Category Archives: Rethinking Liberalism

Is it right to vilify homoeopathy? Sometimes. Often, perhaps. But not always.

In a brilliant article for the Guardian Tim Lott decried the intolerance of people on the left of politics. He complained that people, like him, who raised questions about gender discrimination, Islamism, feeling English or complaining about political correctness, risk unleashing intolerant invective from the “liberal” left.  He was speaking as a Labour loyalist – but I recognise the same issue in the Liberal Democrats. Now let me make my politically incorrect contribution to the genre. It’s about homoeopathy.

Homoeopathy is a branch of alternative medicine developed in the 19th Century. Its theoretical grounding might fairly be called mumbo-jumbo. But it has retained a degree of popularity, and has been available under Britain’s NHS, which supports placebo therapies in some circumstances. It is, however, a popular subject of ridicule, particularly from the liberal left. They condemn its availability on the NHS, and want it to be driven off the face of the earth. This article by Edzard Ernst in today’s Guardian is one of the more temperate ones. It follows some publicity from a recent Australian study showing that there was no scientific foundation for its claims.

Let’s clear the decks a bit. I have no doubt that homoeopathy provides cover for charlatans. And practising homoeopaths are their own worst enemies. They persist in using their outdated mumbo-jumbo explanations. According to Dr Ernst they also cite scientific evidence that is spurious. That goes for David Tredinnick, the Conservative MP who is a public supporter. People that suggest that homoeopathy is an equivalent discipline to modern conventional medicine deserve the ridicule that is heaped on them.

But there is another side to this story. Arguments over the discipline’s scientific basis miss a point that should be understood by everybody. Scientific evidence will only ever get our understanding of the world around us so far. Much knowledge is simply beyond its reach. Homoeopathy may not be an alternative to modern medicine, but it may enter space that modern medicine cannot go.

Conventional medicine it is bound up with the idea that people suffer a series of different ailments, and medicine’s job is to find and test therapies for each of these ailments in turn. These ailments are further described in turns of measurable chemical or biological imbalances. The therapies are likewise usually chemical or biological agents – though other therapies may be admitted so long as they are standardised and repeatable. This line of approach (which I like to call the “magic potion” method of medicine) is extremely powerful. It goes alongside a system of evidence gathering  that allows you to place a tick or cross against each therapy. The standard is whether or not the symptoms are alleviated against an alternative “placebo” treatment which uses chemically inert substances. Through this approach medicine has developed a formidable inventory of magic potions over two centuries and prolonged many, many lives.

But it will take you only so far. Now take two places where homoeopathy might help to provide patients with relief. The first is what might be called “mind over matter”. It has been demonstrated countless times that mental outlook can affect symptoms. This phenomenon accounts for the placebo effect.  Scientists do everything they can to eliminate its effects from their evidence. So if homoeopathy is an effective placebo, the scientific studies wouldn’t show it. This is something Dr Ernst’s article is quite careful to state (“no effect beyond placebo”).  Of course there is danger if a patient is persuaded to use a placebo when something else is more appropriate – but not to treat a patient with a placebo when this might be effective also poses an ethical problem. Or it should. Conventional doctors often use antibiotics to treat viral infections; this is surely a much more questionable practice.

The second way homoeopathy might work is holism. Homoeopathic practitioners should (even if many don’t) look at the patient’s complete circumstances – from  the complete range medical symptoms to anxieties and outlook on life, before selecting a therapy that is individual to that patient. This is another place that scientific method cannot go. It cannot produce the sort of repeatable results that science requires – because everybody is a bit different. That still leaves therapies depending on placebo effects, but it could give that effect extra oomph. One of the causes of disillusion with modern medicine is that patients are treated as disconnected symptoms parcelled out to different specialists, with  obvious things (like what the patient eats in hospital) often neglected. Puzzling symptoms are overlooked to focus on ones more within practitioners’ comfort zones. There is much talk of patient-centred medicine, but remarkably little practice. That may be because building up an appropriate evidence base is impossible.

To my mind that leaves space for an ethical homoeopathist who is no simply trying to peddle expensive but inert magic potions. Modern medicine can’t be beaten in the magic potion business. But when it comes to treating mind and body as part of the same human being and looking more widely on how to advance that human beings health and wellbeing – modern medicine does not look so hot.

 

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Rethinking Liberalism 7: what are the liberal blindspots?

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I started this series of essays because I thought liberalism, to say nothing of Liberalism, was at a low ebb and needed some fresh thinking. I started with the easy bits. Big questions, like the future of capitalism, but not ones that make liberals particularly uncomfortable. This is an old strategy to deal with something big and difficult. If you clean up the easy bits first, what remains looks less intimidating. But I have been a bit underwhelmed with the results, which are well within the spectrum of ideas that are regularly discussed by liberals. After a few weeks break, including a refreshing holiday, I think it is time for a change of direction.

All political philosophies have difficult bits: areas where the principles conflict with each are, or seem inadequate in the rough and tumble of the real world. Socialists want to clamp down on businesses to stop exploitation, and yet crave the tax revenues that will only come if you give businesses some serious rope. Conservatives yearn for a less intrusive government, but are annoyed when they find this gives people the freedom to behave in what they see as antisocial ways – and on which their views tend to be very narrow-minded. Liberalism is no exception. Liberals have blindspots.

I call them blindspots because most liberals behave as if these difficulties aren’t really there. Many have created a sort of alternative reality in which these problems don’t arise. Or they simply change the subject. But this is damaging in two distinct ways. First, it means that we don’t talk about many issues that bother people, and are therefore perceived to be weak or lack credibility. Second, when liberals do get their turn in government, and have to confront these intractable problems, liberal ranks are torn apart. The pragmatists are seen as betrayers of liberal principles; the fundamentalists are seen as people who will not come out of their alternative universe to confront the real world. The British Liberal Democrats in the last four years are a case study in both of these phenomena.

But even identifying what these blindspots are is hard. Because we rarely talk about them in any depth. We seem afraid of what we might find if we do. But this blogger is not running for electoral office, and so should be less frightened of tackling difficult issues. I think my time in this series is most constructively spent identifying and discussing these issues – in the hope that liberals can, in due time, work their way through them to an updated political philosophy. I feel a bit inadequate to the task. I have not read great tracts of John Stuart Mill or even Conrad Russell. But then, maybe spending so much time reading great men can be part of an evasion process.

Anyway, today I will make a start. It is time to move from the abstract. What are the liberal blindspots? Here are few problems to get us going:

  • Dependency. Liberals feel that people should have equal chances. Poverty is usually not a choice, but stems from some form of bad luck. So we offer help to redress the balance: cash handouts, subsidised housing, and so on. But very often this help creates a relationship of dependency between those being helped and the state. This does not worry socialists – but it does worry liberals because dependency is disempowering; it reduces freedom.
  • Free riding. Liberals like rights to be unconditional, since that gives individuals the maximum power. But that creates the opportunity for free riding: people who take but do not give back. Since many rights (health care, education, minimum housing standards, etc.) cost money, the opportunities for free riding are manifold. Progressive taxation, asking the rich to pay more, makes things worse. Free riders not only undermine the financial viability of entitlements, they undermine the sense of community solidarity that underpins unconditional rights.
  • Oppressive communities. Liberals like the idea of strong local communities. These balance the need for a strong central state. They give individuals more weight, and a greater sense of control. Members of strong local communities are generally happier than those of weaker ones. The word “community” even gets into the preamble to the Liberal Democrat constitution – the place that the party’s core values are set out. And yet strong local communities are not liberal, open places. They often  promote uniformity and are hostile to outsiders, especially those from other cultures. For many liberalism is a reaction to the oppressive nature of strong communities.
  • Multiculturalism. This is closely linked. Often immigrants form strong local communities that don’t gel with their neighbours, and challenge liberal values. Conflict often ensues. This is a worldwide problem; neighbouring communities from different cultures may live side by side in peace for a long time, and then there is an explosion. The mechanisms of liberal democracy don’t seem equal to the task. And yet forced integration is illiberal.
  • Fighting crime. There are bad people out there, who have no interest in promoting a prosperous, inclusive society. They want to steel our money, or even kill us as participants in some imaginary war. These people adapt quickly to the modern world. But liberals often seem more interested in theoretical notions of privacy belonging to a different age.
  • Postcode lotteries. Universal rights create expectations that vital state services should be more or less the same everywhere. Strong local democracy suggests that different local communities should be able to make different trade-offs that match their own priorities and preferences. But this creates variations that are derisively referred to as the “postcode lottery” – your actual entitlements to universal rights depending on where you live.
  • Managing businesses. Businesses are at the heart of our society; we don’t just need them, we need them to be prosperous and innovative. This is at the very heart of any strategy to combat poverty. But liberals often see businesses as a threat, to the welfare of their employees, their customers or anybody that gets in the way. Liberals dream of cooperatively owned businesses, grounded in their local communities. And yet, valuable as such businesses may be, they do not provide a credible template for the majority of forward-looking enterprises that society needs.
  • Migration. Migration of people from other countries provides a flashpoint for most of the issues already mentioned. And yet it is undoubtedly a dynamic force, and a vital escape valve.

I’m sure I could go on. The agonising of liberals over events in Iraq and Israel shows liberals in a bit of a post-colonial muddle – though that affliction is hardly unique to liberals. Still we have enough to get started.

Just looking at the list of problems, I think a can see the outlines of a more general one. Liberals paint a picture of an ideal society, based on Goldilocks local communities with just the right amount of cohesion. We want all countries to follow that idea. But we also believe in universal rights; a fundamental equality of all people. And yet many of these people want to use these rights to take themselves and society in a different direction. Perhaps they have an alternative ideal; perhaps they just want to promote themselves in what they see as a rat race. We are getting to two muddled – the society we are trying to create, and the what should apply to everybody in the diverse here-and-now. And we do not address the issue of how a liberal society coexists with others made up of people who have freely chosen something different.

In this light liberals need to rethink their cherished framework of universal rights. That is what I will attempt in future essays. I’m feeling uncomfortable already. Good.

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Rethinking Liberalism 6: reinventing the state

So far in my series of essays my conclusions have been quite conventional, if a little left of centre. We need to keep capitalism in a mixed economy; the state will need to get bigger to cope with the demographic challenge; we will have to tax the rich more as middle incomes are squeezed. There’s nothing here that would upset the denizens of Whitehall unduly, notwithstanding the economic liberal tendencies of some. But I think we are badly let down by our system of government. It will have to change radically – and yet the complacency of the Westminster elite is overwhelming. Liberals must rally to challenge it.

Unfortunately one of the best examples of this establishment complacency comes from our own Liberal Democrats. Back in the 1990s I was inspired by anti-establishment rhetoric from our then leader, Paddy Ashdown. The whole system was rotten, he said; we were the outsiders and only we could change it. Then, in 1997 the party arrived as a serious force in Westminster politics.  But, somehow, under the leaderships of Charles Kennedy and Nick Clegg (or the brief leadership of Ming Campbell, come to that) this radicalism came to be toned down. In spite of some radical language from both of these leaders, policy was more about trimming the Westminster policy agenda here and there without counting too much controversy. Ideas, such as a local income tax, which might have meant a decisive break from the Westminster-centred way of the world, were quietly buried. By the time Lib Dems took up cabinet jobs in the current coalition, they looked very comfortable in their new Westminster ministries, with the possible exception of Vince cable, the industry minister.

And the public could sense this. My heating engineer, classic old-school lower middle-class, told me that the Lib Dems had sacrificed their principles to get their hands on the prestige of power. Mr Clegg looked as if he was enjoying themselves too much. This feels very unfair, of course. There was a national crisis in 2010, and the compromises of coalition were needed for the country’s sake. And the Liberal Democrats have stopped the Conservatives doing a lot of silly things, like cutting Inheritance Tax. But there’s a grain of truth in the accusation; what about the promise to really shake-up British politics? It’s not clear that senior Lib Dems ever wanted to do more than change the standard Westminster priorities a bit, by pushing education and redistribution up the agenda and making the odd stand on behalf of civil liberties, unless real heat got applied. If there has been any reinventing of government, it is mainly Tory ideas that are driving it. And they are about keeping the basic Westminster architecture in place, but diversifying the delivery (more private contractors and Quangos in place of top-down state hierarchies). The attempt to devolve more power to democratically accountable local bodies has been a particular disappointment. Each step forward is accompanied by at least one step back. The malign orthodoxy of the Treasury, with its insistence on a highly centralised model of power, remains unchallenged by key Liberal Democrats – or so it appears.

Why does this matter? Firstly because the pressures caused by the demographic shift have only started. I have already written about pensions. Health costs will rise too as the ratio of older people increases. And then economic growth will continue to stagnate, for a variety of reasons, including the increasing number of people entering retirement, but for other reasons too. Meanwhile the twin (and related) economic deficits of government finances and trade are unsustainable in the long run. The government has to tax more and spend less. It has to become much more efficient and effective.

The country’s direction of travel is not encouraging. Government cuts have been very painful, and the public is tiring of them. Endless privatisations are affecting the quality of service. The fiscal deficit creeps down, but it is still very large, and he trade deficit is getting worse. This shows that the underlying economy remains weak, and that growth is hardly more sustainable than it was under the last Labour government. No sooner does the economy grow, than does Sterling appreciate to undermine all the rebalancing. Meanwhile the country is sleepwalking into the breakup of the United Kingdom (even if Scotland votes No in September) and exit from the European Union, as political dissatisfaction with the status quo grows. Pulling all the usual levers of power in Westminster seems to be doing not much good.

What have liberals to say about this advancing gloom? The first point is that we want people to have as much power as possible over their own lives. That means we dislike people being dependent on the state. It is here that we differ from the socialist left, who don’t mind if the public has a permanent client relationship to state agencies, as this creates a political constituency both amongst the dependents and the employees who serve them. Liberals should recognise that in a modern society the state must play a very big role – but we also need to push back on dependency. The state should fix problems so that demand for state services reduces.

The second point is that we believe that as far as possible state structures should be fully and democratically accountable to the people they serve. The state does not devolve power to citizens, but citizens delegate power to the various levels of government. This too is difficult in the modern world. Many problems are complex and must be solved at a national and international level – and the further up power is delegated, the weaker accountability becomes.

Have we delegated too much power to transnational bodies like the European Union and the World Trade Organisation – with the threat of more as part of a transatlantic trade deal? I don’t think so – these structures merely recognise the transnational nature of problems and the need to agree international standards and laws. Countries that opt out of these structures don’t seem conspicuously better off as a result. Is Australia, for example, really a better and happier place than Britain? Its recent economic success is as much down to the luck of geography and natural resources as anything else. Does having to dig up vast amounts of prime farmland to get at the coal beneath, while poisoning the great natural wonder of the Barrier Reef, really look like freedom?

No. I think the main problem is that we have delegated too much power to Westminster, and that the Westminster elite is protecting itself rather than solving the countries’ problems. It has created a series of administrative silos that perpetuate problems rather than solving them. To tackle this we need to do three things.

  1. Establish a federal system for United Kingdom, by creating a new English parliament and English government, based outside London, and taking to itself the same set of administrative responsibilities as the Scottish government has.
  2. Radically reform the way public services are commissioned to ensure that solving problems for their clients becomes their prime driving force. This will entail a radically increased role for locally accountable agencies.
  3. Reform the country’s tax system to follow this radical redistribution of responsibilities so that every level of government controls more of its own revenues – alongside a system of transfers to ensure a fair distribution of resources.

Each of these three depends on the others. Federalism is required to break up Westminster complacency; public services will only be properly remodelled if it is not controlled from Westminster; power cannot be decentralised unless tax is decentralised too. I will pick up each of these themes in future essays.

 

 

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Rethinking Liberalism 5: pensions and the state

In my previous essay I concluded that we had no choice but to tax the wealthy more, and this was the most divisive issue in current British politics. The reason for this is that state commitments on pensions and the health service, and potential commitments on social care, would force the state to expand, and for taxes to rise. The hollowing out of the economic middle meant that the wealthy would have to take up an increased share of the burden. But what are liberals to think about these state commitments? It is easy to see why socialists favour them, but less clear for liberals.

At the recent CentreForum seminar on the Orange Book, more than one speaker referred to the coalition government’s commitment to a “triple lock” on the state pension as being disastrous and illiberal. This guarantees that the state pension will rise by the higher of consumer prices, earnings or 2.5%. So as the proportion of older people grows the cost of this promise will mount. The same demographic trend means that we cannot look to economic growth to camouflage the policy’s generosity. And yet pensions are something that people should be able to sort out for themselves through saving over their lifetimes. Relying on the state just fosters dependency – and it can only be funded by increasing the tax burden, largely on people who will not directly benefit. If liberalism is about fostering self-sufficiency and independence, this is surely a step in the wrong direction?

A similar logic applies to health care for the elderly. In Britain it is widely assumed that this will remain free and funded by the taxpayer. As the population ages the overall cost rises. Greater efficiency in the state spend can only get you so far. Social care for the elderly is a similar issue, except that this is only a universal benefit in Scotland – though there it was enthusiastically supported by the Liberal Democrats.

The answer to this puzzle comes in two familiar guises: the need for a safety net, and market failure. A safety net allows people who succumb to bad luck to get back on their feet. I am sure that highly sophisticated arguments can be made in their defence, but to most people it is simply being part of a civilised society. Once families and social solidarity could have taken most of the strain, but the demands of economic efficiency have broken these institutions down; so economic efficiency, and the taxes they can generate, should provide the solution.

The safety net idea isn’t entirely satisfactory when providing for old age, however. The capacity to earn at this stage in our lives is limited, so it is rather more than a just a temporary helping hand. However, it still means that your life can’t be entirely ruined by bad luck. But everybody is entitled to the state pension, not just those down on their luck. The triple lock may be required to keep the state pension for the destitute at an acceptable level, but should it apply to everybody?

What lies at the heart of the problem is a market failure. Start with an obvious problem. If pensions are means tested, then the incentive to save is destroyed until you get past an amount that gives you a reasonable pension. Let’s use some numbers to get this into perspective. The new basic state pension will be about £7,500 per annum in today’s money. To get an annuity of this amount, indexed to RPI (admittedly a mathematically flawed measure of inflation that tends to distort upwards) would cost in the region of £220,000 for somebody of 65, the current pension age. For a forty year working life, with zero real investment returns (I’m coming to that), that £220,000 takes a saving of £5,500 per year, which is over 20% of the average rate of pay (£26,500) before tax. Average savings rates are, of course, much less than that (typically 5-10% of household income).

But surely people can earn more than o% real return on their assets? Actually most people can’t. There are two problems. First is that investment returns are very low at the moment. Central bank interest rates are less than inflation (negative in real terms). All other returns take their cue from that. The prospects for higher interest rates are bleak; that’s they way the world economy is. There are too many savings chasing too few investment opportunities. To break this stranglehold you need a combination of three things: low transaction costs of investment, an ability to take greater investment risk by spreading it, and access what economists call economic rents – income that is not earned through adding wealth to society, but by exploiting an “unfair” advantage. These advantages are usually only available to the better off. For the first two you need a decent sized starting portfolio (over £1 million, say). For the last you need some kind of economic privilege. While the economy was expanding, and before the demographic crunch, you could, in fact achieve these ends by owning your own house. Rising house prices are a form of economic rent, earned by the ownership of land, which is in limited supply. That covers an awful lot of people, but these are now a privileged elite: it is getting harder to join them.

Can’t people band together to get a better return? That is what an old-fashion final salary pension scheme used to do. Administrative costs were low (because you the calculation of entitlements is simple), and investment costs and average risk was low because there was single, large investment pot. Unfortunately such collective schemes are another victim of the drive to ever greater economic efficiency, which destroys the large and relatively stable employers who are needed to sponsor such schemes. Collective action means the state.

The state is the only institution that can take effective collective action. And, with private sector investment opportunities in such short supply, increasingly the state has access to the best investment opportunities too (consider much infrastructure investment). And they have the chance to tax those economic rents. That is the central logic behind the new triple locked state pension. A basic minimum, which the public has every incentive to improve through private saving, which will, unfortunately, rarely add up to a great deal more.

Meanwhile, the various distortions of tax and regulation that inhibit private savings can be gradually dismantled. The government has started by dismantling the rules compelling people with pension plans having to buy annuities. Personally I would start to dismantle income tax relief on pension contributions, increasingly of benefit only to a wealthy elite, and which comes with a dense thicket of rules to prevent abuse. That is a formidable political challenge, though, and can only be achieved in small stages.

Because efficient long-term savings are not accessible to the vast majority of people, especially those without access to property assets, the state must intervene to fill the gap. That makes the economic liberal dream of a low-tax society an impossibility – the alternative is mass destitution, or a needs based system that will be economically less efficient. And if you add health costs and social care into the picture, the problem gets bigger.

The state must get bigger. The question is how to do this in the most liberal way?

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Rethinking Liberalism 4: taxing the wealthy

There is a growing view that”inequality is one of the main problems confronting the modern world. This is quite a change. Distribution of income or wealth (or indeed the difference between the two) was not a major concern in the previously dominant neoclassical economic world view. But now that the benefits of growth in the developed world go almost exclusively to a tiny elite, while median incomes stagnate, this view has become complacent. And the work of the French economist Thomas Piketty has drawn attention to the potential power of the very wealthy. This presents a major challenge for liberals.

The problem is that liberals should have no particular problem with inequality of income and wealth in their own right. We believe in individual responsibility and free choices. We have unequal economic outcomes because people want and choose different things. So what? In fact inequality is cover for a series of issues which liberals should care about. Today I am writing about one of them: the wealthy elite.

The problem is known colloquially as the “1%”, because a disproportionate share of developed world income is going to the top 1% (or 10%; or 0.1% depending on how you want to present the figures). Rather than providing evidence for this assertion, and how it specifically might apply to Britain (perhaps less than in some countries), I will take it as a given, and look at some of the issues of principle that it uncovers.

Why does it matter? To some it is a simple matter of social justice. Inequality is one thing, but the justification for these extremes is another. There is more than a suspicion that the lucky few are winning because of unfair advantages, rather than just ordinary luck and talent. But regardless of this is a further problem. This wealthy elite has the chance to consolidate its advantages with political influence, so as to rig the economy in its favour. The growing influence of big money in politics, and the enormous lobby industry in places like Washington DC, points in this direction. There is an economic problem too: excess wealth is deadweight. The wealthy do not consume as high a proportion of their income as poorer people. And only a small proportion of their savings get channelled into constructive investment  (paying people to build things) rather than various forms of speculation in pre-existing assets.

Why is the problem growing? It seems to be a case of a weakening middle. In other words it is not a question of rising poverty, but a hollowing out of the middle class. It is easy to see the culprits: technologies that automate medium-skilled jobs, and globalisation that weakens local bargaining power. Thus we have the problem: the economy becomes more productive, but the benefits do not go to most workers. Can this trend be reversed? That is a central challenge for progressive policymakers, and it is a question I will return to.

But if we take the trend as a given, which I fear we must, then what can be done about it? The answer is clear: redistribution via taxation, public services and transfers. This issue divides politics like no other. On the right, we have “economic liberals”, who think that lower taxes and smaller government will unleash economic growth that will benefit all of society. On the right we have what I will call progressives (not all liberal), who appreciate that with today’s skewed power structures such growth will only benefit an elite, and will in any case be undermined by the deadweight effect of excessive wealth. Like most Liberals, I am in the progressive camp here.

Apart from the deep flaws in the economic liberal logic, progressive thinkers can see something else. The state has no choice but to grow. We have signed up to a society which seeks to (more or less) guarantee minimum levels of access to health care and old-age pensions.  The aging of developed world populations will increase the burden of these. And much of the investment needed to keep a modern economy growing, from education to roads and bridges, requires some level of state support. Meanwhile the ability of the middle classes to fund their own needs through savings is under pressure – both because their own incomes are not keeping pace with inflation, and because returns on saving are diminishing, a little appreciated aspect of the “hollowing out” process – with the exception of those able to own property in prosperous parts of the country.

So this comes back a stark truth. Taxes on the rich must rise. This serves to recycle wealth that would otherwise drop out of productive economic flows, and it helps fund the basics the state has to provide. So how to do this? There are broadly three directions: income, assets and capital gains.

Until now, most of the argument has been over income taxes, and in particular the best top rate of tax. When I started my first accountancy job in 1976, the top rate of tax was 83%, which rose to 98% for investment income. Conventional wisdom turned against the wisdom of such high rates. They dropped to 60% and then to 40% in the UK, before rising to 50% in 2010, and then being clipped to 45%. Economists are less sure about the wisdom of cutting such high rates. They did think that cutting tax rates would mean that rates of pay (for the elite) would fall, as it was cheaper to provide the same net salary. In fact the opposite has happened. This seems to point to senior salaries being more about power politics than market forces. Companies paid their executives more because they could; they did not do so when tax rates were high, because they did not like to see so much of the extra money disappearing in tax.

I can see no harm in reinstituting the 50% top rate of tax, though experience suggests that this won’t bring in a huge amount of extra revenue. Such high rates create a tax avoidance industry. There is a problem with very high rates of income tax though: they tend to entrench a wealthy elite, because they make it more difficult for outsiders to join them. The way to become wealthy becomes to to inherit rather than earn. This was the rather interesting conclusion of a quite wonderful contemporary study of the British tax system of the 1970s by Mervyn King and John Kay – which was recommended as a model piece of economic writing 30 years later by the UCL Economics department.

So should we not look at taxing wealth? This is the recommendation of Mr Piketty, who worries that the rate of return on the elite’s assets is too high, and entrenches their dominance. Such a tax would probably be about 1 or 2% per annum – which may not sound much, but is enough to dent annual returns significantly. Such a tax exists in the Netherlands, hardly as basket-case economy. A variation on this general idea is just to tax land – an idea (Land Value Tax) that has an ancient history in the Liberal movement. I personally have a difficulty with taxing a theoretical value of an asset, rather than a realised one – given that the reliability of asset valuations is weakening. But I have to admit the idea is growing on me, especially the land-only version.

A further way of taxing assets is at death. This is theoretically very sound, but too easy to avoid in practice. The rates here can be very high. In order to make this more watertight such taxes should no doubt be applied to large gifts as well. This used to be the case in the UK. But taxing legacies and gifts seems to attract a particular political opprobrium, and we have to tread carefully.

Finally we should mention capital gains: where assets and incomes meet. These are the commonest loopholes in tax systems. Aligning such taxes with income tax seems the best way of dealing with this. But this may undermine the case for an asset tax: the Netherlands does not tax capital gains.

But in discussing such details we must not miss two big and interrelated issues. The first is that our elites tend to be globally mobile. Taxing them will require growing levels of transnational cooperation. And indeed the need to tax such mobile elites puts greater importance on such transnational cooperation. The EU’s tax dimension should grow. Such bodies as the G20 need to focus on the matter too. It is not particularly surprising that so many rich businessmen are in favour of the UK leaving the European Union.

Which brings me to the second issue: politics. The rich seem to be of an economically liberal mindset (which is actually a recent development, as this article in the New Yorker observes). They increasing fund political movements with an economically liberal agenda. This is already poisoning the politics of the USA. It will make taxing the wealthy harder. But not impossible. If the public understands that the alternative is to cut basic pension and health systems the economic liberals will lose. But whereas we used to think that politics in the developed world was getting dull, this growing clash of economic interests will inject real conflict into it. Class war is back.

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Rethinking Liberalism 3: defeating intolerance

In my first two essays in this series about rethinking Liberalism, I kept to my comfort zone of economics. I concluded that we need to retain capitalism as part of a mixed economy, but that we need to develop the language of economics so that policymakers become less obsessed with crude productivity and growth. Now I want to step back and look at what troubles me most about our society, both in Britain and elsewhere: rising public intolerance.

In my personal bubble, as a white middle class citizen of British heritage, here in a smart inner London district, it is easy to ignore the problem, or even to deny that much of one exists. It just isn’t visible directly. My neighbours are easy-going. The parents and staff that I meet at the local primary school where I am a governor are very positive about taking a tolerant society forward, notwithstanding its ethnic and social mix. I witness easy interactions between people of different ethnic and national groups everywhere. This is all much better than in my youth.

But venture beyond this and things soon get darker. Take this cry of pain from Asian Lib Dem activist Kavya Kaushik, on the relentless hostility and rudeness she has encountered while canvassing for the party, directed not just at Asians, but East Europeans. This is consistent with what other ethnic minority writers have said; things are getting worse not better. Ukip has done well by tapping into this angst, especially in working class communities. Britain First, an intolerant Facebook grouping, keeps coming up on my newsfeed, and has nearly half a million “likes”. Jewish groups are under increasing fear of attack, exemplified by recent murders at a Jewish museum in Belgium. A recent opinion poll found a growing proportion of people admitting that they had racist views, although the Economist has tried to talk this down.

This phenomenon seems typical of the white working class. But it would be a mistake to think that it is only prevalent there. One of the nastiest media outlets is the very middle class and female-oriented Daily Mail. On a local forum this morning it was a nice middle class woman that drew a connection between a local rubbish dumping scam and the arrival of travellers locally (something that I am sure is baseless, judging by the person that tried it on us).

First a note of caution. I have been careful to use the word “intolerance” as being the primary issue, not “racism”. Intolerant comments are typically introduced by the expression, “I’m not racist but…”. Ukip, and the mainstream newspapers who also promote intolerance, are careful to avoid outright racism, without complete success in the case of Ukip. The flashpoints are cultural (Muslim dress code, for example) or over the impact of immigration on the availability of housing and jobs and the take-up of state benefits. And the intolerance is itself multi-ethnic. Some of the things that I have read an Islamic writer say on state primary education are totally inexcusable (“worse than a toilet, because at least after the toilet you can wash your hands…”). On being challenged by me, incidentally, this writer quoted the Daily Mail. But it all boils down to the same thing – and talking about racism obscures rather than clarifies the problem. And anyway ethnic intolerance is leading to intolerance of anybody who is different, such as benefit claimants, the upper or lower classes, gays and so on, and an orgy of scapegoating,  of politicians, bankers and anybody else you don’t know personally.

There is an optimistic way to view this. It is like the anger stage in the seven phases of grief – just a phase that society must get through on the way to becoming more tolerant – and the product of temporary economic tensions. But behind that optimistic view there lurks a nightmare. In the 18th Century the Enlightenment ushered in period of rising tolerance, and especially the integration of Jews to mainstream society. But from the middle of the 19th Century there was a backlash. And this backlash was no temporary phase. It grew and grew until it burst out into mass murder and destruction with the Nazis.

What lies behind the current rise in intolerance? There are two big phenomena, at least here in Britain. The first what I might call a Muslim backlash. This is a complex thing; it is mostly a peaceful but angry battle between conservative Muslims and the rest of society over things like mosques and dress codes. But it also inspires terrorists – and since the 9/11 attack in New York, these have been elevated by our security services to being the greatest security threat the country faces. This backlash generates its own backlash. The second thing is the mass immigration of East European workers since the end of the Cold War, and especially the entry of former Communist Bloc countries to the European Union. This has visibly disrupted job and housing markets.

But I think there is an even more important driver: the insecurities generated by the world’s headlong process of globalisation and technological advance, of which both of these are aspects. People are stirred by events in far-away places (such as Iraq and Israel); jobs are made less secure by the rise of developing world industries and automation; people are more inclined to change their country of residence for better economic prospects or a more conducive climate. This creates both physical and cultural insecurity, as well as economic advances. This is not unlike the situation that persisted in the 19th Century, which fuelled intolerance then.

So what should liberals do? Many mainstream politicians, Labour and Conservative alike, are seeking a middle path. They accept that immigration is a problem; they want to push minority groups to integrate better into the mainstream way of life. This includes promoting “British Values” in schools, which include “tolerance”, as  away of promoting universal human values while at the same time nodding to the intolerant appeal to Britishness (see Britain First).

I don’t think this is working. It just encourages intolerant attitudes. “We spoke up by voting Ukip,” they might say “and now at last they are listening. Let me speak some more.” The more politicians talk about immigration as being a problem, the more members of the public think it is OK to be intolerant. That may not be logical, but it does seem to be the way things work. And as for “British values”, the trap is obvious. What the public thinks this means (“no foreign cultures here like Islam”) is different from what the politicians think (“Accept Muslims as being fully British”). It’s all a bit “I’m not racist but…”.

Instead liberal, and Liberal, politicians should concentrate on three things: challenging intolerant attitudes, without the buts; developing broad-based community education; tackling the insecurities.

First is challenging intolerance. This means taking on people who say that immigration is destroying society, that Muslim communities are a threat, that benefit claimants are scroungers, and so on. This is more difficult than it sounds. Most mainstream politicians say the words, but destroy them with a “but”. “This society could not survive without immigration, but it has disrupted communities,” for example. Instead politicians should try and divert the blame for the society’s stresses onto economic insecurity following technological and global development.

Next is community education. Schools, especially primary schools, should be celebrated as places where different communities meet. Pupils should be taught about different religions, world regions and so on. Of course Britain’s own special story must be taught as part of this, but not in such a way as to promote narrow nationalism. And the school curriculum should embrace wide life-skills, such as dealing with people who disagree with you, and taking responsibility for you own fate, rather than always trying to blame somebody else. This is not rocket science. Many of our schools are already doing this. But it is difficult to see how this is compatible with the government’s programme of fragmentation of school management, driven by parental choice – and focus on narrow skills such as literacy and numeracy.

Finally we must tackle the insecurity that drives intolerance. This brings me back to economics, and I will develop my ideas on this in future essays. But in essence I think we need to look for stronger local economies, with stronger local governance – to balance the global dimension with a local one, at the expense of our current national focus.

 

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Rethinking Liberalism 2: economics

The discipline of economics pervades all reflection on public policy. This is only right, as it is this discipline that tries to reconcile supply and demand for resources, and present a rational framework for choices. But it can be pernicious. It can frame the policy debate in the wrong way. As we refresh liberal policy ideas so as to put sustainability and human needs at the heart of public affairs, this is becoming a major problem. Liberals must challenge many tenets of conventional thinking.

First of all, let me say what I’m not going to talk about. There has been much heated debate on the value of austerity policies in tackling the recent economic crisis. I have read some liberals who say that “Keynesianism” is a core liberal belief, something given added resonance by the fact the Maynard Keynes was a Liberal. These tended not to be professional economists, who are careful not to label their beliefs with the name a of a dead economist, however inspirational. And it is based on a misunderstanding that Keynesian policies implied free public expenditure at all times, rather than being a temporary measure in response to a short term crisis. The problem that I have with economics applies as much to conventional, liberal “Keynesian” economists, such as Paul Krugman, as it does to the neoclassical ideologues – though the liberals are the more pragmatic, and the more likely to support changes to the conventions of the discipline. Having said which, I am sure Keynes would have recognised the value of what I am trying to say.

The problem that I want to deal with lies at the boundary of what professionals call “positive” economics, which refers to the factual or “scientific” side, and “normative” economics, which deals with policy recommendations, and where personal value judgements play a role. Much normative economics is presented as if it positive. Policy makers have taken simplifying assumptions used in positive economics, and used them as the basis of concealed value judgements.

I need to get more specific. These are the sorts of things I mean:

  • Economic growth is good for a society and should be an objective of public policy.
  • High productivity, the key to economic growth, is therefore a critical policy objective.
  • Free trade promotes economic welfare and drives economic growth forward, and should therefore be maximised.
  • The more people consume the better off they are, and the healthier an economy is, provided that spending does not outreach income.

I could keep going. The issue is not that these assumptions are wrong – they have served policy makers well – it is that life is not as simple as that, and we should always question them before using them in the decision-making process. And increasingly they are taking us in the wrong direction.

To be fair, economics does not stand still. I did not put on that list that aggregated income is the critical measure of success, and how it is distributed is of secondary importance. Economists (some of them at least) are at last seeing through that idea, which had been universally accepted. Also a worship of open market mechanisms for allocating resources is coming under question. And indeed, you can have perfectly sensible conversations with professional economists in which it is clear that they understand the limitations of their discipline. But when they get back to their desks and analyse policy options, the same old things keep coming up.

The result is that policymakers are trying to push the economy in a direction that it does not want to go. Growth remains obstinately slow, distribution becomes more skewed, public services struggle for funding. We worship highly centralised, “efficient” and specialised models of business and public services that are failing to meet human needs. And we are heading in slow motion for an environmental disaster.

Economics needs to adapt to the modern world. To do so it must start to take on board ways of thinking. Consider the following, none of which are particularly wacky in terms of economic theory, but all of which undermine the conventional wisdom of public policy making.

  1. Wealth must circulate for a healthy economy. This is the main idea of George Cooper’s book Money, Blood and Revolution. If wealth is accumulated by a rich elite, it drains the life out of an economy because they don’t spend it, or don’t spend it efficiently. They save too much, and the bulk of their saving goes into unproductive assets and speculation, and not enough into productive investment. Worse, they use their accumulated wealth to skew the workings of society in their favour. This presents an economic argument for progressive taxation and the taxation of wealth – as well for trying other interventions which distort the way incomes are set.
  2. Consumption should be optimised, not maximised. Once basic human needs are met, the utility of consumption rapidly diminishes, and often gets tangled in a zero-sum game of status competition. This challenges the idea that economic growth is the be-all and end-all, as well as bringing distributional issues to the fore.
  3. Don’t confuse the acquisition of wealth with its realisation. This is a related point. The conventional wisdom, based on the gods of maximising consumption and productivity, is that we should go out in the world and work as hard as possible for the common good. But what if somebody wants to work less and consume less? Or if she prefers to consume less goods, but which are made in a less “efficient” way (organic vegetables, say rather than mass farmed ones, for example). Provided that she does not consume more than she produces, does this really matter? What is the point of piling up wealth if we can’t use it in the way that we want? Economists frown on organic vegetables as they reduce productivity, but the ability to choose such low productivity goods is a sign of a wealthy society. They are confusing the creation of wealth with its realisation. This suggests that the more developed a society becomes, the less worried it should be about productivity and income growth.
  4. Trade is a means to an end, not an end in itself. No human activity has done more to banish poverty than trade. Yes we should celebrate it, and yes protectionism usually ends badly. But there comes a point when its uses diminish. Trade between the developed world and China had economic benefits when China had a pool of very unproductive agricultural labourers who could be used to make cheap industrial goods. But these benefits diminish as China catches up, and as this happens, it is more than likely that the volume of trade (and its benefits to the developed world) will diminish. That’s economics. Don’t panic. The party was fun while it lasted. Globalisation remains key in the world of information and ideas. Trade of physical things remains is important to helping undeveloped countries to develop (though the locus of that trade is likely to be mainly with middle income countries rather than developed ones, as these bulk larger). But trade of physical things over huge distances is not so important for the sustained progress of developed economies.

Liberals should believe that an economy should develop based on free human choices, long term sustainability and a degree of human solidarity which diminishes with distance. Increasingly human preferences, technology and world development will take us away from the mass-produced, high productivity, high consumption, global trading society that policy makers favour, guided by economic conventional wisdom. It isn’t what people want (free human choices), it isn’t sustainable (carbon emissions and world resources) and it is less needed for human solidarity (developing countries are increasingly able to look after themselves, while the need for more localised solidarity grows). The discipline of economics needs to catch up.

 

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Rethinking Liberalism 1: capitalism

In my last post I suggest that liberalism, and its British variant Liberalism, had lost its way. To many people it does not address the key issues of today, and looks to be a political irrelevance. I want to address this by thinking about how liberals, and British Liberal Democrats, should deal with these critical issues. In my first essay I will take on the burning issue for the political left: what to do about capitalism?

To get a flavour of how some on the left are thinking, read thus piece by David Graeber in last weekend’s Guardian: Savage capitalism is back – and it will not tame itself. Mr Graeber is a self-described anarchist, who wrote Debt: the first 5,000 years, which I reviewed last year. His view is that the capitalists are taking over the political system, and pushing everybody else into effective slavery (though he doesn’t put it quite like that). Stopping them will take more than a bit of polite political debate and a few tweaks to the tax system. He has jumped on the Thomas Piketty bandwagon, appropriating the French economist’s recent book to his cause. He says that it shows how the capitalism is reverting to it natural state whereby the wealthy accumulate the lion’s share of the riches. Mr Graeber is somebody I find extremely annoying. But he says a lot of perceptive things, and he should always be taken seriously – up the point where he runs dry and turns silly.

What do I mean by capitalism? It is best seen as the marriage of two ideas: maximising the reach of open market trade, and a system of private ownership for accumulating gains from trade. Both ideas are initially appealing to liberals.

Let’s start with markets. To many, the use of free competitive markets is the ultimate form of democracy. Consumers choose freely, and the producers must adapt themselves to consumer demand. This idea has currency on the political right, who think markets should replace many functions of government, and reached into Britain’s New Labour project under Tony Blair. There is some truth to this view, but there are limits. There are two groups of arguments against the extension of open markets: those concerning economic efficiency, and those concerning human preferences.

The arguments concerning economic efficiency are rehearsed often. Efficient markets require information and trust; these can be expensive to maintain. This gives rise to the shape of the developed economy, which is dominated by large organisations that are run using command and control methods, not market exchanges, and by strong governments that are required to maintain the institutions that allow markets to flourish, and supervise the delivery of services that markets cannot provide efficiently.

We talk less about human preferences. Market exchanges are of their nature transactional; they require very little of human relationships. Once the deal is done, the parties walk away from each other. The word “arm’s length” is often used to describe the arrangement, with the suggestion that markets will not be efficient unless transactions are conducted at arms length. Such arrangements do little to satisfy many human and social needs. People choose to limit market relationships to only part of their lives. If we lend a friend a hedge-trimmer, we don’t ask for anything in return, still less establish a fair price – because that would be inimical to friendship.

So markets are constrained by the requirements of efficiency on the one hand, and our preference for cooperative, trusting relationships on the other. But, if we allow for these important constraints, free markets are a vital part a modern, liberal society.

But that is only one side of capitalism. But, as its very name suggests, capitalism is about much more than this. It is about wealth and capital. The profits from trade are retained by owners of businesses, capitalists. The capitalists then invest this wealth. To optimists this is a thoroughly benign process: new businesses are created, which help economies to expand and innovate, benefiting all society. To pessimists the wealth is simply used to maximise status and power. In Mr Graeber’s view an important dimension of this is the loaning of the wealth as a means of establishing power over the debtors – a dynamic that has a long history. Both optimists and pessimists have a point.

On the optimistic side, investment and laons in modern society do not lead to enslavement as they used to. Expanding economies provide many opportunities to pay debt back. Furthermore modern legal systems place severe constraints on the power of creditors. They used to be able to cart your children off as slaves, even after your death. They aren’t allowed to nowadays, and there are many ways, through death and bankruptcy, by which debts are extinguished to the loss of creditors. Furthermore, the instruments of ownership, shares and bonds, are mechanisms by which wealth, and power, can be distributed more widely through society. It is the basis on which the middle classes, who form the bulk of a developed society, maintain a degree of independence.

On the pessimistic side, there is a tendency for wealth to accumulate amongst an elite. And for the last generation, it seems that this elite is growing while the fortunes of the middle and lower classes stagnate – one of the central political challenges of our time. There four interrelated sets of problems that should worry liberals:

  1. The capitalist system is creating an elite who are gaining undue political influence, which is tending to perpetuate their own dominance.
  2. The amassing of wealth, only a small proportion of which is invested in new production, is slowly suffocating the economy as a whole.
  3. The poor, and even not so poor, are finding their market power is diminishing, reducing their overall power and control that they have over their lives.
  4. The relationship between the capitalists and their employees, and, all too often, their customers is often abusive and exploitative.

There are alternative ownership models to the capitalistic one: state ownership; cooperatives including customers and/or workers; non-profit enterprises with non-commercial aims. But each of these carries its own disadvantages; it is difficult to see how a healthy economy can work without a large component under capitalist ownership.

So what are my conclusions?

  • The capitalist system remains essential to a modern, liberal society. Without it life would spiral into even greater depths of poverty and exploitation.
  • The capitalist system is only a part of that that modern, liberal society and should be confined to those areas where it is efficient, and where people want it to be. It should be part of a diverse, pluralistic system.
  • There should be specific measures to counteract excessive power accumulated by capitalists, and protection for those vulnerable to exploitation.

So that set’s a general tone. It is different from the hard left, like Mr Graeber, that wants the capitalist system dismantled entirely. It also differs from the far right, that wants the capitalist system extended into further areas of society, and for the capitalists to be given more power over their employees and customers. But it covers a broad spectrum of views, from mainstream left to centre-right. Any distinctively liberal ideas are going to come from precisely how the problems of modern capitalism are addressed. That is where my future essays will go.

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