Ken Loach’s new film I, Daniel Blake, which has … earned him his second Palme d’Or at Cannes, tells the story of a middle-aged man and a single mother struggling with Britain’s modern welfare systemwrites Sam Bowman in the Daily Telegraph.
Like many of his other films it’s a story of people being mistreated by faceless bureaucrats in an unfeeling, capitalistic state.
Now I confess I share some of his despair. Trying to get the local council to do something as simple as collect rubbish on my street is a process that makes me reach for my revolver. To depend on such institutions for money to feed myself while jumping through a host of pointless hoops to prove that I really need it – as Loach’s characters do – would be soul-destroying.
Where Loach is wrong is to suppose that this is a failing of modern capitalism. Far from it: the worst bureaucracies are the ones run by the state that we cannot escape.
Remember the process of getting a new phone line? You applied to the Post Office and waited six months to get one. If you were out when the engineers came over you’d have to wait another couple of months. Today the process takes a day or two, because there are half a dozen or more firms competing with each other .
Or think about the hassle that the supposed pleasure of going on holiday once involved. Today, travel agents exist to offer cheap package holidays they’ve bought in bulk. Just 20 years ago, they existed because the airline and hotel industries were so bureaucratic that no ordinary person could deal with them directly. Nowadays the really crushing part of travelling is replacing a lost passport or applying for a visa – the two last big holdouts of government “service”.
In these as in so many other consumer areas, bureaucrats have been scrubbed from our daily lives. Trade and competition – the sort of competition that involves seducing customers from rivals by offering something better – have driven a phenomenal betterment in the lives of everyone, including the protagonists of Ken Loach’s dramas. Both government and business can be bureaucratic, but only businesses have an incentive to improve.It’s hard to capture all this in statistics. How could any bureaucrat measure the added value a person gets from seeing their newborn grandson through a live, free video call from the other side of the world, rather than waiting weeks to see a few photos? How can statistics capture the value of having the sum of human knowledge and every musical recording ever made in our pockets for the price of a few adverts?
Perhaps it’s unfair to compare consumer products with state bureaucracies. But the less we have to deal with private bureaucrats, the less we tolerate their government counterparts pushing us around.… There is one other important point. Loach seems to think that the welfare state has been hollowed out and cut to historically low levels. Actually, since the release of his first great triumph, Cathy Come Home in 1966, welfare payments have become larger and larger in absolute terms and as a percentage of GDP.… The kind of economic growth needed to pay for this would be unthinkable under any other economic system than capitalism. Loach objects to cuts, but the fact is that today’s welfare state is only affordable at all thanks to the free enterprise system that he hates.