Alex Massie

The Politics of Snow

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With admirable opportunism Sunder Katwala argues that the current frosty conditions make the case for more, not less government. As he says,


plenty of people like to rail against government in the absract only to find themselves asking the state to do more as soon as something - such as a heavy snowfall - makes life just that little bit more inconvenient.

And, to be fair, he has a point. Many people do think like this, which is one reason why there's not actually a very hefty constituency for libertarianism. This is unfortunate, but true.

Nonetheless, even libertarians are permitted to argue that since the public highways are publicly-funded it is indeed the state's responsibility to see that they remain open and clear of snow and ice. Alas, we don't have any privatised main roads, so we can't tell whether private toll roads would be swept and gritted* more efficiently than the state-sponsored routes.

However, when it comes to city pavements it seems to me that Sunder is on weaker ground. Once upon a time and not so very long ago the general public would have cleared the pavements themselves. Indeed, it used to be thought only good manners and a mark of proper, considerate neighbourliness to clear your own patch of pavement. Alas, no longer. It seems as though we now expect councils to do that for us too.

The result? Pavements are not being cleared. This is less a mark of government failure than a collective, unfortunate, decision to rely on government well past the point at which councils can actually deliver a service. Consequently, this dependency demonstrates both a triumph of statism and its failure.

They do things differently in America. When I lived in Washington it was expected that you'd clear your own** bit of sidewalk. Result? The pavements were in better condition than seems to be the case in much, perhaps most, of Britain.

*Not that I blame councils for not having enough supplies to cope with a once-in-a-generation cold snap.

**And not just because the DC council is famously inept.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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