Saturday, February 16, 2008

What is socialism?

Sorry if that title sounds a little presumptious. However, there is an interesting clash between DK's understanding of socialism and Chris Dillow's.

All serious political movements contain within them a great amount of variety. Almost everyone is, at some point, embarassed by others within their ideological camp. I wouldn't like to be associated with every position held by every conservative and I'm sure DK sometimes cringes at things said by fellow libertarians.

However, Dillow's position is more uncomfortable than ours. I can reasonably claim that the majority of conservatives, and libertarians, have positions on contemporary issues that I have a lot of sympathy for. That we are broadly on the same side in wanting a range of things: a small state, a strong nation, robust families and a host of other positions. Chris, despite his claim to possess a stronger connection to the early Left, seems to be on the wrong side of most of the movement on a range of issues. From the size of the state to the merits of a host of lifestyle paternalisms.

I think the problem can actually be traced back all the way to Marx. Even a rightwinger such as myself can acknowledge that Marx had a fierce, if misguided, account of what was wrong with the world - a problem he wanted to see ended. He also had a promise - that history was on the Left's side. He didn't really have a programme. That part was always fuzzy and I've never been convinced that either Stalinism or Dillow's liberal left programme can really claim to possess a greater grasp of true "Marxism".

By contrast, American conservatism has the vision of the Founders. British Conservatism Burke's steady defence of the robust British nation. Libertarians have Nozick, Rothbard, Hayek and innumerable other others. All of whom had a vision of the society they were defending or seeking to see put in place. By contrast, the Left started from Marx's rage. That left them very vulnerable to all manner of poorly thought through or outright evil philosophies that would claim to be the proper way to give their rage practical vent. Considered positions like Dillow's struggled within that discourse.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Matt Wardman accuses the BBC of stirring

Matt Wardman accuses the BBC, in fairly strident terms, of encouraging an unnecessary storm over the Archbishop of Canterbury's words.

His evidence for this is pretty weak. Essentially, he has two points. First, that by publishing the story on their website before the interview they pre-empted his interview and thereby prevented people getting the balanced and nuanced account of his opinions that the interview provided. Second, that the website article was distorting.

I don't know Wardman's background. If he hasn't worked in journalism or politics his mistake in assuming that an article published before the actual interview runs is exceptional is quite understandable. It is quite common to trail an interview a little. A couple of examples off the top of my head that were definitely trailed by news stories in the media before the actual speech: Patricia Hewitt's speech on the next ten years of the NHS and the Dispatches programme investigating the Olympics. In fact, the process is so common that if I read an account of the contents of a speech in the newspapers I will usually expect that it is still possible to go and see it.

What has happened here isn't so different. The Archbishop made the statements cited in the BBC article in a pre-recorded interview. They will probably have put the website story up first on the assumption that people hearing the interview would go to look it up on the website and, if the story weren't in place, it would leave them dissapointed. That is the same reason TPA research reports generally go online late the night before they hit the papers, shortly after the first editions have hit central London. There's nothing sinister about it - just good planning.

So, is the website article itself misleading? I don't think so. Wardman's main accusation is this one (which he repeats endlessly):

"The story was trailed at the top of the news programme with the headline: The Archbishop of Canterbury has said that the adoption of Sharia Law in some parts of Britain is inevitable. (No he didn’t, or not in the way that your headline was inevitably going to make people think.)"

The Archbishop did say "it seems unavoidable". The website's account of that, crucial, statement isn't in any way misleading. It was followed, very near the top of the article, with: "For example, Muslims could choose to have marital disputes or financial matters dealt with in a Sharia court." I don't see anything that is missed here. I don't see anything misleading in the website's account of the interview at all. Wardman is being completely disingenuous and I get the impression he is only able to convince himself because he is working from the assumption that people must have been misled, must be behaving irrationally.

There is a real arrogance to Wardman's unstated assumption that the public are just useful idiots for the media - charging at a red flag. He doesn't take the time to understand why people are angry. He should.

Continuing the debate with Gracchi on the Archbishop of Canterbury

My ongoing debate with Gracchi about whether the Archbishop should resign continues. Gracchi has posted again making two points.

1. He identifies what he sees as an inconsistency in my making both these two points:

1) The Archbishop isn't really raising interesting issues. He didn't raise the issue of curbs on speech that offends the religious or the introduction of some elements of Sharia - he just gave them establishment credibility. As such, we shouldn't be grateful for his raising the issue and can, in an undiluted fashion, criticise him for lending the Church of England's institutional weight to the wrong side.

2) Gracchi likes the Archbishop because he has the qualities of a university professor (interesting opinions on 1920s French neo-scholastic art theory, for example). If that is the case he should go back to the university.

I don't think there is any kind of contradiction there. The fact is that the issues the Archbishop raises using his position as Archbishop aren't interesting. Both the obvious examples were already well raised and I can't think of an interesting contribution he has made except to make the debate far more muddled and poisonous. He is an industrial plant discharging into the lake that is the British political debate. Killing both clarity and good humour. His position doesn't allow him to promote debate on French 1920s neo-scholastic art theory. No one would listen, even to an Archbishop, on such an issue. If he leaves the post of Archbishop he will, in all likelihood, go back to academic life. Then Gracchi can have what he wants.

Gracchi's second point is essentially that he disagrees with the Archbishop's analysis but thinks there is nothing that should upset people in it. The only way Gracchi can do this is to present an extremely sanitised version of the Archbishop's speech that removes the clear and explicit attack on equality before the law and the exceptionally forgiving attitude towards Sharia. In doing so he has lost about two thirds of the Archbishop's speech.

If Gracchi is going to argue that there is nothing for people to really get upset about in what Williams said then he needs to address my analysis as to why they are justified in feeling angry. To leap too quickly to the idea that the public are irrational is very condescending.

I've been invited to become an author for Conservative Home's CentreRight blog. Sinclair's Musings will remain my home on the web for material not relevant to my work at the TaxPayers' Alliance and I will keep cross-posting my favourites from both of the other sites I write for. However, I'm looking forward to contributing to the nascent discourse at CentreRight. Here's my first post, a response to Peter Franklin:

Re: The left side of the Laffer curve

You rang.

What needs to be remembered about the Laffer Curve is that it is an abstraction of a much more complex relationship between taxes and revenues. It captures an essential truth that tax rises will not always increase revenue, and tax cuts will not always lead to a decrease. However, it necessarily omits two crucial factors: time and the specific tax that is to be cut or raised.

Economic gains from tax cuts will often be felt over the medium to long term. The European Central Bank studied the effects of growth in the state and found that a growth of 1 per cent in the size of the state led to a 0.13 per cent fall in economic growth. Other studies have found effects at a similar order of magnitude. That fall in economic growth won't mean a lot in the first year but over time becomes very significant. Brown's spending splurge since 2000 may have left Britain's GDP almost £14 billion lower.

Different taxes will have different effects on the economy. There is an ongoing debate over the kind of tax cuts most conducive to higher growth. However, the conventional view is that the effects on growth will be at their largest when they affect incentives to work and invest in the United Kingdom. Alistair Darling is retreating from taxing non-domiciles because it was expected that tax rise wouldn't increase revenue - even immediately. A dynamic model (PDF) produced for the TaxPayers' Alliance by the Centre for Economics and Business Research suggested that pre-announced, phased cuts in corporation tax to the Irish level over 14 years would boost investment by 60 per cent and GDP by 9 per cent - and pay for itself within eight years.

The evidence that tax cuts and controlling spending will have a very positive effect on growth is quite well established. Gains from increased growth quite quickly weaken and then overwhelm the effects on revenue of a tax cut. Combine that with an easing of the burden on hard pressed taxpayers and the case for restraining growth in spending in order to cut taxes and unleash the dynamic potential of a low tax economy is incredibly strong.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

London talks climate change

I was an expert in the audience for London Talking, a political chatshow on ITV London, this evening. Their line up is worth sharing:

The presenter: Konnie Huq

Every week: Vanessa Feltz and Nick Ferrari

This week: Andrew Gilligan and Yasmin Alibhai-Brown

Plus a smattering (maybe half a dozen) of experts in the audience and an audience of about forty. We were discussing environmental policy in the section I took part in. Later on they would discuss abortion. It was pretty novel to have a panel show that was so focussed aroun discussion by non-specialists. It had Radio 5's populist appeal. An interesting addition to the TV line-up.

What was even more interesting was that again the audience were distinctly hostile to the greens. I got to make two points setting out why motorists don't deserved to be taxed more and plastic bags shouldn't be banned. Cheers for the greens were a lot quieter and less enthusiastic than those for the blockers like Ferrari and myself. The same divide was clear in the Channel 4 programme I did on the issue a while back. It is possible that both programmes were unrepresentative but it seems equally likely that that support for green policies is still very weak among the general public.

Scrap fuel duty rises

Abc_018The Times reports that the accountancy firm Grant Thornton and a host of other organisations such as the AA, Chambers of Commerce and Freight Transport Association have called for a planned rise in fuel duty in the Budget to be scrapped. I couldn't agree more.

The TPA report The case against further green taxes (PDF) set out, in chapter two, the case against ludicrously high fuel duty rates.

We set out how motoring taxes - charged on top of VAT - are set at between 40.9 and 3.6 times the global social cost of carbon dioxide emissions. Each motorist is therefore paying between £548 and £743 per year beyond the cost of their emissions.

The only way that the fuel duty is justified is by focussing on all manner of other externalities, from noise to accidents to congestion. Imagine if factories were taxed for noise they produced, if charity parachute jumps were taxed for the cost parachuting accidents imposes on the NHS, if we taxed first time buyers in order to reduce excess demand for homes instead of trying to ensure there is a greater supply (congestion is just an excess of demand for road space). The proper response to small-scale, localised externalities is to regulate against dangerous or excessive levels; the proper response to congestion is to build more roads.

The reality is that when politicians push for increased fuel duty they are doing so not in order to save the planet but in order to squeeze more money out of hard working taxpayers. Ken's proposed increase in the Congestion Charge rate for 4x4s and other big cars is exactly the same. The only difference is that the Congestion Charges wastes almost all of the money it raises:

"Conservative councillor Phil Taylor challenge's TfL's assertion that congestion charging is generating substantial surpluses. He says: "TfL's own statement of accounts show that the cumulative surplus generated from the start of the scheme until the end of the last financial year was only £189.7 million.

"This amount has barely covered the original scheme's set up costs of £161.7 million. Pretty much all of the £677.4 million collected in the first three and a bit years of operation of the scheme has been spent on out of control set up and running costs."

The additional charge for big cars is just Ken Livingstone playing class warrior. Making very productive people who contribute a huge amount to the capital's economy feel unwelcome.

Fuel Duty increases and increased congestion charging both unfairly single out motorists who already pay VAT on petrol and when buying new cars. They also impose a burden on the rest of the economy by making road haulage - the main way in which goods are moved around the country - more expensive.

If politicians accepted how weak the case for further green taxes is and stopped or reversed increases in fuel duty then they could reap the rewards electorally. Look at this graph, from our report on green taxes:


Those consuming the most petrol, and hence, paying the most fuel duty are middle class commuters. An electoral constituency well worth appealing to. Our polling has shown that most people are pretty cynical about green taxes and think they are just a revenue raising measure. 63 per cent agreed with the statement: “Politicians are not serious about the environment and are using the issue as an excuse to raise more revenue from green taxes.” Bashing cars won't improve a politician's image.

Increasing fuel duty is both a bad idea and makes no political sense. Alistair Darling should give motorists a break.

Cross-posted from the TaxPayers' Alliance blog.

Monday, February 11, 2008

More from Gracchi on Rowan Williams

Gracchi has a reply to my post calling for the Rowan Williams' resignation. I don't think he has quite addressed the issues I raised.

At first Gracchi cites a lecture he once heard Williams give about "the state of neo-scholastic art theory in the 1920s in France" that he really enjoyed. Apparently that is the reason Gracchi doesn't want him kicked out. I think my case that Gracchi can't distinguish between the qualities that make a good Archbishop and those that make a good university professor has been bolstered. If Gracchi wants to see more lectures like that he should hope Williams retires, returns to university and has the time and freedom to pursue such debates instead of trying to appease radical Islam from the heart of the British establishment.

Gracchi's central contention seems to be that the Archbishop is getting in trouble for being too intelligent for the British public debate. His opinions on neo-scholastic art theory in twenties France aside his lecture exhibited massive intellectual failings. Look at my original post - why were so many obvious concerns about the measures he had in mind not addressed? The same concerns numerous others including Matt D'Ancona have raised. Some intelligent people are wooly minded but being wooly minded and 'subtle' doesn't in itself make an argument intelligent. It wasn't an excess of brilliance that got Williams in trouble.

I'm afraid to say that Gracchi, and many others, are incredibly arrogant about why people were angered by the Archbishop's remarks. They leap straight to the view that the British people are reactionary simpletons, who are being easily sold lies by the media, instead of trying to understand why they are angry. This attitude is even clearer in some other defences of the Archbishop. I hate to sound partisan but it speaks poorly of many on the Left's attitude to ordinary people that they are so quick to call them idiots.

It shouldn't be so surprising that people are upset by attempts to finesse away the problems with a legal system associated with horrific illiberalisms and torture. It's like making the case for Hitler the dog lover. While the argument might be made for the best of reasons, and it is true that Sharia can be not so bad and Hitler did love his dog, it is still infuriating. People understandably see an attempt to decontaminate monstrosity. An overeager search for the good in a code responsible for a lot of real nastiness. You might think they're wrong but it isn't an illegitimate reason to get angry.

Equally, while radical Islamists are pushing for a different interpretation of Sharia it still rather rankles to see the Archbishop of Canterbury taking their side on the broader issue of Sharia or English law against the moderates. I'll quote Murray's excellent point again:

"I've just been speaking with a Muslim friend who has always opposed sharia law. 'Where does it leave me', he asks, 'when the Archbishop of Canterbury is calling for sharia?'"

Next Gracchi advances the rather questionable idea that Williams was making a theological argument and not a political one so shouldn't be held to political standards. That while he might have some level of responsibility to politics "the Archbishop is making the case for the religious to be able to live according to conscience and thus save themselves from hellfire- in comparison with that no war or civil strife is important". This is very weak.

Look at the Archbishop's speech. He at no point even dicusses the question of whether someone will go to hell - it's a wise choice given that he's talking about someone else's religion - and refers to community cohesion - the absence of civil strife - as his prime objective innumerable times. In fact, his main intellectual - as opposed to policy - case is for community cohesion to be put above the principle of equality before the law. This is small minded appeasement. You can think that is a good idea - that the principle of equality before the law is not worth community friction - but you can't sensibly argue that it isn't political.

I'm increasingly coming to the conclusion that your average tabloid reader actually has a better grasp of the big picture surrounding Williams speech than many of his apologists. They get fascinated with the trees and call anyone noticing the wood a simpleton.

P.S. I will write about another issue... eventually.

Update: Platform 10 provide the perfect example of the arrogance I identified in many left wing responses to this issue. I would take that as an indication that the problem infests both left and right but I've never read anything remotely right wing on Platform 10.

Another update: Giles Fraser does the same. No attempt to understand the Archbishop's critics at all. Plus, his assertion that the criticism has been ad hominem is weak. Even if you think that attacks have been hysterical or distorting they have been overwhelmingly directed at his call for a greater role for Sharia rather than his own person or character.

Matt D'Ancona on the Archbishop's call for Sharia

Brilliant article.

Update: From the CoffeeHouse this afternoon:

"The Archbishop essentially repeated what he had already said, while leaving out the incendiary stuff. He wasn’t, he said, proposing “parallel jurisdiction” – although he did not withdraw his support for “plural jurisdiction”. There could be, he said, no “blank cheques” where the recognition of sharia law was concerned – what a relief! – “in particular as regards some of the sensitive questions about the status and liberties of women. The law of the land still guarantees for all the basic components of human dignity.”

Well, yes. But if a devolved jurisdiction, recognised by superior courts, does not share such enthusiasm for the rights of women, who is to say those rights will be imposed? What comfort would it give a Bengali woman in East London to know that, in principle, the Law Lords might one day strike down a deeply sexist ruling against her passed by the local official sharia tribunal? Indeed, might not the problem be that justice began and ended for many people at sharia level?

Again, one is struck by the dispassionate intellectual’s incapacity to grasp the stakes, or the strength of emotion he has stirred up. The Archbishop said he understood that many were concerned by the implacable Islamic doctrine of “apostasy” – that is, the crime of not being a Muslim - and mused that “honest discussion of this was imperative”. What most people will be asking is why Dr Williams wants to go to the negotiating table with people who espouse such doctrines at all.

What the Archbishop did not address at all was what the impact of juridical devolution – official recognition of sharia courts – might have upon our communities and upon social cohesion. Nor did he say why such a step might be necessary in the first place except to refer vaguely to the importance of conscience in the formation of law, or explain further why he assented on Thursday to the proposition that the incorporation of some sharia rules was “unavoidable”.
This was peevish stuff, dressed up as prayerful thoughtfulness. Dr Williams has a lot more explaining to do."