Thursday, 18 December 2014

Quotation of the Day...

From Don Boudreaux:
"… is from the abstract of Solomon Polachek’s and Carlos Seiglie’s important 2006 paper, “Trade, Peace and Democracy: An Analysis of Dyadic Dispute“:
At least since 1750 when Baron de Montesquieu declared peace is the natural effect of trade, a number of economists and political scientists espoused the notion that trade among nations leads to peace….  The greater two nations’ gain from trade the more costly is bilateral (dyadic) conflict.  This notion forms the basis of Baron de Montesquieu’s assertion regarding dyadic dispute.  This paper develops an analytical framework showing that higher gains from trade between two trading partners (dyads) lowers the level of conflict between them….  Crosssectional evidence using various data on political interactions confirms that trading nations cooperate more and fight less.  A doubling of trade leads to a 20% diminution of belligerence."
A slice from the rest of Prof. Boudreaux's post, which is well worth reading in it's entirety [emphasis added]:
"When people trade they must engage with others, mostly strangers; when people trade across political borders they must engage with greater numbers of strangers still.  This trade, though, makes the strangers less strange to each other, because each learns better what the other is like and what the other likes and dislikes.  Trade is peaceful, and so it reveals to each trader the other’s humanity; war reveals the other’s brutality.  Each party to every trade gains; with war, one party certainly losses, and even the ‘winner’ might well, in the end, have lost so much to have made the entire activity a losing proposition."

and to file under sentences I wish I'd written:
"The retaliation incited by war is negative-sum and stupid: “You killed someone whose passport is issued by the same agency as that issues my passport, so I’ll kill someone whose passport is issued by the same agency that issues your passport.  That’ll teach you!”"

Monday, 15 September 2014

Did Industry Cause Nations?

That is the title of an excellent post by Robin Hanson over on his Overcoming Bias blog.  A slice:

"Nation states still thrive on a widely held belief that “the world is naturally made of distinct, homogeneous national or tribal groups which occupy separate portions of the globe, and claim most people’s primary allegiance”. But anthropological research does not bear that out, he says. Even in tribal societies, ethnic and cultural pluralism has always been widespread. Multilingualism is common, cultures shade into each other, and language and cultural groups are not congruent. …"

Monday, 18 August 2014

Thoughts on the Scottish Independence Debate

Warning: This post is very long and somewhat wonky.

I realise that I'm quite a bit behind here, but I only had the time to watch the debate last weekend and then had to find the time to write all this down during the last week.

General thoughts:
I found Alex Salmond to be relatively weak, particularly on the issue of a formal currency union with the rest of the UK.  He was evasive of questions that obviously made him uncomfortable.  He quoted Darling out of context and several times referred to obscure documents rather than answer questions directly.  I find the case for independence to be lacking, particularly of any really good, practical reasons for why we should want to be independent.

Alistair Darling's performance was perhaps slightly stronger, although he missed a few tricks.  His best moments were when he quipped to Alex Salmond that "I didn't vote for you." and with his observation that a formal currency union between Scotland and the rest of the UK would require agreement on both sides.  I think Darling was needlessly evasive when questioned by Salmond on whether he thought that Scotland could be a successful independent country, probably out of fear of how it would look of how he might be later quoted out of context (judging by this debate, most likely by Salmond himself).

Opening Statements:
Alex Salmond opened by citing figures of 49 out of 71 Commonwealth countries and 12 out of the 28 EU countries are the same size or smaller than Scotland [pop. 5.3 million]; presumably by way of example that there are plenty of successful small countries and that therefore Scotland could be as well.  The 49 out of 71 Commonwealth countries figure is disingenuous, since not all 71 of these 'countries' are independent states - for example England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Gibraltar, the Falkland Islands, St. Helena. and the Cayman Islands to name but a few which are not.  There are 53 independent states in the Commonwealth, 31 of which are smaller than Scotland, one - Singapore [pop: 5.4 million] is about the same size and another one - Sierra Leone [pop: 5.8 million] is not much bigger.  I'm absolutely baffled as to why Salmond would present these figures like this, since the reality doesn't weaken the point he was making anyway.  The 12 out of 28 EU countries figure is perfectly reasonable; there are 9 EU countries smaller than Scotland and 3 of roughly the same size: Slovakia, Finland and Denmark.

He mentions the large number of food banks in Glasgow and rhetorically asks how there can be people reliant on them in this prosperous country [Scotland].  The implication presumably that it is due to failings on the part of the UK government in Westminster.

He then alludes to the Trident nuclear weapons at Faslane and states that £100,000 million (i.e. £100 billion) is planned to be spent on them "over the next generation", of which £8 billion is "Scotland's money" (by which he means is the equivalent paid in tax by the people of Scotland in order to cover this expense).  This is a drop in the ocean compared to other government expenditure, something I've already covered in another post here.

He mentions that for more than half of his life Scotland has been governed by parties that "we" didn't elect at Westminster and that these parties have given us the "Poll Tax" and the "Bedroom Tax" (which of course is not a tax).

Salmond ends his opening statement by stating that: "No-one, absolutely no-one will do a better job of running Scotland than the people who live and work in Scotland." this is a very reasonable point taken in isolation, but it strikes me as somewhat ideologically inconsistent to support Scottish independence on this basis whilst simultaneously expressing a desire for an independent Scotland to remain within the EU.  He's essentially taken polar opposite positions regarding the UK and the EU.

Alistair Darling's opening statement contained exactly what you would have expected it to, he stated that he was proud of Scotland and wants it to prosper, but doesn't believe independence is the best thing to do and cited the strength of the UK.  He advocated a "best of both Worlds" approach.

Economic Prosperity & Social Justice:
The debate began with the themes of economic prosperity and social justice, which were bizarrely lumped together.  Economic prosperity is self-explanatory enough, but the definition of "social justice" is more difficult to nail down and I suspect many people understand it to encompass various different things.  The reason I find it odd that these two things are lumped together is that certain things which some people would consider part of the definition of "social justice" I view as being at odds with economic prosperity.

Darling claimed that as part of the UK, Scotland enjoys unimpeded access to a much bigger market.  This would be a good point were it not for the existence of the EU, which provides the same benefit across all 28 member states.  He also observed that Scotland enjoys additional security as part of a bigger country.

Alex Salmond stated he had a "vision for Scotland" which includes a prosperous country/economy and a 'just' society; at no point did he define what he meant by 'just'.  He referenced over 30,000 children in Scotland in poverty due to social security changes (he wasn't specific on what social security changes specifically).  He also mentioned the "bedroom tax" (a misnomer since IT IS NOT A TAX!) affecting 80,000 families in Scotland.  He didn't offer any discussion on how these issues would be any better/worse in an independent Scotland.

Salmond went on to cite a "risk assessment" by a "major accountancy company" completed "last week" which ranked Scottish independence as the 6th risk behind the UK leaving the Euro amongst other things.*  The whole point was rather incoherent - how do you compare such a diverse wide array of potential risks that may or may not affect a nation and rank them.  Even if you can do so, the 6th biggest risk is really high up the list of all possible risks (which is an infinitely long list).

Asked about the risk that the Union will keep pensioners poor Alistair Darling noted that being part of a bigger, stronger economy spreads the risk.

On Salmond's point that an independent Scotland would always get the government "it" voted for Darling quipped that he didn't vote for Alex Salmond.  As I mentioned here this was more than just a joke, it highlights an important fundamental truth about democracy.

Right at the end of the first part of the debate a gentleman in the audience asked Alex Salmond how ending peoples reliance on food banks is to be achieved in an independent Scotland, whether it is by encouraging people who are able to make a contribution or whether by raising taxes and paying out more in benefits.  Unfortunately ITV cut back to their "spin room" immediately after this excellent question was asked and they never returned to it for the rest of the debate, so Salmond got away without having to detail any specifics of his proposed means to this end.

Darling pointed out that a formal currency union between Scotland and the rest of the UK would require agreement on both sides.  Darling was very persistent in trying to get an answer out of Salmond on what is his plan B if an independent Scotland is unable to negotiate a formal currency union with the rest of the UK?  I found Salmond's response to be very weak, he repeatedly avoided the question stating only that a currency union was in Scotland's best interests and that he would therefore push for that.  When pressed on the issue he refused to give any clarity on any alternative arrangements.  A casual observer could easily take this as an admission of not having a plan B.

Salmond referenced the Fiscal Commission Working Group Report, which you can read in full online here.  Salmond referred to page 4 of the report, but that's just part of a Foreword, the actual bit we're interested in here is Chapter 7 (pp. 121) and the "Technical Annex - Assessment of Key Currency Options"

In a nutshell, the report sets out 5 potential options for currency in an independent Scotland:
  1. Formal monetary union with the UK
  2. Informal monetary union with the UK (sterlingisation)
  3. Join Euro
  4. Set-up new Scottish currency (floating exchange rate)
  5. Set-up new Scottish currency (fixed exchange rate)

Salmond quoted Darling speaking on Newsnight Scotland describing a currency union between an independent Scotland and the rest of the UK as "logical" and "desirable" for both countries.  This is selective quoting by Salmond who has cherry-picked these words specifically to make it look like Darling has either backtracked (Gasp! Someone changing their mind? - How awful!) or is being disingenuous now.  In fact, if you watch the clip you'll see Darling has been remarkably consistent in his views on a potential currency union - he states that it makes sense within the context of political union (and points out that this is what we have now!).  Watch the clip here and get the full context of his comments for yourselves.

Salmond then quoted David Cameron saying that Scotland could be a successful independent country and pressed Alistair Darling on whether he agreed with this statement.   I think Darling was needlessly evasive of this question.  I think Salmond was probably correct when he stated that Darling probably does agree with the statement, but just doesn't want to say so for fear of how it will look (or possibly for fear of how it will later be quoted out of context by Salmond).  I think this was a waste of an opportunity for Darling, he could have said something along the lines of:

"Yes, I do, but I think that Scotland can be even more successful as part of the UK."

Or, he could have asked Salmond to clarify exactly what he meant by "successful"?  There are all sorts of different criteria by which we could reasonably measure success.

Audience Questions:
Alistair Darling pointed out that public spending per head in Scotland is higher than in the rest of the UK - something that he supports.  I disagree that this is necessarily something to be supported in and of itself.**  That being said, I think Darling's answer touched on two important points: firstly, that Scotland is financially better off as part of the UK; secondly, and more importantly, even if Scotland would be financially better off if it were independent from the rest of the UK, using this as a justification for independence is on shaky moral grounds.  An analogy: the 10% of richest people in the country could be financially better off were they independent from the other 90% as they then wouldn't have to subsidise or support poorer members of society - does anyone seriously think that's a good justification for the richest 10% to secede from the rest of the UK and declare themselves independent?

It's interesting that there's a general narrative amongst the nationalists that the Scottish people would be better off financially if Scotland were independent from the rest of the UK (since they wouldn't be subsidising others in other parts of the UK on average), but at the same time they pursue statist policies, including taxpayer funded higher education, taxpayer funded medical prescriptions, etc. and that they don't seem to see a contradiction in these positions.  The whole nationalist narrative is full of contradictions and seems to be based around a general xenophobia or misplaced feelings of oppression rather than based on any fundamental principles as such.

Darling references this IFS report and suggests that in the event of Scottish independence, in the early years of independence circa £6 billion of cuts would be required.  I'm assuming Darling has estimated this from the figure of £6.4 billion reported in Table 1 (pp. 19) as the budget deficit of Scotland in tax year 2010-2011 (the most recent year covered in the IFS report) based on a geographical share of North Sea oil & gas revenue (the most realistic, but also the most optimistic case).

Darling described "free" (read: taxpayer funded) higher education as a "theoretical right" in reference to cuts of 130,000 college places.  I don't like this - basically because it is an outright nonsense.  "Free" higher education cannot possibly be a right for anyone because it costs resources to provide.  This is the distinction between negative rights and positive "rights".  If there were a right to receive education without paying for it directly that would put an obligation on someone else to pay for that education - who is that someone else and why should they be paying rather that the person receiving (the vast majority of) the benefit of the education?  This blog post is already far too long to get into a detailed discussion of such concepts, so I'll save any further comment for another day.

Alex Salmond answering questions on the issue of pensions referred to Scotland's declining working age population.  He referred also to 37,000 young people leaving Scotland each year and spoke about retaining these skilled people within Scotland and ensuring they are allowed to stay here.  He gave no details about how he planned to achieve this or how it would be any easier/better within an independent Scotland.

Darling attempted to emphasise the additional economic opportunity that comes with being a part of the UK.

Closing Statements:
Darling's closing statement was a narrative of not introducing any new borders or boundaries to increasing wealth and opportunities and the additional security that comes from being part of a larger country such as the UK.

Salmond's closing statement was a reiteration of the points he made in his opening statement.  He emphasised that Westminster governments have often not reflected the votes of the Scottish population, that Scotland is a wealthy nation with abundant natural resources and that this can be used as a basis for a more 'just' society and that no-one will govern Scotland better than the people who live and work here.

* It would have been helpful if he'd mentioned the name of the company that carried out this "risk assessment" - the cynic in me suspects that no such document exists and it's all rhetoric.
** I'm in favour of public spending being as low as possible - after all, the goal is not to spend as much money as possible, it's to get the best and most cost-effective results possible.  Put another way - we want to get as many public goods/services as possible for the lowest possible cost.  One is also reminded of the law of diminishing returns as well as the fact that one will never spend others money so carefully as they would spend their own.

Friday, 15 August 2014

An Open Letter to Alex Salmond: Democracy & the "Will" of the People

Mr Salmond,

During the recent Scottish Independence Debate between yourself and Alistair Darling,you made the statement that for more than half of your life Scotland has been governed by parties that "we" (by which you mean the people of Scotland) didn't elect at Westminster and that these parties have given us the "Poll Tax" and the "Bedroom Tax" (by which you are referring to the under-occupancy penalty, which of course, you know as well as I do, is not a tax).

I would like to point out, that for my entire life I have been governed by parties that I didn't elect at either Westminster or Holyrood.  This is part of the nature of democracy - sometimes you get stuck with some politician or some party that you didn't vote for (most of the time if you happen to be a libertarian or a true liberal).  Your adversary Mr Darling observed as much when he quipped about not having voted for you.  This was more than a joke, he clearly understands this important truth concerning the nature of democracy.

Indeed, by your standards the UK has been governed by parties that "we" (by which I mean all of the people of the UK) didn't elect at Westminster for my, and indeed your, entire life.  Not for eighty-three years, since the 1931 UK General Election, has any single party won an absolute majority of votes.  That is to say, for every single one of the 19 UK General Elections held since 1931, the majority of voters in the UK have voted against whomever was in power at Westminster.

Furthermore, implicit in your statement that "we" the Scottish people didn't elect those parties in Westminster is the idea, to borrow Don Boudreaux's words, that a "multitudinous and extraordinarily complex and diverse group of individuals" (i.e. "the Scottish people") can have "anything reasonably called "a representative" or an agent or agency that carries out its 'will'."  I completely reject such a notion - "[g]roups of people have no 'will'.  It is mistaken anthropomorphism to imagine otherwise."

The distinction which you implicitly draw between "we" the Scottish people and "we" the British (and Northern Irish) people is completely arbitrary.  When politicians move political boundaries to their own advantage we call it gerrymandering.  This argument which you put forward during the debate is nothing more than an argument for gerrymandering on a national scale.

I assure you that I feel more kinship and national identity in common with my English wife and with many English friends, colleagues and acquaintances I have known throughout my life than with you or any of your nationalist party colleagues.


Thursday, 14 August 2014

On the Cost of Trident

During the Scottish Independence Debate between Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling, Mr Salmond alluded to the Trident nuclear weapons at Faslane and stated that £100,000 million (i.e. £100 billion) is planned to be spent on them "over the next generation", of which £8 billion is "Scotland's money" (by which he of course means is the equivalent forcibly extracted in tax from individuals living & working in Scotland in order to pay for this expense).

He's not explicit about exactly what time frame is a generation.  Assuming a generation is say 30 years and taking these figures on face value, that means £3.33 billion per year, of which £270 million per year is coming from Scottish taxpayers.

The UK government budget 2014 estimates total expenditure of £732 billion in 2014-15 (ignore for now that they also estimate revenue to be only £648 billion - if you earned £648 per week would you think it a particularly sensible policy to spend £732 per week?)

Scotland represents approximately 8% of the UK in population terms, so assuming similar patterns of taxation and spending as in the UK as a whole (it's not going to be exactly the same, but it'll be close enough for my back-of-the-envelope estimate), total government spending in an independent Scotland would be circa. £59 billion.

£270 million is less than 0.05% of £59 billion - that's a rounding error!  It's about 50 quid per person per year.

To put this into perspective, the UK government is forecast to spend £222 billion on 'Social protection' this year alone (this includes state pensions, child benefit and jobseekers allowance) - that's billion with a b.  This works out at over £3400 per person.  That's 68 times larger (or two orders of magnitude larger) than spending on nuclear weapons.

Believing that Scotland should get rid of it's nuclear weapons on the basis that you don't agree with them on moral grounds or on other principles is one thing, but to argue for getting rid of them on the basis of cost is a very weak argument indeed when their cost is so much smaller than so many other things the government spends our money on.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

The Bedroom Tax is not a Tax

Warning: This is a bit of a bugbear of mine, what follows is pretty much just a rant.

Disclaimer: Just to get it out in the open before I get any complaints about defending this unpopular policy: I am not a fan of the under-occupancy penalty, I think it is unfair to large numbers of people, many of whom will be among the most vulnerable members of our society (minorities, the poor, the sick and the disabled).  This post should not be taken as a defence of the policy, which I oppose.  This post is merely about the term "bedroom tax" which is an inaccurate and misleading way to describe this policy.  I think it may also be counter-productive for opponents of the policy to label it such, in much the same way as calling anyone who disagrees with your political leanings a communist, a Nazi or (most commonly) a fascist.

[Begin Rant]

Let me state explicitly and to avoid any ambiguity: the "bedroom tax" is NOT A TAX!

I'm talking about the under-occupancy penalty - to give it it's proper name - which is part of the Welfare Reform Act 2012.

So, if it's not a tax, what is it?  It is a reduction in benefits paid out to people living in council housing deemed to have "spare" or "unoccupied" rooms.  Some people may read this and think to themselves "what's the difference?"  I suspect that that's how the colloquialism "bedroom tax" came about in the first place.  Someone has equated a withdrawal of benefits to a tax.  And taxes are bad, right?  So, the bedroom tax must be bad!

Whilst I agree with the conclusion, it is not because of this argument.  The problem here lies in the first premise, that equating of a withdrawal of benefits to a tax.

From the perspective of an individual, a reduction in benefits and the levying of a tax may look the same and may have exactly the same consequences for the individual concerned.  For example, imagine Dave currently works part-time in a low wage job, he doesn't earn enough to pay Income Tax or National Insurance (Social Security) contributions.  He also receives some money paid to him by the government in benefits of some sort (e.g. Child Benefit, Working Tax Credits, Carer's Allowance, etc.).  Now, imagine the government alters the tax rules, so that Dave now has an annual tax bill of £200, but his benefit payments remain unchanged.  The effect of this is obvious: Dave is £200 per year worse off, he's going to have to cut back on £200 per year of consumption (or saving) or draw into any savings he may have.

Now, lets imagine an alternate scenario where Dave's tax bill (from Income Tax + NI) remains zero, but in this alternative universe the government reduces Dave's benefits payments by £200 per year.  What is the effect on Dave and his consumption?  The answer of course is exactly the same as in the previous scenario where Dave's benefit payments were untouched, but he was taxed more heavily: Dave is again £200 per year worse off and he's going to have to cut back on £200 per year of consumption.

This is, I suspect, where shallow thinking has led some to conclude that:

Reduction in Benefits = Tax


Under-Occupancy Penalty = Bedroom Tax

The problem with this equivocation is that taxes and benefits are not morally equivalent.  This becomes apparent if, instead of looking at it from the perspective of a single individual affected by the changes, we look at it from the much wider perspective of society as a whole:

If the government reduces the benefits it pays out to Dave, it must also reduce the amount it taxes Nick (all other spending remaining equal), since all benefits payments are someone else's taxes.  The government has no money of it's own, it merely shuffles money around between individuals.  This offsetting benefit to Nick exactly cancels out the harm done to Dave (in strict monetary terms).  Whether or not this is good or bad policy depends on the specific circumstances of Dave and Nick and crucially it requires a value judgement.  A similar story can of course be told regarding taxes, albeit the opposite way around.  If the government increases the taxes it charges Nick then it can increase the benefits it pays out to Dave.  Again, a value judgement is required to judge the merits of such a policy change.

The key difference is that a tax is the government taking money by force (or the threat of force - if you don't pay your taxes you can go to jail) from an individual who has rightfully earned that money.  A benefit is the government giving out money which it did not rightfully earn (whoever paid the tax to fund that benefit did).

Viewed in these terms then a reduction in benefit is seen to correspond to a reduction in tax, or in other words a reduction (however minor) in the coercive power of the state.

An increase in tax is precisely the opposite - an increase in the coercive power of the state.

From the libertarian perspective the former is unambiguously a good thing and the latter a bad thing.  However, that being said, policy changes that reduce the coercive power of the state still have to be weighed up against the harm that they inflict upon individuals.  In my opinion there is a long list of more desirable policy changes which could be made to reduce the coercive power of the state which I'd rather see implemented (e.g. university tuition fees and prescription fees in Scotland) and the under-occupancy penalty scrapped.

[End Rant]

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Caplan & Boudreaux on Nationalism

Bryan Caplan has written an open letter to nationalism, which is posted here.

Don Boudreaux reflects on this at Cafe Hayek.  A slice from Don's post (do read the whole thing, it is full of Don's characteristic wisdom and insight):

"I reject also the superstition that that particular political institution... is a faithful representative of that multitudinous and extraordinarily complex and diverse group of individuals commonly called “the American people.”  Indeed, I go further and reject even the possibility that such a group of people can possibly ever have anything reasonably called “a representative” or an agent or agency that carries out its ‘will.’  (Groups of people have no ‘will.’  It is mistaken anthropomorphism to imagine otherwise.)"

"I feel no, I owe no, and I will never give any allegiance to any nation or any government as such.  My allegiance is to whatever peoples and institutions promote human freedom, flourishing, and peace."

Well said.  It is heartening to know that we share this world with such clear thinkers as Boudreaux and Caplan.

Monday, 2 June 2014

One Man and His Bike

Who is the victim of this alleged "crime"?
"A man caught trying to have sex with his bicycle has been sentenced to three years on probation."
"Mr Stewart was caught in the act with his bicycle by cleaners in his bedroom at the Aberley House Hostel in Ayr."
"They used a master key to unlock the door..."
"The accused was holding the bike and moving his hips back and forth as if to simulate sex.  Both cleaners, who were "extremely shocked", told the hostel manager who called police."
"Stewart had denied the offence, claiming it was caused by a misunderstanding after he had too much to drink."
So, this guy has a bit too much to drink, goes home and decides to get it on with his bicycle* in the privacy of his own room.  A couple of cleaners use their master key to unwittingly enter his room whilst this is going on and rather than everyone simply being extremely embarrassed, the police are called and the guy ends up in court, sentenced to 3 years probation and with even more embarrassment as this story is publicised in the national media.

I utterly fail to see what crime has been committed or who exactly is the victim here?  All sex acts are morally okay so long as they are taking place between consenting adults.  Since no other people were involved, just one man and his bike, there's no crime being committed here, however weird an act it may be.

I cannot understand the mental processes of the cleaners here.  Who, if they were to walk into someone's bedroom and accidentally catch them in the middle of any sort of individual sexual act, would think that calling the police is the best, or even an appropriate, response?  The appropriate response is to quickly apologise to the person whose privacy you have intruded on and promptly leave.

The bizarreness of the act in this case does not change the situation in any substantive way.  However unorthodox, weird, terrifying or disgusting you may find someone else's sexual preferences and habits as long as they are not agressing against another person (or animal) there is nothing morally wrong and we should simply live and let live.

* Quite how the mechanics of this would work I'm not entirely sure.  I refuse to Google it, there are some things which I am happy to remain ignorant of.

Saturday, 31 May 2014

Tyler Cowen on Scottish Independence

The ever thoughtful, insightful and wise Tyler Cowen has posted some thoughts on Scottish Independence over on Marginal Revolution.  A slice:

"[The Union of 1707] truly was a cornerstone of the modern world"

"For all its flaws, the UK remains one of the very best and most successful countries the world has seen, ever."

"If a significant segment of the British partnership wishes to leave, and for no really good practical reason, it is a sign that something is deeply wrong with contemporary politics and with our standards for loyalties."

Needless to say I shall be voting no in September.

If you don't vote you can't complain!

I was inspired to write this post after turning on my TV this morning to be greeted by the image of Ian McMillan (who I had no idea who he was until today) on BBC Breakfast talking about the Newark by-election.  Quite apart from the fact that he also seemed to believe (erroneously) that a single voter could make a difference (even in a closely contested by-election, how often does it come down to a single vote?), he also made the following declaration:
"If you don't vote, don't complain.  If you don't vote it's nowt [sic] to do with you."
This seems to be a ubiquitous sentiment amongst people of various political leanings.  It is also something with which I happen to completely disagree.

Firstly, the fact that a person has (correctly) concluded that their vote has a negligible chance of making any difference whatsoever and therefore (rationally) decided that there are better uses of their time* than reading through flyers, manifestos, propaganda and other policy documents does not in any way make their opinions and preferences carry any less weight than someone who has made the alternative choice to vote.  Every single person is equally entitled to their opinion and equally entitled to complain, campaign, support or protest in whatever (peaceful) way they see fit, this extends to those who either could not or chose not to vote.

Secondly, refraining from voting can itself be a form of protest.  Admittedly, the problem with protesting in this way is it isn't possible from voting turnout figures to distinguish those who didn't vote out of protest from those who were apathetic, lazy or indeed simply had better things to do*.

One could argue that those who don't vote out of principal or in protest actually have more of a right to complain that those of us who do.  If you happen to have voted in favour of the candidate/party/policy which wins an election/referendum you have implicitly given your consent to be governed/represented/constrained by said candidate/party/policy and legitimised the use of certain powers and constraints over you and those you care about.  Even if you vote against the eventual winner, by participating in the election/referendum process you accept that process as legitimate and therefore implicitly accept the outcome of that process.

Say that you voted for the Libertarian Party at the last General Election.  Since the Libertarian Party have no MPs you would feel that your views have little to no representation in Parliament.  Chances are high that your representative in the House of Commons is either a Conservative or Labour party member (possibly a Liberal Democrat).  Whichever of the major parties they represent, you didn't vote for them.  You think that this therefore gives you the right to complain about them, their party and everything they do and stand for.  However, you still participated in the process which saw them elected.  You just don't like the outcome in this particular instance, in other words you don't like the choices that most other people have made.  But, you agreed to participate in the process which resulted in that outcome!

I say free speech to all.  This means it doesn't matter whether you vote or not you still have every right to express your opinions in whatever peaceful ways you see fit.  Let the non-voters complain if they've got something they think is worth complaining about!

* Some examples of better uses of ones time than voting include: spending time with ones family / friends / loved ones, working to provide for oneself and ones family, spending time at a hobby, doing some DIY/redecorating to improve ones home, enjoying a good meal, enjoying a music concert, etc.

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Public Health and the Regulatory State

That's the title of a recent post by Eric Crampton over on Offsetting Behaviour and also of the paper he discusses therein, by Pierre Lemieux.

A slice:
 "Contemporary public health cannot be pursued without lifestyle controls, and lifestyle controls cannot be imposed without harming some real individuals."

 "The vast majority of the costs tallied in these studies, when not simply fabrications of double-counting, are costs smokers, or drinkers, or the obese, impose on themselves. But they're presented to the public as "costs to the country" rather than "costs incurred by the obese, smokers, and heavy drinkers.""

(Emphasis added)

If you don't already read Offsetting Behaviour you really should.  I've been following it for several years now and it remains one of my favourite blogs.

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Bad Infographic of the Day

Whilst browsing the MoneySavingExpert website over lunch today I came across this good example of a bad infographic:

It appears on the page about cheaper fuel and is intended to illustrate how the cost of a typical litre of unleaded petrol breaks down.

There are two problems with the above graph.  Firstly, most of the percentages shown in brackets are wrong.  For example, a very quick and simple bit of mental arithmetic will tell you that 5p is not 6% of £1.30, but less than 4%.  However, this is not the main problem with the graph.  The main problem is that the areas of the graph are all wrong; it significantly under-represents the portion of the petrol price attributable to fuel duty and to the manufacturer, slightly over-represents VAT and massively over-represents the retailers cut.

I've produced a corrected version of the infographic, which is shown below.  See if you can spot the difference:

MoneySavingExpert claims the data for the infographic comes from; I can't find the infographic there, so I'm guessing that's MoneySavingExpert's own work.  There are a couple of graphics on this page that aren't any better, although they just appear to show the cost breakdown numerically, with the larger numbers written in a larger font to give them more prominence - they aren't quite as potentially misleading.

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Liberal = Not Liberal ?

Thursday, 9 January 2014

Quotation of the Day

From Steve Levitt in the latest Freakonomics Podcast, titled Are We Ready to Legalize Drugs? And Other FREAK-quently Asked Questions (emphasis added):

"And I do have a paper with Roland Fryer and a former student of mine, Paul Heaton, and Kevin Murphy.  And we set out to look at the crack epidemic and the costs of the crack epidemic from a purely practical perspective.  How bad was it?  Do the places that had a lot of crack, did really bad things happen there, and why?  And it was really interesting; it was really one of the most surprising results.  Because almost all of the big costs that we saw had to do not with the consumption of crack itself.  Consumption of crack had some negative effects, but they weren't great.  The really big social costs had to do with the prohibition of the legality of crack.  And so it was the case that the greatest costs we saw were the violence related to the fighting for property rights, and the imprisonment of people.  And it was interesting because it doesn't say that legalization is necessarily a good thing.  That’s a big jump to have.  But it says that in a regime where drugs are highly illegal, hard drugs like cocaine, in the U.S., the real costs that we feel then are the costs of the prohibition, not the costs of the use, because the prohibition is reasonably effective at lowering the use."

Friday, 3 January 2014

Quotation of the Day

From The Road to Serfdom by F.A. Hayek, Routledge Classics Edition, Chapter 15 "The Prospects of International Order" (page 242):

"We shall never prevent the abuse of power if we are not prepared to limit power in a way which occasionally may also prevent its use for desirable purposes."

Happy New Year!