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A strike against children

By Andy Mayer
June 30th, 2011 at 7:54 am | 8 Comments | Posted in Pensions, Public Sector Reform

Today’s strike action, principally by members of the NUT (teachers) and PCS (public sector workers) unions, is a strike against children in defence of privilege.

It is strike against children in the small sense of depriving many of a day of the education their parent’s taxes have paid for.

It is strike against children in the deeper sense that what the Unions demand is for future generations to carry the burden of their  privileged pension commitments today.

There are many detailed points of due process and politics that contribute to this dispute. Underlying it is a battle over two very simple point of principles.

Whether or not those of us who can afford to fund our retirement should do so.

Whether or not there should be equivalence between public and private sector provision.

In the private sector principle one is settled. Final salary schemes are being replaced by defined contribution schemes.

In the public sector there is still a pervading sense of unreality that the trillion pound gap between promises and payments can be bridged without reform.

On question two old arguments dishonestly claiming public sector are particularly poorly paid or that the work is radically different to the private sector are deployed by the same people who argue for fairness and equity in many other areas of public life.  

What reform is proposed is not even equivalence with the private sector (bar retirement ages), just a less generous form of defined benefit based on career average earnings. It is a modest, generous, and reasonable reform, around which discussions are still in process.

Public sympathy in that regard, which is currently fairly balanced, is unlikely to warm to the Union cause.

They deserve to lose. They will lose.

If they don’t our children, and theirs, will pay the price. 

The government should hold their nerve.


What will the YES campaign inquiry deliver? Furore, fizzle or farce?

By Angela Harbutt
June 28th, 2011 at 1:56 pm | 3 Comments | Posted in AV referendum, Liberal Democrats

Yesterday’s Guardian reported that “Liberal Democrats start investigation into AV referendum defeat” . Either the Guardian is well behind the times (we reported this fact  a month ago ),  or Tim Farron has taken a very long time to get round to doing anything. Considered he maybe – dithering he ain’t. And if Tim really has only just got round to ordering an inquiry then it will be a very shallow one indeed, given that the inquiry is apparently due to provide an interim report (to the executive) next week. No. Tim is infinitely more competent than this …

I am betting that the truth of the matter is that the Guardian is just a tad behind the curve on this one. A slow news day and old news re-hashed. To highlight just how late the story actually is… The Guardian reports that Tim Farron has called the inquiry ..

“ as angry accounts of the mistakes by the Yes campaign have begun to appear on the internet from campaign staff and those involved in efforts at the grassroots” .

Reports have not “BEGUN TO APPEAR” .. they appeared within days, hours even, of the election result.We ourselves wrote a post on the humiliation of the Yes campaign on May 8th and were inundated with comments – many from outraged Lib Dems who worked on the campaign. Around the 12th May (or thereabouts) Simon McGrath created the brilliant “why we lost av” website ..and about that time, Andy May posted the jaw-dropping “The Yes Campaign – What lessons need to be learned”  (from which – as far as I can tell – most of the Guardian piece was culled).

The Guardian does appear to have one bit of “news” at least” … Tim Farron is quoted as saying

“A report will be published. Clearly we were not in total control of the Yes campaign, but it is clear lessons have to be learnt. A large amount of money looks like it was wasted and the whole thing has set back the cause of constitutional reform a long way. It would be very odd if we did not review what went wrong and what went right.”

“published” implies that it will go public. If true, this is excellent news. Hats off to the likes of James Graham, Andy May – and all the other “insiders” who raised their heads above the parapet and came out bravely and boldly to tell of the “living nightmare” that was the campaign.

Hats off too, to Simon McGrath – who led the call for an inquiry (and set up the previously mentioned “whywelostav” website). He urged myself and others to write to Tim Farron to call for one. I understand that quite a lot of us did just that.

So here we are waiting on one James Gurling (chair of campaigns and communications committee and member of the Federal Executive) to pronounce. James is a big fish in the Lib Dems and goes back a long way. There is some concern that James is too much of a Lib Dem insider and too close to Nick Clegg to do a proper job. Is he there to get to the truth?.. or to do a decent cover up job to shield Nick from any embarrassment over his  choice of director of the Yes campaign?

Cries of “whitewash” may be premature – after all, James is a serious man with his own reputation to uphold. And if it is true that Tim Farron has gone on record saying

“A large amount of money looks like it was wasted and the whole thing has set back the cause of constitutional reform a long way.”

– well that sounds like a man intent on getting to the truth.

But Simon Mcgrath over on lib dem voice  raises a good point. Who IS being interviewed as part of this inquiry? Are the likes of James Graham and Andy May going to be questioned? IF the inquiry is to make an interim report NEXT WEEK as reported in the Guardian, and IF the likes of May and Graham have NOT been interviewed, then all sorts of questions must be asked.

So what will it be Furore, fizzle or Farce. Will this incisively identify the errors made and name and shame those responsible? Will it fizzle out with a bland report stating that a few minor errors were made, but it was largely the fault of others (the nasty no campaigners, the right wing press etc). Or will it be a total farce – no mistakes, no errors, all the money spent immaculately and John Sharkey IS a campaigning guru.

This now rests in the hands of James Gurling. But not entirely. I had thought that we could reach James through his councillor email – but sadly he is no longer a Southwark councillor. So I suggest that we contact Tim Farron with any suggestions for people that should be interviewed. I am sure he will pass on recommendations to James.

This is not over. Not by a long way.

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Smoking, Freedom and all things (ob)noxiouxs

By Tom Papworth
June 28th, 2011 at 8:58 am | 39 Comments | Posted in Culture, drugs, freedom, health, Nannying, Personal Freedom

Last week, Angela kicked off a firestorm with her article about abuse of public money by Action on Smoking and Health, the anti-tobacco pressure-group.

Now, Liberal Vision does not need to dwell on tobacco regulation. There are countless infringements on individual liberty out there to discuss, and we don’t want to develop some single-issue hobby-horse. But tobacco regulation is a good proxy for plenty of other government interventions, and the activities of the anti-smoking lobby are echoed by paternalists in other parts of the public health establishment and beyond. It is therefore worth teasing out some of the issues that tobacco regulation raises so that we can better understand liberty in general.

It seems to make sense to begin with a comment from Martin: “Why on earth is [Angela’s] article listed under ‘Personal Freedom’?”. Martin argues that:

Smoking harms human health, as does secondary smoking… Poisoning other people irrespective of their wishes makes an absolute travesty of the term ‘personal freedom’. A more appropriate article tag would be ‘Blinkered Self-Interest’.

Much to the chagrin of some libertarians, it is a fair question and it deserves a response. It is also not enough to deny the effects of second hand smoke: whether or not you question the belief that evidence of the dangers of passive smoking is conclusive, it is clear that the evidence is not conclusive that it is not dangerous. Furthermore, it is smelly and unpleasant for many non-smokers and so some form of negative externality results even if the health one does not.

Having said that, I do believe that this is a matter of personal freedom, and I hope to explain why.

In a follow-up email to Angela, Martin explained why he felt that smoking was not a matter of personal freedom or one compatible with liberalism:

Liberalism has always been about personal freedoms that should only extend up to the point before they start to harm others…. you are bastardising the central plank of liberalism by linking the slow poisoning of others with some sort of human right.

The first point is clearly a reformulation of a sound principle, best captured by Oliver Wendell Holmes when he said that “The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.” However, this must surely be situational: if Holmes is already swinging his fists about when Martin walks up to him, and Holmes therefore breaks Martin’s nose, it is Martin who has invaded Holmes’s personal space and responsibility rests with Martin for the pain he has suffered. Similarly, if Angela is sitting on a bench enjoying a cigarette and Martin comes and sits alongside her, it is Martin, not Angela, who is responsible for any perceived aesthetic or medical consequence. The alternative would be either to ban Angela from smoking altogether (which is the response taken by ASH and the government in banning smoking in many areas) or to empower Martin to force her to stub out every time he approached her.

Of course, it is not simply enough to say “s/he who arrives first gets to decide” (though that is exactly the approach that has traditionally been taken to ownership of resources). Martin may not have to sit next to Angela on the bench, but he may have to sit next to her in a train or a pub. So who should arbitrate in this case?

ASH clearly believes that this is the role of government – which it has encouraged to ban smoking in just about any venue where two strangers might meet indoors. However, it is that which is at odd with liberalism; not the “slow poisoning of others.” This is my second point: that ultimately, the right to decide what takes place in any locale should be at the discretion of the owner of that property. (A unhelpful and circular argument results from adding “as long as the activity is legal” which encourages paternalists to point out that the government can make it illegal on private property, which is true but not liberal. It’s a long-winded diversion, however. Read The Constitution of Liberty if it is troubling you).

Imagine Angela, Martin and I are on Come Dine With Me. When we all go to Martin’s house, he is entitled to tell Angela that she cannot smoke anywhere on the premises. At my house, I might say that it’s up to them whether they smoke, or that they can smoke, but only in the garden. When we visit Angela, she is within her rights to say that we are only allowed in her house if we smoke. Martin will refuse to enter Angela’s house – and mine if I let Angela smoke at the dinner table – and similarly Angela may refuse to set foot in Martin’s. That’s fine. It’s their house; they make the rules.

Why is a restaurant different from a house? Why is a taxi different? Or a pub (which, despite it’s unfortunate name, is a private, and not a public, space)? The answer is that there is no difference. It should be up to the restaurateur, the taxi driver and the publican to set the rules.

Anti-smokers usually fear that this will result in a free-for-all with smoking everywhere. This is unlikely. Truly “public” (or quasi-public) spaces, those run or regulated by public bodies, would undoubtedly remain smoke free. As for the rest, it is unlikely that they would all now revert to allowing smoking: non-smokers like smoke-free spaces, and there are costs to cleaning up after smokers. However, if the balance tipped too far towards smoking establishments, this could be managed by a licensing system: taxi licences would either forbid smoking or regulate the number of smoking cabs; local authorities could license smoking as they do on- and off-licence sales of alcohol. This still undermines property rights, but it is a better solution than the current blanket provision. Why, after all, can the members of a private club that centres around the enjoyment of cigars not smoke in their clubhouse?

The third point, then, must address what is often portrayed as both the main argument and the one hardest to refute – though ASH admitted it was in fact merely a tactical ploy – which is that something must be done to protect the health of workers. This, again, is a property rights issue: every man has a property in his own person, and is able to make an informed decision as to the costs and benefits of any employment. The idea that no person should be allowed to take employment that carries a risk is absurd. Instead, the risks should be made clear and individuals should be free to determine the balance for themselves. If people are able to evaluate the risks of going to war or space, of running into burning buildings or driving 40 tonne trucks across a thin layer of ice above the Arctic Ocean, they are presumably able to evaluate the risks, and the potential rewards, in terms of wage premiums, higher overall levels of employment, and so forth.

Some might not mind working in a smoky bar; some might actively enjoy it; and some might value the extra income more than they fear the health risks. But it is their choice to make. They do not need ASH or the government taking decisions for them. It is that removal of individual choice, discretion and responsibility that is “bastardising the central plank of liberalism”.

Edmund Burke (1729-1797) Reflections On The Revolution In France (1790)

By Barry Stocker
June 25th, 2011 at 5:17 pm | Comments Off on Edmund Burke (1729-1797) Reflections On The Revolution In France (1790) | Posted in Liberal Philosophy

Edmund Burke is often referred to as the founder of modern conservatism.  Nevertheless,  he certainly has a part in the history of liberal thought (as understood by classical  liberals and libertarians).  How much is a matter of discussion.  Two of the reasons for  considering Burke in the liberal tradition are William Ewart Gladstone  and Friedrich Hayek.

Gladstone (1809-1898) one of Britain’s most distinguished Prime Ministers in four  terms adding upto 14 years, and the greatest political figure in nineteenth century British  liberalism.  Gladstone was a life time reader of Burke from his early ultra-Tory years, to  his later years as a Liberal with a contempt for the Tory British establishment that it  returned.  Gladstone’s progress can in part be traced to his belief that the aristocracy  pursued sectional interests, in betrayal of its legitimate role as provider of disinterested  national leadership.  In some degree, Gladstone was the converse of the stereotypical  socialist whose view changes on encounter with harsh reality.  He did not agree with  everything in Burke, seeing him as too resistant to political change, but did read him  frequently, maybe daily, for a large part of his life.

Hayek as in the economist and political thinker, who was probably the greatest figure in the twentieth century revival of classical liberalism.  As we have seen in earlier posts, Hayek also had a highly appreciative view of John Rawls, the political philosopher often associated with  left liberalism and social democracy.  One lesson here is that traditions of political thought overlap and interpenetrate, so that we cannot, and should not, try to isolate liberalism as an immaculate doctrine with a completely self-contained existence.

The issues on which Gladstone disagreed with Burke included the French Revolution.  Burke was a fierce opponent of the French Revolution, which began in 1789, passed through its most radical  phase in the years 1792 to ’94 , and came to an end with Napoleon Bonaparte’s rise to power in 1798 (or maybe Bonaparte’s coronation as Emperor in 1804).  Burke’s opposition came as a surprise to many, and alienated him from the more radical Whigs in Parliament, like Charles Fox and the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, with whom he had been associated.  Whig refers to the more parliamentary of the two main political forces of the time, along with the Tories.

Burke himself, like Sheridan, came from Ireland, spending his adult life in England.  He made a name as a writer early on, particularly for his 1757 book on aesthetics, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful.  The connection between that book and his political ideas is that Burke, like many Enlightenment thinkers, including his friends David Hume and Adam Smith, thought of a taste for beauty and for the sublime, as growing in history, in conjunction with the growth of commerce, law, and civil society.  Burke moved to England and became one of the great parliamentarians of British history, though more for the content of his speeches than any capacity for exciting delivery.  He was often on the most radical side in parliament, most famously with regard to the treatment of Ireland, India and the American colonies.  Nevertheless, this did not extend to a wish to change the aristocratically dominated  political system, or challenge national traditions.  This became clear in his reaction to the French Revolution.  Though he claimed to be still a Whig, he was closer to the Tories now than to his old Whig associates, or the radicals, republicans, and liberty lovers of the time, who were often what we would now call classical liberals.

Burke’s attitude to the French Revolution surprised many, but also came to seem prophetic.  Burke might be taken to have exaggerated the violence of the first three years of the Revolution, but the Jacobin Terror of 1792 to ’94 and the rise of the young army officer Bonaparte to absolute power, also made Burke seem like a seer, who grasped the violent forces that the Revolution was unleashing.  Burke encountered ridicule when he famously lamented the failure of French men to follow medieval traditions of chivalry in defending Queen Marie Antoinette, but also correctly perceived that the Revolution would brutally crush any royal, or aristocratic opposition, and that of the most humble people whose rights it claimed to advance.

Burke explained that he thought liberty must be an ordered liberty, which requires the rule of law, and that the rule of law requires respect for traditional institutions, and authority.  The state needs to be restrained from exercising absolute power, through the plurality of dispersed, and localised, institutions and customs, which grow over time.  Those restraining forms also required deference from the lower classes, and a sense of mystique, to reinforce intellectual and moral respect.

Burke claimed that the radicalism and violence of the French Revolution was in contrast with British history, where even revolutions came in legal forms respectful of legal traditions, and which reflected the understanding of most people of all classes about rights and authority.  This claim of continuity, and unity, in British history certainly does not command universal assent. All the horrors that Burke identifies in the French Revolution have equivalents in British history, from Henry VIII’s confiscation of church lands (1536-41), through the Civil War (1642-51), the Glorious Revolution (1688), the crushing of the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion, and so on.  Where Burke refers to such events, he goes to implausible lengths to describe them as legal, and as continuous with time worn traditions.

Whether we think these thoughts belong more to the liberal or conservative tradition, Burke certainly had an impact on liberal thinking.  He ought to be read by anyone who cares for the use of good English literary style in presenting political ideas, the history of political ideas, and a rounded understanding of liberal thought.



Greece Is The Word

By Leslie Clark
June 24th, 2011 at 10:31 pm | 3 Comments | Posted in Economics, EU Politics

How to solve a problem like Greece? Former queen of daytime chat Fern Britton was flummoxed on the BBC’s Question Time on Thursday night. And like David Mitchell, I don’t really know either. However, on the wider issue of the durability and endurance of the European Single Currency – and to evoke that quote widely attributed to Mark Twain – some obituaries are prematurely written. Even as early as the turn of the Millennium, the late Milton Friedman prophesied its demise.

But claims of the Euro’s death have been greatly exaggerated. The current membership may change slightly with the most damaged economies perhaps opting to revert to their former national currencies, or in another scenario we could see the emergence of two monetary unions: a ‘Debtor €’ comprising the Med countries and a ‘Creditor €’ including Germany and other low-inflation states.

Personally, I’ve felt largely ambivalent on Euro membership. The fanatics for and against frequently bore me and the whole debate is couched using hyperbolic language. Nonetheless, I don’t think the Euro per se is intrinsically flawed or irredeemable. In the case of Greece, Europe would have been a lot better off if it had stuck rigidly to the rules set out at Maastricht, thus avoiding premature or inclusive membership.

Greece consistently breached the 3% deficit limit even prior to the current crisis and went unpunished despite the legal duty to comply with convergence criteria. Their unreformed public sector and high and unstable rates of inflation should have raised eyebrows prior to Eurozone accession. It is widely recognised that they were economical with the actualité and massaged the figures in order to meet entry requirements, something acknowledged by the former ECB Chief Economist Otmar Issing:

When I worked for the ECB, I suffered every time countries didn’t meet the criteria. Greece cheated to get in, and it’s difficult to know how we should deal with cheaters…There should have been better monitoring, better scrutiny and more sanctioning. This crisis wasn’t unavoidable.”

As in any other private members club, individuals are obliged to abide by the rules. Accepting EMU rules, devaluation or inflationary monetary policy were no longer avenues the Greeks could go down. They did nothing to lower their public debt but instead went on a spending binge. It does not seem fair or just that taxpayers’ money is being moved from countries who stuck (by and large) to the respective criteria to those who did not.

European leaders should not use the Greek crisis purely as a catalyst for more integration which would only further embitter sceptical national populations but rather to end the slack monitoring of the fundamental rules of the club.

Other Member States should not end up with a hangover for a party they did not attend.