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.