Home Page We all need each other's skills - so what's wrong with paying for them? 20/08/10

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Hart of the Matter

Sadly it does seem as though the ominous sound of belt-tightening up in the spheres of Government is beginning to produce squeals of pain down here on earth in Haverhill.

The anodyne phrase Ďpublic spending cutsí needs to be given a material form before we really understand what it means Ė and then we are not so happy.

The current world financial crisis has focused attention on a lot of fundamental questions about money, of which the most basic is a very simple one: What is it for?

Money was invented when the system of barter became too complicated. And barter was invented because, as individual humans, we are not generally capable of doing everything ourselves that we need to do to ensure our survival.

Ray Mears may be able to keep himself going without any help from anyone, but most of us need other people to do things we cannot, from killing our meat to managing our waste or pulling out our teeth.

In ancient times people found some skill they had and exchanged it for skills from other people, whether it be making stone axes or identifying healing herbs.

Nowadays. life being so much more complicated, there is very little we actually do for ourselves. I donít know about you, but I am pretty pleased when I dig up some potatoes we have grown, because that is about as close as we get to achieving something useful without help other than from Nature in the form of sun and rain Ė although, even then, we may well have needed fertiliser produced by someone else at some stage.

When I get my potatoes home I need to cook them before I can eat them, for which I need clean water, gas or electric power unless I make a bonfire and bury them, and a pinch of salt which someone has mined for me as I donít live near enough to the sea to try to refine my own.

All these things I am paying someone else to produce for me, and that is, apparently, A Good Thing, because it helps the economy.

However, the minute I move from the everyday requirements of food and health, into the area of wellbeing and quality of life, it suddenly becomes A Bad Thing for me to pay other people to provide it for me.

If I want to pay a bit in my taxes towards community improvements, or entertainment provision, I have become an advocate of public spending and, by inference, national ruin.

Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg tell me, as part of the ĎBig Societyí, that I must not pay councils to do these things. Instead, I must go out and find like-minded people and provide them for myself.

If I have a big garden where I can relax, I am entitled to employ a gardener to look after it while I am gainfully employed elsewhere. That is encouraging the economy to grow.

If, however, I have a small garden, which I can look after for myself, but am dependent on a nearby park for relaxation, and would like to pay a bit more council tax to employ people to keep it nice for me, that is a different matter. That is public spending and stunting the economy.

From this you will be able to tell that I am no economist.

Most people are not economists either. In general, people donít mind paying some extra tax in exchange for tangible benefits to themselves. But they resent paying extra tax for benefits to other people.

Nevertheless, if I and my friends engage with the ĎBig Societyí and get together to make the nearby park a better place, those who donít participate will no doubt still expect to use our park.

So my next question is this: Why should we bother to improve the community for them, when they werenít prepared to pay to improve the community for us? Time is money and, in many cases, all money does is save time.

It was a certain Iron Lady, back in the 1980s who first hit on the idea of curtailing the amount the councils spend. As with many of her ideas, you could see where they were coming from, but she could never see where they were going.

There was Ė and still is, I daresay - a lot of waste of public money by councils. But when they are under the cosh, they cut downwards, leaving the next tier to government to pick up the pieces.

That has been going on for years, until there is only one tier left now, and that is parish councils (or town councils, which are the same thing with a grander title).

If they are to be capped, as the Coalition is proposing, then everything which has survived the wreckage of recent decades will be under threat. But the Government donít even have the courage to make that cut themselves.

Instead they propose a local referendum on excessive increases. So it will be our fault. And if I vote against paying anything to sports clubs because I donít play sport, and you vote against paying for the arts centre because you donít go to the theatre, I suppose the economists will finally be happy, because they donít do anything at all.

David Hart
David Hart revives his personal take on the week in Haverhill, covering everything from major town developments to what we do with our rubbish.
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