Arthur and I used to go to Labour Party meetings together. He was from Birmingham and held a good white collar job at the headquarters of a major retailer. At one meeting there was discussion of Government policy. A well spoken middle class lady felt that the Government should make spending decisions itself and not put money into the hands of working people, “the problem with many working class people” she said, “is that they don’t really know what the want”.
Arthur stood up, and in a loud Brummie accent declared, “This working class man knows what he wants!”
There was laughter in the room, but the words pointed to the real gulf between those who purported to speak for working people and the people themselves. If you want to give people real freedom, don’t make decisions for them, but put money in their pockets, give them access to competitive markets, and let them decide for themselves.
Niall Ferguson in the closing pages of The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World recognizes the importance of an effective working of the financial system in bringing freedom to ordinary working people:
From ancient Mesopotamia to present-day China, in short, the ascent of money has been one of the driving forces behind human progress: a complex process of innovation, intermediation and integration that has been as vital as the advance of science or the spread of law in mankind’s escape from the drudgery of subsistence agriculture and the misery of the Malthusian trap. In the words of former Federal Reserve Governor Frederic Mishkin, ‘the financial system [is] the brain of the economy … It acts as a coordinating mechanism that allocates capital, the lifeblood of economic activity, to its most productive uses by businesses and households. If capital goes to the wrong uses or does not flow at all, the economy will operate inefficiently, and ultimately economic growth will be low.
The G20 summit protesters walking in London yesterday (whose numbers were no more than the attendance at a middling Premiership football match)will have included many like the lady who decided the working classes didn’t really know what they wanted; many who were determined that they had the answers to all the world’s economic problems; large numbers who believed that their political philosophy was the right one. If their cause is so popular, why not test it at the local and European elections?
“Capitalism isn’t working” declares a prominent banner in the crowd. Indeed it’s not, but it’s the only game in town. If there is to be a viable future, it will be achieved through reform and not revolution. Communism dominated Eastern Europe for forty years; it hardly did very much for working people as party officials and cronies creamed off what few benefits there were. It was with delight that the subject populations overthrew the Communist regimes twenty years ago. There aren’t too many who want to go back to the lives of Nineteenth Century peasants.
It’s thirty years since I saw Arthur. Perhaps he now stands at meetings saying that the working classes don’t know what they want, I suspect not though. I suspect he remains the scourge of anyone who talks down to working people.