[Ed: continued from Part VII which was published here, with links to earlier parts.]
What is meant by material enrichment? Britain as a case study
The assumption is that the material conditions for most have improved considerably over the past two hundred years. Any economics textbook will plot economic improvement in terms of rising real wages. But those supposedly rising real wages are based on measures which are often questionable, incomplete or derived from very narrow data such as corn prices. Even modern measures such as the Retail Price Index (RPI) are not static, their content and weighting being regularly revised. Nor do such measures fully represent the true costs of necessities, the most notable distortion in Britain being the failure of the Retail Price Index (and its successor index the Consumer Price Index) to reflect housing costs fully. Any comparison between different times based on such measures needs to be treated with caution.
Of course no one in their right sense would question whether there has been massive material advance in the past two centuries. A more interesting question in our context is whether most people are materially better off now than they were in 1960s, by which time a fully fledged welfare state was bedded in, housing, both owned and rented, was reasonably priced, social housing was being built in massive quantities, university education was not merely free but students subsidized with grants, unemployment was tiny and inflation low.
Today the welfare state is constantly under attack by the British political elite and in some areas such as NHS dentistry already seriously inadequate, while the state pension is much reduced as a fraction of the average wage following two decades of increases linked to the cost-of-living pegging rather than increases linked to the average national wage.
Housing of all sorts in most parts of the country is presently absurdly costly and social housing is greatly reduced through Right-To-Buy and minimal new building since the 1980s.
The cost of university education is rocketing and grants are a distant memory.
Unemployment remains high today even by the official figures – approximately 950,000 by the claimant count and around 1.5 million by the most widely used international measure – figures which most probably severely understate the real unemployment level because it ignores the considerable disguised unemployment within the 2 to 3 million people currently on long term sick benefit payments (the 1980 figure for such people was 600,000). The increase in those staying on at school after the age of 16 and going on to university has also reduced the present figures by taking hundreds of thousands out of the jobs market for years. From 1945 to the late seventies unemployment never rose above a million on the official claimant count and for most of the time was considerably lower even with little disguised unemployment and far fewer people staying in education after the school-leaving age (which was only 15 until the mid sixties).
There are other fundamental social changes which bear upon the material state of the nation. Many more people today have to travel long distances to work than they did forty or fifty years ago. That is costly both in terms of fares and time. More generally, it is increasingly difficult for someone on the average wage to support a family on that wage. That often means both parents have to work not from choice but necessity.
Taxation bears much more heavily on the poorer part of the population now than it did in the past. Direct taxation – income tax, national insurance, inheritance duty – applies to many more people now than it did in 1960, primarily because a failure to maintain personal allowances and tax bands at a reasonable level. Direct taxation is also broader in scope, for example VAT compared to purchase tax. Such taxation takes proportionately more of the income of the poor than the rich.
It is a moot point whether overall people are generally materially better off than they were in 1960. They may own more trinkets such as TVs and computers and some imported goods such as clothes may be at least much cheaper, but those are small advantages to set against the great increase in housing costs and commuting fares and the diminishment in social provision. Doubtless a section of society has benefited, but it would be a brave man who wanted to argue that the condition of the vast majority has improved, especially the poorest third of the population.
Many will read this with astonishment, saying but we have so much more today, dazzled as they are by the many new products. It is important not to confuse technological advance with “free markets” and “free trade” or general material well-being. People are undoubtedly better off in 2005 in terms of being able to purchase such things as cars or electronic goods then they were in 1960. But people in 1975 were also better off in those respects than those who had lived fifteen years before. That improvement was long before “free markets” and “free trade” had become the elite ideology. It is worth adding that new products often result in additional expenditure regardless of whether the individual really wants the product – any product which becomes widely used is difficult to resist. Technological innovations are particularly prone to induce reluctant purchases.
[To be continued tomorrow in UKIP Daily]