BRITAIN IS CURRENTLY illustrating, in an advanced form, the dilemma that inflation imposes upon democracy. The strikes this winter are attempts by working people to establish very large wage increases that would be, of course, extremely damaging to the national economy. But the raise in wages that is bad for the country as a whole is good for the individual worker, who fears being left behind by everyone else. Behavior that is irrational for society as a whole becomes entirely rational for each of the people who comprise it. Politics is the art of bringing people's own interests into line with those of the larger community. The process isn't working very effectively in the United States, to judge by the tepid public reception to Mr. Carter's anti-inflation exhortations this month. But in Britain, it is working spectacularly badly.
Shortages of good and other necessities have begun to appear here and there. These strikes are the most severe challenge to a British government since the similar outburst in the winter of 1974 that drove the Conservatives, under Edward Heath, out of office. By the spring of the following year a tide of reckless wage settlements had run the inflation up to an annual rate of nearly 30 percent, and the economy fell into a harsh recession. The new Labor government under James Callaghan was then able to draw the unions and the whole country into a remarkably disciplined series of wage agreements -- for a time. But as the inflation rate came down, the descipline began to fray. Prices in Britain last year rose only 8 percent -- less than they did in the United States -- and British workers decided, evidently, that the danger was past and they had been reasonable long enough.
Now the government is threatening to meet tremendous wage increases with equally tremendous income-tax increases. That's brave response for a government that has only a minority of the seats in Parliament, and is moving toward an election in, presumably, the spring. But it has few other weapons, beyond the unappealing last resort of using troops to break strikes.
The British case is peculiar in some respects. The labor movement is fragmented beyond description, giving it a high susceptibility to wage competition among small and ingrown unions. The law does not provide the kind of sanctions against wildcatting and secondary boycotting that prevail in this country. There is talk in Britain of new labor legislation. But that will depend on the parties' sense of public attitudes, and whether the voters are, indeed, getting fed up. The Conservatives assume that, if the turmoil continues, it will eventually produce a strong majority in favor of severe restrictions. Perhaps they are right. Some kinds of national misfortunes draw people together. But inflation usually seems to work the other way, eroding political power and driving people apart in pursuit of their separate interests. The present pattern of strikes, leaderless and disorganized but highly effective, is uniquely British. But unfortunately the causes -- low growth and high inflation -- are not.