By Richard Miller.
“I hope that nothing I have said will be taken as personal criticisms of individuals- it is certainly not intended as such. I look upon the present supreme human agents of planning…as [ the ] victims, in common with all of us, of a system, all innocently introduced, which threatens to become our master- an evil genie released from a bottle.” John Jewkes, “Ordeal by Planning” ( London, 1948 ) p.ix
Those of us fortunate enough to live in County Wexford received an added benefit some weeks ago, when a publication entitled “Wexford County Council Economic & Community Investment Programme 2018-2022” unexpectedly tumbled through our letter boxes. This handsome full colour publication of some twenty one pages, complete with a large map of the county, refers to a series of proposals for spending the taxpayer’s money all over the county. It also has a page devoted to small, flattering photographs of all the current county councilors. There are two prefaces written by Chairman of the County Council ( John Hegarty ) and by its newly appointed chief executive officer ( Tom Enright ), which explain the project, and the thinking which underlies it.
The more important and longer of these prefaces is provided by the County Manager. Mr. Enright provides important insight into the etiology of the publication and the plans it describes when he reminds us in his concluding lines that Wexford County Council has recently increased both local property taxes and rates on businesses in order to pay for “this ambitious investment programme” which he is “confident” will create a better future for everybody in Wexford.
The questions that immediately present themselves to the inquisitive reader of course, revolve around the criteria which Mr. Enright, and Mr.Hegarty ( and the other councillors who we are assured have worked with them ) have used to decide which proposals to underwrite, which to reject, and how much to spend on those that they do support. Given the ambitious nature of the plans and the large sums required to pay for them, it seems worthwhile asking whether we can share Mr. Hegarty’s confidence that the money will be well spent.
About this Mr. Hegarty is reassuring. He tells us that the “ Wexford County Council has carried out detailed research on the social and economic profile of the county.” And certainly the council has been busy in this respect. A little browsing on the Wexford County Council web site reveals that experts at Maynooth were commissioned by the council to examine the census data for the county, and to come up with indications of what the Council should be doing. This they did: and their fascinating report runs to more than four hundred pages packed with bar graphs, maps, and statistics, culled from a wide variety of sources most notably census data. The basis of the report is the idea that the council should be worried about developments in parts of Wexford which are atypical of the county, and features in Wexford which are atypical of Ireland as a whole. The thrust of the report is thus managerial and controlling in that it sees difference from the statistical norm as being potentially problematic.
Nevertheless there is much good sense in the proposals which the council has come up in their responses to the concerns raised in the Maynooth report. But how could there not be? Eric Voegelin once observed that the American Supreme Court was such an interesting institution that, however bad the book about it was, it was certain to contain something of value. The same is to some extent true of Co. Wexford. It is impossible to scatter government ( i.e. our ) money across it without doing some good to somebody. But can such “targeted” spending really qualify as investment? For example the Maynooth study points out that Bunclody- a small town in North Wexford on the boundary with Carlow- contains a large number of travellers ( Ireland’s unsettled community ). But how will the three-quarter of a million Euros that the Council proposes to spend in Bunclody improve matters? Put more broadly the plan makes lots of well-intentioned proposals, but leaves a host of hanging questions. Will the proposed “investments” provide an economic return? And if not how will their success or failure be evaluated?
The reader will perhaps think that this is harsh- that I have gone too far. Well, as I say, and would want to stress –that some of the proposals will almost certainly prove successful. It isn’t so much the individual proposals that I have doubts about. I am however troubled by the thought, or rather the lack of it, that underlies the whole exercise. Above all, as I have hinted above, targeting is only sensible when we have some criteria for aiming at one point rather than another. Or in this instance, deciding to do one thing rather than another. It is precisely in making this sort of choice that politicians and officials have a poor record in Ireland and elsewhere.
This bad record has not come about by accident. Partly the failure of government comes about because unlike entrepreneurs, politicians ( like Mr.Hegarty ) and their officials ( like Mr. Enright ) are insulated from the risk of failure. It is not their money which is at risk. More importantly it is because they don’t, and can’t really know, what they are doing- because the criteria they employ for making such “investments” not being economic are always to some extent subjective and may well be irrational. What criteria are there for deciding whether to spend the taxpayers money in Coolgraney- in the far North of the county, or Campile- in the South? In practice the decision boils down to political pull or personal preference- neither are good guides for rational behaviour.
As an example, let’s explore in more detail one of the concerns which was identified by the Maynooth report and which trouble Mr. Hegarty and Mr. Enright. They both say that the county should not be exporting its young people. Neither are referring to Emigration from Ireland to say England or Australia- but to commuting within Ireland. Their publication views the fact 18.4% of the people in Wexford work outside the county as a challenge which needs to overcome. But why on earth is this seen as a problem that needs to be addressed by the county council when the Maynooth report tells that Co. Wexford has fewer long distance commuters than all but five of Ireland’s twenty seven counties?
The authors seem unnecessarily troubled by the fact that North Wexford ( the area in which I live ) is now in fairly easy commuting distance of Dublin- thanks to the new Motorway- and numerous people now do so as is evidenced by the demographic data in the Maynooth report, and by the rush of cars past my gate early in the morning. These, however are not the only commuters in Co. Wexford. Messrs Hegarty and Enright also seem to be committed to the proposition that someone living New Ross and working in Waterford has somehow been “exported” from Co. Wexford, and must in some way be recovered by Wexford County Council as if they had fallen off a pier. I find this view largely delusional. But, whether I am right about this or not, it certainly isn’t so serious a problem that government money needs be used to be address it. And yet this is what our two champions imply.
The trouble really is that like all economic planners our authors both overestimate their capacity for making economic judgements, and underestimate the ability that other people have for organising their own lives- not just for themselves but for their communities also. ( We should not assume that social responsibility is limited to government actors. ) The danger is that the Council will be led on from its conviction for the need for balanced development into an attempt to guide the economy of the county as a whole in particular directions- thus substituting their own attitudes for the subtle, ever changing, and far more accurate signals, sent by the market. To put it bluntly, why do politicians and bureaucrats like Messrs Hegarty and Enright think that they have greater insight into where people should live than the individuals in the property market themselves? Why shouldn’t somebody sell a house in Dublin, buy one in North Wexford where the quality of life is higher, pocket the difference, and then start putting up with inconvenience of a longer journey to work- if that is what makes sense to him or her? These are exactly the sort of decisions that responsible individuals are best placed to make for their families. ( See, the Disclosure below )
More troublingly yet, by seeking to identify solutions to problems that barely exist, our planners have failed to focus sufficiently on the things that local government alone can do. Instead worrying about the evils of “long” distance commuting, our public representatives and their officials should increase the level of local policing, both in the towns and countryside- as there is too much yobbery in the one, and too much robbery in the other-if only because the high cost of security and insurance are an unofficial tax on entrepreneurial activity. The Council should also do much more to improve and maintain local roads in the county. While Co. Wexford has a flourishing micro- business sector, the council needs to start exploring the anecdotal evidence that barriers to entry are much too high. Street trading should be encouraged. Radical solutions such as enterprise zones need to be examined. Above all the Council needs to look into the manner in which excessive regulation prevents small businesses from growing in the way that they should. In such ways as these the Council could materially contribute to the prosperity of the “model county”. Worrying the supposed dangers of commuting , and distributing expensive leaflets, isn’t going to do it for Wexford for Ireland!
As a resident of a rural part of North Wexford I would of course benefit from better roads and more policing in the area. The value of my house is also increased by the fact that it is in reasonable commuting distance of Dublin.
REFERENCES AND SUBSIDIARY STUFF.
John Jewkes ( 1902-1988 ) was a professor of economics at the University of Manchester. “Ordeal by Planning” was his most famous book. He was also an expert on innovation.
The full title of the document I have called “The Maynooth Report” is the “Wexford Socio-Economic Base Line Report.” As indicated above it is available on the Wexford Count Council web site.
My recollection is that the passage from Eric Voegelin I refer to is in “The New Science of Politics ” ( Chicago, 1952 ).
The record of economic planners is poor. But, of course, government money is not always wasted. In under developed economies some of the needs are so obvious, i.e. those for roads, telephones, and other basic pieces of infrastructure that it is relatively easy for the government to identify them. However as the economy gets more complicated this becomes increasingly impossible. For more on planning see Jewkes, and Op cit, F.A. Hayek, “The Road to Serfdom” ( London, 1944 ) and, of course, almost everything by Von Mises. For Hayek elaborate government communication strategies were a troubling part of planning. For Mises and his followers planning is inherently chaotic because for them there can be no economic rationality without a price system.
The changes that have recently taken place in North Wexford are not freakish developments. As long ago as the late nineteen seventies it was obvious that all that prevented the area North of Gorey from being part of the Dublin commuter belt was the appalling state of the old Wexford road as it was then called, and the poor train service. Now that the road has become a motorway ( the N.11 ), and commuter trains introduced, there is nothing to stop people commuting to Dublin from Co. Wexford, and many do. I see nothing surprising or alarming in this. The same phenomena is to be seen all over the world- for example the way in which in The United States Inter state 95 South from Washington D.C. has created a commuter corridor which extends as far as Fredericksburg fifty odd miles into Virginia.
The economics behind all this are not difficult. As the division of labour becomes more pronounced certain areas become the focus of certain economic activities, because of the specialized supply chains that they need, and the fact that expertise is a localised phenomena. “Birds of a feather flock together” which is the reason that we talk about Cheddar Cheese and Champagne. ( See, Ludwig Von Mises, “Human Action” ( Auburn, 1988 ) p.157. ) Like all advanced economies the Irish is become increasingly dominated by service industries. For a variety of cultural and economic reasons these tend to be conducted in urban areas, and consequently areas at the fringes of such cities become sought after places in which to live. Is it really very surprising that someone developing a piece of software in Dublin might want to unwind on the beach at Courtown? ( Perhaps another way of making this point is to say that the more specialised the skills a person has the more likely they are to find work only in a city.)
Hayek is interesting about the appeal of the city in “The Constitution of Liberty” ( Chicago, 1960 ) p.340 where he points out that “when we speak of “urbanity” “civility” or “politeness” we refer to the manner of life in cities.” I love the Irish countryside. But is it any great wonder then that many people want to work where there is more urbanity civility, and politeness? There is also the point that innovation seem to come about more naturally in an urban rather than a rural setting, perhaps because the greater the number of people the greater the number of human interactions. Both urban and rural life have their appeal. But getting the “right” balance between the them is surely something that should be left to the individual. For some people long distance commuting can be an attractive solution.