Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Reinventing the State Chapter 19: Tackling Terrorism: A Liberal Democrat Approach

In this chapter, Nick Clegg
"seeks to move beyond the infantile stand-off between those who see terrorism as an expression of multiple grievances and those who regard any engagement with extremists as a form of appeasement, towards a policy of 'critical enagement'."

In a nutshell he nails the two wrong positions between which this debate is typically polarised. While grievances make good recruiting sargeants, this is about ideology - we face terrorist threats from those who reject democracy, human rights, gender equality, the non-violent contest of ideas, constrained government, the liberating potential of science and the separation of church and state. While some on the left would like to blame it all on the USA, I will suspect that they are not too committed to these values themselves. The right (eg Melanie Phillips), often happier to recognise the ideological angle are shown no mercy:
"But winning an ideological battle is not possible if the battle is not joined in the first place. That is why it is so curious that those who have rightly sought to delineate the nature of the ideological threat have then advocated a highly introverted strategy in which the sole purpose of public policy appears to be to ignore, exclude and ostracise those individuals and organisations who might provide some insight into the threat we face."

So, we should assert liberal values and not lapse into relativism. Liberalism is what the terrorists are trying to destroy: belligerent political rhetoric and 90 days detention in Siberia, are short cuts to giving them victory on a plate.

And here is the challenge:
"how to divorce the widespread grievances of large numbers of large numbers of British Muslims from the activities of Islamist extremists, in order that the former can actively help to expose and defeat the latter"

Some key elements to our response to this challenge are laid out. We must engage with specific communities, not "the Muslim community" which does not exist as a single entity.

We must engage with 'fence-sitters', and listen to their grievances.

"An unholy alliance of Tony Blair's stubborn refusal to admit any errors in his decision to invade Iraq, and the breathless accusation of appeasement bandied about by hardline commentators against anyone prepared to acknowledge ommunity grievances, has led to a self-defeating defensiveness in government. Instead, a self-confident government should have the strength of purpose to listen, and where justified, refute the ... grievances of many mainstream Muslim communitites."

And we should recognise the divisions, typically generational, within some Muslim communities: that young men in particular are most at risk of radicalisation, and we might look for ways we could help community leaders (and parents?) deal with this challenge. This is perhaps my only question mark on the whole chapter - I am a little wary of deference to community leaders, it seems to deny the huge diversity of views within any community, and may reinforce a position of authority that might not be popular or deserved. But it would have been a digression for Nick to have gone into this.

These three themes, and another three I didn't mention "are by no means exhaustive". But they add flesh to the policy of critical engagement, indispensable to starving extremists of the support of their non-violent neighbours.

Nick goes on to talk about more structural issues, MI5, MI6, the police, an integrated border force and securing the ports. All good stuff we should be familiar with. And finally, under the heading of legal reform, rather than ever more draconian detention without charge, Nick advocates reforms to give us an effective process without abandoning judicial oversight. The threshold test allows a suspect to be charged in the expectation of further evidence coming to light. Post-charge questioning would remove one of the obstacles to charges being brought early. Admission of telephone intercept evidence would bring us into line with almost the rest of the world. None of these are simple quick fixes; each must be done with care. But they show that there is scope for increasing the effectiveness of the fight without trampling on liberty.
"In the past the government has appeared to hasty in side-stepping due process in a rush to meet the terror threat, whilst overlooking a host of practical reforms... As the national debate on terrorism matures, our aim should remain steadfast and simple: to protect both our lives and our liberties"

Monday, December 17, 2007

Reinventing the State Chapter 18: Rebuilding Trust in the Criminal Justice System

Where the Orange Book focusses on offenders and the tough love of training and work, Tim Starkey barely mentions this and talks instead about the system.

So we hear about policing, anti-social behaviour, community justice, and honesty in sentencing: all good themes. But we should not leave behind the earlier themes under Mark Oaten's cloud, whether he wrote the chapter or not.

That said, there is nothing wrong with this chapter. Posturing on toughness should not longer be allowed to get in the way of effectiveness. ASBOs should be more of a last resort. Victims of petty criminals who are up for it should be entitled to face them and see them face the music and make restitution. Honesty in sentencing is better than micromanaging the judges. Etc, etc.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Reinventing the State Chapter 17: Reforming the NHS - a Local and Democratic Voice

Richard Grayson helpfully summarises his own argument:

Without [a democratic authority], it will always be possible for everyone to blame somebody else without taking responsibility. Ministers can blame local bureaucrats, when those ministers have give the bureaucrats very little independence. Health care bureaucrats can point to rigid central controls, but can also blame the public for making supposedly unrealistic demands, when the bureaucrats have little incentive to engage with the public. The public can blame 'them' - usually the government or bureaucrats - despite the fact that the system allows the public to make demand after demand for high levels of local service without ever having to face their real cost.

The suggested solution is local democratic accountability.

Crucially, these elected local people need to have the power to raise [or lower] funds for the NHS so that any demand made by the public for higher quality [or lower taxes] can have a real price attached.

I have been a little mischeivous with my additions there. But I am not clear to what extent Richard is arguing that local accountability will make higher taxes more palateable. This is not such a useful line at the moment, when the NHS has just seen a massive cash input, much of which has not led to noticeable improvements. It would seem sensible to pursue efficiency gains to at least pre-splurge levels before seeking higher funding.

Anyway, Richard is at this point about to launch into an advocacy of adopting something like the radically decentralised Danish health system. However, it turns out that the Danish system has only just been reformed - January 2007 - and is now somewhat less decentralised than it was, although still one of the most decentralised systems around.

I must say that for me this leaves something of a question mark over the proposal. Shouldn't we give a new system some years to bed in before we praise it or emulate it? And why did the Danes centralise, even if only a little? But this is just a question mark.

The idea is to turn PCT duties over to county/city/unitary councils or elected health boards covering the same boundaries. Small authorities might choose to set up joint health boards. This seems sound enough.

I am a little puzzled still, because in the section on funding, Richard talks about a new tax - the NHS contribution - almost identical to, and partially replacing Income Tax, which would, along with NICs comprise NHS funding. Suddenly there is no mention of the locally raised share of NHS funding. This along with my loathing of hypothecation and of extra complexity in the tax system, made this a very disappointing conclusion to a good chapter.

And while localism is a big idea and a good idea, I don't think it is as big or as good as the expectation we have of it. Many people will be unimpressed with a policy that doesn't on the face of it change anything. What do we expect the different bunch of politicians to do differently? Are there no more ideas? Richard's pamphlet with Nick Clegg on education (pdf) was full of ideas.

This is a good retort to the Orange Book simply by opposing social insurance. And yet could not a local health board choose social insurance? It is pretty half-baked localism if it can't.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Reinventing the State Chapter 16: The State and Education

There is perhaps not much to say about John Howson's contribution. Simply by existing, it is a retort to the Orange Book which did not have a chapter on Education - although that book was half as long and half as costly as this one. And we should be talking about education more, as Nick Clegg has been saying.

There is much good, if not sparkling, analysis here, largely along the lines of our existing policies, and few big ideas to disagree with, or to agree with for that matter. Vouchers are rejected. Schemes to cut out the community rather than the government - such as foundation schools are criticised. The unfairness arising from faith schools admissions policies remarked upon, David Boyle take note. There is even, shock horror, a suggestion that some sort of market for training places might work better than the current, centrally planned, system. Do we have an Orange Booker in our midst?

Intriguingly John asks

To answer these questions it is also necessary to decide to what extent education is a private or a public good: investment for the individual's benefit or for the common good?

A fascinating question I think, particularly if you adopt a class analysis. Should schools serving largely working class areas focus on training contented workers, schools in middle class areas focus on the professions and management, and private schools focus on instilling the maximum smugness self-confidence in those born to lead? This will serve the common good most efficiently, as focussing on the odd child in the "wrong" school will use resources less efficiently.

On the other hand a policy of giving every child what is best for them is clearly uncommunautaire.

As far as I can tell John only answers a different interpretation of his question, which is a pity.

Anyway, in conclusion, ho hum, all very good, but avoids the really tough questions. We have a system that closes down schools which are failing because of difficult children, and those children move to another school which fails in turn. Should difficult children be shared out between all schools? (No!) That would give us a more equal system, but this more equal system would also suffer more disruption in total. More children's education would be damaged.

I wonder if we can't develop a system where the children who are willing to behave and work hard, irrespective of their ability, will always have an undisrupted learning environment found for them - in the next school if this one can't do it - irrespective of whether their parents are pushy enough to make it happen. And this opportunity might encourage a few more children to make an effort. This is not to suggest that I am assigning fault for disruptive behaviour, I am just looking for practical ways to minimise the damage that it does.

It is much easier just to talk about localism, isn't it.

Reinventing the State Chapter 15: The Case for Localism - the Liberal Narrative

The problem with reviewing Chris Huhne's second chapter, making the case for localism in public service provision, is that it is by now an argument we are very familiar with. And one which I entirely support.

Peter Welch takes a thorough look at this issue in the context of the leadership election here. To paraphrase (or perhaps invent) Peter's question to Chris, it is this: Is localism the end of the story?

And would we rule out localities being permitted to introduce insurance or vouchers? Chris doesn't say, but if so the power of his own argument defeats him. And if not, it was strange of him to make such a fuss about ruling them out during the leadership election.

And finally, although I agree localism is the right policy, I am not entirely satisfied with having to say 'localism is the answer' on the doorstep. Why? For two reasons. Firstly, because there is no more confidence in the ability of local government than there is of any other level, there is a vicious cycle of insignificance and second-rateness about local politics, and rarely (at least round here) much local press scrutiny of local issues. Perversely it may seem easier to hold national politicians to account because at least they appear on Newsnight or the Today programme.

The second reason is that we are local politicians too. A policy worthy of the name must say what we would actually do locally, once localism was in place. Headlining the localism can sound evasive.

But these are questions about the completeness and presentation of the policy, not objections to it. Anyway I will pick up on a couple of points in Chris's text...
I have considerable doubts about whether there is really such a close parallel
between markets in the private and public sphere: if you buy more or fewer
oranges you are unlikely to affect in any material way anyone else's options.
But if you take your child away from a failing school, you may worsen the
outlook for the children left behind. One person's exercise of choice may limit

I have great difficulty with even a slight suggestion that a parent shouldn't take their child away from a failing school. Actually Chris's school example does seem to have a private sphere market analogue: that of positional goods. If you buy Van Gogh's sunflowers, nobody else can. Positional goods have some (intrinsic?) limit on their supply, and a good question might be why do schools appear to be like this. I suggest that the extent to which they are like this is due to the influence of the peer group. There are so many talented and hard working children and so many difficult ones, and we all want our children educated with the former.

Quality peers are a positional good, and this explains much of the heat over private schools, admissions policies, selection, etc. Policies which address funding and governance may be good but largely ignore this issue.

The other aspect of Chris's argument I find unconvincing is the section explaining why more localism would not increase inequality. Now I agree with the conclusion, but I think the argument is cod statistics. Chris shows a graph plotting inequality (the Gini index) against the proportion of taxes raised locally. This shows little or no correlation. Meh.

It is, for example, entirely possible that more equal countries are willing to tolerate greater decentralisation, but that they become less equal as a result. It is possible that there is a correlation here, positive or negative, but hidden by some other variable that is also correlated. It is certain that we are comparing numbers that are not strictly comparable. No, it is nice to have the odd graph, but it is bad statistics to base firm conclusions on it.

But I am nitpicking. Chris has an easy win with the case for localism. He brutally mocks the rewards for failure that went to Margaret Beckett and David Milliband.
It is as if we were implicitly admitting that the system is so big and so
complex that it would be unfair to hold anyone to account for its


Monday, December 03, 2007

Reinventing the State Chapter 14: Repoliticising Politics: The case for Intervention

Of Paul Holmes' chapter I said that if you read "profit motive" for "markets" the arguments are quite good. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for Tim Farron's effort.

When the promising, fun diatribe against the sameness of Labour and the Conservatives and the shallowness of Cameron and Blair under the slogan "I can't believe it's not politics" reaches it's point, that point turns out to be that neither is sufficiently Old Labour. Yes Cameron and Blair are shallow, although Blair largely got his policies from the deep but wrong Gordon Brown. I imagine that Cameron, should he get the chance, will get some policies to implement from a deep but wrong sidekick of his own.

Fundamentally they agree on a non-interventionist approach to the market and are opposed to anything more than a gesture in the direction of redistributing wealth.

Hmmm. Frankly, no party is proposing big changes in the amount of redistribution that goes on. Although Duncan Brack argued at length in his chapter about the need for more equality, he offers nothing concrete to the poor.

I have noticed a tendency in some quarters to talk abstractly about inequality as a substitute for having policies to tackle poverty. Abstract principles do little heavy lifting in determining policy priorities, and being a subscriber to the (vague) notion of relative poverty by no means guarantees you will give fighting poverty a higher priority than someone who considers poverty only in absolute terms. I would like to see higher simpler benefits with less means testing, because poverty stinks, not for any abstract reason; although I haven't yet found the money.

As for the point on intervention, Farron seems to consider it intrinsically virtuous. In fact the Tories and Labour have long been willing to intervene on behalf of their interest groups, and strip away the interventions of the other lot - arguing liberalism while practising class war. Labour are still fighting the class war, although they are no longer sure what side they are on.

I am quite happy to consider proposed interventions on their merits - expecting those merits will be less than they appear - but I find Tim's enthusiasm terrrifying.
And why should we not ... consider placing restrictions so that certain categories of property cannot be transferred from the owner-occupied to the rental market?

Because that would drive up rents and further enrich property owners at the expense of tenants.

Tim rails against Adam Smith, suggesting that great harm is done by free markets. These are some of the examples he gives:
  • The state of British farming [as subsidised]
  • The outrageous exploitation in world trade [barriers and subsidies]
  • NHS outsourcing [guaranteed incomes for contractors]
  • PFI [virtually devoid of competition]
  • Capita being let off a £1m penalty [i.e. the state giving our money away]

If I was asked to think of some examples of reasonably free markets, I would probably look at something like computer hardware or furniture or restaurants. And where are the comparable disasters in these lines of business?

Intervention is the only course of action open to a true liberal ...

Wow. Dripping with no sense of irony.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Reinventing the State Chapter 13: The Limits of the Market

And at last we have the manifesto of the left of the party: not the manifesto of social liberals - we are all social liberals here. You could probably skip straight to this chapter. Paul Holmes apologises for straying beyond his remit, but it would have been interesting if more of the authors had done this. Many incomplete manifestos don't necessarily make a complete one.

My problem here is that Paul doesn't seem to distinguish between the effects of free markets on the one hand, and the worst excesses of right-wing governments and corporate greed on the other. He talks about water privatisation in the third world. But when people who cannot afford mains water are prohibited from collecting rainwater under laws sweetening the privatisation, this is not a free market situation in any sense. Involving the private sector does not necessarily involve markets. The title of the chapter "the limits of the market" should perhaps read "the limits of private-public rent-seeking deal-making to prevent free markets and screw ordinary people".

Failing to make this distinction leaves Paul making the same soggy compromise that defines Labour: "markets" are a necessary evil that we can't do without but must fight against most of the time. Or as Labour morphs into the Conservatives, this becomes "markets" (still meaning corrupt rip-off rent-seeking) usefully make money for those whose interests we represent and oil the wheels of politics.

Well this isn't what markets are. This evil is not a necessary one, it should be opposed with clarity and vigour. PFI is not a market mechanism, quite the opposite, it is a relationship almost completely devoid of competitive pressures. Markets on the other hand are a necessary good, always rough at the edges and reliant on peace, law, sound regulations, quality information and so on, but the greatest force there is for enabling opportunity and prosperity.

Paul defends the role of democratic politics as the only way to put health, the environment, public goods, monopoly prevention etc, above the profit motive. He is right. The rules of the game have to be set according to the common good, and not bought - as Adam Smith warned against - by special interests. If the rules of the game allow profiteering which destroys more value than it creates, then value will be destroyed, and the few will prosper from the suffering of the many. A simple example of this would be that if theft were permitted: a few bandit barons would be fairly rich, and the rest of us would be in grinding poverty. If you make money destroying the environment - stealing it from the rest of us - this is much like being such a bandit baron. A market system, in contrast, is one in which we only give up things of value voluntarily in exchange for things we value even more.

Democratic politics and markets are brothers. They are both expressions of the principle of power to the people. It does not upset me that one typically works better than the other for a given kind of decision - it is not enough to make me want to pit these allies one against the other.

So when Paul says, of desirable social outcomes that
The hidden hand of the profit motive in the free market, left to itself, will deliver the opposite of all these outcomes.
The key driver of Adam Smith's 'invisible hand' is the profit motive based on success or failure in cutthroat competition - not motives of fairness, humanity or the common good.
I must refer to Adam Smith too:
It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love...
Smith is of course not saying that people should not be humane, fair or pursue the common good - just that it would be unwise for us rely for our dinner on these sentiments in others, when self-interest can be turned to the good.

The left's objection to Adam Smith - which is a valid objection to right-wing interpretations of him - is that he is saying that we ought to pursue profit and ignore the good. Both left and right are guilty of very selective reading.

And so for most of the chapter Paul rails against "unfettered markets" or "markets on their own" largely in reference to policies which involve the private sector but not markets. If you read "the profit motive" for "markets", the arguments are quite good.

I am confirmed in my view that the left of the party, the social liberals who question economic liberalism, have misunderstood the rest of us, and not understood Adam Smith. Far from retorting to the Orange Book, this chapter confirms its importance.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Supporting Nick Clegg

Having maintained this blog as a beacon of untopicality for some time now, I am going to mention the leadership election. I have so far resisted doing this. Although I have supported Nick from the beginning, I'm not the sort to present my conclusions at the beginning of a campaign and expect other people to follow them. It is better form to be undecided for the duration of a campaign, follow the debates, and decide at the end. I don't live up to this standard myself, so crucify me.

First let me say that Chris is a capable candidate and would make a fine leader. His desperation to make the contest about policy was right up my street - I am the sort of person who would be happy to talk about nothing but policy. That it drove him to invent differences was unfortunate, but perhaps it was worth trying. As I have an interest in environmental policy, I particularly appreciate Chris's input and sharp elbows in that area. We disagree on a few details, but if we damned people for getting any policy details wrong, we would end up praising only those who say nothing about policy at all. On the other hand, if you make policy detail your selling point, you really ought to get it right. Perhaps this is a reason not to make policy detail your selling point.

And yet, even on this core issue Chris doesn't appeal to me more than Nick. As I said in the comments at the People's Republic of Mortimer
Chris, the charge isn’t that we aren’t scoring higher than other parties on our environmental policy.

The point here is that the environmental narrative is stuck in a rut - of too much that is small and symbolic, and not enough that will make a big difference - and frankly the preference for hair shirts and gloom over optimistic determination.

Now the zero carbon paper was quite good on these points, although I do have my problems with it, and I don’t think the measures proposed would add up to zero.

I think part of the environmental fatigue is down to governments passing the buck back to individuals, when there are a few simple, if expensive, measures that could be taken to significantly reduce carbon emissions, and that it is not individual sacrifices, but successful low carbon economies that will persuade the developing world to follow suit.

A well developed message along these lines will persuade more people to vote for the party with the better environmental policies.

This is much closer to Nick's position, when he talks about the frustration people feel when they try to do their bit, and government doesn't pull its weight.

What more could we ask of a leader than that he is like us, shares our interests, and advances our ideas more capably than we can? Doesn't Chris fit this mould best? I think it would be self-indulgent to prefer Chris to Nick. Yes, Chris is like us, but not always in the best way. Similarity to oneself has a halo effect on our judgement of people. Nick, on the other hand, is less like me, and more like what I aspire to be. He doesn't let his inner politician entirely take over his brain. He really listens, really thinks, and really engages. This is better (honestly) than fishing out a relevant quote from some US president or liberal philosopher. I think - and maybe this is a quirk of my personal philosophy - that it is a slight misapplication of values to always ask "how do my settled beliefs and values tell me to respond in this situation"?

To put it another way, Mill does not justify what we say in a political discourse. Rather, what we say should be justifying Mill. The former style ossifies our beliefs, and creates a distance between us and an interlocutor. Part of Nick's magic is breaking down that distance. While I've not discussed the finer points of this angle with either candidate, I find Nick's approach far more satisfying and refreshing than Chris's.

And where policy differences have appeared, I find myself agreeing with Nick. A pupil premium, yes. Effectively take that premium away from those presently most ill-served by giving it to everyone? No. As an aside, I wonder which of these policies is supposed to be the more left-wing. Nick's which explicitly addresses unfairness, or Chris's which just spends more public money overall. While obviously more money for education would be good, budgeting is difficult, and it would add more heat than light to a leadership debate for candidates to start promising more for this cause or that.

Don't renew Trident now? Yes. Develop a new nuclear weapon? No. I am still waiting for somebody to explain to me why developing a new nuclear system is better than buying one off the shelf, or, if you are buying one off the shelf, why you would tell the salesman in advance that you are not buying some alternative. If you are going to make an issue of a disagreement you have with party policy, I would expect it to be on something a little more substantial.

I doubt policy will have much impact at the end of the day on this contest; there are some differences, but no clear water of any colour. What I suggest makes a compelling reason to vote for Nick Clegg, and for that matter, to vote for the Liberal Democrats, is the chance to reach out and build a coalition around liberalism. I quite like the talk about "British liberalism", this is in many ways a very liberal country. When we see a schoolteacher in Sudan arrested for how her children wanted to name a teddy bear, this should remind the whole country of the vital importance of liberalism, and we need to be up there with the rallying cry. It is under attack, from Labour, from the Greens, from Conservatives, from tyrants and protectionists worldwide. This is where we stand and fight.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Child benefit data: Making the simple expensive

One thing that particularly appals me about this fiasco, on top of all the things that appal us all, is the revelation, here, that
Mr Leigh said the reason given for turning down the NAO request was that desensitising information would require an extra payment to data services provider EDS.
Have we really surrendered so much control over government IT to consultants, that simple operations on the data are now impossible?

A colleague of mine was working a few years ago, on a job which involved having customer information on a laptop, which he would carry about with him. One simple step he took before leaving the building was issue a command to his copy of the database, such as
UPDATE Customers SET BankAccountNo = '12345678'
This obliterated all the bank account numbers, replacing them with 12345678, thus rendering the laptop rather less sensitive. It would probably take 30 seconds to type and run. And it is not rocket science: you could learn sufficient SQL for this sort of operation on a 1 day course, if you were not smart enough to get it from the manual.

Even this, of course, was not good enough. The company should have had a security policy and a security system that prevented the bulk capture of this sort of data. He didn't need these bank account numbers in the first place - it was just simpler to copy the whole database.

The idea that such a simple operation might involve a significant cost is breathtaking. I can understand that if a consultant has to be called in, even for 30 seconds work, there are many ancillary costs, and a fairly hefty bill may be reasonable. But this just emphasises the importance of having some basic competence over your core activities. By all means outsource development projects, but don't outsource control or understanding.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Reinventing the State Chapter 12: The Economy and Climate Change

As expected, Chris Huhne delivers the goods on this. He
advocates a package that can be constructed without hurting the poor or even compromising on redistribution.
Which is overselling a little - there is real competition for spend between social and environmental projects, and even if the green taxes levied are largely progressive or neutral, they will have knock on effects on product prices and the cost of living.

However, I can forgive Chris for getting a little carried away. (Hmm, change of house-style there. First names from now on.)

We start with a nice go at the Green Party's "eco-Marxist" or anti-growth position
Since growth is, in one view, the end result of so many other actions freely undertaken by individuals and companies, albeit within a framework set by government, this implies that we must abandon the principle that we are free to do as we will so long as the activity is not forbidden by law. It implies a process of licensing and permission that is deeply antithetical to liberal values. It would, indeed, be reminiscent of the Soviet Union's economic planning by Gosplan.
this is something I have been trying to say on this blog for some time, but Chris has put it better.

Most of the arguments that follow will be familiar to those who have read the zero carbon paper agreed at Brighton 2007. Carbon trading and green taxes are extolled. More direct measures are advocated in areas like home energy efficiency where many are locked to the assets they have and so pure price signals would generate much pain and little movement. We go on to such things feed-in tariffs, LVT, and leapfrog funds for developing nations.

The overall picture here is that we can decarbonise the economy, with technology that largely exists already, at not to great a cost, and that by doing this we can end any dilemmas about supporting development in the third world. This is a position I wholeheartedly endorse.

However, I do have a few issues with some of the details.

First Chris seems unduly keen on cap and trade and the EU ETS. He even suggests it comes before green taxes in the hierarchy of liberal economic instruments. I find this pretty breathtaking. Trading never beats taxation - sure it sounds better - but the two are equivalent in theory: a price is put on something that must be limited, to allow the market to place those limits in the most efficient places. In practise it is easier to calculate the right level for a pigovian tax and let the market find the level than calculate the right level and let the market find the price. A more stable price, futhermore, is a clear political signal and a better guide to investment that might be scared off by volatility.

The EU ETS goes further wrong in giving permits away, which is effectively giving public money away for nothing. And what does this mean? Windfall profits as the "opportunity costs" of not reselling these free permits is passed on to consumers. And new entrants to the market - just what we need to maximize innovation - are virtually kept out as they don't get these grandfathered freebies.

Finally, I would suggest that international agreements on national carbon limits and carbon trading will be vastly more difficult to reach - because it implies a divvying up of the climate commons - than an agreement that each country will simply tax its own emissions and keep the revenue. A lower rate for developing countries if they want, fine. Political transparency for which countries are pulling their weight, and which are freeloading? Yes, please.

Moving on. Chris advocates a legislative requirement on energy companies to sell less energy from one year to the next, hoping this would incentivise them to provide energy efficiency grants to customers. I find this pretty barmy. As long as the power is connected it is the consumer who chooses how much to use. Rather than legislate a duty on suppliers they don't have the power to meet, why not tax or ration or otherwise seek to influence the person with their finger on the switch. And any scheme like this inverts the normal incentives to sell your product with penalties and incentives will be highly gameable. There'll be more windfall profits here and no gains. A better insulated home is a public good and a good for the occupants. Why should an energy supplier (who we might rotate every 3 months) pay for this at all?

Feed-in tariffs are another measure, widely advocated for domestic microgen, but on which I am fairly cautious. I fully support the idea for big wind and so forth, where a couple of pence per unit will make all the difference. Chris suggests a feed-in tariff of 4 times the feed-out rate for domestic microgen. At that rate I could buy, or build, a flywheel and sell grid electricity back to the grid on a slight delay. We shouldn't feel such a need to pay for something - like tiny amounts of domestic microgen electricity - what is clearly a great deal more than it is worth. We should be doing the cheapest first, and will probably never get to give-away feed-in tariffs for domestic microgen. I dare say this position may be unpopular but it is part of my crusade to promote what is practical at the expense of what is symbolic.

These problems all exist in the zero carbon paper, which, furthermore didn't seem to propose enough to bring emissions down quite that far. Chris has his questionable zeros here too. I didn't seek to oppose or amend the paper because I think it has basically the right approach, as does this chapter.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Answering the Hung Parliament question

Our frustration at a quarter of Question Time being spent on the hung parliament question was palpable. Yet at the same time I think there is understandable frustration that neither candidate gave a what would seem to a non-party observer to be a straight answer.

This would be my 'straight' answer:
It is most unlikely that we would end up in a coalition with either party after the election, because I can't see either of them offering to implement anywhere near enough of our manifesto for it to be worth the grief and shame of having to support chunks of their manifesto in return.

However, it is absolutely vital not to rule anything in or out, not to publish any of our 'red lines', because to do so will diminish our leverage should there be any bargaining after an election, and would therefore be a betrayal of our voters and our values. We have no more duty to prop up a minority government than any other party, and we would be just as demanding as any other party in that situation.

There's no point asking us which of the other parties we are closer to, because we don't know what they stand for any more. Frankly, we doubt that they know what they stand for. We are not trying to win votes as a kind of indirect support for one of the other parties - if you support another party, then vote for it, but if you share our vision of a freer, fairer and greener Britain, then vote for us.

A bit painful to say? Perhaps. Might it stem the flow of this question a little? Perhaps. What's the worst that could happen? What am I missing here?

A Tory-Labour coalition might be the most logical, but too much tribal instinct is against it. So while we should suggest it as a natural outcome, it is not a likely outcome. And it is, still, a little evasive not to say more than this.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Reinventing the State Chapter 11: Globalisation and the Role of the British State

David Hall-Matthews revisits and refers approvingly to the topic of Chris Huhne's chapter of the Orange Book. He makes many very good points that globalisation's detractors ought to be aware of. For instance, globalisation is largely enabled by governments, not imposed upon them.
...anti globalisers' fears about the loss of state control are exaggerated, but have political significance. On the other hand, the far more serious threat of future global recession, as part of normal - if unpredictable - economic cycles is arguably not discussed enough in political treatises on globalisation.
This is an important point. We must not let fear of the political consequences blind us to the benefits of trade. Nonetheless Hall-Matthews has some suggestions for achieving a balance between the promotion of trade and protecting people and the environment. Largely, they are familiar Liberal Democrat ideas: democracy, transparency, localism, protection of the vulnerable and so forth.

Only occasionally is the neck stuck out...
As Nicholas Stern showed in his analysis of the impact of climate change, it is possible - and politically necessary - to estimate the economic costs of failing to spend now to prevent future calamity. Calculating what is needed to maintain a motivated and adaptable workforce should therefore take priority over the desire to cap public spending as proposed by Vince Cable.
A slightly odd example, perhaps, since the production and exchange of more expensive low-carbon energy might all happen in the private sector, and not impact the size of the public sector at all. Let's not slip into the lazy error that good can only be done by the state. In any case Hall-Matthews is not addressing Cable's argument. Of course there are a great many compelling demands on public money - if there weren't we could talk about reducing taxes. Listing them does not address the need for discipline, if not at 40% then at some (what?) higher figure.

I am a little unsure of the tone of this chapter, that maybe it talks up the power of governments a little too much in distinguishing globalisation from anarchy. Perhaps there are some good ways in which governments are less powerful too. Still, the thrust is correct, that we do not need to surrender the good things that governments do.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Reinventing the State Chapter 10: The Politics of Parenting: Confronting the F Word

Matthew "two chapters" Taylor returns with a chapter about how marvellous parents are for children.
In terms of policy it is crucial that welfare provision does not punish couples in relation to lone parents, but given the advantages to children of two-parent models [3 would be greedy], the state must take pains to ensure that tax and benefits do not discourage it, and that we do not allow the idea that children do just as well when mum is on her own. The fact is that on average they do worse and we need to admit it.
I will credit Taylor that when he says "do not allow the idea" he means "disagree with the idea", otherwise, ouch, this is suddenly all about crimethink.

The whole tone of the chapter is that this is a daring kind of position. The F word of the title is not fuck or federalism, but family. As if this couldn't be said without attacking single parents, which is nonsense. But I must say that I am utterly oblivious to the outrage that Taylor clearly expected this chapter to generate. Whether it is families, or "moral issues" or immigration, I am sick of people complaining that they "must be allowed" to talk about it. Stop bleating and just get on with talking about it, will you?

Taylor rightly attacks the Tory focus on marriage not children. The Labour determination to send single parents to work is a more difficult target. There are swings and roundabouts to working for a single parent, depending on many factors, and generalised judgements fail.

But the real problem with Taylor's argument, the conflict which he fails to address, is that if the system rewards the two-parent family, then by contrast it punishes those families most in need: the single-parent families. Yes, it is absurd that two parents on benefits will be better off if they split up, and much better off if one was working. It is also absurd to talk about the most disadvantaged children while targetting assistance at the more fortunate. There's a nettle here to grasp one way or the other - not of a moral assault on single parents, but a financial one.

Taylor rightly observes that we seem, as a society, to have low expectations of fathers when it comes to bringing up their children. So I am a little surprised that there is no discussion of the trend in Colorado family courts and elsewhere to award equal parenting time (duty) to each parent, and a presumption against deeming either parent 'absent'. This would seem to reflect the change in attitudes towards fathers that Taylor advocates. Perhaps there are problems with it too, but it is surely worth a mention.

Instead of tackling these difficult questions head on, the chapter spends most of its time on the safe and easy ground of the widely recognised crises in childhood and parenting: parent(s) always working, kids in front of the TV/Space Invaders, etc. And so often the answer lies in saying the f word, breaking the taboos that prevent governments addressing these problems, rather than what would be rather more useful: policy suggestions for actual interventions that might do some good. If you can't think of any such interventions, then perhaps what you are calling a taboo is in fact a sound division of labour between the family and the state.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Reinventing the State Chapter 9: Status versus Friendship and the Common Good

I was hoping that now we are out of the "principles" section that chapters would contain less grumbling about the state of the world, and more putting it to rights. Lynne Featherstone lets me down somewhat.

The key question of the chapter is this:
How can we create structures and environments the value our human good qualities more and place less importance on wealth and status?
Unfortunately it doesn't appear until the tenth page. First we have 9 pages of analysis, some good, some not so good, largely in the vein of Brack, Taylor, Titley and Boyle.

These are the by-now familiar sentiments:
So, whilst it is undoubtedly more comfortable to be rich and miserable, we are all, in reality, miserable.
Wow. Speak for yourself.
...but the periods of relief provided by quick fix solutions or the momentary glow from retail therapy are getting shorter and shorter.
Is this supposed to show some self-awareness? It doesn't ring true. This is mere received wisdom about other people being too stupid to make the right decisions.

I don't suggest that there is no problem here, or even that politics should be indifferent to happiness, but if it were really this bad, if everybody were miserable, we probably ought to promote global warming or nuclear armageddon asap.
And what role, if any, does government have in all of this? This is tricky territory to tread; one false slip of the sentence and you open yourself up to pastiche for wanting a Ministry of Fun, or force-fed humour courses with every meal.
Right. So we are not looking to make fun for people, perhaps just leave them freer to pursue happiness instead of bargains. It may be difficult to see how to do this, but it is a prize worth pursuing.

Anyway Featherstone continues in a similar vein for some time, making some good points, but seemingly harking back to some past golden age that probably never actually existed.
So why, then, are the joys of life apparently in such short supply? Status has got out of kilter with friendship, and the common good has been crushed under a stampede of selfishness.
I am left wondering which historical period was less status-ridden, or served better the common good, than the present.
Status and friendship have their roots in fundamentally different ways of resolving the problem of competition for scarce resources.
No, that would be property and usufruct. Status and friendship are not about resources, but, rather are different kinds of social capital. They have a great deal to do with happiness, but, as Featherstone observes, getting your share of retail therapy (resources) is not what brings happiness.

I guess the idea is that if we were more equal, we could all be friends instead of being superiors and inferiors, and therefore we would be happier. I think this is a bit of a stretch.

Anyway, what suggestions do we have for making progress?
Government can hardly order people to talk to, or like, their neighbours, but at the micro scale, what about councils doing more to help and encourage the organisation of street parties so that people get to know each other?
Well cancel armageddon. Street parties will make us happy. A fine idea, although I suspect that they would become rapidly less appealing with each slight hint of state involvement. And I can't help but think this is something that the middle classes will do more, increasing the social capital gap between them and the poor. A benefit yes, but not one that tackles inequality.

There are two or three more good ideas of this sort of ilk. Do they begin to match the rhetoric of doom and gloom, of the lost Eden? No, but this was overblown in the first place. This mismatch between the scale of the problem and the power of the potential solutions demonstrates that the pursuit of happiness is principally something for individuals and communities and not for governments or politics.

Reinventing the State Chapter 8: Using Community Politics to Build a Liberal Society

We now move into the "individuals, communities and the state" section of the book, with Mark Pack's spirited advocacy of community politics. He makes some similar arguments to this excellent piece by James Graham - that we need to be willing to go beyond that which generates casework, to cut ourselves out of the loop where people have the chance to engage more directly with local government.

A few interesting points...
Certainly, I can take good care of my pet goldfish but in the overall cause of animal welfare, the question of whether or not I can influence my local council's meat purchasing policies is far more important. A lifetime of responsible goldfish tending will not begin to equal the influence of the local council. Altering my behaviour may be morally correct, virtuous and even help set a good example to others (which in turn may affect others, which in turn...) but it has major limitations.
I agree. What is interesting is how little this seems to have impacted on environmental politics. We don't seem to recognise somehow the near irrelevance of whether a single person flies, drives a tank, holds weekly bonfires or whatever it is. Instead there is a tendency to condemn someone who advocates the right policies if they don't meet a certain checklist of largely symbolic personal sacrifices.
the petitions on the 10 Downing Street website are - currently - an unfortunately good example of drive-by democracy ... the system essentially allows only just this very brief and superficial engagement with the issue.
Not to mention that the petitions themselves are mostly banal, bonkers or both. I sign a few myself from time to time, although I am not sure why. Pack contrasts this with the suggestion that councils might operate web forums to achieve better consultation and to make it easier for like minded people to find each other and form community groups. While I can only begin to imagine the pitfalls that might thwart such an initiative, the principle is breathtaking, exploding the quantity of public conversation, and the near invisibility of local politics.

While I don't appreciate everything Pack says; his dismissal of the importance of discussing the relative merits of the Meek and ERS forms of STV is particularly hurtful, I can only endorse this chapter of the book.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Reinventing the State Chapter 7: Rights and Responsibilities

As I read through Reinventing the State, I use a pencil to highlight points I disagree with and want to write about here. With Elspeth Attwooll's chapter on rights and responsibilities I had no use for the pencil, until about halfway through, when I decided to highlight a few good points as well, or I might have nothing to say.

Attwooll brings a refreshing clarity to what is generally a muddled debate and I heartily recommend this chapter to everyone. She clarifies the relationships between rights and duties, between claims (something we might want to be a right) and responsibilities, and between different claims: liberties, opportunities (claims to do or achieve something such as vote or work, that may require the active support of other people), and benefits (claims upon the actions or resources of others).
So if claims, as social concepts, are - unlike desires and demands - conditioned by his morality [referring to Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments], then it must also provide us with some idea of their limits, their relative weight and importance and the extent to which and the manner in which, their fulfilment should be secured. None of this can be adequately achieved without a parallel consideration of responsibilities.
This is contrasted on the one hand with fascists and communists who ignore claims and consider only responsibilities to the monolithic society; and on the other hand with supporters of the minimal state who arbitrarily grant liberties and reject opportunities and benefits as if this were a natural law.


Better still, Attwooll has read her brief, and discusses chapter 1 of the Orange Book, in some detail. I struggle with one of her points:
David Laws, though correct in wishing to marry economic and social liberalism, is mistaken in the manner in which he does so. This is because the four different types of liberalism cannot be treated as operating at the same level. ... The tenets of political and economic liberalism are, accordingly, about the conditions for the achievement of their respective goals. By contrast, personal and social liberalism are expressed as goals in their own right.
Perhaps I have misunderstood, but I am not clear why Laws' marriage requires economic and social liberalism to be on the same level. Indeed, if economic liberalism is to be a means to serve social liberalism as an end, it would appear that the difference of "levels" is exactly right.

Nor am I entirely convinced by this distinction between means and ends.
Yet, arguably wealth is unlike other social goods. All these are worth having both in themselves and because they contribute to one another. ... [but] the value of wealth lies in what else it makes achievable.
Yes, it is arguable. But I would argue that the value of all social goods is, like wealth, not intrinsic, but instrumental, that is they are not good eternally in a vacuum, but immediately and to people, according to how people enjoy them.


The chapter concludes with a response to Nick Clegg's suggestion in his chapter of the Orange Book that the appropriate level for social policy is the member state rather than the EU. Attwooll makes some good points against this position - largely points that were anticipated by Clegg, and concludes, a little weakly, that there is a "measure of disagreement about what decisions are best made where", and that it arguable that Clegg has got this wrong. Arguable, yes, you just argued it.

This slight fizzling out of a strong chapter brings us to the end of the Principles section of the book.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Reinventing the State Chapter 6: Liberalism and the search for meaning

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice
David Boyle's chapter is a fierce attack on secularism. Why this is appropriate for a book about social liberalism is clear to him, if not to me.

The first big problem here is that the word secularism has two pertinent meanings:

1. Not being religious, an absence of religion
2. The idea that the state should be neutral with respect to religious questions - that the state should not discriminate in any way against believers or non-believers, and therefore that freedom of religion is guaranteed.

Many liberals will be atheist or otherwise irreligious, as I am, and will largely disagree with Boyle's rhetoric. All liberals should support the second kind of secularism. It is no business of the state to tell us what we ought to believe, and it has no special access to any kind of religious truth. (The National Secular Society is an organisation of secularists-1, campaigning for secularism-2.)

Boyle ignores this distinction and launches into a defence of religion and attack on (undifferentiated) secularism. This is dangerous. Yes, people should advocate their beliefs, including political beliefs that are religiously inspired, but there are good reasons to avoid the advocacy of religious beliefs (or atheism) in a political context. This is because it is a threat to secularism-2. Politics carries the implicit threat of coercion, of the idea that what you or I are advocating is good for everyone, and should be adopted collectively.

We are a long way from this ideal in reality. Schools are required by the state to promote religion and oppose atheism. Of course many people believe this is a good idea, but it is blatant and deliberate discrimination all the same.
On both sides of the Atlantic there is the rumbling sound of the secular left girding themselves to hold back the tide of resurgent religion ... and blinding themselves to the inhumanity of secular corporatism.
Can we please hold back the tide of false dichotomies? But note the use of the swear word corporatism to insult secularism, much in the same way that racist epithets are constructed. If I quoted all the examples of this sort of thing, I would probably exceed fair use.

I am happy to applaud, as Boyle does, the enormous contribution of the Nonconformist tradition to liberalism. Nonconformists - and Catholics - were on the front line in the battle for religious tolerance - for secularism - alongside, in a sense, Charles Bradlaugh, a radical liberal MP who was not permitted to take his seat in Parliament on the grounds of his atheism.

In spite of the shameful past and vestigial present of state-enforced religious discrimination and privilege, of which these nonconformists were victims, Boyle is seeking a greater role for religion in politics. Why? What does he think it has to offer?

  • The sense that there is something beyond the bottom line
  • The sense that people have something unique to offer in their ordinary lives
  • The sense that the people and communities make things possible
Long explanations of each of these is given, but are they necessary? The idea that there is only the bottom line is a straw man. That people have something to offer is obvious. That people and communities make things possible is almost meaningless in its obviousness. Yet this is how "[Liberalism] needs to accept the religious aspects of its own intellectual heritage." Well consider it accepted.

Boyle discusses at length how these finer values of religious social liberalism contrast with materialist fabianism or conservatism. Yet the the leaderships of both other parties are also predominantly religious. The difference between us and them is not that they are not religious, but that they are not liberal.


...such is the emerging animus towards religion ... that any statements about belief that are not utilitarian, including what we believe about right and wrong, are being similarly sidelined
This is a very odd statement. Utilitarianism is an ethical system (a form of consequentialism), that it is to say it is precisely an analysis of what is right and what is wrong. I consider it quite a problematic ethical system but rather less problematic than ethical systems based on deontology.

However deontologists frequently equate consequentialism with an indifference to ethics. And this is Boyle's theme too: Consequentialists have no ethics, atheists have no values, secularism has no meaning. Dude, I don't go to your church, and you won't get me there by insulting me.

By endorsing this popular religious prejudice against the non-religious, Boyle risks losing half of our tradition and many of our allies. I paraphrase:

If we assume ... that Liberals are now emphatically on the side of secularism ... we risk losing half of our tradition and many of our allies.
If we're not to lose one half or the other, perhaps some sort of neutrality is in order? Keep religion out of politics and discrimination out of the state.


There are some suggestions on policy, and I will look briefly at schooling.

I am not one of those Liberals who believe that faith schools are somehow incompatible with Liberalism[!] Of course, children should not be educated in isolation from people different from them, but federated groups of schools - so that Muslim, Anglican and secular schools would be encouraged to share resources or specialist staff - would solve that problem without abolishing the whole idea of a spiritual basis to education.

Where do I begin?
  1. I'm glad to hear the suggestion that there should be some secular schools. Currently all schools are required to be Christian - and promote Christianity - if they are not explicitly some other faith.
  2. This would solve the problem of sectarian division, are you kidding? This is absolute stark staring bonkers. A trip once a month to the curious school with the brown children is not going to result in understanding, friendships and other social ties. What on earth is wrong with different children being in the same school?
  3. The implication here is that the "spiritual basis" to education does not work without sectarian division. Is this really true? Does God not visit any institution with too great a diversity of forms of worship? This is Boyle's implication, but I would have thought that his God would be a little more liberal than this.

Is the alternative banning religious practice from schools altogether? While I don't personally think this would do any harm, I am willing to look for ways to accommodate people with different views.

What I would suggest is that state-funded schools should simply be required to cater for all the faiths (and non-faith philosophies) of all the children who happen to attend. If there are very few children of some particular faith, this may not justify dedicated teacher supervision, but pupils could perhaps run activities themselves, or read together, if their faith body did not wish to provide supervision.

Obviously there are issues to be considered regarding what rights a child has if they are in disagreement with their parents. I am open to arguments here, but I would have thought that a gradual accumulation of children's rights up to the age of 16 would be reasonable.

I do consider the right to change one's religious affiliation, for teachers, parents and children, to be an absolute human right. My suggestion uniquely guarantees this. I consider sectarian division to be a serious threat, which will only be addressed by genuine ties, proper friendships, not token orchestrated comingling. Boyle's support - and that of Labour and the Tories - for continued and increased segregation is reckless. And my proposal does nothing to restrict - it actually enhances - people's access to the faith education they want.

Doubtless I will be told that I have missed the point somehow. That the point is segregation, or governance, or keeping the heathen riff-raff out, or anything else but faith. I dare say those things are the point of the faith school system, but I have ripped off its fig leaf with this alternative.


Is this search for meaning supposed to distinguish social liberals from the Orange Bookers? Perhaps. But, frankly, a search for meaning expressed in entirely religious terms needlessly excludes many potential supporters of the touchy feely stuff. And many economic liberals are religious. So for me this chapter just goes off on a tangent.

Update: At Pickled Politics, Sunny, and Terry of the NSS lock horns in the comments.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Reinventing the State Chapter 5: Me, Myself and I

Simon Titley combines a profound insight into the nature of the changes in society and self-perceptions in the last few decades with what seems to me a degree of back-pedalling with regard to the virtue of the changes and of individual autonomy over group conformity.

The first theme here is that our escape from the conformist social forces of the past has brought with it an atomisation of society, leading to alienation and unhappiness. While I agree that happiness largely does depend on good quality relations with other people, I remain somewhat skeptical that the conformist past was really that great in this regard.

The second theme is that material overconsumption is a symptom of a spiritual malaise that has been brought about by this breakdown of social structures. I am largely unconvinced of this too. What evidence is there of a spiritual malaise, other than that few people go to church any more? Aren't all these problems as old as the hills?

So when Titley writes...
"However the process of individual liberation has proved something of a double-edged sword because, although it has enabled most people in Western societies to lead easier and more pleasant lives, it has also led people to forsake social cohesion for material individualism, and to abandon deferred pleasure for instant gratification."
I have a some problems.

First, the equivocation over individual liberation is appalling. Sure, we are freer to make certain mistakes than we were. When we were not free, similar mistakes and more were made on our behalf, and were much worse for it. While individual alienation is a problem, collective alienation, one subculture or racial group from another, reinforced by the strong social ties of a group identity, was and is responsible for far more harm.

Second, it is not clear when Titley refers to "social cohesion", whether he is indeed referring to strong social ties, civic society, and so forth, or to the willingness of people to pay taxes to support others' pensions, health care and unemployment insurance. I should think a high tax society could be atomised as easily as a low tax one; and spiritual societies can be as reluctant to spend tax money on social insurance as less spiritual ones. This abstract language risks lumping together quite separate phenomena.

Third, I suggest there is a strange error going on here with all this bewailing of materialism. I don't think people object to higher taxes thinking the extra money would bring them true happiness. It won't, and for the same reasons, a bigger state and more redistribution will not bring anybody true happiness either. Anybody who says "you shouldn't care about money, so give me your money" is obviously not heeding their own advice.

To be fair to Titley it is not clear that he is advocating what I criticise, but to be brutal, it is not clear that he isn't. Except where he builds on these particular sandy foundations, there is much that is good in this chapter: the roles of the media and politics and the dangers of statist solutions.


I would like pick up one further very significant observation. In discussing whether power has shifted from governments to corporations, Titley points out, correctly in my view, that the perspective from inside the corporations is one of powerlessness. Consumers are fickle, and reputations can be destroyed in an afternoon. I would argue that there are profounder reasons still for corporate powerlessness: if there is clearly only a single most profitable course of action, there is no choice but to follow it. So there is little true freedom of action even at the top.
"The traditional analysis is that consumerism has shifted power from governments to corporations. A more plausible explanation for what is going on may be that power has evaporated altogether."
Well. Stop the presses, and burn all the books of political theory. There is no power any more. Of course there is some exaggeration here, but there is also a grain of truth. My question: Is this a good thing? Is this anarchy, in a good sense? If nobody has power, then nobody has power over us. Could this grain of truth grow into a more secure guarantee of freedom than has ever existed before?

And why no comment from Titley on whether this evaporation of power is positive sign or not?


One thing I am looking for in Reinventing the State is whether it makes a successful rejoinder to the Orange Book, which argued that there is no conflict between social liberalism and economic liberalism. Almost as an afterthought Titley joins the battle:
"What should mark out social liberals from economic liberals is their support for social solidarity."
Surely support for social solidarity marks out social liberals from many who aren't social liberals. Economic liberals can be found in both camps. This may seem a pedantic objection, but if the best rejoinder is this thinly-veiled abuse of economic liberals, I don't hold out much hope.

I agree with Titley on the importance of social 'glue', and the more material aspects of social cohesion. However, he advocates this almost with the context of a moral panic about rampant unhappy materialist individualism. Urrggghhh.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Reinventing the State Chapter 4: Global Giants

Matthew Taylor surveys the progress and lack thereof in tackling Beveridge's 5 giants: want, squalor, disease, ignorance and idleness, in the UK and globally. For good measure, a sixth giant, the environment, is added.

I should perhaps have mentioned earlier that chapters 1 through 7 come under the heading Principles and so we have here another chapter, much like Duncan Brack's, analysing the problems, and not saying a great deal about what should be done about them. We have been impressed that squalor, disease, ignorance and whatnot are no good at all. No kidding.

So is there nothing new for me to nitpick? If only.

Taylor writes

But while the absolute poverty [Beveridge] fought has largely been slashed, relative poverty is a scourge that is growing in force. As the gap between Britain's rich and poor continues to widen, certain goods that most of society takes for granted are increasingly inaccessible for the worst-off, and without them they are unable to engage fully in modern life and so are denied the opportunities that are available to others.

I maintain that there is considerable confusion caused by casual use of the terms relative and absolute. For the most part, being too poor to buy things is a form of absolute poverty - arguably being unable to afford an essential £1million life-saving medical procedure is a form of absolute poverty. The exception is for "positional goods" that are limited in supply, and therefore expensive in proportion to the spending power of others. The inability of many to get on the housing ladder is therefore a kind of relative poverty.

However what seems to have happened is that people looking at the difference in spending power between the poor of today and those of Victorian times observe correctly that the former are relatively better off, and so cannot be absolutely poor, and must be relatively poor. And so in order to be serious about fighting poverty you have to talk about relative poverty not absolute poverty.

Well I suppose I will not succeed in single-handedly changing the terminology of this debate, but here goes anyway. The above paragraph describes the relative prosperity of today's absolutely poor compared to the poor of the past. That is to say they suffer less absolute poverty than the poor of the past, or of the third world. Although there is less absolute poverty in the UK than there was I see no reason to stop taking it seriously: we do after all have more wealth with which to fight it.

I would rather not talk about relative poverty or (material) inequality unless someone is made absolutely worse off, directly by somebody else's prosperity. Examples of this are few and far between. If relative poverty were really the problem, it could be solved by taking opportunties and wealth away from the fortunate even if this did nothing for the poor. It is madness even to hint at this course of action. Do you really think the poor are so well off that no improvement in their wealth is necessary??

Of course I am not using absolute to mean total, or to the greatest extent, simply as the opposite of relative. But many use it differently, and here is the cause of the confusion. Perhaps it is better to say that the poverty we face is neither absolute nor relative, according to the commonly used over-simplisic meanings of those words. It's just poverty.

Taylor may be right that certain goods are increasingly inaccessible - such as housing - but this is a terribly weak claim, when most goods are more accessible. That poor people are unable to engage fully in society is nothing new. Taylor is trying to show that relative poverty, not absolute poverty is the cause of much hardship, but he is utterly failing to do so.

Bizarrely, Taylor finishes the section like this:
For the middle classes at least, 'lifestyle fulfilment' is the new benchmark of quality of life, as the top tiers of their hierarchy of needs - food, shelter and so on - are satisfied. And many people are dissatisfied. The pursuit of essentially material goals often fails to bring long-term gratification.
The intention here is obviously to say that we middle classes should not be bellyaching about our material position, that true happiness lies elsewhere. Well yes obviously; Epicurus was happy with some cheese, the company of friends, and the chance to think his thoughts. But there is a double standard here - the same poverty of material ambition could be suggested, for the same reasons, to today's poor. Such stoicism would be an even greater comfort to a poor person than a rich one.

Frankly, these questions of personal philosophy are no business of politics. It is not for the state to judge our goals, it is there to protect and if possible enhance our freedom to pursue them, whatever they are. (Which implies a duty to ensure we don't trample on others.) When the state tries to make people good, the result is failure and tyranny.

Taylor claims to have offered 'a framework for a new, reinvigorated, inclusive, global path for British Liberalism'. No. Sorry. There is much analysis, and most of it is very good. It is worth reminding ourselves of the 5 or 6 giants, charting successes and failures. There is little policy, this is a chapter of principles, and not new principles that I can tell.

But what struck me about this chapter was the note of pessimism. I realise that it isn't much of a rallying call to say that some problem or other is actually getting better. But then I don't think poverty is such a minor problem that it needs to be hyped up. There's pessimism in the quotes above, but there's more:
overcrowded mass populations...depending on increasingly interdependent transnational industries, means that we are more vulnerable to plague and its consequences than ever before.
No. We were more vulnerable to plague during the Plague. The rising world population is a direct result of our ability to grow food and fight disease. Death rates do not match birth rates the way they used to, and we should recognise that this is essentially a positive story.
Mankind has created the perfect laboratory conditions for plague.
No. The laboratory is a work of nature, and mankind is fighting disease better than ever before.
People are forced by poverty and ignorance into work which does not meet their needs...
In other words, their lot before these poor job opportunities existed, was even worse.

Anyway, that is quite enough pessimism for my liking. I would expect a new, invigorating framework to look a little more at what is working.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Reinventing the State Chapter 3: Liberal Environmentalism

Ed Randall writes a sound survey of some different strands of environmental thought, although it is a little difficult at times to see which he is advocating and which he is opposing. I think if I were writing a chapter like this I would be a little more polemical and I wouldn't necessarily credit many greens with the coherence that Randall does. I think for many greens, abstract questions of political philosophy should not stand in the way of whatever might work - that the debates between socialism, conservatism, liberalism, anarchism and so on have paled into insignificance in face of impending ecological catastrophe. But of course this seemingly eminently practical approach tends to encourage dirigiste thinking - which is a big mistake, IMHO, you do not make further progress by throwing away centuries of progress.

This said, there are some valuable questions and insights here and I will look at two of them.

Randall begins with JS Mill's prediction that economic advancement would end, but that this would not mean the end of improvement of the human condition. This obviously resembles the demand by many greens that economic growth should stop. I am more attracted to the point made by some greens and many economists that economic growth is just a statistic, and not nearly as informative a one as it might seem. With the relative decline of manufacturing, growth seems to suggest an increase in how much we value the things we do for each other. What could be more benign?

It is worth remembering that the the anti-growth position predates knowledge of global warming and was in fact driven by a concern that resources would run out. Now, if anything, we should hope that fossil fuels run out soon enough. The resource issue is, rightly, almost forgotten although a flavour of its rhetoric can be found in advocacy for recycling. But while economic growth might be a reasonable proxy for levels of resource use - if manufacturing were not in relative decline - it is obviously a terrible proxy for levels of carbon emissions. GDP is a statstic, aggregating many diverse activities. If some of those activities are a problem then aggregate them separately - don't try to manage them with the bluntest instrument imaginable.

Another theme Randall picks up is the possibility of expanding business goals to include a wider range of social, and in this case environmental goals, rather than simply focussing on the bottom line. On one level, this is pure apple pie, and nobody could possibly object. We read phrases such as "the war of money against life". "A Britain that is able to maintain a fiscal environment that is attractive to private equity firms should also be capable of developing tax policies that favour co-operators who work in businesses that make sustainability an integral part of their corporate culture and mission."

While I am clear that businesses doing this should be praised not mocked, I would like to refer to an earlier blog post of mine inspired by Adair Turner's book Just Capital which is highly skeptical of the power of this kind of stakeholderism to make much difference.

If we see the sustainable co-operators as the good guys, what could be more natural than changing the rules to favour those good guys? One thing: changing the rules to favour more sustainable behaviour by everybody. The good guys are those who will go the extra mile whatever the rules say. But you can't make people good like this with rules; a rule cannot say "do more than the rules demand". Furthermore, all these diverse goals aside from the bottom line are good intentions, not good actions. You can try to legislate for intentions, but you will fail. Read the other post for more on this point.

The corresponding chapter of the Orange Book sought to show that the environment can be protected in an economically liberal way and this chapter does the same job for social liberalism. There is of course no contradiction between these positions, and they might serve to reassure different people. This chapter is probably more significant because it attempts to engage with the bulk of the environmental movement which is to be found on the left.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Reinventing the State Chapter 2: Equality Matters

Here, Duncan Brack advocates the pursuit of equality, by which he means a significant reduction in inequality of outcome. The mathematician in me rails against such abuse of the word equality, but I will live with it. He calls the idea of equality of opportunity a get out, which I think is a little unfair. Opportunity is a kind of outcome that gives rise to further outcomes. So it deserves special attention because investments in opportunity have a higher payoff than investments in other outcomes.

Brack then spends some time going through statistics demonstrating the degree of inequality found in the UK, and recent trends. To be honest this all leaves me quite cold. The pertinent question would seem to me to be quite how awful it is living on Job Seeker's Allowance (eg £46.85 per week for ages 18-24), or Income Support. I don't see, to be honest, how this depends much on the sort of statistics that are generally quoted. Rather, it would depend on access to local amenities, the local of cost living, frugal habits and a stoical outlook.

I get suspicious when an appeal to moral sentiment, well justified or not, gets dressed up in statistics in the hope of lending it scientific backing. For the record, I agree that living at these income levels is pretty awful for most people, and there is a good moral case for increasing these benefits, although it is probably a "political impossibility" for any party.

The old relative v absolute poverty chestnut is relevant here. Relevant, but simplistic. The single parent on benefits is much poorer than the average (relative), but much richer than many in the third world (relative again). And there are many important goods and services he or she cannot afford (absolute). Obviously by talking about inequality, Brack is focussing on relative poverty. Unfortunately in discussing the harm that results from poverty, little attempt is made to distinguish between the two.

Brack refers to John Rawls Difference Principle, that inequality could only be justified if it proved to be to the greatest benefit to the least advantaged members of society. This stems from Rawls' Veil of Ignorance, which is the idea that asks how you would design a society, in your own rational self-interest, if the veil hid from you any information about your position in that society, or your capacities for self-improvement.

I think the veil of ignorance is a brilliant idea for understanding ethics. But there are some questions that have to be asked here:
  1. Does it really justify the difference principle? Might not the person in the veil be willing to take a bet, and risk a small disadvantage if they were poor, in return for a much greater chance to prosper if they were rich, or able and hard-working.
  2. Do we really, as liberals, want our society to be entirely "designed"? Should it not be largely organic? In which case the question "how would you design..." carries a big bad assumption. I think we are OK on this point if we restrict ourselves to particular reforms, and propose nothing too comprehensive or revolutionary. cf Popper.
  3. It is not clear how we solve problems of inter-generational equity. How much duty do we have to the people of the future to leave them a more prosperous society than we have? Hardly any, according to the difference principle - if the poorest of the future are any richer than the poorest of the present, then it is only the poorest of the present who matter according to the principle, and we should sacrifice all incentives in order to help them. But if we actually do that we will make the future poorer. So the difference principle seems to demand a carefully-balanced almost-stagnation.
Where does this leave us? I think the contrast between Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian capitalism might be characterised by the Anglo-Saxon being more of a gambler as in point 1. I think a big difference between the liberal and the authoritarian/marxist/neo-con etc is that we are suspicious of 'design' as in point 2. And finally point 3 reminds us to strike a sensible balance between the present and the future. As long as the future is somewhat richer than the present, has a good environment, and so on, we should largely trust it to look after itself. Too much focus on incentives leads to the brutality of the workhouse, benefiting future people who will be better off than us anyway: our need is greater. Too little focus on incentives, or the environment, and the problems are obvious.

That would be my perspective on Rawls, so I am unconvinced by an essay that simply takes the difference principle as read.

While of course most of the specific examples Brack gives on the problems of poverty are correct, I have one final complaint, and it is this. The only specific proposal to solve these problems seem to be higher taxes on the rich. What would this actually do? It could pay for an extra £10 on JSA, but Brack doesn't mention this. Or it could go to a less means-tested benefit like child benefit or a Citizens Income. Or it could be spent on education and Sure Start centres. Why, if all the problems are hitting the poor are the solutions not discussed at all? Do you want me to agree that we must do something, before you tell me what something you had in mind? We must do something! This is something! We must do it!

I believe equality matters, and we should pursue it. It is sometimes difficult to weigh up against other goals, but that is politics. So why did I find this chapter so unconvincing?

Friday, September 21, 2007

Reinventing the State Chapter 1: What is social liberalism?

Reinventing the state is the natural counterpart to the orange book which I considered here.

In chapter 1, David Howarth questions what social liberalism is, in particular whether it is in opposition to economic liberalism, or a complement to it. Howarth argues that economic liberals are those with a preference for market mechanisms as a means to achieving social liberal goals over, presumably, some unspecified rival means.

This does seem to be a fairly value-free interpretation of economic liberalism. Not many political principles would assert of themselves that they are not intrinsically good, but only useful in pursuit of some other principle. Howarth defends Laws, rightly, as arguing that social liberal goals should be pursued with economically liberal means. But this is a slogan I rejected when examining the Orange book.

So I seem to disagree with Howarth when I assert that economic freedoms - to enjoy one's property - are as good in their own right as the freedoms promoted by social liberalism, they are not just instruments for promoting social liberalism. However we agree in rejecting the "libertarian" view that elevates economic freedoms above all others. Howarth gives a good explanation of how the libertarian analysis struggles to deal with issues like climate change, and suggests that this may be a factor in the attractiveness of climate change denialism to them.

While we agree that we should not be dogmatic about means when providing public services and so forth, I do feel that Howarth damns markets with faint praise. Perhaps it is the faintness of this praise that really distinguishes 'social' from 'economic' liberals.

It is difficult to do much justice to many of the other themes in this chapter, but I will try one more. Howarth contrasts political participation with markets; in describing local government he suggests that "unlike markets, it can faciliate political participation." Also "The first condition of wider participation in local government is that local government needs to have effective power. Undermining that power by, for example, purporting to 'devolve' power further to individuals in markets, will defeat the whole exercise." It seems that markets must be merely instrumental, but local government can not be.

Markets, we are told, "undermine political freedom by undermining political activity ... by providing a means for obtaining what one wants without having to engage in anything but the thinnest of dialogues with one's fellow human beings." Is it only me, or is there something paternalistic in demanding people engage in the kind of dialogue that is good for them, in order to access the things they want?

Howarth is right that democratic processes involve a richer communication than price signals, but he neglects to mention that the conclusions they reach are invariably more uniform, one size fits all. I share the common concern over the atomisation of society, but perhaps I am more optimistic that people will find or build new social networks that give them the richness of human interaction that they need. Either way I don't think political participation should be used unnecessarily as a hurdle for people to navigate for their own good before they can access services.

Nonetheless, this fine introduction raises many compelling themes I expect to be explored later in the book, and I have neglected to mention much that I agree with and that has provoked further thought. Two questions this chapter prompts in my mind are: What is social democracy as opposed to social liberalism? and What is wrong with social democracy? These are left as an exercise for the reader.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

More hypocrisy please

If you support the policy of improving the nutrtional standards of school meals, but eat the occasional turkey twizzler yourself, are you a hypocrite? Or if you support a penny on income tax, for some bizarre off-message reason, but you fail to donate an extra 1% of your income to the treasury, are you a hypocrite? In each case no. The question is deeply confused.

Yet, if you advocate improved energy efficiency standards, but leave your TV on standby; if you advocate better public transport, but drive everywhere; if you support any policy to do something about environmental problems, but don't engage in sufficiently proportionate self-denial, then it seems you are a hypocrite.

When the European Commission announced plans to improve vehicle fuel efficiency, some of the British journalists responded by asking the commissioners what car they drove. That answer - none of your business, what does that have to do with anything - would not be heard from a British politician.

And yet if the commissioners were hypocrites, so are the people who eat turkey twizzlers or fail to donate extra money to the treasury.

We are not, after all, talking about preaching to people. Yes if you preach a 'don't drive' message and drive yourself, that is hypocrisy. But preaching is the job of pressure groups not politiicans. Politicians should do what the people tell them to do and not the other way round. Governments certainly shouldn't be spending taxpayers money preaching at those same taxpayers.

I don't care what my MP or PM eats, drives or how he lights his home, I care what his policies are.

And yet environmental preaching is expected everywhere - it threatens to make prigs of us all.

I suggest that the innapropriate politicisation of enviornmental preachiness is causing considerable damage to the clarity of thought that environmental policy might otherwise enjoy. While not using standby or plastic bags are good suggestions, they would be bad laws. With the preaching in focus inevitably the kinds of policy measures that come to mind are micromanaging. It might be tolerable if so many of the measures didn't have such trivial impacts. And that is before we consider any unintended consequences - if you ban one behaviour people may find an alternative that is even worse. You might ban standby, but the TV can still be left on.

The policies that will make a big difference to the environment don't involve micromanagement: Generate lots of renewable energy, build efficient buildings with amenities within walking distance, make the polluter pay with a simple upstream carbon tax. I will vote for that whatever the candidate drives.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Towards Liberal Environmentalism

Some weeks ago I wrote this post in response to an article by John Dixon asking whether environmental challenges demand a massive illiberal state intervention in people's lives.

I argued that this was not the case because the solutions to the problems we face exist, but we are failing to face up to a moderate increase in costs. I am a little unsatisfied with that answer, because there are two more critical arguments that can be made against John's original "the environment demands socialism" case:

1. Safeguarding the environment is not in fact a single objective that can be pursued 'at all costs' with a war communism kind of mentality. For one, it is many objectives; global warming is not the only problem we face, and the factors contributing to it are diverse. For two, the challenge might be better stated as sustaining ourselves without damaging the environment. Sustaining ourselves is as diverse a goal as it ever was, whatever constraints are applied or not. It is impossible to do well by central planning.

Whether war communism is the best way to fight a war is also worth asking, but as Hayek let it past, so will I for now.

2. What does this suggestion mean:
"It’s going to require radical structural changes in the way our economy and society function. People won’t do this on their own. Government must force the change, whether structurally or by actively moderating our behaviour."?
It's short on specifics, as usual. I was probably too charitable in thinking it referred principally to blunt and illiberal but reasonably effective measures such as rationing. But it could be worse. What if all the things we were told we ought to do - switching things off, modes of transport, consumer choices, and so on - what if the "correct" choice in each case became compulsory? Is this what we are talking about here? That would be active moderation of behaviour and it would be tyranny. And it wouldn't do much good. Why?
  • There's a rule that says "don't leave the TV on standby". There isn't a rule saying don't watch TV. My current TV uses 200W when on and 2W on standby. I can (and would) obey the rule by turning the TV on when I sit down, rather than 5 minutes later when the programme starts. (Using one sixtieth of a unit of electricity instead of one six thousandth of a unit. Big deal.)
  • There's a rule that says "recycle". There isn't a rule that says "don't use stuff at all". Recycling usually has some benefits compared to other means of disposal, but never has any compared to not using stuff in the first place.
  • ...etc. All this advice, don't fly, don't do this or that, probably does good overall, but there will be some unintended consequences. Make the advice compulsory and you will have unintended consequences in spades.

I hope to expand on both of these points in due course. Tristan has reawakened me from my blogging slumber with this post. Work has been heavy lately but I haven't forgotten you.

Tristan correctly identifies that much environmental advocacy seems to presume a collectivist philosophy. It is important to be careful here. I have no doubt that some 'collective' action will be necessary - some government spending is justified. But only in pursuit of a situation in which we are still free to pursue our own goals - to sustain ourselves according to our own desires and values. We won't get there by having the state micromanage us, or by turning well-meaning back-of-an-envelope environmental advice into hard law.