Was Dom Mintoff right?
Ronald Reagan’s phrase “Government is not a solution to our problem, government is the problem” encapsulates the spirit that has been predominant in the era that followed the collapse of the Berlin War. Capitalism and private enterprise were thought to have been confirmed by history as what can bring about wealth and well-being.
Interference by the State in economic matters, even if inspired by the best of intents, came to be considered as detrimental if not utterly ruinous. Individuals, we were told, should be left to their own devices so that they stand up and create for themselves their own well-being. Private firms, it was thought, would generate jobs and wealth. Government should no longer feel duty- bound to provide for those who cannot make it.
No one owed anyone a living. The market’s invisible hand would for the most part ensure the optimisation of outcomes. Those who failed would not have tried hard enough. Free-trade enthusiasts suggested that we move from a nanny-state to a night-watchman government.
On the local scene, the march of history was for many represented by the change in government that occurred in 1987. As the local myth-ridden history goes, under pre-1987 Labour, the State used to ‘control’ society in general and the economy in particular.
The latter was at best termed a mixed-economy, at worst a socialist one. Private enterprise was apparently shackled and restricted. The State used to create wealth and jobs; inefficiently and uneconomically (and this despite the positive balance in the country’s coffers. What’s that for finanzi fis-sod?).
Then Fenech Adami comes along (heralding a bright new ear according to the PN and New Labour alike) and private enterprise starts to run on its own feet and generate wealth. The State becomes more of a regulator than a distributor of goods.
The latter’s function however, is not abandoned straight away. In the 1980s and early 1990s the PN’s Christian Democratic wing was still strong. But then the neo-liberal wing faction started not only to dominate the party but also to convert to the virtues of the free market their opponents in the opposition camp.
That this widely-accepted history is myth-ridden is obvious if one asks him/herself some simple questions. If the economy during the 1970s and 1980s was socialist, why was there a proliferation of private investment from capitalist Europe (yes, the Europe of Cain), which included the opening of two factories a year from West Germany as well as major capitalist investment like ST Thompson from Italy? (For some serious studies debunking the myths commonly associated to Labour’s economy, the published works by Mario Vella are a necessary starting point).
Regarding the current economy, would many of the contractors who have thrived in the past decades have prospered as they have without State-financed projects? Would, for instance, certain contractors in the construction industry have made it so good, simply by selling their services to private individuals?
In case the answer to the latter question is negative, as it obviously is, aren’t they as dependent on the State (i.e. on the taxes we pay) as a single mother or someone who is on dole is?
Regardless of their fictitious nature, these myths are accepted by many. Neo-liberal mantras accentuating the need for the State to divest itself of any form of participation in the economy were/are continuously repeated whenever a subsidy had/has to be eliminated, a sector was/is being privatised or a function that was normally carried out by the public sector was/is sub-contracted. So hegemonic has the perpetuation of these myths been, that they started to be dogmatically accepted not only by many in the opposition party but also by trade unions and the people at large.
Then this election comes around and the incumbents are seriously in danger of losing their throne. Despite the more recent mantra regarding others being worse than we are, few people have found their argument convincing. The (supposed) elimination of certain subsidies and of certain (supposed) white elephants has not led to a healthier economy. The standard of living of many has continuously been slumping, even though the elite continued to treat itself as an aristocracy.
In every day terms, not merely has the cost of living gone sky-high but the quality of jobs has, in many cases, deteriorated. The possibility of making ends meet with one wage is for many a distant dream.
So what is the proposed solution by both incumbents and aspirants on the eve of the election? Not less government, but a State that provides you with tablets of all kinds, subsidises the purchasing of your property, provides you with medicines at your doorstep, funds your pregnancy with a hand-out and promises more cash if you are a pensioner.
Obviously answers regarding who is to foot the bill if the have-nots and have-less are to receive this boon have been rather economical, but the underlying message is simple and clear.
The State is your nanny. Laissez-faire has failed. Dom Mintoff – largely ignored by friend and foe during the current electoral campaign – might have been right after all.