UK debt crisis: politicians must wake up and smell the coffee

Britain now faces its worst ever peacetime fiscal crisis, yet our politicians seem incapable of grasping the seriousness of the situation.

Indeed, when Andrew Lansley suggested recently that a 10% cut in public spending would be required under a Conservative government, he was widely lambasted.

In reality a 10% reduction is unlikely to be enough, while Lansley’s proposal to ring-fence expenditure on health, schools and overseas aid will almost certainly be unaffordable. Indeed, this proposal to ring-fence such expenditure means that a 10% cut in other expenditure will not cut borrowing below the current projections at all!

Next year around one in every four pounds spent by the government will have to be borrowed. This is clearly unsustainable and needs to be addressed urgently to avoid jeopardising economic recovery.

All government borrowing crowds out private sector investment and thus government borrowing stunts the much-needed growth of the productive sector. There is also a real danger that debt will have to be issued at much higher interest rates, thus raising the cost of funding and increasing government spending further.

Increasing taxes to address the crisis would not be a wise decision. The tax burden is already at historically high levels and raising it further would discourage economic activity and would be unlikely to raise much extra revenue.
A substantial cut in public spending is therefore the only practical option, going far beyond what has been mentioned so far by Conservative Party spokesmen. And to achieve savings of sufficient magnitude it will be necessary to address the major areas of government expenditure: welfare benefits, pensions, health and education. It is difficult to understand why areas such as foreign aid are sacrosanct, given the well-known damage to the development of the poorest countries that arises from the over-provision of aid.

Unfortunately, the “vote motive” means that politicians are reluctant to be honest about the scale of the debt crisis facing the UK. Future generations do not vote and many of those who will bear the burden have not yet been born. The short-term outlook and self-interested behaviour of politicians, combined with an unwillingness to take the necessary action, are likely to have severe long-term economic consequences.

22 June 2009, IEA Blog


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