Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Home and Away

In the calendar year of 2010, Liverpool Football Club have won just five of their 28 away games in all competitions. At home, they have won 20 out of 27 fixtures. Despite one of their most wretched periods in recent years, Liverpool have lost just twice in normal time at Anfield (one of the defeats being the loss Chelsea in May, by which point Chelsea were still chasing the title but Liverpool’s season was over). Liverpool’s points average at Anfield in 2010 is 2.43 points per game. In the history of the Premiership, only Chelsea have sustained a higher points average over a 38 game season, playing half their games away. The point isn’t that Liverpool’s home form is particularly good (plenty of teams have had better home records – Chelsea were unbeaten at Stamford Bridge for 86 matches), but that even a decidedly mediocre Liverpool team looks world-beating at home.
It is a phenomenon Liverpool manager Roy Hodgson is familiar with, forging a reasonably successful managerial career despite winning only 13 of the 106 away games he has managed in the English league. These examples are extreme, but it’s a general and universally acknowledged trend. Of last season’s 380 Premiership games, 193 were won by the home team, just 91 by the away team.
This has always struck me as bizarre. In a game of football between well-honed professional teams, the better should generally win. Of course, part of the joy of football is that brute luck and circumstance ensure that the best team doesn’t always win. But why should brute luck and circumstance always favour the home team? And even if we accept that they do, why should they affect the game so much? Some rudimentary maths suggests that the result of something like 20-25% of matches is influenced by where the game is held.
In this era where football teams spend thousands on understanding every determinant of victory, it should be no surprise that sports scientists have given a lot of attention to this crucial one. Numerous explanations have been advanced, but none seem capable of explaining the sheer scale of the phenomenon.
Intuitively, the most obvious explanation of home advantage is the direct motivational effect of playing in front of a supportive crowd. Footballers have to run kilometre after kilometre, and the extra encouragement of all those around them willing them to succeed could account for the home side putting in the little bit more effort necessary to win.
The economists Mark Koyama and J. James Reade have come up with an inventive alternative account of how supporters influence players’ motivation. They model a classic principal-agent scenario, where supporters seek to ensure maximal effort from their team’s players, and players try to get away with putting in as little effort as possible. Since football is a team game, and results are only indirectly influenced by any given player’s effort, it is possible for players to ‘shirk’ (play at less than 100% - or should that be 110%?) without anyone realising. Koyama and Reade suggest that teams play better at home because their effort is observed by more supporters, so they are less likely to get away with shirking without being detected. They cite the declining proportion of home teams winning in the Premiership as evidence of this, arguing that with more games available on the TV and internet, it is easier for fans to monitor the effort of their team’s players and so players have less of an incentive to shirk during away games than before.
The problem with both these accounts is that they offer peculiar accounts of player motivation. Principal-agent models are usually applied to workers who don’t like their jobs. But many football players claim that they would do it for free. Sportsmen are notoriously competitive – but Koyama and Reade imply that footballers do not care whether they win or lose. As much as anything, football players are motivated by success, winning matches and trophies. This is what makes it to so surprising that home advantage is so influential – when there are promotions and titles on the line, why should the background noise be so important?
It seems clear that the noise does affect referees. Anecdotally, the rarity of penalties for visitors Old Trafford or the suspicious amounts of stoppage time in games Manchester United are losing there imply that officials are cowed by spectators. Indeed, it is hard to blame referees for doing what they can to avoid abuse from tens of thousands of people. Of course, as retired referee Jeff Winter observes, referees may go the other way and give decisions against their tormentors, or they may identify potential bias and overcorrect for it: “If as a referee you walk out to a hostile crowd, especially if you've got history with the club, by human nature you're not exactly going to bend over backwards to help them. Poor little Bolton Wanderers will get the 50-50s because the nasty Man United fans are singing songs about me”. More subtly, the human limitations of referees make it likely that they are not certain about every decision. In these circumstances, the reaction of the crowd may tip them one way or another. For example, the same tackle may provoke howls of outrage if performed on a home player, but attract little attention if carried out by a home player. Thus the referee, who may not properly have seen the incident, may be influenced by the reactions of the spectators.
Comprehensive statistical analyses show that refereeing decisions do in fact favour home teams, granting them more penalties and fewer red cards. Nevill et al carried out an experiment, showing two groups of referees the same match footage, but one set got to hear the partisan crowd noise while the others watched the game without it. As expected, the referees exposed to the noise were more lenient to the home team.
Another apparent benefit of playing at home is ‘local knowledge’. This is clearly important in cricket, where the actual playing surface plays such an important part in the game. Home cricket teams are likely to include players suited to the pitch, for instance spinners on dryer wickets. Further, many cricket teams prepare their pitches to suit their playing style. But football pitches are far more standardised and less significant to the game. There are small variations – larger pitches encourage more expansive play. Yet it seems unlikely that away teams are particularly disadvantaged on others’ turf.
More plausible is the theory that away players are discomfited by travel. This helps account for the falling significance of playing at home, as long and arduous coach rides have been replaced by rapid plane journeys. Last week’s round of fixtures in the Spanish La Liga offers further evidence that difficult journeys undermine away teams: with all Spanish aeroplanes grounded by strikes, teams were unable to fly. Result: of the away teams, only Barcelona won (and they’re so much better than anybody else they could probably have walked from Barcelona and not been fazed). Similarly, away teams seemed to struggle in European competition during the Icelandic volcano disruption earlier this year.

Yet while this clearly suggests that uncomfortable coach trips inhibit performance (though admittedly I’ve only given a small amount evidence here), it still doesn’t account for the effect on players flying and travelling well in advance. Sure sleeping in a strange bed in unfamiliar surroundings might make players less relaxed than usual, but enough to give home teams such a boost?
The psychologists Nick Neave and Sandy Wolfson have posited that physiological factors can help explain home advantage. They see it as a version of ‘territoriality’, the phenomenon by which animals are more vigorous and motivated in defending what they see as their own space. Territoriality is generally believed to result from higher testosterone levels in animals who perceive their home too be under threat. Testing footballers’ saliva for the hormone, they found that home players produced far more testosterone. This difference was not reflected in self-reported questionnaires on the players’ mood, suggesting that the process is not a conscious one. This finding is extremely interesting, but comes from a small-scale study which does not appear to have been repeated or scaled-up. In any case, the link between testosterone and on-field performance isn’t clear-cut. For example, excess testosterone could lead to over-aggression: home teams being ill-disciplined and losing focus.
Of course, it is highly possible that home advantage is greatly psychosomatic. Perhaps away teams play worse because they expect to play worse. They may be more satisfied with worse results because the concept of home advantage is so ingrained. Thus when big teams go to play, say, Birmingham City (who have a very strong home record), they will be more likely to settle for a draw instead of exerting themselves for the win they would expect at home.

This is especially apparent in teams’ tactics. It is generally expected in most games that the home team will have more possession and be more attacking. So ingrained are these tactical mindsets that ‘to play like an away team’ is often used as shorthand for a defensive outlook. It is highly probable that a significant reason for away teams’ lack of success is this concession of the tactical initiative, their diminished expectations from the start.
If my time at university has had any effect on me, it is to instil an inveterate dislike of the ‘list a load of points with pros and cons and conclude the truth lies somewhere in the middle’ approach to issues. However, on the question of home advantage, I’m not sure there’s much else I can do. There are a number of plausible mechanisms, but none of them are entirely persuasive and none of them seem to exclude the others. In any case, the sheer magnitude of the effect seems to suggest there are multiple factors in home advantage. So I still can’t say I know why Liverpool aren’t top of the table.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Jimmy Mubenga: Hypocritical Outrage

The shocked and outraged response over the past week to the death of Angolan asylum seeker Jimmy Mubenga has been interesting, if not consistent. Reports suggest that he suffocated on board an aeroplane to Luanda while being restrained by guards acting on behalf of the UK Border Agency. Admittedly, the circumstances surrounding Mubenga's death are horrific, and the failure of any of the other passengers to intervene is troubling. However, there is something slightly hypocritical about the desire to 'sanitise' deportation.
Deportation, especially of asylum seekers, is bound to be unpleasant. This is not to excuse the actions of the guards. Indeed, there is mounting evidence that deportations are excessively and unnecessarily violent. However, deaths, like Mubenga's, directly in the process of deportation, are relatively rare: only one out of an estimated seventy-seven that can be directly traced to the asylum system as a whole. Many of those were people so terrified of returning to the places they fleed that they took their own lives. It seems significant that some of the onlookers on Mubenga's flight decided not to act because "when Mubenga said 'they are going to kill me' it wasn't clear if he was referring to the guards or his political adversaries in Angola".
Does it matter? Should the British government feel any less shame or remorse if an asylum seeker is killed at the hands of their countrymen than from the action or inaction of individuals representing the British state? Or even if the terror of return drives them to suicide? In each case, the govenment's decisions have meant death - I don't see how the rest of the circumstances are at all relevant. Thus while the death of Jimmy Mubenga is undoubtedly a tragedy, one which should provoke anger and reproval, it is only one tragedy among seventy-seven, each as damning and outrageous as this one.

Friday, 15 October 2010

Browne Review

Turns out this Master’s degree lark isn’t that heavy a workload, and the Commonwealth games finished today, so I spent this evening looking through the Browne review into the future of Higher Education funding in England (Not Scotland though. Can’t help but feel a little burst of pride whenever ministers insist Scots are simply different to the free-marketeer Sassenachs).
To be honest, I’m not sure what exactly I think the solution is for Higher Education. The Scottish system where the state takes care of everything is simplest, and I’m inclined to say the best option. But, on the other hand, universal free tertiary education may well be subsidising the rich at the expense of those who do not go to university. I think a graduate tax is a plausible idea too, but it carries obvious difficulties in terms of its implementation.

Suffice to say that whatever the best option is, I have serious reservations about the Browne review’s. Here are my concerns/grievances with the report:
Public Funding of Higher Education

The report regularly repeats its concern that the quality and international competitiveness of English university education is under threat due to a lack of investment: “our competitive edge is being challenged by advances made elsewhere. Other countries are increasing investment in their HEIs and educating more people to higher standards”. Yet the authors do not seem to envisage much of a role for public funding in bridging this gap; they seem to expect the bulk of additional investment to come from tuition fees. This is despite the fact that the UK has among the lowest levels of public investment in higher education amongst advanced OECD nations - 0.6% of GDP (By comparison, Canada, Denmark, Sweden and Finland each spend 1.5% of GDP).
Some might believe this is as it should be, that the general taxpayer shouldn’t have to subsidise degrees that primarily benefit the student themselves. Indeed, this seems to be part of Browne’s reasoning, citing an OECD report which suggests that the private return of a university education is over 50% more than the public benefit. The NUS estimates that at a fee of £7000 students will be paying the equivalent of 170% of the state’s contribution.

Yet this figure includes only the monetary benefits of a university education, which the authors themselves accept are only a part of the positive effect: they refer to the reduced threat of crime, better health prospects and “higher levels of social contribution”.

Moreover, the report’s argument that it is the responsibility of students to fill the higher education funding gap only holds up as long as the government continues to pay its fair share. Yet its authors seem to have already conceded that public investment will be cut: £7000 fees are believed to be “roughly equivalent to what institutions will have to charge to maintain investment at current levels based on our assumptions about the reduction in HEFCE funding”. Yet this suggests that increases in tuition fees will do nothing to improve the relative under-funding of English universities – rather, it will simply compensate them for the money taken from them for the government. The result is that the Browne review – apparently by its own admission - seems to have done little to ease the problem it was convened to solve.
The Problem of Risk

Probably the biggest concern expressed by those that oppose the lifting of the cap on tuition fees is the impact on risk-averse students, who may be so concerned at the prospect of taking on large amounts of debt that they are discouraged from going to university at all. Further, the possibility (indeed, the likelihood) that different universities will charge different fees suggests that risk-averse students will be put off from applying to the more expensive (presumably higher quality) universities.

The Browne review’s line on this is borderline obtuse: “For all students, studying for a degree will be a risk free activity. The return to graduates for studying will be on average around 400%”. They are right to point out that, as investments go, going to university is both relatively safe and lucrative. But the point about risk-averse students, the reason that people are so concerned for them, is that they do not know this. How many people consult the economic data before making these sorts of decisions? The benefits of going to university are obvious if your parents or those around you have been or are going. But that is simply not the case for everyone.

If students are wary of taking on debt to go to university in the first place, they are likely to be all the more reluctant to consider taking on extra debt to go to the more expensive universities. It does not take a great leap of the imagination to foresee worsening access problems for the ‘elite’ Russell group universities, which already have a shoddy record on attracting students from less advantaged backgrounds.
Rejection of the Graduate tax
The Browne review claims to have fully considered, and rejected the NUS’ preferred solution, a graduate tax. Quite validly, they point out that their proposal preserves some of the attractive features of a graduate tax. As with a graduate tax, there are no upfront fees. As the report repeatedly observes, up front fees are the biggest disincentive for prospective students, so this is an important concession. Like the graduate tax, Browne’s proposals are progressive: those that benefit more financially from their degree will be required to pay more back. Yet the fact that graduates will be charged no more than the cost of their degree suggests that the proposal is less progressive than a graduate tax.

The authors suggest that a major drawback of the graduate tax is that it will not get enough money to universities soon enough to deal with the funding shortfall. Yet this appears a bit disingenuous: as they so proudly proclaim, both the graduate tax and their preferred scheme require the government to finance students in the short run. Indeed, while they condemn the graduate tax for overcharging rich students, they celebrate the possibility that the majority of students will not pay back the full value of their degree under their proposals.

Perhaps the most troubling feature of the Browne review is its repeated commitment to the principle of a free market in higher education. They look forward eagerly to a future in which “HEI s actively compete for well informed, discerning students, on the basis of price and teaching quality”. The theory is sound enough: good universities will be popular and expand, bad universities will be run out of business or taken over by their more successful rivals.

The first reason why this is troubling has already been discussed. If universities are competing in terms of price, then the more prestigious ones will have no reason not to price the less well off out of the market, with obvious implications for equality of access.

However, a deeper concern is the question of whether it is possible for universities to compete meaningfully for students in the first place. To draw an analogy, consider how competition works with restaurants. Good (or at least commercially viable) restaurants will be successful because they can attract people and convince them to return. Yet going to university is (for most) a one-off decision. Remember all the bad restaurants you have ever been to, and consider the implications of a market where all consumers have yet to sample the service they are buying.

I remember distinctly the grounds on which I decided to apply to the universities I applied to, and it was not the result of many hours of careful research. It was based on a couple of league tables and the general reputations of the institutions. The point about reputation is an important one: Browne et al want Oxford and Oxford Brookes to compete on a level playing field, but is this really possible when the Oxford brand carries such cache?

Strangely, the report pronounces prospective students as the most qualified arbiters of the quality of universities, despite openly admitting the difficulty of making such comparisons: “There is no ‘national curriculum’ for higher education. Looking at student outcomes by institution can be misleading as these reflect which students the institution selected as much as the value added by the institution”.

Admittedly, the report does emphasise the need for greater assistance to students in making their choice, but it is not obvious that the proposed help will make all that difference. Browne calls for more and better qualified careers advisers, but nobody can have the specialist knowledge on all courses and institutions to help everyone. The report suggests that statistics such as student satisfaction should be made readily available. But anyone who has filled in a student survey knows that results are not necessarily to be trusted (for instance, doing surveys online or at the last lecture of a series means only the keenest students will be canvassed).

Ultimately, there is little reason to share Lord Browne’s faith that students will be informed consumers. If these doubts are warranted, it suggests that the whole market that is to be established is open to distortion.
Maintenance funding

A crucial issue that is often overlooked in discussions of higher education finance is that of maintenance grants and loans. A large proportion of the cost of going to university is, after all, living costs such as food, accommodation and transport. The Browne review has insisted on retaining generous grants, and abolishing means testing for maintenance loans, so that all students are guaranteed an annual loan of £3 750.

I have to admit that I can see both sides of the means testing question. On the one hand, subsidising a loan to students from privileged background is effectively handing out money to the rich. Indeed, it is likely many families will simply put the money in the bank and collect the interest. Thus it seems logical to restrict maintenance funding to those who really need it.

The problem is that it is not that easy to distinguish rich students from poor students. Just because a student has rich parents, this does not mean we should assume that they will be supported generously by them. The Scottish government does assume a ‘parental contribution’ to student maintenance, the English funding system will not. Perhaps the easiest way to illustrate the drawbacks of means testing is to use myself as an example. As an undergraduate, I took as much support as I could from the government so as to minimise my dependence on my family. Under the Browne proposals would have had to take little money from them at all. As it was, I needed thousands of pounds of support from my parents. If we are to try to promote equality of opportunity, and to discourage children from hanging on to their parents’ coat tails, then surely they should be given the opportunity to support themselves independently?

Browne et al bemoan the fact that “There is no established culture of giving to higher education in the UK. Only two UK universities have endowments of more than £1bn – Oxford and Cambridge – compared to over 40 in the US. Data from 2009 show that barely over 1% of alumni make gifts to their institutions”. They urge it should be made easier for graduates to give voluntary donations to their universities through tax relief.

Yet surely the institutions that get the highest bequests (i.e. Oxbridge) are those that least need the extra cash. It is invariably the case that the richest universities educate the richest individuals and families. Trying to replace state funding with individual donations (as in the US) will simply create a self-perpetuating cycle where a few universities prosper at the expense of the majority.

The Role of Business

“Businesses will not be compelled to contribute more – they contribute by rewarding graduates with higher wages.” The report acknowledges that businesses benefit greatly from enjoying a pool of tertiary-educated talent from which to select their employees. Yet it suggests that the incentive effect of the higher graduate wages they is a sufficient contribution from businesses. Yet it is surely the case that there is an externality effect here too. Businesses have a lot to gain from operating in a country with lots of graduates, in the same way as the rest of society gains. Therefore, it isn’t that implausible to expect a further contribution, as the NUS has suggested.

Postgraduate Funding

While the main focus of the review was the undergraduate system, it also touched on state of postgraduate education in the UK. On this, the report was remarkably complacent. Despite observing higher levels of uptake of postgraduate education among the well-off, the report simply concludes: “it is reasonable to suppose that access to postgraduate education is a function of the socio-economic make up of the undergraduate population”. In other words, fewer poor people do postgraduate degrees simply because fewer of them do undergraduate degrees. It suggests that improving access at undergraduate level will suffice to remedy the problem for postgraduate degrees.

This does not make sense. At postgraduate level, there are higher fees and less financial support. How can this possibly not affect the likelihood of talented students staying on for further study? I can say with absolute certainty that if I had been from a poorer background I could not have stayed on for a Master’s degree. I know I’m not alone. This suggests that access to postgraduate education is a much greater issue than the Browne review concedes.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Aberdonians: Ugly Women but Beautiful Heads

"Whenever I have occasion to classify the people I meet into three classes, 'good, medium, bad,' I use a needle mounted as a pricker, wherewith to prick holes, unseen, in a piece of paper, torn rudely into a cross with a long leg. I use its upper end for 'good,' the cross arm for 'medium,' the lower end for 'bad.' The prick holes keep distinct, and are easily read off at leisure. The object, place, and date are written on the paper. I used this plan for my beauty data, classifying the girls I passed in streets or elsewhere as attractive, indifferent or repellent. Of course this was a purely individual estimate, but it was consistent, judging from the conformity of different attempts in the population. I found London to rank highest for beauty; Aberdeen lowest."
"Mr Gladstone was amusingly insistent about the size of his head, saying that hatters often told him that he had an Aberdeenshire head - 'a fact which you may be sure I do not forget to tell my Scotch constituents.' It was a beautifully shaped head, though rather low, but after all it was not so very large in circumference."
- Francis Galton, Memories of My Life

Saturday, 2 October 2010

On Martin Brookes' view of "The Morality of Charity"

Apparently, there’s been a fair amount of controversy surrounding Martin Brookes’ call for an independent ranking of charities according to worthiness. Brookes, the head of New Philanthropy Capital, an organisation that provides advice to charitable donors, made the comments in a talk this week. If you get a chance you should have a read of it - it's an interesting and provocative take on the state of giving in the UK. (Find the text here).

The main premise of Brookes’ argument is uncontroversial, but woefully neglected. Brookes rightfully bemoans the fact that all charities are too often lumped in together, with no appreciation of the variation in worthiness of the causes or effectiveness of the charities. Surely he is correct to insist that the distinction between giving well and giving badly is as morally salient as that between giving and not giving at all?

These are important issues, and Brookes should be lauded for trying to draw attention to them. If anything, I think he should be more aggressive in driving home the message about quality of giving. I sympathise with his concern that “criticising donors for not being ‘good’ or ‘moral’ enough” may be counter-productive. Yet I think he overestimates his own importance if he believes his criticism is going to have such a strong effect on people. The thing about moral criticism is that it is easy to ignore: ‘What does he know?’, ‘Who is he to tell me what to do?’. It is only likely to be effective if the person criticised recognises some validity in criticism, and incorporates it into their own worldview. So I think the important thing is to get people to consider the possibility that they are misguided in their approach to charity.

I think most people can agree that some charities are better than others. The difficulty is that they are unlikely to agree which ones precisely are the better ones. Brookes’ suggestion that causes are what ought to be ranked is problematic to say the least, since any such ranking is bound to be subjective and upset as many (probably more) people as it guides or helps. A league table of charities would have to decide whether animals should enjoy comparable moral status to humans, whether we have greater obligations to compatriots than to foreigners and what the precise constituents of human need are. All of these are questions that have divided moral philosophers for centuries, so any assumptions will be controversial.

Even if we agree on what our values are, it is far from straightforward to determine how best to promote them. Brookes seems to believe that donating money to fighting global disease is morally better than giving the money to Harvard University (even though much of the funding for medical research presumably goes to academics at universities like Harvard). Yet even money that is not ear-marked to directly benefit the neediest may in fact serve them better. Is it implausible to imagine that the money used to fund a scholarship for a development economist whose ideas lift millions out of poverty is better spent than tackling that poverty directly? If the goal is reducing human suffering, we simply cannot know which of our strategies is most effective for achieving that goal. Given this uncertainty, it is wise to encourage diversification, a combination of a high- and low-risk ‘investments’.

However, I think that the core idea of an independent comparison of charities is a good one. Perhaps it would be wiser to compare similar charities with similar aims in terms of their effectiveness. I think that there is certainly demand for more general information about charities, like efficiency and administration costs.

In any case, there is another complication. Brookes assumes (not unreasonably) that moral motivations are the basis for most charitable giving. Yet the statistics that he quotes clearly contradict this. Just 14% of American donors in the survey he refers to support the causes that they think constitute the greatest social good, compared to 23% who see charity as ‘repayment’ for ways in which they have been helped. Brookes sees this as evidence of the irrationality of donors, moved by empathy and testimony rather than consideration of hard facts and data.

This may be partly true, but I think that many donors are not irrational at all, but are simply driven by a mix of motives, of which morality is just one. The difficulty is that people tend to see all altruistic acts as morally good, and that a binary conception of ethics blinds us to the possibility that a morally good act can be ‘better’ or ‘worse’. Most moral systems laud altruism, so all else being equal we would praise a person for throwing their friend a lavish birthday party. We generally believe that it is good to put someone else’s interests first, and show the empathy and consideration that requires. Yet it is almost certainly true that the money spent on the birthday party would be better spent given to a worthwhile charity. However, if we were to challenge the person with the fact that they could have done more moral good with the same money, they would probably admit that moral considerations were merely one among many.

Again, we might be wary of the consequences of challenging people with the accusation that they are less moral than they appear. It is bound to upset and anger a few. The hope is that with the realisation of the good they could do, their consciences will do the rest.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Why Pay Is Not Just A Personal Matter

Urgh Libertarians. There's a shit-stirring article in the Guardian today by Andrew Lilico of right-wing think-tank Policy Exchange challenging the assumption that the state has any right to make pronouncements on whether individuals 'deserve' their wealth and income, and to use these views to redistribute according to desert.

Lilico does not seem to be challenging the coherence or utility of the notion of 'desert' in making moral judgements. If he were, I might be more sympathetic to his perspective. Lilico's objection appears to be to the state making moral judgements at all about the distribution of wealth in society.

I don't want to go into too much detail here, because I've already discussed these ideas in my blogpost about libertarianism. Lilico at least explicitly acknowledges that his argument rests upon prioritising the sanctity of private property above all other principles. Yet he seems not to anticipate the objection that this is a moral claim in itself. Lilico makes his argument as if all his premises are self-evident. But why should we insist that the protection of private property is more important than (say) advancing social equality?

The closest Lilico comes to defending this claim is his bizarre notion that property is natural, and does not depend on the state guaranteeing property rights. I fail to see how property can exist without property rights. To own something means that we can exclude others from it. If something is mine (as opposed to ours), it cannot be yours. But in the absence of the state, or some equivalent impartial body, there is nothing to stop you taking what is mine and claiming it to be your own.

In any case, even if it were true that even infants have a clear notion of property, this does not mean that property is good. And even if it were, the relatively plausible idea that property is good is not what Lilico needs to show for his argument. Rather, Lilico needs to demonstrate that property is some sort of supreme good, the protection fo which overrides other goods, like equality.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

What They Say And What They Mean

So my grandfather was watching BBC parliament the other day, and we happened to come across this speech that William Hague made on July 1st, outlining his vision for the future of British foreign policy. It's a really good speech, sufficiently modest and realistic, but at the same time putting across a compelling programme for reform. Perhaps most interesting is Hague's criticism of Labour's lack of engagement with Europe - ironic that the words should come from a Conservative, but true enough.

The sad thing is that many of the words and actions of the Foreign Office since July 1st have failed to live up to his fine ideals. Here are the obvious examples that strike me:

“It is not in our character as a nation to have a foreign policy without a conscience or to repudiate our obligation to help those less fortunate. Our foreign policy should always have consistent support for human rights and poverty reduction as its irreducible core and we should always strive to act with moral authority, recognising that once damaged it is hard to restore.”

Really? Then why is Hague so keen to give authority to the national security council, which, according to a leaked Whitehall paper, insists that overseas aid "should make the maximum possible contribution to security" i.e. that development aid should be focused on achieving foreign policy objectives, rather than fighting poverty?

“This underlines the essential importance of the work of the British Council and the BBC World Service, which give Britain an unrivalled platform for the projection of the appeal of our culture and the sharing of our values.”

And yet a 'diplomatic insider' last week suggested that the BBC service to Burma is under threat: "The Burma office is up for grabs. It is a question of costs. It is very expensive and has relatively few listeners. The 'human rights' argument doesn't hold much sway with the new Foreign Office." Surely if there's anywhere that Britain wants to export its culture and values to, its Burma.

Hague has since denied that the World Service in Burma is in any danger, but it is the attitude his department has displayed, and the fact that it is willing to make cuts of 25% to the rest of the World Service that is worrying.

“we believe that we must achieve a stronger focus on using our national strengths and advantages across the board to help build these strong bilateral relations for the United Kingdom as well as complement the efforts of our allies, whether it is the appeal of our world class education system”

If the government is so proud of Britain's 'world class' education system, then why is investment in universities falling despite being among the lowest in the OECD?

And how is making it harder for foreign students to come to the UK exploiting this strength to build bilateral relations?

Admittedly, much of this is based on hearsay and speculation, but then after just two months in office, there's not much else to judge Hague on. However, it still seems worthwhile to note the government's failure so far to live up to the high foreign policy standards it has set itself.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Are The Poor Really More Charitable?

A fact that I’ve come across in a couple of different contexts in the last few weeks is that the rich give a smaller proportion of their income to charity than the poor. According to the most recent such survey by the Charities Aid Foundation (albeit from 2002), the bottom 10% of the income distribution gave 3% of their weekly household spending to charity; the top 20% just 0.7%.
It is certainly a fascinating finding. But I’m a bit wary of drawing the obvious conclusion, that the poor are somehow more virtuous and altruistic than the rich. There is some evidence that the poor are inclined to be more charitable: see Berkley psychologist Paul Piff’s recent research. Nevertheless, I am not convinced that this tells the whole story.
The crude data overlooks the fact that most people do not think about charitable donations in the same way as the study. Most people could give you a clear idea of how much money they give to charity (£10 a month, £200 a year), but few could tell you off the top of their heads what proportion of their income this constitutes.
This is significant. Imagine a rich person earning £100 000 a year were comparing their charitable activities with a poor person earning £10 000 a year. If the rich person saw that they were donating £700 a year, and that the poor person gave away £300, they would most likely see little cause for embarrassment, and little reason to change their behaviour. The chances are that they would never even realise that proportionately, the poor person is four times as generous. And that doesn’t even take into consideration that poorer individuals have to spend a higher proportion of their income on essentials, such as food and clothing. This means that their sacrifice is greater: the poor have fewer luxuries, but are still more willing to give them up than the rich.
Our ideas of our moral obligations owe a lot to how we see others behave, and to the expectations others have of us. The problem with charity, essentially, is that we are continually told that anything will do, being mightily praised for the merest contribution. Moreover, charities regularly request fixed contributions that have to be accessible to everyone. The result is that giving £2 a month leaves you feeling as if you have done your bit, regardless of whether it comes out of a monthly budget of £200 or £2000.
The answer, clearly, is to define more clearly what ‘doing your bit’ entails. In almost any other context, doing your bit involves making greater demands on those more able to bear them. There is no reason why charity should not be the same. How this is to be done is trickier: social and cultural change are invariably difficult to engineer.
Interestingly, the Conservative party’s policy paper on volunteering (downloadable here)identifies exactly this problem, and sees the solution as the ‘establishment of a pro-social norm’ of giving 1% of income to charity. They’re not particularly clear as to how they intend to achieve this (ruling out the government, of course: “in the post-bureaucratic age, governments should not first reach for legislation to pursue collective goals”).
I’m willing to be a little more candid about the difficulty of changing attitudes. However, publicising these figures and openly questioning the way we behave seem the only way.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Two Arguments Against Libertarianism

I’ve begun to notice that a common theme running through many of my blogposts is the assumption that there should be redistribution of wealth from rich to poor through progressive taxation. I would hope that the idea that the government is a legitimate tool for social reform or that those with a greater capacity to shoulder the burden of taxation should take on a greater share of the burden is obvious. However, the existence of libertarianism suggests that these principles need some defence.
Libertarianism is a broad and complex philosophy, and I cannot hope to cover it in any depth here. However, its basic tenets are straightforward enough: the state ought to be reduced to a minimal role of providing public goods (such as roads) that are not efficiently produced by the free market, and of protecting its citizens from crime and invasion (see Andrew Sullivan for a succinct outline)
Libertarians (like most passionate believers in any cause) easily lapse into hyperbole. Robert Nozick famously likens progressive taxation to forced labour: if we are forced to give up, say, 40% of our income to the government, it is equivalent to spending 40% of our labour time working for other people. Most libertarians accept the need for a state of some sort, but wish it to be limited to its ‘necessary’ functions, and demand that it stay clear of ‘social engineering’. Progressive taxation imports illegitimate moral values to the state; the only way around this is to impose an equal tax burden on everybody.
This line of thinking leads to unpleasant conclusions, which is why most people reject libertarianism. Yet if we are to reject libertarianism we need to know why. Any competing philosophy must find a response to the challenge of libertarianism: they must justify why it is legitimate to take money against a person’s will to spend it in a way they do not approve. In other words, they must demonstrate how, if at all, progressive taxation differs from common theft.

I can see two types of response to the libertarian’s challenge. The first justifies a certain amount of redistribution of wealth as entailed by libertarian principles. The second challenges these principles head on.

Almost all libertarians agree that it is necessary to have a state, so as to protect citizens and enforce freely entered contracts (libertarians appear to love contracts). Most also agree that the state is required to intervene in the case of market failures, where goods are not efficiently supplied by the free market. However, both of these functions can be interpreted to call for a rather more extensive state than most libertarians envisage.
Take maintaining law and order: the obvious means of preventing crime is to provide a police force which enforces the law by punishing those that contravene it. But this is not the only possible strategy. Ensuring high levels of employment and education could reduce frustration and material need, and so reduce the motivation to commit crime. Indeed, direct redistribution, especially benefits to prevent destitution, performs the same purpose. It is not immediately obvious that ploughing lots of money into policing and prisons and doing little to try and forestall reoffending is a more efficient way to cut crime than focusing on education and benefits. And if redistribution or the extension of the state into education are in fact more efficient, surely that commits the libertarian to these policies. Otherwise, they are left proposing a supposedly minimal, but actually inefficient government.
Suppose now, that the hard-ass strategy is more efficient than the bleeding-heart one. But only just. Let’s say benefits and jobs and education can cut a similar amount of crime to greater enforcement at a cost of 50p more per taxpayer. Wouldn’t most, if not all, taxpayers be willing to pay just 50p extra for a positive government policy that preserves law and order by making people’s lives better? Presumably each person has a ‘carrot premium’ – the amount extra they are willing to pay for criminality to be deterred by carrot rather than stick. Whose carrot premium is the decisive one? The lowest? The median? I imagine the consistent libertarian would have to say the lowest, since that is the only way that the expansion of the state beyond minimal limits is unanimously supported.

All this is further complicated by the fact that in real life, the choices are rarely as simple as I’ve made them out to be. There are usually multiple questions, multiple answers, and no clear binary distinction between answers (e.g. it is unlikely all of the law and order budget would go on either policing or education). As the choices become more complex and specialised, it becomes impossible for citizens to represent their views directly. People need to be employed to study all the relevant options, and to make the equity/efficiency trade-offs that most, if not all would assent to. This necessitates the employment of a whole raft of politicians and civil servants I am sure the libertarians would rather we did without.

Nevertheless, it remains unclear how far this saves redistribution from the assault of the libertarians. It is highly likely that a certain degree of redistribution is justified in the interests of everybody in society. Yet this may not justify redistribution on the scale of the welfare state, and in any case, redistribution may not be the most efficient way of achieving the goals of the libertarian state.

A more aggressive tactic against libertarianism is to challenge the premises it rests on. One of the major attractions of libertarianism is that it appears not to depend on moral premises. This is why libertarians can affect to take such offense at the ‘moralising’ of justifying redistribution in the interests of justice. Andrew Sullivan claims he doesn’t “believe that having a heart is what government should be about”. Yet if libertarians were really morally indifferent, then surely there would be no difference between taxing the rich and not taxing the rich. ‘Taxation is theft’ is not a neutral observation, it is a condemnation, a call to arms. The fact that libertarians believe that certain things are illegitimate means that they must have some values.

The obvious candidate is freedom (the clue’s in the name). But if libertarians really care about liberty then they must see that redistributive taxation actually increases it. Nozick’s famous point about forced labour, about the inability to enjoy the whole fruit of our toil, makes the relevant point about the restriction of freedom. But this is only half the story. Our freedom is measured by the size of the full set of activities that are open to us. The limitations on these activities come from numerous sources, natural and social: I cannot fly unaided because of gravity, I cannot run 100 metres in 10 seconds because of the limitations of my body; I cannot buy a mansion because of my poverty, I cannot steal a car because of the law. Nozick correctly picks out the limitation of freedom imposed by tax law. Yet he neglects the extension of freedom of money to the poor. Moreover, it is almost certainly the case that the marginal cost of freedom is increasing. £10 to a starving person buys them basic nutrition, and all the opportunities that creates. £10 to a millionaire simply allows them to buy £10 of extra stuff.
Alternatively, the value that libertarianism is founded on could be a belief in the sanctity of property. What is wrong with redistribution on this account is that it fails to protect legitimately acquired and transferred property (see Nozick’s ‘Wilt Chamberlain’ argument). The libertarian fixation with property is a bit strange. Of all the competing moral principles that humans have proposed, the imperative of respecting the belongings of others is hardly the most compelling or inspiring. There are a number of different justifications for protecting private property. Extrinsic justifications tend to emphasise the significance of property for freedom or happiness. Yet if property is merely a means to one or other of these ends, we need to ask whether these ends would not be better served through redistribution of wealth. I have already argued that the marginal cost of freedom rises; I reckon much the same is true of happiness. This is why we get the economic phenomenon of ‘diminishing marginal utility’: every extra pound we earn adds slightly less to our total sum of happiness.
I am not sure whether property can be justified as having intrinsic value of its own. I think that Locke derived property rights from some sort of covenant with God, but that theory holds little appeal if you don’t believe in God or don’t agree with that interpretation of Man’s relationship with God. Also, Hegel says some stuff about how property confers identity because of our need to realise ourselves by acting on external objects. Like most things Hegel says, it’s pretty difficult to work out exactly what he means. However, I’m pretty sure that this doesn’t mean that the government taking away our money strips us of our identity. And even if it does, if money confers identity, then surely the poor have a claim to developing their own identity?

These are all preliminary and sketchy thoughts (backed by embarrassingly little research). I might well have misunderstood libertarianism. However, I think I’ve worked out this much: libertarianism, whatever it says, does stand for something: freedom, property etc. And whatever that something is, I think that libertarians have either got their priorities wrong, or are mistaken in how best to promote their values. And that, so far, is my response to the challenge of libertarianism.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Charity Begins At Home?

Simon Heffer is an odious man with unpleasant beliefs (pro-death penalty, pro-section 28, anti-abortion and divorce), the sort of person who drains me of hope for humanity in general and this society in particular. Yet in his controversial attack on the government’s decision to ringfence the aid budget, Heffer surpassed himself, managing to dispirit me twice in four words: “charity begins at home”. The obvious sentiment behind that statement, the parochial idea that British people come first, is depressing enough. The insidious notion that foreign aid is “charity” – that it is not fulfilment of a moral obligation, but an act of superegoratory benevolence, above and beyond the call of duty, compounds the effect.
The idea that charity begins at home is often alluded to, but rarely examined or defended. It is far from obvious what it means and why it should be the case. I can think of three interpretations and justifications of starting our charity at home. The simplest, and most compelling way to take the idea is as an exhortation to be consistent in our dealings with all people near or far. I imagine this as a rebuke to the absent-minded and insensitive philanthropist, who cares deeply for the plight of strangers, but who is unpleasant or cruel in their dealings with those around them: for instance, someone who gives lots of money to charity, but who bullies their family or colleagues. Telling them that charity begins at home is a way of reminding them that the people they see on a day-to-day basis are humans worthy of the same consideration as those that they seek to help.
A second reason why charity begins at home is because of our greater ability to help those we know best. Not only is it easier for me to help my brother than a stranger, I am more likely to be successful in helping him. There are a number of reasons for this, including opportunity (I see my brother more than I see most strangers) and specific knowledge (I know better what he wants, needs and likes). Indeed, the extension of this logic suggests that this sort of moral man-marking, with all looking out for those immediately around them is the solution to many ethical problems (see Frank Jackson for a statement of such reasoning).
Thirdly, some people think charity should begin at home because it is natural and desirable that we should give greater consideration to some people than others. We should be nicer, more generous and have stronger moral obligations to our family or our countrymen simply because they are our family or our countrymen. This is not an argument I have any sympathy for, but to go into further detail would draw us into a deep and strongly contested debate I do not wish to visit here. Suffice to say, I have yet to come across an argument to shake me from my presumption that all humans are morally equivalent.

It may seem as though I am ducking the issue: surely Heffer’s key point is that Britain ought to look after its own in these troubled times, and that is precisely the issue I am refusing to dispute. But even if we concede all three of these interpretations of the idea that charity begins at home, it still does not mean that Britain has no moral obligations to the rest of the world. For even if charity begins at home, there is no reason for it to end there.
The first version of charity begins at home is satisfied merely if we give all humans equal consideration: this clearly does not support the preferential treatment for Britons that Heffer seeks. The second version only supports Heffer if the British government can do more good in Britain than abroad. But the fact of the matter is that the most dire need and the most easily alleviated suffering on the planet is to be found far away from Britain. Heffer’s supposed concern for the vulnerability of the worst-off in British society at this trying time is laudable, but let’s get a sense of perspective: a person on jobseeker’s allowance is still within the richest 20% of humanity. (For a sense of perspective as humbling as the Total Perspective Vortex see this)
So much for the first two versions of the charity begins at home thesis, but what of the third, that it is legitimate to look out for our countrymen above others? Again, the principle needs clearing up. If it is taken to mean that we should care only for our countrymen and care nothing for foreigners, then Heffer is vindicated. Yet this appears to be too callous even for Heffer, who accepts that emergency aid for natural disasters is legitimate, and so betrays some concern for others.

This implies that the needs of Britons can be traded off against foreigners. I presume that Heffer believes that if natural disasters of equal magnitude hit Britain and, say, Kenya at the same time, it would be inappropriate to divert resources from the British relief effort to the Kenyan one. But presumably if the UK government had a choice between buying all its citizens Ferraris and aiding Kenyans, it should do the latter. This suggests there is a point, somewhere, where the good that can be done abroad is so much greater than the good that can be done domestically as to legitimate aid. Heffer clearly thinks Britain has not reached that point. I would disagree, and I find it hard to conceive how anyone that has seen the global income distribution can fail to disagree with Heffer.
Next to this, my objection to Heffer’s reference to charity might seem like a semantic quibble. However, it is indicative of a deeper problem regarding the framing of the question of foreign aid. I do not object to the concept of ‘charity’ – in its original sense, it is entirely positive, representing consideration and care towards others. However, in its modern sense, charity has come to represent supererogatory action: good but not required, ‘beyond the call of duty’. That this is Heffer’s meaning is clear from his branding of DFID as a “£7 billion luxury”.

Clement Attlee accurately summarised the problem of seeing redistribution of wealth as charity: “it tends to make the charitable think that he has done his duty by giving away some trifling sum, his conscience is put to sleep and he takes no trouble to consider the social problem any further”. The relationship between the global rich and the global poor is akin to that of the rich and poor in early twentieth century Britain. The rich feel precious little responsibility towards the poor, who expect, at best, handouts dependent on capricious goodwill.

The solution then was the Welfare state. I have no idea what the global equivalent is. However, there are a few key features of our domestic relationships that need to be carried over onto the global stage. The rich must begin to see aid to the poor as a moral imperative, not as an optional extra for ethical brownie points. The poor must be seen to have entitlements, which it is the responsibility of the rich to fulfil.

Unfortunately, that seems a long way off, and Heffer’s mode of thinking still dominates. But the only way to move forward is to challenge it at every turn.

Friday, 23 July 2010

Prodding Sportsmen's Consciences

I love ethics almost as much as I love sport, so events in the Tour de France this week have made an already compelling bike race all the more interesting. To summarise the facts: on Monday, race leader Andy Schleck lost his 30 second advantage over nearest competitor Alberto Contador when Contador capitalised on a broken chain to accelerate away from Schleck. Events on the road were fascinating enough, but it is the aftermath that is most notable. Contador was booed as he took to the podium to collect the leader’s yellow jersey; he was widely criticised in the media, and was shamefaced enough to offer a sheepish apology on youtube.

This is made all the more interesting in the context of Peter Singer’s criticism of Manuel Neuer during last month’s World Cup. While Neuer bore much of the blame from Singer, fans and the media were also castigated for their failure to condemn such blatant cheating. Unsurprisingly, Singer was accused of naivety – who could expect professional footballers, playing for the highest stakes in the game, to refrain from doing all they could get away with to win?

But such arguments merely perpetuate the notion that ethics has no place in sport, and in so doing reduce the incentive to act morally. Jeremy Bentham argued that humans are susceptible to four types of sanction which can motivate them to do right instead of wrong: legal (threat of punishment for contravening rules), religious (fear of divine vengeance), moral (conscience) and social (fear of criticism).

If the sporting public accept such unethical behaviour as inevitable, they relinquish the power of the social sanction. To put it another way, sportsmen will live up to our expectations of them: if we demand honest and fair conduct, they will be under more pressure to meet those standards; if we relax our demands, they will be less constrained by a need to (at least appear) ethical.

The line taken by cycling offers a clear counterpoint to the amorality of football. While Contador is likely to go on to win this year’s Tour de France, the opprobrium his actions have attracted may have tarnished his reputation forever. His 2010 victory will always have an ‘asterisk’ beside it. And the next time a cyclist is in a similar position, they will have to weigh the toll of public disgrace among the costs of unsportsmanlike behaviour. The next Neuer, by contrast, will be fairly secure in the knowledge that he will be answerable only to his conscience. I’m sure I’m not the only one not to lack complete faith in footballers’ consciences.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Will Hutton & the Quest for Fairness

So Will Hutton, on behalf of the government, wants the public to help him define 'fairness'. The Oxford Popular Dictionary defines it as "just, unbiased" (and then goes on to define 'justice' as "fairness to all concerned"). I don't suppose that's much help.

Fairness is difficult to define simply because its used so loosely and subjectively. In everyday speech, people regularly define it implicitly to serve whatever point they are making. Nevertheless, I can make out two distinct, though, related uses of the term (though I doubt these are exhaustive).

One version of fairness (fairness as impartiality?) has it that a process or outcome is fair the same rules and standards are applied to all. Fairness is observed if people are treated differently only on the basis of relevant considerations. So, for example, if people are barred from attending university because of their race or gender, it is unfair on this conception. If they are not admitted on the basis of their intellectual capabilities, their is no unfairness. Of course, this leaves open the question of what a 'relevant consideration' is.

The alternative idea of fairness (fairness as justice?) posits that fairness is satisfied only if people get what they deserve. Thus it is unfiar that spoilt Johnny down the road gets a bigger pile of presents from his parents than me even though he is no better behaved than I am. Notice that fairness as justice is a special version of fairness as impartiality, where the only 'relevant consideration' is desert. To state it more fully, the idea of fairness as justice is that fairness is observed if people are differentially treated only on the basis of desert.

The distinction between the two conceptions of fairness is clear if we consider a case where someone misses out on something they deserve without suffering any procedural disadvantage. For instance, if I work really hard and consistently produce work of an 'A' standard, but then for some reason miss out on an 'A' in the exam (the topics I had revised best didn't come up) this is unfair in the second sense (justice) but not the first (impartiality). If, though, I miss out on the grade because I was formally disadvantaged - for example, if I got less time than everyone else - then this is unfair on both counts.

There are a couple of reasons why I think it is fairness as justice that Hutton is interested in. Fairness as impartiality merely suggests that fairness is satisfied when everybody is treated 'according to the rules'. But since Hutton is charged with making the rules, and in particular with making a fair set of rules, I don't think he can take much from fairness as impartiality. Moreover, fairness as impartiality seems to act in most cases as a proxy for fairness as justice. In other words, the reason we have the rules we do is to ensure that justice is served. So, for example, the reason we adhere so closely to exam regulations is because we believe that this is the best way of ensuring the most deserving candidates are the most successful. The only reason we retain the idea of fairness as impartiality is because often determining desert is a subjective and contriversial matter: ensuring independent and acceptable standards forestalls disagreement.

If something is fair if people get what they deserve, this still leaves the tricky question of determining what constitutes desert. I would suggest that a reasonable first principle is that people cannot deserve something because of factors beyond their control. To deserve something, in its ordinary sense, I would suggest that you have to do something. Desert, I propose, has to be earned. This is why injustices such as feudalism and the caste system anger people so much - because people are exalted to a higher status without having done anything to achieve it, simply by having the good fortune of being born to the right parents.

If we accept this link between desert and responsibility, then determinism rears its head again. If we can only earn the right to deserve something by virtue of the things we are responsible for then the determinist's claim that we are responsible for nothing undermines the idea of desert (and so, fairness).

There are a number of links in this chain, and I'm not certain about any of them - this is not meant to be conclusive, by any stretch of the imagination. Firstly, it is not clear that the two versions of fairness I have described cover the entirety of the concept. There could be simpler and better ways of analysing it. Second, fairness as impartiality might not be so easily reducible to fairness as justice. Third, some might not accept the identification of justice with desert. Fourthly, desert might be separable from responsibility. My tentative conclusion is that the idea of fairness is too contradictory and ad hoc to be worth pursuing. It seems at best a proxy for other values. If, like Hutton, your job is to define fairness, it appears your best strategy is to examine closely the principles underwriting it.

Friday, 16 July 2010

Raoul Moat and Moral Responsibility

Public opinion regarding the Raoul Moat case has reached a familiar fork in the road. On the one hand, those sympathetic to Moat try to portray him as a person with mental health issues, let down by the authorities and society. On the other, some, like the Prime Minister, see him as “a callous murderer, full stop, end of story”. It is a debate that seems to emerge every time there is a high profile crime like this (see, for instance, the apologists for Joseph Fritzl, on the grounds that he was abused as a child).

Yet the disagreement is deeper and more significant than it appears on the surface. It is not simply the usual face-off between bleeding-heart liberals and uncaring conservatives. Rather, the difficulty that most people have in digesting such events has its roots in age-old philosophical tension between determinism and moral responsibility.

Determinism is the idea that all events are inevitable, the result of an inescapable chain of causation that began in the big bang. At its root is the belief that everything can be explained causally. Just as physical phenomena like the tides and the seasons can be understood and accounted for, the same is true for human characteristics and behaviour. The nature-nurture debate exemplifies this idea, seeking to understand how genetic and environmental factors make us the way we are.

The problem with determinism is that it appears to be inconsistent with free will and moral responsibility. If all my thoughts and actions can be explained causally, then it is unjustified to hold me accountable for my actions. I could not have acted in any way other than I did, so why should I be praised or blamed?

The relevance of these ideas to Raoul Moat should be clear. The thoroughgoing determinist will insist that Moat cannot be held responsible for the unfortunate murders that occurred: they were just the result of a toxic mix of circumstance and character that ended tragically. They will claim that you simply cannot put a person like Raoul Moat in a desperate situation like the one he was in, and not expect him to go on a murderous rampage. And Raoul Moat surely did not choose to be the sort of person prone to murderous outbursts, so it would be unfair to blame him for his actions.

The difficulty that society and the media face is their inability to reconcile two inconsistent propositions – that our actions are greatly conditioned by outside forces, and that we are morally responsible for what we do. The result is that certain forms of conditioning – mental disorder, childhood disadvantage – are seen as genuine mitigation, whereas others are not.

The determinist will insist that the question of whether Moat had a ‘genuine excuse’ for his actions as irrelevant. It is a matter of degree, and the threshold for sympathy, the point at which we characterise a person’s actions as involuntary, is arbitrary. To draw an analogy, what is the difference between a kleptomaniac and a person who simply finds the urge to steal harder than most to resist? We all have different inclinations, good and evil, of different strengths and we vary in our capacity to fight them. These are facts about ourselves that we do not choose.

The pertinent question in the aftermath of an incident like this has nothing to do with the character of the protagonists. If we dig deep enough for excuses, we will always find them, because Moat’s actions, like all of ours, were shaped by forces beyond his ken or control. Whether Raoul Moat was a good or a bad man is neither here nor there. The point is that something clearly undesirable (the shootings) has occurred, and the question is how we can avoid things like this happening again.

Ironically, this question feeds right back into the existing discussion. When the Moat sympathisers criticise the authorities for their inability to help him and neutralise the threat that he posed, they are trying to ensure that there is not another Raoul Moat. If social services or the police force act differently, they may prevent people like Raoul Moat being in positions like the one he found himself in.

Those that condemn Raoul Moat, on the other hand, focus excessively on pinning the blame on him, on holding him accountable for his actions. Nevertheless, it is possible that they are unconsciously working towards the same goal as the sympathisers. It is important to understand that while the literal truth of moral responsibility may be redundant, there is still good reason to keep up the pretence that we are morally responsible. A world where those who did wrong were not criticised or punished, by conscience, society or law, would be a world with much more wrongdoing. Therefore, even though it is not fair to blame Moat for his actions, it is necessary to denounce him to show would-be Raoul Moats the cost of behaving in such a manner.

There is a debate to be had, now that Raoul Moat is dead. But it has nothing to do with the man’s legacy. It is rather the question of how best to prevent such events from occurring again.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

What's Wrong With Progressive Taxation?

Given that ‘progressive’ seems to be the buzzword of the coalition, and that its critics have slammed the rise in VAT as ‘regressive’, it is strange that both supporters and opponents of the government seem to have forgotten about progressive taxation. Progressive taxes are those which fall heavier upon the rich, proportionate to their income. Income tax is the most prominent example – those on higher incomes have to pay a higher rate.

Much of the debate around the government’s response to the budget deficit has focused on its inequity. Cuts to public services and benefits affect the poor more than the rich. Public sector job cuts harm the most vulnerable. The regressive nature of VAT means it is a tax with a disproportionate effect on the budgets of poorer households. Yet few have dared to mention the alternative: raising taxes on the rich.

There are notable exceptions: the political philosopher Martin O’Neill has written in defence of redistributive taxation in the Guardian. Similarly, the IPPR has argued that the excessive focus on government spending and the relative neglect of taxation is “arbitrary”. However, George Osborne maintains that “The country has overspent; it has not been under-taxed”.

This sounds like dogma. The tax burden in the UK today is relatively low, both by international and historical standards. British taxpayers pay considerably less than the OECD average. Similarly, for most of the period under the Thatcher government, the basic rate of income tax was 30%, and the top rate 60%. Today, the basic rate is 20% and the top rate 40% (though this has been temporarily raised to 50%).

However, the left needs to be careful. The right has been criticised for putting ideology before economics in their apparent zeal to dismantle the state. The left (wherever it is) needs to be careful that it is not similarly doctrinaire about taxing the rich. We might hate inequality, and see taxation as an important means of fighting it, but we must be careful not to be vindictive and counterproductive. The potential flaw in O’Neill’s argument is that he assumes that taxing the rich is an effective substitute for cutting spending. But the right may well protest that it is not. Indeed, Osborne believes that economic sense is on his side: “Our approach is supported by the international evidence, compiled by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, the International Monetary Fund and others, which found that consolidations delivered through lower spending are more effective at correcting deficits and boosting growth than consolidations delivered through tax increases”

There is some truth to this: the economic evidence does support Osborne's claim that spending cuts are more efficient than raising taxes when tackling a budget deficit. Yet the Conservatives are misleading us if they intend us to think that raising taxes is not a practical or feasible alternative. Indeed, in two-thirds of previous efforts at budget consolidation, revenue raising has been more significant than cuts. Indeed, Stephanie Guichard, author of one of the OECD reports to which Osborne alludes, has admitted “in-depth reforms of public expenditure are supposed to produce stronger consolidations, but in practice it can be easier to increase taxes if you want to get quick results”.

It appears, therefore, that there is some economic justification for the coalition’s strategy to cut the deficit. Yet there are at least three grounds for dissent. Firstly, it is not clear that the evidence justifies such an overwhelming bias towards cuts: most adjustments seek a 50:50 ratio between cuts and tax rises; Osborne’s aim is 80:20.

Second, where taxes are being raised, it is unclear that they are the right ones. VAT is rightly condemned as a regressive tax. In a time of stagnant demand, a VAT rise is hardly beneficial for growth. Given how Labour were pilloried for their ‘jobs tax’ (a rise in national insurance), it is odd that so few have picked up on the potential consequences of a rise in sales tax – a tax on economic activity. Of course, progressive taxes such as income tax can have a negative influence on growth too, but this largely depends on the strength of the link between taxes and work incentives, which is far from clear.

Most crucially, though, efficiency is not the only concern. There is nothing stupid or irrational about a society choosing a less economically efficient course if they believe that it is fairer. If it comes to it, many would sacrifice a smaller burden on the poor for a greater burden on the rich.

It is still far from self-evident that this discredits the existing government policy. But it is clear that there is a viable alternative to heavy cuts. What we need is more of a debate about the merits of the alternative.

The Vocation of Politics

With apologies to Max Weber, I believe there is a useful distinction between the two motives for participating in politics. For some, politics is a career; for others, it is a vocation. Political action brings the prospect of a job, of money, of fame and respect. Yet there are many who would remain equally passionate about their activities in the absence of all these inducements. For sure, the dichotomy is far from clear-cut: in almost every political participant there is a mix of the two motives. It seems unlikely that many careerist politicians have no deep-rooted political interests or inclinations, and even the most ardent of activists needs to make a living. Nevertheless, within each person, I believe we can distinguish these two motivational forces.

It is the idea of politics as a vocation, akin to the fervour that moves priests, that is the more interesting. Why do some feel as though politics has chosen them, rather than them consciously choosing politics? I believe that the most powerful spurs to political action are anger and outrage. People are driven to political participation by their frustration and dissent at the immorality, irrationality and stupidity that they perceive in others. Reformers and revolutionaries are inspired to action by their anger at the status quo and at received modes of thinking, conservatives by their opposition to proposals for change. I believe there is a threshold of outrage beyond which people cannot help themselves but act, and that this threshold is different for different people. Thus in times of great contention and mutual antagonism, a great number of people are motivated to act – in civil wars, independence and suffrage movements. Yet for the most part, the vast majority of people are content with the way things are, and too little provoked to feel the need for action.

Yet there is almost always a dissatisfied minority, and it seems I am among them. Despite growing up in an era of apathy, complacence and consensus, I find myself upset and angered by the most everyday of beliefs and activities. I feel the vast majority of the world acts callously and unethically, and yet feels no remorse or shame about it. Most people around me carry on as if their behaviour is justified and fail to even consider the possibility they may be in the wrong. Indeed, the way most people are set up to think makes it difficult for them to even conceive of how they are doing wrong.

Of course, when faced by such an overwhelming majority, it is necessary to consider the possibility, indeed the likelihood, that everyone else is right, and that you are a lone crackpot. Yet lone crackpots have often been ignored voices of reason, and the majority have regularly been proved by posterity to be wrong. In fact, I claim very few of my opinions to be original, and there is some comfort in knowing that you are not alone. But the comfort is scant as compared to the crushing dismay I feel at the lives and opinions of the society I live in.

The Point of this blog (Insofar as there is one)

This is just meant to be a dumping ground for random musings, thoughts and ideas, mostly of a political nature. They will not all be rigorously argued, well researched or always coherent. Hopefully there will be some insight buried in here somewhere. However, the main point of all this is to keep up the practice of formulating and articulating my thoughts. Treat these with the generosity you would give to someone wondering aloud (in other words, be gentle with me).