The Case for Canals

Started by richard ford, May 05, 2005, 11:50 AM

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richard ford

The Case for Canals. Copyright Richard Ford

Yes- you read me correctly. Canals, those unloved relics of the industrial revolution are making a comeback in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. I have been following the revival for two reasons...

Firstly- I am a man. Men tend to take interest in technical subjects for absolutely no reason whatever and are particularly prone to transport obsessions (I like trains as well).

Secondly- and more importantly, the canal revival has a bearing on many of my other preoccupations such as the environment, regional development policy, freight transport and even terrorism (a bit). They also provide a nice pointer to the way in which I expect European society to develop over the next 75 or 100 years.

I will even try to say something about men's rights so that I do not get flamed for going off topic.

The future will be brutal but it will probably be free. Capital and skilled labour are now so mobile that it becoming harder and harder to tax or regulate either. This does not mean a future without tax or regulation- their may well be more of both in twenty years time- but the taxation will tend to be spent for the benefit of those who earn the most rather than as a means of redistributing income to favoured groups.

Let me give you an example. Suppose you are a company or individual who is looking for a country to call home. You will have a large number of countries eager to welcome you because you will be a net contributor wherever you go. Quite simply the host nation will make a profit from your presence in their country. Governments will spend more and more time worrying about the welfare of the mobile and less time worrying about the welfare recipients who elected them. They will attempt to fund affirmative action or welfare programmes by being very successful at attracting capital and productive people to their country. Ultimately this is a contradiction that cannot be resolved because there will always be another country that is willing to make a little less profit from the mobile people in order to have more of them. In other words, the power of those people who wish to enrich themselves at the expense of productive people will continually reduce. This will hurt the feminist movement more than anyone as they are the ultimate non producers.

Not all countries will face up to this choice. Some will simply choose to fail because they lack political courage- there will always be an international scapegoat when everything falls to ruin. It may be the World Bank, the IMF the Jews, Capitalism or any number of other groups. In fact it will be all of them at the same time because it is the job of international institutions to bring bad news and collect debts.

I like to speculate about what a truly successful society in this new world would look like. What would a British government that really intended to win this game do?

There are many criteria a traveller may use when choosing a country. Tax is only one of them. The major consideration would be- how nice a place is it to live? If the individual wants to live in such and such a place and he can make good money there, then he will not mind paying tax.

Environmental and cultural spending therefore moves from a virtual irrelevance to centre stage. We have become used to thinking that we can spend money on beautiful buildings and parkland once all of the other things have been done. Now we realise that it must be the other way around! Our economic situation will improve once we have the beautiful buildings and parkland! In other words we must strive to make our countrys somewhere people dream of living.

Government is not good at predicting the future so the canal revival was well underway before anyone noticed it. Funding is tiny, about sixty million pounds this year from central government- plus some small change from other funds. Yet future government will be frugal by necessity. British Waterways is earning more and more money from commercial activities such as transporting water from wet to dry regions and waterside property developments. Volunteers do much of the hard work of canal dredging which also keeps down costs. What society gets in return for this money is a place to walk, fish and cycle. A chance to see waterfowl and a reduction of freight carried by road. More freight is carried by river and canal than by train. It is also possible to live on the river in a narrowboat. This is a romantic dream for many but serves a practical purpose too. Boats are cheaper than houses and more mobile- your home can follow your work.

I mentioned terrorism earlier. There is also a very small benefit to this country from the hotel boats that ferry people up and down the canals for pleasure- the fewer people take holidays abroad the safer they will be from terrorist attack.

Plus.. I just like them.

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