Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 12 July 2014

Going private would work wonders and make Milton proud

The next time a colleague or client waves away your attempts to settle your food bill, remember the immortal words made famous by economist Milton Freidman, born 100 years ago this year: "There's no such thing as a free lunch."

The maxim purports that even if you're enjoying something gratis in financial terms, in economic terms one way or the other you're paying for it. It's an apt parable for any student of our credit boom and bust and is as relevant today as it was when he coined the phrase in 1975.

Is there anything we can learn from someone the Economist called "the most influential economist of the second half of the 20th century, possibly all of it" as we face another tough year?

Bizarrely, Friedman's free lunch phrase could feasibly have taken inspiration from our own economy. A small and struggling private sector continues to pay, along with the annual London bailout, for a large and unsustainable public sector.

While Ireland, Greece, Portugal and other bailout economies now see a reduced public salary bill, we have yet to see any reduction in public sector wages. The argument is that as well as being politically impossible, any reduction would see a decline in local spending and that the private sector cannot create the necessary level of new employment. Our pubic sector economy continues to enjoy a hearty lunch, but the bill, for now, is paid from elsewhere.

An eager advocate of a range of bold initiatives, including negative income tax, Freidman once said: "Nothing is so permanent as a temporary government programme." In Northern Ireland, to stem the ongoing haemorrhage of high street shops, the Northern Ireland Executive is to provide rates relief paid for by a levy on larger retailers.

While some stores' attempts to cajole elected representatives are laughable, Friedman would not have taken much comfort from the proposed 'sunset clause' which will see an end to the levy in three years.

For the levy to work we need a pathway which will mean more smaller shops staying open and hiring more staff. The crisis in the retail sector isn't unique to Northern Ireland, and something tells me the solution won't be either.

But let's not get too downbeat.

One thing Milton possessed was a unwavering belief in human ingenuity for improvement:

"The great advances of civilization have never come from centralised government," he once said.

That is true here also - while our shipbuilding legacy might make us look like the Silicon Valley of the 1900s - it did grow largely without direct government support.

Many of today's strongest companies - Almac, First Derivatives plc, Wrightbus and others - came about with the vision of one or a number of entrepreneurs, and while government support is important today, the spark that lit the fire came from those committed to the type of advancement of which Friedman spoke.

Finally, and luckily, we can reflect on a festive season and New Year enjoyed with solid pipes and running taps. Milton Friedman's discomfort with government was summed up perfectly with the famous line: "If you put the federal government in charge of the Sahara Desert, in five years there'd be a shortage of sand."

In Northern Ireland we've never have a sand shortage, but it was only this time last year that the home of the largest freshwater lake in the UK and Ireland amazingly saw a water shortage thanks to burst pipes. It rains two days out of three but many of us had to go without water. Friedman would be smug, and advocate simple privatisation.

Whatever about water, what's clear is that this year Northern Ireland needs a flood of successes across a range of issues to avoid becoming an economic desert. Let the 100th anniversary of the birth of one of the world's most famous economists and free-marketers be the year the Northern Ireland economy decides to go private.

Carl Whyte is a public relations consultant and a client manager at Stakeholder Communications

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