Op-Ed: Should we embrace the death of the high street?

Posted Feb 11, 2012 by Alexander Baron
All over Britain and many other countries, high street premises are standing empty. Is this a disaster, or something we should welcome with open arms?
Polaroid Land Camera
No more Innovation and the bankruptcy of Polaroid
B. Thomas Cooper
While it is true we are in the middle of a recession, not every bankruptcy or apparent business failure is the fault of either the banksters or a government that couldn't organise the proverbial booze up in a brewery. If you lived in London or any major city anywhere in the world in 1812 - the year Charles Dickens was born - you would have found a blacksmith shop if not on every corner then within easy walking distance. How many blacksmiths are there in London today, or in Britain, for that matter?
Something far more contemporary; if you grew up in the 70s in particular, and were a music fan, you might have relished buying the latest Elton John release: Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was a monster double album that was unleased on the world in 1973; it came with a gatefold sleeve and a lyric book. Album covers from that period were often immaculately designed objets d’art; some artists did little or nothing else. Singer-songwriter Lynsey de Paul began her career designing album covers.
There are kids growing up today who have probably never heard of vinyl albums, much less seen one; another decade or so and they will be antiques. Likewise, cassettes have gone, and CDs have all but gone. Why? Because everybody downloads.
Nostalgia ain't what it used to be, but the good news is that with the latest graphics programs you can design your own album covers, and even without her training and taste, you might just make as good a job of it as Lynsey de Paul. The net result of downloading is that there is more music for everyone than at anytime in history, and if not totally free then it is available to all for a fraction of the cost of those of us who bought Elton on vinyl four decades ago. Not everyone is happy with this though. Record companies for one; singer-songwriters, composers, musicians and almost everyone in the music industry are not better off but worse off, in spite of the increase in wealth from which the rest of us have benefited. Record shops and even record departments in major stores are now thin on the ground; twenty years if not ten, and they will all have gone at least in form in which they exist today. Is this good or bad?
What else has disappeared or is likely to disappear from your high street in addition to the blacksmith and the record shop? Video stores are also disappearing.
This week, Amazon sent out a letter to UK customers offering them a 30 day special offer; LOVEFILM is now part of the Amazon group, and will give you a free trial + if you become a paying member, a £20 Amazon gift certificate. Anything else likely to disappear? How about the post office, in its current form?
In 2010, the Royal Mail handled around 68 million letters a day, which sounds a lot, but that represented a drop of around 20% over the previous five years. Why? Because nowadays, everybody uses E-Mail.
According to a report earlier this week, one in seven high street shops were empty in the UK last year. There are ways to prevent this, including subsidies. Henry Ford launched the first popular motor car in September 1907; from that day on if not well before that, the blacksmith was on his way out, and horses would soon be banished forever from our major cities as a mode of transport. What do you think would have been the reaction of the voting public if Taft had run for President on a platform of subsidising blacksmiths, stables and horse traders? While he would have been very popular with blacksmiths and stable owners, everyone else would have thought he was crazy.
Today, we are faced with a similar non-problem; if the high street is not able to adapt, we should allow it to die. We must though ensure that no one is left behind in the maelstrom of progress. This means ensuring that the computer complete with a broadband connection is available in every home. Do we need to make special provisions for the elderly and others who might be affected detrimentally? Maybe, or we could just leave this to the market.
There are currently attempts being made to revitalise the high street by such schemes as subsidised rents; subsidising something means simply that you will get more of it, whether or not it delivers, whether or not it is any use at all. There is one thing that can and should be done though, the governments of the world should recognise the Internet for the wealth generating medium that it is, and pay it accordingly, in new, debt-free money. If they did that, we would see banks, especially so-called investment banks disappearing too, and good riddance to them, because these are entities that serve no useful purpose and exist solely at the expense of society as a whole.