Matt Ridley used to make his living partly by writing state-bashing columns in the Daily Telegraph. The government, he complained, is “a self-seeking flea on the backs of the more productive people of this world … governments do not run countries, they parasitise them.”(1) Taxes, bail-outs, regulations, subsidies, intervention of any kind, he argued, are an unwarranted restraint on market freedom.
Then he became chairman of Northern Rock, where he was able to put his free market principles into practice. Under his chairmanship, the bank pursued what the Treasury select committee later described as a “high-risk, reckless business strategy”(2). It was able to do so because the government agency which oversees the banks “systematically failed in its regulatory duty”(3).
On 16th August 2007, Dr Ridley rang an agent of the detested state to explore the possibility of a bail-out. The self-seeking fleas agreed to his request, and in September the government opened a support facility for the floundering bank. The taxpayer eventually bailed out Northern Rock to the tune of £27bn.
When news of the crisis leaked, it caused the first run on a bank in this country since 1878. The parasitic state had to intervene a second time: the run was halted only when the government guaranteed the depositors’ money.
And now Matt Ridley has written a book. As expected, it indulges in the same magical thinking that got Northern Rock into trouble in the first place. Evil governments, terrible parasitic bureaucrats, crippling regualtion all come in for the usual bollocking. As usual, the remedy is more of what failed the last time. Not only should these idiots not be allowed near levers of economic power, clearly they shouldn't be allowed near a cup of coffee. this belief that their ideology must be correct, must actually justify what they do and who they are, that they cannot give it up without a complete mental breakdown. Like cultists at the end of the world; when it doesn't arrive, you double down.
To let Mr. Monbiot finish up:
It is only from the safety of the regulated economy, in which governments pick up the pieces when business screws up, that people like Dr Ridley can pursue their magical thinking. Had the state he despises not bailed out his bank and rescued its depositors’ money, his head would probably be on a pike by now. Instead we see it on our television screens, instructing us to apply his irrational optimism more widely. And no one has yet been rude enough to use the word discredited.