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.