Philosophy & Politics

The principles underlying approaches to policy

Wet or dry

I'm feeling a little damp. Or at least, feeling like I look a little damp to others. I've found myself on what many would perceive as the more moderate, centrist side of the argument several times recently.

What makes this all the moister is that I can't even state most of this boldly. I lack the certainty of the "driest" libertarians (but then again, I'm not a libertarian). I can imagine that I could be persuaded otherwise on most of this (except the means-testing).

And yet, I don't think I'm really wet. In fact, I feel like I am on the drier side of these arguments. I'm just not sure I can explain why (to myself, as much as to anyone else). This post is a bit of thinking out loud to see if I can put my finger on it.

Plus ça change

Maybe they really were the good times. The last few years didn't feel like it, but at least the Government was subtle enough in its winner-picking that I would have to explain how its targeted measures were really supporting losers.

Now, our supposedly conservative and liberal government plans to pick its winners overtly and proudly.

Mr Cameron says that we need to target government support at “those industries where Britain enjoys competitive advantage”.

If they already enjoy competitive advantage, why should we tax industries with fewer advantages in order to support industries that don't need it?

The distinction between free markets and managed markets is, according to Dave, “a sterile debate between laissez-faire and hands-on government”.

What a pity Maggie wasted so much of her time on such a sterile issue.

The question” he says “isn't 'Should government be involved?' - because it is involved. It taxes, it regulates, it invests. The real question is, 'What is the right kind of involvement?'”

i.e. “If I choose not to pick winners, I am effectively penalising them, so even non-intervention is intervention in my sophisticated, Oxbridge-addled, looking-glass world.”


Good plumbers and bad bankers

You may be interested in an article of mine at the Cobden Centre website. Received wisdom is that governments should try to ameliorate the impact of the economic crisis by setting interest rates artificially low and penalising prudence. The article contains a suggestion of how to explain why received wisdom is wrong.


The aggregative delusion

On Question Time tonight, there was yet more discontent with the politicians* claiming that "the people had voted for a hung parliament". It is becoming a well-trodden but sterile debate for most non-politicians to point out that none of us voted for a hung parliament, nor did many of us hope for that outcome, while most politicians (and some associated intellectuals) point out that as a group that is exactly what we did.

The Role of Law

Sometimes you find an error in a book so early and brazen that you barely feel the need to read further, and if you do, everything after that is diminished by the awareness of the author's bias or irrationality. A classic example is Marx's Das Capital, and his theory of value. It is palpable nonsense, on which much of his edifice rests. Anyone with a critical mind must surely see through it. There may be some grains of truth later, but one tends to discount them from awareness that his reasoning is prejudiced.

Back in harness

I should have explained sooner the latest sustained silence on this site. Frustrated by the dishonesty of all the main parties with regard to the economic challenges that we face, we formed a new political party (Freedom & Responsibility) to be frank about the problems and to propose some radical solutions. My father stood as its candidate in Maidenhead, against one of the leading Tory wets (Theresa May), and I acted as his agent, and the Nominating Officer and Policy Director for the party.

Why liberals lose

I have been lucky enough to be involved in several discussions recently in small, ostensibly-liberal* groups including some leading figures in public life and other fields. They were all private gatherings, and some were under Chatham-House Rules, so I am not going to talk about the content or the individuals, but about a depressing conclusion, which the combination of experiences makes it hard to avoid.

Most of these supposedly-liberal figures are not really liberal. They talk a good game about the generalities and principles of smaller government, but when you push them on the details, they object to the government's winner-picking not on the basis that it's not what governments should or can do effectively, but on the basis that they believe the government has been picking the wrong winners. They have a list of their own winners, and believe that picking winners would work fine if only the government took better advice (i.e. picked their winners).

That is depressing enough - that in a society where self-professed liberals are probably in a minority, only a minority of that minority really are liberal. But that is just the context, not the truly depressing conclusion.

I have seen it said, and believe it to have more than a grain of truth, that one reason why (real) liberals lose is that liberal beliefs are ill-suited to the political fight. The liberal believes in other people's rights to do and say what they want, and respects contrary opinions. His respect for reason, principle, freedom, and the rights of the individual means that the ends can never justify the means. The socialist, or conservative or other authoritarian, believes himself to be possessed of moral superiority over his opponents, that the purpose of government is to steer people towards outcomes that are good for them (whether or not they realise it), and that the ends therefore often justify the means. While the liberal tries to achieve his ends armed only with his powers of persuasion, the authoritarian uses whatever means he judges effective to achieve his ends, without worrying about treading on toes and breaking eggs. Collateral damage is a price worth paying. He will gather many people to his side by such means as self-interest, fear or appeal to base emotions, and undermine his opponents by such means as misrepresentation or tricks of rhetoric and false logic, while the liberal struggles to persuade many people to his view.

That also is depressing, but is also not the depressing conclusion I have in mind. After all, having realised this, the liberal may (though rarely does) alter his approach. I, for one, have no problem with the illiberal imposition of liberal policies. They may not realise it, but those liberals who are not prepared to bite that bullet might as well give up on political delivery of their ideals. They are unlikely to achieve anything other than passing on their ideas to the sympathetic minority.

As I listened to the pseudo-liberals at these gatherings, with their pet technologies or solutions, I began to realise another reason why it would always be difficult for genuine liberals to gain enough political support to implement a genuinely liberal programme. One pseudo-liberal's magic bullet is rarely contradicted by another's magic bullet. But they are both contradicted by the real liberal's opposition to all magic bullets.

The pseudo-liberals can deploy the "politics of and", while that luxury is not available to the real liberal. If one pseudo-liberal likes coal and another likes nuclear, they can agree that the government should promote the use of coal and nuclear power. The real liberal cannot compromise in the same way. There is no meaningful trade-off to be had. They cannot agree to have no winner-picking, but also to pick coal (or nuclear) as a winner.

Of course, the "politics of and" dissolves once in power, faced with the reality of budget constraints. (The pseudo-liberals and authoritarians never have properly understood the concept of scarce resources.) So they compromise again and have (in their respective views) not enough coal and not enough nuclear, but (through the alchemy of taxation and government-debt) more of both than can realistically be afforded or would have been justified by undirected investors. This compromise provides the handy excuse (or "saving lie") when their winner-picking fails - it wasn't their idea or the whole concept of winner-picking that was at fault, but the other person's bad idea. They then start building new coalitions and new compromises, which they believe will work better next time. And so on, ad infinitum.

Only in one rare and fleeting circumstance can real liberals hope to get the reluctant support of enough pseudo-liberals to implement a genuinely liberal programme - when the economy collapses so badly under the weight of complex and contradictory initiatives, that few people can fool themselves that there is enough money to fund the magic bullets. Some may even be converted to real liberalism by the evidence of pseudo-liberalism's failure, at least for a while. Most of them will gradually convert back, though, as the economic improvements created by the real liberal policies provide the funds to rekindle the belief that economic outcomes could be improved by a bit of judicious targeting here and there. Their reversion will be justified by the ridiculously high standards to which they hold the highly-imperfect, trial-and-error mechanism of the market, whereby any imperfections of outcome are seen as failures that could be improved through intervention, even though experience should have taught them that the outcomes of intervention were very much less perfect than the imperfect outcomes from the market. 

The truly depressing thought, then, is the combination of all of this:

  • that opportunities for the implementation of genuinely liberal programmes will be rare as hen's teeth,
  • that many liberals may be singularly ill-equipped to seize these opportunities when they come,
  • that (based on the number of pseudo-liberals still promoting their magic bullets) we are nowhere near one of those moments psychologically, even though economically things are already pretty bad,
  • and that things will therefore have to get absolutely dreadful, and for long enough for people slowly to surrender their magic bullets, before circumstances are right for the implementation of a genuinely liberal programme and the start of the rebuilding of our economy. 

It's more grist to the Schumpeterian and Marxian mills. Circumstances like 1979/80 only come round once in a blue moon, and when they do, liberals will face severe competition from extreme authoritarians pushing the communist or fascist delusions. We may not be so lucky in the swing next time, and if we aren't, you can get locked into an authoritarian nightmare for a very long time.

But I still don't believe the Schumpeterian or Marxian theories that the collapse and replacement of capitalism is inevitable. I still believe it's a question of individual choice (aggregated as democratic choice), and that the promotion and defence of real liberal ideas is a fight that one must keep fighting. But, my God, it's an uphill battle, with no end in site, nor many allies, nor a strong chance of winning. It makes one appreciate the small number of allies there are, like the IEA, and the Cobden Centre, and Progressive Vision. At least their number is growing slowly, and some new initiatives (like the Cobden Centre) offer some prospect that it may start growing a little faster, and with stronger intellectual foundation.

A Christmas thought

I think we in secular society are missing God. Too many people have an inflated estimation of human understanding, power and impact. They think that our economic activity can be understood and controlled to everyone's benefit by a few experts looking at statistics and pulling economic levers. They think that, of all the animals on the planet and all the forces in the universe, man is the dominant force on our climate, and that we can calculate accurately the causes of changes to our climate, predict those causes and impacts for a century into the future, and know how much of which measures to take over the course of that century to mitigate our impact. They think that they can know what is right for other people and other cultures that they barely know, and impose it on them.

I'm sorry. This is human action, nature and the future we are talking about. We don't even know that much about ourselves. We know less about our acquaintances, almost nothing about the vast majority who are strangers to us, less than that about the complex web of interacting factors that is nature, and the only thing we know about the future is that it will almost certainly turn out differently to how we expected.

That, incidentally, is why I am particularly sceptical about "solutions" to anthropogenic global warming like "carbon-capture and storage" and "geo-engineering". Geo-enginering - "engineering the world" - how arrogant is that? Are we to be real-life Slartibartfasts, putting finishing touches to Norwegian fjords? It is bad enough that we over-estimate our understanding and impact. But to compound that by over-estimating our powers to manage the climate and to anticipate the consequences of global-scale engineering projects with absolutely no benefit other than the theoretical impact on the climate, is to take our arrogance to extremes. Climate sceptics promoting geo-engineering are a particularly strange combination of humility and hubris. "We humans are too insignificant to impact the climate, but sufficiently powerful to engineer that climate", they seem to be saying.

Belief in an omnipotent, omniscient God makes believers acutely aware of their insignificance, ignorance and impotence. It may not be a coincidence that America retains a higher proportion of active worshippers than most other developed countries, and also retains greater scepticism about the power of the state and the accuracy of climate models (though their attitude to exporting democracy shows that their faith has not made them immune to delusions of omniscience). Nor that the growth of the managerialist mindset has been increasing for the century and a half that faith has been declining.

Unfortunately, I cannot bring myself to believe something simply because that belief has social benefits. Fortunately, there is an alternative that can make atheists and agnostics (like myself) feel as insignificant and impotent as any god can make a believer feel.

I am off skiing in a couple of days. As any experienced skier will tell you, you must not fight the mountain - the mountain will always win. If you have stood and looked, overawed, at a sea of peaks as far as the eye can see, you cannot have failed to realise your own insignificance. If you have skied in powder that could slip and bury you at any moment if you do not treat it with the utmost respect (and a good dose of luck), you will have been mortally aware of your own impotence.

It doesn't have to be skiing. Go to the coast during a storm for a graphic reminder of nature's power. Better still, get out on the sea. Windsurfing on a big wave, you are aware that there will be only one winner if you get it wrong. You can never anticipate perfectly how even that tiny section of sea that you are riding will behave. The inevitable sinus-full of salt water at the end of the day is a reminder that you will never conquer the sea, you can only do your best to work with it. And what a feeling it is for those brief moments when you are in harmony with the sea and the wind.

For others, it could be mountaineering, or kayaking, or mountain-biking, or sailing, or surfing, or paragliding. It doesn't matter what, so long as it exposes you to the force and infinite variety and unpredictability of nature.

The greatest understanding we can have is to know the limits of our understanding. So this Christmas, get yourself to a place of worship or to the great outdoors (whichever works for you), and experience a force so great and incognisable that it refreshes your humility and humanity.

Merry Christmas.

The biter bit

In this week's MoneyWeek (best economic journal out there at the moment), an article by Simon Wilson on the risk of a "City exodus", prompted by Darling's special bankers' bonus levy, included the following sentence:

"The confusion over whether certain businesses will end up paying this tax is symptomatic of the wider problem faced by the City of London - increased uncertainty and political risk."

Good! It's called "sovereign risk", and I hope they choke on it. The rest of us have been swimming in it for years, thanks to the micro-managing, targeted mechanisms that successive governments have deployed and repeatedly modified, in order to encourage preferred technologies and outcomes (i.e. "pick winners"). And which group of organisations were most instrumental in advising the government about which winners to pick and how to incentivise them? That's right: their corporate pals, and in particular the financiers and consultants in the City. The banding of the RO, and the EU-ETS farrago are classic examples, but there are many others in the energy sector alone.

It's tempting to hope that this might be a salutary lesson that teaches them to oppose targeted intervention, but there's as much chance of corporates, consultants and pin-stripes renouncing rent-seeking and admitting the limits to their knowledge and intelligence, as there is of Gordon Brown admitting he screwed up.


Schumpeter wins, we lose

I've been angry for years about the level of economic ignorance amongst politicians, civil servants, journalists, financial professionals, intellectuals, the public, and, above all, the mainstream economics profession. Though every experience provides new evidence of our collective stupidity, after a while it is hard to keep raging. It's not that the anger has gone, it's just that the utter futility of expressing it yields eventually to weariness and frustration.


Attack or surrender in the battle of ideas

In the long run, it's ideas that matter. And they aren't all equal. Truth is not subjective, and neither are right and wrong. Political tactics and novelty may seem all-important to the chattering class, but expedient can never make wrong right, or prevent reality from finding ways around illusion. Tactics and rhetoric can endlessly extend and exacerbate the harm that is done by bad ideas fighting a Canute-like battle against the tide of reality. They may prevent good ideas from being heard, understood and implemented. But they can't stop the effect that the true concept describes.

Most modern think-tanks are engaged in the political battle. Their ideas are superficial, inconsequential and often nonsensical, and developed in pursuit of a political objective, rather than the truth. Organisations like IPPR and Policy Exchange are window-dressing in the political shop-front. They may be effective in terms of short-term political influence (though effective may not be the right word to describe justifying concepts that their audience had already assumed to be true), but their shallow ideas will mostly fail in practice and be forgotten in due course.

The IEA exists for a different purpose. It exists to fight the intellectual, not the political battle. It does not trim its sails to the political wind. It has no political or commercial affiliation, although critics on the left often assume that it does, seeing everything through tribal eyes as they do. Its purpose is to preserve and promote the classical-liberal philosophy, and explore the ramifications of that philosophy for our understanding of policy, history, economy, society, etc.

At least, that's what I understand the purpose of the IEA to be, and that is why I am proud to support it. So what am I to make of the following bit of tittle-tattle in this month's Prospect magazine?

"the grandest name on the right, the libertarian Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), finds itself in crisis. This June it gave director John Blundell the heave-ho. Officially, it was time for the long-serving Blundell to move on. Unofficially, his failure to impress team Cameron took its toll."

John's departure was indeed unheralded, and there has been little effort to pretend that the usual platitudes are the real reason for his departure. Despite the absence of any more credible explanation, I was prepared to give the trustees the benefit of the doubt that they had good reason and had made the change in the best interests of the Institute and its objectives. But "failure to impress team Cameron" is not a good reason, and bringing in someone more to team Cameron's taste would not be in the best interests of the Institute.

The most likely explanation is that Prospect's diarist is talking out of his backside. He goes on to attribute Philip Blond's departure from Demos to the fact that "senior Cameroons were unconvinced by Blond's philosophical style". I don't know whether Prospect has an inside line at Demos, but it's unlikely that it has one at the IEA (they're not exactly on the same philsophical wave-length). The juxtaposition of these stories makes it look like the author wants to puff the influence of the Cameroons, whether at their instigation or not we cannot know. One gets the impression that it wouldn't be out of character.

But in the unlikely event that there is some substance to this rumour, the trustees would have made a serious misjudgment. We would be in quis custodiet ipsos custodes territory. Not because they decided it was time for a new Director, but because of the reason for that decision, and what that would imply for the direction they wanted the Institute to take in future. The IEA should not seek the approval of the Cameroons or any other group. The IEA should promote its principles and ideas as strongly as possible, but it is largely out of the IEA's control whether those principles and ideas find favour with leading political figures. After all, only for a small part of its history has the IEA found itself in this happy position. Should they have replaced Ralph Harris or Arthur Seldon because their ideas didn't generally impress Harold Macmillan or Ted Heath? If the IEA finds itself in philosophical opposition to the dominant group in the Conservative party, far from seeking approval and compromise, it should do its best to reveal why that group's philosophy is mistaken, and to provide intellectual artillery for those in any party (or none) who agree with the IEA's point of view, whether or not they are in control of the party.

Too many Cameroons have been soaked in the swamp of paternalism and positivism that is an Oxbridge or LSE human-sciences education. Too few of them have spent long enough outside politics to gain a first-hand understanding of the pernicious effects of well-intentioned government intervention. There is nothing that anyone at the IEA or elsewhere can do about that except point out their errors, promote a better alternative, and wait either for a conversion or (more likely) for their failure and replacement.

The remorseless decline of tribal socialism

My copy of Dan Hannan and Douglas Carswell's book, The Plan, arrived today. Haven't read much yet and don't agree with all that I've read, but all the same, if you haven't got a copy, you should. It's well worth the read, and more right than wrong.

Something struck me about a graph of voter turnout in UK general elections, early in the book. It looked like Conservative wins were generally on higher turnouts than Labour wins. I thought I'd check.

What follows is not strongly statistically significant, but it's not insignificant.

My impression was confirmed by the figures. Since the war, the average turnout at elections where the Conservatives won was 76.4% and when Labour won was 72.5%.

In collating the figures and looking for an explanation, some other trends suggested themselves. The Labour vote appeared to be much more consistent than the Conservative vote. And indeed it is. The standard deviation in the Conservative vote is 1,932,000, whereas the standard deviation in the Labour vote is 1,393,000. The standard errors from the linear regression lines show similar but even stronger outcomes (1,955,000 for Conservative, 1,224,000 for Labour).

Graph of votes for 2 main parties in UK elections since 1945

And even this overstates the variability of the Labour vote, due to two extraordinary performances (one good, one bad) in 1983 and 1997 (the reasons for which are well known and not representative of Labour's performance under normal circumstances). Without these two, the standard deviation in their vote is only 1,122,000, whereas you can take the two most extreme performances by the Tories out of the equation and the variability of their other performances would still be such that their standard deviation would be around 1,600,000, much higher than Labour's all-inclusive figure.

The consistency of the Labour vote made it relatively easy to spot another trend. Their vote is heading quite remorselessly downwards (with the exception of 1997), even as the voting population increases. So, statistically, is the Tories' vote (though marginally less so). But in the Tories' case, this trend is dominated by their dismal performance in the last three elections, again for reasons that are well known. Taking those performances out of the equation, the Conservative trend is somewhat upwards, whereas the Labour trend remains unremittingly downhill.

Some highly-speculative conclusions suggest themselves to me.

  1. The Labour vote is more tribal and dependable (and, I am tempted to say, unthinking).
  2. Elections are won or lost by the extent to which non-Labour voters are sufficiently alarmed by Labour to turn out for the Tories, or sufficiently disillusioned with the Tories to stay at home and let Labour win by default. With the exceptions of '83 and '97, the electorate seem to swing to or from the Tories, much more than they swing to or from Labour.
  3. Labour may not be able to rely on disillusion with the Tories bringing them back to power in the future, as their core vote is declining, and they don't usually pick up much of a swing vote. Recent events won't have helped.
  4. Going by the trend, even with a fair wind and a competent and likeable Prime Minister, they would be doing well to pick up 10,000,000 votes at the next election. If they are out for more than one term, their core vote may be down to 9,000,000 and that will rarely be enough to win an election, even against an unpopular Tory party, and even if the Tories don't correct the constituency boundaries that are currently gerrymandered to Labour's advantage.
  5. Labour are unlikely to have a fair wind between now and the election, and they bottled the chance to ditch their incompetent and contemptible Prime Minister, so 8 to 9 million votes looks like a realistic expectation for the coming election.
  6. If the last three elections were representative of a sustained trend, but assuming that Cameron will come in above trend, the Tories could expect upwards of 11 million votes.
  7. But the last three elections look like aberrations rather than part of a trend to me. If so, the Tories have a decent chance of being in the 12 to 14 million range for votes. Psephologists may doubt the likelihood of such a strong swing, but 1997 demonstrated that something of that scale is possible, and Brown's government is every bit as unpopular as Major's was, Brown is personally much less well-liked, and Labour won't be able to point to three years of strong economic performance and good guardianship by a judicious Chancellor.

Unless the Tories self-destruct or Brown gets his economic miracle, this highly-speculative, statistically-weak analysis hints that Labour may be about to get drowned by a democratic tsunami greater even than the media have been starting to suggest.

Good on the British people. It may be slow progress, but it seems that each time we give the socialist alternative a chance and discover what a disaster it is in the long-run, a few more people learn the lesson and don't forget it again. They may still be susceptible to all sorts of woolly, interventionist, paternalist nonsense from wet, one-nation Tories, but at least they have recognized that the socialist snake-oil doesn't work. I haven't felt so optimistic in a long time - not about the political options that we have at the moment, but about the fundamentally-sound economic sense of a good swathe of the British public, despite all the best efforts of our intellectual class. It confirms my belief that British voters could be persuadable to support a genuinely-economically-liberal party, if one were to present itself to them.



Many of the more delusional, socialist contributors to the Claverton Energy group of energy fantasists (as I labelled them previously to their founder member's apparent offence) are persistently and vehemently opposed to "growth". See, for example, a recent exchange of half-baked ideas on the subject of "Olduvai theory". But to be fair, this sort of nonsense is at least partly provoked by the frequent exposition of the opposite extreme: the naïve promotion of growth at all costs (popular amongst our political elites).

Of course, neither side bothers to define what it means by growth, and it struck me that the concept seems to be singularly ill-defined, at least in the context of popular philsophizing. At best, it seems to be mostly useless in its vagueness, and at worst, it seems to be the cause of much confusion and misunderstanding, leading to economic and philosophical errors, and hostility between groups who mean different things by the same term.

What these Clavertonians want is a shift to a more "sustainable" way of life (and energy system in particular). There's a whole other can of worms in the term "sustainable", but let's imagine for a moment that we could all roughly agree on what it meant. And let's say that the Clavertonians persuaded most people to share their preference. The economy would become more focused on sustainable goods and less focused on unsustainable goods. The share of sustainable goods in the economy would increase. Increased demand for and supply of these goods would cause not only their share of the economy, but the economy as a whole to grow (unless inhibited by bureaucratic inefficiencies). Growth would be synonymous with improved sustainability, rather than antithetical to it, as these Clavertonians perceive is the case at the moment. Would they still oppose growth in those circumstances? If not, why do they oppose growth per se now? What they really oppose is not growth, but the undervaluing (as they see it) of sustainable goods and the overvaluing of unsustainable goods. But starting from this misapprehension, they fall easily into other economic fallacies and socialist delusions.

Conversely, the "growth at all costs" crowd are pandering to mirror-image delusions. Some of them focus on GDP growth, forgetting that some things that are harmful to the economy and to people's welfare, such as monetary inflation or expansion of the bureaucracy funded by deficit spending, can give a short-term boost to GDP. Simple population-change can give a distorted impression - mass immigration will probably increase GDP even though it may not be beneficial to most people, but if we were to try to counteract that by referring to GDP per capita rather than plain GDP, we could be fooled into thinking that high mortality (whether natural or artificial) can be an economic blessing.

Others confuse growth with consumption, and seek any means to stimulate consumption (whether or not our propensities to consume and to save are reflected in a sustainable balance of spending and saving, or have been distorted by government policies) because they perceive that resumed growth hinges on resumed consumption, and that our general prosperity and wellbeing hinges on resumed growth. Actually, where (as in recent times) we have had substantial malinvestment and an imbalance of spending relative to saving thanks to unwise government action (or inaction), we need a period of creative destruction, rebuilding of savings and consequent reduction in spending, in order that the economy can return to a more realistic and satisfactory balance (until the next time that governments decide to screw it up).

Growth is not necessarily good or bad. It is the nature of the growth that matters. There will be many shades of opinion on what constitutes "good growth", but to oppose growth per se or promote it willy-nilly is like opposing or promoting discipline. A world in which there is no discipline and everyone does exactly what they want (the law of the jungle) would be chaotic and dissatisfying to most, but a world where the need for some discipline is abused, perhaps by an authoritarian power, is intolerable. The virtue of particular instances of discipline or growth depends on whether they enhance or reduce people's scope to move from a less to a more satisfactory condition.

And for that, there is no satisfactory metric, whether we are talking about discipline or growth. GDP is not a meaningful proxy for the latter, even for a "first-order approximation", nor is any other econometric index. Instead of approaching this with the objective of trying to measure the immeasurable, we should approach it from a philosophical or systemic perspective. We can say that, if we create the conditions that provide the greatest scope for people to move to a more satisfactory condition and be protected from unwarranted impositions by others, then the developments that proceed from those conditions are as "good growth" as it is possible to encourage, without trying vainly to put a figure on it.

Wind in the sails of our patronage state

According to the Guardian:

"The government will today demonstrate its willingness to exert influence over Royal Bank of Scotland and Lloyds Banking Group by announcing £1bn of lending to wind farm developers whose schemes have been becalmed by a lack of cash... The £1bn cash arranged by the government is part of the additional £4bn of EIB lending to support UK energy projects announced in the spring budget."

This brings together several threads I have been following recently: the Government's coopting of EIB funds for their political objectives, the hype, ignorance and political-preference surrounding wind power, the resurgence of "industrial policy", delusional confidence in some quarters about the returns from and security of investments in "green technologies", and the disaster for the effective operation of markets that was the bale-out and nationalization of our most incompetent financial institutions.

Why should the banks prefer one technology over another? Presumably, they should look critically at the business models for projects of all kinds that fall within the EIB's objectives, and disburse the money on the basis of the credibility and suitability of the proposal, not simply on the basis that it uses a technology that the Government seems determined to favour almost to the exclusion of other, often more practical, alternatives.

It's utterly corrupt and stupid. And the Tories and LibDems wouldn't do much different, also having been blinkered by VILE-company rent-seeking.

This is our money they're burning, and our freedom they are destroying. How long before we can have a political option that takes government out of where it doesn't belong? Or (as some people whose political judgment I respect have depressingly concluded) is it hopeless? Must we resign ourselves to continuous decline into a patronage state, where success is achieved not by anticipating correctly and providing efficiently what people need and want, but by influencing governments to implement policy in your favour?

Who will speak for those of us who are aware of the lessons of history and know what that latter world brings? How do we fight it?

UPDATE: By coincidence, I was sent a link today to an article on EIB funds being used to bale out a bankrupt project for a Belgian offshore wind-farm. Financial services are only going to get more politicized and corrupt in the current climate.



Jury Trial

Just a quick follow up to my post on the Jury Team. It seems the British public have no more taste than I do for people who stand for everything and nothing. At a time when independents should benefit, and the Jury Team had had a fair amount of oxygen of publicity (including appearances by Sir Paul Judge on the TV and in national papers, and an Election Broadcast), the Jury Team seem to have been wiped out in the European elections last night. From what I observed, they never achieved more than around 8,000 votes in any region (which at a guess will amount to less than 1% of the vote and less than 0.3% of the electorate), when even obscure parties like the English Democrats, the Christian Party, and the various "real socialist" alternatives were polling many times that.

They have gone strangely silent since voting night. There's nothing on the website, and they haven't been tweeting. Could they have suddenly realised that people don't just vote for a person and some airy-fairy promises to "clean up" politics, but for the programme that a candidate espouses and has some hope of promoting?

You only had to watch their Election Broadcast, and look at the statements of some of their candidates on their home page, to realize that there was nothing there to vote for.


Finishing the job

Staying to "finish the job" has become the favourite excuse for failures clinging limpet-like to their jobs. Alistair Darling and Gordon Brown have both used the excuse in the last couple of days. And many of our failed bankers and other business leaders have used it before that.

At what point is the job of a politician or business-leader finished? Will Gordon, at some point, say: "OK. Job done. No need for a Prime Minister any more"? Does Alistair hope at some point to put the economy into such a steady state that we can do away with the role of Chancellor?

Or are they just cringe-worthy, lying bastards who will use any form of words to justify clinging on to power and privilege, believing (probably rightly) that a big enough proportion of the media and public are sufficiently gullible or apathetic that they won't challenge them on what a load of balls they are talking?

I suggest that anyone using this as an excuse for why they should continue in their job should be dismissed instantly for evident stupidity or insincerity.

A parliament swept clean of ideas and principles

Something is starting to bother me about the MPs' expenses scandal. I do not defend those MPs who have taken advantage of the lax rules that they instituted. They should go.

But it is starting to feel to me that, for most people, this is the only measure of an MPs' worth that matters. The corollary of the public appetite for kicking out any MP tainted by corruption, is that squeeky-clean MPs may waltz back into their seats at the next election simply by virtue of their purity, regardless of their merits as representatives of their constituents on matters of public policy. Is financial probity really the limit of our expectations from our MPs?


Freedom and Responsibility

I recently heard a former central banker (not British) tell the story of a conversation he had with a Non-Exec Director of a bank, who had formerly worked for their government's finance department. The central banker asked the Non-Exec if he didn't find the burden of managing the risk overwhelming compared to his former job with the government. The Non-Exec replied that he had thought he would, but was relieved to discover when he joined the bank's board that his responsibility was limited to ensuring that the bank complied with the regulations, on the assumption that the regulations would prohibit excessive risk-taking.

Ed Miliband, interviewed on the Andrew Marr show, has just said about the MPs' expenses scandal:

"What people thought was, there are a set of rules in place and they are scrutinized by the House of Commons authorities, and people rightly thought, well look, that is the system that we have, that is the judgment that is made."

Tessa Jowell and Theresa May have just made similar points on The Politics Show. Given the continued delusion of most of our politicians and commentariat about the effect of regulation, corrective efforts will be concentrated on coming up with a "better" set of rules, probably more complex and chaotic (in the usual entropic manner of political "improvements"), which will turn out to be just as capable of abuse or otherwise unacceptable as the current rules.

The lesson the central banker drew from his conversation was the right one. It was that where you apply regulation, people delegate responsibility to the regulator, and stop applying their own judgment. If you want people to be responsible, you need to have a minimal set of rules, with harsh penalties for the consequences of breaking them or making poor judgments (e.g. no bail-outs). The central banker removed most of the regulation of banks in his country, and replaced it with a requirement on Directors to sign off every three months that they regarded the risk position of their bank as sound. The bank directors naturally thought this was most unfair, but the result of them being personally responsible and therefore taking a personal interest in the risks associated with the banks' activities is that the banks in that country are in a very much better condition than the banks in the UK, US and elsewhere, where bank directors throught their job was to push the risk as far as possible within the rules allowed by the regulators, while regulators thought their job was to allow as much latitude to banks as possible within the rules laid down by government.

The credit crunch and the MPs' expenses scandal are symptomatic of the dominant but bogus political and economic philosophy of modern times, which manifests itself in large and small ways in almost every aspect of our lives. It is the "Third Way" philosophy of government interventionism, corporatism, managerialism (or whatever you want to call it - they are all aspects of the same thing). We have replaced personal responsibility and harsh penalties for poor judgments that produce harmful consequences, with the idea that government should take responsibility for all of us, and can and should prevent harmful choices being made.

Politicians are keen on government laying down the rules about every little aspect of our lives, but they are not so keen on taking personal responsibility for the effect of those rules. Responsibility for application of the rules is therefore offloaded by modern governments to unaccountable public-sector organisations, further diluting any sense of personal accountability, which is the key force motivating prudent behaviour.

Freedom and Responsibility. That is what we are missing, what no political party is offering, and what we need. It should be the name of a new political movement: Freedom and Responsibility.