all stooges down the ages.