The Case of China

Adam Smith observed in The Wealth of Nations (1776):

China has been long one of the richest—i.e. one of the most fertile, best cultivated, most industrious, and most populous—countries in the world. But it seems to have been long stationary. Marco Polo, who visited it more than 500 years ago, describes its cultivation, industry, and populousness in almost the same terms in which they are described by travellers today. It had, perhaps even long before his time, acquired the full complement of riches which the nature of its laws and institutions permits it to acquire.

The accounts of all travellers, though inconsistent in many other respects, agree on the low wages of labour and on how hard it is for a labourer to bring up a family in China.

If by digging the ground for a whole day he can get what will purchase a small quantity of rice in the evening, he is contented. The condition of skilled workmen is perhaps even worse. Instead of waiting patiently in their workshops for the calls of their customers, as in Europe, they are continually running about the streets with the tools of their respective trades, offering their services—begging for employment.

The poverty of the lower ranks of people in China is far worse than that of the most beggarly nations in Europe. It is commonly said that in the neighbourhood of Canton many hundreds or even thousands of families have no home on the land, but live permanently in little fishing-boats on the rivers and canals. The subsistence they find there is so scanty that they are eager to fish up the nastiest garbage thrown overboard from any European ship.

Marriage is encouraged in China not by the profitableness of children but by the liberty of destroying them. Every night in all large towns several babies are exposed in the street or drowned like puppies in the water. The performance of this nasty task is even said to be the avowed business by which some people earn their subsistence.

However, although China may be standing still it does not seem to go backwards. Its towns are nowhere deserted by their inhabitants. The lands which have been cultivated are nowhere neglected. So just about the same annual labour must continue to be performed, and the funds for maintaining it must not be noticeably diminished. So the lowest class of labourers, despite their scanty subsistence, must somehow find ways to continue their race far enough to keep up their usual numbers.


Competitive panicking

There is no other explanation for the cycle of shutdowns. It has grown into a peaceful form of mass-hysteria: typical mass-hysteria involves uncontrolled weeping and wailing, maybe breaking into violence, but today we have mass resignation or perhaps a mass flop. It is but the result of those giving advice and warnings.

It is competitive panicking. Each overreaction creates its own bubble of new normality on which the next feeds and steps up to exceed it in an endless cycle. It seems like a form of virtue-signalling: panic signalling perhaps. It has made the nation fall silent and stifled all other thought. A pall lies over the land.

It would be tedious to recite all the ideas and scares thrown into the air about the current epidemic. It is a regrettable characteristic of our media-led public culture that many commentators, whether they understand the topic or not, have a need to make themselves heard, and they will say whatever is needed to achieve publicity. It is not for the public benefit but for their own. It is a form of what Hobbes called a “generall inclination of all mankind, a perpetuall and restlesse desire of Power after power, that ceaseth onely in Death.”

You may contrast the meek, almost reluctant mien of the Chief Medical Officer as he stepped unwontedly before the cameras.

Into this then step the politicians, rather unwillingly at first as no one wants to be closely associated with a deadly disease. (It is a curse of the National Health Service that as the government has taken responsibility for the health of every citizen, they can be blamed for every cough and sneeze, or in this case for an epidemic. That is a little harsh – most of the nation are not as daft as all that – but when the system strains and buckles, the blame is not far behind.)

These last weeks we have seen society transformed in the twinkling of an eye. The streets and workplaces are emptied and events big and small are cancelled, whether there is risk or reason or none. In addition, the whole breadth of the commentariat is so concentrated on this one circumstance, the Wuhan pneumonia epidemic, a feeling like a fog is over the nation. It is hard to equal. When Brexit dominated every political discussion, the streets were not emptied and the nation did not stay away from work and talk of nothing outside that context. The very dominance of this apparent threat has placed a stop on normal life.

Panic feeds more panic. The schools were not meant to be closed, but commentators craving publicity demanded it for so long that it seemed inevitable and I started hearing “when”, not “if”. Ultimately it was not that which closed the schools but mass staff absence – but why would half the teachers in a school disappear when the known numbers infected nationwide is about 300 in total out of 60 million? That is mass, irrational panic.

London started emptying before the government suggested working at home. Now thankfully office workers have the tools to be able to work from home, but others cannot, and gig-economy workers, the ones who make modern life possible, cannot feed their children, and all for an infection which has barely brushed this land yet.

Events and meetings are cancelled across the board – I am surprised when I find them still on. An email came today that all Parkruns are cancelled – but of all things, this is an event in the open air attended only by fit people with no lung problems – can there be an event with less of a risk? Cancelling runs harms health.

The hope I have heard expressed from organisers of all sorts of events is that this will not last, and that into the spring we will be back to normal. No, the epidemic will not have gone then and might just be starting to roar. Perhaps though by then we will all have got fed up with it and be going back to normal life, taking it on the chin and dispelling the panic because it cannot be allowed to let us starve.

See also


The necessity of normality

Members of Parliament are fleeing into isolation. The House has vital business before it. There must be a temptation to take political advantage to bypass Parliamentary norms. More than ever that must not happen.

Jacob Rees-Mogg is taking a robust, parliamentary view, and thank goodness of that. It is in the time that the system comes under most stress and temptation that it must show its strength.

The chamber of the Commons is a close-packed place (when there is a whip out or a chance to be on the telly), and the members are in frequent physical contact with the wider public, so the risk of infection across the whole political class is real. Some members have contracted the Wuhan pneumonia, and many members are vulnerable to its effects by reason of age, infirmity, diabetes or otherwise. From the outside it is hard to see how the meeting of Parliament can continue. If even village-hall keep-fit classes are being cancelled, the expectation would be that the foetid cockpit of Westminster would disperse too.

However, there has just been a budget, and a Finance Bill has to be pushed through or all taxes will expire. At some point the Armed Forces Bill will have to be passed or the army will be disbanded. Parliament must sit to pass these, as well as its normal business.

There is talk too of emergency powers, which is worrying: Tony Blair gave himself extensive emergency powers, which Act is still in place, and those are frightening in themselves without adding more just to be seen to be doing something. (Imagine how the Civil Service will gold-plate any emergency measure they can get Parliament to grant them.)

With so many away and the arithmetic in the House changing, it would be very tempting to push measures through the House which would not normally pass, and to use the excuse to pressurise the Opposition to stop opposing, in the national interest of course. Because that temptation is there, the man in the street is entitled to worry that the crisis will be abused to strip out democracy. For that reason, there must be all the more emphasis on following proper parliamentary norms, all the more involvement of all sides in the house and all parties.

When asked about the emptying House, the Leader of the House, Jacob Rees-Mogg might have purred and called for the government to obtain an enabling act to operate without this lamed parliament, but he did not. He emphasised the use of the pairing system, whereby a member may agree with a sick member on the other side “You cannot vote so I will not”, so maintaining the balance. That is crucial.

He also addressed emergency powers. Instead of salivating over new power to be jealously guarded, he said without question that any emergency powers must have a sunset clause; that they should have a natural expiry. During the War (and we are nowhere near such an emergency) there were extensive emergency powers granted to the government, and the new Attlee ministry elected in 1945 was very reluctant to give them up. Attlee’s Labour Party believed in planning and control of minutiae, and those old wartime powers could be used for that purpose in peacetime. It was not until Churchill was re-elected in 1951 that wartime rationing was ended.

In times of stress, and in times of blind panic, that is when the voice of opposition is most needed. It is needed not just from the opposition benches but from critical members regardless of party. For most of the year one might sail through with the House of Commons as a mere theatre for pre-decided decisions, but when actual thought and consideration are needed, when many alternatives and nuances will make all the difference, in short when there is a need for actual live debate – that is the very reason for having Parliament as we know it.

It was thought when the election result was in and Boris had his stonking majority that it would be full steam ahead on whatever policies Number 10 had in mind. That is no longer the case, during the epidemic. Those members are needed.

In short, democracy must be done, and democracy must be seen to be done.

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The fearsome state of manhood

I stepped out of a door just as she did, and walked in the same direction. She started walking faster. I was just behind her through the same thread of narrow back-streets. Something in her step showed measured alarm. A man was following her – purely by coincidence as it was my usual route to the station, but she could not know that.  I dropped back as far as my frame allows (I am incapable of walking slowly).

As we both approached the main, crowded thoroughfare, she crossed the road and turned off and I could break away.

I have walked that route many times, so why was my progress defined by the fears of another?

If ever I comfort myself that men and women have reached equality, these little incidents come to mind.  If a woman follows my way behind me it is of no import and I would not even notice, but if she is in front of me, she is alert to the position and feels a threat, even though there is none in reality, and I am alert to the impression it may give.  A lamb may follow a wolf, but a wolf behind a lamb is very different.  I am a man, the predator.  I am taller, physically stronger, more naturally aggressive.  I have never known what it is to live in fear of the step behind me.

There is no ‘#MeToo‘ movement for men, protesting against unwanted overtures from women – it can be brushed off as somewhat embarrassing, but not an invasive threat. It is not the same the other way round.

Today we plead for equality between the two sexes; I certainly do. However this disjunction is there, and in those societies which have achieved most equality, the behavioural difference between the sexes has increased.

From time to time things have stopped my comfortable ideas in my tracks.  I can walk through dark alleys or parks at night and past huddles of boisterous youth with not a flicker, and often do. A woman would not. She should be able to – she should be able to walk in safety and assurance wherever she pleases – but it does not happen like that. I have seen a woman I had hardly noticed ahead of me in an alley flee in panic simply because a man was behind her, and that in the heart of a most respectable part of town. I want to say there is equality of opportunity, but I can walk where a woman will not.

I generalise too much and there will be many a woman who will tell me they have no fears walking in dark places, but if I have to generalise I will repeat my observations as the general rule.

I really wish it were not so – that all women could walk boldly anywhere without fear. Equality is real and must be fundamental to the relationship of one to the other, and differences across the population are far greater than the statistical differences between the average man and the average woman. That dark alley though looks different through different eyes.

What then is a man to do in his position? He could bundle up his physical strength and emotional detachment and abuse them to harm those weaker than himself, and the worst crime we know is for a man to abuse those under his protection – his wife or other woman, or children. There are instead duties which come with strength, and we all know them. This means living up to what is expected of a man (which may be why differences between the sexes increase when the outward signs decrease).

What a fearsome position it is though, living up to all those expectations, with unattainable role models around us and throughout our literature. The best will seek to emulate and be the best they can. Others, for there is a wide variety in humanity, feel they are incapable. Some may hide. Some may even pretend they are not men at all in order to escape those fearsome expectations, which I think is to misunderstand them. It is tough, and no man can be perfect. The effort though, that is the thing.

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The Very Hungry Caterpillar Budget

I cannot remember a budget which has cheered me. All that promise that tax cuts are on the way, so that we can keep more of what we earn to feed and clothe our families, and each year it is a promise of next year.

We had such hopes of Rishi Sunak as a sound money man, but money still flows from the Treasury, from our pockets, like water. A wise young MP once observed that however high taxes rise, the actual income does not, and so the better course is to reduce spending to 35% of GDP (which is still too much in my opinion) so the economy is not stifled. That was Rishi Sunak.

At the moment the trillions of incontinent spending and the promises of fiscal responsibility are very hard to reconcile. There is a hole through this budget.

Hang on though: the promise of fiscal responsibility is still there somewhere, and borrowing is promised to increase one year only to fall back in futures years, if we can trust to that. The biggest largesse looks to be linked to the current Wuhan virus epidemic, and if that subsides, as it must at some point, will that mean less spent? Or will it mean more temptation to spend the money somewhere else?

It is easy to see a saving and spend the money twice. If there is a windfall, it is best to spend it redeeming capital debt.

After the disease, the next project is “infrastructure”. That makes more sense than spaffing it up the wall on things that come and go, because connections by road, rail or wire can save money for business and enable a nudge upward in profits, and hence tax receipts. However it pushes the expectation of spending up for future years – if it is done, there must be a way to ensure it is not repeated. The ratchet must be broken.

Very well then: roads and rail. A plea here: spend it in the North. The South-East is so packed with roads and railways that travel is hindered only by its very popularity. The overpopularity of the Home Counties, which leads to the swallowing up of precious Green Belt, is encouraged by the excellent transport infrastructure. Put it in the North then, and let those cities thrive too. Then when it is done, stop spending.

It could work, if the splurge is balanced by a withdrawal of spending elsewhere.

Maybe Dominic Cummings is right that there are streets with trillion pound notes lying all over the pavement. (If he can say where they are, I will gladly go and clear the litter up for him.) Certainly it would be hard for government to be done any less efficiently than it is at present, but can the waste be tackled, the pointless bureaucrats hurled out on their ears and money saved? No one has achieved it so far though every PM says he will. If it could be done, how do we stop Whitehall taking the savings and spending all the money again?

Tax is at a crippling level: no wonder the economy is not predicted to do as well as it should. (In Africa there is double-digit growth.) Fiscally damaging taxes like inheritance tax should be removed at once: it only steals capital that should be moving in the economy and generating profit which will bring more tax revenue in than the dead tax does, but Whitehall fears the short-term hit.

Big spending budgets are ultimately a dead-end. Keeping taxes high retards the economy and reduces the actual tax-take, and the Opposition will never accept that it is enough. If these new roads were paved in silver, Labour would demand that they be paved in gold. There is no way to win a spending competition, but the taxpayer always loses.

Maybe the Autumn will see a change as new figures are published and China’s latest gift the to the world subsides. For now though the budget is met with weary resignation. Maybe next year.