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Responsibility: hands off our word.

Language matters, and the left needs to be active in reclaiming and using certain buzzwords that the right has appropriated. One such word is responsibility. You could be forgiven for thinking that ‘responsible’ policy making is always acting to trim the activities of the state, and aim for the tax take to be greater than government spending whilst reducing both as a percentage of GDP. This is one of the most phenomenally successful appropriations of language that the right has managed. Responsibility in the context of good government could mean a lot of things. It could mean ensuring that the poorest, weakest members of society are adequately cared for. It could involve maximising GDP. It could involve maximising happiness. But there is no compelling reason to believe that it should mean ‘running a small state and running a surplus on the current account’. 

As Cameron and co are fond of doing, let’s analogise and imagine the government like a household. Profligacy and wasteful spending are not a good idea for a household, and a household that borrows too much to engage in profligate spending will run into difficulties, but so will a household that fails to borrow and spend when necessary. Imagine a household member loses their job, causing the income of the household to decline. It might indeed be sensible to rein in spending. But now imagine that person can get a new job that requires a car, which the household did not previously have. Would it be ‘Responsible’ for the household to refuse to borrow money to buy the car, and forgo the extra income from the job, just because they were in hard times financially? I make this terrible analogy (households cannot issue unlimited debt, households cannot print their own currency, households cannot legislate prices or production etc) because it’s necessary to illustrate just how narrow a definition of ‘Responsibility’ is used to argue for spending cuts while the UK is experiencing mass unemployment.

Responsibility should mean governing well, governing the interests of the people, or governing justly, something along these lines, but in the political lexicon of our time, only the right wing gets to use it, and it always means less for the poorest people. We learnt recently that in the name of responsibility, £12bio has to be cut from the welfare budget. Yet appetite for UK Government bonds is huge. The government can issue 5y Bonds and pay only 1.7%. That means that instead of saving £12bio, they are really only saving £204mio of interest payments, with the UK currently needing to borrow roughly £15bio a month, this is small fry. Yet somehow taking £12bio away from the poorest people in the country to save the rest of us taking on a responsibility of increasing the national debt by 1.5% of one months borrowing is marketed as ‘responsible’. And even this is a false choice, as we are recovering from a recession caused by contracting credit, the government could simply monetise (spend newly created central bank reserves, or buy back bonds with newly created reserves) that extra borrowing and leave the rest of us with no obligation. It’s beyond absurd to call this responsibility. Our government abdicates responsibility for the powerless and concentrates on increasing the relative wealth and power of the powerful. It’s time to call this out and reclaim the word for ourselves.             

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