Why the Planet Should Be Relieved That Labour Lost the U.K. Election

Climate change needs massive, urgent fixes and big government isn't the road to bunny rabbits skipping across verdant fields punctuated by wind turbines

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Corbyn gives a speech on Labour's environment policies in Southampton, November 28, 2019.
Corbyn gives a speech on Labour's environment policies in Southampton, November 28, 2019.Credit: AFP

Should anyone give a damn any more about the British Labour Party’s mammoth manifesto? At 105 pages and followed by the party’s worst election showing since 1935, it can now assume the title of the longest suicide note in history.

Yet the party platform, which deals mainly with the economy and climate change, remains important for two reasons.

The first is that in spite of Labour’s humiliating defeat, many of its ideas are popular with the British public. And even if they weren’t, the hard left that has controlled the party since Jeremy Corbyn took over the leadership is unrepentant. As John McDonnell, Corbyn’s No. 2, told the BBC: “We’re signed up to the political analysis that we’ve got and the program we advocate. The issue for us is how do we get that message across.”

But the second and more important reason to pay attention to the manifesto is because it’s a prominent manifestation of the new left-wing weltanschauung that combines socialism, climate change, high-tech innovation and hyper-democratic politics. It is the same platform underlying the Green New Deal and it may well end up being adopted by the Democratic Party as it takes on Donald Trump next year. This is not a good thing.

Big government isn't the path to bunny rabbits skipping across verdant fields punctuated by wind turbinesCredit: ספי מגריזו

Green jobs and climate change villains

While the Labour Manifesto called for such retro measures as renationalizing the railroads and the post office, much of it concerns creating “green jobs,” government funds to finance innovation, support for low-carbon activities and developing a “new plastics remanufacturing” industry. Oil companies would be hit with a windfall tax while other climate change villains would face delisting from the London Stock Exchange.

On a certain level it’s a compelling vision because it offers something for everyone. For the angry remnants of the West’s working class it dangles jobs and job security by putting the government at the helm of a dizzying array of investment funds and retraining programs. For the educated middle class, it says the fight against climate will be paid for by the 1% with a minimum of personal lifestyle sacrifice.

It mesmerizes everyone with its vision of a brilliant future of a beneficent government managing a world where bunny rabbits hop and skip across verdant fields punctuated by wind turbines.

But most of all, this gauzy vision appeals to the community that designed it: left-of-center activists who are motivated as much by saving the planet and ensuring equality as they are by sticking it to the billionaire class.

No matter, if it could work it wouldn’t be a bad solution. The threat of climate change is real and neo-liberal capitalism has failed on many fronts, among them by allowing income inequality to grow or failed to rein in monopolies. But what the capitalism that emerged from the Reagan-Thatcher era has been good at is encouraging technology innovation.

If the phone company monopolies hadn’t been privatized and broken up, it’s hard to see how the free-for-all development of the internet and everything that followed it would ever have happened.

The Labour manifesto, much like the Green New Deal, envisions putting technology development back in the hands of the government, or at least technology development as concerns climate change. Neither says so explicitly, but when you drill down to the particulars of both, the message is that the state will set priorities, enforce detailed rules and regulations, finance innovation and impose heavy taxes to pay for it. The business sector will be a client with a government contract.

The underlying philosophy is that if you want to get climate change fixed, capitalism has failed and this is the only way to do it.

Yet the record on high-tech and innovation sends almost the exact opposite message. I say “almost exact opposite” because it’s not as if the world’s most hyper-capitalist economies deliver the most innovation; rather, it’s the moderate capitalist ones that do, including yours truly, Israel.

Though  a crude measure that doesn’t take into account lots of other variables, let’s look at the world’s most innovative economies (as measured by Bloomberg) and the world’s most economically free ones (as measured by the Fraser Institute).

The world’s top innovator (South Korea) is only the 33rd most free.

Among the 10 freest economies, only Switzerland and the United States are also among the top 10 most innovative ones.

Among the top 10 innovators, only France (50th) isn’t in the upper quarter of free economies. Most of the top innovators are moderately free, according to Fraser’s index (Israel, for example, is the fifth most innovative and 38th most free).

The appeal of government-directed innovation is that it is orderly and set targets, which are admirable traits when the earth faces a deadline to reverse things or face disaster.

By contrast, the world of high-tech startups seems messy and unreliable, especially as for every startup that’s saving the planet there’s another that’s making things worse. No one is setting an agenda, except the market.

Yet the system works because it responds to basic human foibles, among them the urge to compete and make money. Unfortunately, they almost always trump the human capacity for goodwill and cooperation (witness the fruitless conclusion of the UN Climate Change Conference this week). The issue policymakers should be dealing with is how to foster innovation, not how to guide it.

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