LONDON – Fiscal austerity has become such a staple of conventional wisdom in the United Kingdom that anyone in public life who challenges it is written off as a dangerous leftist. Jeremy Corbyn, the current favorite to become the next leader of Britain’s Labour Party, is the latest victim of this chorus of disparagement. Some of his positions are untenable. But his remarks on economic policy are not foolish, and deserve proper scrutiny.
Corbyn has proposed two alternatives to the UK’s current policy of austerity: a National Investment Bank, to be capitalized by canceling private-sector tax relief and subsidies; and what he calls “people’s quantitative easing” – in a nutshell, an infrastructure program that the government finances by borrowing money from the Bank of England.
The first idea is neither extreme nor new. There is a European Investment Bank, a Nordic Investment Bank, and many others, all capitalized by states or groups of states for the purpose of financing mandated projects by borrowing in the capital markets. The rationale for this type of institution derives from what that great socialist theorist Adam Smith called the state’s responsibility for the “erection and maintenance” of those “public works and institutions,” which, while of great advantage to society, would not profit private enterprise.
In other words, the state should always have an investment function. Delegating that function to a dedicated institution may have advantages for the presentation of the public accounts.