If there’s one thing I despise, it’s religious morality. Not religion; I have no problem with people believing in whatever macro-scale pixy they wish. However, any conception of morality that provides a ready-made package of quick answers to complex issues is not simply incorrect, it’s positively dehumanising.

The most fundamental freedom imaginable is the freedom to understand the world on your own terms; to make judgements about the best course of action using your own reason and the advice of those you have chosen to respect. Anything that tries to short-circuit this process – as religious morality does, by providing a set of answers divorced from all human experience – necessarily diminishes that freedom. This does not encompass those religions, like Sufi Islam, Buddhism and gnostic versions of Christianity, which steer towards promoting an ethical system rather than a prescriptive set of moral rules. ‘Always act with compassion’ provides a lot more for scope for determining your own principles (not in the least, whatever compassion is) than ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery’. The approach adopted by Nadine Dorries and her ilk leaves little room for wisdom.

More than that, as a conception of morality it is positively perverse. The twin notions of heaven and hell appear to be positively designed to subvert an understanding of the Good based on the Good-in-and-of-itself; rather, acts are to be judged in terms of their impact upon your afterlife prospects. This eliminates any prospect of their adherents living good lives – if at the back of your head is a little voice calculating the impact of a particular act on the state of your immortal soul, you will never be able to act without one eye on your self-interest.

This brings us to the issue of the day. Nadine Dorries wants to restrict the right of abortion providers to also provide counselling services to those women considering having abortions, on the grounds of a conflict of interest. This, at the outset, nearly seems reasonable if one is willing to forget the regulatory framework governing these matters and the professional integrity of those delivering the counselling.

But, in seeking this outcome, does Dorries not have one eye upon her immortal soul? If one looks at the Biblical scripture used by anti-abortionists to justify their stance, it seems to proclaim that opposing abortion is something God wants them to do. There’s a logical gap between that and using the machinery of the State to enforce what they think God wants them to do, but that is incidental: this is about the status of their soul in the eyes of God.

I want to introduce a new notion into our legislative lexicon: that of eschatological advantage. This is advantage that an individual expects to accrue to them with regard to their afterlife as a consequence of a particular action. I propose that this advantage is taken into account in exactly the same way as Dorries proposes we take the financial interest of abortion-providers into account when determining who can provide counselling to women considering abortion. After all, we accept that someone who expects to see an improvement in their standard of living from another person making a particular choice is not funded by the State to advise that person on that choice. Why do we not think the same about someone who expects to see an improvement in their standard of afterliving?

Being Bewitched by GDP

August 16, 2011

GDP does a funny thing to the minds of economists. It represents the total value of goods and services produced in an economy over the course of a year, and in doing so says little about the actual content of an economy. The old example is a train crash and the resultant clean-up; the money spent on it would represent an increase in GDP for that year.

GDP is a flow, rather than a constant: GDP could crash to zero, and we’d still retain all of our infrastructure, wealth and property. We’d all be dead because we hadn’t spent any money on food, but nothing would be actually destroyed. It’s in this context that stories about GDP should be understood.

It is entirely possible, therefore, for GDP figures by themselves to ignore a correction that is vital to the future of our economy, and correspondingly put on pressure for action that actually runs counter to this. Let’s look at a very current example of this, as identified in this article by Duncan Weldon.

Consumer demand is down, as a result of a combination of lower wages and ‘consumer deleveraging‘, paying down of consumer debt. Right now, consumers appear to be firefighting existing levels of debt, which are remaining broadly constant; the £1 trillion the Labour years added to personal debt is going to take a while to pay down. Something similar is happening in the corporate world; fewer applications for more debt are being made, and corporations are paying down existing debt.

Just like the Government, everyone is trying to pay down their debt rather than spend their credit. The nervousness amongst economists is that this very sensible activity represents a decrease in the flow of money throughout the economy; real wealth is paying down the pretend-or-future wealth of credit. To an economist, both types of wealth look exactly the same in terms of GDP – what matters is whether that wealth is allocated in such a way as to increase its value. From the perspective of GDP, paying down debt is the same as destroying wealth; it decreases the amount of wealth flowing through the economy.

Of course, if everyone stops spending, then no-one has any income and so everyone immediately defaults as soon as their savings run out. This is the danger in a spending slowdown: people are forced to reduce their spending because they have less income, and everyone spirals down into recession. However, paying down debt has the effect of reducing your future fear of bankruptcy, and of putting your future wealth expansion on a less risky basis. It leads to more sustainable growth, rather than growth that suddenly vanishes as soon as your credit gets too expensive, which caused the last recession.

This is the challenge confronting the West more generally: if we can pay down our debt fast enough without reducing growth too much, we’ll have overcome the heady credit drunkenness of the boom years and put future growth on a sustainable, less risky footing. If it turns out that we can’t do that, then we may yet be trapped in a downward spiral. The danger is that GDP figures, unrepresentative as they are of the relative risk associated with a form of economic growth based on credit, may terrify politicians into trying to encourage people to borrow more to spend. With £1 trillion to pay down, that’s far too big a risk to take.

David Cameron has decided that society is on the verge of a ‘moral collapse‘ following the riots. I find it difficult to envisage what a moral collapse would look like, unless it’s a nun tripping over a dildo; such a term appears to boil down to mere rhetoric. On closer inspection, the thrust of his argument appears to be that Cameron thinks far too few people agree with what he thinks right and wrong to be, and this has caused widespread looting:

“No, [the riots were] about behaviour. People showing indifference to right and wrong. People with a twisted moral code. People with a complete absence of self-restraint.”

Harsh words indeed. Revealed in this speech is the subtle difference between liberalism and Cameron’s one-nation Conservatism; to him, like Labour, the State is a moral agent:

“Government cannot legislate to change behaviour, but it is wrong to think the State is a bystander.”

Much of the speech is concerned with his efforts to use the State to reinforce a ‘better’ morality. This is something with which I will have no truck. It is not the job of the State to mandate morality; one’s moral judgements are one’s own, and having them imposed from an external source is tantamount to removing that most fundamental freedom.

However, there is a subtle distinction to be made. The freedom I believe to be the object of politics is the freedom of individual judgement; to make judgements on a sound basis about oneself, one’s work, one’s pleasures and one’s place in society. These judgements, when aggregated, form the way in which you encounter the world, and as such, can be shown to be incorrect. This freedom includes the freedom to be wrong, and to learn from one’s mistakes. It does not include the freedom to be wrong to the extent that you harm other people. It also does not include the freedom to be free from the judgements of others.

If I believe your decisions are wrong for you, I must be free to say so, in order that you may factor that information into your own judgement-making. Indeed, withholding that judgement is almost wrong in itself; in a society founded upon the development of judgement, withholding relevant information from a person is to impair their ability to develop their own decisions.

We can see that the rioters were not evil, but more bloody stupid. Their decisions have locked them into a shallow facsimile of a life, put without the structures of a society that offers so much. For example, I have argued that taking a position of responsibility with regard to one’s children is both fulfilling and economically worthwhile in terms of the skills it allows you to demonstrate. Feckless fathers are simply incorrect in their decisions, and should be told so.

But for someone to be incorrect, you must provide evidence as to why this is the case. Reaching for morality short-circuits this process by creating values based on nothing more than the prescription of particular activities, rather than developed judgement. It is the case that one can tell someone whether their activities are likely to lead to adverse consequences in terms of their own priorities – one can tell someone that they’re being daft. The State can tell its citizens when they’re being stupid. It cannot, however, tell them that they’re bad; morality is always something up to the individual.

So, go forth and tell the person playing their music too loudly on the bus that if they don’t turn it down other people will think they’re annoying. Judge the activities of your fellow citizens, based on what you think they should be doing. They don’t have to listen, but they should be told.

Why is marriage important?

August 12, 2011

As you might expect, multiple rightwing commentators are blaming London’s riots on the decline in traditional institutions, like marriage. They rail at the unwillingness of ‘liberals’ to condemn non-traditional family arrangements, and the feckless fathers who abandon their offspring. What unites these separate commentators is an inability to understand how their values can be promoted; the emphasis of the right-wing media has always been that things they disagree with are wrong and should be punished, condemned, and – if possible – made illegal.

Putting forward the positives of their values doesn’t really seem to be something they want to do. This is odd, but understandable; it doesn’t require much intellectual firepower to condemn something you don’t like, but putting forward a coherent case for the positive aspects of a way of life requires much more effort.

Or does it? I’d like to focus on the role that fathers play in the debate around marriage, which is really quite unusual. Let’s illustrate this with some talking points, none of which are actually true:

  • The outcomes for children born into two-parent families are better than those with one parent.
  • Single mothers are a massive drain upon the benefits system, and hence the taxpayer.
  • Absent fathers are individuals with no sense of responsibility and who are to blame for much of society’s ills (okay, this one is true in some cases).

The implication is that father should suck it up, knuckle down, pull themselves up by their bootstraps and take responsibility for their children. This is cast as a sacrifice that they’re making for the rest of society. Indeed, significant chunks of contemporary discourse appear to revolve around the sheer awfulness of the arrangement for men. Married men are cast – especially in adverts – as pitiful, unwanted creatures who are inexplicably hanging around after their sperm-donation duties are complete.

Why, then, would men consent to such a non-beneficial arrangement? Leaving love and romance to one side for a moment, marriage as construed above appears to involved the participation of men in an institution in which they are required to act in the public good, and don’t, according to Roger Stirling, even get sex out of.

Popular culture’s view of marriage and relationships is of course largely pointless, but it certainly falls under the heading of ‘messages we give our kids’. There’s a crucial part of the description of marriage which is missing here, and which needs to highlighted. It was summed up by a very wise friend, who got married and had kids at a relatively early age: “You see Adam, when you get settled down with a wife and children, it shows that you are a serious man”.

There used to be a very strong social convention that marriage was something you needed to do to get ahead. It has too easily been discarded as a relic of a bygone age, but there are elements of truth that can be brought out of it. A successful marriage, or indeed a successful long-term relationship, requires a number of skills that are economically relevant, including the ability to form a relationship with another human being based on trust, the ability to share the management of a substantial project – like household management or bringing up children, and the ability to keep your promises. A married man can demonstrate that he has these virtues; it is more difficult for a single man to do so. Moreover, marriage provides the opportunity to constantly exercise them.

By abandoning their offspring, feckless fathers are not simply turning their back on a difficult commitment, but on a social signifier which is economically useful. Various estimates are out there for the size of the premium on lifetime wages this brings, but all research points to it having a significant positive impact. Of course, there are multiple reasons for this impact, not least wanting to work harder to look after your children, but I would not be surprised if the skills aspect of it was not amongst them. This has implications for gay marriage – while it’s illiberal to not allow all sexualities access to the same institutions, it’s downright evil to deny the economic advantage those institutions can bring.

If the Right really wants to promote this particular social value, it needs to get out there into the communities rioters come from and tell these young fathers that if they stand by their offspring they’re much more likely to earn more money. Putting forward a positive case is much more powerful than deriding them as ‘feckless’. As liberals, we don’t want the Government to endorse any particular family structure, but we certainly don’t want to stop people from telling others what their relationships say about their employability.

A Tale of Many Cities

August 10, 2011

I, like many Londoners, am today welcoming the fact that overwhelming force works. Whether one night of calm is enough to put a halt to the riots for an appreciable period of time remains to be seen, but now seems a good time to pause and look at how the story of the riots has unfolded, and what it can tell us about our society.

London has been revealed as not one city, but many cities. In my area, everyone uses the same public transport, the same shops, and the same healthcare services – but even in my relatively small area of London the experience of the city varies enormously from person to person, and from family to family. It’s as though we simply ignore the fact that the other people on the bus are from variously the sort of tightly-knit genuine communities like the Sikhs and Turks who came out to defend their neighbourhoods, from transient foreigners briefly attending London to work, from estate communities propped up by middle-aged women, and many more besides. These groups socialise in different places, get different types of services from the State, and have a whole panoply of different rituals and traditions, both formal and informal.

London can be seen as place of multiple overlapping networks of people, which only cross in a few shared spaces. The metaphor underlying this was brilliantly brought out by China Mieville’s work The City & the City, in which two cities exist in the same place but the inhabitants of both are forbidden from admitting that they see each other. The experience of the Sikhs is not the same as the experience of the underclass responsible for the riots, just as much as the experience of the Turks is not the same as the experience of the greater bourgeois meta-culture of which I am a proud member.

The latter comprises a significant number of sub-groups, ranging from the hipsters of Shoreditch, the young professional families of Richmond, the Boat People of the canals, to the community of political apparatchiks of the Westminster Bubble. The tenuous threads that bind them are an appreciable level of prosperity and education as well as varying degrees of support for the institutions that comprise public life, including Parliament in the sense of the mechanism of Government, the rule of law and the volition of the individual. Their political positions range across the spectrum, but their actual stance is unimportant for the purposes of this classification, as in real terms they are the ‘public’ that ‘debates’.

The riots have brought this out in an unexpected way. The left has been arguing for more understanding, the right has been arguing for more punishment, but both have taken as read that the fate of the rioters and the city they represent lies in our hands. No-one has suggested that the rioters should take responsibility for their own destiny – not in the moral sense of their immediate action in the riot, but in the broader sense of determining their own relationship with society. Instead, it is to be our meta-culture which determines what we do with them.

Whether you’re calling for more youth services or the return of caning, you are part of this – as am I, by writing this blog post. I have never heard anyone ask what we should ‘do’ about the Shoreditch hipsters, who befoul our streets with their ridiculous clothes, or what we should ‘do’ about professionals pushing up the house prices out of the reach of ordinary folk. These people are not within our power to command, and rightly so.

Why then, do we do it for the underclass? The answer is that they are in our command, from decade upon decade of institution-building designed to contain them. Labour had thirteen years in which they tried all manner of ideas around dealing with the underclass, including ASBOs and the expansion of ‘youth services’. They gave people enormous opportunities to ‘care’ about the fate of the underclass, and to work to ensure that they got better lives. They permitted the police to heavy-handedly contain its more troublesome elements. I think it’s pretty safe to say that they failed. If they had genuinely succeeded in fostering resilient communities, they wouldn’t riot as soon as someone threatened to take the institutions that helped them away.

It’s been pointed out that the riots had more in common with prison riots than traditional civil disputes. The institutionalisation of the underclass is a clear reason as to why this is the case. The panoply of support services on offer reduces the children they are set up for to numbers moving through a system of people whose job it is to tick boxes against each of their names. Remember the complaints from social workers about the managerialisation of their profession, which they argued led to the death of Baby P? The same cause is at work here; a surfeit of high-level care which removes the scope for individual judgement from both the service provider and the individual engaged in the system.

This managerialism converted London into a vast open-air prison for the underclass, a place in which they could be assured of being fed, clothed and housed, but could not join our meta-culture, because the individual volition necessary to do so had been systematically removed. Even in this environment, as in a prison, the underclass desperately longed to set up their own institutions, which would belong to them in the same way that Parliament belongs to us. Hence, postcode gangs, a bizarre phenomenon parasitic on an arbitrary bureaucratic method of dividing geographical areas. This is another city which sat along side us on the bus, and we ignored.

Calls for the restoration of youth services – a de facto reward for rioting – will only continue this divide. What we need to do instead is to bring them into our city, rather than leaving them in a city we run as a fiefdom. I’m confident that they want this, as their first move upon breaking their restraints was to engage in a grotesque imitation of a bourgeois shopping spree.

Unfortunately, they’ve just burned down the bits of the city we could’ve used to do this. No-one is going to invest in Tottenham now – even if they wanted to, I suspect the insurance premiums for all the affected areas are going to skyrocket.

Regardless, we still need to develop a framework in which this transition can be made. It cannot be run by the Government, as more institutionalisation is not what is required right now. We need to give these communities space, and access to the institutions to which we hold dear. We need to give them the freedom to realise that their judgements in our social context can lead to success.

However, first of all we need to lock a large number of them up for quite a long time. The key to being part of our city is to understand that if you break the law, there are consequences.

With regard to the current fad for looting, Ken Livingstone said:

“The economic stagnation and cuts being imposed by the Tory government inevitably create social division. As when Margaret Thatcher imposed such policies during her recessions this creates the threat of people losing control, acting in completely unacceptable ways that threaten everyone, and culminating in events of the type we saw in Tottenham.”

There are two ways of interpreting Ken’s position here:

(1) The looters (oh, how Randroids must be loving drawing equivalences today) are the product of a given social context and are not responsible for their actions. Confronted with feelings of inadequacy and social failure, they react by lashing out with the only thing they know – violence. They are fundamentally incapable of determining their own actions.

(2) The looters have assessed the social contract, and determined that it is underperforming with regard to their share of resources. Having taken a view that a negotiated solution – i.e. traditional democratic politics – has failed to deliver what they regard as an adequate outcome, they have decided to use force to redress this balance.

On (1), Ken is describing the looters as fundamentally less than himself; as incapable of expressing moral agency. This is functionally equivalent to Tories dismissing them as feckless savages; both dehumanise and belittle the individuals involved. If all the looters were black, it would be racist; as it is, it’s a particular variant of misanthropy.

The claim that a particular subset of society is less human than oneself is evil. It permits sectarian division, it permits violence, and – of particular relevance when talking about Red Ken – it permits forms of social control that are fundamentally illiberal. So let’s be charitable to Ken, and assume he’s taking position (2).

I would support position (2) on a purely descriptive level. This was not a riot against an injustice, however it started, but a very clear effort to redress a perceived economic imbalance. The looters will have rationalised this to themselves by their perception of their social worth and economic opportunities in relation to the better off. Unlike (1), this is a rational human choice in a given context. This, of course, does not make it the correct choice.

Ken appears to be saying that policies which create social division through the removal of a given percentage of the proceeds of growth from a subset of society should expect to see that subset react violently. This is not an argument based on justice, but rather on social stability. It is not the case that last night’s looters ‘deserve’ new laptops, trainers and televisions purely because they live in a society in which other people possess these goods. The fact that they believe they do is the problem, not the imbalance of goods. Ken is supporting this position by saying that riots should be expected, instead of working to counteract that belief. That is fundamentally unwise – not evil, but certainly not clever.

Your share of society’s resources should be in proportion to the effort you put in to increasing them, above the fundamental level necessary for the development of judgement. Advocating a position other than this – that the relative wealth of others creates an additional share for you – is to advocate looting. And here, I do mean in the Randroid sense.

Pyrrhic, because having the world’s economy go down the toilet to prove your point is a position no-one wants to be in. But it is a victory, nonetheless.

The cause of today’s market calamities is the fact that the Eurozone has spectacularly failed to get its house in order, and that no-one has any idea how the US is going to cut its deficit. Both of these are political failures, what could be perhaps termed massive regulatory or policy uncertainty. One of the major predictions of classically liberal theory is that people will work better without the Government on their backs – or, in this case, will work better if the Government doesn’t keep mixing it up.

The biggest flaw in the Coalition’s economic policy has been to combine a reduction in spending with large dollops of regulatory uncertainty. The financial sector has been hanging around for the results of Project Merlin. The construction industry has been waiting to find out exactly how much it’s going to be boned by the Localism Bill. Chris Huhne’s Electricity Market Reform, combined with the review of renewable energy support, has dramatically slowed investment in energy while people wait to see whether they’re going to be able to make money.

This uncertainty – whether the regulatory framework will allow returns on investment – has been one of the significant factors in the downturn in corporate investment over the last year. It’s now being repeated at a global level, and stock markets are reflecting that.

If the Eurozone puts together a proper stability fund in time, and the US comes up with a credible set of cuts, then we might avoid more economic calamity. Regardless, my advice to the Coalition at this point would be to stop changing stuff.

Death, and its fan club

August 1, 2011

This is Anders Breivik:

He believes that someone – specifically him – has the right to kill other people.

This is Paul Staines:

He believes that someone – specifically, a state-appointed murderer – has the right to kill other people.

Equating people you disagree with to murderous child-killers is a churlish argumentative technique, I would normally aver. Even in this more exceptional case, it still feels somewhat distasteful. The reason I have used it is that Staines’ campaign to re-instate the State’s right to kill child murderers (like Breivik) and cop killers throws the question of what death is – and whether it constitutes a suitable punishment for anything – into harsh relief.

The nature of death is not widely discussed in our society, beyond the witterings of teenage Goths. The rest of this post will therefore most likely resemble bad teenage angst poetry, because it’s very difficult to talk about death without lapsing into cliche.

Death represents the end of consciousness; the end of the means by which we have access to the material world, and the end of any possibility of altering one’s fate. It is the end of all experience. As such, it’s something I’d quite like to avoid if at all possible, being a fan of my continued experiencing of the world. However, inevitably, one day I shall die and my consciousness will end. I will cease to be in a sense which is fundamentally unimaginable; one cannot even conceptualise the absence of imagination, thought or conscious awareness, for they are the means by which anything is conceptualised. It is ultimately unknowable, the boundary of knowledge and the limit of understanding. It’s pretty bad.

What it is not, however, is punishment. Everyone dies, eventually. The death penalty simply means bringing this date forward. Breivik’s victims were not punished by their murder. My grandmother was not punished by dying. Punishment is an adverse outcome for a particular crime or transgression, but death is the end of any possible outcome, the termination of potential adversity. Certainly, death is a bad thing, as we cherish continued existence, but not all bad things are punishments. Being threatened with death, or being on death row, is a punishment, because you’re there to experience you not wanting to die. But as soon as you’re killed that want vanishes and it no longer makes sense to say that you’re being punished. How could you be? You’re dead. I am glad that the Moors murderers have spent decades in confinement, rather than being granted a swift death after they were judged, as that is far more punishing than a simple death could ever be.

Killing is not a punishment. Rather, it is an elimination – a removal of a potential threat to our existence. That is why we mandate the State to kill on our behalf in war. That is why we grant the right to kill in extreme self defence. If we kill child murderers and cop killers, we portray them as threats to our society, to our existence. To do so is a very dangerous thing, because it allows politicians to claim that they are defending our society by killing people who are not genuinely a threat to it (click for big):

Sources: National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund & Death Penalty Information Centre

In the US, executing more people doesn’t reduce the number of cops who are killed – if anything, the correlation works the other way round. All it provides is another tool for politicians to use to satisfy a primal lust for revenge on criminals, rather than a real tool to reduce the number of policemen killed in the line of duty. I don’t need to tell you about the uses to which politicians have put tools of the former sort in the past.

Both Breivik and Staines believe murder a suitable fate for people they despise. These fans of death both seek to open the door to the worst sort of politician. In the end, their endeavours may lead to deaths – albeit, not the ones they hoped for.