Accountants not ideologues

Critics of the government’s spending cuts have almost universally condemned the Liberal-Conservative coalition’s actions as “ideological”.

Even Paul Krugman, America’s Keynesian-in-chief, got in on the act in his New York Times column today.

By this they mean that the government is slashing spending because of its commitment to free market ideas. Implicitly this suggests that the cuts, at least on their proposed scale, are unnecessary.

This is a strange criticism given that Labour would no doubt have also imposed heavy cuts. To the extent there are differences they relate more to timing than substance – and in any case it is easy to make such criticisms when out of office.

But anyone who believes David Cameron is politically akin to Margaret Thatcher would do well to watch the ex prime minister’s old speeches on Youtube. She comes across as an aggressive opponent of socialism in a way that probably seems bizarre to most people today.  Those who have any remaining doubts can also watch Milton Friedman, probably the most famous free market economist, as well. (article continues below)

Both Thatcher and Friedman are figures from an earlier era. Not just from a previous generation but from a time when there really was a battle between capitalism and socialism. There was, however flawed, an alternative to the market system.

In contrast today’s generation of politicians, from all the main parties, are clearly non-ideological. The political parties are essentially electoral machines with few ideas beyond the desire to get elected at the next election.

The cuts are posed in accountants’ terms – the need to balance the books – rather than as part of a great crusade against socialism. There is a touch of therapy thrown in their too. Even though the cuts are going to hurt the government is keen to emphasise that it feels our pain.

None of this is to endorse the views of Thatcher or Friedman. Nor is it intended to play down the impact of austerity.

But comparing the present government to free marketeers of the late 1970s or early 1980s betrays a lack of any sense of history.