There is arguably a much more sympathetic view amongst students towards state intervention to solve problems facing society. With this in mind I recently attended the recording of BBC 3’s current affairs program Free Speech in Liverpool.
The panel consisted of contemporary pop star Kate Nash, Conservative MP for Glamorgan Alun Cairns, Liverpool Council’s spokesperson for young people Stephanie Till and finally Sam Bowman, Research Director at the Adam Smith Institute.
Viewers at home could interact by tweeting either #Yes or #No followed by a panelist’s name to cast their vote of approval or disapproval to what they were saying, the results of this represented on a ‘power bar’. By the end of the night, interestingly it was Sam that was the decisive winner.
The first question posed to the panel was, “Should the government subsidise housing payments for first time buyers?” Alun did argue for more liberal planning laws and less restrictions on banks lending money, however the crux of his argument was that the state should do more in terms of building affordable housing. He made the case for the government’s Social Housing Guarantee, to replace any sold off social houses in the hope of keeping housing affordable.
Stephanie championed Liverpool City Council’s policy of derelict properties being sold off for as little as £1 to developers to replenish the housing stock. As well, she promoted the Council’s scheme of providing money to first time buyers to underwrite mortgages. The consensus from the two was that the government should do more to solve the issue.
Sam offered an alternative to this narrative by focussing on freeing up the planning system, and as well making the case that a lack of supply could be solved through a market auctioning system, rejecting the use of the state as a solution to this problem. He added the point that government benefits have had the unintended consequence of acting as subsidy to landlords thus driving up the costs of housing and rent further, an argument not often found in mainstream politics. The audience liked what they heard and in contrast to the others, applauded Sam’s message.
When asked to respond to the British Medical Association’s proposed solution to the obesity crisis – a ‘fat tax’, Sam again rejected any state intervention on the matter. Citing results from Denmark and the US, he took apart the argument for ‘fat taxes’. Using evidence that shows the policy to be ineffective at curbing obesity and simply acts as a regressive tax, he argued that it is cheaper to eat healthily and ultimately it was down to individuals to control their diet.
The audience again approved this message, but what followed was a fruitless ill-informed debate over the costs of food, highlighting the real fundamental problem at the heart of the obesity issue, a lack of education. The consensus amongst the audience agreed with Sam that a tax would not work, however the argument put forward by Stephanie to have subsidised healthier food also had approval. A score draw between the market and state intervention approach.
When the panel were asked, “Is drug addiction a medical or criminal issue?” Sam took the lead and argued that it is an addiction and to treat it as criminal is counterproductive. He reasoned, drug addictions tear individuals apart, and then the state escalates the problem by putting people that need help in to prisons, an environment in which their problem will only get worse.
Using Portugal to illustrate his point, a country that does treat it as a medical issue and has legalised drugs. Sam pointed out this has led to a decline in crime, addiction levels and health complications related to drugs. Current legislation means the main beneficiaries of the ‘war on drugs’ are criminal gangs just as they were in the age of prohibition.
Encouragingly, Sam received overwhelming approval for his argument and agreed that criminalisation is hurting those that need help. Stephanie’s rebuttal was incoherent and appeared out-dated. Wrongly stating that legalisation will lead to problems such as increased drug cutting and giving more power to dealers, which are already symptoms of the current legislation situation. Alun also appeared out of touch by trying to rationalise an addict’s behaviour so that it should be treated as criminal. This authoritarian position did not sit well with the audience.
The only answer from the panel that really addressed a concern expressed by many in the audience over funding for treatment was from Sam who argued with less money spent on imprisoning users, then more can be spent on rehabilitation. The power bar following this discussion showed that Sam was way ahead compared to his opponents.
Granted the topics discussed only scratched the surface of market solutions to society’s problems. It is fair to question if the audience and viewers responses would have been as approving if libertarian stances on the minimum wage, banker’s bonuses or welfare were discussed. It is hard to say, but if more people like Sam argued for the market in an articulate and reasoned manner backed up with evidence then minds can be changed.
The program format is no formal evidence and discussion fell victim like all shows of this type to at times populism, not helped by the anecdotal ramblings of Ms Nash. However it did display that the ideas put forward by Sam Bowman were as a whole being understood better and seen as more relevant to the young audience than the solutions put forward by the other members of the panel.
I never thought I’d sit in an audience of students and watch them clap hardest at free market individualism, this can only be an encouraging sign for supporters of greater individual liberty to solve the problems we face today.