The slow death of neoliberalism

Would Hayek like minimum pricing for alcohol? No.

Consider the following developments in UK policy. Last year, Britain’s Office for National Statistics published its first ever set of ‘national wellbeing’ indicators, which were based on surveys of how satisfied people felt with their lives. Next year, it will be illegal to sell a bottle of wine in Scotland for less than £4.69. Meanwhile, in the face of prolonged economic stagnation, welfare claimants and young people are being urged or forced to work for free in order to develop the mindset and motivation to render them employable in the future. 

None of these examples alone seems especially significant. Taking them together, however, we can begin to trace the outline of a subtly new way of conceiving of economic activity, one that is exerting a growing influence among policy-makers in Britain. Crucially, for good and for ill, the authority of monetary prices as authorititative indicators of value is diminishing. Formerly, society’s progress was measured in terms of GDP, a bottle of wine was worth whatever the market would allow and work was remunerated in wages. Now, the rise of psychological perspectives on the economy is providing a new framework. As the sciences of wellbeing and economic behaviour grow more sophisticated, the potential arises for a new way of understanding value. And as we witness this framework on the rise, so we may be witnessing the slow death of the paradigm known as neoliberalism. . .

The prolonged economic slow-down of the 1970s created a thirst for new policy ideas, which the neoliberals cleverly satisfied. Although the purity of Hayek’s vision was inevitably polluted by the messy reality of politics, the new era ushered in by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan treated free markets, governed by the magic of price, as the basis for the moral and economic logic of state and society. At the heart of the neoliberal era were two fundamental assumptions. Firstly, individuals were the best judge of their own tastes and welfare, not experts. Secondly, the price mechanism of the market could be trusted to adjudicate between the competing ideas, values and preferences that exist in modern societies. The state, by contrast, could not.

By this definition, a society in which it is illegal to sell a bottle of wine for £4.50, no matter how profitable it is to do so nor how much demand there is for it, is no longer a neoliberal society. A different set of assumptions is built into such a policy. Evidently it is no longer assumed that individuals are necessarily the best judge of their own welfare. And although a price still exists, it is no longer set only by the magical forces of supply and demand. Expert decree now has a place. To put this another way, policy-makers are recognising that there is a limit to how much consumer freedom we can cope with.

This is an extract from a piece published today in Aeon Magazine. Read the whole piece online.

Friedrich Hayek. Photograph: Getty Images
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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.