The problem with the TaxPayers’ Alliance

Or let me be more specific: my problem with the TPA. (Also applies to the Tea Parties of this world, and other proponents of what we might term small-state, individual-freedom libertarianism.)

It’s this.

At the very highest level of political/economic reasoning, it’s not that barking, really.

They believe the state should be small. That it should only do what a collectively-organised, representative and publicly-funded state should absolutely have to do. That it should be held to account, and kept out of the way as far as possible of a healthy, free-functioning market. Even when that market may do somewhat unwholesome things. The freedom to choose our degree of wholesomeness is critical.

It’s a reasonable argument. I happen to think it’s flawed in any form of implementation, but so are lots of other ideologies. Doesn’t mean you can’t argue downwards from the concept, provided you keep an honest anchor in your base principles.

No, my problem with the TPA is the way they go about this arguing.

It’s difficult to engage public sentiment about nebulous concepts like the -cracies. And it’s really hard to have a meaningful debate about the problems found in large, complex systems.

So instead they focus on scare stories – on shameful, but usually rare, negative outcomes. On “non-jobs”, bad technology, poor management. Invariably in the public sector.

They will rush to find and publicise “the thing that sounds so awful that you could hardly believe it to be true”. Often because it isn’t true. Or is stretched and exaggerated beyond all recognition. As a technique, it is lazy beyond belief; calculating, demeaning and wholly dishonest.

The TPA’s true talent lies in finding themes that will grab a mass public imagination, and then plague it.

The complicated reality of organisations? What you really have to do to administer any enterprise involving hundreds of thousands, or millions, of people-based transactions (whatever sector you’re in!) – management challenges as old as organisations themselves?

No, way too challenging for them.

Arguments about the misuse of public money are made using attempted parallels with the world of the household, with the micro-business, with the near-to-home. An iPad? It’s an entertainment system. It should never be bought with public money! Happiness surveys? Pah – no need for them round kitchen tables in the real world – just talk to each other. Or better still, just lump it. (Seriously, I could use a thousand more words finding egregious examples of this style. But you have Google.)

There are some rare examples of good work – particularly around issues of privacy and the implications of new technologies for the relationship between citizen and state. That’s what I find so baffling – these attempts to engage on strong points of principle are utterly undermined by this succession of cheap jibes tailored for the smaller-format newspapers.

(What they don’t focus on very much, ironically, is tax paying. But that’s a side point for this post.)

And if you still find temptation in your path – if you hear that little voice of the Daily Mail leader-writer in your ear (he visits us all, in dark times) whispering “just cut X or Y, or crack down hard on Z, you KNOW it makes sense,” bear this in mind:

Most shades of political thought have been tried. Human ingenuity and systemic inertia generally mean that things mooch on pretty much as they always have been, despite the rocks that various “leaders” might try to lob in from time to time. So if you’re wavering between left and right, and seeing points of recognition in both camps (and you should – to do otherwise would be a worrying sign of lazy thinking), how about putting your shoulder behind the one that doesn’t, every time and very rapidly, lead to policies which are about being vile to people?

Is that simple enough?


  1. It’s a good yardstick, Paul. And I don’t exactly waver from a visceral point of view. But I *am* minded to remember that there are different kinds of vile.

    Lately, I’ve been focussing on the subject of privacy and the state. Paul Bernal has done a good overview of this and compared how all the parties are conflicted. This lesson and conclusion could be drawn far wider: in their button-pushing and population-nudging mindsets, aren’t all politicians on the national stage *really* all the same?

    They most certainly do want different outcomes, and if this Coalition has achieved anything then it’s to demonstrate how really awful UK politics can get; but it’s difficult not to accept that politicians at the top of the pole all believe in moving the masses in the same number-crunching ways. Therein the attraction of the TPA et al.

    As a Labour Party member, I *want* to believe in Labour – but don’t want to give up on my right to disagree even in the midst of terrible politics. And British politics, being so *very* tribal, doesn’t really allow for freedom of thought. The massed ranks of “good” vs “bad” policies take over and make us forget our own ability to think our way out of the bag we’ve been dropped in.

    Anyhow – and even so – I’ll keep your yardstick firmly in mind in the future.

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