Principles are dangerous things

Dr Eric Crampton
Insights newsletter
4 September, 2020

If we take one overarching political lesson from the Government’s “shovel-ready” spending fiasco and the school of environmental voodoo, it’s this: Principles are dangerous things. It’s best not to have them.

Principles are constraining. A person with principles can be criticised for failing to live up to them. You can follow your principles in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, but if you make a bad call on that hundredth case, you’re a hypocrite.

On the other hand, if no one can figure out your political principles, things are much easier. Any project belonging to an industry which supports you can be considered shovel-ready – even if it’s an absolutely absurd way of spending taxpayer funds. Workers hired for those projects will get priority over, say, health-care workers for scarce spaces in managed isolation, and only a few purists will complain. There is no hypocrisy, since nobody ever expected otherwise.

In the old story where the scorpion stings and kills the frog on whose back it is riding, mid-river, dooming them both, it’s hard to blame the scorpion. The frog should have known what it was getting into. The scorpion was, after all, only a retail politician. Doom arriving instead from a catastrophic mishap by an earnest mouse who’d travelled that path safely a hundred times before, well, that would have been worse.

It’s especially important not to have principles when dealing with programmes that are fundamentally unprincipled.

The shovel-ready initiative never made much sense, on principle. Construction employment is higher today than it was at the same time last year. Online job advertisements, a leading indicator of future employment, suggests things are rather worse in sectors like retail, education and training, and hospitality and tourism.

Unemployed workers in these sectors may not be shovel-ready for construction work. Running a principled approach is tough when the overarching imperative is a shovel-ready pile of cash, hot off the printing press, burning holes in the Government’s pockets and balance-sheets.

In such an environment, the least principled are at a distinct advantage. Imagine the frustration of trying to uphold one’s principles while watching how this hot money otherwise is spent.

Perhaps, after the election, the Government can return to a more principled approach to spending. Interest on the principal racked up by the unprincipled will eventually come due.

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