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Artillery Row

A taxing read

Industrial subsidies and the English language

The Times columnist Juliet Samuel last week wrote in favour of industrial policy. More precisely, she wrote in favour of government subsidies for British industrial companies. She reminded me of George Orwell’s 1946 article “Politics and the English Language” in which he complains about a style of writing that had by then become common, and still is.

His initial complaint was that it is ugly and imprecise. Among other vices, it relies on “a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves”.

Behold the first paragraph of Samuel’s article:

How long will it be until the penny drops? In America the Biden administration is fire-hosing subsidies at any ‘green’ project that twitches. Brussels is getting ready to deploy its own deluge. China carries on pushing the wall of cash that started it all. The UK sits still, with taxes sky high and wholesale gas prices six times higher than the US, apparently just waiting for the remains of our industrial base to pack up and leave

I count seven metaphors in these five sentences. Some make no sense. Why would Biden fire-hose something he wants to encourage? Do people push walls? 

Such imprecision of expression would be merely dispiriting if it were not for the more serious corruption that concerned Orwell: “If you simplify your English … when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself. Political language … is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind”. 

In an apparent effort to state the essence of the issue, Samuel claims, “On a basic level, adopting an industrial policy simply means doing something to affect the make-up of the economy, rather than being a sitting duck in the face of enormous geopolitical shifts”.

Subsidies do indeed “affect the make-up of the economy”, provided Samuel means by this that they affect what is produced — but how do they do this? 

Here’s what happens, “simply” and “on a basic level”. A government minister decides to relieve favoured business owners of the burden of raising money from willing investors and customers and, instead, gives them money extracted from people on threat of being imprisoned if they don’t hand it over.

A naïve reader might imagine ministers somehow have billions of pounds

In 1,100 words on the topic of industrial subsidies, Samuel does not once mention the source of these governmental gifts. A naïve reader might imagine that government ministers somehow just have billions of pounds that they can dispense at no cost to anyone else. This is a convenient fantasy for those in receipt of the money, and they will surely appreciate journalists such as Samuel who promote it. In fact, subsidies are funded from taxation — and taxes are collected on threat of imprisonment.

If Samuel had described the policy plainly, its flaws would more easily be seen. Imprisoning people if they will not give their money to business owners who have won the favour of a government minister is immoral. 

It is also costly. Politicians are no good at deciding which businesses to invest in. They are not spending their own money in search of profits. They are spending other people’s money in search of votes. They are inclined to direct the money they have confiscated towards businesses that are owned by people who donate to their party, or that employ workers in marginal constituencies, or that produce what is ideologically fashionable. They pick winners, yes, but winners for politicians are not winners for society.

Once it becomes clear that government ministers are keen to give money confiscated from taxpayers to businesses they like, business people divert their efforts from pleasing customers to pleasing politicians. They hire a head of government relations; they spend their time at “summits”; they host lavish dinners to which they invite politicians. Subsidies corrupt not only the politicians who dispense them but the business people who seek them.

The UK is already an enormous government-administered racket, rigged for the benefit of those who have won favour from politicians: bankers, farmers, car makers, lawyers, homeowners, opera singers, the old, the Northern Irish, and many more.

Samuel wants industrialists added to the list. No wonder she doesn’t speak plainly.

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