Friday, 27 July 2007

Government’s good intentions encourage greed and criminality

This interesting article in today’s Times caught my eye. On the face of it, it is a simple case of fraud that should stir the ire of any right-thinking person. But it nonetheless highlights the inherent problems that result from government meddling.

I was not aware of the fact, but apparently the government has exempted disabled drivers from paying VAT on new cars. This immediately strikes me as odd, in that there is no inherent reason why a disabled person – even one with mobility difficulties – would have greater need for a car than any particular other person. For one thing, it smacks of lumping all disabled people together and assuming that their needs are identical, whereas in fact the need for motorised transport probably varies as widely among disabled people as it does among the general population. Secondly, there are plenty of non-disabled people who desperately need a car – perhaps to convey their children to school, to go to work or attend hospital. They do not get tax breaks to buy one, however. One might also question why the benefit is not being channelled into public transport, as the government claims to want to encourage us out of cars.

More to the point, it is an excellent example of where it would be better to give people money rather than perks. In this case, rather than give disabled people a tax break on buying a car, why not give them money to contribute to the car, or if they prefer a rail ticket, a mobility scooter, their heating bill, entertainment or whatever they consider to be their priority.

The paternalism is only half of the problem, however. The other half is that, unsurprisingly, enterprising people have learnt to game the system. Firstly, the VAT exemption does not appear to be capped. Thus it applies not only to a Nissan Micra, on which the VAT might be just over £1,000. It appears it also applies to “top-of-the-range Land Rovers, Bentleys, Maseratis and Lamborghinis, costing up to £70,000. That means that [disabled drivers] could save as much as £12,250 on each transaction in VAT.”

Now, I think it is pretty clear that the government never intended to give a tax break to those buying luxury cars that cost almost two and a half times the average household income. But there is more to come.

Some of these disabled drivers are so enterprising that they have taken to selling their un-driven cars on at a cost that is higher than the VAT-exempt price that they paid, but not as high as the VAT-included price that a typical dealer would charge. On a luxury car, that difference could be as much as £10,000. Even if the buyer and the disabled re-seller split that difference equally, that means that the disabled driver is able to turn his government perk into a £5,000 cash profit.

Unethical it may be (and very possibly illegal too), but it is also a fine example of how government intervention creates moral hazard and ultimately generates immorality and criminality where previously there was none. As ever with government, the intentions are all fine and dandy, but the outcomes are very different from what was intended.

Thursday, 26 July 2007

From Malthus to Deng in one easy think tank

Call yourself a “Think Tank” and it’s amazing what people will fund.

The Optimum Population Trust (OPT) is concerned with the effects of population growth on the environment. It has therefore proposed compulsory limits to family size if urgent action is not taken to restrain population growth through voluntary family planning. This is a common sort of nonsense that crops up from time to time: there are too many of us, they bleat; we are out-consuming our little old planet. OPT suggest that we are consuming 25 per cent more than our planet can sustain, which is odd, because our planet’s population is six times the size that it was when Thomas Malthus was declaring that we were too many and were all doomed.

Despite OPT including some fairly impressive names (one of its chairs and four of its patrons hold professorships from leading universities) it is based on some schoolboy errors. The report says the planet faces the biggest generation of young people in history, leading to “the creation of a huge cohort of young urban males who, through frustration and unemployment…seek an outlet in violence.”

This seems a curious inversion of the truth. OPT do not explain why there should be more males than females in their over-populated world. In fact, the only reason I can think of for a disparity between males and females is the very course of action that OPT is proposing: namely, mandatory birth control.

The classic example of this is the one child policy in China. It has been a disaster – as the OPT report grudgingly admits. It has been widely ignored, where it has not been ignored it has resulted in massive female infanticide, reflecting the bias for male children in Chinese society. The lack of females for brides has been cited as a reason for the rising aggressiveness and militancy of China, as frustrated males look to take their passions out where they can. It has also lead to the 4-2-1 families, with one child supporting two parents and four grandparents.

As for the frustration and unemployment that the report identifies, it is far from inevitable. Widespread unemployment in “young countries” such as Iran and Nigeria is the result of disastrous economic policies rather than some Malthusian-cum-Mercantilist natural limit on the amount of employment. In fact, larger populations enable greater specialisation, leading to more varied jobs and more economic progress. The greatest variety and productiveness would be achieved by creating one global economic area in which six billion people could work together.

If anything, the danger in the developed world is too low a growth in population, leading to too few workers and taxpayers maintaining too many pensioners. It seems rather incongruous – indeed, positively bizarre – that OPT should propose a two-child limit in the UK when the current average birth rate is approximately 1.8 children per woman. We appear to have more than achieved their objective already without having to impose the state’s will on individual’s desire or freedom to breed.

The suggestion that we are out-consuming our planet is equally ludicrous. While humans are undoubtedly causing environmental change that may create difficulties in the future, it does not follow that we have reached or exceeded the productive capacity of planet Earth, as the authors suggest. Crop yields have increased rapidly over the past two centuries and are set to do so again as genetically modified crops yield more produce and are more disease and insect resistant. There are still vast areas of land in, for example, Africa that have not been turned to agricultural use. The UNDP estimates that by 2050 the global population will be 9.2 billion, but they do not believe that this will be unsustainable.

The solution to growing populations is not enforced birth control but economic reform. In fact, with no effort by government whatsoever (except in the removal of currently-prohibitive legislation), greater prosperity will lead to greater use of contraception and so a declining birth-rate. This has been the case in every developing country since effective contraception became available, and explains why the UNDP believes that the global population will level off in the second half of the C21st. Economic progress will enable us to feed, clothe and house 10 billion easily; indeed, it will open up to that 10 billion a level of prosperity and luxury of which 6.5 billion can now only dream.

At the same time, that rising prosperity will be accompanied by declining pollution. Another trend that is clear across the developed world is that the amount of pollution generated per person has fallen in line with economic, and thus technological, progress. This has in the past been undermined by population growth, but only because there was a cavalier attitude to pollution in the C20th. New, cleaner technologies, greater prosperity and more awareness of the impact of our activities on our environment will make the world a cleaner, easier place in which to live. Here, too, economics can lead the way, by providing liberal, market mechanisms for pricing pollutants.

Doom-mongers and population skeptics have a long pedigree, but like economic planners, reactionaries and Luddities they have been proven to be wrong time and again. I am sure that, when my allotted time expires (which on present trends should be around the time that baby 9.2 billion is born), we will be living in a cleaner, more abundant and more prosperous society, where nobody need want for the basics in life and most can look forward to a life as long as I will have enjoyed. Sadly, the patrons of OPT won’t be around to see it. But only because, like the dinosaurs, old age will have claimed them long before.

Wednesday, 25 July 2007

More wisdom from Paddy Ashdown

Last I outlined the peacekeeping wisdom of Paddy Ashdown, as set out in his new book, Swords and Ploughshares. However, he has been dispensing other wise words recently, as well.
On 11 July he was interviewed on 18 Doughty Street. As well as discussing his book, he sets out a frankly ominous prognosis for the future situation in Iraq and (worse still) Afghanistan. If we lose, he suggests, we face the beginnings of a regional civil war across the Middle East (in the sense that Mao Tse-tung saw the First and Second World Wars as European civil wars), the collapse of Nato and the end of our willingness to intervene to prevent conflicts around the world.

He also had some very interesting things to say about the liberal Democrats, however, and especially about Sir Menzies Campbell. He gave quite a good description of the House of Commons, Prime Minister’s Question Time and the difficulties of being the leader of the third party (7.30mins). As he later explains, “I would much rather have taken the risk of going into Sarajevo through the siege than standing up at Prime Minister’s questions the House of Commons. It seems far less dangerous and far less frightening.”

Of particular note is his comment on Ming’s performance in comparison to his own. “People forget this when they comment on Ming Campbell’s Prime Minister’s question, which I think have become actually quite good, I was a disaster. I was a disaster for the first year as leader of the then-Liberal Party. I was ritually handbagged in front of the television cameras of the nation… by Mrs. Thatcher, and people went around saying ‘Will this guy ever hack it?’ You just have to learn how to deal with that.” (8.30mins)

And what space is there for the Lib Dems in the new British politics. Ashdown cautions patience. The shine will come off both Cameron and Brown, he predicts. Ming should concentrate on sagacity, integrity, experience – these are the qualities that will work in our favour in the coming year or two.

He has many interesting insights into Tony Blair, whom he likes and admires and with whom he came close to working in quasi-coalition. In a particularly germane moment, he sums up Blair’s career in a manner that bloggers would have died to have managed only a few weeks ago. Ashdown tells us that Blair said to him that three things would define his term in office: 1) that Labour and the Lib Dems would realign British politics; 2) Blair would re-associate Britain with its historic role at the centre of Europe; and 3) Blair would do something about the widening gap between rich and poor. On all three he has failed.

Finally, the best moment has to be Paddy’s giggle when Iain tells him that when Iain heard Gordon Brown had offered Ashdown a cabinet job, he naturally assumed that it must have been foreign secretary (33mins). Paddy obviously didn’t think this was quite such a natural conclusion.

Thursday, 19 July 2007

Hypocrisy in drug policy goes way beyond the Home Office

“#…birds do it, bees do it
Even educated fleas do it…#”

…and so, it appears, do Home Secretaries, Ministers of State for Policing and more members of the Cabinet than one could shake a stick at. The Leader of the Opposition has been coy, which is tantamount to admission. And I’m sure there have been a few red faces (and red eyes) in the past of Liberal Democrats.

Where Cannabis is concerned, it seems that everybody’s done it. So why are they all so keen to ban it? Is Parliament full of people with addled minds, suffering from bizarre neurological effects, unable to control their thoughts or emotions?

Okay, I set myself up for that one! Lets try again.

Large numbers of parliamentarians have taken drugs in their pasts (and, I imagine, no small number in their presents). The litany of Ministers that have admitted drug use suggests that in the more obscure recesses of the back benches there are many, many more. There is no reason to believe that politicians are any better than anybody else (and some reasons to think they are worse!), so it is worth noting that in a survey in 2000, a third of the 250 financial directors asked admitted that they had tried cannabis.

As for the rest of the population, the Home Office estimates that 15 million Britons have tried cannabis, and between two million and five million are regular users. In case you missed that, let me reiterate: one if four Britons have tried cannabis, and between one in thirty and one in twelve are regular users.

Two obvious lessons can be drawn from this. Firstly, the risk from using cannabis must be pretty small. If 15 million have tried it and millions use it regularly, the fact that our mental wards and accident and emergency wards are not filled to bursting with dope cases suggests that the risks are slight. That is not to deny that there are links between cannabis use and mental illness; plenty of people with psychoses have used cannabis. But it is not clear to me that a causal link has been established. It is equally plausible that those with psychological problems are driven to drug use as a form of self-medication. Many also use other drugs, further muddying the waters of causality.

At this point it is worth commenting on the “Gateway” fallacy. Again, the fact that users of harder drugs have previously used cannabis is no proof that cannabis use leads to the use of harder drugs. Not unless Mrs. Smith and Mr. McNulty have something else to tell us. Rather, cannabis is one of the many drugs that will be utilised by those with a desire to experiment with their body chemistry, and being pretty harmless and fairly ubiquitous it will be one of the earliest. I imagine most have tried both tobacco and alcohol first, of course, but I do not see many people suggesting that these are gateway drugs – indeed those who do are generally, and rather illogically, viewed as crazies.

The second obvious lesson is that those who have not themselves been harmed by cannabis are very worried about allowing others to do what they, themselves, seemed perfectly happy to try. This is rank hypocrisy. It is one thing to try to pass on your wisdom; to warn others that you have done something and have now learnt that it is not a good thing to do. It is another to stop others making the same mistakes as you. We would not allow crippled freeclimbers to prevent others from ascending sheer cliffs without ropes; we certainly should not be allowing perfectly healthy freeclimbers who have safely scrambled up and down sheer cliffs to forbid others to do the same.

The entire argument is part of the paternalistic desire to protect others from themselves. Drug use falls entirely within one’s “personal space”; it has no external effect (tobacco smoke excepted). The behaviour of a person on drugs may be harmful to others, but the law clearly lays the blame on the decision to act, and not upon the influencing chemicals (motoring offences linked to alcohol excepted). It is entirely possible – indeed, usual – to behave perfectly legally while taking drugs (except in as far as the drug taking itself is illegal). There is therefore no justification for government interference.

In this respect I ought to add that I have no time for the argument that there is a social cost because drug users cause costs to taxpayers. If one wishes to have a publicly funded healthcare system, one must accept that people’s behaviour will impact upon taxes; by the same logic we would ban tobacco, fatty foods and a reluctance to exercise. If one wants to take money off those who work and transfer it to those who do not, one must accept that the lazy (doped or clean) will benefit as well as the unfortunate. The desire to use legislative means (banning stuff) o achieve administrative ends (keeping costs down) is a confusion of two very distinct roles of the government, and one which results from sloppy reasoning and a desire to follow the line of least resistance: ‘Why make people pay for the costs they incur, when government can just ban them from doing things that might incur costs?’

What shocks me is the extent of the hypocrisy, not only in the executive and the legislature, but among the public as a whole. It is time that we stopped pretending that drug use was a rare and unfortunate habit afflicting a small handful of people whom we ought to protect from themselves. It is time to recognise that drug use is widespread, and that at least a large minority of people believe that the law does not reflect justice or reason. It is time for a serious debate about drugs that encompasses the fundamental questions of choice, harm, health and safety and the balance between individual freedom and social wellbeing. This debate will not be helped by Minister after Minister admitting to using drugs but then apologising and promising that it was just a youthful indiscretion. That is incredible (in its strictest sense). It is also unhelpful.

But then this is politics. Doing the right thing is, as Sir Humphrey would have said, “Very brave, Minister”.

Tuesday, 17 July 2007

Paddy Ashdown goes to Crete

A little light holiday reading kept me entertained during the long, hard hours lying by the pool or on the beach in Elounda, Crete. I needed something to take my mind off the unending, unforgiving sun. So I took with me a copy of Paddy Ashdown’s Swords and Ploughshares.

Paddy is an interesting writer, though clearly not a great one. He uses the clipped sentences and direct speech of the soldier, yet at times he drifts into mawkish sentimentality (usually when writing about meetings with Bosnian villagers), a habit which the Economist suggests he may have “picked up during his two decades in Britain's third party, the Liberal Democrats.” (Sentimental? Us?!). His writing is also at times a little careless, a flaw which should have been corrected by his editors. In fact, a firmer editorial hand would have been useful all round; several of his anecdotes appear more than once. And there is no shortage of anecdotes – like many military men, he has plenty of good stories to share, perhaps, suggests the Economist, because he has kept the best back for a future set of Memoirs (Ashdown Diaries vol. 3, anyone?).

Nonetheless, it is a compelling book. Lord Ashdown has impeccable first hand experience of conflict prevention, peacekeeping and post-conflict reconstruction. He was involved (unsuccessfully) in efforts to avert a war in Macedonia (which mercifully proved successful in the long run). In the 1960s he fought in the Indonesia-Malaysia confrontation, and in the past few years he was the UN’s proconsul in Bosnia. He explains early on that Swords and Ploughshares is not intended to be a blue-print for the “seamless garment” of prevention, intervention and state-building, but that is clearly what it is. How To Keep The Peace by Lord Ashdown. There’s a new sheriff in town, and that town is Norton-sub-Hamdon.

Ashdown’s justification for intervention is straight forward. While honouring state sovereignty should be the norm, intervention has always and will always occur, and for good reason. Even “internal” conflicts have external effects; threats to international peace and security. When an egregious regime or state collapse leads to mass bloodshed and displacement, the international community must act.

Where his basic justification is simple, his outline for implementation is detailed. It needs to be. The primary legitimising mechanism for intervention should be the United Nations (as it has the legal power to act), but where the UN is stymied by obdurate veto-wielders there are places for regional bodies or “coalitions of the willing” to act instead. International law has a common law basis; law is set as much by precedent as by agreement. Some interventions legitimise themselves, as was the case in Kosovo (which at the time, he noted at the book launch at the London School of Economics, was probably illegal in a strict reading of the law).

However, the UN should never become involved in actual peace-enforcement. It is hopelessly bad at war-fighting, so while it may have a role in permissive environments (Cyprus, Sierra Leone now), in non-permissive environments (East Timor, Sierra Leone in 2000) it should leave the fighting to the professionals (Australia, the UK).

Having to fight is a sign of failure. The international community needs to identify and move to avert conflicts much earlier. Usually, it is not until the villages are on fire that the press, and so the public, and so politicians take an interest in conflict. But by then it is too late – the refugees are already washing up on our shores and the costs of restoring peace to the country will be far higher. Far more effort needs to be devoted to preventing conflicts before they occur. This is the time for soft power, for massive amounts of development aid and offers of mediation, institution building, confidence raising and whatever help we can offer. But in the background a threat must lurk: if the offer of help is spurned and conflict does break out, action will be taken to restore peace.

Where armed intervention is required, the actual war-fighting phase will be brief and may not require much manpower. But the subsequent occupation will need enormous amounts: compare the 60,000 NATO troops that successfully occupied Bosnia, a country of 4 million, in 1997 with the 200,000 that have unsuccessfully occupied Iraq, a country of 27 million, since 2003. The first and most important priority must be to ensure security on the ground. Only once the security of the citizens is assured can any post-conflict normalisation and state building take place. The second priority then must be the rule of law; people must know that the police and judges are incorrupt, that criminals will be prosecuted, and that their families and their property are safe. After that economic reconstruction is the next step. Only much later come elections.

This is an interesting and crucial point. As Ashdown notes, as liberals we see democracy as vital, and democracy is synonymous with elections. But in fact elections are only one aspect of democracy, and one of the most easily corrupted. In post-conflict environments elections are all-too-easily captured by the former war-leaders (a leading UN policing expert once told a conference that I attended that the players in the post-conflict stage are usually not the former faction leaders, but their quartermasters – those who have the money, the networks and the knowledge necessary to transfer easily into politics). In fact, elections can be very divisive and so undermine the peace. They can also leave former warlords in power. In fact, elections should be left as late as is decently possible (in post-war Germany, elections did not take place for four years).

Once the conflict phase is over, the state can be rebuilt. Not, note, the nation. Nations cannot be built by outsiders; they must grow organically through a shared culture and sense of community within and among the people. But the international community can help rebuild the structures of the state: a functioning economy; public services; an impartial civil service not appointed by politicians; businesses free of political interference; a simple tax code; a law code that is fair, but that reflects local principles; media freedom; swift and proper justice, etc. This will be a long haul – politicians from intervening nations do neither their own people nor those on whose behalf they have intervened any favours by pretending that the boys will be home before we know it. Some presence may be necessary in a country for a generation. That is why it is better to prevent these problems before they occur.

Ashdown cannot stress often enough the importance of seeing the whole process as a “seamless garment” (he repeats the phrase so often I can be forgiven for using it twice!). Planning for the post-conflict phase should take place as the same time and on the same footing – indeed, with the same people – with planning for the war. The fact that force may be used to end a conflict must be a clear part of the prevention process (threat). And all of it needs a clear narrative from the very beginning. To generalise: “The international community will not tolerate this behaviour, if it continues these will be the consequences, if necessary we shall intervene with force to restore peace, and when we do so we will aim to ensure that this country can function independently as a viable state, in which all its citizens can enjoy peace and security. If at any time those conditions are met, the international community will acknowledge that this country is a functional member of the community and will leave the government alone to run its country in the interests of all its citizens.” The narrative should not simply reflect our prejudices, however: parliamentary democracy may be a wonderful thing, but it is up to the people to construct their own system of government; a market economy is a sign of freedom, but it must develop from the freedom that is given to people rather than be imposed by outsiders.

There’s a lot more to it, of course. In fact, Ashdown makes it sound deceptively easy (though I’m sure he would be appalled at the suggestion). He comes from a long tradition of Liberal internationalists who believe that there are universal laws that bind all mankind. It is a fine line between such high-minded visionaries and the fanatical saints that would impose their view of goodness upon the world. Ashdown himself notes that of the major international interventions that have taken place since World War II, half have gone sour. He thinks we need to do better. The truth is, we may not be able to; it may be that international intervention is so fraught with problems that we can never hope to get it right every time. But if anything can be done to improve our strike rate, Ashdown has probably put his finger on it. It would be well worth future interveners – liberals and saints alike – picking up a copy.

Friday, 6 July 2007

Another let down by Charles Kennedy

I see that our erstwhile leader has let us down again. He has apparently been caught having a sneaky fag out of the window of a train.

I am appalled that the government has seen fit to ban smoking in private (they call them "public" because there are people there) places, but it is perfectly legitimate that individual train operating companies should ban smoking on their trains. Indeed, most had done so a long time before 1 July. What is more, I expect parliamentarians to uphold the law - unless, perhaps, they are making a deliberate protest against unjust legislation.

I find it disgraceful that a Member of Parliament should show such scant regard for the train companies rules, the law and his fellow passengers.

Thank heavens we did not listen to those voices around the party fringe that were suggesting he could make a come-back as leader.

Thursday, 5 July 2007

Restoring Liberties in 2007

Yesterday I wrote an extensive précis of Craig F Smith’s paper Taking Liberties, in which he explained how popular democracy has come to undermine freedom. This is a well-worn theme, notably with John Stuart Mill.

Today, I intend to outline a number of proposals Smith makes in this sequel paper, Restoring Liberties.

It should be noted that Smith proposes these as points for discussion rather than suggesting that any or all should or would be adopted. This is understandable. Untrammelled democracy is a seductive system, as Mill himself noted when he argued that “The disposition of mankind, whether as rulers or as fellow citizens, to impose their own opinions and inclinations as a rule of conduct on others…is hardly ever kept under restraint by anything but want of power.” I have lost count of the number of people I have spoken to who are openly willing to force people to behave in a manner that will supposedly save them from themselves. A universal smoking ban and forced exercise camps are just around the corner.

Nonetheless, with organisations such as Direct Democracy agitating for a constitutional convention, and even the Government suggesting that we might actually begin to consider looking into going about wondering how to get together and discuss drafting a written constitution for the United Kingdom, now seems a good time to set out some thoughts for how to limit the power of the state and strengthen the protection of the individual.

He begins with the most obvious: a written constitution. The very first thing that must appear in a written constitution are rules on how the constitution itself can be amended. This is not small matter, as our current (un-codified) constitution can be changed at will by a simple majority of the two houses of parliament – indeed, probably by a resolute simple majority of just the lower house. Regional devolution and Lords reform may both have been welcome, but they nonetheless represent enormous constitutional change, and yet were required to meet only the same level of assent as a change in the motoring laws. The same is true of every European treaty that has been signed. One may fail to rest, far from assured that Gordon Brown’s newly proposed constitutional changes will be similarly enacted by a simple majority of perhaps just one house.

Smith proposes that in future the constitution should require both houses of parliament to pass the change by a two-thirds majority before the proposal is put to a referendum, where again a two thirds majority must support the change. Thus constitutional tinkering will be kept to a minimum, partisan advantage will be prevented, and yet the constitution will be able to develop if change is widely desired.

In addition, he proposes that each House should have a Constitutional Committee to warn parliamentarians to reject unconstitutional law. These should be empowered to refer existing legislation to a Constitutional Court. The establishment of a Constitutional Court would require a fundamental renegotiation of Britain’s membership of the EU, however, as citizens would otherwise be subject to unconstitutional European legislation that the Court could not – under present arrangements – strike down.

The second principle is that there must be absolute limits to the power of the state over individuals. This effectively means a Bill of Rights – though Smith overlooks the fact that this shifts the balance within society from a freedom-based society, where everything is permitted unless it is specifically banned, to a rights-based society where one has rights because one is given them by the constitution. I would therefore finesse Smith’s Bill of Rights by suggesting that it should be a fundamental statement of existing freedoms, should note in the preamble that the list is inviolable but is not exhaustive, and should include as its first clause the principle outlined above that freedom is the norm from which legislation and even the convention deviates.

The specific freedoms Smith identifies (and in brackets my own proposed alternatives, as he uses some terms that are unnecessarily limited) are freedom of speech (expression), movement, religion (conscience, or belief) and property. To these I would add freedom of association. Smith also includes ancient rights such as Habeas Corpus, trial by jury and rules on double jeopardy.

Smith also includes a general point: that government should not restrict activities of individuals that do not harm others or that harm them in a way that is understood and accepted (to permit surgery, boxing and sado-masochism) or is easily avoided (so that non-smokers are understood to be able to leave the room, rather than insisting others not smoke).

The third principle is that the constitution should prevent the tyranny of the majority. While this seems obvious, this is where it gets tricky. Smith supports a second chamber to oversee and review the lower house and the executive and delay their actions. However, he opposes election, fearing that it would merely be another democratic house that would represent a majoritarian view. He therefore proposes some combination from among expert peers (selected by an independent selection committee), indirectly elected peers (nominated by local councils so that they had an indirect mandate but protected regional interests) and citizen-jurors (chosen by lot to serve, as is the case with jury duty).

He also supports the monarchy on the grounds that state occasions cannot be used to flatter politicians, there is an ultimate veto to tyranny and the armed forces are not subject to the Prime Minister. I might add that there is something inherently humbling in the fact that the very first thing a Prime Minister must do is kneel before The State and kiss hands. Finally, he suggests that some far-reaching legislation that might particularly disadvantage minorities should require a larger level of majority (others have suggested two thirds).

He does not propose a directly elected executive; he feels there are enough checks and balances. To this I might add that the popular mandate that a directly elected Chief Executive would have would appear to entrench executive power and majoritarianism rather than limit it. Smith appears to have temporarily overlooked the lesson of his own paper, that democracy can be used to argue that the executive has a mandate from the people.

Fourthly, as well as limits to what Government can do, there should also be limits to how much, so as to restrict the amount of legislation that activist politicians can create. Parliamentary terms should be fixed in length and individual laws should have “sunset clauses”.

Fifthly, government should be accountable. There should be a federal structure with clear delineation of responsibilities; parliamentary oversight should be strengthened (including proper confirmation hearings) and budgets should be transparent, including the publication of costs associated with every policy.

Interestingly, in his comment to my original piece, Bishop Hill suggested that Smith may have missed a trick in limiting parliament with a Bill of Rights. It would be better to define what government may do and – in a reverse of the logic that should apply to humans – everything should be forbidden that is not explicitly permitted. Government, unlike people, should not be born free, nor should it ever be set free.

Smith’s own verdict on his work is bleak: “The vested interests of those who hold power generally disincline them towards any reforms that will reduce their ability to act as they wish.” When he calls for a constitutional convention to discuss a liberal future, he seems to ignore the crucial lesson of his work: that people’s urge to reproach, interfere and dictate is the source of our problems, and is likely to shape a constitutional convention. Before we begin considering a such a convention, we first need to ask what kind of society we want. Do we really want to be free, if it means others are free too? Or would we rather retain the right to coerce others to make them live in a manner that we see fit, even if we must ourselves bear coercion when we find ourselves in the minority?

When the Americans drafted their constitution, they may have been naïve enough to think that it would not be twisted and mutilated by overweening centralists and activist politicians, but at least they knew what they wanted from society. They wanted the traditional British liberties which free born British men had won over centuries. I am not sure that modern Britains want the same.

The noble savage inhabits Vanuatu

At the risk of arousing the ire of colleagues with first hand knowledge of the island paradise of Vanuatu (which to my mind was memorable as the team with which it was hardest to win FIFA 98 on the Nintendo 64), I have just seen the most stupid article on the BBC News.

As my regular reader will know, the Beeb have set a pretty high standard, but this article leapt over its rivals with the grace of a gazelle.

The general premise of the article was a romantic paean for the simple life of the primitive islander. It stems from Vanuatu’s top place on the "Happy Planet Index" drawn up by the New Economics Foundation, which ought to set alarm bells ringing (for “new” read “no understanding of”). The people of Vanuatu are happier than any other nation on Earth, apparently, and yet they are poor and consume few resources. So begins a classic BBC dream-piece about the glories of the simple life and the happiness of the noble savage.

“I have food from my garden, no war, and nothing to fear” one islander tells us, and it is hard to deny that that sounds pretty idyllic. And perhaps I am a jaded Westerner who must always look for cold hard facts to counter an old woman’s perception of her homeland. But I do not have to look far to discover that the infant mortality rate is ten times that of the United Kingdom, or that life expectancy is a fifth shorter.

Not that I am denying that she is happy; I merely wonder how carefully Andrew Harding, the reporter, chose his interviewee. I note that he did not choose the woman whose fifth child had died, or who was widowed at 34. I do not doubt that many residents of Vanuatu are superbly happy, and even I can see the apparent attraction of their life (as painted by the BBC). But I also do not doubt that the reporters have carefully chosen their subject matter to present an Arcadian view of this furthest of tiny islands to their largely metropolitan audience. The article is not about life in Vanuatu; it is about dreams in Islington.

It was also strangely discomforting. The article particularly focussed upon the use of pig tusks as currency on the island of Pentecost. But it had an awkward feel to it; one was unsure whether this being presented as highly innovative or amusingly quaint. The only thing that was clear was that Harding seemed as confused as his viewers.

His lack of understanding of economics is also apparent. In the version of the article that appeared on the 10 O’clock News (which differs from the internet version), we were told that the country is becoming wealthier because there are more pig tusks. Those of a less mercantilist bent might wonder whether this explains the 15% interest rates that the banks are offering; the last time the UK saw 15% interest rates, we were fighting run-away inflation and a currency crisis.

“It all adds up to a stable and prosperous community,” Harding narrates. “There is a sense of harmony and happiness...” On the next island, development – which seems to include building modern housing – is described as turning the place into a dump. There is an interesting – some might say a stark – lesson here. What Vanuatu appears to have is a largely homogenous community, a traditional society and wide-spread poverty. As a result, there is no ethnic tension, no social unrest and nothing of which to be jealous. Harding implies that we could all learn from Pentecost, but are we really prepared to give up multiculturalism, our freedom to live an alternative lifestyle, and the ambition to improve ourselves?

In truth I must be a jaded Westerner, because I suspect there is a wilful blindness in Harding’s report. “There is no hunger here, no unemployment, no tax, no police, no crime or conflict to speak of,” he tells us, but I cannot help thinking that for these farmers and fishermen hunger must be a hazard of life, as it has been for all subsistence farmers and fishermen throughout history; that unemployment never exists if one is prepared to hunt and gather; that crime may be merely unreported, as the usual violence and petty wickedness that afflicts every society is considered routine; and that conflict may not be international, but must surely exist between individuals, families and gangs. If not, it would have to be more than just paradise. It would have to be unique in human history.

I don’t mean to knock the islanders. I hope they are as happy as Harding and the New Economics Foundation suggest. But I despise the glorification of their lifestyle by Western news crews that fly in for a brief taxpayer-funded film shoot before returning to their London flats where they will worry about their carbon footprints over cocktails atop the OXO Tower. This report says less about the levels of happiness to be found in Britain and Vanuatu than it does about what journalists consider to be The Good Life.

I note that Andrew Harding showed no desire to live there. I doubt the people of Pentecost would want him to.

Wednesday, 4 July 2007

Taking Liberties since 1797

I recently read the most fascinating article on how democracy undermines liberty.

Entitled Taking Liberties (it seems that nothing is original), it was written by Craig F. Smith, who was at the time a research fellow at the University of Glasgow and has since become a lecturer in the Department of Moral Philosophy at the University of St Andrews. By chance I happen to also be reading a short summary of the works of Adam Smith to which he provided commentary.

The article begins by reminding us of one simple fact that we long seem to have forgotten. Democracy is not an end in itself, but a tool we created to promote freedom. The aim of democracy was to give to the people the power to sack their rulers (we may now prefer to see them as our delegated decision-makers, even our administrators). Such power would act as a very effective check on tyranny, for the tyrant could be easily overthrown without the need to shed blood.

What democracy was never intended to convey was sovereignty. Democracy was basically a negative power: the right to take power away from a leader. But it quickly began to mutate into a positive power, conveying a right to act in the name of the people. In the UK, a sense of “popular sovereignty” merged with the traditional sovereign powers of the monarch – exercised through his prime minister since the early C18th – to give parliament unlimited powers. Note, for example, that in the UK parliament may amend the constitution by a simple majority in both houses – unlike in the US, where a two thirds majority is needed in both houses and three quarters of the individual state legislatures. This raises the very value of the constitution; what is a constitution if it is not distinct from the general nature of law.

The idea that democracy conveys sovereignty is anathema to liberty. Let us ignore, for the moment, the flaws inherent in our form of democracy, whereby a government can be elected with a strong majority in parliament based on just 37 per cent of the votes cast and only 22 per cent of the whole electorate, which means a tiny minority of the whole population. Let us instead assume that all governments rule with the support of a majority of the people. Even so, they enable the majority to impose their will on the minority. This creates two inherent problems. As This merely ensures that a series of temporary coalitions can form around individual views, constantly marginalising new minorities. They may be marginalised because of their race (Jews, blacks), their religion (Muslims, atheists), their lifestyle (smokers, hunters) or their affluence (the very poor and the very rich). But because democracy enables governments to please all of the people some of the time, they need never please all of the people all of the time. All governments need is for most of the people to be happy most of the time.

Democracies also lead to the rise of the professional politician. These days it is axiomatic that politicians need to devote all their time to their jobs, and so should be paid a handsome salary. Without payment, only the rich would be able to afford to devote time to public office, which would lead to plutocracy. Yet paying permanent politicians has its own dangers which are often overlooked. One is that they can afford to devote time to re-election while their opponents have a proper job to do. Another is that they have the time and incentive to shape legislation to guarantee their re-election. The result is a bias towards activism; politicians want to be seen to do things, and preferably to “bring home the bacon”, to gain benefits for their constituents at the expense of the nation as a whole.

The result is that democracy actually undermines freedom. The two most obvious examples of this are the “ban culture” which prevails in Westminster, and the ever-spiralling tax rate.

Laws exist to ban things. Assuming that one accepts as a fundamental principle (and it is worth noting that this is true in Britain and America, but not in France) that everything is permitted that is not explicitly banned, then laws cannot convey freedoms (unless they repeal existing bans). Thus legislative activism naturally leads to greater limits to freedom. As Liberal Democrat Home Affairs spokesperson Nick Clegg MP has noted in a number of speeches, the Blair government introduced on average one new law every day. There are a lot of things we have been banned from doing over the past 10 years.

This is especially problematic due to a common confusion between the legislative and administrative functions of the government. The recent smoking ban is an excellent example of this. The government has an administrative role (as master of the NHS) to promote public health and to keep costs under control. Unable to do this by administrative means, it uses legislation to ban the things that it cannot control (activities leading to lung-related illnesses). It cites health and safety legislation but ignores the freedom of individuals to enter and leave premises and to take or decline jobs. In effect, it uses its supposed sovereign power to forbid activity that is disapproves of for reasons of administrative convenience.

Other examples are more blatant; it is widely accepted that the ban on hunting with dogs was largely about playing to Labour’s gallery of class warriors and urban intellectuals.

The other inherent bias in the system is towards escalating taxation. Democracy enables the majority to impose their will on the minority. If the majority is poor and the minority rich, democracy acts as the great leveller (generally levelling down!), forcing the rich to give their money to the poor in direct transfers or by buying them services. As long as more people benefit than lose the measures will receive democratic support, even though the amount lost by the losers must equal the amount gained by the winners (in fact, the losers will lose more than the winners gain, as the inefficiencies of the system will lead to waste). Thus governments are inclined to continually raise taxation so as to dole out political favours to the masses at the expense of the productive few.

If this sounds doubtful, the following graph may be of note, demonstrating as it does the inexorable rise in Government expenditure in seven of the world’s leading democracies following the massive expansion of the franchise in the late C19th and early C20th.

The result is particularly hard to reverse because it generates a dependency culture, an addiction to the state as the solution to all our problems. “Liberty means responsibility,” observed George Bernard Shaw. “That is why most men dread it.” Throughout my lifetime every crisis – natural or man-made, financial, physical or moral – has been met with the demand that politicians take action. ‘Somebody should do something about this’ is a common cry among those who have lost the habit of asking ‘What can I do about this?’ So instead of buying our groceries in local shops we demand that regulators throttle the supermarkets; rather than choose a smoke-free pub we demand that smoking is banned in public places; rather than find a better job or undergo training we vote for tax-credits.

Democracy, as Churchill noted, “is the worst form of government except all the others”, and it is not my purpose nor is it Smith’s to argue that we should abandon democracy. But we need to remember that democracy exists to serve liberty – not vice versa. There is a reason why some of us consider ourselves Liberal Democrats. Of course there is a role for the state: classical liberalism is about limiting, not eliminating, it. We must uphold and even defend democracy, but we must be open minded about it, too, and ready to recognise its flaws. We have allowed democracy to run away with itself, and it has taken our freedom with it.

Craig F. Smith has some suggestions for how to restore liberty within democracy – though he admits that they may be pie-in-the-sky and will certainly not be easily accepted. However, there a more fundamental lesson to learn. We have given up too much of our freedom by perpetuating the myth that in choosing who leads us we invest them with unlimited power. We must limit the power of parliament and the executive and re-focus responsibility in society on individuals. Bernard Shaw was right that freedom worries people and places great responsibilities upon them. But I hope Thomas Jefferson spoke for us all when he stated that he “would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty than to those attending too small a degree of it.

NOTE: The title of this article borrows from the film Taking Liberties since 1997, but refers to the first imposition of Income Tax in Great Britain.