There are many legitimate arguments for a free-market economy. Two centuries of accelerating economic advance have convinced most people that the market model best suits the creative and entrepreneurial spirit which drives progress. But sometimes, through a combination of its inherent shortcomings and the ineptitude of politicians, the market fails to deliver outcomes that match our moral aspirations. And sometimes, as with the current housing crisis, the extent of that failure is woeful.
The statistics have been well rehearsed: Tens of thousands of families are living in temporary accommodation; the life-chances of a million children are being irrevocably impaired. Despite thousands of empty homes around the country, the market is failing to match supply to demand because, among a growing underclass, that demand is not backed by purchasing power. The housing crisis is now so deep, and the housing market so dysfunctional, that government action is urgently required. If the market will not deliver, then the state must.
Those who oppose state intervention in favour of the market either care nothing for the plight of the homeless, or are motivated by an ideological commitment to a conception of economics which is discredited by the observable evidence. They are modern-day Herbert Spencers, believing that by leaving the most vulnerable to their fate, somehow society will be put to rights.
The economic reforms of the last quarter-century have brought into sharp focus Hegel's observation that in our individual striving for economic prosperity we routinely compromise our desire for a more just and equitable society. But two centuries on, it is time we were more ambitious in trying to reconcile our economic and social aspirations. In a mature democracy, we should expect some politicians, at least, to have the courage to challenge growing minority privilege and to talk up the possibility of an economy that is both dynamic and inclusive.
We need to address our ongoing failure to ensure the fundamental human right to a home can be exercised by all citizens. In the short term, massive public investment is required to return our neglected housing stock to good order. But the longer term demands a different vision. Taxing those in work to alleviate the plight of the economically excluded is the least ambitious legacy of socialist thinking. Social justice does not require a return to the ways of old Labour, but neither is it served by the flawed neo-classical economics to which new Labour so rigidly adheres. Creating economic conditions in which all citizens can find work that pays enough to enable them buy or rent a decent home is not a big ask. It is perfectly achievable in one of the world's richest countries at a time of immense prosperity.