Three and a half weeks from now, Americans will decide whether to pull the emergency brake on a train that is headed to bankruptcy. Across the pond in Great Britain, which got aboard that train following World War II, the sparks are flying as the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government attempts a very tardy, and accordingly much more painful, reversal.
The nation that built the most far-flung empire in the history of the world -- not primarily through conquest but through trade and colonization -- is now convulsed by protests as the coalition government imposes austerity. "Tory scum!" shouted protesters outside the Conservative Party congress in Birmingham last week. Half a dozen nearly naked, portly, middle-aged pensioners unfurled a banner (held strategically at waist level) proclaiming "Stripped Of Our Pensions." They were part of a massive rally (7,000 strong) of teachers, health care workers, and other public-sector employees who swore to "fight back" against the cuts proposed by the Cameron/Clegg government. Even the queen has been told to accept reductions to her generous yearly stipend -- though her response has thus far been more temperate.
When a society has become as socialized as Great Britain, it becomes difficult to say where the public sector leaves off and the private sector begins. Take the arts. We squabble about public funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. And certainly, there is a good libertarian case to be made that these are not the proper province of government at all, and certainly not of the federal government. But in any case, government subventions amount to only about 10 percent of total arts funding in the U.S.
In the UK, on the other hand, government contributes 50 percent. So when the Cameron/Clegg government announced that it may cut subsidies to the arts by as much as 25 percent, the howls were piercing. Alistair Spalding, artistic director of the Sadler's Wells dance theater in London, sorrowfully complained to the Washington Post that if forced to seek private donations, he might not be able to stage such groundbreaking work as last year's interpretative dance "in which the pope sexually abuses an altar boy..."
Socialists dislike programs for the poor. They prefer that everyone receive welfare because they calculate, so far correctly, that it's much harder for governments to cut subsidies to everyone than to the poor. That's why, in the U.S., liberals go rigid at the idea of cutting Social Security benefits to the affluent. In Britain, Labour is incensed at the proposal by the coalition government to reduce the annual child subsidy that all Britons, regardless of income, receive. "No more open-ended chequebook," Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne explained. "No family should get more from living on benefits than the average family gets from going out to work."
This is the "same old Tories," a Labour leader complained, "hitting hardest at those who can least afford it." What? The government is proposing to cut benefits principally for the better off. Cuts to programs for the poor will be slight.
The British government, deeply in debt, is scrambling to avoid the fate of Greece, whose unsustainable obligations brought it to the brink of default until it was rescued by the European Union. Though full details of the budget will not be published until Oct. 20, leaks in the British press have suggested that the VAT tax will increase from 17.5 to 20 percent, that banks will be assessed added taxes, and that military spending will be reduced by 10 to 20 percent. Though Prime Minister David Cameron sought to quiet fears that drastic cuts in the military budget would compromise Britain's commitment to Afghanistan, he was less than convincing.
Though the coalition government has shied from suggesting cuts to the Great White Elephant, the National Health Service, it has proposed to restructure the program. Britain spends more on the NHS than on any other line item -- more than on pensions, social security, education, defense, transport, public safety, or interest on the debt. Under the previous Labour government, spending on the NHS tripled in just 12 years. It's the great black hole in the center of Britain's debt vortex. And yet the quality of care and efficiency of delivery are dismal compared with other European countries, and far inferior to the United States.
Or at least to the pre-Obamacare United States. The pain Britain is enduring should be instructive. They are trying to climb out of a ditch. If we grab that emergency brake now, we may avoid falling in.