Wednesday, 31 October 2007

The environment and liberalism

Joe Otten recently summarised the various chapters of Reinventing the State: Social Liberalism for the 21st Century (aka. the Huhne Manifesto?). Joe has generally been sympathetic to the “Social Liberal” argument, though as a member of the Sheffield Hallam constituency party one should not take his views on any particular issue for granted.

The focus of Joe’s attentions is liberal environmentalism, so the environment chapter in that book was bound to peak his interest. I’m not going to repeat Joe’s summary here, but I am going to raise three points that I made in response to his post.

Firstly, too many environmentalists are willing to throw away progress – both material and political. This is partly because of a misguided belief that environmental degradation is an inevitable consequence of economic growth, itself an echo of long-standing Romantic critiques of the Enlightenment and the fear of progress and change. Just as population growth did not exhaust our capacity to feed the people or increase their material wellbeing, so it does not automatically have to toast us in an ever-hotter atmosphere. There are alternative means to generate energy and there are technological solutions to rising levels of CO2. Those who want to halt or reverse economic growth are usually fired by either a combination of a Romantic and a quasi-religious view of an Arcadian alternative, or by other ideologies that have found an new justification in environmental extremism.

Secondly, the critique of the focus on economic growth statistics is correct, but only so far. It is true that growth statistics are not particularly useful or enlightening, but there is no doubt that over time we live demonstrably better lives as our economy expands (Layardian happiness research not withstanding). Indeed, much economic growth new results from services rather than manufacturing, which are often (though not always) low-carbon activities. (As an interesting aside, try finding a verb to apply to economic growth that is not a metaphor for either power or transport!). One obvious except is transport, but this highlights one fundamental difference between liberal and Green environmentalism. The Greens want to discourage travel; liberals seek more environmentally friendly transport. At the core of this is the liberal belief that mankind can shape a better future and the Green nihilism that sees humanity as a negative influence upon the planet.

When Greens (which I use here to refer to authoritarian and fatalist environmentalists rather than the Green Party, though there is obviously a huge overlap) criticise modern society, they often accuse it of concentrating on the “bottom line” to the detriment of everything else. This is a critique they share with socialists. It is pure guff. Take our supposedly “Capitalist” society as an example. Taxes are inherently harmful to labour, to profits and to economic growth, yet we tax profits and labour very heavily precisely because we put short-term welfare gains above long-term welfare gains. Similarly, we burden businesses with regulation because we consider other factors (notably but not solely environmental ones) to be of importance alongside wealth creation. I have argued before that we over-regulate and over-tax, but neither I nor anyone I know suggests we should have no regulation and no tax; profit is only one driver in society.

The key is to set rules that clearly guide everybody and lead them to make sensible decisions about the environment. This is traditional liberal ground, if slightly re-emphasised. The value of the environment is not inherent but comes from the fact that it sustains us and gives us pleasure; consequently our impact upon the environment impacts upon the freedom of others (the quality of your life being reduced if I pollute the public spaces). This is classical liberal stuff, and the solutions can be equally liberal. We need clear rules that apply equally to all and do not discriminate: for example, we should tax petrol and congestion rather than cars; we should tax aircraft fuel rather than passengers; and we should tax the carbon produced in electricity generation rather than banning incandescent light bulbs.

The point is that dictating to people how must they lead their lives will inevitably lead to arbitrary decision making that will be partisan and will miss the target (e.g. penalising those who buy big cars even if they don’t drive them very much). It will also cause a huge backlash: nobody likes to be told what to do, let alone told to feel bad about what they have been doing for years, which is why there is such a strong anti-environmentalist movement. The Greens have brought it on themselves (and the rest of us).

By comparison, factoring into the price of things the ecological as well as production costs (“capturing the externalities”, as I said on Friday just one second before I lost my audience) will enable government to reduce overall emissions, while allowing individuals to decide how much emitting is worth to them. That ensures that those who value emitting most can emit at a price, while those who value it less will emit less. Economically this results in an optimal distribution of resources (in this case, the limited capacity the earth has for more greenhouse gasses); socially this creates a free society where everybody is then free to pursue a better life as long as it is not at the expense of others.

Surely that’s a liberalism on which we can all agree.

Tuesday, 30 October 2007

You know you've lost the battle for hearts and minds when...

...you get accused of releasing man-eating badgers among the local populus.


My apologies to anybody who has already seen this three month old article, but I've just come across it (during some casual investigation into the genus Meles).

British jobs for British workers?

The Government are wiping statistical egg off their faces again.

Up until this week, we were being told that only 0.8 million foreign migrants had come to work in the UK, while the labour market had grown by 2.7m new jobs. Now the Government has had to revise both figures, admitting that in fact 1.1m new migrants had entered Britain, while only 2.1m new jobs had been created. Far from creating "British jobs for British workers," it appears that Gordon Brown has been creating British jobs for foreign workers.

Except that it's all tosh, of course.

For one thing, Gordon Brown has created only about a couple of hundred thousand new jobs, largely by employing new civil servants, nurses and other public sector employees. Most of the 2.1m new jobs were created in spite of Labour efforts rather than because of them. They are private sector jobs, and a good job too.

But what of Brown's supposed crackdown on migrant labour? Does it matter that 52% of the new jobs have gone to migrants? And who is to blame?

The crackdown on migrant labour is boneheaded Labour nonsense and should be treated with disdain. A real policy of creating "British jobs for British workers" would be illegal under European law, and even if one would rather be out of the European Union it remains an ignorant and self-defeating policy. 1.1m workers are 1.1m workers, whether they come from Portsmouth, Poland or Peru. As long as they work hard they are creating value for the whole community; as long as they earn and spend they are creating jobs for other - mostly British - people; and as long as they are paying taxes they are contributing to the schools and hospitals that we all use.

That these "British jobs" could have gone to "British workers" is of course true, but it is not as though British workers could not have filled them. There are 1.65m unemployed in the UK, and one has to wonder why so many remain unemployed if we have had to import 1.1m workers from abroad to fill the vacancies. The explanation comes from debunking three myths:
  1. Jobs are not created by ministers and civil servants. They are created by businesses that can see a way of turning labour into profit. If they can hire a person and generate more capital than they need pay in wages, it is worth their creating a job. Those jobs were potentially there as long as people were willing to work at that price. It is the availability of foreign labour prepared to work at those prices that created those jobs.
  2. Britain's unemployed were more than welcome to apply for those jobs. Many may have done so; many more did not. There have been numerous managers interviewed for TV and the papers who have stated that they have offered jobs in areas of high unemployment for years and local people have not applied.
  3. We would not have created 2.1m jobs if 1.1m foreigners had not come here to work. As noted above, they spend their wages in our shops, require us to hire our teachers and use products made by our manufacturers. A significant part of those 2.1m jobs are feedback; many of those 2.1m exist because othes within that 2.1m (including within the 1.1m) exist;

The simple truth is that as long as we pay people not to work, we will need to import foreign labour to do the jobs that British people are unwilling to take on. On any day in the UK there are approximately two thirds of a million job vacancies. The problem in the UK is not too many foreign workers; it is too many British people who are not willing to take the jobs that are available.

I know where the dinosaurs are hiding

When the media and the press talk about impending battles between the Left and Right within parties, they really are resorting to their comfort zones.

For one thing, dividing politics up into Right and Left is a tad narrow-minded. There are three distinct political traditions (socialism; conservatism; liberalism; with the possible addition of environmentalism as a fourth), and if one must divide politics along a single axis, that between authoritarianism and freedom is as germane as that between a planned or a spontaneous market.

But accepting that the press will never manage to handle something as complex as three – let alone four – dimensions, there is another reason why talk about great battles between Left and Right ring hollow. There really isn’t much of the old Left left.

At least that’s what I thought until I went to the Trades Union Congress to discuss child poverty.

The recent TUC event on the theme of “A Minimum Social Wage” was like a throwback to the 1970s. There were at least two speakers who argued that poverty was an essential tool of capitalism, necessary to force the labourers to work for their capitalist masters. They clearly had not heard of the four hundred million Chinese who were condemned to subsistence farming and occasional starvation under Socialism but who are now rich enough to know that they will never go hungry again. For these relics of a time thankfully past, the replacement of the Capitalist system with a Socialist alternative was something that we should all strive. I wondered whether any minute Tony Benn was going to appear, waiving a copy of the 1983 Labour Party manifesto and calling for the collectivisation of the commanding heights of the economy.The highlight for me, however, was when the representative of the National Union of Journalists addressed the audience. He stood to make a point of such crass irrelevance that it would have been silenced by any other Chair. Only in the TUC, in fact, could a speaker get away with beginning his remarks by reminding the room that pointing “This week marks the 25th anniversary of the murder of Comrade Che”.

And your point is? How exactly is the death of Che Guevara relevant to child poverty in the UK in 2007? Perhaps, just as Guevara shot those whom he suspected of treachery in the Sierra Maestra, and later led President Castro’s death squads after they came to power, the TUC would like to line those whom they blame for child poverty up in Bedford Square and finish them off. I don’t doubt for a second that many of the representatives at this conference would have been inspired by his period as Minister for Industries, during which he expropriated all private business (down to the smallest farm; the last shop). There is undoubtedly also a parallel between his luring thousands of young Latin Americans to their deaths in pointless revolutions, and the continued siren song of the hard-line socialists.

Fortunately, we have largely learnt to ignore these bizarre throwbacks to a bygone age. But we must still be on our guard. While their most extreme cohorts are too rabid to be taken seriously, the underlying themes they espouse are shared with more moderate voices that still affect the political discourse. Statism; syndicalism; paternalism; prioritising the collective over the individual; a willingness to use coercion to achieve their ends; the priority of equality at the expense of freedom: these trends are still dominant in our society, and it is the poorest that suffer, and their children who suffer most.

If we really want to help impoverished children, that might be a good place to start.

Monday, 29 October 2007

Do the Lib Dems matter and does anybody care?

Tim Hames is not normally kind to the Liberal Democrats. So it was with some surprise that he devoted today’s op ed piece in The Times to an article explaining why the Liberal Democrats matter. Criticising his colleagues (“the cynical puditocracy”) for not taking them seriously, Hames argues that

The Liberal Party and its successors have held firm to similar principles
for about 150 years. Their credo includes a staunch belief in individual
liberty, a confidence in the capacity of man to improve the chances of all in
society, a determination that political individuals and institutions should be
constrained by written rules and a dedicated internationalism.

One can see that there are tensions between these… Yet only the most harsh
would not concede something to the consistency with which they have clung to
their cause for so long. It certainly compares well with a Labour [and]
Conservative Part[ies].


He goes on to note that the Liberals may not have won many elections in a century, but much of our political platform has been delivered. As to the future, Lib Dem poll ratings could very easily rebound to the low-to-mid 20s. “A year from here, the party could be in much better political shape.”

He concludes with a comment on the leadership election and our future as a party that is worth considering: “Bizarrely, Mr Clegg and Chris Huhne, his rival, have happily agreed to contend that there is not much of a difference between them. This is inaccurate in terms of strategy. Mr Clegg is more inclined to emphasise the libertarian trait in the Liberal tradition, while Mr Huhne is comfortable with the collectivist outlook. The two would appeal to quite different kinds of voters. This is not a decision about ‘presentation’ alone, as was plain from their first hustings held on Saturday.

The Liberal Democrats have to be less introspective to prosper. They should stick with their principles but, as Mr Clegg is insisting, also be prepared to acquire a more practical streak. There is no shame in being able to enact your own agenda directly. The party has to have a hunger for power, albeit, realistically, as a junior coalition partner. The two words they need to convince the country of are ‘we matter’.”

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Generally, the comments attached to news items are "rabid and stultifyingly ill informed" (to quote Chris Morris on Brasseye). However, that chap from London with the stats on voting numbers is clearly a genius and people should listen to him more.

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On a separate note, Times Online also seems to be having great difficulty coping with its fame. While the print version proudly notes that it increased its online traffic by a record 39.1 per cent to Guardian Unlimited’s 28.8 per cent (I suspect that it had less far to climb), the website has been failing to load do to this “extremely heavy traffic”. Maybe it’s time Mr. Murdoch bought a bigger server.

Saturday, 27 October 2007

Nobody wants higher taxes

I met a Dane once who introduced me to a new salutation. Every time somebody called for a toast he would raise his glass and say “To world peace and lower taxes”.

Recently this had me thinking. There are people in the world who claim to want higher taxes, but nobody really does. That might seem an odd statement at first (especially if you are Dr. Evan Harris). People constantly call for increases in taxation. The Liberal Democrats themselves called for an extra penny in the pound to pay for education!

But this confuses means and ends. Nobody wants higher taxes, but plenty of people want more public spending (or really, better services) and other want less income inequality (though what they really want is an end to poverty).

Now, one could of course argue that nobody wants lower taxes either. What they want is more freedom; a greater ability to improve their own lives; more control over how they contribute to the common good. But this is not quite true.

There are two ways to skin a cat, as they say at the RSPCA. Better social welfare can be delivered, to use an old metaphor, by increasing the size of the slice or by increasing the size of the cake. So those who claim to want higher taxes could just as easily be satisfied with a bigger economy. By comparison, those who want lower taxes will not get what they really want from a smaller economy; they too would need a larger economy to give them more to spend were taxes stay the same.

Happily, both can be satisfied. Taxes crowd out private investment and spending, so they tend to have a negative impact on the economy. Consequently, whereas reducing taxes will in the long run give both parties what they want (more money for both individual consumption and public welfare), high taxes will in the long run help neither.

So do not be fooled when people say that they want higher taxes. They may say that they do – they may even genuinely believe it – but if you drill down to find what they truly want you will discover that they really are not half as bad as you thought.

Thursday, 25 October 2007

A five year plan for fun and happiness

I’m organising a soiree, and it has unfortunately clashed with a rival event organised by one of my friends. He has asked that I check with him in future to ensure that his diary is free before I go casually booking events without a care in the world.

This has made me realise that there is something terribly lacking in our society. A huge amount of potential fun and merriment is being lost through the random, inefficient manner in which we enjoy ourselves. And, in the process, all sorts of unintended and harmful side-effects are resulting, that have negative effects on society.

Perhaps what we need is some universal social plan. Surely the world's social life would be significantly better if somebody just sat down and planned it all out. We could employ some clever boffins from university towork out in advance what the best way to achieve maximum merriment would be.

They could allocate the amount of drink that each party needed, what music should be laid on and the exact quantity of canap├ęs required - thus avoiding the terrible waste of vol–au–vents that so comonly occurs. And these parties could be scheduled so that they all occurred at the optimum time to ensure that the maximum utility was gained by the revellers.

And publicans could lobby the officials to ensure that their profits were maximised. And employers could seek to influence them so that the events were never on a work nights.

Why, this planned society of ours would be perfect. I can’t imagine why we’ve never tried it before!

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

Chris Huhne: an unfair society; ruled by a scary computer

It is a good rule of thumb that if the complete opposite of a statement is complete garbage, the statement is not worth saying. So I’m somewhat disappointed by Chris Huhne’s campaign slogan: “a fairer society; people in charge”.

I mean, think about it. On the one hand, Nick Clegg is hardly arguing for a less fair society, and while that may be what the Conservatives and Labour have delivered, they would undoubtedly say that that was not their intention, or even that it was not true.

But it's the other hand (or rather, clause) that really irritates me. People in charge? As opposed to what? Dogs? An all powerful computer? A terrifying fatalism that allows us to abrogate all sense of responsibility?

I don’t mean to make this a partisan blog, so please don’t consider this to be the beginning of a series of anti-Huhne broadsides. But I do get annoyed when politicians state the bleeding obvious as though it was a vision for the future. If Nick Clegg says anything as pointless and vacuous I will happily jump on it.

Instead of “People in charge”, might I suggest to Chris two possible alternatives, either of which would have more meaning but which offer a very different solution to the problems we face. Both would appeal to liberals (I think) because they are significant shifts away from the current Statist, centralised status quo. Yet the solutions they offer are derived from very different strands of liberalism.

Chris Huhne: a fairer society; where people are free – indicating a society where government no longer provides monopoly services, but instead ensures that everybody has the resources necessary to provide themselves with the basic essentials of sustenance, shelter, medical care, education and welfare; and where there is far less legislation and regulation of people’s lives.

Chris Huhne: a fairer society, managed by the people – indicating a society where government monopoly services are controlled by tiers of government closer (and so more responsive) to citizens or by directly elected boards; and where the regulations and legislation that shape our lives are instigated and voted upon through more grass-roots mechanisms (e.g. citizen’s juries; plebiscites; mandatory petitions).

My regular reader will know which I prefer, but I hope that I have fairly presented the two sides. By choosing one (or offering an alternative – comments welcome) Chris would be doing that thing so rare among the political classes these days – telling us where he stands. I hope and trust that over the coming weeks he’ll do just that.

In the meantime, I expect and fear that this is the not last time such vacuous soundbites will be attached to a campaign.

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

It was the Press wot’ done it

Last night, as Simon Hughes and Vince Cable finished their announcement to the press on the doorsteps of the Liberal Democrats Cowley Street headquarters, a voice from amongst the serried ranks of journalists cried out “Who wielded the dagger?” For the answer to that question, the press might be better looking closer to home.

Sir Menzies Campbell has been dogged by a hostile press since his election to lead the party just 18 months ago. He had had an inauspicious start: the Conservatives had just elected their new leader only weeks before the Lib Dems only leadership crisis, in a competition that at the time was seen as very good for the Tories; the nature of Charles Kennedy’s departure left a bitter taste in the mouths of many voters and party activists (though not as bitter as the gin that was his downfall); and Ming’s early performances at Prime Minister’s Questions were not great.

Yet the story was far from simple. Within months of being elected leader, the Lib Dems scored to a brilliant by-election result in Bromley & Chislehurst: just 650 more votes and the future of both Sir Menzies and the Liberal Democrats might have been very different. The story at PMQs was far from one-sided and by all accounts he had been getting better. And his conference speech in Brighton last month was the best of his career.
And therein lies the truth of his demise. For all that success, the press were simply not interested. It was as if they did not want to hear that Sir Menzies, at 66 years of age, leading a Liberal Democratic Party, might actually have good, important points to make that the British people might want to hear. I thought it was an excellent speech, and so did many of my colleagues. But it had precisely no impact upon the media whatsoever.

For the press, the story had already been written: Ming was too old; the Young Turks were waiting in the wing’s; the Lib Dems were being squeezed (media-speak for our policies being stolen by the other parties); and if we did not dump our leaders soon we would crash to a defeat that would be worse than anything since the SDP merged with the Liberals in 1988. Forget the fact that in both this Summer’s parliamentary by-elections we came second and pushed “David Cameron’s Conservatives” into third place; or the fact that in the previous 15 council by-elections, we gained two seats and the Tories lost one, while Labour merely held their ground; or the fact that in my recent Council election, for example, we polled more votes than Labour and the Conservatives combined. For the press, the story was already written, because they had written it.

Now, the hypocrisy is in full swing. The media are variously saying that Sir Menzies was a nice chap but just overwhelmed by the negative press he’d received (from whom?); that he was getting better at his job but that the public were not listening (because the media weren’t conveying the message); and that he was assassinated (which, if true, may have been because every MP at every interview was asked when Ming would go).

If this dark episode has any silver lining, it is that the Lib Dems can look forward to some heightened media attention as Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne battle it out for the leadership (with, presumably, some others in the sidelines). However, it is unlikely that – when the dust settles – the press are going to be willing to give us the continuing coverage that we deserve, as a party that received a quarter of the votes in the last general election. Our future, with or without Sir Menzies, will be a tough battle in the face of a hostile media. Time to start writing those Focuses.

Monday, 15 October 2007

You don’t have to be mad to support the Tories, but it helps

A judge today called a man who left £8.7m to the Conservative Party in his will mad.

Handing down his judgement, Mr Justice Henderson, said Mr Kostic would not have left the money to the Tories if he had been "of sound mind".

He said the decision to leave the whole of the estate to the party was "in part the product of the state of his mind".

One wonders why it takes a court case to figure that out. I would have thought that wanting to bequeath your money to the Tories was in itself evidence that one was not of sound mind and thus automatically invalidated the will.

If all this talk of a Conservative revival is getting you down...

Election Results: Thursday 11th October 2007.

Horsham DC, Holbrook West
LD Belinda Walters 602 (43.9; +11.1), Con 554 (40.4; -6.5), BNP 163 (11.9; +11.9), Lab 52 (3.8; +0.2), [Ind (0.0; -16.6)].
Majority 48. Turnout 32.2%. LD gain from Con. Last fought 2007.

Chippenham TC, Pewsham
LD Mark Packard 493 (58.8), Con 346 (41.2).
Majority 147. Turnout 19.5%. LD gain from Con.

I think these speak for themselves :o)

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

Unison exposes its inner lion

Unison, the public sector union that represents 1.3m members, has a new advertising campaign that perfectly sums up its attitude and that of all unions.

On one, there are two pictures. The lower one portrays a lioness resting its head on a small cub, with the phrase “Speaking one-to-one” because (says Unison) “When we’re helping or advising individual members, we prefer the more friendly… approach”.

By comparison, Unision feels that “when we talk we need people to listen”, so the top picture, with the caption “Speaking for 1.3 million members”, shows a vicious, snarling lioness.

The two images which Unison has of itself – the vicious carnivore and the controlling parent – seem accurately to sum up Unison and its union colleagues. On the one hand, it is willing to use the threat of extreme violence to achieve its aims. On the other it treats its own members like hapless children.

This is not merely Unison’s self-image, however. Union membership has plummeted over the past 20 years as more and more workers have realised that they are better off looking after their own interests than blindly following the line set by politicised shop-stewards and a secretariat that pushes for short-term benefits for its members at the expense of the wider economy, labour mobility and those currently out of work.

Meanwhile, all those who have seen their taxes rise to pay for public sector pay increases that have not been accompanied by rises in productivity may feel that they have been gouged by the savage claws of a dangerous predator.
Personally, this leonine avatar for the public sector union puts me in mind of pith helmets, head on plaques and skins stretched out in front of the fire place.