I’ve always been kind of attracted to libertarianism. Not in the philosophical, well-read, intellectual sense. More in practical terms: I don’t think it’s any of the state’s business what I choose to stick in my veins or into another consenting adult. My biometric data is mine, not for them to treat as their own. I’ll swap the licence fee for a BBC subscription and my taxes for health insurance, should the ideological Right embark on their preferred trail of public vandalism.
Most of all, though, I like the idea that the free market and largely unregulated business will find a way to benefit us all. Not that business behaves altruistically (though that would occasionally be nice), but that where supply meets demand, unfettered by bureaucratic intervention, utility is maximized and all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. Curves magically bisect and all will have prizes, just like the textbooks say.
The trouble is, I’ve had a technicolour taste of the unregulated market. Not as part of a case study, or from an ivory tower perusing newly published data, or points-scoring in a doctrinaire blogswarm, but as a way of life, a way to make money, feed my family and survive. It wasn’t quite anarcho-capitalism, but certainly a darkness that minimum wages, job security and EU regulation don’t penetrate. If you live in London, it’s right under your nose. It’s the kind of job even leisure and theme park attendants can look down on, and it’s not just for illegal immigrants: a few years ago I was a bicycle courier.
You might be wondering how such a peerless wordsmith ended up delivering mail for a living. Of course, there’s a back-story, just like there was for every colleague. The borderline alcoholic forced into early retirement when he fell asleep next to a stove and set his leg on fire. The Hungarian caught riding the kerb by City police and deported (this was pre-enlargement). The strident anti-Yank, pro-Milosevic Serb who saw the bombs falling on Belgrade in three dimensions. Plus native Brit benefit fraudsters, Poles on student visas (for a fee, marked 90% present on their courses without turning up), and regular, hard-working joes. Oh, and me: the Oxford PPEer with five years of corporate careering and a mission-critical loss of direction.
So, my insight into the ‘free’ market comes from doing business at the sharp end, the wrong end of the sharp end. For a start, every ’employee’ in the industry is actually self-employed, even one who has been working the same job at the same company for ten years. That means no employer NICs for the pension, no paternity or maternity leave, no holiday pay. Worst of all it means no sick pay in a dangerous job where accidents are common, and several riders have been killed. In two years, I broke a bone in my leg and damaged ligaments in my wrist when I was hit by an unmarked police car. The company called once each time to see when I would be back. It wasn’t unusual.
Pay is administered by piece rates, which means no minimum wage. Some days I could earn 80 quid the hard way (2.50 at a time…), if I was lucky. All too often, some of us (especially the novices) went away with under 30 for a day’s work.
To add insult to occasional injury, even though we were self-employed in name, the company treated us like employees. Actually, scrub that: they treated us like subjects. Hours were set (10 per day, no lunch, the Working Time what?), piece rates were set and non-negotiable, jobs allocated were only optional if you wanted an early bath and a trip to the job centre. Pay rises were never.
Discipline was arbitrary, including unilateral 25 quid fines for taking unauthorized lunch breaks or leaving early. Sacking was arbitrary and without appeal, completely at the controller’s discretion and in their gift whether you got your back pay. Unions were not welcome, neither did any make the effort to recruit.
Now, one or two of you will have spotted a way out of this feudal system of employment. Why not just leave, eh? It’s a free world, a free market after all. Economists would be screaming at us to show a bit of labour mobility. But in truth, while such theories sound great on paper or blog, there are a hundred reasons why labour is sticky Ã¢â‚¬â€œ why, in the real world, workers will take a huge amount of shit before unleashing their ultimate (and only) weapon, and depart stage left. Kids still have to be fed, the human will to self-reliance is strong. Bonds of friendship and family in the workplace put homo economicus on hold. Nebulous feelings of loyalty to fellow workers, of having ‘invested’ in a place, are no less real for being unquantifiable on a graph. There was a pool of desperate labour just waiting for us to jump, and I know my employer was no worse than any other. I had a path out, even though it took a while to locate. Most didn’t, don’t.
So, if you want to believe in unfettered free markets, go ahead. Shout from the rooftops that social protection is doomed Euro-mollycoddling. Preach your economic libertarianism and the evils of red tape. Belittle the rights culture and pour scorn on the postwar consensus. But don’t kid yourself. Unregulated business behaves like this. You believe in a system that works like this. I’ve seen your future, friends, and it’s ugly.