Toby Young

As the UK’s coronavirus outbreak begins to peak, right wing hacks such as Toby Young and Daniel Hannan are already calling for an early exit from lockdown. These rash cries come despite a science united behind patience to minimise the risk of a second epidemic.

Calls like those made by Young tend to come with one justification: protecting the economy. The loss of life caused by COVID-19, they claim, is outweighed by the loss of life caused by the recession which has followed lockdown.

These arguments have their ugly roots in a neoliberal politics. Time and time again, this is an ideology which has shown itself to value the economy over humans. It’s a fundamental failure driven by neoliberal individualism, by the importance it places on growth as a measure of success, and by its instinct to ‘balance the budget’ at all costs. It’s the same foul logic that has propelled the last 10 years of deadly Tory austerity that pushes those like Young to call for a deadly premature reopening of the economy.

When, rightly, handbrakes were put on to save lives, the worst of the neoliberals turned their eyes to the economy. All the while, they barely seemed to glance at the human tragedy. Always there, that impulse to protect GDP and push for efficiency has turned the decision they think we face from ‘economy versus lives’ to ‘lives versus lives’.

The way they see things is this: when the economy stops, the flow of money stops, and so people don’t get paid and they can’t afford the basics of life. For them, a stalled economy always costs lives. And so it becomes a desperate play off, a balancing act between controlling a pandemic with vast human cost on the one hand and controlling a recession with vast human cost on the other.

And under this false dichotomy, the economy tends to beat the lockdown. The deep value given to markets and a well operating economy makes it easy for the likes of Young to believe that even amidst nearly a thousand daily deaths the right choice is to drop the lockdown.

Neoliberals construct an unnecessarily tricky choice, and even then they are biased toward the wrong answer. Maybe it’s that a lifelong focus on markets as always the answer means you see them as worth far more than they actually are. Maybe it’s just an individualistic failure to care for the lives of others when you want your normal routine back. Either way, this twisted reasoning leads to the wrong choices.

Where the neoliberal framework fails is in generating this play off. It is not true that, as Young claims, the choice is between saving the economy or more deaths. In fact, that is only true if we dogmatically follow the neoliberal call for public sector austerity. We don’t have to play lives off against each other when we ditch misguided free marketism and allow for stringent government intervention.

When government steps in to ensure the security of everybody, when as a society we ensure that everyone’s lives are valued more than GDP, then we needn’t worry about shutting down the economy in the way that Young and Hannan seem to be.

The fault isn’t in the decision to stay locked down, the fault is that we’ve spent too long stuck with broken neoliberalism. It’s an ideology which doesn’t recognise the value of society or the opportunities of the state and communities to step in and guarantee security. It’s the vein of neoliberalism, a vein that has run through our political economy since Thatcher, which has left our public services deeply unprepared for this crisis.

It’s that vein which meant ministers ignored the need for ventilators revealed after a 2016 exercise. It’s that vein which means even at this dire moment the government is not doing enough to protect the vulnerable, or care homes, or frontline workers, or so many more who desperately need rescue and security.

It’s time for a new, human-driven political system. Crisis after crisis shows the failure of neoliberalism, and it’s telling that this busted ideology is at the root of heartless calls to reopen the economy. An ideology that forces a false balance between protecting lives and protecting the economy must be rejected. An ideology that says some must die to save the economy while dogmatically ignoring state-based interventions cannot survive.

This fact will only become more clear as we move back from health crisis to climate crisis. Even then, neoliberals will still claim that slowing economies cost lives. They will still forget the power of society and the need for the state. We need a universal basic income, we need rent holidays, we need stronger public services, and we need a politics that values humans over the economy.

Image credit: Raj Curry – Creative Commons