Feb 062011
 

Unlike DK, who thinks it all boils down to pointless questions of semantics, I have a great respect for philosophy. Perhaps too great, in that I have always understood its purpose to be the examination of stuff, any stuff, with the goal of reaching enlightenment, or just understanding, or even just theoretical solutions to theoretical thought-problems.

In simplest terms, I think the purpose of philosophy is to examine with intent to reveal, rather than obscure. If that means delving into pointless semantics, so be it. Words, after all, have meanings. And if it means spending a lot of time examining something and ultimately getting no further toward a conclusion than, ‘Well, I guess it sort of depends,’ I’m cool with that. Stuff has many facets, and people have many perspectives. Sometimes agreement can be reached, and sometimes it can’t. And when it can’t, that’s often more interesting, because then you can examine why, which hopefully leads to more enlightenment, or just understanding, or whatever.

So it pains me to read stuff like this from supposed champions of philosophy.

According to La Wik, Alain de Botton has had an elite education which, presumably, trained his mind in the ways of examining stuff, including a master’s degree in philosophy and an unfinished PhD in same. He is credited with making philosophy accessible to a wider audience, though not without some accompanying criticism.

I recognise that a first-rate education and some degrees is no guarantor of quality of thought, but I would have liked to hope these can permit a man’s thought to rise at least fractionally above that of the common herd.

But there is no point of view or argument in this article that I have not seen a hundred times before from all types of people, even from the keyboards of that most reviled and aphilosophical species, the blogger.

There’s the underlying theme of ‘people are so selfish, they actually think they have nothing to learn from the government about how to live!’

There’s the crass comparison with religious rules and taboos, observers of which ‘libertarians’ are said to pity often—a necessarily unfounded statement, and one that entirely fails to examine the question of consent.

There’s the assertion that the existence of advertising makes us unfree and mass consumption has turned us away from morality.

And then finally, there’s the blanket belief that ‘we’ (speak for yourself, Alain) lack the strength to resist temptation and could all do with reminders to be nice and act like good grown-ups.

We may begin to wish that someone could come along and save us from ourselves… Complete freedom can be a prison all of its own… It is not much fun, nor ultimately even very freeing, to be left alone to do entirely as one pleases.

To paraphrase a rather greater thinker than I: is this language which philosophy may properly speak?

Is it part and parcel of making philosophy accessible to the masses to obscure meaning with meaningless contradictions? Freedom can be a prison, indeed.

Is it the task of philosophy to perpetuate misconceptions such as equating libertarianism with absence of moral judgment, when in fact libertarianism contains very robust concepts of what constitutes right and wrong?

Perhaps so; I, after all, am a product of state education and have no degree in philosophy. Who am I to judge?

But all the same, I feel desperately sorry for the real philosophers out there, when the man popularising their discipline to the proles is a real-life version of Dr Floyd Ferris.

Apr 102010
 

I am coming late to this, I realise, but in case you were not aware, LabourList decided it would be a sweet idea to post, on Easter Sunday, an article by Christian Socialist Andy Flannagan called ‘Ten Reasons Why Jesus Might Vote Labour.’ Apparently the original version was an ‘old draft’ and the post has since been updated ‘in its full context’, so I don’t know what nonsense it might have contained when it was first posted – but the nonsense it currently contains is enough to be getting on with, really.

Many of readers here are, of course, not Christians, so I will try not to be too theologically tedious*; but we all hold certain ideas and principles quite dear, so I hope you can sympathise with my incredulity that Labour have attempted to co-opt Jesus, and with my desire to point out just how pathetic and mistaken are their justifications for it. (Imagine, if it helps, how furiously you would want to fisk an article called ‘Ten Reasons Why Libertarians Might Vote Labour’ in which absolutely no mention was made of the central principles of libertarianism.)

I’m not exactly taking issue with Flannagan’s characterisation of Jesus; he lists nine of Jesus’s qualities or beliefs that are, as far as I know, reasonably accurate (and heavily paraphrased by me to strip out Flanagan’s politics-speak):

1. Jesus identified with the poor and the marginalised.
2. Jesus believed the kingdom of God was more important than any earthly kingdom.
3. Jesus promoted working for ‘the common good.’
4. Jesus is central to the story of creation and redemption.
5. Jesus warned against the hypocrisy of speaking for him while acting against him.
7. Jesus affirmed the dignity of work.
8. Jesus was passionate about families.
9. Jesus asserted that all were equal in God’s eyes and image.
10. Jesus believe there was such a thing as society.

[I’ve omitted no. 6 because the insertion of the concept of trickle-down economics into the early Roman empire is an absurdity.]

Indeed, these are all true. But Jesus was not a social worker. Jesus was, according to Christians, the Son of God, and according to most Christians, true God from true God, of one being with the Father. I would expect the Director of the Christian Socialist Movement to be at least as well versed in the theological tenets of Christianity as any Catholic child who goes to Mass regularly enough to have learned the Nicene Creed. Why is this relevant? Because Jesus’s teachings, whatever they may suggest to us about the proper ordering of human interaction, were ultimately eschatological: that is, concerned with the final outcomes of death, judgment, and the destiny of the human soul. His advice is to individuals: how to purify the soul in anticipation of meeting God. Actions, such as caring for the poor, working for one’s sustenance, and treating others as equals, are merely the outward manifestation of a genuinely held personal belief that the most sinless soul is the one that wishes only good, wishes no harm, and accepts God’s love as a gift given in spite of our imperfections, not because of our good works.

Good actions that are driven by the desire to perfect an earthly society, rather than the individual soul, are the hallmark of the non-Christian. I am not saying this is a bad thing; far from it, actually. But advocating good works for the sake of perfecting society is not a religious attitude, and Christianity is a religion, not a charity club. And the desire to perfect the soul before God is what differentiates a Christian from a nice person – and we all know the world is full of nice people who are not Christians.

So this characterisation of Jesus and Christianity as being focused on improving society actually strips both of their essentially religious nature. Doing good works is wonderful, because it makes life on earth liveable; but the distinguishing feature of Christianity is that of the perfection of the soul in preparation for death on earth; and each of us dies alone, and will face judgment alone in front of God, with Christ co-substantial and co-eternal at His right hand.

But, of course, that is only part of the religion that is Christianity. I’ll say again, Jesus was not a social worker. Jesus was and is the path by which Christians perfect their souls. Again, I would expect the Director of the Christian Socialist Movement to understand this, especially since he makes special mention of Jesus’s central role in redemption. For if you are a Christian, Jesus is the Redeemer, God’s gift to humanity of His mercy, and Jesus’s death was the Atonement in advance for our imperfections. Before Jesus, God punished wrong acts, as a manifestation of inward imperfections, immediately and directly on earth. The Old Testament is full of examples of this; God was above all a just God. After Jesus, God ceased to punish wrong acts on earth; the God of Christians, the God of the New Testament, is a merciful God, who forgives you your imperfections for the whole of your long life, knowing that the entire length of your life is necessary in order for your soul to pursue perfection. That punishment, which before Jesus He would have visited immediately, was taken by Jesus in your place, in advance, to provide you with the free will to pursue perfection at your own pace, in the ways which are open and suited to you as an individual.

The road to perfection, therefore, is to wish good and thus to do good, to wish no harm and thus to do no harm, and with gratitude to accept the free will granted by Jesus’s self-sacrifice and to use that free will to pursue closeness to God. To focus, as Flannagan does, only on the good of society and others as what Jesus taught, is to obviate Jesus’s absolutely central role in individual redemption.

Now, I understand that for many non-Christians, the idea of anyone’s (even Jesus’s) suffering punishment, for not believing in a God whose existence is unproved and not believing in a soul whose existence is unproved, is barbaric. I understand that many non-Christians accept that there is only one life, to be lived on earth, and that there are only right acts and wrong acts, and that right acts improve this one life and wrong acts damage it. I love that this is so, because it makes everyone’s life on earth better and harms nobody else. Thank God for the non-Christians, because they will not accept that life is a vale of tears, and in their non-acceptance, they ensure that life is not a vale of tears. In their way, they pursue perfection too.

For non-Christians, then, actions are all. For Christians, however, actions are a by-product of the state of the soul. I would expect anyone, like the Director of the Christian Socialist Movement, who presumes to speak as a Christian authority to recognise this. But it seems that for such people, Christianity is now a brand to be decontaminated, and apparently that means downplaying its ‘barbaric’ theology and promoting only those aspects of it which are, in fact, not ‘Christian’ at all, but practically universal among humans, be they Muslims, atheists, or even Druids.

For this reason Flannagan’s ‘reasons’ why Jesus might vote Labour are worse than just a cynical ploy to reconcile his beliefs with his politics; they are also completely devoid of any specific Christianity. Tim Montgomerie, who I’m told is also a Christian, attempts a fisking and falls neatly into the same trap. To the contrary, he cries, Labour’s policies as Flannagan has interpreted them are not in line with Jesus’s teachings as above! For every Labour policy that Flannagan asserts is totally Jesus-compatible, Montgomerie points out one that is totally Jesus-contradictory within the same sphere. But like Flannagan, Montgomerie ignores the fact that in Christianity, actions are a by-product and the soul is all. The only real way to measure how Jesus-like Labour’s policies are is to ask, ‘Has doing this helped to perfect the soul?’ As government policies have everything to do with society and nothing to do with the individual soul, the only possible answer is ‘No,’ regardless of which party’s policies are in question.

***

So how would Jesus vote, if he could vote in this election? (He couldn’t, of course, being a non-European immigrant.)

Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, he said. If Caesar, in the guise of democratic duty, requires your vote, you vote. Fortunately, Caesar does not quite control how we vote; so if you feel compelled to render unto him a ballot, you may at least choose from the options on it that which best fits your conscience and your pursuit of spiritual perfection.

But Jesus has no conscience. Jesus, being of one substance with God, is already perfect. For him, there is no party or candidate who is a ‘best fit.’ To him, all parties are imperfect, all parties are wholly worldly; none are concerned with the redemption of the human soul. The choices available offering no avenue for individual spiritual perfection, and Jesus in need of no such thing anyway, I doubt you would find him at the ballot box at all, much less voting according to the conscience of Andy Flannagan or Tim Montgomerie.

*Sorry, I failed.

Feb 072010
 

The Prime Minister’s speech at the RSA on Tuesday deserves a good kick up the metaphorical backside, for it is an excellent example of how the language of liberty and change has been appropriated to describe actions which are entirely contrary to the principles of liberty, self-government, and human rights – and, of course, change.

Many people have assured me that, without government, there are no rights (‘Look at Somalia!’), and to a certain practical extent, I believe this to be true. If one’s right to life can be trampled upon by someone else with impunity, that right is de facto non-existent. Some government or authority is necessary to guarantee that others cannot infringe my rights – what is known as the rule of law. But that right is equally non-existent if the government itself can trample upon it with impunity, which is why I advocate a limited government without the power to infringe rights. There is naturally room for argument about what system of government best enables that ideal, and about the nature of its limitations and how they are guaranteed. But the ideal itself is sound.

It goes without saying, then, that rights supplied by the government, either through provision or financing, are not what I consider to be ‘rights’ at all, but entitlements; and that a government in the business of providing entitlements is ipso facto approaching the opposite end of the scale from my limited-government ideal, whatever else its virtues may be.

Notwithstanding the question of rights versus entitlements, another advantage of limited government is its inability to change itself. Not only does this confer stability, which is certainly an important consideration, it means that the government has not the power to grant itself more power. However small a remit the government might start out with, if it has the wherewithal to arrogate more and more aspects of public (and private) life to itself, it will not stay a limited government for long. So in addition to safeguarding the rights of the people, a truly ‘limited’ government must not contain within itself an easy mechanism for expansive self-alteration.

Only under the auspices of a government weak in all aspects except the rule of law can a people be both in word and in practice free. That, my friends, is liberty.

Gordon Brown clearly does not see things my way.

His speech, called ‘Transforming Politics,’ displays a curious mixture of impotence, brazenness, and lies.

Impotence, because he is the Prime Minister, and most out of all other Britons has the power to transform politics – yet he insists that the people in their diffuse millions must do this, people whose jobs, families, and responsibilities lie outside the realm of politics, people whose sole real political power is a single vote, warped and distended and subject to pressures far more numerous and dislocated than an individual’s choice of candidate. Gordon Brown has his hand on the tiller; he gets on with the job at hand; he single-handedly saved the world’s banking system. Why, then, is the hand he wraps round the lever of the nation’s political culture so weak?

If he truly wanted to transform politics, he with his executive orders and compliant cabinet and virtual stranglehold on his parliamentary party could do so. There is nothing to stop him. He claims to know what the people want, and he unquestionably has the power to make it happen – why insist that nebulous public action be a necessary condition?

Politicians, and Gordon Brown is no exception, must find it tremendously hard to imagine what they would want from politicians, were they regular people on the street. They have entered the rabbit hole; they are incapable of stepping outside of their own frame of reference. Ask any man or woman in the grocery store or the bus queue, and they will tell you: politics should be practised by decent people who are not obviously fraudsters, liars, confidence tricksters, or panderers, who realise that their job in a democracy is to represent the will of their constituents and advocate for policies that are beneficial, practical, and above all reasonable.

Ask a politician what sort of person should be practising politics, and who the hell knows what answer you’ll get. It might be the one I mentioned above. It might be ‘whoever knows what’s best.’ The honest answer (which you’ll never get from a politician, obviously) is either ‘me’ or ‘whoever can get the votes.’ This is not unfounded supposition; it is revealed preference.

Brazenness, because he appears to believe that if he repeats well-worn memes often enough, someone, somewhere, might derive meaning from them. How many times have we heard the following:

‘power back to the people’

‘democratically accountable’

‘giving people… rights to control the services they depend upon’

‘change’

‘power redistributed away from the centre’

‘fair access to all’

‘improving public services’

‘lasting peace and shared prosperity’

‘neighbourhoods’

‘diversity’

Brown endlessly repeats the buzzwords and key phrases, empty assurances that nobody disagrees with and which therefore mean nothing. Brown’s key speech about transforming politics is a repetition of all that his Government has been saying for the past decade. And he does not imagine his listeners will pick up on the obvious contradiction: change and transformation are in reality more of the same.

Lies, because he represents himself as a champion of the people against an outdated, unfair, and ossified constitution – which was equally outdated and ossified thirteen years ago when Labour won a landslide of seats under its unfair auspices. If the need for constitutional reform is so obvious now, it was equally obvious then, yet Labour did nothing. If, as Brown says, the choice is between ‘a new politics, where individuals have more say and more control over their lives,’ or ‘a discredited old politics, leaving power concentrated in the hands of the old elites,’ why were the British people not presented with this choice thirteen years ago, when it was no less real and pressing?

Constitutional reform is the last refuge of the desperate. With little prospect of a democratic mandate under the current system, acutely aware of his general unpopularity but clinging on to power with determined and bloody fingertips, the constitutional reformer sets out to circumvent imminent oblivion in the only way left to him: changing the rules in the middle of the game. It isn’t that the rules don’t need changing; it’s that he hadn’t the will to change them when he was winning. Now that he is losing, he suddenly apprehends that the same rules which used to give him unfair advantage will now deliver unto him unfair defeat.

What were once unfair rules must now become fair, before the game is over, while he still has the power to change them. He is a creature of the immediate; he will not bide his time until the next game.

Does Gordon Brown believe we will not notice this? And if we do notice it, does he expect we will trust in his party to deliver the constitutional change that best suits the people rather than what best suits the Labour party? He, with his parliamentary majority, his executive authority, his supine monarch, his cowardly cabinet, his draconian whips, his placemen in the upper house?

And so he promises us change for our own good, change that will empower the people and enhance their liberty, change dressed up in the beautiful language of freedom and democracy, concealing the meretricious reality beneath: that this government has great power, too much power, and cannot be stopped from infringing the people’s rights or changing itself to accrue yet more power. If this were not so, Brown’s constitutional reforms would be a pipe dream. And yet we are supposed to believe that the endpoint of this vast exercise of authority is to reduce that authority.

Forgive me if I’m a bit doubtful.

And yet it’s all so plausible, which is how he gets away with it. What reforms, specifically, is he proposing?

1. A democratically accountable House of Lords.

…a modern democracy cannot tolerate power to initiate and revise legislation being held for ever by those without a mandate from the people.

Quite right. While there are certain advantages to having an upper house that is not susceptible to the whims of the populace, such a chamber is manifestly not representative of the will of the people.

The cynical interpretation: an undemocratic upper house is also not susceptible to the whims of the Commons and acts as a bulwark against hasty, radical change and as a brake on the tremendous power of the Commons. More than in practically every other Western democracy, the majority party in the elected legislature of Britain wields almost unchecked authority. The unelected, (theoretically) non-partisan Lords is one of the few impediments.

But, I hear you say, the upper house in the United States, the Senate, is elected and partisan, and still gets the job done! To which I reply, the lower house in the US, the House of Representatives, has nothing like the power the House of Commons wields. The majority party in the House of Representatives is not the Government, and its leaders constitutionally lack executive authority.

Only when executive authority in Britain is separated from the majority party in the Commons does having an elected House of Lords make sense. While the majority party in the Commons continues to control both the legislature and the executive, making the Lords both partisan and elected will only strengthen that control, not weaken it.

So does Brown propose to reform the Commons in accordance with this prognostication?

No.

2. Increase parliament’s ability to hold the Government to account.

…parties should elect their own members of select committees in a secret ballot; select committee chairs should be elected by a ballot of the whole house; and non-government business should be managed by members of parliament, not the executive.

Quite right. Parliament is in theory sovereign; it should also be so in practice.

But:

…the proper role of parliament is, indeed, to scrutinise the executive and it should be given all the necessary tools to do so.

Parliament should, at this moment, deny Gordon Brown the ability to give them these tools. For tools which can be given can also be taken away. And once it is statutory that Parliament scrutinises the executive at the will of the executive, the legitimacy of that will is forever enshrined in the constitution. When power is granted, it is just as important to examine the implications of the granting as the actual power. This reform serves only to cement further the control of the executive over the operation of the sovereign legislative body.

3. Electoral reform, from FPTP to AV.

The alternative vote system has the advantage of maintaining the benefit of a strong constituency link…

I am sure this is true.

However:

The first past the post system maintains a clear link to a member of parliament’s constituency and it has usually given governments a clear mandate to govern.

If this is true, why change it? We don’t fix what isn’t broken. FPTP maintains the same strong link to the constituency as AV would; in addition, it has the advantage of usually conferring a clear mandate to govern. What does AV offer that overcomes this obvious advantage of FPTP?

…it also offers voters increased choice with the chance to express preferences for as many of the candidates as they wish.

Ah. AV allows a major party candidate to slide into office as the second preference of those who voted first for a smaller third party. The alternative-vote system will clear up that nasty problem of marginal seats while having little negative effect on elections in safe constituencies. To complete our journey through cynicism, all we need ask is: what is our biggest third party, and which major party are its voters more likely to prefer as their second preference?

Hands up all those who voted Lib Dem in 2005 because they hated Blair the war-monger but couldn’t stomach voting Conservative.

4. Transparency in public decisions and documents.

Over and above our commitment to transparency through FOI we are committed to progressively reducing the time taken to release official documents – ensuring the public have access to public papers far quicker than ever before.

Excellent.

I have no problem with this, actually; it’s one of the few pieces of wheat in all of this chaff. But it is only a small step in the right direction; the government of this nation needs to realise that all public business – everything done in the name of the people with the democratic authority of the people as its claim to legitimacy – must be open to the people. All documents should be official, and all documents should be public. All meetings, committees, hearings, inquiries, and the record of their business should be accessible to the electorate. Everything done in the name of the people and by right of their democratic authority belongs to the people.

5. Make public services more responsive to individual users.

Public services will not only be more personal in future but they will be more interactive – with the ability of the citizen enhanced to make their views known directly and influence the way our communities work.

Great.

Just one problem. At the moment, public services are accountable to the government. The government, as properly elected representatives of the people, oversees their operation, officially assesses their quality, and controls their funding. The government is the middleman, the mediator, between the public and the public services. The best way to make the public services directly accountable to the public is to remove the middleman. Will the government now allow the people to directly oversee the operation of public services, to directly assess their quality, and to directly provide and control their funding?

No, because:

…we do not rest our case on the delivery of better services to people merely on aspirations or targets: we are offering personal guarantees to citizens about the rights they can expect and enjoy.

The government will still be the mediator. As mentioned above, whatever it is in the power of government to grant, it is also in the power of government to take away. And so more and more authority gathers at the centre. Rights which are granted by government are not rights at all, but entitlements; and entitlements granted to the people are as far from being ‘subject to people’s direct control’ as it is possible to be.

6. Strengthening local government.

Local government should be free to innovate and to be creative in delivering better public services.

Quite right.

But:

…we inherited a situation where local government had been starved of funding and had very little power over decisions taken that affected their communities.

This is an implicit admission that he who controls the funds controls the power; and by starving local government of funds, central government had also starved it of power. Nothing in Gordon Brown’s proposals mentions giving local governments responsibility for raising their own funding. As long as local authorities must rely on the central government to pay for whatever it is they deliver, they will always be at the mercy of central government’s demands, no matter how ‘free to innovate’ they may theoretically be.

In fact, Brown skirts around this issue with admirable vagueness (if vagueness is the sort of thing one admires):

It is true that in the past local government has had too many streams of funding from a multitude of central government sources. Our total place reforms are potentially transformative in the better use of resources: they will allow local government and its partners to reach across all the funding coming into an area and enable better choices to be made at a local level about how this money is spent.

I’m not even sure what he means. What are ‘total place reforms’? How reassuring is that word ‘potentially’? What he appears to be getting at is that although the funding will still come from central governments, it may no longer be hypothecated, so local authorities will have more say in how to spend their hand-outs. I’m at a loss as to why he needs such an elaborate circumlocution to make that point, unless it is his desire to gloss over the fact that central government will still control the extent of local spending.

7. Codify Britain’s unwritten constitution.

…I have asked the Cabinet Secretary to lead work to consolidate the existing unwritten, piecemeal conventions that govern much of the way central government operates under our existing constitution into a single written document.

The various arguments for and against written constitutions are numerous and complex, and it may well serve the British people to have a definitive document; others will know better than I whether this is the case.

In the summer I announced that we would consult on the question of codifying our constitution as part of the consultation exercise on the British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities.

For those of you who have not read the consultation document on the British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities, allow me to draw your attention to some of the key points contained in the Ministry of Justice’s green paper.

First, the government considers that the key constitutional question in need of answering is

of the relationship between the citizen and the state and how this relationship can best be defined to protect fundamental freedoms and foster mutual responsibility as this country is going through profound changes.

The impetus for this kind of constitutional codification is explicitly the presence of change and crisis. Gordon Brown believes that ‘if we are to decide to have a written constitution the time for its completion should be the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta in Runneymede in 1215.’ That gives us five years, during a time of change and crisis, for formulation, deliberation, debate, revision, judicial scrutiny, and finalisation. Enforcing an arbitrary time limit on a process that requires deep scholarship, consultation, bipartisan agreement, and lengthy deliberation during a time of change and crisis when that process cannot even command the government’s full attention is a recipe for disaster. (And the time limit is essentially arbitrary. There is no pressing need for a codified constitution by 2015. The year just happens to be the anniversary of something vaguely historically relevant on the popular connotations of which Brown would like to capitalise.)

Second, the codified constitution being mooted is not the lofty, concise document the United States enjoys, which merely sets out the fundamental rights of the people and the operation of their government. No, the British version will contain much more:

How individuals should live together, what rights and freedoms we should enjoy in relation to one another and against the state and how they should be balanced by the responsibilities we owe each other are among the most fundamental questions in politics. They are not abstractions, removed from the practical politics of jobs and housing and healthcare and education, because they concern the constitutional arrangements which determine how power is distributed in our country. They determine how every other question in our public life will be answered. They are not just about the historic protections of the individual against the state and balancing liberty and security. They are also about the frustrations that can arise in daily life, especially when using public services, and reflect the key role for town halls in tackling these frustrations by making information easy to access and involving local people in the decisions which affect them. They are about getting support to combat anti-social behaviour and to tackle the discrimination and prejudice many of our people still have to endure. They are about the smoking ban, the hunting ban, and taking action to prevent climate change.

This constitution is to be about everything a Briton encounters in his public life – except, apparently, the structure of his government, which is nowhere mentioned.

Third, this constitution will deliberately not include some of the things we have come to consider fundamental rights. Consider, for instance, this passage:

Additional protections in relation to liberty of the person or fair trials may not be necessary as the belief in their fundamental nature is already so deeply entrenched, culturally and politically, and there is no fundamental threat to them. At this stage, the Government does not propose the inclusion of the principle of habeas corpus or a right to trial by jury in any new Bill of Rights and Responsibilities, but it remains open to all arguments for and against as part of an informed public debate.

The Government does not propose to include habeas corpus, fair trials, and trial by jury in the written constitution as, apparently, there is no threat to these rights and no current need to protect them. You may draw your own conclusions about the wisdom of that plan.

Fourth, the proposed constitution is not intended to have legal effect – that is, the rights or responsibilities codified therein are not intended to be enforceable by an individual in court. It is not intended to have the statutory force of an Act of Parliament. In fact, its purpose would be only this:

A non-statutory declaration could be readily amended and updated over time. Its effect would be intended as primarily political and symbolic rather than legal. The fact that a charter or declaration might not have statutory force or was otherwise not justiciable would not mean that the exercise or the text itself lacked force. It could still carry great legitimacy in the wider sense of that word, by the strength of the consent behind it, and by the way in which it helped to set standards, as yardsticks of the behaviour we expected of others and of ourselves as members of UK society.

In short, Brown’s ‘written constitution’ would be a poorly-drafted, cumbersomely huge, non-traditional, non-justiciable framework setting out the minutiae of Britons’ lives without holding the government to any definitive principles of action or, even, guaranteeing its legal responsibility to protect the rights listed therein, let alone enforce the many entitlements also included.

(There are numerous other problems with this proposed ‘constitution,’ which you may identify by reading it yourself provided you accept the risk to your blood pressure.)

The rest of Brown’s speech is a clever call for his political opponents to agree with him. This, truly, is the language of politics: for if they disagree with him, they would entrench privilege and unfairness at the expense of the people; and if they agree with him, there is no need for them at all.

The not-so-clever part of his peroration is the constant call for change. Change, by definition, would be something different from what we have now. And what we have now, what we have had for thirteen years, is Labour. I have to wonder at Brown’s motivation for reminding us all of that. And for enumerating a deliberate and concentrated program of attacks on the existing checks and balances on the Government’s power that are, at the moment, the only institutions and processes in the country that limit the majority party’s near-incalculable power over public life and protect the few fundamental liberties remaining to the people of Britain.

Jan 152010
 

Let’s talk about Cass Sunstein.

For those of you out of the know, Sunstein is head of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, a part of the Executive Office of the president of the US. He is informally known as the Information Czar, roughly equivalent to one of the many, many posts held in the UK by Peter Mandelson. It is a creepy competency, and it is perhaps only fitting that it should be filled by a professor of law at Harvard, which Sunstein also is.

The North West LPUK blog flagged him up today as a dodgy customer, and indeed, it looks as if he is one.

For someone expert in constitutional law, Cass Sunstein is all about some bansturbation that would interfere directly with the rights explicitly protected in that constitution, namely the right of free speech.

According to this post at Infowars, in 2008 he prepared a white paper that outlined the responses government might make to the over-prevalence of conspiracy theories (though, alas, their link to the paper does not work):

On page 14 of Sunstein’s January 2008 white paper entitled “Conspiracy Theories,” the man who is now Obama’s head of information technology in the White House proposed that each of the following measures “will have a place under imaginable conditions” according to the strategy detailed in the essay.

1) Government might ban conspiracy theorizing.

2) Government might impose some kind of tax, financial or otherwise, on those who disseminate such theories.

That’s right, Obama’s information czar wants to tax or ban outright, as in make illegal, political opinions that the government doesn’t approve of. To where would this be extended? A tax or a shut down order on newspapers that print stories critical of our illustrious leaders?

And what does Sunstein define as “conspiracy theories” that should potentially be taxed or outlawed by the government? Opinions held by the majority of Americans, no less.

Among the theories identified in the paper as possible targets for censorship are the beliefs that Oswald did not act alone, that global warming is a deliberate fraud, and that sunlight is good for the body. These are all pretty inoffensive ‘conspiracy’ theories. Most of those suspected of involvement in the Kennedy assassination are now dead (or, in the case of Castro, as near as dammit), and it does not seem reasonable to censor conspiracies regarding an event about which we will likely never know the gospel truth. On the other side of the spectrum, whether or not climate change (global warming) is an immediate threat is something scientists predict we will know within 50 years. Why suggest censoring a conspiracy theory that has a built-in sell-by date? And the benefits of sunlight are backed up by numerous studies which show that sunlight is an excellent source of essential vitamin D. As long as people are equally aware of the dangers of skin cancer due to exposure, why attack this claim? [CORRECTION: Sunstein does say that believing sunlight is healthy is false and dangerous, but he does not class it as a conspiracy theory.]

What possible reason could Sunstein have for advising that such innocuous views be suppressed?

One can only presume that Sunstein is deliberately framing the debate by going to such absurd extremes so as to make any belief whatsoever into a conspiracy theory unless it’s specifically approved by the kind of government thought police system he is pushing for.

That seems plausible to me. If harmless conspiracy theories warrant taxation or bans, what do harmful ones deserve? (Remember, many places still have the death penalty in the US.)

Sunstein is also known to have called for the First Amendment to be re-written, to have advocated internet censorship (beyond what already exists, presumably), and to hold the belief that Americans should celebrate Tax Day. This last was so bizarre to me that I had to search it up for verification. In an article for the Chicago Tribune which Sunstein also published on his website at the University of Chicago, Sunstein wrote:

In what sense is the money in our pockets and bank accounts fully “ours”? Did we earn it by our own autonomous efforts? Could we have inherited it without the assistance of probate courts? Do we save it without support from bank regulators? Could we spend it (say, on the installment plan) if there were no public officials to coordinate the efforts and pool the resources of the community in which we live?

Do not get up tomorrow and drape your house in black! For tax day is not a day of national mourning. Without taxes there would be no liberty.

Without taxes there would be no property. Without taxes, few of us would have any assets worth defending.

It may be reasonable, in some cases, to cut tax rates. What is unreasonable and, in fact, preposterous is the all-too-familiar conservative rhetoric that flatly opposes individual liberty to the government power to tax and spend. You cannot be for rights and against government because rights are meaningless unless enforced by government.

If government could not intervene effectively, none of the individual rights to which Americans have become accustomed could be reliably protected.

Most rights are funded by taxes, not by fees. This is why the overused distinction between “negative” and “positive” rights makes little sense. Rights to private property, freedom of speech, immunity from police abuse, contractual liberty, free exercise of religion–just as much as rights to Social Security, Medicare and food stamps–are taxpayer-funded and government-managed social services designed to improve collective and individual well-being.

This raises some important questions, to be sure. Who decides, in the United States, how to allocate our scarce public resources for the protection of which rights for whom? What principles are commonly invoked to guide these allocations? And can those principles be defended? These questions deserve more discussion than they usually receive, unclouded by the dim fiction that some people enjoy and exercise their rights without placing any burden whatsoever on the public fisc.

In any case, to recognize the dependency of property rights on the contributions of the whole community, managed by the government, is to repel the rhetorical attack on welfare rights as somehow deeply un-American, and totally alien or different in kind from classical or “real” rights. No right can be exercised independently, for every rights-holder has a claim on public resources–on money that has been extracted from citizens at large.

For all rights–call them negative, call them positive–have that effect. There is no liberty without dependency.

‘Without taxes, there would be no liberty.’

‘Rights are meaningless unless enforced by government.’

‘There is no liberty without dependency.’

And there is no tyranny without sophistry. This man is now Obama’s sophist extraordinaire.

Sunstein’s Wikipedia page informs me, as well, that he is ‘known for’ soft paternalism and choice architecture: our old friend libertarian paternalism, advocated in Britain by Sunstein’s counterpart Julian le Grand:

The idea, dubbed “libertarian paternalism”, reverses the traditional government approach that requires individuals to opt in to healthy schemes. Instead, they would have to opt out to make the unhealthy choice, by buying a smoking permit, choosing not to participate in the exercise hour or adding salt at the table.

By preserving individual choice, the approach could be defended against charges of a “nanny state,” he said. “Some people say this is paternalism squared. But at a fundamental level, you are not being made to do anything. It is not like banning something, it is not prohibition. It is a softer form of paternalism.”

Many of Sunstein’s publications appear to have equally sinister connotations:

  • Democracy and the Problem of Free Speech (1995)
  • Free Markets and Social Justice (1997)
  • The Second Bill of Rights: FDR’s Unfinished Revolution and Why We Need It More than Ever (2004)
  • Laws of Fear: Beyond the Precautionary Principle (2005)
  • Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness (2008)

The ‘Second Bill of Rights’ of FDR, by the way, contains the right to education, a home, healthcare, etc: the so-called ‘positive’ rights between which and liberty Sunstein sees no distinction. And according to Wikipedia, another strike against the Tories:

Sunstein co-authored Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness (Yale University Press, 2008) with economist Richard Thaler of the University of Chicago. Nudge discusses how public and private organizations can help people make better choices in their daily lives. Thaler and Sunstein argue that

People often make poor choices – and look back at them with bafflement! We do this because as human beings, we all are susceptible to a wide array of routine biases that can lead to an equally wide array of embarrassing blunders in education, personal finance, health care, mortgages and credit cards, happiness, and even the planet itself.

The ideas in the book proved popular with politicians such as Barack Obama, David Cameron, and the British Conservative Party in general (Cameron is party leader).

I can only assume that Sunstein’s proposed tax on objectionable views is an example of a ‘nudge’ node in his ‘choice architecture.’

Sunstein’s objection to the First Amendment comes as a result of his theory of ‘cyber balkanisation,’ in which growing use of the internet has isolated people from the opinions of those who do not share their views. In his book Democracy and the Problem of Free Speech, he argues:

…in light of astonishing economic and technological changes, we must doubt whether, as interpreted, the constitutional guarantee of free speech is adequately serving democratic goals.

From this it seems clear that Sunstein views freedom of speech not as an end in itself, but as a means to the pursuit of ‘political deliberation and citizenship’.

I would like to note that Sunstein’s calls to ban ‘conspiracy theories’ if necessary are wholly inconsistent with libertarian paternalism, involving as they do not a nudge but an outright prohibition. A tax seems more in agreement with his philosophy of choice architecture, requiring people to ‘opt out’ of not holding objectionable opinions. But one has to wonder: if there is no liberty without taxation, what are we to do about a tax that directly suppresses one of our fundamental freedoms? Is that liberty, too? Is not-liberty liberty?

All of which makes the NW LPUK blog’s opening that much more relevant:

As the LPUK has pointed out to British MPs, George Orwell’s novel 1984 is “…a warning, NOT a blueprint.”

War is Peace. Ignorance is Strength. Freedom is Slavery.

And a tax on freedom is liberty.

UPDATE: A different view of Cass Sunstein and conspiracy theories is presented at the Bleeding Heart Show. I particularly like this analysis:

There are many different explanations for why conspiracy theories form and how they spread, but I think the most important cultural/political aspect is how they’re often reactions from peoples or communities who feel distanced from & distrustful of the establishment. If you reduced that amount of alienation, you’d probably reduce the number and the power of these strange alternate histories. In the end, if you feel so powerless, the government must seem a hell of a lot more powerful than it actually is.

I think this is almost certainly accurate. Reducing alienation, however, involves identifying its source and correcting it. A lot of the distance and distrust Americans have for the establishment, and probably Britons too, is a result of feeling that the establishment is unresponsive to their needs and wishes. Protests and petitions have, most of the time, little effect on what the government does (witness the Iraq war protests here in the UK in 2003 and 2004; millions marched but the armed forces were deployed after shockingly little debate in Parliament).

When elections are won by extremely narrow margins, or fought almost exclusively in swing states or marginal constituencies, that leaves many citizens feeling ignored or effectively disenfranchised. And, of course, everyone who voted for the losing candidate or party is going to feel alienated from the incoming winner. The British also have the EU to contend with, in which many positions of extraordinary power are unelected and, to a large extent, unaccountable. There is also the phenomenon wherein the winning candidate/party fails to fulfill its manifesto, and so even those citizens who supported them become disillusioned and distrustful.

In short, the solution for reducing alienation is more transparency in government and more democratic accountability. But to implement this solution requires that those with power in the establishment acquire a little humility and cease to act as if they believe they are smarter, wiser, and know what’s best for people. Unfortunately, ‘humble and willing to accept his own fallibility’ seems pretty much the complete opposite of Cass Sunstein, so I doubt this is a solution he, in his unelected, unaccountable power, will be pushing for anytime soon.

Jan 072010
 

H.R 808 The ‘Shining City on a Hill with Cuddly Puppies and Unicorns’ Bill is still in committee.

After routing its way through Foreign Affairs and Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education, the bill is now being considered by the sub-committee for Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security.

You may wonder why the education sub-committee had its furry little paws all over this piece of bogroll; if so, recall that one of its provisions is the establishment of a ‘peace education curriculum’ and a Peace Academy under a special Office of Peace Education and Training.

Every time I glance through this bill, I see something new to horrify me. On my last reading, I somehow managed to miss out on Section 110, Office of Human Rights and Economic Rights. On the ‘human rights’ side, this would somehow involve upholding and promoting the UN Universal Declaration on Human Rights. On the ‘economic rights’ side, the secretary of this office would be required to:

(5) conduct economic analyses of the scarcity of human and natural resources as a source of conflict and make recommendations to the Secretary for nonviolent prevention of such scarcity, nonviolent intervention in case of such scarcity, and the development of programs to assist people facing such scarcity, whether due to armed conflict, maldistribution of resources, or natural causes;

(6) assist the Secretary, in cooperation with the Secretary of State and the Secretary of the Treasury, in developing strategies regarding the sustainability and the management of the distribution of funds from international agencies, the conditions regarding the receipt of such funds, and the impact of those conditions on the peace and stability of the recipient nations;

(7) assist the Secretary, in cooperation with the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Labor, in developing strategies to promote full compliance with domestic and international labor rights law;

…which is basically international redistribution writ large.

The other piece of insanity I noticed for the first time this evening is the appropriation:

There is authorized to be appropriated to carry out this Act for a fiscal year beginning after the date of the enactment of this Act $10,000,000,000 for each fiscal year. Of the amounts appropriated pursuant to such authorization, at least 85 percent shall be used for domestic peace programs, including administrative costs associated with such programs.

Ten billion squeed a year! Obviously this is but a drop in the bucket compared to the US budget as a whole, but $10 billion is still a lot of money. For purposes of comparison, an American earning $25,000 per year (which, keep in mind, is lower than the median wage in the US) would have to work for 400,000 YEARS to earn ten billion squeed. That’s, like, longer than homo sapiens has existed.

On the other hand, that same American, could he live so long, would get to experience the joys of Peace Day 400,000 times:

The Secretary shall encourage citizens to observe and celebrate the blessings of peace and endeavor to create peace on a Peace Day. Such day shall include discussions of the professional activities and the achievements in the lives of peacemakers.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God. Ah, if only $10 billion a year and sponsoring this bill could make one divine!

Alas for Dennis Kucinich, for it is indeed he whose brainchild this is, this bill will not make him a child of God, because it is an abomination unto reasonable people everywhere. I wonder if he ponders the irony of using the coercive power of the overbearing state to fund and promote what is supposed to be the most non-coercive principle on earth.

Jan 052010
 

From the TaxPayers’ Alliance comes the news that the Tories are planning… to be absolutely no different from Labour:

Well, it’s the second day of the unofficial 2010 election campaign and already it appears that the Conservatives have pledged to create a new quango. In a speech today to the Oxford Farming Conference, Shadow Environment Secretary Nick Herbert is pledging to create a “Supermarket Ombudsman”. Sigh. So much for a “bonfire of the quangos”.

Yes, that’s right: the Conservatives have pledged to create government oversight of the retail food supply. This is in addition to the NHS policy announced earlier this week, in which they pledged to create more government oversight of health allocation:

But then…

To make sure the NHS is funded on the basis of clinical need, not political expediency, we will create an independent NHS board to allocate resources to different parts of the country and make access to the NHS more equal. (Page 8)

Eh?

So we have another new quango, explicitly designed to remove the people’s control of how the biggest budget in British Government is spent. Of course, when you want to make democracy sound like a bad thing you call it “political expediency”, rather than “accountability” as it was termed earlier in the very same document.

It seems that despite all the speechifying about the post-bureaucratic age, the Conservatives are yet to shake the temptation to slam everything into a quango and then wash their hands of responsibility. Not exactly change we can believe in.

Too right. ‘Change we can believe in’, British-style, appears to be the same as it was Obama-style: more of the same, really, but dressed up in attractive language.

Meanwhile, the discerning voter begins to feel rather like Sally from Dr Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat: weary of the identical Thing One and Thing Two, and desperate to rein in their nonsense before they destroy the whole house.

UPDATE: And hey look, I agree with Sunny Hundal at Liberal Conspiracy!

But let’s assume we want these decisions to be more accountable. A good idea in theory right? But what’s this?

With less political interference in the NHS, we will turn the Department of Health into a Department of Public Health so that the prevention of illness gets the attention from government it needs.

Less political interference? But I thought that was more ‘accountable’ surely?

Can we file this under the Steve Hilton award for ‘Progressive Gobbledegook’?

Truly, Camerhoon is a uniter, not a divider.

Oct 102009
 

I admit it freely: I do not understand what the hell this comment piece is trying to say.

What’s wrong with human rights?

Sample:

But unfettered criticism of human rights could also have have certain pitfalls. In a context where the movement remains marginal to power, it could inhibit progress and demoralise those working within the framework.

Any takers, then? I’d welcome an interpretation that makes more sense than my own Labradoresque cocked-head puzzlement.

P.S. Is it indicative of other readers’ bafflement that, although this was posted on CiF yesterday morning, only one person has commented?

Sep 022009
 

In this post, I asked myself (and anyone else who wanted to answer) whether the absence of tax was the presence of subsidy. This was in relation to private schools, who, as part of their designation as charities, are not taxed in the manner of profit-making institutions.

My half-hearted answer was that, in a polity where nearly every activity or transaction is taxed, the absence of taxation is de facto a subsidy (even if not de jure).

I realise now that this answer did not go deep enough. For in viewing the absence of taxation as subsidy, whether as intention or simply unintended effect, one is making a deeper underlying assumption, and that is that the state owns all wealth.

If the state owns all wealth, then in choosing not to appropriate some of it from a particular body, the state is in essence making a gift of it – which would in fact be a subsidy.

This assumption is gigantically invidious, as it underpins every argument redistributionists and opponents of ‘privilege’ make about the state’s choice to reduce or remove taxation on particular bodies or transactions. And I speculate that most people do not, as I did not, even notice the presence of that assumption. We are letting them get away with it. And before long, it will no longer be an assumption that nobody notices; it will be a general principle that is taken for granted. Perhaps it already is.

Why, oh why, do we libertarians continue to allow our opponents to dictate the terms of debate in this way?

Jun 152009
 

As a comment on this article about rape prosecutions, I find this:

As a lawyer, it disturbs me that a politically correct state is seeking to tell jurors what they are permitted to think about human behaviour. The insoluble problem with prosecuting rape is that the act is not unlawful in itself, but is made unlawful purely by the state of mind of the participants.
Feliks Kwiatkowski, Haywards Heath, England

Now, rape is obviously one of those difficult issues, but logic is generally not, so here we go:

First, juries are always told what to think about human behaviour, at least while they are in the jury box. They are always instructed to decide their verdict on the basis of the admissible evidence. All this article is saying is that the rape victim’s dress, level of physical resistance to the rapist, and the time elapsed between the rape and the formal accusation are no longer admissible evidence on which the jury can base their verdict. This is already the case with most other crimes: how one looks, whether one resists, and how long one takes to report it when one is the victim of theft are not considered evidence either.

Second, of course the act – penetrative sex – is not unlawful in itself. Nor is the transfer of cash from one individual to another. It is the state of mind of the participants that makes the actions a crime – namely, it is the absence of willingness or choice on the part of one party that makes the sex rape, and makes the receipt of cash theft. This is not an ‘insoluble problem’ in the case of theft, nor is it a problem in the case of rape.

The difficulty with rape, which this commenter, being a lawyer, ought to be able to articulate more clearly, is not that it is classified as a crime for bizarre reasons, or that the judges in rape cases can instruct the jury how to arrive at a verdict.

If we think in terms of theft: I cannot actually prove that a mugger has robbed me at gunpoint if nobody saw it happen. It’s my word against his that I didn’t give the money to him willingly and of my own choice. My mugger may have been accused or convicted of theft before, which supports my claim a bit, but then again he may not. My mugger may be a total stranger to me, which supports my claim a bit, but then again he may not.

With rape, again, if there are no witnesses, it’s the victim’s word against the alleged rapist’s, and the victim cannot prove the sex was not willing and done out of choice. The alleged rapist may have a record, but he (or she) may not; the alleged rapist may be a stranger to the victim, but he (or she) may not.

The difficulty with rape, therefore, is not in the act of sex itself, or the legal obligations of judge and jury, or even in the nature of the evidence when considered in comparison to other roughly analogous criminal situations. The difficulty is in perception, both of the victim and the accused, and of rape itself as a crime.

Most people are willing to take the word of a victim of theft. The punishment for theft is lighter as well. But many people, whether they will admit this or not, are innately sceptical of a rape victim’s claim, especially if the person they claim has raped them is a friend, family member, or other acquaintance. ‘Maybe it was a misunderstanding,’ they think. ‘Maybe the unwillingness wasn’t made clear enough at the time.’ The punishment for rape is harsh. There may also be an awareness that there is no recompense for rape; victims of theft can get their money back, but what is it exactly that a victim of rape has lost? One can argue that they have lost a sense of personal sovereignty and safety, but this is true of mugging victims also, and is equally intangible in that case. There is, too, the perception that thieves will continue to be thieves, but that rapes are unique to their situations. And so many people will give the accused the benefit of the doubt – not entirely unreasonably – in a way they wouldn’t do if the crime were theft – because conviction does very little to help the victim and does enormous damage to the convicted.

One person I’ve discussed this with has suggested that the problem is in the nature of consent: society (and the legal system) views all sex as consensual unless otherwise clearly stated at the time. Remaining silent is presumed to be consent as well. The solution: all sex should be presumed to be non-consensual unless otherwise stated. This is, after all, how we treat other issues of bodily sovereignty, for example organ donation. (Although I’m aware there’s a move afoot in the UK to change that.) This is also how we treat theft: if I agree to the exchange of that money, all I have to do is not call the police and make an accusation of theft. If a person agrees to have sex, all they would have to do is not call the police and make an accusation of rape. Then, if a rape occurs and goes to court, the various attorneys can get into the problem of thorny evidence, etc, but at least the victim will be spared the necessity of having to prove a negative.