Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Freedom Of Association

Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party, has a fantastic article in the New Statesman on the importance of freedom of association. Can you imagine such a cogent and philosophically ponderous statement of values from Gordon Brown, David Cameron, or Nick Clegg?

It sounds odd to use a book on the economics of sport as a source of what is going wrong with our society. But Stefan Szymanski’s new “Playbooks and Checkbooks” provides us with the raw material for just that.

Szymanski explains why so many of the games played around the world were first encoded here in the UK , why they spread with their methods of organisation. Yes, Empire gets a look in but more important is the development of “associative society”. After the Civil War the monarchy and government were no longer the instigator, regulator or supervisor of every public affair. People were, for the first time, free to combine in clubs, whether for sport, for drinking, journalism or science, without permission.

This led to an explosion of clubs and associations in every corner of life. As he says:

“By the end of the eighteenth century visitors to England became quite bored with the tendency of Englishmen to proclaim their liberty and to declare that other nations lived in servitude. Contemporary Germans and Frenchmen often found this national pride quite puzzling, because they did not see what the English were free to do that they were not.”

By contrast, in France at the time any association of any kind required a licence from the King.

Moving from sporting matters, that same freedom of association is what led to the explosion of the communal and social groupings that followed. The friendly societies, the providents, mutuals, owe their genesis to the fact that people were free to associate in such ways. There was no requirement for permission, a licence, from those in authority stating that they would be privileged by an allowance. It was a freedom to be exercised as of right not applied for. Yes, this was sometimes more honoured in the breach, as with unions and the Combination Acts but those exceptions were indeed exceptions.

Freedom of association is something that I fear we’ve lost in our society today. Retained firefighters are about to fall foul of the Working Time Directive. We used to understand that those who offered themselves on call to help in an emergency were a benefit to society. Now we make such public spirit illegal.

To take an entirely trivial example, it is currently illegal to add apple geranium leaves to gooseberry jam but legal to do so to quince. To avoid a 6 month jail sentence and or a £5,000 fine by doing so one would have to petition the European Commission to change the jams and jellies regulations.

Not all of these restrictions come from Brussels. You couldn’t have a folk music club meeting in a pub these days without a licence, you can’t stick up a barrel of beer at the line dancing club without one: indeed you cannot have either dancing or music without permission from someone, somewhere.

Perhaps line dancing, folk music, jam, even our unique system of retained firefighters, are not important matters. But if civil society is to flourish, then we have to be free to be civil society without permission or a licence from anyone. In short, we need to reclaim our freedom to associate if we’re to have an associative society.

Of course, Edmund Burke got there first when he described society as relying upon the “little platoons”. This is only true if said platoons are not regimented, ordered, inspected and controlled. Only when we strip away that regimentation - whether it comes from Brussels or Westminster - will we see a flourishing of civil society to match that of our forefathers, that thing which so confused and confuses the French and the Germans.

Just fantastic, and a wonderful example of why I am a supporter of Nigel Farage and UKIP. Labour, Tories and Lib-Dems have so covered their philosophical foundations with dirt trodden in from the muddy pavement of party politics and power seeking, that they are blown in the wind like a plastic bag on a breeze.

The political cross-dressing we see today is a direct result of political position for the sake of power, rather than driven by any underlying belief system. To bow to mainstream populism, without attempt to argue your case passionately, is to betray your principles and ideology. Yes, political parties have to maintain broad appeal to secure influence, and must to a certain extent compromise with populist will, but when the compromise takes precedent - when desire for influence subordinates desire for just and meaningful change, then politics is debased.

In Britain we need a political party with an ideological core to speak up for liberty. When the party's external actions reflect that of its foundations, it is coherent and thus should be able to debate openly and honestly with opponents whose philosophically untethered position has caused them to wind themselves up in hypocrisy and incoherence.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Economic Meltdown & 45p Tax

I have long said that the single biggest opportunity afforded by this crisis is a total reform of the tax system. Having snapped the Treasuries fiscal rules to match sticks, and opened the borrowing floodgates, Brown could have used the opportunity of temporary fiscal recklessness to at least upturn the whole structure of the tax and even welfare systems and leave a lasting legacy of a reformed and vastly improved structure.

Reading this morning an interesting piece by the ASI on the cost of minimal government it set me thinking.

Using ukpublicspending.co.uk, I worked out that the annual budget for 'defence' and 'protection', the categories which more or less correspond to those 'core duties' of government mentioned above, is about £70bn. Interestingly, that's about how much VAT set at the minimum rate of 15 percent should raise. Wouldn't it be nice if that was the only tax you paid?

OK, so maybe that's not realistic. But here's a still-radical proposal with a little more relevance to the real world: first, go ahead and restrict the Westminster Parliament to those core functions, and that limited tax base.

Then replace the welfare state with the kind of compulsory savings system that they have in Singapore and Chile, and which the ASI advocated in our reports on the 'Fortune Account'. Essentially, national insurance contributions, rather than going to the government, would go into personal, privately-owned accounts, consisting of health savings, health insurance, unemployment insurance, and a retirement fund.

Sexy stuff huh? Ok, so it's just sado libertarians like me who get excited by such things, but think about what it means.

What is being proposed is the decoupling of the business of government and the broad area which can be called 'welfare' or 'redistribution'. To do this would be to fundamentally alter the political landscape, since governments could no longer shuffle money around and disguise transfers, but would have to explicitly propose changes in taxation for the two categories of government activity. The two categories broadly resembling the traditional role of government (that which libertarians would support) and that which modern governments have adopted (that which libertarians would not support).

I proposed something similar a while back over at Curious Snippets...

Every newborn child should have a 'personal welfare' fund opened, in to which the government should pay, say, £5,000 each year until the child reaches 18. The fund should be private, like a pension fund, and thus invested, not a state operated fund financed from present tax receipts. The fund would accumulate £90k in static terms and should provide well over £100k (rough calcs anybody?) after investment returns on maturity.

This fund should be the only handout from the state, ever, to citizens. No more child benefit, no more unemployment benefit, housing benefit, tax credits, etc etc. The fund can be used the the individual as they see fit. They could spend it all on booze and fags, but then they would receive no more help from the state and would rely on any private charity. People could spend it on buying a house, financing their University degree, buying a car, wedding, paying for kids etc. People could top up the fund through their working life, and the fund would act like a buffer against the volatile nature of life. If you found yourself unemployed you draw on the fund, if you get sick or disabled you draw on the fund etc

The Death Penalty

This morning I was watching Andrew Marr on BBC 1 and then watched "The Big Questions" afterwards. One of the issues under discussion was the death penalty, and it triggered a few thoughts.

Firstly I would oppose the death penalty primarily on the grounds that it is virtually impossible to grantee beyond all doubt the guilt of a suspect. Even DNA evidence does not prove guilt, it simply establishes the presence of the DNA and how it got there is a puzzle for the investigators to complete. I cannot bring myself to accept the miscarriages of justice which will inevitably occur as a price worth paying for ridding us of a handful of truly despicable individuals.

Secondly I would also oppose the death penalty on the grounds that since individuals do not have the right to murder another individual - infringe their liberty - then that power cannot be delegated to the State.

However, in principle, I have no objection to the 100% guilty being obliterated - it is not the death I am repulsed by.

The people who do not support the death penalty tend to support, on the whole, genuine life sentences. And I have to wonder, is there really any material difference between depriving an individual of their liberty for the rest of their life, and killing them? Surely without the freedom to live life then life simply becomes existence, and thus the imprisoned become the undead, the un-human, and by all intents and purposes they become deceased.

I have thought about this all day and cannot find any key philosophical distinction, and yet opponents of the death penalty seemingly see a substantial distinction.

On this basis might a compromise be that under a system where life sentences mean life, that the convicted be given the choice at any time of their sentence to request assisted suicide. This preserves the freedom of the convicted to remain alive, and thus for the wrongly convicted to continue to fight for justice, but also allows for the genuinely convicted to die and alleviate society of themselves.

I would be interested in your thoughts?

Rights And Liberties

Devils Kitchen has a fantastic post on the superficially subtle but fundamentally vast chasm between Human Rights and Liberties. In my view his quoting of Bishop Hill sums up the difference, and gives perfectly clear reasoning as to why rights pose the greatest threat to liberty today.

I've been wondering about the distinction between human rights and liberties for some time now and in recent weeks have come to the conclusion that a human right essentially defines an entitlement and therefore a duty on government (and perhaps on others), while a liberty defines a restriction on government (and perhaps on others). I've also concluded that human rights are potentially disastrous.

So what has this got to do with human rights? Well, from the HE perspective, how come then the state can demand entry to your home? How come they can force your children to talk to them? How come they can demand that you not be present? Haven't you got a right to privacy? The right to a family life? You would hope, wouldn't you that your human rights would protect you against this sort of thing. But you'd be wrong. The government will argue that the mere possibility of the loss of the child's rights justifies the loss of parental rights to privacy.

And this is the problem with human rights. By creating entitlements, but no understanding of how to balance different people's entitlements off against each other, they create confusion and sow discord and eventually leave the field of debate entirely empty, ready for government to legislate as they wish.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Proportional representation, Again

For all my loathing, repugnance, and despisal of Polly Toynbee, she does make a cogent case for proportional representation, highlighting some unarguable truths...

The last election swung on just 200,000 votes in a handful of marginals. The derelict first-past-the-post electoral system leaves the nation's fate to a tiny proportion of the politically indifferent, disenfranchising everyone else. Crass election messages try to catch the fleeting attention of a few bored people, the only ones that matter.

Indeed this is an undeniable fact. However, before considering her argument further it is worth expanding on this thought and considering why we have a First-Past-The-Post system.

Firstly, we have a Parliamentary system to which we elect individuals to represent our views. Historically, knowledge and information was the possession of relatively few and communication was slow, so a largely uneducated populace delegated their voice to those able to devote the time and those with the intellect.

Secondly, there were no national campaigns of the kind we have today. These have been largely enabled by Radio and Television, and more recently the Internet. Certainly individuals could not travel round several counties easily, let alone the whole country. And so having geographically manageable constituencies was sensible (a similar rationale behind the electoral college in the USA for electing the President).

Thirdly, the morality or otherwise of FPTP rather depends on whether the composition of Parliament as a whole is important, or whether you take a local view of electing your representative (the final composition of the Parliament as determined by many constituencies thus being a by-product of the process, rather than the principal purpose of the process).

A proportional system means every vote counts, no longer piled up in safe seats or wasted in hopeless seats. The two near memberless old parties have the system stitched up and voters are on strike. Tony Blair won just 25% of the electorate in 2005

Again, it is true that FPTP favours those most likely to win - normally the top two candidates in any seat. Therefore voters find themselves voting for the least worst option in the hope of toppling the worst, when in fact they do not support either party and would rather vote for a minority candidate/party.

The issue is further complicated by the fact that our Parliamentary system draws the executive from the elected members. Today this is by convention the leader of the largest party, but historically partisanship was much weaker, and the Prime Minister was he who could command support in the House of Commons in order to form a government and pass legislation. Today, also, the strength of the party system, ensures the flip flop of executive control between two camps.

My problem with replacing FPTP with PR for our current Parliamentary system is that this very problem would be exacerbated. Supporters of PR say that it results in a more representative composition of the electorate by helping smaller parties. They say that coalition governments are weak and accountable because they rely on compromise between the represented groups to hold power, and that small parties can exert influence by supporting the governing party and creating a working majority. All these arguments are indeed true, but what of the opposing arguments?

PR creates a perpetual coalition since it is virtually impossible for any one party to obtain an absolute majority. Weak government is not necessarily best, and can lead to stagnation. Also, just as under FPTP where the composition of Parliament is a byproduct of the system, so in PR the government could be composed of a majority of parties for whom you did not vote - for example a party could gain 40% of the vote, but the government formed by a coalition of parties who form 60% of the vote - thus leaving a party representing mainstream opinion quite isolated and powerless. In Germany voters kicked out Schroder, only to find a grand coalition between the two major opposing parties - not an outcome anybody voted for but which was necessitated by the eventual composition of the Parliament after the election.

I find myself in support of the principle of PR but against it in practice, unless the Parliamentary system were to change. What if the Executive were directly elected - as with the President of the USA, voters could directly elect the Prime Minister. Thus separating the business of government from the legislature, and those specifically elected to represent the views of the electorate. Not only would this improve separation of powers but also improve democratic representation whilst retaining strong executive government, as the House of Commons and/or the House of Lords would be elected under proportional representation.

For sure, it is possible to argue for both FPTP and PR under such a system I propose - a case can be made for FPTP where MPs are elected to represent a constituency since the composition of the legislature does not determine the government, and also for PR where the composition is reflective of the electorate. Either way the system would be more democratic and accountable, and it is an idea to which I am warming greatly.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Mary Honeyball On Quotas

Mary Honeyball MEP has been sounding off, impervious to rational morality...

I am very much in favour of mandatory quotas to further women's representation in the workplace and politics. Men already give preference to other men, so in a sense quotas already exist

No, Mary. Firstly a quota is a mandatory outcome objective, whereas giving preference to particular workers (for whatever reason) is not in the slightest bit similar.

It took all-women shortlists to raise the number of Labour women MPs to 27% of the parliamentary Labour party. Compare this with the Tories – who, incidentally, oppose quotas – of whom only 9% are female. Quotas do work, and I do not believe we will get significantly more women elected representatives without them.

Of course quotas 'work' - they are quotas! But they do not achieve the objective. If the reasoning behind quotas is to ensure that woman are not unfairly discriminated against because of their gender, then quotas are entirely the wrong tool.

To set quotas is to prioritise an arbitrary characteristic such as gender above merit, and is to ignore the different skill sets men and women possess, and the lifestyle choices they make. Surely the objective should be to ensure that there are no artificial barriers to women? Much harder, but certainly tackles the root of the issue and, unlike quotas, preserves the dignity and respect of women. Yes, Mary, elevating gender above merit devalues the contribution and achievements of women since their peers can no longer be sure of their merit but suspect the hidden assistance of immoral law.

What of the employer faced with a woman and a man applying for a vacancy? He (or, of course, she) will now be thinking "has she achieved her current position on merit, or because the company would be fined for not meeting their quotas?". If the cost to her current employer of employing her (gross wage + benefits, desk space, etc) is lower than the fine that could be imposed by not employing her then the company will. But can the existence of such a system, whether it impacts the life of the women above or not, help women to achieve equality with men? The fact is that the very existence of the system would throw a blanket of doubt over all women.

Also take a company, say a IT network engineering company. Now that industry is dominated by men. Why? Not because because of rampant discrimination, but because men's brains are more suited to engineer/IT type roles, and women on the whole are both less suited but also less interested in it. Would that be wrong, Mary? Would that company have to employ lots of women, even if only to sit in the corner and look pretty, to avoid an astronomical fine?

Fears that women who gain positions through quotas will see their authority undermined are cited. But without big steps, women's representation in the UK workplace and democracy is stagnating. The pay gap is starting to increase again in the UK, rising 1% to 17% this year, and women's representation on company boards and in parliament is increasing so slowly that it will take another 100 years for them to reach parity with men.

But what is "parity", Mary? You say it is outcome based - ensure there are equal number of both men and women. I say that is moronic and wholly immoral, and that the only justifiable measure should be process/input based. In other words, we should be looking for artificial barriers to women succeeding, and not looking at how many do.

Only by getting more women into parliament will some of the structural barriers that prevent more women from being elected be removed.

Er...what? If more women get elected then the barriers are not structural. And if they are elected, then we have surely reached the point where legislation and quotas are not necessary.

Needless to say I will not be supporting her 50:50 campaign!

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Never Fear - Polly Is Here

Oh to live in Pollyanna. There is no problem to which the solution is not simply more Government...

Yesterday George Osborne, the shadow chancellor, laid out an economic policy that looks to any Keynesian like the perfect recipe for turning recession into deepest depression. It's Margaret Thatcher in 1980 all over again - cutting, sacking and reducing debt just when the state should expand.

No, no, no. The solution to recession is, by definition, to get the economy expanding. Yes, the state is one element, but it is also the non wealth producing sector. Far better to look at ways to stimulate the private sector which can both generate the wealth, and consequently the tax £s, to pay for the 'cost' of government help, rather than seek to bloat the state with the result of crowding out the private sector and stifling the very wealth creation which will have to pay for it all.

Here's his programme: cut corporation tax and stamp duty on shares; abolish tax on savings; "come off Labour's unrealistic spending plans" and "bring national debt under control"; no investment in "public works projects" but instead "confront uncomfortable truths" - which means "government can't just spend money on every worthy cause that comes knocking on the door". Never mind what nice Mr Cameron says about "capitalism with a conscience", it's the numbers in nasty Mr Osborne's calculator that count.

Re shares it is a good idea to cut/scrap stamp duty on transactions, and while George is at it he might wish to reinstate capital gains tax back at 40% with a modified taper relief since it an economically efficient tax (capital being infinitely inelastic in the short run). As for saying government shouldn't just throw money at everything that comes its way, well that sounds rather good to me!

But this is just a wonderful piece of idiocy...

That is why Compass puts PR top of its manifesto. Without it, every spark of new political life is extinguished. You can march or throw green custard or sit down on airfields - but it's wasted effort if your votes have no chance of winning representation. Yes, PR may mean the BNP wins a few seats. Yes, it means coalitions. No, don't point to Italy or Israel's absurd, extreme systems. People deserve a choice closer to their views - a left-of-Labour group, maybe this mythical Red Tory party or a pro-Euro Tory group, an unwasted Lib Dem vote, a Green voice, a David Davis English yeoman vote.

What I find so amusing is that the Israeli electoral system is based on the d'Hondt PR system also used in the European Parliament elections. If Polly doesn't think it a particularly good PR system will she be campaigning for a change there as well?

And as Simon Jenkins points out so eloquently in this article from 2007, to support PR at Westminster fundamentally misunderstand our system of government. Parliamentary democracy is not suited to it. If we decided to make a break, however, and directly elect the executive and then turn to some form of PR for the Commons and/or Lords, then that would be perfectly legitimate.

Police State

Now here is an interesting one, regarding the sliming of the slithery one...

In broad daylight, right in the centre of the heavily surveilled capital city, outside a major official meeting, an audacious campaigner flings an unknown substance at the widely loathed second most powerful figure in the regime, a man notorious for his links with some of the most powerful oligarchs on the planet ... and then gives a series of media interviews while police stand around and do nothing and the government strongman dismisses the protest as unimportant.

If, as some too readily claim, we were all now living in a British police state, then the official response to Leila Deen's green custard assault on Lord Mandelson in London this morning would not have passed off so easily

Well, I want to know why the police didn't do anything. Now, don't get me wrong, I found the whole incident highly amusing and revelled in Mandelson's humiliation, but this was verging on physical assault on another individual.

Now I also generally dislike Plane Stupid, and in particular I despise left-wing feminist socialists who have a self inflated view of themselves, and in particular their moral superiority. However, democracy is democracy. It is rule by the mob, and only liberties which restrict government action can help prevent injustices, but there will always be a need to decide some things as a society.

By all means let's look at restricting Government. Let's look at improving the accountability of our Government. At, of course, let us allow peaceful protests which do not infringe on the liberty of the object of the protest. But to turn up and 'slime' a public figure, I think, is crossing the line. If I walked up to a person in the street and did that, would it not be assault? If so then why should public figures have to put up with it?

Indeed, it may not be classed as assault under the law, and there may be good reason for not doing so. The libertarian in me screams - If no physical harm is caused then what is the fuss? But then my gut retorts - people should express their views through the ballot box, and like them or not government ministers are carrying out a job and should be able to get on with it. By all means protest, or scream at him, or whatever, but don't cross the line.

Incidentally, I would like to see more use of referendums on 'hot potato' issues like Heathrow if only because it would legitimise the result, whichever it was, and allow us to move on to the next issue. That Democracy is purely representative is an historical anachronism, borne out of the necessity or a largely uneducated populace and at a time when access to information was hard. Today with the Internet, in particular, information is easily accessible and campaigns relatively easy to mount, and so consulting the people (the purpose of democracy anyway) on specific issues becomes much more viable today. I would also support general elections every 3 years, and even go as far as to support a directly elected executive separate to Parliament to greater improve accountability.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Retrospective Legislation

There is nothing more dangerous than the departure from the rule of law. But that is exactly what is being proposed by Harriet Harman and her band of merry men (and women, of course).

The deputy Labour leader, Harriet Harman, today stepped up the pressure on the former RBS chief executive Sir Fred Goodwin to waive his £693,000 pension, saying the government aimed to take the money back from him.

"The prime minister has said that it is not acceptable and therefore it will not be accepted," she told the BBC's Andrew Marr Show.

"It might be enforceable in a court of law, this [pension] contract – but it is not enforceable in the court of public opinion, and that is where the government steps in

Dan Hannan hits the nail firmly on the head...

Harriet Harman is proposing that a law be introduced aimed at a specific individual, retrospectively to criminalise something that was legal at the time. Such laws were known mediaevally as Acts of Attainder: they declared someone guilty after the event, and with no trial. Attainder Bills were introduced very rarely, usually following a gross abuse of ministerial power or an open insurrection

To legislate retrospectively to persecute a particular individual who happens to be the public enemy of the moment is a serious and fundamental demolition of a core pillar of liberty. No Government should be above the law. The fact is Sir Fred should probably not have received the pension he did - he waives his £1.29m salary and £300,000 of share options, but because he retired early his pot increased. But the Government approved the deal, when it perhaps should not have.

Sir Fred is perfectly right when he says that he is not giving anything up voluntarily - he is in the right as far as the law in concerned, and when Government has the power to force people, whether by retrospective legislation or moral coercion, to do something then we have descended into a state of servitude.

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