Getting Money out of Politics

Amber Rudd used the expression “magic money tree” twice in the UK Leaders’ Debate last night.

I hadn’t heard it for a while, and had hoped that maybe it wasn’t focus-grouping very well. I guess I was wrong.

Why do politicians talk about money at all? Why do voters respond well to politicians’ pompous pronouncements about it? They have no idea what they’re talking about. Why would they?

Even academic economists struggle to understand money, as do philosophers and sociologists who devote their lives to thinking about it. Why would a career politician understand the first thing about it?

Luckily, you don’t need to think about money to make your political decisions. You need to think, of course, about your own finances. You need to worry about whether you have enough to pay the bills each month. You need to worry about how much pay you’ll take home after paying your taxes and other contributions. But you don’t have to think about what money really is, or where it comes from.

Thus you don’t need to worry about ‘where the money will come from’ to pay for this or that programme or public service. Think about this instead: Are there enough resources to provide the proposed service? Is there enough wood, bricks, glass, PVC, to build new council houses? Is there enough land to build them on? Are there enough builders to build them? If not, are there enough apprenticeships to train them? Are there enough staff in the schools and hospitals? If not, are there enough colleges to train them? If not, are there enough resources to create more of these?

These are things you can see with your own eyes. They’re questions you can answer by looking around you, using your common sense, and talking to your friends and family. If you think there are enough resources to provide more of these services than currently, and if you want those services provided, then vote for the politicians who promise to use the available resources to provide them.

Don’t let anybody tell you this isn’t possible because of some fact about money. When politicians talk money and numbers, they conjure up an enchanting ballet of bloodless abstractions. Money is an abstraction — a ledger, an accounting record, a “set of positions on an abstract ratio scale”, as one article puts it. But however the abstractions might dance about on their unearthly stage, here in the concrete world if there are resources then those resources can be put to use for a public purpose. No abstract object can rush in to interrupt the work. To think otherwise is to literally worship money.

G.A. Cohen has a good analogy here. Suppose you get on a train with no ticket. The conductor catches you, and tells you you can either get off the train or buy a ticket. You might say that you don’t have enough money to ride the train. But what if the conductor had no authority, no coercive apparatus to back him up, and no power to carry you bodily off the train? Then your lack of money would be irrelevant. So clearly what really matters is power, not money — politics, not finance.

You need to worry about money only because your power is limited. But who has the power to kick the government off the train? It can claim whatever resources it wants, it can use them however it wants, and it can distribute them however it wants, so long as it retains its authority. Money is part of its allocation mechanism, but it controls that as much as it controls everything else. You really don’t need to think about how it works. Just think about which resources you want directed where.

Unless you want to think about the allocation mechanism itself. In which case, educate yourself on the economics, the sociology, and above all the philosophy of money. But be prepared to feel a bit embarrassed about the way you used to fall for silly lines about the “magic money tree”.

Postscript: Just to be clear: I’m not saying that it’s impossible that redistributing resources away from the private sector and towards the public sector could cause a collapse in economic activity. Of course that’s possible. But what’s the argument that it’s likely? If the Conservatives had one, why wouldn’t they give it, rather than pretending that such redistribution isn’t even possible because of some mystical ‘shortage of money’?