What’s the Difference Between Brexit and the Death Penalty? – The Use of Referenda in Political Decisions

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Political Reform May Be Dull But Its Vital For a Fair,Successful Society

Political Reform May Be Dull But Its Vital For a Fair,Successful Society 

In this post I’d like to say something about why political reform matters and some ideas to take it forward. By political reform I mean changes to our system of politics in the UK with the aim to improve democracy, accountability, and transparency.

I take as a given that we need to reform the House of Lords, that eventually we should be a republic not a monarchy and that our voting system needs to be transformed to a system such as Single Transferable Voting. These are all big issues and one day perhaps I’ll return to them, but for now I wanted to delve into more detail on some other aspects of the political system we have and why it needs reforming. For now, let me leave this picture as to why the voting system needs to be reformed.

 

Political System Chat Is Boring Geekdom Isn’t It? Why Does It Matter?

Regular readers will know that I consider it essential for any liberal society that is fair, just and successful for citizens to feel that they are all equal, that we are indeed ‘all in it together’, and that they can execute their life plan as an equal member of society with the resources and dignity they need to do so. I set out the reasoning for that in a previous blog here, and here but most especially here.

So, when we look at our political system, we need to make sure that it engenders these feelings- that in theory and practice it looks and feels like it is fair, that it treats all citizens equally, and that the rules for one are the rules for all, and that equality of treatment is real in practice, taking account of the differing resources that citizens have.

Put more bluntly, we want our system of voting, of representative democracy, of access to power and decisions, and of campaign contribution and lobbying, to follow clear rules. We want and need to make sure, crudely, that money can’t buy laws, access to politicians or deliver unwarranted special treatment. We need to make sure that the system isn’t seen as a closed club, an old boys network of patronage and privilege and favours for favours. We need to make sure that it doesn’t feel like this picture:

 

I think for too many, both in actuality and in appearance, we are not meeting these principles. And it matters because for the reasons I have blogged on before, citizens can become cynical, disheartened and susceptible to populists and blame-seekers if the economic and political system taken together don’t look or feel fair.

So, how do we fare against those tests of clear rules, equal access, transparency, removing money from politics and opening up the system of power? In the UK, not so well, is my argument, and so I want to set out ideas to improve things. Normally at this point I’d give unsuspecting readers a blizzard of links to show why money saturates politics, why the system is unfair etc. but I’m going to assume you believe me on that and want to know what possible answers exist.

 

Ok If I Accept We Need Reform, What Do You Propose?

Taking a chance and assuming you agree with me on the need for reform, let me list some areas to zone in on and what i think needs to be done.

 

(1) Political Parties, Voting,Funding and Access to Power 

 

We do, rather later in the day, have detailed rules and regulation about political parties and our system of voting and funding. The Electoral Commission, amazingly only established less than 20 years ago, is the main regulator and enforcer of the rules, and its website also provides useful information to aid transparency.

But the Electoral Commission can only enforce the rules it is given so what else do we need? Firstly, it is unacceptable that rich men and women can still give enormous donations to political parties and be allowed to do so. We clearly need to legislate to limit individual and organisational donations to a maximum limit each year- I would argue that £10,000 per annum is more than adequate. If you think as a rich person your human rights are being impacted by not being able to massively fund political parties, then the answer is no, we are removing a concern that you are buying access, and unfairly impacting on the freedoms and dignity of others.

As it happens the Committee on Standards in Public Life agrees with me- see this for more and for a general update on funding. We need to exempt union donations that are made via affiliation fees where members have consciously agreed to donate. If anything, we need to consider further how to allow smaller citizen focussed donations.

We have a system of declaring donations that works reasonably well, but we need to tighten that up as well to remove the loophole where local donations via ‘members associations’ that are basically of one political party, can donate £7500 to a local campaign without declaring it. All donations above £1500, made by an individual or organisation, to any local or national campaign, need to be declared.

If you worry that that creates too much bureaucracy, my rather blunt answer is so what? This is an area where public trust is low, and better to err on the side of caution.

A rather better objection to limiting donations is that parties will be starved of finance. This matters because we want our political parties to flourish and to have the capacity to develop proper political ideas and policies, without having to rely on rich donors, vested interest think tanks, and secondments from well-off companies hoping to influence an up and coming party or politician. We already have a system where political parties receive some money depending on how many elected representatives they get, but we need to go further and give out public funding as well dependent on the number of votes. I’d argue strongly that it is in all of our interests to both remove big money from politics, but also to ensure our political parties have proper advice, and capacity to develop sensible ideas. Again the Committee on Standards in Public Life proposed this. I’d go further and, copying an idea from Vernon Bogdanor, offer public funding on number of votes received and donations made,but on a matching basis i.e. £1 of public money for every £1 of donations received, plus a matching sum dependent on number of votes received and number of representatives elected. This will of course disadvantage the Conservative Party- but I am pretty sure that the donations made to it unduly influence policies towards those with money and power and vested interest, and away from public good and equal concern for all citizens, so I’m not worried.

 

(2) Access to Power, The Behaviour of Elected Representatives and Lobbying Reform

“Reform parliament? It’s more than my second job’s worth!”

In my day job I sign a clause both requiring me to seek permission for outside work, and to ensure that whatever I do does not put at risk the organisation I work for, or the aims of my job. The expectation is that some (many? most?) requests would be declined, as I have a day job to do and a set of requirements and expectations for me to uphold.

Sadly, this basic common sense does not apply to our elected representatives, who not only can receive all kinds of ‘hospitality’ and ‘support’ from lobbyists, but who also can even be paid by the same people. Again, I am tempted to, but won’t list all the areas of activity where people have clearly failed in their duty to their representatives, but let me just list ‘cash for questions’, ‘cash for honours’ and ‘cash for influence’ and ‘cash for Lords influence’ scandals .

People who donated getting honours. People who donated paying for parliamentary questions. People who donated apparently getting new laws amended or added. It matters not one jot if on fact no one was breaking the rules or even if no one was acting unethically or against the public interest or their solemn elected duty. It looks awful, it sounds awful, it stinks and it has to stop.

We need a new rule that says, if you are are an elected member of parliament or a member of the House of Lords (which of course should be elected) then you simply cannot take a salary from someone else. If that means you don’t take your seat, or go for election then so be it. I am not sympathetic to the argument that says by excluding those who can’t live on £100,000 a year or so then we are thinning the fabric of democracy. Sorry, we have too much influence from rich people already, not too little. If you want to serve and you’re rich, I trust you to find a way.

We have one of the largest lobbying industries in the world, and whilst lobbying can be valuable, it is clearly another area where we need new rules and a greater transparency and sense of fair access. Again, it is vanishingly unlikely that all those lobbyists are there to ensure that the weakest in society, the poorest and those lacking in opportunity get their fair share, so I am not at all concerned if we introduce onerous new requirements.

For a start, the 2014 Lobbying Act clearly needs adjustment. Whilst we do need to regulate political campaigns from NGOs and other charities, we do NOT want one of the few active voices for social and environmental justice silenced, so we need to look at that again. Secondly the Act only sets up a register for full time lobbying companies for hire, and not for corporate lobbyists working of big companies. This is clearly a nonsense and a huge loophole which we need to fill- all lobbyists should be covered and we can work out the exact rules and ask the regulator to figure out a proportionate response.

Speaking of the regulator, the current one for lobbyists is, as I understand it, that the Register is kept by the Registrar of Consultant Lobbyists (the “Registrar”) (currently, Alison White) and the Office of the Registrar of Consultant Lobbyists (the “ORCL”) is sponsored by the UK Cabinet Office. never heard of them? No, me either.

Yet another aspect of disastrous behaviour which corrodes public faith is the so-called revolving door which operates between lobbyists, former ministers, special advisers, senior civil servants and corporations. Many former senior people and ministers go on to advise companies or join lobbyists. Sometimes they don’t even wait to step down before taking up positions. But even if they do wait, how can we be sure that they didn’t create policy to suit the people they might be joining? How can we accept at face value that our senior civil servants and ministers are working in our name when weeks after leaving office some major corporation offers to pay them large sums for their ‘knowledge’, ‘experience’ or ‘access to contacts’. How can we know that these ex-ministers and civil servants won’t use their contacts inappropriately to influence policy in a way you or I can’t?

Now, dont get me wrong. I think most senior people and elected representatives are honourable and do need to earn a living after serving their time. But again, this is all about appearances and whether the system is stacked in favour of, or against ordinary citizens. Have you heard of the body that regulates the appointments that former senior civil servants or ministers are allowed? No, neither had I

It seems clear to me that we need two more things to make our system fair, and obviously fair:

  • a ban on senior civil servants, agents of the crown or ministers and special advisers taking a paid role with a company, lobbyist or other party working in the areas that were previously their area of responsibility, within a defined period after leaving. I’d suggest at least 5 years, but perhaps it should be 10. If that is considered too strict, I think its worth it, and is explicitly an attempt to change the otherwise overly incestuous rules of the game
  • we need a need regulator here- too often it is poorly funded, obscure and timid bodies that we have never heard of dealing with these matters. Too often Sir-Something-Something is the regulator being asked whether Lady Something-Something or SirSomethingSomething has broken and whether we should feel let down or jolly cross. That’s not good enough- the evidence seems clear to me that the regulators in their area are almost always part of the same circle of well off, white and privileged people that they seek to regulate, with the same assumptions about what is reasonable, what is fair, and what is acceptable, but which are far from what ordinary citizens might feel. I’d like to see a real regulator appointed, maybe we might have some fun if an ex-benefits inspector with a harsh eye, or an investigative journalist was appointed!

I would personally bring together into one ‘House of Parliament and Civil Service Ethics Office’ the rules about appointments and revolving doors, about access, about reporting who is meeting what, about a statutory register of lobbyists, about hospitality, about declarations of conflicts of interest, about paid appointments, about a host of ethical rules about second homes and so. By my count that would sweep up the Registrar of Consultant Lobbyists, the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, IPSA , the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, and the equivalent bodies in the House of Lords. No doubt a similar case can be made for the devolved legislatures.

Finally we need better and tighter rules around the relationship between lobbyists and law makers. If I told you that passes which give access to the heart of parliament are given to researchers of parliamentarians, you’d think nothing of it. But if I then said that those same passes are passed on to actual lobbyists, that they can access places and people you and I can’t, that are supposed to be reserved for parliamentary workers, you might change your mind. We need all lobbyists’ meetings and entrance to/from parliament to be logged and recorded. We need to ensure that lobbyists cannot be the paid researchers of parliamentarians. We need to end the practice of parliamentarians accepting paid hotel rooms, paid trips for ‘fact finding’ and paid for expenses, whilst allowing for modest entertaining and hospitality. Again, if politicians need to travel to learn more, we can create a modest ‘travel fund’ paid for from public funds, and administered by the new ethics office.

 

Conclusion 

 

I wouldn’t want readers to get me wrong- I don’t think our political system is rife with corruption and overt bribery, though it is perhaps more common than some might believe. What I think is common is an inappropriate blurring of the lines, a lack of transparency and rigour when it comes to who has access to power, and what the role of money and networks are in decision making and policy. We need stronger rules, we need stronger regulation, we need to cut away the parts of the system that invite cynicism and we need it to be seen to be whiter than white. Fortunately this is one area where action would bring results, and at minimal cost and maximum public gain.

 

 

 

 

Modern Life is Rubbish- Ten Ways That Poorer People Are Treated Unfairly In the UK

Modern Life is Rubbish- Ten Ways That Poorer People Are Treated Unfairly In the UK 

‘Em… Hang on a minute.’

 

I am conscious that, to date, many of my posts have been rather long, and rather abstract. So this time I wanted to say something more tangible- about how it seems to me that modern life in the UK is tilted towards unfairness if you are poor. Let me list 10 obvious ways, and then draw some conclusions.

Unfairness Number One- Energy Costs and Energy Transition

If you are poorer, you are more likely to have to use a pre-payment meter, which costs you more. You are also much more likely to be fuel poor, unable to heat your home properly, possibly suffering bad insulation, bad heating and more expense. And to add insult to injury, any taxes you pay or any surcharge on your bills to allow the much needed transition away from fossil fuels to low carbon and renewables, is unlikely to benefit you as lower income families don’t have the resources to hand to take advantage of subsidies home renewables.

 

Unfairness Number Two- Banking,Savings and Money 

The tendency is that poorer people will pay more for credit and loans, sometimes a lot more, and even if it is for basic services. This report from Save the Children  and this report explain in more detail- this table is from the Save the Children report:

Either because you don’t have the internet and/or can’t pay by direct debit, or your credit history is affected by poverty, or because you can’t afford large one off-purchases, if you are poor the evidence suggests you pay a lot more for big-ticket items. Oh, and your pay-as-you-go mobile service will be more expensive too. You may live in a less desirable area so you risk you’ll pay a lot more for insurance and car insurance too. Though action has been taken to cap the worst excesses of pay day lending, you’ll still end up with a much more poorer deal on credit and loans.

 

Unfairness Number Three- Access to Wealth and Investments 

Because you are poor, chances are you will have no or little savings and no or little wealth. That means that any returns you do make will be modest, whether that is on your savings account, modest private pension or dividends. You’ll likely not have a house of your own so the natural growth in housing value won’t accrue to you. Unlike rich people, you can’t afford investment advice to take advantage of complex investment opportunities. Even if you could, your small pot means you can’t compete with the much higher returns that people with capital secure.

 

Unfairness Number Four -Wealth and Your Start (and end!) in Life 

The last Labour government in the UK introduced Child Trust Funds, a form of asset based policies. 

It seems to me this was a great idea- it recognised that one glaring unfairness in life is that richer people often have more choices and do better because they have independent wealth, and that perhaps the state could start to rectify this with a savings based approach. Sadly, the coalition government scrapped the policy in 2010.

So, no only do some people start out with far more advantages in life, they can use their wealth and capital to secure even more advantage. Often the tax system rewards them- from higher rate tax relief on private pensions, to capital gains tax treatment, to (now much more generous) inheritance tax treatment. So, just so readers understand- not only do poorer people have no savings or wealth, but the tax system and lack of asset based policies mean any tax they do pay partly goes to subsidise tax reliefs for people who have way more wealth and opportunity. And the chances of a poorer person ever ‘catching up’ are very modest indeed.

 

Unfairness Number Five- Food Availability, Cost and Quality

Apparently food poverty affects 4 million people in the UK.

‘Food poverty is worse diet, worse access, worse health, higher percentage of income on food and less choice from a restricted range of foods.  Above all food poverty is about less or almost no consumption of fruit & vegetables’
Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy at City University.

In a nutshell, if you’re poor your food costs you proportionately more, you have less choice, lower quality and worse health outcomes as a result.

Speaking of health…

Unfairness Number Six- Health Inequality

If you are poorer, you are far far more likely to be less healthy over the course of your life, to suffer higher burdens of diseases and to die younger. The gap between poorer people and richer people on health is wide and widening. In the interests of brevity I won’t dwell on this, but the statistics are shocking and unacceptable. 

Pioneering work in Scotland also shows how poverty affects your psychological well-being, with increased anxiety and negative physiological reactions.

Which reminds me, it’s also worse for you environmentally…

Unfairness Number Seven- Poorer Environment 

Dear reader, I don’t have the time to assemble the evidence I should here- perhaps you will accept my special pleading that as an ex-senior manager for a national environment agency, I do have some understanding in this area. For now, I’ll rely on a wikipedia definition of environmental inequality 

It has almost always been the case that the richest lived in better environmental conditions than the poorest and things have not really changed. Think how, in the days of really bad environments full of fumes, and odours and fogs, richer people lived upwind of the prevailing wind, or on raised ground. Sadly things have not changed as much as we might have hoped. If you are poorer, you are more likely to live next to a factory, to a noisy environment like a road, to live with poorer air and water quality, you’re less likely to live next to green space (in urban environments), you’re more likely to live in areas that flood, more likely to live next to incinerators or landfills, and more likely to have ‘disamenities’ such as graffiti, dog fouling, litter, vandalism and derelict land in your local environment.

 

Unfairness Number Eight– Access to Education

This blog is already rather link heavy, so let me just state that the evidence is that you are more likely to go to a poorer performing school if you are poorer, less likely to see a societal valuing of and governmental focus on your technical and vocational skills if that is your path you want to chose, more likely to incur the highest debts if you are a poorer student in Scotland, and much less likely to go to University if you are a poorer student anywhere in the UK. In Scotland if you are a poorer, older learner, you’ve also seen severe cut backs in part-time places for life long learning. Overall, in a modern economy and life-style where education is the key to many things, if you are poorer you’re less likely to be able to access it and its quality may be poorer.

 

Unfairness Number 9- Access to Legal Services 

A key means to play a full part in society is the ability to defend your reputation, access courts for family disputes or government maladministration, have the ability to right wrongs done to you, and take action the things that matter to you and your community. One might call that access to justice. Sadly, if you are poor, your access to legal advice and the courts is likely to be much worse than a rich person’s. And sadly, that ability seems to be declining. 

 

Unfairness Number 10- Differences in How The World of Work and Business Treats You

For many well off people, it seems self-evident to them that they need a stable environment, the ability to have a stable legal and governmental system to plan their investments around, and proper incentives to work and to keep a fair share of their income. For some reason though, that position is reversed for how we manage to treat poorer people- from punitive and ineffective welfare sanctions, to lack of workplace rights and security to zero-hours contracts, poorer people tend to form the bulk of the precariat.

 

Conclusions

When I started to think about this, I must admit that initially I thought about just pre-payment meters. But as my list shows, everything from the cost of your energy, to the quality of your food, to your mental health and life expectancy, and onto your access to legal services, education and stable work, is most likely worse if you are poorer.

Now, some on the right of politics may response by saying ‘look, it’s to be expected, no one wants to see poorer people do less well, but its to be expected- resources in life are a function of ability and the just rewards of the market and we should accept that and mitigate where we can’

Sorry, I reject that view for two reasons. Firstly, as I set out in my blog on societal risks, I believe that some of these risks are entirely foreseeable, a result of systematic problems, poor policy and lack of planning. I believe government has a duty to do something about them. As I said in that blog:

We are searching for things that the state owes an obligation to its citizens to address, across the full range of socio-structural, socio-technological and socio-cultural risks discussed above.

We are searching for things where the state has made decisions between options, and those decisions have consequences for individuals. We are looking for decisions and risks that violate basic rights, and where something can be done about that. We are excluding on the whole individual decisions where a choice was made and it didn’t work out. We are particularly looking for those risks that, absent substantial wealth and resources, it is difficult for an individual to foresee, to manage via self-help alone, and where reasonable efforts are  or have been already made by the citizen to address the risk.’

I think every one of those ‘unfairnesses’ that I list above fall into the risk categories I mention.

More fundamentally, I’m back to the basic structure of society and the principles of a fair and just liberal society. In my blog on this I set out principles to judge such a society, the most challenging of which is the Rawlsian difference principle:

‘Principle 2- Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both:

(a) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged, consistent with the just savings principle, and

(b)attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity.’

I don’t think anyone could read through that list of unfairness towards the poorer members of society and pretend that we are meeting this test. So, we need to do better- it’s a fundamental test of our claim to be a decent society and we are currently failing it. As ever, thanks for reading

Basic Income Part 2- How Much Would It Cost?

Basic Income Part 2- How Much Would It Cost?

In the first part of this two part post, I discussed what basic income is, why it might be a good idea, and how some of the many objections to it can, I think, be overcome.

In this post, I want to say something on the costs, and what level of Basic Income (BI) might be possible, and some of the implications of that. I also want to pick up a few more points that I should have made first time around.

 

Firstly, A Confession

I probably should have realised earlier that my plan to comment on and model the costs of a BI in a simple way were not realistic. That’s because  to set realistic BI goals, not only do you need evidence of market and individual responses to the BI level but you need to:

– understand the current benefits and social protection system in some detail
– understand the current tax system in some detail
– understand household/ family patterns of income and expenditure in some detail
– understand work on living wage and minimum income standards
– understand the broader labour market

So in what follows, I have done my best but lack the information (and ability!) to do more than make some very basic points. My own pretty basic spreadsheet is here:

Basic Income Calculations Feb 2017

And that draws heavily from particularly a single report from the IFS that provides an overview of the benefits system. I also get my numbers on the tax side of the discussion from the RSA BI report that I quoted from last time (1).

So, feel free to challenge the numbers but I drew some comfort from arriving in my own simple way at roughly the same numbers as the RSA.

 

How Much Does the Benefits System Currently Cost and Which Parts Are Relevant to BI?

I draw my numbers for the benefits system costs from the afore mentioned IFS report (2, Table 3.1). It’s worth saying that these numbers are before the full introduction of Universal Credit. I think it makes sense to use these numbers for two reasons:

– the new UC system is still being implemented and numbers for it are hard to come by

– the older system is more familiar to most, and handily splits the types of support needed by type of recipient.

The IFSr report  (2) summarises the current system  here:

(for those whose eyes are struggling, its Table 3.1!)(note that this is far from being all types of social protection expenditure).

Very broadly, including all types of recognised social  tax and benefit spending (but excluding some forms of social protection such as social care), then the costs of the UK benefit system in 2015-16 were roughly £211 billion. With about 64m citizens in the UK, that gives a starting point on average of £3291 if we just divide one number by the other.We could call this a ‘smearing across all’ option.

But as in Part 1, I think it’s clear that we can’t just sweep away all benefits and provide a general sum- people who are sick, disabled and older, and who experience varying housing costs, need to be treated differently.

So, in my basic spreadsheet calcs, I considered two options. Option 1 excludes pensions and housing benefits, removing respectively £98bn and £24bn of spending from the £211 billion sum that could be used for a BI scheme, but also reducing the number of people receiving it from 64m to roughly 51.8m (i.e. excluding pensioners only). Option 2 does the same but also excludes special payments for maternity/paternity, disability, winter fuel payments and free TV licences. Most of those latter items are quite small but the exclusion for disability and sickness is large.

Under these two options, Option 1 allows about £92bn to be used to fund a BI, whereas Option 2 allows only £45bn. Not surprisingly, both options reduce the BI that could be provided from the ‘smear across all’ figure of £3291, to respectively £1772, and £875 per annum.

Keep reading because this is only half the calculation but I think it does highlight a few points:

-there is a big difference between just assuming the entire benefit system spend can go to a BI, and what happens if you then assume some people and recipients will have differentiated needs.

– if we exclude pensions, then a large spend is removed, with quite a large recipient base removed as well (but with spend removal proportionately larger than recipient removal)

– if we start to remove politically popular smaller benefits such as free TV licences, the effect is modest. However accepting that pregnant women and new fathers have different needs seems a no brainer and changes the picture very little, and is also a modest impact so seems to make sense

– However under Option 2 the exclusion of a further £41bn for sick and disabled people makes quite a difference, as I make the assumption that they receive both current payments and the BI. That seems a fair assumption to me, but I lack the data to confirm it.

Clearly, if we stopped here, the BI figure is low and the game ‘looks a bogey’ as they say.

 

We Need To Include Tax Changes as Well

I confess from here on, and with time constraints, I’ve had to fall back on the numbers quoted in the RSA report ((1), page 25 Table 3).

Table 3: Savings from benefits, tax reliefs and allowances34

Policy

Cost (£bn)

Child Benefit and Child Tax Credits

34

Working age benefits (Income Support, JSA, etc)

27

Working Tax Credits

7

Administrative savings and Tax Credits written off

10

Student grants and loans written off

3

Personal allowances (income tax)

68

Primary threshold and self-employed reliefs (NI)

23

State Retirement Pension, SERPS, S2P, Pension Credit, and MIG

90

Higher rate tax relief on pension contributions

10

Total

272

Note(s): Savings based on 2012-13 rates.

I have simply taken (some of) the tax changes proposed there and assumed they are correct and incorporated them into my ‘model’. These changes are to remove personal allowances entirely, to remove NI reliefs and thresholds, and to remove higher rate tax relief on pension contributions. These provide a handy £107 billion to go towards funding a BI. When that figure is added to my two options (i.e. £107+ either £92bn or £45bn), then the BI rate becomes £3836 under option 1 and £2940 under option 2. In passing I should say I assume a 75% administrative savings at DWP rather than the quite conservative 50% that the RSA use.

Again, there may well be basic errors and distorting assumptions in my simple arithmetic – do let me know if you spot them!

For what it’s worth, UK GDP is around £1900 billion, and current benefits and tax spend is around 11-12% of GDP, or around 30% of total government expenditure. Therefore each 1% of GDP diverted via tax to governance spending raises  around £19 billion.

Current UK expenditure by type is here: (taken from Budget 2016 report (3)

The point of showing this is that I couldn’t see an easy way to raise the BI level substantially- to have a BI of £7000 means there is a ‘gap’ to fill of c£210 billion or 11% of GDP compared to my two options. To create a BI of £12,000 appears to need a further £469 billion or 24% of GDP. I don’t see either of those propositions being realistic, ever. What I mean is that regardless of the need to phase in or generate citizen support, that those levels of GDP allocated to a BI are simply unrealistic, distorting and would surely distract from other needs.

But perhaps I am missing something?

I also lack the data to work out what further changes can be applied to the tax system to create scope for further increases to the BI. No doubt, some will argue that taxes need to go up further and that seems sensible. See for example this from Malcolm Torry on alternative means of creating a BI.

But each 1p income tax rise raises somewhere between £5-10 billion  p.a only, and even to raise the BI by a further £1000 a year would seem to require £50-65 billion-  a very large tax increase indeed. It seems to me, that if such a tax rise were feasible, I’d want to consider a much broader range of things as candidates for the extra cash- including new housing, new low carbon infrastructure, additional health and particularly mental health spending, and education including perhaps free tuition again.

So, I leave my basic calculations on Basic Income here!

 

The Link To A Decent Standard of Living? 

I realised in the course of these simple sums that I was approaching the problem by considering what could be funded, rather than what was needed. What I also needed to consider is the extent to which a BI at these levels made any difference to living standards or in providing a better safety net. After all, this is one of the claimed benefits for a BI.

In writing this, I drew upon a few reports on the Living Wage, the calculation of the Living Wage and its relationship to the Minimum Income Standard that underpins the Living Wage calculation.

The key table I draw on for reaching conclusions is this one:

 

In a nutshell, it seems to me that the BI levels I discussed above are very similar to current benefit rates (with the possible exception of sickness and disability benefits being paid on top). Because I exclude pensions, and because I lack the dynamic model to test things, it is hard to conclude other than that the BI at the level above does not significantly impact on a citizens contribution to having a decent standard of living. There are other benefits, but assuming that a  BI allows for a minimum income standard to be met, at a level of £2900-3800 a year, won’t match up with the MIS calculations.
I may be wrong on the contribution to living standards,and others may want to show me why. Nonetheless, it seems to me that a BI of c £3000 would be an excellent thing to have, for the reasons outlined in Part I, but that as I also said in Part I, we need to look to a much wider range of interventions to get us to the basic level of security and dignity that a society based on liberal principles should look for.
Briefly on why exclude pensions? Partly because older people are likely to have higher needs so it makes sense to separate that out. Partly because, intuitively, it makes sense to me to go more slowly, and consider folding in the pensions system in due course. I also think that this element of ‘pay as you go’ contribution works reasonably well, and is accepted, so why change it? With a fair wind, the new Single Tier pension should address a lot of previous pensions anomalies.

 

 

Other Issues

 

As ever, I’ve gone on too long and won’t win any prizes for brevity. But before I sum up, I did want to mention a few other points that perhaps I should have covered in Part I.

One the importance of the pilots, I want to re-emphaise that we really need to understand in some detail, and in a real world way, how people will react to the scheme. To take just one example, the Working Tax Credit (WTC) created a strange incentive whereby marginal benefit losses were much lower if you worked 16 hours rather than 15 hours. Result? Lots of people working 16 hours and not 14 hours a week, regardless of whether that suited them or was socially sensible.

Secondly, and perhaps controversially, is the issue of whether a BI should be limited in some way to only applying to a certain number of children? On the one hand, purists might say ‘absolutely not’ since the whole purpose of a BI is to be unconditional and non-withdrawable. Additionally, if we don’t provide a BI to families with large numbers of children, we risk the future of those children. On the other hand, it seems there would be nothing to stop, under a BI scheme, a family to have 8 children, with no thought to how to manage, and scoop up £25,000 from the state, with no requirement to work for doing so. This is a tricky one and I don’t have the answer. Perhaps, perhaps, the way forward is to limit payments of BI to no more than 3 children?

Thirdly, the BI allows the removal of the current absurd anomaly in the Child Benefit payment system, where a supposedly universal benefit is now means tested. But because of the daftness of our system, those who have a single higher earner in the family but a lower overall income, lose child benefit whereas those two earning split, do not. It is this sort of ridiculous unfairness that a BI can solve.

Fourthly, the more I dig into the UK benefits system, the more detail I find. Things such as passported benefits, Council Tax relief and so on, are also very important but I’ve not seen BI reports considering them, or how they should be treated. Any takers?

Finally, the current benefits system relies on a passporting system- that is, if you are eligible for certain benefits, you are automatically eligible for things such as free dental checks, free eye car, free school means, disabled parking schemes  and so on. More here. These are really important benefits and any BI would have to consider how to minimise administration if they were to be retained separately. Or perhaps they are folded into the BI scheme? I don’t have numbers to hand on the costs of such benefits.

 

Conclusions 

 

I’ve gone on far too long over two posts so time to summarise. To repeat from Part 1, I think there are clear benefits to a BI

– it gives greater choices and fosters human dignity, especially for those on lower incomes

– it is easier to administer

– there could be substantial admin savings from having a less complex welfare system

– it has potential to promote entrepreneurial citizens’ action

– it provides a much stronger safety net (depending on level of income set)
– it will greatly reduce waste and fraud as it’s very hard to claim fraudulently
– a BI scheme faces the future in terms of automation
– can be phased in

I stand by those claims-but with some caveats. Firstly, it seems to me that it is perfectly feasible to introduce a BI at around £2900-£3800 per annum. Secondly, it seems to me that further changes to the tax system might allow that to be raised a little further.

However, I can’t see a way to generate the very large BI payments that some call for, and I think at these levels it is clear that BI is only one component of an integrated approach to modern, fair work. As I said in Part I, it seems to me

‘… that BI needs to be part of a wider package of fair work which includes things like pay ratios, higher taxes, how we tax wealth and capital, and worker empowerment.’

My work in preparing Part 2 simply confirms that. We need to think more radically about wages, fairness, pay and empowerment in our system of work.

I also think we need to consider a wider range of UK benefits in future designs for a UK BI, such as the passported benefits or Council Tax reduction.

But, overall I am excited about BI schemes, and convinced, that done well, they really can make a difference. Thanks for reading.

 

Notes

 

(1)  The Royal Society of Arts Creative citizen, creative state: The principled and pragmatic case for a Universal Basic Income 2015

(2) Institute for Fiscal Studies A Survey of the UK Benefits System IFS Briefing Note BN13 2016 Accessed at https://www.ifs.org.uk/bns/bn13.pdf

(3) HM Treasury Budget 2016 report, accessed at https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/508193/HMT_Budget_2016_Web_Accessible.pdf

(4) Centre for Research in Social Policy Loughborough University accessed at http://www.lboro.ac.uk/research/crsp/mis/results/

 

Basic Income Part I- Why Consider It?

 

Basic Income Part I- Why Consider It? 

‘There shall be paid to every person, when arrived at the age of twenty-one years, the sum of fifteen pounds sterling, as a compensation in part, for the loss of his or her natural inheritance, by the introduction of the system of landed property. And also, the sum of ten pounds per annum, during life, to every person now living, of the age of fifty years, and to all others as they shall arrive at that age’– Thomas Paine 

What Is Basic Income? Is Basic Income a good idea? Is it feasibility? Is it affordable?

There is much talk of the possibilities of setting up a basic income for citizens and I wanted to take the chance to set out my own early thoughts. This is such a large topic that I can’t hope to cover all the bases but I do want to make a contribution. I’ll draw on the already vast literature on this and try and add my own contribution. In this blog, I’ll focus on the what and the why, returning in part two to look more closely at costs and the wider issues a basic income raises.

I am in-principle a supporter of Basic Income, but I recognise that there are practicalities and costs to consider, and that on its own, it is far from a ‘magic bullet’.

It’s worth saying that, although there is a lot of thinking and activity now happening on this, that the idea is not new with support going back in Europe to the civic republicans of Concorcet and Paine (quoted above) but taking a longer view, the first Caliph Abu Bakr (albeit for controlling his newly acquired lands!) introduced some form of basic income.

 

What Is A Basic Income?

Put simply, a Basic Income (BI) or Citizens Income or guaranteed basic income is a payment by the state to its citizens which is (largely) unconditional and is paid regardless of earnings. The key points are that normally the income is unconditional, with minimal conditions attached, and that it applies to all citizens (with minimal conditions on that too).

I’ll come back to proposals on the correct level in part 2, but a very good report from the RSA (1) proposes a level around £3600 per annum for the UK for example. A recent Swiss referendum, which included a lively campaign with gold coins dumped in  square as above(!), rejected a proposal to introduce a much higher income of around £2,000 per month.

A few seconds spent googling tells us more but I found this note from the RSA and this video to be a useful starting point. You can also find more here and here and here . And even more here .

More substantially I found Malcolm Torry’s ‘Money for Everyone’ book (2) to be very useful.

 

Why On Earth Would the State Give Free Money Away?

 

 

There is plenty of differing arguments about the reasons for a BI but they are generally of three types:

(1) Increasingly the nature of work is changing with evidence of greater anxiety and stress in the lower reaches of the workforce,rising inequality and some evidence of unfair or dehumanising practice. A BI set at a proper level would free up citizens to chose work that they really wanted, as opposed to work that they had to take, particularly for those with lower incomes and who currently have less choices.

Often a related argument is that in a world expected to see a rapid ‘Rise of the Robots’ over the next 30 years, we need to find ways to both protect vulnerable workers from automation, and to prevent a disastrous collapse in demand in the economy as jobs disappear. The argument runs like this: automation and robots are advancing rapidly- up to 50% of all jobs will be threatened; we need to find alternative ways to ensure people have jobs and income not just for their own dignity and self-worth, but because consumer spending is essential to keeping the economy moving so that no jobs= no incomes=no spending=no demand=no investment or production or services and so on.

A further related point is that BI advocates claim that as a society we simply don’t recognise, value or reward unpaid activity sufficiently well. Things such as volunteering, neighbourhood support, caring and a host of others could be freed up to focus on things that benefit society, with those doing such things free by their BI to do more.

Also included in this batch of arguments is that at a time of greater change, insecurity and anxiety, a BI generates a stronger safety net.

(2) Our (UK) welfare system is too complex, too arbitrary  and too harsh. There are ample horror stories about harshness, petty detail  and incompetence in the UK welfare system. Putting aside arguments over political motives and morality, one can argument that for three reasons the current ever increasing complexity of the welfare system is wrong and needs changed

– firstly, the system penalises low income people who face crazy marginal tax rates of 70% plus at certain largely arbitrary income thresholds and this acts as a harsh, unfair and punitive disincentive to take certain types of work

See for example this graph of marginal tax rates from the aforementioned RSA report:

 

– secondly, the cost of writing the complex rules, enforcing them, checking and waste and fraud is huge and both frustrating and largely without economic value. A BI scheme would be much simpler, more cheaper to administer and virtually eliminate fraud as its unconditionality means its extremely easy to check for compliance and extremely hard to defraud

– thirdly, a BI system would eliminate one type of state overreach- whereas at present bureaucrats are empowered to require very long forms to be filled out asking all kinds of detailed questions about a citizen’s business- their income, who they live with, where and how they work, if they have kids and so on, but a BI eliminates all that (up to a point anyway)

(3) A BI scheme would force companies paying lower wages for boring, repetitive and soulless jobs to compete for workers who would now have real choices if the work does not appeal. Companies may have to pay more, improve conditions or autonomy or simply be nicer to their workers. As a related bonus, it may be that BI encourages entrepreneurship across private, public, third sector and social enterprise as peoples’ creative energies are freed up when their basic needs are covered.

 

Proponents of BI also point out that a BI scheme could be phased in over time, over place and according to age or type of income scheme.

 

So, to summarise the stated or proposed benefits of BI:

– it gives greater choices and fosters human dignity, especially for those on lower incomes
– it is easier to administer

– there could be substantial admin savings from having a less complex welfare system

– it has potential to promote entrepreneurial citizens’ action

– it provides a much stronger safety net (depending on level of income set)
–  it will greatly reduce waste and fraud as it’s very hard to claim fraudulently
– a BI scheme faces the future in terms of automation
– can be phased in

Plenty of other people have listed their thoughts on the pros and cons, for example here and here. The Brookings Institute gives its 3 reasons here

 

Great! Free Cash! Let’s Do It Right? 

Not so fast- not surprisingly given the enormous change in theory and practice that such a policy would require, plenty of people have raised plenty of objections. I may have missed some, but let me list the main objections and then say why I think most are mistaken, some require more evidence, and some are simply turn on your view of humanity itself.

Three of the biggest ones can be summarised like this ‘A BI would be morally corrupting of the will to work, and ruinously expensive, and destroy the freedom and rights of the rich’. Dear reader, I’ll deal with two of those in a moment, and defer the costs issue to Part 2 of this blog.

 

The Common Objections

Objection 1- It Will Destroy the Impulse to Work

This is a common objection- that providing a BI at any sort of non-trivial level will destroy people’s incentive to work, rendering them work-shy fops lying around boozing and watching TV. Or more seriously, that the nature of humans, or at least poorer humans,  means that absent strong incentives or penalties, people will take the path of least resistance. Or put another way, a BI scheme is unfair as it rewards the workshy and penalises the worker. Or that people need the structure and ‘whip’ provided by a strong welfare state.

Whether you think this is true depends on why you think people work, what makes people tick, and ultimately on your view of humans and their motivation, ethics and psychology. I note in passing the odd thinking that suggests that poorer people need penalties to make them work, but that any penalty at all is considered a disincentive for the rich to work, and that apparently, rich people need incentives to work and poor people need penalties.

For me, I do not think for a moment that there won’t be some people who do indeed chose not to work and laze around. However I am of the view that the vast majority of people want to work and make a contribution, that the BI has the potential to increase work activity by removing penalties and disincentives like the high marginal rates we saw above. I think that a BI would be one of the clearest possible demonstrations that we are indeed, ‘all in this together’ and give people confidence and the ability to try new things, to experiment and to even do unpaid work for a while, confident that no one can take their BI away. I think that BI is an excellent example of the state recognising and valuing the need for people to follow their life plans, and maintain a sense of dignity and equality.

As for fairness, I’m sorry you’ll need to explain to me why providing a BI that allows for a basic level of dignity is unfair, when we currently have a societal system where those born rich live longer, are happier and have more opportunities simply because of their circumstances of birth. I honestly think a BI has the potential to strengthen societal bonds and by creating a more equal society, has the potential to strengthen democracy too.

 

Objection 2 This Is State Overreach on a Massive Scale, Penalising the Rich for Being Successful 

It’s pretty clear that a BI will cost money if it is to make a difference, and that the rich will have to pay for it. There, I said it.

But in a world where recently, pay for the highest earners and wealth is rocketing along with inequality, then I’m afraid that I think things like  BI are the price of a decent society (you can see my thinking on inequality and on the principles for a liberal society here and here ). So, for the reasons I advanced in my earlier blogs, a BI is a key means of fulfilling the fairness test in society, not a perversion of it.

 

Objection 3- A BI is An Egregious Example of Dead-Weight Costs- We Need to Target Limited Resources!

This objection is trying to say that normally, our state interventions want to avoid ‘dead-weight’ costs- that is costs and payments for things that would have happened anyway. In other words, why pay rich people a Basic Income when they don’t need it, which is what you have to if the system is to be unconditional?

Actually, this is easily answered- we tilt the tax and benefits system to ensure that richer people pay more tax, and make adjustments so that they don’t see an increase in income overall. Simples.

Objection 4- It’s Just Too Complex to Try 

Actually this objection has some merits- this is a huge change and we would need to proceed with caution. That is why in practice, so many proposals for BI schemes start at a local level and with pilots. We do want to have a rigorous before and after evaluation. We do want to understand what savings can be made administratively, or how local pay rates changed, the impact on business and employment, which differing rates of BI have what impacts, the interactions of BI with the remaining parts of the social protection system, how BI affects the housing market, and most importantly, how people in receipt of BI chose to behave and whether it actually makes a difference.

But these are just reasons to experiment and to pilot, at sufficient scale to draw lessons, not reasons not to do it. The most promising proposals look at a locality,a city or a rural environment, and evidence from all three would be important.

Objection 5- Companies Will Take Advantage and Lower Wages 

There is clearly some risk that left to their own devices, at least some companies who knew that citizens were about to receive a BI would act to (overtly or covertly) lower wages or other benefits as a chance to make a free buck. Now in locations with no minimum wage, that is a serious issue. However in the UK at least, we have a minimum wage, and we simply need to keep an eye on company behaviour and act accordingly. It is clear to me that BI would merely be one part of an overage package of ‘fair and empowering modern work’ – and this is another issue I’ll return to in due course. Meantime, we ask the Low Pay Commission to keep an eye on the issue.

 

Objection 6- Immigrants Will Take Advantage 

Given our current lively debate on immigration, some people would have a real fear that a generous UK BI, for example, would encourage even more immigration to the UK and that this would be an outrageous burden on good honest UK tax payers.

In reply, we can note that either outside the EU we will be free to control immigration as we see fit. Or, if my preference to remain in the EU ever comes to pass, we can look at ways to ensure that the definition of UK citizen is tight enough to ensure that abuse is minimised. I don’t know what the right level is, but we could for example  introduce a rule into our BI that only those citizens born in the UK or children of those born in the UK are automatically entitled, and that other people would either have to become UK citizens and live here, or have to be working for a defined period first (5 years? 10 years?) to qualify. We can also introduce a rule that ex-patriats are not entitled to the payment. I suspect this could raise some issues should we remain in the EU, but the basic point that this can be fairly easily addressed stands.

 

Objection 7- A BI Destroys the Link Between Benefits and What Has Been Paid Into the System

I think two replies are possible to this objection. The objection is based on a feeling that, actually, our social protection system should be based on payments that reflect how much people have paid into the system, and personal payments adjusted accordingly. And further, that it is unfair that someone who has not paid in much or anything, should receive the same rights as someone who has spent a lifetime working. And that with falling support for the welfare system, we need to go back to where we started in the 1940s, where welfare was a form of pooled collective insurance, not a means of redistribution.

Up to a point, I am sympathetic to these ideas when we are talking about the standard welfare approach- and the importance of the so-called contributory principle. Policy makers and people are looking for ways to make the system fairer and to reclaim that sense of ownership of welfare that originally made it so popular. But as this article discusses, actually we need to think more creatively about how to give people a stake in the system, and I think BI does that far better than trying to return to the original ideas of Beverage.

It’s also worth noting that a pretty small fraction (less than 15%) of the welfare system now relies on contributions to determine payments.

So, my response is that (a) we need a better means of securing support for the welfare/social protection system and that is exactly what BI gives us and that (b) look the link is already broken so let’s not pretend our current system links contributions and payments very closely anyway.

 

Objection 8 Some Low Income People Will Lose Out and/or Basic Income is Too Blunt a Tool

A final objection I want to consider is a very real one, which has two parts. Firstly, people worry that those currently in receipt of welfare or other social protection payments will lose out if the BI is set at too low a level.

The second objection is that people are very diverse- with a vast range of ages, needs, circumstances, geography and expectations. On that basis, a BI which starts out with the intent of empowering people and their choices simply ends up straightjacketing them. Or that in order to account for variances in need, the BI would need to be set so low as to make no difference, and with supplements needed, or at a level so high to cover all cases that the costs would be ruinous.

The sorts of things people have in mind are families with kids with some working and some not, or the vast variation in housing costs across the UK, or the varying needs of disabled or sick people, or the needs of carers etc.

This is a serious objection and the reply comes in two parts. Firstly, the transition to a new system from the old will indeed likely create winners and losers and hard cases, and that these will need careful management and transitional arrangements. At one level that is simply the stuff of policy design and government. So, one could say, noted, and move on.

That’s a bit glib though so a second response is to say yes, this is an issue but point to work from the BI network or the RSA looking at exactly those issues and findings ways to manage them. See this table for example:

 

The second objection is really important and one that shows that, whilst important, BI on its own is not a single answer. I think is is indeed the case that despite being able to remove large swathes of the current welfare system and its accompanying administration, that we would need at least 3 types of additional payments:-

– public pensions would need to remain (though depending on the level of BI even this might not be true over time)

– payments for disabilities or other physical or mental health or special circumstances which mean that life is more costly for some citizens, would need to be retained.

– Housing costs vary so substantially across the country that a standard element for housing built into the BI simply wouldn’t work, so we will continue to need a housing payment system

So, any BI in the short-term would likely need to be accompanied by pensions, special payments for circumstances outwith personal control, and housing. But over time, we may be able to merge BI with pensions. And we should note that special payments are a relatively small proportion of the total social protection system (c17%). And finally, our whole approach to housing needs to change, which may over time render direct housing payments a less important element of the system.

So, this is a good objection and we need to concede that any BI could not replace the entire social protection system, but I’d argue it could do a tremendous amount meantime.

 

A Word on Conditions 

The aim of BI is to keep conditions as simple as possible. As I mentioned above, we do need to write in some conditions on who qualifies as a citizen, to give us the best chance of securing public support.

I would argue that there is a further opportunity that could be built into BI however. I think there is a clear case to use citizens BI payments as of right, but to add in a responsibility as well. That responsibility would come in the form of a requirement to participate in democracy. In its simplest form, this could be just a requirement to ensure that if you want to receive a BI, you must be on the electoral register. Or slightly more ambitiously, if you want to receive BI you need to vote in at least 80% of all elections over a defined period. I think people would grumble but I think that most would choose to comply, if nothing else for the large incentive! If we did insist on voting as an actual requirement to receive BI, I’d suggest we’d need to add in a need for ‘none of the above’ style options.

 

To Conclude Part I

 

To summarise so far. I think BI is a potentially really strong idea with plenty of benefits. I think most of the objections I listed above can be overcome. I accept that we would need to start slowly and carefully with pilots, and move to a fuller system over time once we understand the issues better. I also agreed with those who say that, initially at least, things like pensions, housing and social payments for individual circumstances will need to be retained.

I argue that BI meets my tests for the principles of a liberal society, and that whilst it clearly is a means of distributing income and wealth, it is a necessary one. BI can’t replace all of the welfare system however.

I also feel that BI needs to be part of a wider package of fair work which includes things like pay ratios, higher taxes, how we tax wealth and capital, and worker empowerment. This is a wider debate about the future of work, and for another day.

However, if you have made it this far you’ll have noticed that costs and levels of payment have yet to be covered. I’ll return to that in Part II of this blog piece. Thanks for reading.

 

 

Notes

(1) The Royal Society of Arts Creative citizen, creative state: The principled and pragmatic case for a Universal Basic Income 2015

(2) Malcolm Torry  Money for Everyone Policy Press ISBN 878-1-44731-125-6

(3) The Royal Society of Arts accessed at https://www.thersa.org/discover/publications-and-articles/rsa-blogs/2015/12/in-support-of-a-universal-basic-income–introducing-the-rsa-basic-income-model#comments-section

 

 

 

The Dangerous Business of Being Alive – Risks, Citizens and the Liberal State

The Dangerous Business of Being Alive- Risks, Citizens and the Liberal State 

‘The greatest risk in life is to risk nothing. The person who risks nothing, does nothing, has nothing, is nothing, and becomes nothing’ Norman Vincent Peale 

Welcome to the latest entry in my attempt to set out some principles for a liberal state, as a series of building blocks for new ideas for liberalism. This time I want to talk about risks, and citizens and the role of the state in a liberal society.

In an earlier post, I tried to set out what I see as the principles underpinning a fair and equal liberal society. In addition to making the case for freedom and equality (principles 1 and 3) I specifically suggested a role, an obligation for the state around managing risks for its citizens:

Principle 8- Society and its government must ensure a fair and effective management of social risks so that risks imposed by society on its citizens, arising from social-technological risks, or failure to act on foreseeable collective risks, are managed and that effective protection systems are in place.

It is this principle and this area of risk and obligations that I want to expand on now.

 

What Is Risk and What Types of Risk Are There?

The literature on risk is enormous and I have no intention of rehearsing it all here. In general , a risk is an event or choice that has yet to happen but which may happen and has a rough calculus of measurement based on probability times impact. So one risk can be low because although very likely, its impacts are modest. Another risk can be high, because even though its probability is lower, the outcome or impact is extremely serious. Here one might think of the risk of a US housing market crash that was felt to be very low in 2008 but whose consequences were and still are, extremely serious.

In the corporate world, risks are framed around choices that the corporation and its management has, even where the outside environment constrains those choices. However when thinking of citizens, we can quickly see that there will be personal and societal risks that intertwine with the obligations the state owes them.

Personal risks are those that a person freely enters into, having a choice, knowing the consequences and accepting the outcome. Investments, dietary choices, betting, career choices might be examples. Other risks that a citizen faces however, are not freely entered into- an obvious one being ill-health, or a compulsory purchase order on their house by the state.

Another way to think about these two types of risks are as Ronald Dworkin discussed, ‘option bad luck’ and ‘brute bad luck’. Option bad luck corresponds to a risk through choice whereas brute bad luck is trying to capture the idea that despite your best planning as an individual, shit happens.

Yet another way to frame this two-fold typology is based on Thomas Meyer (1), ‘optional risks’ and ‘non-optional risks’ (Meyer p28). Again, optional risks are ones the citizen decides to take to improve their life position, freely entered into and with the acceptance of gains or losses. Non-optional risks are those that happen anyway without the element of individual choice, based perhaps on their physical impediments, societal impositions, ‘acts of god’ or other risks outside their control (including as I will discuss- state choices).

For the moment, I want to focus on risks between the individual, the society they live in, and the role of the state. Clearly, these intra-state risks are not the only type of risks, and risks exist both between states, and between and across generations (sustainability generally and climate change in particular being the obvious examples). But to make things easier, I want to focus on a single state and the relation to its citizens and the obligations the state has.

 

Ok, What’s Your Point Caller 

 

My point is quite a simple one. If we believe in a society where all persons are equal, where we need to ensure they have opportunities to follow their life plans, and where some choices and risks are outwith their control, then we immediately create a role for the state to intervene to manage some of those risks. Another way to look at this is in terms of the difference between having theoretical rights and opportunities, and actual ability to follow through to pursuing them.

Let’s now go back to the quote at the state of this post:

‘The greatest risk in life is to risk nothing. The person who risks nothing, does nothing, has nothing, is nothing, and becomes nothing’ Norman Vincent Peale

Such a quote and hundreds more like it, can be found across the literature of positive thinking and urging people on. However I’ve always thought that the thinking behind such suggestions neglects the element of circumstance, of brute bad luck, of ‘shit happens’. Yes with enough luck, willpower and gumption, some people can overcome any adverse circumstances. But what if you come from a  chaotic family? Or through sheer bad luck lose most of your life savings? Or are dogged with poor health, or born with a disability? Or are a victim of shoddy workmanship or downright business deceit? What if sweeping technological change wipes out the industry you work in, or decimates your local community? Are we really to fall back on exhortation?

No, it seems clear that for some risks, the non-optional risks, the state has an obligation to step in and help its citizens. This idea has been accept for a long time, but is particularly relevant in a new age needed for liberalism, a liberalism ‘5.0’.

Let’s be clear what we’re saying: the state has an obligation to act when its citizens face risks that are outwith their reasonable control, where the state itself through collective societal choice made one choice, amongst a range of choices, and that choice had consequences. The state and its citizens collectively has a duty to consider the consequences of its actions or failure to act, and to ensure that suitable systems and support programmes are in place to compensate and support those citizens affected by such choices. And we are talking very broadly- not just the choice to pursue policy A or law B, but the very decision to use a model of capitalism, to allow for private property, to accept certain features of the basic structure of society. Individual citizens facing bad outcomes, non-optional risks, are unlikely to have had the choice to accept some or all of these ‘macro’ choices, and hence are owed a duty to be looked after and supported.

A useful way to consider some of this is to consider Dworkin’s famous ‘insurance market’ (2)

 

Another Way Of Looking at Risk

Here is a (mercifully briefer) way to look at risks, drawn substantially from Meyer (p29)(1)

  • risks arising from private choices
  • risks including political options (socio-structural)- the state makes decisions (presumably) calculated to promote the common interest by authorising certain economic, social or foreign policies
  • Social-Technological risks-arising from the combined public and private choices about technologies that are made, often in the absence of a proper assessment of their impact on individuals or society (and something Tony Atkinson wished to see addressed)
  • Socio-cultural risks- where no positive actual choice is made, but governments and the state are effectively negligent, failing to take action in the face of foreseeable consequences of government inaction (examples might include unemployment, lack of preparation for automation, systematic discrimination of women or minorities etc.)

 

Sorry, I’m Still Not Convinced The State Has A Duty or Even a Role

You may be thinking by this point, if you made it this far, ok I can see a role for the state in providing management of risks, but either this is just a minimal level of protection to provide a basic standard of living, or an option to do so- its not a duty.

Sorry- I don’t agree. If you accepted my earlier principles for a liberal society, then it flows pretty clearly from the commitment to treat citizens equally, to respect their need for positive as well as negative liberty, and their right to follow their own life plan with dignity and the ability to see it through, that the state has a duty to act.

Why? Well firstly because if we accept citizens are equal and have rights, then when the state fails to act on the various risks listed above, it is encroaching on its citizens rights.

A second way to think about this is in terms of a social contract. We can imagine a hypothetical contract where, in return for accepting my responsibilities as a citizen and all that flows from that, I have the right to expect to be insured against the worst risks in life, since my social contract prevents me acting outwith the rules and norms of the society I am in. For example, if I am poor and hungry, I am not allowed (theoretically) to steal from the richer and better endowed and I cannot simply take over private land and begin to grow my own food. So, in return, I am owed some level of protection/insurance in return…

One final way to consider the issue is this- it seems clear that no one is morally entitled to take risks that affect third parties, unless the latter have given their express consent. But in managing the social-structural, socio-technical and socio-cultural risks mentioned above, states do this to their citizens all the time. But it is NOT valid to simply sacrifice the few for the good of the many- this would violate any number of clear liberal principles. So, as soon as it is clear that risks are being imposed, it is equally clear that rights for protection/compensation are activated.

So, the citizen has the right to expect protection, and the state has the duty to provide it.

But what does any of these mean in practice?

 

Types of Collective Risks and Consequences

In very general terms, one might re-cast my 5 ages of liberalism to match the types of risks we are discussing:

Age 1- managing risks arising from lack of religious freedom, arbitrary state or monarchical power and lack of property rights

Age 2- managing risks arising from the growth of capitalism, of pollution and sustainability risks, and lack of political representation

Age 3- managing the social consequences of increasingly collective societal decisions imposed on individuals

Age 4- managing risks associated with life circumstances, industrialisation and post-industrialisation

Age 5- Facing up to today’s risks- immigration, gender inequality, minority rights, accelerated technological change, global environmental degradation, and a realisation that risks exist that flow from the very nature of capitalism and the basic structure of society itself.

So, we are searching for things that the state owes an obligation to its citizens to address, across the full range of socio-structural, socio-technological and socio-cultural risks discussed above.

We are searching for things where the state has made decisions between options, and those decisions have consequences for individuals. We are looking for decisions and risks that violate basic rights, and where something can be done about that. We are excluding on the whole individual decisions where a choice was made and it didn’t work out. We are particularly looking for those risks that, absent substantial wealth and resources, it is difficult for an individual to foresee, to manage via self-help alone, and where reasonable efforts are  or have been already made by the citizen to address the risk.

 

Practical Examples Please!

In one sense, none of the above is new- states have long accepted the need to provide some form of safety net for their citizens. Since 1945 in the UK, a complex and interlocking set of public services have been established to try and provide social protection and social insurance for citizens.

So, some obvious areas where the state has a duty to manage risk are: providing a fair, effective and comprehensive health service. Providing a decent, free and effective education for all, allowing them to take a full part in society. Providing for people in their old age via pensions, and providing a series of protections and wealth transfers for those affected by unemployment, disability, sickness, and so on- the welfare system.

In addition, a whole range of public regulation exists to protect citizens from the inimical consequences of bad products, lying businesspeople, chicanery, shoddy workmanship, and bad advice. Think of the entire systems of legal protection and regulation that now exist in the UK around environmental protection and environmental health, health and safety at work, public health protection and disease prevention, consumer protection and product rules.

But are these enough? I’d suggest very strongly not, and as we enter the fifth age of liberalism, we need to think again about the duties- NOT the political options- that the state owes us.

 

New Risks, New State Obligations

 

I want to finish on a few examples of areas where I feel, going forward, a real liberal state would offer much more than is traditionally accepted as subject to risk management. That’s not to say by not tackling them here, I am agreeing that the UK has a fully effective set of risk management for health, education, welfare and so on. But let me highlight some others:

 

  • Legal Redress, Protection From Libel and Slander

To play a full part in society, it should be obvious in a capital-led, internet savvy, information rich society, that all citizens need adequate ability to pursue redress for illegal action against them, including slander and libel. At the moment, we seem to be cutting back on provision or relying on private insurance often attached to housing insurance or car insurance. But if we really respected our citizens, we’d be seeing this access to legal resource as a right, not a nice (or depending on your politics, nasty!) thing to have

  • Information Security and Identity Protection

In the modern world, your information can come to define you- and your identity can be stolen. At the moment, the state is too often ignoring these foreseeable risks, too often creating risks itself with casual mismanagement of information, or too grasping of information for worthy but overstated ends. Too often, major private companies like Facebook or Google are left to define what is ok, when the state should be picking up the baton, identifying and managing the risks proactively on behalf of its citizens

  • Full employment and Technological Risks

Too often, full employment is see as a thing that governments hope to achieve, based on political choice and/or philosophy. I mean, we might want it but we can’t buck the market right?

I want to suggest that this is a clear socio-structural risk that all political parties should be striving for, as an accepted duty of government. It was in the past, it should be again. Why? Because economical and social evidence and human psychology and dignity demands it- that all citizens have the opportunity to work and to work in ways that give them creativity, agency and purpose. Related to that, a whole swathe of articles on automation and the rise of the robots (something I’ll come back to) point to an overwhelming need to focus on the future and manage these emerging socio-technological risks for citizens

  • Housing and Place

We have clearly gone off-course in the UK when it comes to housing and place making. Our places are too often designed for people with cars, people with wealth, people for whom choices based on resources exist, or designed for the needs of business. Our sense of public place for democracy and civic forces to play out is just too weak. Our plan making relies on the private sector to come forward with house building and we now have a model where most of our public spending on housing subsidies private rental rather than public house building. Too many younger people face enormous obstacles to get on the housing ladder. Too many more citizens, following the signals they are given, are taking advantage of the rental market to drive up prices and rents as a way of providing for their future, in a literally beggar-thy-neighbour approach. These risks are both socio-structural (arising from a combination of open capital flows to and from the UK, tax laws, the retreat from public house building, and lack of regulation) as well as being socio-technological and socio-cultural (especially the lack of questioning as to what might happen when such choices were made, or if we continue to fail to plan for new housing). We must do better.

I don’t have time and space here, but just as important, and especially in Scotland, is our entire approach to land ownership, common land and common space.

  • Capital and Inequality

In an earlier blog, I ran through the current state of inequality in the world, and why it matters. Following Piketty and others, these socio-structural and socio-cultural risks were, and are, entirely clear and foreseeable. The enormous levels of inequality are bad, foreseeable and preventable, and are a classic example of citizens on their own being unable to either fully foresee the impacts, or fully address them given the macro-economic and financial forces ranged against them. The case for government action, preventative and proactive, to address inequality, could not be clearer.

 

Conclusions

 

As usual, I’ve gone on longer than planned during these early foundational pieces. I hope I have convinced you that, based on liberal principles, there is a right for citizens and a duty on states, for risks to be managed. I’ve talked about those risks and their nature, and why they are to be managed.

I’ve finished by hinting at the areas where, going forward, we need more focus on these risks, not as a nice to have, but as a fundamental component of a liberal, fair and effective society. In future, I’ll return to the individual areas and flesh out the details.

But let me finish with a comment to the sceptical. Almost all triumphs of private business turn out to be underpinned by previous public action (on research, on education, on capital or infrastructure support, on limited liability, on tax rules, or the rule of law). Almost all rich people have a tendency to forget what absence of resources looks and feel like, and why being stuck in the system is so hard. Almost all trapped within a system of low resources, bad services and loss of control can sense the system is not geared to support them. Unless we address these risks, proactively and systematically, we will never have the fair and equal society that we want.

 

Notes

(1) Thomas Meyer ‘The Theory of Social Democracy’ Polity ISBN 978-0-7456-4113-3

(2)Ronald Dworkin ‘Sovereign Virtue’ Harvard University Press ISBN 978-0674-008106

Sometimes the Perfect Sky Is Torn…

Sometimes the Perfect Sky is Torn- Liberal Principles for a Fair, Equal, Peaceful, Sustainable and Just Society..

‘I’m wide awake and I can see the perfect sky is torn…’

This week I want to develop my thinking on the building blocks of a liberal society a little further. I’ve argued previously we need a fifth age of liberalism, and that freedom and equality are fundamental parts of that society.

All very well but pretty abstract stuff, so can we begin to take it down a notch and be more specific about the sorts of principles that should inform the design of a liberal society?

Here is my first attempt, with no doubt gasps of horror from proper political philosophers about the merging together of quite distinct philosophical ideas and traditions. If you want a little more theory and a summary of some of the liberal debates, try here. [For what its worth  and to the degree it makes sense I’m a Rawlsian liberal, believing in the importance of negative, positive and republican liberty, and taking a largely pluralist, political liberalism approach and tending towards a state-centred approach which is comfortable to work pragmatically with non-liberal groups but intolerant of intolerance.]

 

What Principles for Society Should We Adopt?

My first two principles come straight from John Rawls and his Theory of Justice (here I’m using the formulation quoted in Samuel Freedman (1))

Principle 1- Each person has an equal claim to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic rights and liberties, which scheme is compatible with the same scheme for all; and in this scheme the equal political liberties, and only those liberties, are to be guaranteed their fair value.  (Freedman p45)

As Freedman says ‘The main idea of the first principle is that there are certain basic rights and freedoms of the person that are more important than others, and that are needed to characterise the moral idea of free and equal persons. ..He mentions five sets of basic liberties: liberty of conscience and freedom of thought; freedom of association; equal political liberties; the rights and liberties that protect the integrity and freedom of the person; and finally the rights and liberties of the rule of law..’

Quite a lot packed into this first principle and rather wordy, but I touched on much of this in my earlier post on liberty. If you prefer, the Universal declaration on human rights promulgates these rights in more detail.

Moving on, Freedman (p87) gives a version from John Rawls’ Theory of Justice of his famous difference principle as part of Principle 2:

Principle 2- Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both:

(a) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged, consistent with the just savings principle, and

(b)attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity.

Now there is is a huge amount of radical impact implied in those rather dry words- not surprisingly they have been subjected to ferocious debate over the last 40 years.

As I understand what Rawls wanted to say, firstly he said that his two principles in his Theory of Justice were in lexicographical order i.e. Principle 1 should be considered first and then and only then Principle 2. Secondly, principle 2 means that we should organise our society and economic systems to make sure that they are to the greatest advantage of the least well off. Instead of standard economic efficiency, where someone can lose out as long as one or more gain, in a society as envisaged by Rawls (and me!) we should try at the basic structure level to make sure that societies and economies are arranged to make sure the least well off benefit to the maximum possible. Note that inequalities are permitted in this vision, but only to the extent that the outcome for individuals at the bottom is the best possible.

You can see right away how radical that is, and how far we are from achieving it. Rawls has many complex arguments for why this is true, which I won’t deal with here, but do try and read Theory of Justice or reflect on the ‘original position argument’ as a starting point.

Notice though that this difference principle is constrained by the ‘just savings principle’ .Quite what Rawls meant by this is open to debate but I take it to mean that, in arranging today’s society to take care of the least advantaged, we should also think across generations, and ensure we are saving enough human, social, economic and environmental capital to allow future generations to meet their needs. So, unlike the claims of say, (as I understand him) Jonathan Glover, we do not owe an absolute duty to the poor if that means future prosperity is jeopardised. What this means in practice of course is open to debate.

Finally, the second principle demands equal opportunities to the positions, offices and political opportunities of society and that professions and careers are open to all. This carries two meanings- the straightforwardly formal equality of opportunity where everyone has the right to stand for parliament or join a club or pursue a career, and not banned or prevented because they are a woman, black, disabled, Jewish etc. However the principle means much more than that, and takes into its breadth the need for actual ability to pursue these opportunities, and not be prevented by lack of education, opportunity, wealth, confidence and so on. Again, contentious territory but the overall meaning is clear.

 

Building on These Two Fundamental Principles..

Ok now what? Are we any further forward? I would say we are, because once you begin to reflect on the principles and how to embody them in a state and a society, quite a lot seems to fall out from them right away.

If we are to have respect for liberty, then we need formal equality of citizens and so any states that have a two-tier (or more) approach to humanity are out- no slaves, no bans on women working etc. Secondly, the second principle means we need formal equality before the law, and very likely need laws to ban discrimination based on race, gender, sexuality and so on.

Thirdly, the radical nature of the difference principle will surely mean we need to intervene using state power to change the outcome of the distributive function of the free market (assuming we have a capitalist state- a big assumption and yet another thing I want to return to in due course). In practice that means pre-distribution, taxation, redistribution and lots more. These are interventions in ways that change the patterns of income, wealth and property distribution and resources, and which would have been anathema to many ‘second age ‘ liberals. But that need to intervene, alongside the need for formal rights for citizens of equality of treatment, surely implies a clear need for a rule of law- both so that people know what the rules of society are, and also that the rules will be fairly and publicly enforced according to known processes.

However there is more- I would argue then that such fundamental interventions, imply certain normative approaches and rules, but that given the winds of societal and political change, we need to ensure protection for their rights and processes in a written constitution based on human rights and embodying liberty, equality and the rule of law. Put another away, use of state power to control economic and social power implies a need to limit and circumscribe that power in a way all can see, understand and support. And that implies a clear written constitution to ensure such rights and approaches.

I would go further and suggest that a society based on these two principles also implies a democracy- the ability of citizens to elect their governments, change them as needed and delegate some of the complex decision making to government in an agreed way, based on clear norms and rules. Of course, we may want to supplement our representative democracy with participative or direct democracy but I will let that pass for the moment. But I simply do not see how principles 1 and 2 can be met in a society which is a theocracy, a dictatorship, a communist society of forced collectivism, an authoritarian state, a oligarchy or other self-selecting group of leaders etc.

So, I would argue that Principles 1 and 2 imply a third principle, namely

Principle 3- In order to cement the requirements of the principles of liberty and equality in society we need a democratic  society based on the rule of law with formal human rights and equal rights embedded in a written constitution. 

Absent a written constitution and formal human rights, our decision making risks becoming unstable, with important decisions subject to too much heat-of-the- moment political decision making, too much political or public pressure on the judiciary and too high a risk of popularist approaches replacing long-standing principles.

Such a principle should also help ensure the ‘tyranny of the minority’ is avoided, give us all clarity on how important political or constitutional questions are to be decided, provide greater context for our hard pressed judges, and ensure the legal and constitutional protection of minorities.

 

Are You Still Going On?

If this was the 1970s, we might stop here. But the debates have continued to move, and we now know that our stewardship of the environment is reaching crisis point. As I deal with this in my day job, you’ll have to excuse me if I just assert that we have a set of interlocking crises of climate change, air pollution, water pollution and scarcity, resource shortages, marine degradation and many others- all caused by a combination of rising population, rising economic activity and consumption, opportunities transmitted by technological change, and a failure to value environmental services properly. It’s clear that with, for example, climate change, that we are locking in changes that will take 100,000 years to disappear, and are effectively both robbing future generations of the value and common store of nature, and also reducing their opportunities to enjoy what the natural world gives us- resources, ecosystem systems, enjoyment and aesthetic value and so on.

So, a further principle is:

Principle 4 Society should ensure that it properly values the natural world, embeds natural  value within its scientific  cultural, economic and social systems, protects nature in its own right and as a source of value for current and future generations, and acts as a effective and thoughtful steward of natural resources

If we return to the need to ensure equality and manage our resources for the poorest, and to ensure liberty for all then a further insight follows. It is clear that as I wrote in an earlier blog on equality, that too much inequality is bad for lots of reasons- fundamentally because it attacks the ability of people to really be free, to pursue their own life plan, and to realise their full sense of value as a human being.

It’s equally clear from the history of bad states that too much power concentrated in state hands can be dangerous, as can too much power vested in a powerful and rich few. There has always therefore been a strong liberal desire to ensure freedom and to build equality by giving power to people at the lowest level commensurate with efficiency and the delivery of overall societal outcomes. This freedom from constraint, freedom to pursue opportunity and freedom from malign embedded power is taken to mean a need to disperse power politically and to disperse it geographically. Highly centralised, monochrome states or so-called ‘corporatism’ is out, pluralistic democratic systems at multiple levels and with power spread across what Burke also referred to  as little platoons, are in. This leads me to my Principle 5:

Principle 5 The basic structure of society should be designed such that power is dispersed politically at multiple levels and across multiple geographical areas, consistent with the achievement of other principles and goals

Finally, I could not finish without saying something about peace, and international relations. I’m aware of course that in all of this, there are many more experts out there and much more that can be said. None the less, it seems to me that any liberal society must surely be able to peacefully co-exist with other societies, whilst recognising that many states and peoples in the modern world are at various stages of development, and that some toil under systems that we may find repugnant, immoral or simply mistaken (for me that list includes dictators, big men politicians, authoritarian liberal states, theocracies and others). Building on (copying!) the ideas in Rawls’ Law of the Peoples as discussed in Freedman (1), I tentatively suggest the follow starting point as a principle for how we might think about peaceful coexistence in a sometimes dangerous, horrifying world:

Principle 6- Society should respect the freedom and independence of other peoples, observe treaties and undertakings, observe a duty of non-intervention, wage war only in self defence or in defence of other peoples unjustly attacked, honour international human rights, and observe just restrictions when waging war (Freedman p427)

A lot in that rather squashed together principle I agree, but I’d like to add one more related one

Principle 7- Society should come to the assistance of burdened or other peoples living under unfavourable conditions that prevent them having a just or decent political or social regime  (Freedman p427). 

But Wait! There’s Even More…

As the corny adverts say, there is more to say. If you can remember back as far as the start of this post, I had a quote from, Natalie Imbruglia. Why???

Well, my intention was to make a point that sometimes things don’t go well, and we need (despite our best plans) the protection and nourishment of the state, alongside our friends and family and our resources from our own plans. This is an area where I often differ sharply from my right-wing friends, and from those who have never seen or experienced poverty or despair or illness or any other number of social ills. I have been lucky so far in life- I have not had to endure serious setbacks of those kinds, but I have seen them up close in several years of voluntary work, and the supercilious, almost flippant way in which certain conservative thinkers or wealthy people dismiss these outcomes as a result of  bad character, poor skills or work shyness, is just wrong. It seems clear to me that any decent society, based on the principles above, should come to the aid of its citizens when things go wrong. Indeed that it explicitly what Principle 2 is all about. I will say more about this in a future post but for the moment I want to make it explicit.

When things do go wrong, when they go from bad to worse, and when the perfect sky is torn, then we need to know and be guaranteed we will be looked after. My thinking here is heavily influenced by Thomas Meyer’s ‘The Theory of Social Democracy (2)(see especially  p29ff) So my final principle is this:

Principle 8- Society and its government must ensure a fair and effective management of social risks so that risks imposed by society on its citizens, arising from social-technological risks, or failure to act on foreseeable collective risks, are managed and that effective protection systems are in place.

Possibly this principle is a little obscure-but as usual I have gone on far too long so let me return to it in future, and just finish by saying that the risks that globalisation poses to its citizens, or a failure to plan for the rise of robots on citizen’s incomes, or the well known risks of ill-heath, ageing or disease, are examples of what I mean of the sorts of risks to be collectively managed.

So there we have it, a list of the sorts of principles I think a modern, fair , equal, just, sustainable and peaceful society should be based on. I’d love to hear if you agree, or disagree….

Those Principles Again 

Principle 1- Each person has an equal claim to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic rights and liberties, which scheme is compatible with the same scheme for all; and in this scheme the equal political liberties,and only those liberties, are to be guaranteed their fair value.

Principle 2- Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both:

(a) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged, consistent with the just savings principle, and

(b)attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity.

Principle 3- In order to cement the requirements of the principles of liberty and equality in society we need a democratic  society based on the rule of law with formal human rights and equal rights embedded in a written constitution. 

Principle 4 Society should ensure that it properly values the natural world, embeds natural  value within its scientific  cultural, economic and social systems, protects nature in its own right and as a source of value for current and future generations, and acts as a effective and thoughtful steward of natural resources

Principle 5 The basic structure of society should be designed such that power is dispersed politically at multiple levels and across multiple geographical areas, consistent with the achievement of other principles and goals

Principle 6- Society should respect the freedom and independence of other peoples, observe treaties and undertakings, observe a duty of non-intervention, wage war only in self defence or in defence of other peoples unjustly attacked, honour international human rights, observe just restrictions when waging war

Principle 7- Society should come to the assistance of burdened or other peoples living under unfavourable conditions that prevent them having a just or decent political or social regime  

Principle 8- Society and its government must ensure a fair and effective management of social risks so that risks imposed by society on its citizens, arising from social-technological risks, or failure to act on foreseeable collective risks, are managed and that effective protection systems are in place.

 

Notes

(1) Samuel Freedman ‘Rawls’ Routledge ISBN 978-0-415-30109-1

(2) Thomas Meyer ‘The Theory of Social Democracy’ Polity ISBN 978-0-7456-4113-3

Equality Matters, Inequality is Bad…

Equality Matters, Inequality is Bad…

 

Recap…

Welcome to any new readers of Liberalism5, a blog where over time I hope to set our new ideas for liberalism. This is just my fourth blog, and I am still setting out the foundation of ideas to inform principles to inform policies and thinking. So bear with me…

To recap, so far I have suggested that, having had roughly four ages of liberalism, we need a fifth. I have hinted at why we need a new age, but will return to that in due course. I’ve set out the importance to a liberal of people having the basic freedoms required to choose their own path through life, the ability to chose for themselves, to have a life plan, even when this means in practice poorer outcomes for them and less rational choices.

I’ve suggested that a liberal analysis of 2016 suggests both that people are being too pessimistic, and also that conversely they are not worried enough. I’ve said that to really attack vested interest, to promote freedom and opportunity we need to look at the basic structures of society (1) , following John Rawls and his thinking.

And finally, at the end of my last post, I suggested that,contra what many believe, for liberalism of the sort I believe in, equality matters hugely, and just as much (if not more) than freedom/liberty. In this post I want to try and set out why.

Here is an early hint- when George Osbourne suggested that we were all in this together, many people reacted with a mixture of laughter, anger, disgust and resentment. But why? Why didn’t that happen (largely) when Churchill suggested something similar in the midst of war?

We Live In An Unequal World…

People know that we live in an unequal world, where some people have much more income, wealth and power than others, both within societies and across societies, between nations and across continents. But many don’t realise just how unequal things are. This video explains the position for the US and this for the UK . It seems to me both tell an important story about how little people appreciate the true position regarding wealth and inequality. That’s an important finding I think and one I will return to eventually.

An Oxfam report from 2016 suggested that just 62 people own as much wealth as half the world. Most poorer people have no wealth at all. Most middle income people have some combination of modest savings, wealth from their house, and a pension. However many rich people rely on capital rather than income from salaries. This capital includes housing and property, stocks and shares, government and corporate bonds, rents, dividend income and so on.

Shares of income and wealth for the top 10%, top 1% and top 0.1% have been rising steadily since the 1980s, though with differences in exactly how these play out across countries. Thomas Piketty in his fascinating Capital in the Twenty First Century (2) , points out that the number of billionaires has risen from 140 in 1987 to 1400 in 2013, an increase by a factor of 10. This translates to 5 billionaires per 100 million adults in 1987 but 30 per 100 million in 2013 (p433).

In popular criticism, we attack the 1% (see here for example). However we would sometimes be better to look at the 0.1% and above to see the real astonishing an frankly immoral increases happening.

Piketty also talks in fractions of percentiles, where the inequality and growth in wealth is even more astonishing. The richest twenty-fifth millionth of the world’s population, about 150 adults in the 1980s, and 225 in the early 2010s, has increased in average wealth from $1.5 billion in 1987 to an average of $15billion in 2013, a growth rate 6.3% per annum above inflation. If we then consider the wealthiest one-hundredth million of the world’s population, 30 people or so in the 1980s and 45 in the early 2010s, Piketty reports their average wealth has grown from just over $3 billion in 1987 to almost $35 billion, a growth rate of 6.8% per annum above inflation (p434).

However we look at it, inequality of wealth and income has been rising, and rising fast since the 1980s and we are approaching levels of inequality last seen in the 1880s. At the very highest income and wealth levels of society, these people (especially the super- or mega-rich) are seeing a growth in their fortunes that is simply astonishing.

 

A Conservative Response- Honestly, So What? You’re Just Jealous…

Now an obvious response to all this is, er, so what? Why does it matter that some people are much richer than others? Why does it matter that there is some statistical measure of inequality that is getting worse. Why don’t we celebrate success and stop whining? After all, this very blog started by pointing out how well the world is doing in many areas of measurement, compared to history. If society has been less equal in the past but overall less wealthy, but we’re doing better now, we should be happy shouldn’t we? This is just typical hand-ringing, liberal/lefty nonsense isn’t it?

I have some sympathy. At first sight, too many progressive thinkers are too concerned with redistribution, with public spending and with their next piece of legislation or policy making, to worry about the dirty business of creating wealth and success, or how to change the system. They should think harder, as the much mocked Ed Miliband tried to do with his comments on pre-distribution. (Pre- distribution, Wikipedia, Accessed 14th January 2017). (3)

But sorry, conservative thinkers, you are just wrong. Inequality does matter. Equality is important. Peter Mandelson (remember him?) now admits he was wrong to say he was ‘intensely relaxed’ about people getting filthy rich’. 

But why so?

 

Why Equality Matters Hugely, Inequality Is Bad and We Need to Change

Many others have written on this so I will state my case using the great work of others. Firstly we know on pure economic grounds that societies that have large patterns of inequality of wealth and income tend to do worse economically in the long run. Joseph Stiglitz, the nobel-prize winning economist, writes on this in his 2012 book The Price of Inequality. (Wikipedia The Price of Inequality accessed 14th January 2017)(4) . Another nobel-prize winning economist Paul Krugman considers inequality a defining (economic) issue.  The basic point seems to be that wealth distributed more widely is more likely to drive economic growth, jobs, incomes and productivity, than a very unequal distribution.

Along with population growth and technological change, equality is important historically for economic performance. At least, I’d argue history teaches us this lesson- the dead hand of absolutism, dictatorship and feudalism all tended to produce less growth in economic wealth than more equal societies (except when they stole others’ wealth through war!)

But the reasons why equality matters and inequality is bad go much further. Wilkinson and Pickett in their famous book The Spirit Level (5) take a canter through actual societal outcomes- happiness, health, educational attainment, crime and so on, and clearly find that more equal societies do better than unequal ones. Now their findings are controversial and its not always clear to them as statisticians what the underlying reasons  for their fundings are, but I find their number crunching compelling. They updated their 2009 thinking a little more here.

But there is yet more, dear reader. So far when discussing inequality I have talked about income and wealth only. There is much more to life than money and wealth of course. But wealth is an excellent proxy for power in our current society and so a further insidious effect of rising inequality is political and systematic.

When we allow a handful of people at the top so much wealth, we hand them power to influence all kinds of things, unless we work damn hard to put in place controls and restrictions. We see this in the UK and the US with the power of a few to set the tone for much of our media- what our newspapers say, what our TV screens show us- but also how our political parties think and are influenced. We see it in the hidden funding behind think thanks, too often explicitly or (more dangerously) having honestly held opinion but in thrall to ‘obvious’ limits on political choices or citizen led changes.

The power of think tanks, lobbying and cultural messages from the media is very strong, and with too much of that left in the hands of the rich and powerful, our public discourse, our political and tax and public spending choices, and our very thinking risk being distorted. Distorted away from choices for the common good, and towards narrower choices that advance or at least protect vested interests of the rich and the powerful.

A further bad effect of inequality comes from the disconnect of the very rich, and ‘ordinary’ people of society. In a reasonably equal society, the top 1% and the average person may actually interact and know each other- going to the same schools, using the same hospitals, occupying the same physical and even mental spaces. But with the levels of inequality we see now, the very rich tend to split off from the rest of us- and when you add in the effects of wealth on power and politics and public choices as above, this separation is bad to the point of dangerous. It is a cultural, a physical and a mental separation that signals danger and all the ills of rentier behaviour.

So, to sum up- inequality is bad for the economy, bad for societal outcomes we care about, bad for the political process, and even threatens the basic fabric of society by divorcing the very rich and powerful from the rest of society.

But there is one more thing I want to discuss, more important than any of this.

 

Equality is Fundamental to Human Dignity and Agency

I suppose we could just about live with all of the bad effects above. After all, an unequal society can conceivably still create more average wealth than a more equal one, even given the distortions, the poorer outcomes from being less equal and the corrosive effects of separation. After all -this is one of the conservative arguments from above that I have yet to address.

This argument can be summarised as ‘a rising tide raises all boats’– better to be poor in a rich society than equal in a poorer one.

But sorry- Wilkinson and Pickett are able to show that this often isn’t the case.

But the objection goes deeper than a statistical objection based on outcomes. It does to the heart of what it is to be human, and to be a social being, and to have the freedom to pursue your own life plan. Equality matters because ultimately, people need dignity and respect, they need the ability to execute their life plan, they need a sense of fairness in all of the rules and institutions and processes of society. Too often rich people fail to understand that basic fact about poorer people. But people are people, regardless of income and resources.

When people don’t have that (dignity and access to resources), as clearly many feel they do not at the moment, we get the reaction to Osbourne I mentioned at the start of this post. We see cynicism and resignation, we see chaotic families descending into despair and abuse and fatalism. We see turning away from political processes, or a turn to nationalism, popularism or worse. A lack of what people call agency has been shown to drive all kinds of negative impacts on health, on life choices, on life expectancy and on wellbeing.

So, it is not just the absolute wealth that I have that matters (beyond a minimum) as per the conservative argument- it is fundamentally whether I feel I am an equal citizen of equal worth, with all the dignity, freedom and ability to execute my life plan that I expect.

It is this fusion of freedom with equality which is distinctively liberal I believe. It is this combination which is fundamentally radical, and drives (or should drive) changes to how we structure society. Both John Rawls and equally Ronald Dworkin have written extensively on this and what it means.

It was a lack of appreciation of this by Blair and Mandelson, despite their many achievements, that I believe ultimately corroded people’s faith in them. It is why, for example, the SNP are  to this observer, merely synthetic progressives really seeking a change in constitutional arrangements whilst leaving many other aspects of the system intact. Because as soon as you accept this need for fundamental liberty and equality, you need to accept the need for radical change.

It is this radical change that I want to turn to as the blog develops further. Thanks for reading.

Notes

(1) Standard Encyclopaedia of Philosophy John Rawls accessed 14th January 2017 https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/rawls/

(2) Thomas Piketty Capital in the Twenty First Century Belknap Harvard ISBN 978-0-674-43000-4

(3) ‘Pre-distribution’, Wikipedia, Accessed 14th January 2017

(4) ‘The Price of Inequality’, Wikipedia, Accessed 14th January 2017

(5) Richard Wilkinson Kate Pickett The Spirit Level Penguin ISBN 978-0241954294

A Word Or Two About Liberty

A Word Or Two About Liberty…

Liberty is one of those words that was rather exotic for me when I was younger- apart from the famous statute I wasn’t really aware of its importance, nor did I give it much thought. If anything, I used the word freedom (but not much!). I suspect plenty of people are the same, and may wonder why it’s such a big deal, so I thought in the early days of this blog, some thoughts on liberty and why it matters to a liberal would be useful, as preclude to more specific thoughts in future. I am, by the way, taking freedom and liberty as synonyms, though no doubt someone may want to tell me that’s taking liberties in itself (see what I did there?)

Liberals and Liberty…

It’s pretty clear that liberty is something important to liberals. The preamble to the UK Liberal Democrat’s constitution mentions it, and the Wikipedia definition of liberalism says this:

“Liberalism is a political philosophy or worldview founded on ideas of liberty and equality.”(1) (Wikipedia, accessed 7th January 2017)

Or try this from Edmund Fawcett’s ‘Liberalism’

‘Liberals, it is said, believe in liberty. Indeed they do’ (p1)(2)

John Stuart Mill, a very famous thinker and writer of the 19th century in his defining work ‘On Liberty’ felt liberty was a cornerstone of society:

“John Stuart Mill opens his essay by discussing the historical “struggle between authority and liberty,”describing the tyranny of government, which, in his view, needs to be controlled by the liberty of the citizens.” ((3) Wikipedia- On Liberty- Accessed 7th January 2017)

So far, so obvious. But why the big focus on liberty and freedom?

Freedom and Liberty Matter…

Recall in my second blog (We Need a New Age I Tell You!) I said that there were various stages of liberalism. And as someone rightly pointed out, I neglected to mention the role of struggle and conflict in securing these freedoms. And the early liberal focus on liberty came from the view that much of government/rulers/religion since time began had been a tyranny, an active impediment to the freedom of the individual, a negative force. So much has been written on the importance of liberty but it comes down to this.

A liberal fundamentally believes that each person is of equal value and has a right to determine their own life path, so long as that path does not ruin the rights of others to pursue their own aims. This came from the struggle to free minds, actions and lives from the (perceived) suffocating grip of churches/religions/social status/cultural norms/nationalisms and various other forms of societal control.

A liberal believes that freedom is fundamental and that you cannot coerce someone into leading a life of maximum value, and that choices made by individuals are theirs to make. That does of course lead to all sorts of complications, when people make self-defeating, stupid, selfish, irrational or just plain wrong decisions and life choices. It does mean that people could turn out less happy and fulfilled than if the state or religion just maintained control. It presents all kinds of dilemmas for well-being fellow citizens and governments. But, fundamentally, if you don’t believe in personal liberty and the right of an individual to chose their own path,within reason, then you are not a liberal.

What Are These Freedoms? 

There are lots of places that define what some of these freedoms are. Many are so-called negative freedoms, as defined by Isaiah Berlin ((4) Wikipedia, Two Concepts of Liberty, accessed 7th January 2017) – that is the freedom from obstruction or coercion, the right to do something without being blocked. The corollary of that is positive freedom, the positive ability to act in order to deliver a positive outcome in accordance with your life plan. It is more than just absence of coercion, but is the ability to take a full and active part in society, to exercise your freedoms so as to be able to do what you want, act on your desires, and have a reasonable chance of delivering your aims. This is hugely contentious and contested territory of course, and I will come back to it in time. But for the moment, I think these distinctions are useful.

To be more specific, liberty involves (now) a series of well recognised civil and political rights, which include things such as freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom from bodily coercion and sexual assault, absence of torture, freedom of religion, right to life itself, freedom of conscience, to hold personal property, to vote and participate in political processes, freedom from racism/sexism/homophobia, right to privacy and so on.

So, as you can hopefully see, liberalism places a huge premium on liberty, and for good reason.

 

But That’s Not All! 

This post is already too long, but I have barely scratched the surface of this issue and will return to it in time. But a few things remain to be said.

Liberalism with its focus on personal liberty is not the only political philosophy to do so of course. But I hope to show over time why liberalism is distinctive.

Liberalism and liberals tend to (should!) be automatically more distrusting of the absolute power both of corporations and private power, but also crucially of state power, and for reasons that should now be fairly obvious. It is why in practice liberal democrats often disagree with left-leaning and Labour thinkers, that we think reach too quickly for state power in their desire to achieve positive outcomes.

Liberalism is decisively NOT libertarianism, a tempting siren-like and superficially attractive doctrine, that turns out to be completely false, selfish and falls apart under the gentlest of analytical scrutiny.

Over time, some formidable thinkers have applied their minds to the positive element of liberty, and see it as imposing substantial duties on governments and societies to help people achieve their life plans. Others will know more than me, but if you are interested then the work of Amartya Sen, Martha Nussbaum and of course John Rawls, are instructive. See for example the capabilities approach.

 

Finally…What About Equality?

Many people labour under the (false) impression that liberals and liberalism is all about an obsession with personal freedom- the right to take drugs, or engage in protest or be free from invasion of civil liberties like governments secretly reading your emails. It is of course those things, but it is more much. Being liberal does not mean being libertarian, and it definitely does not mean placing the individual above all else, in a sad, floating, atomised existence divorced from society. Liberals place important on community.

But the most important thing to say is that modern liberalism (or at least the most convincing version of it for me) treats equality as equally important. it does not only have an interest in equality, it defines it as a central element of its thinking- to the surprise of many. So it is to equality and why it matters that I must turn in the next edition of this blog.

 

Notes

(1) Wikipedia-  ‘Liberalism’ Accessed 7th January 2017

(2) Edmund Fawcett ‘Liberalism- The Life of An Idea’ Princeton University Press 2014 ISBN 978-0-691-15689-7

(3) Wikipedia- ‘On Liberty’ Accessed 7th January 2017

(4) Wikipedia- Two Concepts of Liberty 7th January 2017

 

We Need a New Age I Tell You!

We Need a New Age I Tell You…!

I kicked off this blog yesterday with some (rather rambling) thoughts on why I want to blog and what I want to blog about. A couple of people have already kindly asked what’s behind the ‘LiberalismFive’ idea so I thought a brief (ish) explanation is in order.

The New Becomes the Accepted 

We do naturally tend to assume that what is commonly accepted today has ever been thus, and is the correct and only way of seeing things. Ask a fisherman if today’s fish stocks are ‘normal’ and they often say yes- however despite me knowing very much less than them about fishing I can pipe up and say ‘sorry, historically fish catches were much larger, more bountiful and with much bigger fish'(1) . Or to take an example from the excellent Clay Shirky (@cshirky) (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Here_Comes_Everybody) with any new technology we can divide people into those who never accept or adopt the technology, those who adopt but are always conscious of its newness and innovativeness, and those for whom it is just there, and invisible/accepted. Interestingly that changes over a lifetime-with those who see for example see telephones as invisible, always being aware of say social media or video-calling, but the younger generation treating them as invisible. I’m willing to bet today’s 20somethings will always be conscious of robot helpers and driverless cars when they come whereas their kids won’t.

The point being that, taking a long enough perspective, we can track great progress in Europe in terms of liberal ideas, and my suggestion is that, having seen four great ‘ages’ of liberalism, we now need a fifth.

I’ll say more as the blog develops about what I think this fifth ‘age’ should involve, and why, but for the moment, what were the previous four?

Ages One and Two- Shaking Off The Religious and Economic Shackles

I’d count the first age of Liberalism as involving that time in the 17th century onwards where, in beginning to develop science, and beginning to demand the restriction of political absolutism, we experienced increasing freedom to hold different religious views (and sometimes even none), and where the power of monarchs and rulers began to be restricted by parliaments, law-makers and the rule of law itself. Gradually, the age of enlightenment meant that at least for some (often white, often privileged, often men), the freedom existed to hold different religious, political and personal views on life and how to live it. One might, very simply, consider it the beginnings of a rights based approach to personal and political freedoms- to worship as you want or not at all, to speak up as you wished to, to associated with whom you wished, and crucially for many, to define and clarify property rights.

This is of course a very simplistic view, very Western and full of holes, but it gives a flavour. Thinkers range from Locke, to Kant, to Winstanley and Lilburne, to Rousseau and John Wilkes, amongst many others (shout out for the Baron D’Holbach!) and many on my list would not be considered liberals in the modern sense (that great figure Jefferson for example owned slaves for much of his life).

As time went buy, a combination of population growth, empire building, growth in the theory and practice of capitalism and huge technological change increased the benefits that flowed from a more open and trade-led economic view, as opposed to that merely zero-sum view that led to wars of acquisition, or mercantilist views, or closed economies. This is what I would term very broadly a ‘second age’ of liberalism.

Very much the ‘classical’ liberalism of the 19th century, with debates mixing empire with trade, rules about ownership and limited liability of companies with emerging concerns about the effects on workers, the 19th century saw a huge upturn in the desire to advance the economy, using the new insights of economists, a growing understanding of how trade and open borders and economic growth could enrich society (or at least some of it). I’d include in this period a growing reaction to the horrors of unchecked capitalism, the reaction of Marx, the introduction of restrictions on working conditions and child labour, and the beginnings of the gathering of economic statistics to support an understanding of why trade mattered, how incomes were changing, and how the state could support and develop these patterns. Classic liberalism also began to consider a whole range of issues associated with this growth, and how to reconcile personal freedom with the larger impersonal forces unleashed. And of course, it neither neglected nor solved the problems of freedom of religion, conquest or state and power flowing from wealth.

The emphasis I would argue blended both a concern for religious and personal freedoms, with a desire for economic liberty as well. I think it’s no coincidence that this period also saw huge growth in movements of workers, with the first unions established, the first acts introducing systematic controls on pay and conditions, child labour, and even some controls on pollution. No coincidence that over this period we see key developments in democracy itself, from the eroding of the power of the monarchy, to the reform of electoral conduct, to the massive extension of the electoral role (see for example the chartists and their demands). Key figures could include a huge range, from ‘liberal’ politicians such as Gladstone, Palmerston and Lord Russell, to John Stuart Mill, John Bright or Richard Cobden (yes dear reader, I greatly simplify for the sake of some brevity.)

I take this period of the ‘second age’ to close at roughly the close of the 19th century- as we began to understand and take action on the social consequences of this personal and economic focus and the negative and clearly unfair impacts it imposed on people and society.

 

The Third and Fourth Ages – Social Protection, the State and Today’s Politics

Continuing my simplistic gallop through history, I’d argue that the end of the 19th century and the start of the 20th century, saw a new bargain being struck. That bargain, between capitalists, companies, workers and the state, recognised that the levels of inequality being reached were not healthy, that more needed to be done to protect workers and the more vulnerable members of society and that doing so was not only a moral imperative but also an economic one- with a huge growth in the role of the state. Some in the paternalistic tradition also feared for the consequences of ignoring the demands of workers and the urban and rural poor.

Key developments included in the UK the beginnings of a state pension, the beginnings of a comprehensive welfare state, further controls and improvements to workers lives, and the gradual movement of education and a host of health and protection services from private, charitable and religious provision, towards that of the state itself. Key figures at this point might include JA Hobson, LT Hobhouse, the great reforming liberal governments of Campbell-Bannerman, Henry Asquith and Lloyd-George, and the early work of Maynard Keynes. In this period from roughly 1900-1945 we see great advances in the role of the state, arguably the beginnings of some gender equality, an increasing recognition of the tensions of being ‘liberal’ whilst maintaining an empire, and continued if patchy improvements in the social protections for the young, the old, the weak and the infirm.

Finally, from 1945 onwards we reach my ‘fourth age’ of liberalism. Here, many of the great innovations in public policy are solidified, increased and become mainstream- from the founding of the NHS to the introduction of lengthy compulsory education, the expansion of Universities to allow for many times previous numbers. We see the introduction of an extensive environmental protection system and the  slow rolling back of hundreds of years of environmental damage. We see the end of empire (in theory at least) and the building of extensive social protection systems covering (again in theory) a citizen from cradle to grave. We see enormous improvements in the lives of UK citizens- from health to life expectancy, from likelihood to experience violence to educational attainment, from material possessions to contact with other cultures, from growth in home ownership and decent standards of housing to greater mobility and flexible working patterns. Finally, over the last 20-30 years we see new norms developing to embrace more gender equality, formally and in practice, with similar trends for gay people, and very recently for transgender people. Ethnic minorities and minorities in general are given more formal rights of redress, and in the UK we gain rights under a UK human rights act.

That is- in very broad brush terms, what I mean by the four ages of liberalism to date. I would argue that enormous strides have been made, and we would do well to remember that progress. My view is that there never was a golden age – a time when all of society flourished, when minorities were respected and protected, when the environment was cherished, when racism was non-existent and communities lived together in harmony and peace. We can make strides and we have.

But I want to use this blog to argue that we now need to move on. That the increasing tinkering associated with liberal thinking just won’t be enough going forward. That, like many, I think the pace of change is accelerating in many ways, and needs more fundamental addressing and consideration. That, as 2008 and 2016 have shown us, too much power resides in the hands of too few, poorly understood and rarely challenged. That the increasing tendency to assume that a new form of politics based on advocacy, and lots of small interest groups working away for technical changes and legislative victories, isn’t enough. That we need to look at the basic structures of society and the signals we send.

My aim is to try and show why we need a new age, and offer a small contribution to how that might be developed, and what it might look like. As this blog develops, I want to move from these rather abstract thoughts to  evaluations of much more specific ideas, but knitted into a coherent political philosophy. Time will tell!

 

Notes

(1) http://vps103892.vps.ovh.ca/pdf/the-ocean-of-life-fate-man-and-sea-callum-roberts.pdf

 

Don’t We Need To Think A Bit Harder?

Don’t We Need To Think A Bit Harder?

About this blog

Hello and welcome to the LiberalismFive blog. Here I hope to offer some thoughts about new ideas and new directions for liberalism, in the hope that others may both read and found something of use. If nothing else, I may clarify my own thoughts as an indifferent void looks on…

Why LiberalismFive? I’ll say more another time but my suggestion is that, having seen four ‘ages’ of liberalism, it’s time for a fifth. And here is where I want to consider new ideas, and work out how they might add up to something worth debating and considering.

As I need to remember more often, my perspective is mostly Scotland and the UK, with a dash of European insight and some global thoughts sometimes. But I’ll rely on some (any?) readers to keep me right on that.

Onto business…

2016 and Its Discontents 

Like many, I was dismayed by quite a few things in 2016- the ongoing horrors in Syria, Russian old-style power games, the Brexit vote, the election of a ignorant, anti-science pro-privilege huckster as US President. And of course the sad death of many famous people.

There’s no doubt that, if you’re a liberal, the next few years look harder than expected, with many recent gains in terms of climate change, international relations and peace, equal rights for women and gay people, and even tolerance and open-mindedness apparently under real threat.

Or at least, that is how many commentators have reported it, and there has been lots of hand-ringing and soul-searching about what caused some of this to happen and what we should do about it. I don’t disagree the short-term looks hard, especially if you’re an asylum seeker, an immigrant, someone struggling to get by on their wages or relying on welfare or public services.

But the despair and the gloom prompted me to (finally!) get going on this long-planned blog, as I think both that we are overdoing the gloom, and that conversely we don’t go deep enough in our fears and worries.

It’s Not as Bad As You Think?

Firstly, it’s not as bad as you might sometimes think. This article gives a few charts worth having a look at- I’d draw attention in particular to falling numbers of deaths from conflicts, stalling climate change emissions and the halving of poverty since 1990 as just three. Or try this on falling costs of renewables, or this on progress made with nature conservation. On a longer timeline, the excellent Stephen Pinker’s book Better Angels of Our Nature over 800 pages reviews the evidence for falling deaths from war, murder, and falls in violence generally.

I am aware of course that these are very partial snapshots or choices of statistics; that fundamental problems remains; that for many people and for much of nature the situation is dire; and that many dispute Pinker’s findings and methods. But personally, the evidence is convincing- things don’t always get worse, we can make progress, government is not always useless, modern life is not rubbish.

But this is a rather superficial point, and talking about falls in violence over 500 years is scarcely an answer to those suffering war, or mystified and concerned by what 2016 brought.

Is Isn’t Organised Enough to Be A Conspiracy- But It Is A Planned Approach and We Need To Look Deeper…

Onto my second main point. I believe though that despite what I just said, 2016 was a bad year and there may be bad years ahead. But we need to get beneath the personalities and events and think a bit harder about the nature of our societies, our systems and our incentives.

So, why do I think we’re overreacting and need a longer-term view? Well, we should have expected and be ready that vested interests will always fight back- that those with power and influence at the top of our societies don’t always have the common good at heart. Even if they did, we need to be aware of the corrupting influence of power, the weakening of controls, seduction that comes from only moving in similar circles, that success breeds a feeling it was earned, the intense lobbying of special interests. We need to know that, absorb it and not loose heart, as Admiral Stockade once said.

Let me say right away that I don’t believe in shadowy conspiracies covering global events, with mysterious secret bodies devoted to global domination and the like. That’s not to say that everywhere we look we won’t find networks dedicated to fighting what liberals stand for: fake grass-roots campaigns, fake science, fake news, tame historians, biased and corrupt news and media organisations and a host of other bad things devoted to bad ends, or even just to keep things the way they are now. The Mont Pelerin Society is a good example of some long-term thinking to plan some ideas that over time, have become simultaneously mainstream and very damaging.

But the idea of global conspiracies seems daft to me- things just aren’t organised enough for long enough and anyway, the explanation for why science, liberalism, openness, tolerance and other good stuff doesn’t always win is much simpler.

Yes there are those with wealth and power devoted to bad causes, selfish-ends and holding dismal, demonstrably false world views. We need to know who they are, and oppose them when they corrupt our public debate.

It’s The System But Marx Wasn’t Right 

But the problem lies much deeper than that- at the level of the basic structure of society. That is- the way in which politics, forms of government, industry, media, legal systems, competition, ownership and a host more fundamental elements of society, are brought together and act on us as individuals and our choices and beliefs.

John Rawls in his magisterial Theory of Justice talked about these elements as making up the basic structure of society. 

It is these interlinked, complex webs of basic insights, rules, processes, procedures and so on that determine whether liberal ideas will succeed or fail. Yes there are individuals that act on bad faith, elections that take us backwards, key moments (Brexit!) that could have gone differently if only.

But behind all that, and deeper than that, it is surely this basic structure that we need to give much more focus to, and one in which I hope to locate ideas and policies that could begin to make up a LiberalismFive, a new and more durable approach. [And no, Marx got it wrong, and his path is a blind alley…].

A few examples to close on- it’s my view that we won’t generate the changes we need to make if our basic democracy is weak, if our political parties are considered irrelevant, if our politicians are derided and our young people disgusted by the whole irrelevant game. But tweaks to voting laws and even powers of recall of politicians on their own won’t be enough if people think they have no stake in society and nothing that we debate matters a damn.

But surely people won’t have a stake if we don’t publicly and consistently demonstrate that there really is one rule for all, that the cards are not stacked against you if you are from a  minority, the global south or a poorer family. That society and government care for you and want you to succeed, without stepping over the line into overreach, bossiness and constriction. That globalisation can be a good thing and can work for you, that government and society will be there for you when things go wrong, plans go astray. That we are part of something bigger and that I will if you will…

And things can’t be fair if our taxation, our tax enforcement, our education system, our company law, our environmental custodianship and a host of other elements are not subjected to major change. Tax deductions for the rich, optional payments of tax, overly strict libel laws, poor public infrastructure, housing out of reach of the young, a workforce consisting of the secure and the insecure, the well paid and the badly paid, is not a recipe for a stronger and fairer society.

And indeed, a biased and truth-ignoring mass media won’t help with any of that. It isn’t always someones fault, the answers don’t lie in (only!) attacking the rich and the powerful. They lie deeper- and we surely need to offer solutions that attack the central problems, that consider the common good whilst allowing for personal freedoms, that are capable of lasting and which meet some of the tests of fairness, opportunity, good policy and long-term thinking.

It is these ideas and policies I want to write about, and hope to talk about as this blog unfolds. Thanks for reading.