Wednesday, 31 January 2007

At last, some encouraging news on water

The government appears to be grasping the nettle of water provision at last, and not before time.

The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs announced yesterday that it will hold a consultation on whether water companies in areas where demand for water appears to be outstripping supply will be able to seek compulsory water metering.

As regular readers of this blog will attest, I am no fan of compulsion. Indeed, in normal circumstances I would leave it up to companies to dictate their own pricing policy and let it fall on their necks if they get it wrong. But the water companies are not normal companies – indeed, they are so heavily regulated that they are to all intents and purposes play-things of the state – and the pricing system they inherited from the era of the public utilities is entirely unsuitable (it is, as denizens of New Labour and scions of management training courses like to say, “Not fit for purpose”).

Simply put, the traditional flat fee system encourages over-consumption and waste. There is no incentive for the customer to control, let alone reduce, consumption. The same fee is paid whether one takes a shower or a bath, washes one’s car with a bucket or a hose, fixes or ignores a leaky tap. There is no long-term reward for paying that little bit extra to buy a toilet with different flush settings; water providers must appeal to our good will rather than our self interest when asking us to drop a hippo into our cisterns.

As well as encouraging over-consumption, flat-fees result in a hidden subsidy from poorer to richer households. Rich people use more water (as, indeed, they use more of most things – it is the urge to consume more that drives people to seek wealth): they have more cars to wash, larger gardens to irrigate, bigger baths and more Jacuzzis than their poorer neighbours. I would guess that there are more swimming pools on the Wentworth Estate than on the Chalk Farm Estate (the fact that the former has a website and the latter does not may give readers a hint as to why!). The water companies charge a flat fee that aggregates to their costs plus permitted profit, which means that single people living in small flats with no garden are paying part of the cost of the large family living in a detached house with an ornamental fish pond.

The economics of this alone are ghastly, but there are also environmental costs. Hosepipe bans across England were lifted this month, but their effectiveness was anyway limited. Last summer as I cycled through Penge I chanced upon a resident using a power-hose to clean his driveway. When I enquired whether this was illegal, the water company explained that while it was illegal to clean one’s car or water one’s garden with a hose, there was no ban on using it to clean the moss from between paving slabs (or even, I infer, turning it on and sticking the nozzle down the drain!). Government diktat is ineffective. So is goodwill: I may have two hippos in my cistern, but if none of my neighbours have one, I am foregoing a drop of water taken from a dwindling ocean.

Under a flat rate system we do not pay for what we consume; we pay a tiny fraction of what everybody consumes. Our own consumption makes no discernable difference to our bills so only a spirit of self-sacrifice or fear of being caught and penalised by the water-police constrains us. Effectively, demand is infinite whereas supply is limited. The only means of bringing demand back in line with supply is by making people pay for the amount they use. This will ease water shortages, reduce the environmental impact and end the subsidy poor households pay to rich consumers. This will not, as some dirigistes and doom-mongers claim, see poor families suffering “water poverty”, any more than charging us for the amount of food we consume has left people starving in the streets of Britain. In fact, poor households will probably see their bills fall even if they continue to consume as much as before, and they will have the choice to economise further and save money if they choose.

But, I hear you cry, are the water companies not themselves to blame for failing to reduce the enormous amount of leakage that sees 3.5 billion litres of water lost every day? The answer is of course yes, but the solution is not heavy-handed regulation. Just as government diktat is not a good way of curbing the excesses of individuals, so it is not a good way of curbing the excesses of companies. A better system would be to charge them for extracting water (just as we expect oil companies to pay rent for the oil they extract, as they are taking a resource that belongs to the nation) and let them recover the money from the customer. That way, the cost of waste would fall on the water company rather than the consumer (and the rents could be used to reduce taxes, easing everybody’s water bills).

I would therefore urge all readers of this site to take a look at the DEFRA consultation and to give serious consideration to responding. Water meters are good for the poor, they are good for the environment and they are good for us all. This is one government proposal that we should welcome.

Tuesday, 30 January 2007

Size 0 models draw my attention, again

Yesterday I touched upon Size 0 models (a memory that will live with me forever!).

Today, Tristan has noted and condemned the Liberal Democrats London Assembly motion on this issue. He writes inter alia “Size zero models are not causing direct harm to others [so] it is not government’s place to force restrictions upon them…”

I think the counter-argument is that the modelling industry is causing harm to women and particularly to teenage girls by socialising them to believe that a distorted parody of the natural human physique is an ideal-type to which they should aspire.

Implicit in this argument is the assumption that women, and particularly teenage girls (“Won’t somebody please think of the children”), are too stupid to make an informed judgement and too easily influenced by corporate imagery to be trusted to care for their own health. There follows the classic argument for censorship: the people are stupid, so must be protected from themselves.

It seems ironic to me that a nation that spends a historically-unprecedented amount of time agonising over obesity should also think that we are in danger of starving ourselves to death. Perhaps (radical suggestion, I know!) people are making their own decisions based on a multiplicity of information and imagery. Should we control all information, vetting it to ensure it promotes only a benign or (in our opinion) positive image?

Even if it is true that the existence or prominence of “Size 0” (actually Size 4) models adversely influences people’s behaviour (which has in no way been proven), it is still not government’s role to protect individuals from their own actions. The state’s role is to protect people from being coerced by other people; to allow the individual the maximum freedom that does not restrict the freedom of others. If an individual leads an unhealthy lifestyle, the government should not interfere to make them more healthy. We would not countenance force feeding or forced exercise, and I hope that we would not ban tobacco. Similarly, we should not ban images of thin models, people sitting on their sofas eating chips, or smokers (a ludicrous suggestion, I’m sure you’ll agree).

This is a classic censorship issue, an attack on freedom of expression masked as a (paternalistic) effort to protect individuals from themselves. It is a shame that our London Assembly members support it.

Monday, 29 January 2007

Bigger than you could possibly imagine

Rosemary Behan has written an excellent comment piece in today’s Times in which she takes apart the case for banning “Size Zero” models.

(Blogger appears to be having HTML problems but the piece is here: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,6-2571535,00.html)

I can add nothing to her arguments, but I would like to raise one point that had been lost on me and, perhaps, others too. (If I've missed something here and everybody else knew this, I apologise).

Apparently, Size Zero models aren’t Size Zero at all. They’re Size Four. Go figure!

This is an excellent example of scaremongering.

Time, Gentlemen, please!

The sound of screeching tyres can be heard again as another government U-turn beckons. Not surprisingly, it is a liberalising measure from which they have decided to back away.

The new licensing laws have been in force for barely a year, having come into force on 24 November 2005. Yet already the Government is backtracking. This is partly the result of an apparent rise in alcohol related diseases since 2002-3, though most of this occurred before the new licensing laws came into effect.

While the government has a duty to consider public health problems, there is no excuse for curbing the freedom of everybody, simply because a few – even a significant few – are unable to control themselves. The same is true of the new gaming laws: the fact that some are unable to control their gambling habits is no reason why others should not be allowed to gamble, or that businesses should not be allowed to cater for responsible gamers.

Indeed, I have argued for some time that it is not the role of government to protect individuals from their own mistakes. Unless people cause harm to others, the government should leave well alone.

Nonetheless, we need to be realistic. The mood of the public is unsympathetic to the sensible gambler or the recreational drinker (unless the latter is attending a dinner party in Islington or enjoying a pint at the village local). Furthermore, there is real concern about public health impact of drinking.

Thus other measures must be considered. I would suggest that a leaf might be taken out of the ASBO book. Rather than re-imposing wartime era licensing laws and limiting the freedom of responsible adults to enjoy themselves as they see fit, the authorities should concentrate on those who are irresponsible and cannot control their own behaviour. Individuals who cause sub-criminal disturbances, including rows outside pubs, urinating and vomiting in the streets, arguments with officers, or who become unable to walk or look after themselves, should be issued with a banning order forbidding them to enter licensed premises. This may be a ban at certain times (after 10pm, on Fridays) or a blanket ban. It should be limited, so that they can ‘serve their sentence’. If breached, it should lead to prosecution .

The alternative is to treat the whole issue of the public consumption of alcohol as though it were a morally corrupt practice over which that a paternalistic government should be allowed to legislate. That would constrain the freedom of sensible, fun-loving people.

A canker at the heart of our political system

I’m going to stop writing about Liberal Democrat News soon, I promise!

But one last thing: an excellent comment piece by Andrew George MP in which he examines the easy vacuousness of opposition. As he is writing for Lib Dem News, he’s unable to avoid a dig at David Cameron in the last paragraph, which is a shame as it slightly detracts from the main point of the piece: that it is easy to point the finger of blame but harder to propose alternative policies.

Nonetheless it is a good piece and worth reading; so much so that I have shamelessly reproduced the best part of it here, for which I hope Deirdre Razzall will forgive me. He writes:

‘…political opposition can, in fact, become a deeply unpatriotic business of quietly praying for the worst, secretly shaping the waxed effigies of government aspirations and wishing ill on everything it does.

‘Fairly scant attention to the most successful post-war opposition party campaigns shows that they have not been about capturing the imagination of the electorate with the sheer brilliance of political ideas, but their ability to seize the opportunity to feed like successful vultures on the spoils of the political misfortune or mismanagement of the other side.

‘After a while this becomes an uncomfortably easy part of political instinct: fanning the flames of the doomsday scenario and associating yourself with the collective hand wringing over the failure of government policy. It’s the pastime of the politically talentless, though every politician in opposition has to do the apprenticeship at some time.’
(Liberal Democrat News, issue 932, p5)

This is an honest and unusually candid critique of Mr. George’s profession and one to which I would unswervingly subscribe.

I hope that the implication is that Mr. George, at least, is not guilty of that sad vice. If not, he is a rare politician indeed.

British tyranny marches on

I said that the most recent edition of Liberal Democrat News was unusually good. The story about Fingerprinting in schools was truly jaw-dropping:

‘Schools have been fingerprinting pupils as young as three, often without parental consent, storing their biometric data for use in electronic registration and library systems, despite concerns over whether it is legal…
[I]n response to a letter from Liberal Democrat Education Spokesperson, Greg Mulholland MP, Education Minister Jim Knight confirmed that the government will be issuing draft new guidance about fingerprinting in schools’, having previously refused to do so.

Well done Greg!

But the underlying story still leaves me absolutely horrified and makes me wish to push the point further than Mulholland or the rest of the party have so far. It is not enough that the government should issue guidelines on this matter. The fingerprinting of children that have not committed an offence without the express permission of their parents is a violation of their right to privacy.

As with the issue of children’s DNA records and the national database, this represents another step towards a surveillance society. That it should be aimed at innocent children is terrifying.

Liberal Democrat MEPs are being seduced by centralised power

It was an unusually good edition of Liberal Democrat News (the in house tabloid that Mark Valladares once referred to as “our very own Pravda”) – if by good one means that it gets the pulse racing.

The story on the European Parliament’s report on rail transport earned my particular ire. According to Liberal Democrat News:

‘Liberal Democrats have backed (CHECK) [sic.] a crucial European Parliament report that will vastly improve rights for rail passengers…

‘The Lib Dem Economic Affairs Spokesperson Sharon Bowles MEP said: “The
Parliament has stood firm and is calling for this directive to apply to all rail
journeys regardless of whether they are international or not…”

Liz Lynne MEP, Liberal Democrat Employment and Social Affairs Spokesperson… has tabled and amendment to this report on behalf of the entire ALDE Group… to ensure accessibility for… people with reduced mobility…’

While the objectives being sought here are undoubtedly laudable, it is another unfortunate case of the European Parliament arrogating powers that should be exercised at a national level. There is absolutely no reason why policy regarding the railway system of the United Kingdom – which is, except for one discrete rail line, completely separate and independent of the rest of Europe – should be set at a supranational level.

There may be a case, because of greater connectivity among our continental European partners, for an agreement binding transnational rail travel. But when the European Parliament specifically suggests that such a ruling should apply to purely intra-national railway journeys (such as “Cornwall to London, Edinburgh to Southampton”, as Ms. Bowles enthused) it is a clear violation of the much-vaunted but rarely-seen principle of subsidiarity – that decisions should be taken at the effective level nearest the citizen.

It is deeply disturbing to see Liberal parliamentarians championing this un-necessary centralisation of power, decision-making and regulation. It is also disturbing to see Democrat parliamentarians using the European Parliament to pass into law what is effectively domestic regulation, rather than seeking to do so through national parliaments – where, presumably, they would expect to meet more resistance.

No matter how worthy the aims or how desirable the outcomes, they do not justify the use of inherently illiberal and undemocratic means. It suggests that our MEPs, like all too many of those who find themselves in positions of authority, have ‘gone native’, becoming co-opted by the institutions they have joined and seduced by the power to ‘do good’, irrespective of the principles of liberty and democracy that first brought them there.

The Liberal Democrats should be promoting subsidiarity in Europe just as we seek localism in Britain – irrespective of the urge to reform society from the centre. As I argued last week, Britain’s place is in Europe. But it is in a liberal Europe.

But worst of all, you've let yourself down

ALDC have released the latest set of by-election results. See if you can spot what is missing from the first two on the list:

By-Election Results: Thursday 25th January 2007.

Cumbria CC, Brampton and Gilsland
Con 717 (61.4; +13.6), Lab 363 (31.1; +2.9), BNP 88 (7.5; +7.5), [LD (0.0; -24.0).
Majority 354. Turnout 23.3%. Con hold. Last fought 2005.

Isle of Anglesey UA, Llanfihangel Ysgeifiog
Ind 449 (57.7; +21.0), PC 273 (35.1; -28.2), Lab 56 (7.2; +7.2).
Majority 176. Turnout 50%. Ind gain from PC. Last fought 2004.


I'll give you a clue, if you're stuck:



Coming on the back of the Barrow in Furness District Council by-election, the first of the new year and another no-show by the Lib Dems, this is a pretty poor show. The one in Cumbria is particularly galling as we appear to have had 24% of the vote last time.

Come on, people! Sort it out! Is a paper candidate and a couple of Foci too much to ask?

Friday, 26 January 2007

Laws against discrimination will not make society more tolerant

I’ve been steering clear of the Catholic adoption row so far. Nothing like coming late to a story! I think it may have been because I have found the whole affair depressing. Rather than take up arms, I’d rather put my head in my hands.

This is partly because I feel that this row has been deliberately engineered by Cabinet Ministers who want to take the opportunity to burnish their socialist credentials prior to the Labour Party's deputy leadership election by confronting both a conservative organisation (a church) and their own lame-duck leader. This is not to deny that there are real issues here, but I am sure that they could have been addressed far more maturely if there were not political points to be scored.

If the machinations of Labour politicians were enough to depress me, however, I’d have wept myself dry long ago. Instead, I have found the tenor of the debate equally depressing. This has become one of those polarised arguments where one is either manning or storming the barricades; a totemic issue around which a lot of anger and bile is being expressed while children remain to be adopted. The fact is that the Catholic adoption agencies are unusually effective at finding places for children - particularly troubled and teenaged children, who are the hardest to place. As with many religious schools, the attempt to mould society in a progressive image may result in the loss of a great deal of expertise and skill.

Not that I’m suggesting that what is required is some sort of woolly, third-way, middle-of-the-road compromise. I’ve never been that kind of liberal! I am the kind that rejects conservatism because I believe in progress, and rejects socialism because I believe in the rule of law. The rule of law is particularly important to this discussion, because it is often mistakenly assumed that the “rule of law” is synonymous with the “rule of laws”. A lot of the debate has been about how the Catholic Church must obey the law – there can be no exemption.

To make my point, I was prompted to finally break cover by a question from a friend, who asked “what are your thoughts on the homophobic Catholic Church clinging doggedly to their 'right' to discriminate, over and above the law? ”. In responding, I stated that

I am rather disturbed by what I infer as a belief that the law is something that we can use to force minorities to comply with the wishes of the majority. It was not so long ago that homosexuality was illegal. Would you then have railed against “homosexuals clinging doggedly to their ‘right’ to sodomy, over and above the law”?.

The rule of law does not mean that anything that is enacted in law is justified. The German Enabling Act that gave Adolph Hitler and his cabinet the power to enact legislation without reference to the Reichstag was a law, but it was a violation of the legal principles to which we refer when we talk about the rule of law (and should also sound eerily familiar to students of British politics).

Rather, the rule of law relies upon the fact that certain basic liberties are beyond the scope of the law to dispense with as particular parliaments choose. Younger nations have written constitutions which make this clear, but our constitution – though not enshrined in a single document – is no less rich. One of these basic liberties is freedom of association. Stepping back from adoption and looking at the law in the round, the effect is to compel people to associate (in this case conduct business) with people with whom they would otherwise choose not to associate. Furthermore, the law is arbitrary in its application: it prescribes certain types of discrimination (e.g. age) while ignoring – and thus implicitly sanctioning – others (e.g. weight).

I do not think that tolerance and understanding are best spread by law enforcement. They are best spread by interaction, debate and education. That requires openness on all sides. It is, of course, easier to get to the short-term end one wants (no discrimination against homosexual adoption, for example) by using the law to crack down on dissent. But I suspect that the longer-term ends (a society of tolerant and open-minded people based on mutual respect despite differences of lifestyle) are retarded as a result.

In the end, we create a society that does not discriminate because it is not allowed to, rather than people who do not discriminate because they do not want to.

Thursday, 25 January 2007

The socialist approach to broadcasting


Lurking in the margins of The Times I saw this brief but depressing story:

YouTube rival call

A publicly funded rival to YouTube should be set up to
make up for a shortfall in quality television, the communications regulator has
said. Ofcom suggested that the organisation, called the public service
publisher, should have an annual budget for digital content of up to £100
million so it can rival the BBC.

Clearly socialism is alive and well in Ofcom!

The presence of YouTube is itself evidence that the market is responding to people’s desire for more copious and more varied content. YouTube reduces the barriers to entry into broadcasting to nearly nothing, enabling millions to make and broadcast material. Yahoo, MSN and other search engines are bound to launch rivals now that Google runs YouTube. Other providers will rise from outside the search engine world. The low cost of setting up an internet provider make competition inevitable. Furthermore, anybody may now post a video on their own website or blog. The market in broadcasting already provides. Indeed, it thrives.

The suggestion that a “public service publisher” is required to further diversify the market or increase supply is nonsense. So too is the suggestion that the BBC needs a rival: the BBC’s pre-eminence comes from the fact that government established it as a tax-funded public service broadcaster; the solution is to make it compete with commercial providers, rather than create further public service behemoths to encourage a clash of the tax-funded titans.

Indeed, with the proliferation of choice and the benign anarchy of the internet, it is the role of Ofcom that should be questioned. With the market making such a wide range and diversity of television available, the days when we needed a regulator have passed.

--

Meanwhile, for those fascinated by the recent rows about the licence fee and/or involved in some of the spirited blogging on the subject, journalist and author Richard D. North is due to publish a book with the provocative title Scrap the BBC!: Ten Years to Set Broadcasters Free. It is bound to be a very strong attack on tax-funded and strongly regulated broadcasting.

This blog does not endorse it (Hell! I haven’t even read it!) but I can get hold of cheap and possibly signed copies if anybody is interested (watch out Amazon!). Just email tom.papworth-at-bromleylibdems.org.uk, substituting @ for -at- of course (this is probably a vain attempt to avoid spam!), and I’ll see what I can do.

Wednesday, 24 January 2007

Our place in Europe

As Tristan has noted, Cicero has another well-thought-out post on his blog. Personally, I’m kicking myself as I nearly went to Andrus Ansip’s lecture at the LSE but bailed out at the last minute. (I might have known Cicero’s true identity!).

Cicero writes “The Liberal Democrats have an opportunity to speak out for a genuinely Liberal Europe… in favour of free trade and freer movement in services and agriculture, [and] against a European super state and "ever closer union". He is spot on.

I have been advocating for some time a shift in emphasis for the Lib Dems from “The party of Europe” to “The party of European reform”. This would contrast with Labour, who are largely in favour but have learnt to keep quiet and not rock the boat for fear of alienating the voters, and the Conservatives, who largely want to leave but have learnt to keep quite and not rock the boat for fear of alienating each other.

I agree that it is in Britain’s interests to be in Europe, but it is not in Britain’s or anyone else’s interests for Europe to pursue “ever closer union” or to develop into a socialist state.

The European Union needs to trim down its areas of competence and embark on a massive liberalisation and deregulation programme. As liberals we should not meekly go along with the European agenda; we should be pressing loudly for an end to farm subsidies, an unfettered free-market within Europe (for goods, services, labour and capital) and less protectionism against imports (from any of those four categories) from abroad.

What is more, “harmonisation” should not be used as an excuse to eliminate variety, innovation and competitive advantage. There is no reason why a single market cannot thrive where different tax codes, different regulatory regimes and even different currencies exist. Of course Europe should not tolerate manipulation of regulatory regimes as a covert form of protectionism, but neither should we assume that bland uniformity from Athens to Aberdeen is a necessary feature of any market. There is no amount of economic efficiency or market clarity that justifies refusing to allow individuals to transact in their traditional quantities and measures.

Neither is there any reason why job protection should be the same in every corner of the Union: can workers not judge for themselves when considering taking a job abroad how the labour laws will affect their future? Or do we need a paternalistic super-state to protect us from the effects of making a decision.

Again, there is no economic justification for suggesting that one member state should not be allowed to experiment with a low-tax high-growth model while others opt for a high-tax high-welfare system (Oh! That the UK could be allowed such variety!). Efforts to impose tax harmonisation are an attempt by high tax economies to undermine the comparative advantage of lower tax competitors in the name of the “level playing field”.

Britain’s place is in Europe. But it is in a liberal Europe. The Liberal Democrats should press that point home in Brussels, Strasbourg, Westminster and their constituencies. It will appeal far more to voters than unquestioning loyalty to European integration or a shy admission of support. It is also the right position to take.

Tuesday, 23 January 2007

Freedom of speech includes freedom to be wrong

Another day, another race row. Poor Channel 4 seems to be mired in bigotry at present. How will it cope?

After the furore of the Big Brother Race Row (which I feel now warrants the use of capital letters), it now appears that a contestant on Shipwrecked: Battle of the Islands has made some daft and probably offensive comments supporting slavery. She has also condemned fat people and called for a return to the British Empire, which suggests that she may not be all there, but it is the former comment – along with various anti-immigrant sentiments – that has caused the greatest uproar. In light of the BBRR, that is unsurprising.

Not having dipped my visual toes into this particular (cess-) pool of entertainment, I don’t know what she said, but if the transcript on BBC Online is accurate it looks like a tirade of idiocy rather than hate.

The question is, however, should Shipwrecked now be removed from the air? Should the offending contestant be throw off the island? Or reprimanded by producers and hauled into line? (Note that she already has been confronted by other contestants.)

I think not. As I commented before in another context, freedom of expression is most easily threatened when we seek to curtail expressions of opinion that are abhorrent or threaten our treasured beliefs. It is easy to rebuff the suggestion that Brian Haw or Behzti should be censored, but harder to defend David Irving or Vybz Kartel when they air their opinions. So too with the Shipwrecked contestant.

Appalling though we may feel her views are, I find more appalling the thought that media outlets might vet people against standards of opinion. It reminds me of an excellent posting by a fellow blogger (I’m afraid I forget who) arguing that while Simone Clarke’s membership of the British National Party might make most people’s stomach’s turn, it would be wrong to exclude her from employment with the English National Ballet merely because of her politics.

Let’s remember, this is supposed to be “reality TV”. Should we not allow these “real” opinions to be aired, taking the rough with the smooth, rather than hiding the seedy underbelly of British opinion away from the public eye? Is it not better that public debate be provoked rather than that it is avoided at all costs? I suspect that the contestant will learn more by witnessing the shock and opprobrium of her fellow islanders than she will by being hauled in front of the Channel 4 producers and given a dressing down.

Racism is a real part of British culture. It is also, let us be clear, a real part of all cultures. I have heard of no country where foreigners are universally trusted or welcomed. If we are to reduce its influence, or at least pull its sting, we need to witness it and admit the fact of it, and then to debate it – not just in the media, in politics and at great public meetings, but in pubs, at work and even around the camp fire as the sun sets over a glorious tropical beach.

World may stop turning of 31 January 2007

Panic is palpable across Britain as thousands of civil servants have voted to strike on 31 January.
Regulation will become Byzantine as civil servants eager to undue the regulating urges of other civil servants miss a day’s work, soft loans for exporters may be delayed, and public service advertising will remain patronising! And how will any of us survive without HM Revenue and Customs checking up on whether we have paid enough tax or imported too many cigarettes?

Of course, a few people will suffer from this; mainly poor people. Job centres and benefits offices will be closed, meaning that either people will get their benefits without having to sign on (so having no impact at all) or their benefits will be delayed (causing suffering to the most needy). It makes more sense that driving tests will be delayed, as these are exactly the sort of service that the government should be privatising, though it is ironic that while the strike is about the Public and Commercial Services Union’s opposition to privatisation, this particular service is not one of those in the frame. And the courts will be hit, but some might argue that justice is so slow that nobody will really notice.

Of the 280,000 members balloted, 61,488 voted in favour of the strike and 38,823 voting against. In a brilliant example of wilful misrepresentation, PCS General Secretary Mark Serwotka said the size of the majority showed the anger at the way civil and public servants were being treated. Some might counter that the fact that almost two thirds could not be bothered to vote implies that the result shows the total apathy of Mr. Serwotka’s members, and that basing a strike on the opinion of barely a fifth of his membership suggests that the agenda being pursued here is Mr. Serwotka’s rather than that of his members. But that’s union politics for you.

In fact, the main impact of the PCS strike will be that for one day only thousands of civil servants will not get paid. That should save the taxpayer hundreds of thousands of pounds. So here is a novel suggestion: rather than the citizens of the UK missing out on this non-event, why not give every taxpayer a tiny tax rebate. On 1 February, when they wake to find a couple more quid in the bank and civilisation still intact, they will really be able to judge whether they are getting value for money from their public servants.

Monday, 22 January 2007

Economics 101: The difference between “Fiscal Drag” and “Bracket Creep”

Gordon Brown is a tricky soul, isn’t he?

He maintains that he has been raising the income tax brackets in line with inflation – in fact, that this has been the case since 1977. Yet somehow over a million more people are paying higher rate income tax than when he became Chancellor. How has he managed to square both?

The key is in the difference between Bracket Creep and Fiscal Drag (often called Real Fiscal Drag, with the clue being in the “Real”). Bracket Creep is the effect of inflation on taxpayers: if tax thresholds stay the same, but inflation raises wages, people are carried into higher tax brackets even if they are earning the same real income (because inflation affects outgoings as well as incomes).

Real Fiscal Drag is something different. Inflation may be harmful, but as the years pass we would all hope that our wages would rise because we ultimately expect to become richer. If this simply referred to individuals getting richer as they get older then this may not be a concern – richer people pay more tax in our progressive system, and age is no defence.

But we do not simply expect to get richer as individuals. We expect to get richer as a society; I expect an average 34 year old to have a far higher real income in 2020 than the average 34 year old now. For this to be the case – and it generally is, if one does not live in a blighted country such as Zimbabwe or Venezuela – incomes must rise faster than prices and so faster than inflation as a whole.

This is where Real Fiscal Drag kicks in. Because our real incomes are rising, more of us will end up paying higher rates of income tax even if the tax thresholds are raised in line with price inflation.

So the Chancellor can claim to be raising tax thresholds in line with inflation while using the growing prosperity of society to draw ever more people into higher rates of taxation. In a parody of a David Cameron expression, Brown expects the share the proceeds of our growth with us by taking ever larger portions of our increasing wealth.

I’m not generally a fan of the phrase “Stealth taxes” but Gordon Brown’s ability to increase by 56 per cent the number of people burdened with marginal taxes of 40 per cent is frankly underhanded.

Who knows what tricks he’ll pull once he’s moved next door!

Friday, 19 January 2007

Latest lunatic Tory idea: The return of the Permit Raj

Is there no act of idiocy to which David Cameron will not ascribe in his attempt to woo votes? The latest suggestion from the Conservative’s Working Group on Responsible Business is to impose quotas for producing fatty or sugary foods and alcohol in an attempt to tackle obesity and binge drinking.

If it is true – and so far it is only part of a consultation document – it is a sign of how far the Conservatives have moved from the economic liberalism they briefly espoused under Margaret Thatcher.

Quotas for anything are a disaster. They are aspects of the planned economies that so blighted the lives of billions during the last century. In the first place they are based on the idea that government knows better than individuals how much of a commodity is needed, and that overproduction is wasteful. Liberals understand that overproduction reduces prices, which in turn discourages further production until an equilibrium is found between how much consumers want (and are prepared to pay for) something and how much producers want to make. A quota system assumes that too much is being made, which in turn assumes that too much is being consumed, because consumers are allocating their resources (spending their money) “on the wrong things”.

In other words, Mr. Cameron and his apparatchiks are suggesting that because we are too keen on fatty food and booze, the best solution is to reduce supply through handing out a limited number of production licences.

As well as being obviously illiberal (who is Mr. Cameron, or indeed his 643 colleagues, to decide how much I or any of us want or ought to have of a commodity?) it is painfully stupid. Anybody with an A Level in Economics (that’s a lot of people other than me, then!) knows that quotas are an inefficient and harmful means of reducing supply. A far more effective method and one that distorts economic exchange far less is a tariff or tax system. Rather than reduce the quantity produced by government fiat, the government adds a tax, thus raising the cost and so reducing demand. This is cheaper to administer, raises revenue for government, harms business less than arbitrary quota systems (which might see a firm suddenly lose its quota and so lose its business) and allows individuals to continue to allocate their resources as they see fit.

The quintessential example of the quota system is the Permit Raj or Licence Raj that afflicted India between 1947 and 1990. India’s government was so enthralled by the Soviet Union that they attempted to plan their economy. The Indian State Planning Commission would issue licences for any and all production; without a licence, production of something as mundane as steel was illegal. The result was rampant corruption, as these precious licences were worth a fortune: with supply limited, prices rise, so licensed production of a commodity is even more profitable. In a real sense, quota systems issue licences not just to produce fatty food or steel, but to print money. They also distorted the economy, because Indian manufacturers were not able to use the price signals in the market to respond to consumers needs. Between socialism and corruption, the Indian economy shrank, poverty worsened and people starved.

The Conservative’s quota system would subject to the same problems. The issuing of licences to produce fatty, sugary or alcoholic products would encourage corruption and harm British industry. British consumers (that’s all 60 million of us) would suffer as prices for goods we clearly want would rise. It is one of the most crass examples of interventionist economics in some times. Friedrich Hayek was right to opine that the Conservatives are only fair-weather “auxiliaries” of liberty whose real interventionist instincts will always come through.

What is particularly surprising is that even if they want to impose it, I cannot see how they can. The free movement of goods throughout the EU prevents them from placing quotas on European food entering the UK, so the upshot would not be rising prices and reduced consumption but simply a transfer of supply from the UK to Europe. This whole proposal smacks of one that has not been thought through.

This is very disturbing. There is nothing wrong with politicians seeking to improve public health, though that does not justify their dictating to individuals how they live. However, one would hope that they would utilise intellect and experience in perusing our interests. Indeed, that is rather the point of representative democracy: we cannot all be experts in everything, and where public policy is concerned most of us cannot be experts in very much as we have real jobs to do. Thus we look to our leaders to exercise their knowledge and utilise the time that we free up by paying them to be full-time politicians to pursue our interests.

Sadly, it seems the Conservatives have not been using their time wisely. Instead, they have reverted to type: tell people how to live their lives and damn the consequences!

Thursday, 18 January 2007

EXCLUSIVE: Mervyn DID draft a letter to Gordon!

It's amazing what one finds in the rubbish bins behind Threadneedle Street!

Obviously the person who drafted this letter realised they didn't quite need it after all:


Dear Gordon,

As you may have noticed, inflation appears to be spiralling out of control. The consumer price index (CPI) is now at its highest since 1995, while the retail price index (RPI) is at its highest since 1991. I imagine it must be pretty embarrassing, presiding over an economic record worse than that of the Major administration, which Labour have been criticised so vocally over the past decade.

I feel duty bound to provide an explanation for this rising inflationary tide. I attribute it to a number of key factors, none of which are beyond the wit of man to cure.

1. House prices

House prices have spiralled over the past decade. This has a direct impact on RPI and has also facilitated unprecedented levels of equity withdrawal, fuelling consumer price rises.

House price rises are largely to do with property speculation. While interest rates can curb house prices to a degree, they are a blunt tool in that they also affect other lending and borrowing. High interest rates would, for example, reduce investment. One means of curbing property speculation without harming investment would be to introduce land value taxation, which economists recognise is among the least distortionary form of taxation. Sadly, the Government has shown no willingness to investigate this option.

2. Public spending

A grotesque rise in public spending over the past five years has increased inflation. A particularly egregious example has been overly-generous public sector pay rises that bear no relation to productivity gains.

3. Public borrowing

The Pre-Budget Report forecasts net debt at the end of March 2007 of £503.9 billion. This budgetary imprudence has injected massive liquidity into the public sector and the economy more widely. Effectively, more money is chasing the same number of goods.

4. Taxes

In the pre-budget report the Government added 1.5p/litre to petrol duty. This has been the major factor in the 2p rise in the cost of a litre of petrol, which in turn accounts for two-thirds of the rise in CPI last month.

5. Trade barriers

Cheap imports of goods from emerging Asian manufacturers has applied downward pressure on prices, particularly in clothing and electrical goods. Sadly, the Government and the European Commission (led by Trade Commissioner Peter Peter Mandelson) have imposed additional and ongoing quotas on Chinese textile imports. This is in breach of our commitments under the World Trade Organisation. The result is that customers have been forced to purchase more expensive European products, pushing up retail prices.

6. Immigration

The low inflation enjoyed by the UK over the past two years has been in part due to immigration. As my colleague, David, pointed out a couple of weeks ago, the availability of highly skilled Eastern European workers has kept wage demands within sensible limits. Sadly, the Government has decided not to take advantage of another wave of immigration from Romania and Bulgaria, instead imposing a daft and distortionary quota system. This has removed a further buffer against inflation.

As you will see from the above factors, there is a clear single cause of inflation. Sadly, it is beyond my authority to do anything about it. I think it’s over to you, old chap.

I remain your humble servant,

Mervyn.

Quit while you’re ahead

The number of ministerial careers that end with claims of wanting to spend more time with the family is legion, and most are treated with due suspicion. But few people give up the back benches for that reason.

Which is why Matthew Taylor’s decision is both laudatory and instructive.

It raises in me an ongoing anger that people believe that Members of Parliament are a bunch of lazy bums who are living like barnacles off the public purse while providing no value at all.

To be fair, I have sympathy for those for whom this is an expression of irritation because they are obliged to pay for MPs whose job seems to be to meddle in people's private lives. I am a Liberal because I believe that Government has no business interfering in people’s private affairs. Indeed, a liberal society is based on the principle that individuals have a right to operate freely within their personal sphere, and that government’s only role is to regulate those areas where the individual sphere’s overlap. I suspect that the general dislike of politicians that has emerged in recent years has more to do with the invasiveness of policy than the nature of politics. If government left people alone but created a sound framework for interaction, we would have happier citizens and probably a happier polity.

Matthew’s decision is a lesson to us, however. As far as I know he was doing well. His 7,403 majority is not meagre and he has held some good party posts. But he’s tired and worn out by the 80 hour weeks. Having seen David Laws attending talks at the IEA before popping back for the 10pm vote, and having worked for Tony McNulty in his private office back in his ODPM days, I know that MPs of all parties work damned hard. They may not spend all day every day in The House, and they may often seem remote from their constituencies, but between the Committee Rooms, Portcullis House, surgeries and meetings, they lead a pretty busy life.

They spend their weekdays grilling ministers and their weekends canvassing, and in between they try to keep up with daily events and highlight the work they do for their constituency. And occasionally, if they’re old enough to have 50s household or if they’re very, very lucky, they manage to hold together a family too.

Good luck to ‘em. And good luck to Matthew if he puts the last before all the rest.

As nature intended

Congratulations to the author of Hot, Ginger and Dynamite, who first noticed the most illiberal story in recent times.

Next thing you know, they'll be telling people which hand they should use to...

First piece of celebrity gossip on Liberal Polemic (Shock! Horror! Probe)

It’s not often you get to meet two celebrities in a single day, but today was clearly my lucky day!
Having spent an agonising five days not blogging due to a rigorous weekend celebrating a friend’s birthday in the New Forest followed by being obliged to work as though I was being paid for it (which, to be fair, I am), I decided to spend a night with friends at that most salubrious of venues, the Lord Moon on the Mall (aka. the last refuge of the Cabinet Office employee with only a fiver left before pay day).

Now I’ve always thought I’d avoid the urge to approach the famous when they appear at the bar. But then by famous I was usually thinking of Jade Goody or that guy off The Bill. But today I saw two true megastars: Lembit Opik and Gabriela Irimia.

I jest of course: Gabriela is a superstar; Lembit is merely a politician. But as a politics junkie, it was Lembit I recognised first and accidentally bumped into at the bar (thus undermining all my principles as set out in paragraph three).
Now, were this just a piece of crass name-dropping, this posting would be as shameless as an edition of Hello Magazine – to whom Lembit tells me he has given an interview, to be fair. But I feel that having met him I have a right to chip in to comment on a couple of controversies.

Firstly, as I said to him (in my usual subtle way) soon after we met, “Being in a new relationship should be the happiest time in a person’s life. I hope they [the press] haven’t f*cked it up for you!” To which he replied – with what I hope was candour but I fear included an element of courage in the face of adversity – “Not it the slightest. I put it all down to… envy”.

Fair enough, and good luck to him. No matter what you think of him as a politician (and I know members in Derby are furious at him), it’s a disgrace that he should be hounded by the press for that most heinous of sins: splitting up with a partner and going out with another. Of course, he made the mistake of choosing two partners who were both in the public eye, but I guess love really is blind (at least to the pressures of public interest – or opprobrium!).

Secondly – and here I must declare an interest, as he did buy me a pint – he seemed like a decent chap. Now being personable is a characteristic I suspect most politicians share and for which they should be admired rather than blamed. But nonetheless he seemed like a nice guy. What is more, he made all the right liberal noises (with an unprompted lower-case “L”) and was genuinely friendly – he didn’t just chat to me at the bar but invited me back to meet his friends.

And Gabriela? Now I didn’t get much of a chance to chat to her, but it gave me one more insight. Being recently married, I have a radar well-attuned to genuine affection. What I noticed was that not only did he show Gabriela a lot of attention but that, even when not talking to her directly, he would stroke a shoulder or play with her hair. To some this is the stuff that derision is made of. To me this suggests a man who is genuinely fond.

So condemn Lembit if you want for any political indiscretions you may feel he has demonstrated. I am now convinced of the opinion I had formed weeks ago. This latest reason he has reached the headlines is a sorry example of puerile titillation masquerading as journalism. If two people are having a good time good luck to them.

Lembit seemed like a nice enough chap. Judge him on his actions by all means, but don’t base your judgements of his love life. It’s none of your business.

Friday, 12 January 2007

Quality, not quantity, is what we need in education

Ministers appear to be considering raising the compulsory school age to 18. It is hard not to sympathise with their motivation for this. Alan Johnson (one of the few Labour ministers that retains some credibility) told The Times that “It should be as unacceptable to see a 16-year- old working, with no training, no education, as it is now to see a 14-year-old… We should find it … repellent that a youngster of 16 is not getting any training.” Coming from a man who left school at 15 with no qualifications, it is hard not argue.

This raises a question I have discussed before about the need for a proper and meaningful legal definition of adulthood. At present one “comes of age” after 18 years, but may drive a car at 17, have sexual intercourse at 16, and not stand for parliament until 21. There is no logic to this. The school leaving ages are an example of this. At present children can leave school and start work. Technically, that means we have child labour – albeit not with the overtones of exploitation that that term usually carries.

Some Liberal Democrats believe that the voting age should be lowered to 16. I believe that this should only be the case if we believe that 16 and 17 year olds are mature adults capable of exercising their judgement well enough to make such a weighty decision. Whether they are or not is a discussion for another day, however. My point here is that if they are, then they are adults.

If 16 and 17 year olds are adults, it would be wrong (I might even hazard criminal) to require them to spend a further two years in education. No matter how much they would benefit from it, it would be a violation of their freedom. After all, they have the right to an education; should they ten be obliged? If they are children then we may at least have the right to take that decision for them. If not, it would be as unacceptable as conscription.

The proposal anyway raises a more obvious problem. The reason why school children are not getting satisfactory qualifications is not a lack of time – they spend 11 years in school and still a quarter of them are functionally illiterate and innumerate. It is the quality of education in those 11 years that is letting our children down, not our failure to require them (remember, they are already entitled to it if they wish) to attend school for another two years.

This proposal is bound to be expensive. While its motivation is undoubtedly high-minded, ministers would be better off concentrating on improving literacy, numeracy and qualification levels prior to children reaching 16 rather than making headline-grabbing gestures that fail to address the real problem.

A novel solution to policing in Northern Ireland

As part of the peace process, the new Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) is required to recruit equally from the Protestant and Catholic communities. Even though the Catholics remain in a minority within the province, the PSNI is required to recruit on a 50-50 basis.

In practice, this is proving hard, as many Catholics remain suspicious of the police. When it was the Royal Ulster Constabulary it was largely Protestant and many considered it to be partisan. Thus even now only 21 per cent of its officers are Catholic and PNSI has struggled to recruit sufficient numbers of Catholics.

But a novel solution has manifested itself courtesy of one of this blog’s favourite topics, immigration. The Times reports that “Nearly 1,000 of the province’s burgeoning Polish community have responded to a police recruitment drive – and they are nearly all Catholics. Poles accounted for 12 per cent of the 7,749 applicants…”

Is there no problem that can’t be solved by immigration? Our hospitals rely on immigrant nurses and doctors as well as porters and cleaners; the army has relied on recruits from the Commonwealth for years; now the police are recruiting officers from among immigrant communities.

Some complain that this undermines the purpose of the 50-50 rule because it is not ensuring that the police force adequately represents the Irish community. However, this is a mistaken concern. In many ways employing Poles is preferable to employing Catholic and Protestant Irish who have been influenced by the long period of “The Troubles”. Of course there is a need for both sides of Northern Ireland’s divide to be represented in the PSNI. But I can think of nothing better for the province than that hundreds of its police officers have never been involved in the conflict and are interested in nothing other than dispensing justice and upholding the law impartially and neutrally.

Of course Ian Paisley is correct (a sentence that I never thought I would write, even if I am in this case referring to the son of the DUP leader) to say that “You should not recruit on a religious basis”. It is discriminatory and should be illegal in any arm of government. However, Northern Ireland faces particular problems in which the police force is intimately involved. This may not be the time to stand up for liberal principles (another sentence I never thought I’d write!). As long as the quota system is a temporary measure that will ensure a balanced police force and so restore the faith of the Catholic community in the impartiality of policing in the province, it should be tolerated.

Sadly, experience tells us that temporary measures generate vested interests. I can well imagine a future where the PSNI has won the trust of the whole Northern Irish community, but where groups within the province resist efforts to end the quota system. This is the experience of Affirmative Action in the United States. Ironically, perpetuating protectionist measures tends to do more harm than good, even for those so protected. But if in the short term it goes even part way to shoring up the peace process, it will be a price worth paying.

Thursday, 11 January 2007

#Fly me to the moon# (at the taxpayers’ expense)

So HM Government is looking at sending a British mission to the moon. So far they are only looking at sending a couple of unmanned probes, but the second is rumoured to be exploring the possibility of a manned base.

The author of the 5tracks blog notes “My first reaction to that answer is ‘there are certain people IN Britain I’d like to send to the moon’ but that’s an old cheap gag and I’m above all that”. Matthew Paris clearly is not!

I have argued before that American plans for a moon-base and a Mars-shot are a waste of money. Our own, unmanned probes may not cost billions, but they remain a pointless boondoggle.

There is no economic or scientific purpose in revisiting the Moon. There can be little doubt that scientists will queue up to explain why they need hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers money, but you could replace those scientists with others from any discipline, or with doctors or teachers or anyone else with a claim on the public purse, and they would give convincing testimony as to why they needed the money. That is not reason enough to grant it to them.

As for any economic benefit that might accrue from more lunar exploration, if it existed businesses would be falling over themselves to finance such space exploration. It is no coincidence (indeed, it is inevitable) that the branch of space transport that is profitable in human terms is (consequently) the part which is profitable in business terms. It is worth spending billions of dollars launching near-earth satellites because the business of global communications is worth trillions. It is worth trillions because it increases human capital, improves the quality of our lives and makes us more efficient and effective producers.

By comparison, spending hundreds of millions of pounds sending probes to a barren lump of rock that happens to be caught in our gravity just so that we can enjoy the frisson of pride that comes from being one of the few nations to disturb the lunar dust is an obscene waste of the public fisc.

Hmm… Waste of the public fisc! Do we have a Labour government?

Obstructing patient mobility won’t improve health standards

There is an ongoing struggle between Whitehall and Brussels to see who will undermine the liberalising measures of whom. Today, it is bureaucrats in Whitehall who are objecting to an European effort to liberalise the market in one of the most essential services: healthcare.

In 26 September 2006 the European Commission launched a consultation on a legal framework to enhance cooperation between member states’ health systems. This month it stated that it was not necessary to get approval from one’s national healthcare provider or health ministry before travelling to a neighbouring EU member for treatment.

This is causing panic in the NHS. On the one hand, they may be called upon to reimburse unlimited numbers of patients – whereas individual Primary Care Trusts and/or the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence may approve or decline treatment based on cost, they would not be able to decline treatment abroad.

On the other hand, the NHS is understandably concerned about the competition this will impose. Figures from the NHS examined by organisations such as The King’s Fund suggest that relative to the wealth of our population and the amount we spend on healthcare, tens of thousands more Britons die of cancer and heart disease as the averages for the EU or the OECD (the club of 30 rich countries).

The Stockholm Network sums up the problem nicely: “The problem appears to be the [European] Commission’s application of admirably free-market principles to an industry which remains dominated by state provision in large swathes of the continent.” Unfortunately, the vested interests have the ear of ministers. “Only a system where market principles of open competition and profit motivation prevail can prevent this commendable proposal for freer movement being thrown out by national governments.”

So if you’re struggling to find an NHS dentist, why not hop on a no-frills flight to Budapest and let an excellent Hungarian dentist do the work. Better than queuing up the street in winter in the hope that the NHS will do the work.

Wednesday, 10 January 2007

Labour’s new gimmick: an education lottery that has nothing to do with one’s postcode

This lunchtime BBC London reported the latest idiotic wheeze planned for education. Apparently, the government is to do away with the “postcode lottery” (a misnomer for what is in fact a postcode auction) by replacing it with a real lottery!

Schools will be encouraged to offer places not based on local catchment areas but on a simply lottery basis: parents put down the name of their children and names are randomly selected.

There is no doubt that the current system is unfair. A friend of mine in Muswell Hill once pointed to a street where the houses on one side of the road were worth £100,000 more than those on the other side, because one side of the road was in the catchment area for a highly rated state school. This new system would, by comparison, be more equitable because access to good state schools would not be decided by wealth, with only the richest parents able to move into the catchment areas of the best schools. Instead, every child would have an equal chance of “winning” a place in the school of their choice.

This raises its own problems, of course. Children would not now be guaranteed a place in their local school but may have to travel for long periods each way for an education. This would be costly – a cost that would probably fall on the local authority and undoubtedly in the end on the taxpayer – and would expose children to stress and risk.

More to the point, however, it represents a complete U-turn by the government that only two years ago promised parental choice. While parents may now have the choice whether to participate in a particular school’s lottery or not, clearly the ultimate decision is now to be taken not by parents, teachers or administrators, but by chance. There seems something strangely fatalistic in a government admitting that a random process is better than a rational decision taken in the interests of a specific child (though I am confident that a random process could be no worse than a decision made about an unknown child by a faceless bureaucracy).

The real problem, though, is that it fails to get to the heart of the education problem – a problem that leaves a quarter of school leavers functionally illiterate, innumerate and without any decent qualifications. The reforms needed to improve educational standards and so enhance both children’s opportunities and our economy’s future are those that would raise standards across the board and tailor education to the pupil. In practice the only way to improve standards is by rewarding success and eliminating failure in education, which can only be achieved by injecting competition into the system. If schooling is to meet the specific needs of individual children it must enable parents to exercise real choice about both the school to which their child goes and the content and balance of the curriculum. In addition, both goals would be served if schools were free to innovate and so explore new methods of teaching.

This will never come about as long as education is provided by a state monopoly and children are allocated schools irrespective of their or their parents’ needs or desires. The solution is to establish a voucher system whereby parents can exercise choice about (for example) whether their child should attend the local school or a particularly good school far away, and whether they should attend one that specialises in science, the arts or language. As the cash would follow the pupil, good schools would expand and bad ones wither; eventually successful providers would take over failing establishments to improve and rejuvenate them – just as the failing Skoda car company was bought out and saved by Volkswagen and is now a successful provider of cars far superior to anything that Czechoslovakia’s state monopoly provider could produce.

A voucher scheme would represent a real revolution in provision that would enable all parents to access good schools and provide the best for their children. By comparison, this new government gimmick is a disgraceful effort to replace an unfair system with a system where nobody bears responsibility. It is the sign of a government devoid of ideas.

Have I earned Brian Micklethwait's “particular ire”?

I don't know what I said in response to Brian Micklethwait’s condemnation of the unpredictable and inconsistent Liberal Democrats (though if you want to know what I said you can read it on his site or on mine), but whatever it was it has prompted him to reply:

All parties are coalitions, but some more than others.

I stand by my prejudice about the Lib Dems being more coalition and less coherence than the other two. If all we knew about someone was that he was Labour, or Conservative, or Lib Dem, and nothing else, we all make better guesses about what the Conservative or the Labourite thinks than the Lib Dem, and that includes if a Lib Dem is doing the guessing. Of course we’d often be wrong about the Conservatives and Labourites, and perhaps more wrong in recent years, but Conservative and Labour opinions do have a vague pattern to them. We’d only randomly be right about the Lib Dems.

What do I base this on? Well, a lot of talking and a lot of listening, in the flesh and on the telly and in the newspapers, and now the blogs. Is there any actual survery evidence on this? Maybe. My prejudice, of course, is that it would support me, and not Tom Papworth.

As for those libertarian noises emerging from the Lib Dems, that’s entirely consistent with the above. They echo everyone’s opinions, including mine. That’s why they arouse my “particular ire”, when I’m in the mood to be irate about politicians that is, which is not always.

I just have the strong sense that similar arguments to this one are happening all over the political spectrum, on diametrically opposed blogs and chat rooms to this one, all about how the Lib Dems are the “best bet” for . . . whatever it is, regardless of what it is. Which party is closer to the [fill in the blank] ideal? Always: the Lib Dems, but only in the sense that there’ll always be a Lib Dem making those noises. There’ll be a Lib Dem making any noise you care to imagine.

Nick M’s original Samizdata comment confirms this prejudice, which is why I copied and pasted it. Is he wrong? Was he imagining it? Maybe, but I don’t think so.

Brian Micklethwait on 01/09 at 08:59 PM


Well, he admits it's a prejudice, which is a start!

I maintain that it isn’t so easy to predict who stands where based on party. In mid-2003, were Mr. Micklethwait - unencumbered with prior knowledge – to have met Labour Party MPs Anne Clewyd and George Galloway, he would have found their positions somewhat diverse. Both New Labour and Cameron's Conservatives bear little resemblance to their forebears. One might argue that the Liberal Democrats are neither the party of Gladstone nor of Jenkins, but that only proves that all parties are unpredictable.

I have met Tory libertarians, imperialists and isolationists. US Republicans have neo-cons, paleo-cons and religio-cons. Democrats include hawks, doves, free-traders and isolationists. New Labour is devoid of any recognisable ideology.

Perhaps some real survey evidence would be useful; I'm sure there are research companies capable of carrying out the necessary quantitative and qualitative analysis, if only somebody has the cash with which to finance such a project. I suspect - regrettably - that the desire to be elected would be the strongest force in all politicians.

In the end, just as Hayek dedicated The Road to Serfdom "to the socialists in all parties", perhaps Mr. Micklethwait should welcome the libertarians in all parties, no matter how much they differ from their colleagues. It is through them that a libertarian consensus will arise.

Tuesday, 9 January 2007

Are the Lib Dems libertarian enough?

Having scored a miserable 67 points on the libertarian purity test, perhaps I am not the best man to fight the redoubtable Brian Micklethwait over whether the Liberal Democrats have it in them to be a libertarian party or not.

However, Tristan has been highlighting Brian Micklethwait's constant attacks on the Liberal Democrats for some time, and I felt the need to reply to Mr. Micklethwait's most recent criticism; I couldn't resist! My reply is reproduced below (now, with hotlinks!):


In we all pile, fists flailing!

I think your suggestion that the Liberal Democrats are somehow more diverse and less disciplined or harmonious than the other parties is ludicrous, as is the belief (which I infer) that the Tories somehow embody (at least economic) liberalism.

All parties are coalitions - John Major described his Government as "a coalition of one", and Gordon Tullock's theory of logrolling demonstrates that all politics is compromise (he might also have something to say about your suggestion that only Lib Dems are interested primarily in re-election!).

Labour is torn between New Labour and old socialists, the Conservatives between Thatcherites and new-Butskellites, and the Lib Dems have their Social Democratic and their Liberal wings. I cannot believe that you can claim with a straight face that David Cameron's acceptance of Labour's tax-and-spend rate or newfound fondness for the prattlings of Polly Toynbee are consistent with the work of Lord's Tebbit and Howe.

In fact, which party is now closer to a libertarian ideal? Which is the party that believes in open borders for economic migrants? Which would devolve power to local authorities? Which is the most likely to remove the last vestiges of legal discrimination against homosexuals? Which mooted reconsidering prohibition of cannabis for consenting adults? Which has just announced a raft of income tax cuts? Which is closest to land value taxation, beloved of classical economists? I could go on (you might think I already have ;o)

You are right that the Lib Dems need to be more careful to ensure that their message is more consistent. The easiest way of achieving that without a command-and-control style central office (such as the one that sacked Howard Flyte for going off message) is a strong philosophical basis. I hope that that philosophy will be liberalism in its most classic form.

If you want to discuss this further, perhaps we can have a chat over some of John Blundell's free wine.

"That's quite enough Dyslexogate, thank you"

David Aaronovitch has written an excellent op ed. on "The Ruth Kelly Affair".

As well as exposing the real hypocrisy - journalists who tut-tut about her decision when over half of them privately educate their own children - he takes a swipe at Labour back-benchers who put ideology over the interests of the child (the point I made yesterday).

I know a comment piece is good if it is both informative and humorous. Enjoy.

Monday, 8 January 2007

More heat than light in organic food debate

I wonder whether David Miliband leaked Ruth Kelly’s decision to send her child to a private school as a means of distracting people from the adverse reaction to his interview with the Sunday Times in which he argued that the consumption of organic food was nothing more than a lifestyle choice. If so it would be very “New Labour”, but to be fair I doubt it. He knew exactly what he was doing and will stick by what he said.

I have been kicking myself for not writing about this yesterday, when I had the chance. Today I have been at work and so unable to post, except with a brief intervention on Duncan's and Tristan's sites. Some of what follows incorporates those comments, but I have added further thoughts as well.

To start with, I cannot see why the question of whether organic food it better for the consumer, the environment or the future of farming should be incompatible with its consumption being a lifestyle choice. When I used to go to the gym five times a week (Oh halcyon days!) it was a lifestyle choice even though it was good for me. Similarly, a friend of mine is motivated to compost his own waste (and I do mean his own waste) for environmental reasons, but it is nonetheless a lifestyle choice.

The real controversy about organic food is the wealth of unproven claims made by those who oppose modern farming methods. One of these is that modern farming methods harm the environment more than the organic alternative. In fact, all agriculture damages the environment, if one’s image of the environment is one of natural habitats. Agriculture is inherently unnatural because “unnatural” is a euphemism for things done by man but not other creatures; we destroy “natural” habitat to grow “unnatural” crops that would not exist without our efforts.

However, this “unnatural” process was integral to the birth of civilisation, a process which began in modern-day Iraq and Egypt and has now spread to Brazil. I know some people think that man is just a parasite but most of us want to live in a civilised society. Most of us also want to feed the earth’s 6 billion people, though again I’ve heard a few (some among my own party!) who would like to cull the population of the earth by two thirds.

If we are to feed 6 billion we need to embrace the Green Revolution of the 1960s (that’s “green” because of all the crops in the fields, rather than because it serves a nature goddess). This entails the use of fertilisers and insecticides. Only modern agriculture can sustain the population of our planet; it is this kind of agriculture that has meant that the age of mega-famines in India and China (prevalent until only a couple of generations ago) is over.

Organic production cannot produce the yields necessary to feed the earth at all, let alone at an affordable price. Thus the (Hobson’s) choice is either to plough over more natural habitat – the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that we would need to farm an additional area the size of South America to produce the same amount of food organically as we do now by modern means – or watch billions starve.

In the UK, this is not the case. We are rich enough that we can always afford to pay a premium for produce that is grown by traditional (as opposed to by modern) means. This is a choice – a lifestyle choice. We can pay British farmers a premium so that they produce lower yields by methods that cause less harm to butterflies and song birds. However, if we do reduce the yields of British farmers, we will need to source more food abroad. We then have a mini-version of the Hobson’s choice: do we buy food that is intensively farmed or put more land (in the producing country, rather than our own) under the plough. To put it another way, do we export the use of artificial fertilizers and insecticides, or do we cultivate thousands of acres of foreign land.

The aim of this article is not to criticise those who wish to consume organically produced food. They are welcome to do so, and if they believe they are avoiding as-yet-unproven health hazards then that is a rational choice that they have made. I would not dream of curtailing their freedom to do so any more than I would expect them to curtail my freedom to eat food laden with 30 different chemicals.

The aim is to highlight the fact that many of the claims of the organic food lobby are spurious and probably have more to do with protecting their market share than the health of either their consumers or the environment. Meanwhile, many of those who have swallowed these claims (along with their organically produced tofu burger) react furiously when confronted with the (lack of) evidence. Many of these are in influential positions – as I have noted before, both organo-sceptic and free market arguments receive short shrift from the BBC.

What we need (domestically and globally) is free trade in agriculture (as in all things) and honesty in labelling, advertising and describing products. We also need a balanced debate about this important area of policy. Sadly, there is a lot of nonsense talked about food. David Miliband was right to point that out.

Losing sight of the child

There is something unseemly about the row that has erupted in the Labour Party over Ruth Kelly’s decision to send her child to a private school.

Labour’s commitment to state provision has always made it difficult for Labour ministers to school their children privately. Yet the fact remains that private education can provide better outcomes for children that state schools.

This is not always the case: past Labour administrations were crammed full of and led by grammar school boys who had got the best state education by passing their 11+ exams (or their parents paid for the privilege). But since Labour dismantled the two-tier grammar school system, our current Labour Prime Minister has been drawn from the ranks of the private schools.

In fact, debate still rages over whether private education always provides better outcomes for children. Every few weeks another study emerges arguing either that children from private schools enjoy better outcomes as a result of their education, or that there is no discernable difference.

Whether or not parents should have a right to educate their children outside the state system, and whether parents should be allowed to take the money their children would have costed the state and spend it elsewhere if they see this as in their child’s interests are important but macro-level debates. What is so disgusting about the reaction of Labour members to Ms. Kelly’s decision is that it shows absolutely no concern for the welfare of the child.

Take these quotes in today’s Times:
Ian Gibson (Norwich North): "I think it’s wrong. You should set an example as a minister and support your local school. It is a slap in the face for the teachers and the pupils in the school that the child has been taken out of."
Ann Cryer, (Keighley): "MPs should try to get state provision for their children because that is what we believe in."
Lynne Jones (Birmingham Selly Oak): "I think it goes against the principles of the Labour Party. It makes me wonder about the sort of people who achieve high office who are in New Labour."
Margaret Hodge, Trade and Industry minister: "Given our commitment to state education, it is an issue of public interest."

Not one of these Members of Parliament even qualified their statements by suggesting that Ms. Kelly’s main concern as a parent should be the welfare of her children. A government minister may choose to sacrifice their own interests for their career – say, by spending time on an NHS waiting list rather than paying to go private. For a minister to sacrifice their child’s interests would be disgraceful. For the minister’s colleagues to berate her for not doing so is disgusting.

Ms. Kelly’s child struggles with dyslexia. Whether or not state education should be able to provide her child with the best schooling is beside the point. The child’s parent has made an informed choice about what is in the interests of her child. We should respect that choice.

We may of course cite that choice as proof that Labour is failing to provide state education that meets the needs of children with special educational needs, but we should not condemn Ms. Kelly for recognising that fact and responding by doing what she can for her child. It does not matter that she was once Education Secretary. What matters is the welfare of her child.

That is what the likes of Gibson, Cryer, Jones and Hodge fail to appreciate. Too wrapped up in the battle of ideology, they have lost sight of the child.

The Al Qaeda franchise

It is a commonplace these days to talk of Al Qaeda as a “franchise”. Osama Bin Laden’s organisation was broken up by the invasion of Afghanistan. While many of its leaders are still at large, and it still has money and committed adherents, its main role is now as a rallying cry and inspiration for jihadist groups across the world. Where in the 1990s it planned, funded and launched specific attacks, it is now more of a “brand” that other Islamist groups use to promote and justify their own acts of terrorism.

While there is undoubtedly truth in this, it is too clean a distinction. The truth is far more terrifying.

A few weeks ago Newsnight showed a Special Report entitled Inside al Qaeda - a spy's story, broadcast on 16 November. Details of the programme are available, as is the full broadcast. It was a truly terrifying look into the heart of this most committed and dangerous of enemies, and one of the most compelling 47 minutes of television I have watched in a long time.

While there was a lot of fascinating detail in the programme, one particular moment stood out. The interviewee, who spied on Islamist groups for many years and infiltrated Al Qaeda in 1995, described his time at an Afghan training camp. A CIA operative confirmed that tens of thousands of young men passed through the Afghan training camps during that time. What was particularly chilling was the interviewees description of how free they then were to take jihad abroad:

“They are just training you and you are free to choose your jihad. You are free – and I repeat, you are free – to say ‘No. I’m not going to fight there. I want to go and fight there.’”

To me, this explained much about the spread of chaos over the past decade. While Al Qaeda were training some particular individuals for special missions, tens or even hundreds of times as many young men were given long periods of military training (based, the CIA operative told us, on US and UK Special Forces training manuals) and ideological indoctrination, before being let loose on the world with no particular plan. These men would then travel to wherever they wished to cause mayhem.

This casts a new light on the tragedy of the July 2005 bombings. There was no need for Al Qaeda to coordinate these missions. Having trained the bombers how to run an operation and convinced them that it would be just, the leadership could release them, confident that they would bring terror to the West. They need not worry whether they would go through with it; if they did not, others would. We may rest far-from-assured that scores if not hundreds have been through these camps and returned to the UK. Even if some are caught it is no great loss to Al Qaeda; because they are autonomous groups, they will not be able to finger one another. This, too, might explain the copycat bombings on 21 July – having seen one group succeed, another was compelled to act.

It is a mercy that these camps have been broken up and that this level of training has ceased, but the danger that they have unleashed will be with us for years to come.