Why I am not a Tory

So, I voted for a Conservative Party candidate in the UK election last week. Which was weird for me, as I’ve never had any kind of affiliation with them. Indeed I’m insticitively repelled by the conservative instinct of “tradition knows best”. I’m not right-wing. But I’m not left-wing, either. And I’m definitely not a centrist. However, I am politically engaged. This is a very strange concept for some people.


The myth of Left and Right

The reason is that a particular simple model of political philosophy – the one-dimensional spatial model – has become totally ingrained in everyday culture. The model has this kinda weird quantum-style property that its content depends on where the observer fits within it.

If you are “left” wing, it says that politics is split between those good people who want to use the state to benefit the poorest and physically labouring people (“left”), and those bad people who want to use the state to benefit the richest, capital owning people (“right”). If you are “right” wing, it is split between those good people who want to use the state to protect the institutions of civilisation that have developed over millenia (“right”), and those bad people who would use the state to tear it all down and condemn us to chaos (“left”).

These are caricatures; more unites the wings than divides them, when it comes to philosophy of social organisation. Both sides sides see society as a malleable object, and largely agree that the state is an all powerful mechanism for moulding it. Because of this naivety about the technical workings of the state, it follows in both worldviews that disagreement over policy is identical to that of morals, and so their opponents are not just wrong but evil.

The instinct of both sides when presented with a social problem is for the state to interfere more in people’s lives to prevent them doing the “wrong” thing. They just tend to use it in slightly different ways – right wingers have tended to want to “ban” things like gays marrying; left wingers, certain types of labour contracts, for instance. (Though of course it’s easy to argue that these policies work against their own sides’ stated aims, as homosexuality is likely an intrinsic property that has been at times traditionally accepted, and people are not generally helped by limiting their employment options). Both profess bland platitudes about individual freedoms with an attendant “but…”, and then love to use the security apparatus to find and prosecute perceived enemies.

The corollary of ignoring the details of the workings of the state is a ridiculous conspiracy theory-like emphasis on the power and morality of the people working there. A social problem is a symptom of the “wrong people” being in charge, and its solution is merely a matter of putting the “correct people” in charge. And “in charge” is the right phrase, as both are intensely paternalist, believing their elites know best.

This is most obvious in the respective extreme forms – far-right and far-left governments are eerily similar in their practical details, differing merely in the window dressing. Sometimes not even that. (This has led to an amusing sideline where modern-day partisans try to disown and pin extremist regimes on each other, by decrying eg Nazi Germany as a “left” wing state or the USSR a “right” wing one. This is not an accurate description of the strategic coalitional position of these states).

In practice, many people fit nicely into the model through their own behaviour, by associating mainly with those close to them according to it. So it’s great for predicting who will tend to agree on many issues, because it reinforces that process. There’s a reason for that – the left-right labels actually come from the literal sides of the chamber that the members of the National Assembly sat on in Revolutionary France.

But it’s a very poor model for consistently classifying philosophies of government, because while the general trend is to favour more government, the manner in which sides are taken on how on any given issue is more or less random. Crucially, whether the state’s job is to rule out unacceptable actions which are sufficiently detrimental (the liberal position), or to rule in allowable actions that are sufficiently harmless (the authoritarian position) is not consistently applied. Whether an individual action needs to justify itself, or whether the state needs to justify interfering in it, depends on what that action is, where it fits in the individual’s prejudices. Left and right are partisan, not philosophical, labels. It is a descriptive model of who tends to agree with whom, at least so far; it is not a coherent theory of why.

Worse, it’s not complete, either: there’s nowhere for state-sceptics to sit at all. The centre’s no good: it’s not that we sometimes agree with the Left about how we think government should be used to actively mould society, and sometimes the Right, it’s that we don’t think it should be used unless it really has to be. Generally speaking, people are pretty good at getting on with their own diverse lives, and forcing them to live one particular way tends to do more harm than good. The state is a last resort for when free interaction fails.

It’s sometimes a lonely and confusing existence, following this philosophy consistently, while everybody else goes bounding off in any direction their day-to-day whim tells them to. Some days one group agrees with you about a particular policy while the other calls you names; the next day they switch.


People on the Left and Right think we’re whacky and crazy, simultaneously egregiously cynical and naively optimistic. This is because we reject the idea that the state must be used to deliberately mould society, and prefer in the main to allow for its spontaneous development through a human institution that channels potentially bad things like self-interest or greed into good ones like social benefit. This is counter-intutitive for most people.


Amazingly, the great novelist George Orwell remained a kind of leftist until the sad end of his days, despite his deep insight that the Left’s methods for attempting to solve social problems would not only fail but lead to tyranny, if followed to their logical conclusion. He once reviewed Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, and gave a great summary of the principal thesis about socialism, before saying something incredibly stupid about Hayek’s support for decentralised competitive markets.

“The trouble with competitions,” said Orwell, “is that somebody wins them.” If the problem with competition is the existence of winners, the answer is very simple: destroy everything of any value to anybody. Then there are no winners – we’re all losers. Problem solved. With the help of a better German speaker than myself, I’ve coined a phrase for this: Reichtumshaẞ – wealth hate.

Presumably what Orwell meant to say was that the problem was that somebody loses. He probably had in mind a foot race, a soccer match, or divvying up a pizza – a zero-sum game, where the existence of winners’ winnings implies equal and opposite losses to losers.

But wealth is not a pizza – the amount available is not independent of how it is divided up; my wealth does not necessarily create your poverty. This is hard for people to understand, because our brains evolved in hunter gatherer societies where wealth was not stored, and so its sum total did not grow.

There is still an entrenched belief that somehow when a person or a firm profits, it is a “rip-off”, that it must be some kind of fraud. But when two people enter into a trade in a free market, both profit. Or they don’t do it. That’s undeniable, and the great drive behind prosperity. Growth, after all, is merely the sum of profits. You can’t be pro-growth and anti-profit.

Some complain that the spread of impersonal trade is bad, that it removes the human contact in previous ways of organising. Once again, this is actually a good thing. Impersonal trade is buying and selling things without caring who is on the other end of the deal. The opposite of that is preferring some over others – xenophobia, insularism, tribalism, racism. Adam Smith, the founder of economics, was the first to really recognise this.

It’s true that markets need a private property convention to function, for which a state can be very helpful in practice. They can under- or over-provide goods that are non-rival, non-excludable, or both. And this can potentially be an argument for government subsidising or taxing the consumption of something, and in the last case, running its provision. Monopolies and oligopolies can have materially different outcomes to competitive markets, though the common misconception that free markets necessarily tend to them is false.

Bilateral trades can result in costs to third parties not involved in negotiating the deal – that’s called an externality and the study of what they are and what to do about them is wonderfully varied and challenging. I happen to work in one particular area of this study – the externalities that come from financial systems.

These are very interesting but overwhelmingly the exceptional problems, that, as the saying goes, prove the rule. If you think otherwise, your life must be hell – every time you buy a Mars bar, you must berate yourself for all the terrible pain you’ve caused. Or, you could imagine all the huge numbers of people who, while mainly caring about themselves and their immediate family, somehow cooperated to get you this tasty bag of calories. Seriously – markets are, quite literally, amazing.

Free markets are the most unconservative idea

“Underlying most arguments against the free market is a lack of belief in freedom itself,” said the great economist Milton Friedman. Authoritarian and tyrannical governments have understood this from time immemorial – it’s why they nationalised mints to control the coinage, and why Elizabeth I created monopolies for her favourites and outlawed Lee’s stocking frame.

Quite naturally, then, it was the forces of conservatism that historically opposed free market policies, and for this reason Friedman and Hayek, for instance, both strenuously resisted being labeled a conservative when people – on left and right – tried to. The Tories have a long record of opposing free markets, against Levellers, Whigs and Liberals. Perhaps the most shameful episode in this story is their support for the Corn Laws, which imposed minimum price restrictions on grain and other farm produce in Britain and Ireland, and tariffs on competing supplies from abroad, from 1815.

The laws were designed to create a state-backed oligopoly of farms, securing steady income to rural landowners and their employees, at the expense of the smaller ones who would like to undercut them to compete, and the urban population that depended on them for bread. This is similar to many modern ‘social democratic’ proposals to organise various industries according to “stakeholder interests”, and very similar to its close cousin fascism, as practiced in Mussolini’s Italy, or Franklin Roosevelt‘s New Deal, for instance.

It all came to a head in 1845, when a strain of the plant disease known now as late blight destroyed the potato crops of Ireland. The Corn Laws meant legally-bought bread was prohibitively expensive for the starving Irish. But, as the minimum price was so far above the cost of producing it, many smaller farmers saw an opportunity to grow their business by undercutting it.

State officials employed increasingly draconian methods to keep violators of the laws exporting bread to Ireland at illegally affordable prices. Here was the surreal sight of the government preventing people who wanted to sell products from selling to people who wanted to buy them, so that others could be protected from that competition. With guns. Around a million Irish starved; another million emigrated to the United States. Some believe the country has never quite fully recovered.

With the Irish population starving, the Conservative Prime Minister Robert Peel saw the only solution to the humanitarian crisis to be getting English bread into the country. He advocated tirelessly for the repeal of the Corn Laws, over the intense opposition of his party, mostly led by the future leader Benjamin Disraeli, eventually securing it with the backing of the opposition Whigs and Radicals in 1846. This was a betrayal for the Tories, who swiftly booted Peel out of the party. They remained an intensely anti-free trade, anti-markets, protectionist party for another 135 years.

Weirdly, it was a Conservative Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, who brought economic liberalism in from the cold somewhat in the UK in the 1980s. This confused the Left so much that they rebranded it “neoliberalism” so they could sneer at it safely. This rather silly label later got associated more with the foreign policy arena, in particular as a pro-Western imperialist philosophy.

The rebranding has been so successful from both sides that almost all people now bizarrely see free market policies as a conservative idea! They’re not. Some even think they’re necessarily imperialist ideas, and if you espouse free markets you’re necessarily for imposing them at the barrell of a gun all over the world! That’s just stupid.

The weirdness of modern day politics


So why did I vote for my historical enemies? In this election the Conservative party had the most pro-liberal agenda. While the coalition that they led botched its major reforms of health, welfare and education, it had the right idea in attempting them. While the cuts they implemented to the welfare budget may have had some negative effects, the cuts to those of defence, the civil service, local government and police and fire departments have not led to a drop in public service standards – and so were a good thing.

They talk the talk on improving democracy, decentralising state power and freeing up people from over-regulation to improve their lives, while Labour and others largely gave voice to the statist instinct to expand government in many directions in many bad ways. That’s why I voted for their candidate in my constituency.

It’s only a week since the election, and already the government is taking a potentially very illiberal direction. They want a bill to replace the EU Human Rights Act in 100 days, which could be good or bad depending on its content. The guy drafting it, Michael Gove, has the weirdest mix of liberal and authoritarian mindset I’ve ever seen, so it could go either way. Worse are their plans to grotesquely expand the already grotesque powers to punish “extremist” speech.

I don’t yet regret voting for them, as Labour would never have done a good version of the former, and could easily have done the latter, indeed the proposed Tory law builds on existing Labour laws. But if this carries on I might.

But to return to the big picture: if we must have a one dimensional model of politics – and modern analytical theory is starting to move away from this – it seems to me the split should be liberal-authoritarian, or capitalist-socialist. Both traditional wings would be overwhelmingly concentrated on the authoritarian/socialist side, even post-Thatcher/Reagan. Hayek knew this – The Road to Serfdom was dedicated to “the socialists of all parties”.

I’m far from the only one to recognise this, and there are more and more successful organisations making the argument that, hey, maybe government isn’t the answer. Maybe no one needs to be “in charge”, maybe there are just some problems which must be solved collectively, and those few should be solved by an institution that works for us.

The graph of social benefit versus size of government has a large spike near zero – undoubtedly having a violence monopoly to enforce a rule of law does allow the development of all the freedoms necessary to lead to the unbelievable riches that mean virtually everyone in a developed country is far richer than anyone born before 1880.

But after that it drops. And states have a tendency to drive to increase their size unless checked. We should start checking them more effectively.

This entry includes parts of a passage which originally appeared at the end of my stupidly long ‘Election Post-Mortem Post‘, reblogged here so people don’t have to slog through all of that.

ELECTION POST-MORTEM POST: The Most Boring Massive Surprise Ever

Well, that was disappointing. I was looking forward to at least a couple of days of constitutional wrangling, ideally featuring miniscule parties most people have never heard of as kingmakers, like the Social Democratic and Labour Party, or Plaid Cymru. Alas, the Conservatives romped home to a twelve seat majority, a scenario I had basically discounted before the election. The Liberal Democrats were wiped out by even more than I thought they would be. Labour performed worse in England than I imagined they would.

There were some things I got right, though: the Greens and Ukip, despite their large national visibility, were rendered electorally irrelevant by the first-past-the-post system. Predictably, their supporters are calling for a move to proportional representation, or some other equally moronic system, rather than taking my simple advice about how to solve the problem. Amusingly, their zeal for this is tempered by the knowledge that the other’s party would have done rather better than they did, as if one picks an electoral system to make one election retrospectively give the “right answer”.

The Scottish National Party did better than I had imagined, but only slightly. Sinn Féin lost one of their seats, which meant that I was even wrong about what constituted a majority, though not as wrong as all the TV coverage, which insisted on counting non-voting members in calculating it.

So in full: the Conservatives won 331 seats, Labour 232, the SNP 56, the Democratic Unionist Party 8, the Lib Dems 8, Sinn Féin 4, Plaid Cymru 3, the SDLP 3, Ulster Unionists 2, Green Party 1, and Ukip 1. The BBC gave the irrelevant popular vote split as: Conservatives 36.9%, Labour 30.4%, Ukip 12.6%, Lib Dems 7.9%, SNP 4.7%, Greens 3.8%, with no details on the others. The turnout was about two-thirds of the electorate – higher than last time, but hardly stellar by historical standards. Here are some maps.

Cue wailing and gnashing of teeth by the majority of the turnout that didn’t vote Tory, and probably some of those who didn’t bother to vote at all. Apparently entire “sociopolitical groups” are depressed by the result, despite that traditionally being a condition only individuals suffer from. Some of them go further – I’ve seen calls to “make the country ungovernable” by some people, which I think means throwing some sort of tantrum.


“Anti-austerity” types use rather desperate reasoning to conclude that actually the results back their views, basically by assuming that anyone who didn’t vote Tory or Ukip (49.5% of those who did vote) agree with them. The reality is at least 92.5% of the people who bothered to vote, did so for a party that backed the coalition’s 3% real terms cut in spending over the last five years. Which could well be in part because the main opposition, Labour and the SNP, did, despite appearances to the contrary; but you can’t just assume away that position when looking at the data.


Goodbye, Mr Ed

The Labour Party leader Ed Miliband graciously resigned, promptly, and with a minimum of fuss, and more than a little bit of good humour. I always liked him; I always felt he probably wasn’t the knee-jerk headline chasing moron that his policies – and their announcements – made him look like. The Liberal Democrats’ Nick Clegg followed him. I think he will be judged by posterity to have been a pretty good Deputy Prime Minister –  but a catastrophic leader for his party. Ukip’s Nigel Farage resigned too, after losing his fight for a seat in South Thanet on the Kent coast, though I will be very surprised if he doesn’t retake the leadership at the contest in September. I won’t eat my hat, though.

The Tories will now govern unencumbered by their vanquished former coalition beaux. What can we expect? A bill to rationalise Parliamentary seats into more equal populations, which will help smooth out some of the problems with UK democracy, though not all of them. Tax cuts, most significantly for minimum wage workers, whom the Tories have pledged to take out of income tax permanently.

They have also promised, or threatened, if you like, £12 billion in nominal welfare cuts, from its current £110bn budget – though where we don’t know. Means testing more things will undoubtedly figure, and is basically a good thing in principle, unless you like giving money to rich people to procreate, for instance. It’s supposed to be a safety net, after all, not a spare hammock. But there will certainly be some pain for some of the poorest citizens. This is potentially very, very bad, in my view.

There may be far-reaching reforms of the unsustainable NHS, or our gradually slipping schools, and possibly a restructuring of the UK on federal lines. Those could potentially be good or bad, depending on their form. Most of all there is the prospect of a break with the EU. That’s kind of a big deal.

Kind of a big deal

So where now for the opposition? There is the predictable crowd saying that Labour lost because it was “austerity-lite”, and clearly they need to be further to the left to win. “Look at the SNP!” they say. “A clear anti-austerity line [sic], and a huge electoral success! How do you explain that? Obviously, had a party been making the same left-wing arguments on a national scale, they would have swept to victory!” This argument does not stand up to scrutiny. (And not only because right- and left-wing are partisan labels, not philosophical ones).

Scotland is different, and the driving force behind the SNP surge was nationalism, albeit with “austerity” [sic] a close second, despite the Institute for Fiscal Studies finding their manifesto to be roughly the same as “austerity-lite” Labour, fiscally speaking. It is not transferrable to the rest of the country. The Tories’ net loss to Labour was just four seats; coincidentally, the same total number of seats they lost to them in southern England outside London.

The bulk of Tory gains came at the expense of their erstwhile coalition partners. But actually the big story is that they gained at all – incumbent parties leading unpopular governments which are thought to have massively cut spending aren’t supposed to. They held 285 seats, just three fewer than Labour and the SNP managed to get between them in total. This is hardly proof of a “progressive majority”.

The only Labour leader to have won any general elections since 1974 thinks the answer is to return to the centre ground. There is good, solid, unarguable mathematics behind this. But the promising analysis for me is from Miliband’s shadow business secretary, Chuka Umunna.

Umunna shows a) a clear grasp of the rules of UK elections, and why Labour’s rather pessimistic, exclusionary “35% strategy” was not playing to win by them, b) a willingness to count the opinions of those who didn’t vote for them, and ask why they didn’t, and most importantly c) a flexibility of thinking that prioritises solving social problems over ideologically pure proposals that claim to.

Step one for the British left should be getting behind this guy, in my view. He’s charismatic, charming and pragmatic. He’s smart, seems to understand business or at least not be actively hostile to it, and doesn’t repel people with anger, hate and envy. He’s been described as the “British Obama”, and I think this has resonance entirely apart from his race – in his positive, hopeful outlook and uniting attitude. Apart from anything, having a black leader would be insulation against a shift to the traditional anti-immigration racism of the far-left. He’s a really good candidate.

Here’s a little more advice for my lefty brethren, if they want to secure my vote and those of people like me next time round:

1. Chill the fuck out

Not everything is a giant capitalist conspiracy; not everything Conservatives do is evil. Before the exit polls came in to shatter their hopes, some lefty friends of mine were passing round a darkly-worded article warning of the coming “coup” by the dastardly Tories, who were evilly going to try to form a minority government in the event of a hung Parliament. Like, say, Harold Wilson did. This sinister plot was of such Dr Evil-ish genius it could only be foiled by a majority of the Commons passing a no-confidence vote against the prospective government, which any of them could bring to the floor.

When you’re pre-emptively getting spitting mad and indignant about normal procedure in advance of anything actually happening about it there’s really something wrong with you, and it’s very difficult to speak rationally with someone like that. Not least because it makes one wonder whether they would be quite so damning of a Labour-led minority government “coup”.

The world is complex. Policy outcomes are uncertain. You do not have the monopoly on good intentions. It is possible to agree on morals and disagree on policy. Anger and hate are extraordinarily unproductive emotions. Step away from the tin-foil hat.

Calm. The fuck. Down.

2. Take on arguments on their own terms

Some on the Left seem to care more about the messenger than the message. One version of this is not giving credit to people you don’t like when they do good things. I know for a fact loads of them are pissed off that the coalition legalised gay marriage, because that puts them in the irritating position of agreeing with them. So: “Cameron may have legalised gay marriage, but obviously he’s only doing that as a sop to the Gay Business lobby and his friends in Big Registry Office,” or something.

Another is in dismissing an argument you can’t refute because of who makes it. “You are false data,” they say, perhaps forgetting that the validity of a concept is independent of where it originates.

The frequency with which I argue with someone only to be attacked for who (they think) I am is depressing. One old friend of mine, who has known me at least 15 years, responded to my straightforward reasoning that his proposal to replace the state-subsidised loan system for higher education with student grants funded by taxes on “corporations” was anti-progressive and anti-savers, by posting vapid memes about alleged Tory corruption on my facebook page.

Somehow, I guess he must have decided that I had suddenly become a Tory, that I therefore thought corruption was awesome, and hence my logic was not worth engaging with, however seductively irrefutable it seemed. In a similar conversation recently I was told my argument was “ideology dressed up as pragmatism”. Fine, I guess – is it wrong?


3. Open up your tiny little minds about how best to organise things

The fact is the biggest problem on the Left is a naive faith that government is just awesome, that any policy claiming to solve x will solve x, and therefore if you oppose that policy you don’t want to solve x, possibly because you don’t care about the people affected by it, probably because you are an evil blood sucking capitalist that I probably should simply not listen to, and lalalalalala I can’t hear you.


This is infantile. How a policy is presented to the electorate is a marketing strategy thought up by those wishing to implement it. It is not, generally speaking, a detailed and thorough analysis of what will actually happen, with specific confidence intervals. The Left are often unbelievably cynical about what they hear about private institutions’ aims and actions, to the point of utter hysteria – why then can they not have at least some scepticism when it comes to the state?

The state is a particular institution, with a particular logical structure; pointing out that this may perform worse when trying to solve a given problem than any other particular institution with a different logical structure should not be heresy. Unless you really are a hardcore communist, the market institution is sometimes a better option. It’s not always clear when one is definitely better than the other, and to find out you have to consider their characteristics.

For instance, when attempting to solve a problem, it is good to have a feedback process for gauging the performance of any attempt, so you can fix it if it isn’t meeting its expectations. In a sufficiently competitive market we just stop buying a product if we’re not happy with it, and buy one of the many alternatives – this is possible because the implementation decision is dispersed among many agents, and it is a powerful correction mechanism. For governments we have periodic elections, at which point we choose one bundle of choices for everybody across many diverse issues; this is a far more opaque and inflexible way of evaluating the success or failure of any attempt to do anything. It has other intrinsic flaws, too, as can markets (see below).

How one decides whether to use one or the other is by weighing up the costs and benefits of the two options somehow. Amazingly, some on the Left seem to literally believe state action is costless. One lefty recently said to me: “No one is in favour of cuts”, in a totally generic sense.

Well, people who believe society is paying more for a particular state action than the value it is getting out of it might be. And some reasonably feel that – at least as far as the non-welfare cuts go – the coalition cuts have not reduced the quality of the corresponding services in defence, local government, the civil service, fire and police departments. In which case, as long as you think that government is there for the citizens and not its employees, the cuts were good. At any rate it’s at least worth thinking about costs and alternatives, not just the usually more obvious benefits.

I once made the mistake of publicly asking a lefty friend, who was terribly upset about the “Tory NHS privatisation” his fevered imagination had cooked up: if, hypothetically, a private healthcare system resulted in better outcomes for patients, would he still be against it?

Basically, I was asking: which is more important, solving the problem, or the ownership structure of the means by which we attempt to do so? I got threats of physical violence from his goons, some of whom said I was “trying to trick him”. Just for asking the question!

4. Stop hating success and (re-)embrace markets

Amazingly, the great novelist George Orwell remained a kind of leftist until the sad end of his days, despite his deep insight that the Left’s methods for attempting to solve social problems would not only fail but lead to tyranny, if followed to their logical conclusion. He actually once reviewed Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, and in typical fashion gave a great summary of the principal thesis about socialism, before saying something incredibly stupid about Hayek’s support for decentralised competitive markets.

“The trouble with competitions,” said Orwell, “is that somebody wins them.” If the problem with competition is the existence of winners, the answer is very simple: destroy everything of any value to anybody. Then there are no winners – we’re all losers. Problem solved. With the help of a better German speaker than myself, I’ve coined a phrase for this: Reichtumshaẞ – wealth hate.

Presumably what Orwell meant to say was that the problem was that somebody loses. He probably had in mind a foot race, a soccer match, or divvying up a pizza – a zero-sum game, where the existence of winners’ winnings implies equal and opposite losses to losers. But wealth is not a pizza – the amount available is not independent of how it is divided up; my wealth does not necessarily create your poverty. This is hard for people to understand, because our brains evolved in hunter gatherer societies where wealth was not stored, and so its sum total did not grow.

There is still an entrenched belief in leftish circles that somehow when a person or a firm profits, it is a “rip-off”, that it must be some kind of fraud. This is usually rather selectively applied – I know plenty of leftists with savings, plenty who own shares or businesses, and no leftists who when selling the computer their ability has bought them accept offers according to the need of the bidder. But it’s there at least for “other people’s” profits.

When two people enter into a trade in a free market, both profit. Or they don’t do it. That’s undeniable, and the great drive behind prosperity. Growth, after all, is merely the change in value of everything we have access to due to its changing hands from one person to another who values it more than something else, and vice versa – ie it’s the sum of profits. You can’t be pro-growth and anti-profit.

Some complain that the spread of impersonal trade is bad, that it removes the human contact in previous ways of organising. Once again, this is actually a good thing. Impersonal trade is buying and selling things without caring who is on the other end of the deal. The opposite of that is preferring some over others – xenophobia, insularism, tribalism, racism.

It’s true that markets need a private property convention to function, for which a state can be very helpful in practice. They can under- or over-provide goods that are non-rival, non-excludable, or both. Monopolies and oligopolies can have materially different outcomes to competitive markets. Bilateral trades can result in costs to third parties not involved in negotiating the deal – that’s called an externality and the study of what they are and what to do about them is wonderfully varied and challenging. I happen to work in one particular area of this study – the externalities that come from financial systems.

These are very interesting but overwhelmingly exceptional problems, not the rule. If you think otherwise, your life must be hell – every time you buy a Mars bar, you must berate yourself for all the terrible pain you’ve caused. Or, you could imagine all the huge numbers of people who, while mainly caring about themselves and their immediate family, somehow cooperated to get you this tasty bag of calories. Seriously – markets are, quite literally, amazing.

“Underlying most arguments against the free market is a lack of belief in freedom itself,” said the great economist Milton Friedman. Authoritarian and tyrannical governments have understood this from time immemorial – it’s why they nationalised mints to control the coinage, and why Elizabeth I created monopolies for her favourites and outlawed Lee’s stocking frame.

Quite naturally, then, it was the forces of conservatism that historically opposed free market policies, and the Tories have a long record in doing so, against Levellers, Whigs and Liberals. Weirdly, it was a Conservative Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, who brought economic liberalism in from the cold somewhat in the UK in the 1980s. This confused the Left so much that, in keeping with point two above, it rebranded it “neoliberalism” so they could sneer at it safely. The rebranding has been so successful from both sides that almost all people now bizarrely see free market policies as a conservative idea! It doesn’t have to be this way.

Thanks for playing

So that’s my advice. Take it, and you might get my vote next time. 

I was there for the taking for Labour in this election: I’m a politically engaged, educated, middle income, negative-net-worth, pro-immigration immigrant’s son, from a left-wing family in a left-wing town, virtually all of whose friends are left-wing, who works with mainly left-wing people in left-wing academia.

I am socially (ultra-)liberal, sceptical of interventionist foreign policy, instinctively repelled by arguments based on “tradition”, and I’m anti-monarchy. I have no love for Tories – to me they’ll always be the party that kicked out Robert Peel for repealing the Corn laws, despite their relatively recent rebranding as a free market party under Thatcher – though I don’t hate them just for their opinions, either. I have a mental illness, so am a regular user of healthcare with a personal stake in how it is structured – but I don’t need that personal stake, because I care deeply about how best to structure society so as to improve everybody’s lives, especially the poorest and most vulnerable.

However, I do not think it is obvious how to do so because people are varied and society is complex, and I need to be convinced in any particular case that state action is going to help rather than hurt. Especially as, unlike free trade, it will definitely hurt somebody, as all state action is coercive, or it’s pointless. The greatest increases in living standards in history have been achieved largely despite state meddling, not because of it.

All the left had to do to get my vote this time was convince me that it cared more about solving social problems than the particular form of proposed solutions, and that it was interested in improving the lives of people who have lost out in free interaction, rather than punishing those who had done well.

It failed.

ELECTION SPECIAL PART THREE: Let’s Get Ready to Rumble (Electorally Speaking)

It can be rational to vote. If everybody voted, it almost certainly would be pointless to. But if everyone believed that, and so no one voted, suddenly you would in effect be dictator with complete power over the result.

The reality is somewhere in between, and given the uncertainty in what everybody else thinks – and what they think everybody else thinks, and what they think everybody else thinks everybody else thinks etc – it’s probably not a terrible thing to spend twenty minutes heading down to the local church or youth club and writing a cross in a box.

I don’t think it’s a “duty”, though. Personally I think all those Emiline Pankhurst types fought and died to give me an option, not an obligation. If only Mao, Hitler and Stalin were on the ballot would you feel you had to vote then? Just out of interest who for, and how did you come up with that? Answers on a postcard, please.

But anyway, this election. It is, alas, about parties. And constitutional make up. So what are we actually talking about here?

Three (hundred and twenty one) – that’s the magic number

There are 650 seats in the House of Commons. However, four of those are the Speaker and his flunkies, who don’t vote. Another probable five are from Sinn Fein, who also don’t vote. That leaves 641, of which a majority is 321 or more, which is the number of seats any putative government must look to control. The Fixed Term Parliaments Act of 2011 actually makes this more straightforward than it has been historically. If 321 members pass a motion of no confidence in a government, it’s game over for them. When 321 members pass a motion of confidence in a government, that’s it. It’s entirely possible we get the first but not the second, in which case we’re Belgium.

So, who is going to get how many seats, and what does that mean for potential governments?

Let’s ask Celebrity Bayes’s Theorem Enthusiast Nate Silver. He’s the guy whose nerdy models (frankly, as a man with more mathematics degrees than sense I’m insulted by the idea of Bayes’s theorem as qualifying as nerdy, but anyway) correctly predicted the outcome of the electoral college in the 2012 US Presidential election. He’s been analysing the election in typically irritatingly correct American fashion based on how it is *actually* decided, rather than the comforting irrelevant national polls favoured by the British. He’s combined what little constituency polling there is available with a complex (grrr) statistical model to predict what might happen. And boy, is it close.

The first thing to note from his numbers is that he’s at least 90% certain that neither the Tories or Labour will get a majority on their own (the boxes around the dots in the table represent his 90% confidence interval), though either can in combination with the most likely kingmakers, the Liberal Democrats. The biggest change from the previous set of results is a large loss in seats for the Tories and Lib Dems, and a massive jump in support for the SNP. The Greens and Ukip are basically irrelevant. Plaid Cymru and the Northern Irish Social Democratic Labour Party are more important.

Together, the Tories, Lib Dems and Ulster Unionists (who can for the sake of argument be assumed to vote in favour of confidence in the incumbent government), have 315 seats, six short of a majority. Chuck in Ukip’s seat and they are five short. That means that if Miliband could count on the members for the SNP, the SDLP and Plaid Cymru, as well as the solitary Green MP, voting for no confidence in the existing government, Cameron will be packing his bags. Miliband could do without one of the SDLP and Plaid Cymru, but not both.

I for one welcome our Celtic overlords

That’s step one. Now for the trickier vote of confidence in some government. Miliband has ruled out a coalition with the SNP. However, he would be unable to muster a majority of seats backing his government without them – if they want to force his hand, they could vote with the Tories against a motion in favour of a Miliband government. If they do so, he may be forced to go into coalition with them.

Unlike in 2010, he cannot offer their leader a job in the cabinet, as just about the one certain thing about this election is that Nicola Sturgeon will not win, as she’s not actually standing for anything. But her predecessor Alex Salmond, who is standing for the seat of Gordon, in North-East Scotland, might get something. Conceivably Deputy PM, like Clegg did. Those “scaremongering” Tory posters are looking pretty accurate now, aren’t they?

This will be accompanied by a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth, by people across the political spectrum. The second most senior official of the country may be somebody who doesn’t even want the country to exist, at least in its current form. It may be that Miliband can find something to bribe them with to get them to back a Labour minority government without explicitly involving them as a literal coalition partner, possibly removing Trident, or even more devolved powers than the considerable ones the current coalition is offering. That’s my base case scenario.

The second most likely scenario is the continuation of the Tory-Lib Dem coalition, possibly needing the backing of the DUP, as per the above numbers. This will also piss a lot of people off, as it’s very likely that majority of voters will vote for neither of the main coalition parties, and in effect explicitly against the government.

There are other interesting scenarios. If the Liberal Democrats feel the wind is changing, they may offer Labour a deal. But since the SNP will be so powerful in large part because they will have kicked out incumbent Lib Dems, they would have a tough job convincing their supporters as to why they are getting into bed with the Evil Tory-Helping Bastards.

Then there’s the possibility that Sinn Féin wins more than its expected five seats. That would change what the needed majority is. That’s assuming they keep their pledge not to vote in Westminster. The one circumstance where they might change that stance is if they can vote with the SNP to break up the Union somehow. It’s not impossible.

But there’s one more coalition that easily gets a majority. Further, the parties concerned have almost entirely separate and non-conflicting aims. They have maybe one serious issue where they disagree. And potentially they could lock up power over their respective areas for decades to come.

It is of course a Tory-SNP coalition. The Tories have no hope in Scotland; they will lose their one seat there currently. By definition the SNP don’t care what happens in England. The two can quite safely carve up the bulk of the country into a safe majority simply by agreeing to stay out of each other’s corner. The only thing they need to do is find somewhere else to put the UK’s nuclear missiles, and they’re done. It really is the rational choice.

Decisions, decisions

So at the end of the day your voting decision boils down to a very simple set of questions:

1. Are you in a safe seat, that has a reasonable chance of changing hands? If not, only vote if the giggle you get from the walk to the polling booth and the knowledge that you have incrementally affected the irrelevant popular vote statistic is worth the opportunity cost of what else you could have done with your time. This is is the position I am in. I’m looking forward to voting; it will be my first time since the 2004 US Presidential election.

2. If it is competitive, you need to take a position on whether you support the current government or not, and vote for the candidate for the party in  the repsective two camps you think most likely out of them to win the seat.

A rational reasoning for supporting the current government might go as follows: you think that the cost of borrowing the additional funds on top of the 11% budget deficit inherited by the coalition in 2010 needed to fund the 3% in real terms that it has cut from spending would have been higher than the social cost of those small cuts. This may be because you think that, for instance, since the bulk of them fell on defence, the civil service, local government and the fire and police budgets and you haven’t noticed a drop in the quality of service, they were a good thing.

You think that while some of the welfare cuts have no doubt been painful, there have been good ones, such as increasing the scope of means testing and taxing underused social housing in a bid to free it up for the most needy. You think that under a Labour-led government – by their own admission they would not have cut less – if anything more of the cuts would have been visited on welfare recipients, since the party is in large part funded by the public sector unions whose members bore the brunt of the cuts.

You think that the coalition’s extension of the income tax allowance to £10,000 from £6,600 has been a massive help for the working poor and that their idea to extend it further so that minimum wage earners pay no income tax is even better. Especially since the Labour Party are planning to bring back the 10% tax band and add a percentage point to VAT, which both disproportionately hurt the working poor. You worry that a Miliband Premiership will be weak, and in hoc to selfish minority interests like the SNP, and fringe lunatics like the Greens. You think gay people deserve equal rights with straight people, for instance to marry.

Rational reasoning to vote against the government might be: you believe that interest rates were so low in 2010 that the government couldn’t possibly manage to waste extra borrowed funds, and that even cutting expenditure by 3% in real terms had such a catastrophic effect on aggregate demand that it prolonged the recession. Further, the cuts fell on totally the wrong people; welfare recipients have been squeezed far harder than was necessary. The negative effect on growth of taxing high earners was exaggerated – they could have paid more without worsening the recession.

You see the coalition’s botched attempts at restructuring benefits, provision of some NHS functions and education as indicative of a total failure to understand how best to structure the state, and worry that they will try again and make things worse.

You are a public sector worker, and believe that you add value to society greater than that which the government believes, and worry that you may lose your job. You think government is at least in part supposed to provide jobs for you and your friends. You think that as people become richer their rights decrease, and so eventually property should be confiscated and redistributed, and you believe you know at exactly what threshold doing that is optimal (since clearly you want to keep your wealth) taking into account its negative effect on the rest of available wealth.

You are very glad that the UK did not take more military action in Syria than it did, as you think it would have made it even worse than it is. While your hatred of gay people is irrational, given that you have it, it makes sense to vote against the government that brought these people the same right to marry that you have (I’m assuming you’re straight here, as a gay-bashing gay is the very definition of irrational).

So there you go. You’re welcome. So go vote! Or don’t. Up to you.

ELECTION SPECIAL PART TWO: Idontwana Vote and the Temple of Dumb


So, the UK is coming to the end of a general election campaign. You’ve probably noticed, because of all the Super-Serious Important Policy Stuff in the news.

For instance, this guy, perhaps believing he was running for leading the Jews out of Egypt, wants you to believe what he says so much, he carved it on some rock:


It was Important.

This guy, who’d begun his campaign by meeting with a hedgehog,


ended it by meeting with a falcon.


It was Important.

The Prime Minister, who had previously shocked the country by candidly saying something true, mixed up which rubbish football team he supported with another that looked very similar, then accidentally said something true again, but one he wasn’t supposed to. Whoops. Important.

Then there’s this woman, who’s not even standing for election, but “won” the TV debates, apparently. Here she is, demonstrating her new transport policy:

That’s a bit unfair, though. Funfairs at least have an obvious source of funding. Totes Important, though.

Some of them tried to eat stuff. That was Important.

Others took time out to speak to unbelievably stupid people, who keep appearing talking on TV, despite the fact they are obviously collossal morons. And Joey Essex. Super Important.

Basically, this election has crossed over into a parallell stupid universe. I feel like I’m surrounded by a load of brainwashed slave children chanting “VO-OTE” as I’m lowered into a pit of boiling media, in the Temple of Dumb.

Everyone’s gone mental

The campaign has been noted for a “new way of politics” rising, through bold new parties breaking with the status quo to offer hope, change, sweet sweet righteous anger and hatred, and most of all, free stuff.

Like the Scottish National Party, representing all those Scots who are sick of living under the tyranny of a mere 15% more public spending per head than the UK average. They were so sick of being part of this country in fact, that last year they wanted nothing to do with it. Except the head of state. And access to the currency. And the central bank. And piggy-backed entry to the EU. And a totally free border and trade deal, obviously. But none of the debt, that was “Westminster” (BOOOOOOO).

Or the Green Party, who want to help young people by making it illegal to employ them, and care so much about their signature issue – the environment – that they’ve barely mentioned it. At one point they wanted to outlaw fractional reserve banking, in an amusing statement getting the historical trend of ownership of money creation exactly backwards. It probably would eliminate or at least reduce the risk of a financial crash, to be fair, it’s true. Though with the small side effect of sending us all back to the fifteenth century.

Or the UK Independence Party, some of whom claim to be “libertarian”, except for the massive regulation or absolute outlawing of foreign trade in the largest market there is, employment. Their leader, Nigel Farage, is desperate to appear to be an apparently competent and reasonable pint-drinking guy (“OMG HE DRINKS BEER! ME TOO!”), and must therefore find it frustrating having to fire someone for complaining about “negroid features” every ten minutes. There’s actually too many examples of crazy shit from these guys to make jokes out of, so I’ll just link to this handy summary of a few of the best ‘uns.

Tractatus bollocksononsensicus

As opposed as all these parties are in nominal partisan terms, they are close philosophical and ideological cousins. They all agree that society is malleable, and should be forcibly changed to fit their idea of what is good. They all agree that there are obvious “goodies” and “baddies” in the UK, and that it is obvious what to do about the baddies, though they may disagree about which is which. Uncertainty and the idea of limits on government power are anathema to them – “obviously” what should be done to fix x is make y do z, so make them.

They all, to a mouth-foaming batshit crazy member, sign up to today’s political mantra: “Money is boring, maths is boring, the exact details of what is actually possible and at whose expense are boring. I don’t want to hear about boring things. Show me who I can hate, I wanna be ANGRY.” It’s the political philosophy of a five-year-old in a tantrum.

(With apologies to my nephew, who actually does understand that there isn’t an infinite supply of money to be spent on whatever his whims dictate from minute to minute, and that most people are neither Prince Charming nor the Wicked Stepmother. Though to be fair he’s six).

And actually, of course this isn’t really “new” politics at all! The major parties have been pulling this crap for years. David Cameron went to Eton! He’s part of the capitalist conspiracy cabal that runs the world, makes you poor, cancelled Firefly, and spilled your pint last night! He probably drinks orphans’ tears, owns your face, and loves to kick NHS workers in the balls! He went to uni with Boris Johnson!

And: Ed Miliband is the son of a Britain-hating Marxist! He’s “from North London”, (ie Jewish) and looks like Gromit! Or maybe Stalin! He’ll probably tax sex, nationalise your face, and feed the Queen to Bulgarians! He went to school with Boris Johnson!

Content, nuance and consequences take a back seat to the goodies-v-baddies narrative, where only who is speaking matters, not what they say. Who is an immigrant? Who is posh? Who didn’t want breast feeding in their restaurant? Who asked if the particular form of ownership of healthcare was as important as the quality of healthcare for patients (it was me, and I was pilloried for it)? Because they are not just wrong, they are evil, and I want to have fun having a good ol’ hate at them.

One of the stupidest things you can do is think you’ve solved something and know for certain what its consequences are, when you haven’t and don’t. There are many issues in this election in which it is possible to take either of two opposing defensible positions. We may not all agree on which is right – but can we all agree that it’s complicated and non-obvious?

Sadly, it’s much easier to pretend something is easy and obvious, and opponents are stupid and immoral than to present both sides of a complex argument and acknowledge resolution is difficult. And behaviour will tend towards low cost, like any human activity. The growth of social media has meant that a new generation of people think they are clever and know things, because they read it in a trite meme over a picture of Nelson Mandela, or from a self-described Angry Person, when they are in fact actually entirely dependent on emotion to guide their decisions. “That sounds nice, and makes me feel good and righteous. Therefore it’s true!”

Some on the tin foil hat left even celebrate the victory of emotion over dull, old fashioned fuddy duddy reason, and call for people to “look for inspiration” and “vote with your heart”. There’s probably an equivalently moronic link on the right wing I could link to, but honestly, who has the strength at this point?

I don’t really mind ignorance. Ignorance can be fixed with an inquisitive attitude and an open mind. But doing so requires challenging your own assumptions, conditioning on available information and resources, and thinking about alternatives. No one wants to do that in this campaign, because they’re solidly entrenched in the warm embrace of their respective echo chambers.

This can breed a moral certainty that easily leads to martyr complexes and alienation from one another. Pretty soon you are so jaded you begin to view people who disagree with you as a subspecies Other, and, say, attack their relatives. When these people are screaming nonsense at you, try to remember that we’re all people, and empathise.


Sorry, this one’s been a bit grumpy. I’m not saying “don’t vote” (although exactly when it’s rational to is an interesting question). I’m going to myself, despite the total lack of a party or candidate remotely close to my own views (partly for fun). In part three of this series tomorrow I hope to say a few positive things about how to make the decision about how to vote. And even foolishly make some predictions.

ELECTION SPECIAL PART ONE: the Dumb-Ass Debate About the UK’s Dumb-Ass Electoral System


The Economist has a typically arresting image on its cover as the UK goes into the final week of campaigning for its general parliamentary election on May 7. The picture shows a face whose left side is that of Ed Miliband, the Labour Party leader, on a red background, and whose right is David Cameron, his Conservative Party counterpart and the current Prime Minister, on blue. The tag (in Liberal Democrat yellow) is “Britain’s Choice”.

As the newspaper’s editors and almost everybody else of course knows, though this is the choice facing the UK in some tenuous, convoluted sense, it is not the choice facing any particular Briton or Northern Irish person. Cameron is running to be the Member of Parliament for Witney, in Oxfordshire; Miliband for Doncaster North, part of the town in South Yorkshire. No ballot features both of them.

You could be forgiven for not realising that during the campaign. Over its course, the UK public have been treated to an increasingly Presidential-style presentation of the election, with leaders of seven parties – the Liberal Democrats’ Nick Clegg, deputy PM under Cameron; the secessionist Scottish National Party’s Nicola Sturgeon; the anti-immigration UK Independence Party’s Nigel Farage; the far left Green Party’s Natalie Bennett, and Leanne Wood of Welsh Nationalists Plaid Cymru, (the Northern Irish party leaders, principally Nigel Dodds of the Democratic Unionist Party, and Irish nationalists Sinn Féin’s Gerry Adams, had their own locally televised debate), along with Cameron and Miliband – cajoling and debating on television, campaigning all over the country in constituencies in which they are not on the ballot, and generally being covered by media as though they were all competing in one, national, election.

They’re not, of course. They lead parties that are competing in a series of local elections for representatives in Parliament, which then pick the government. It’s just that the UK people have become very comfortable – too comfortable, in my view – with the idea of rigid, homogenous parties being the object of simultaneous electoral selection for the legislative and executive branches of the state.

Party platforms are defended by candidates, whether or not they agree with every line, because to campaign as an independent without party machinery backing is political suicide. Hardly anyone knows who their MP is. A good deal more could probably now tell you who Sturgeon is – she was generally agreed to have won the main TV debates – even if her party is only on roughly one in every 13 ballots. She is on none.

The tragedy of the Commons

But when results are announced, they often make a lot of people perplexed, even angry. Labour generally tends to need a smaller percentage of the national vote to get a majority than the Tories – perhaps by as much as five percentage points. This is because their support is more concentrated in urban areas with unevenly populated historical constituencies, while Conservative support is dispersed all across the rural mainland, though probably neither party will get a majority in this election. On the other hand, were the Cameron v Miliband choice offered directly to UK citizens, the Tory would win in a 20 point landslide.

In 2010, the Liberal Democrats’ share of the national vote went from 22.1% to 23.0%, and yet they actually had a net loss of five seats in the Commons, from 62 to 57. Ben Page, chief executive of pollster Ipsos-Mori, told the BBC that this year they could take as little as 7% of the vote, and yet retain up to 25 seats, while Ukip and the Greens get only one each with as much as 15% and 8% respectively. The SNP are likely to get roughly the same proportion of the vote as the Greens, and yet amazingly could sweep all Scotland’s 59 seats.

This kind of stuff bothers some people, who are really attached to the idea that “democracy is awesome”. So occasionally there’s mass hand-wringing about what to do about it, and a debate about if we should change this electoral system – known by a typically British sporting metaphor as “first-past-the-post” – and if we do, to what. It roughly goes a bit like this:

“On the one hand,” says one concerned citizen, let’s call him Timothy, “having a direct link between a constituent and his or her MP is a good thing – they are our voice at the seat of government since the 13th Century, and I like being able to take up problems with someone I can look in the eye, and who personally tries to get my support.

“On the other, I think the government should represent the views of all the people. Only 36% of voters voted for Cameron’s party, while fully 41% voted against both coalition parties – it’s undemocratic that he has all this concentrated power. Government shouldn’t be able to do such huge things without very broad-based support.”

The lonesome ballad of Little Timmy’s tiny electoral violin

The Lib Dems – long the tiny-violin playing self-pitying victims of this “hideous injustice” – felt so strongly about the problem that they exchanged virtually all their bargaining power in negotiations for potential coalition agreements after the 2010 deadlock for a referendum on replacing FPP with some kind of alternative system. Among other things, they dropped their opposition to state-subsidised tuition fees for higher education, disappointing their student base who long for the good ol’ days of the far more regressive grants system, for instance.

The most well-known alternative to FPP is so-called ‘proportional representation’, such as they have in the chambers in many European countries. This simply divides the available seats up according to their weight in the national electorate. But it falls foul of the “one hand” point detailed above – representatives are party hacks, with no link to a constituency. This further embeds the party system, and makes the state even more remote from the citizenry than it is currently.

The Lib Dems’ AV was an attempt to square the circle. It was a preferential voting system, where voters ranked the candidates, and if no majority was reached, the last placed candidate’s votes were redistributed accordingly, repeatedly if necessary, until there was one. Just in case anyone was going to make the mistake that the Liberal Democrats were interested in making the UK more democratic, they first joined with Labour in blocking the Tories’ efforts to rationalise Parliament into fewer, more equally populated seats.

What did for AV was the complexity of the decision process. While ranking candidates is a simple enough idea, ranking-candidates-conditional-on-the-whole-population’s-rankings-weighted-in-reverse-order-of-first-preferences is not, and people were loathe to have elections decided in favour of the candidates deemed not quite good enough by the voters of the Socialist Worker or Monster Raving Loony parties. People worried that it would be more open to manipulation by so-called “tactical” voters (although no voting system is immune from that alleged problem). After a similar method was employed to comical effect in the Labour Party leadership contest, and Miliband emerged as leader rather than his more photogenic brother David (to the sound of many a savvy Labour Party affiliate slapping palm to face), it was clear it would lose the referendum. And it did.

So here we are again, with FPP deciding the make up of a government that almost everyone will hate, and many will regard as illegitimate precisely because of the way it was picked. But…there is an alternative alternative. Let’s go back to our confused citizen, Timothy, who has now regressed a bit, in the face of all this having-to-deal-with-politicians stuff.

“I want a local MP, and a national government. Aww shucks, Mr Welles, if only there were a way to have both,” says Little Timmy, staring glumly at his electoral card. Well, gee-whizz, Timmy, how about this:

Just. Elect. The. Two. Things. Separately.

You go to vote, and on the ballot is one box for who should head the government, and one box for who should represent you in its legislative chamber. So simple, and yet so fucking obvious. It’s what France does. And the US. For instance.

And yet this option doesn’t figure in the debate. At all. Whenever I talk to other Brits about this, I end up banging my head against the table because they can’t seem to understand the concept.

“You mean, my MP could be anyone, but he’d have to vote along with the Whip of whichever party his constituency voted for for the executive?”

No, Timmy. Just two separate votes.

“You mean, the party that wins government is obliged to fill Parliament with members according to the share of the votes each party got in the Parliamentary vote, like proportional representation?”

No, Timmy. Just two separate votes.

“But I only want one election, not two!”

Fine, Timmy. We could do it all on one ballot. You fuckwit.

Power and accountability

Little Timmy’s older brother, Big Jim, who holds a 2:2 in sociology from the University of Aberystwyth, pipes up: “But if the Prime Minister isn’t picked by Parliament, he or she may not have the backing of a majority in the Commons. This means it will be hard to ‘get things done’,” he says.

This is true, as far as it goes. However, I regard it as a good thing. When the executive branch has unfettered control over the legislative branch, it can “get things done” almost at will. And when government “gets things done”, I buy canned goods and hide in my bunker in Montana.

Indeed, when UK governments’ own party members vote against them it’s news. It’s even news if a UK government allows their party’s members a “free vote”! If this is your idea of how to structure the state, then why bother with a Parliament at all? Hitler could “get things done” as much as he liked, after all.

In a liberal society, government is not supposed to “get things done”. It’s supposed to get a small number of the right things done. This should mainly be focused on the provision of public goods, like defence, the impartial rule of law, and maybe a minimum standard of living. But at any rate, if you’re a democrat, government action should only be taken when there is a broad enough consensus on it.

Government will still be able to “get things done”, just if it is able to rally some majority of MPs behind it, rather than one static, permanent one. It’s just that this majority would change with each bit of legislation, and that this would be the norm rather than the exception.

It would mean pro-business Labour MPs  could vote with liberal Tories to cut overly burdensome taxes and regulations. Backbench Tory old Englanders could vote with Greens to preserve the environment. Old school trade unionists could vote with their natural Ukip bedfellows on immigration. The rigid party politics would melt into the aether, and a more fluid, inclusive one take its place.

Shut it down

All government is ultimately backed by force of violence. It is a terrible but necessary thing, and needs to be held accountable to the citizenry. The founding fathers of the US understood this, and so in the time honoured phrase “separated the powers” of government. Separation of powers is a much more powerful mechanism for accountability than a single election of a de facto dictatorship every five years.

In the US, if you want to vote for a Democrat for President, a Republican for your local Representative, and an independent for Senate, there’s nothing to stop you. (Ok, so the President is actually selected through the indirect electoral college process, which can differ from the popular vote, and there’s the problem of faithless electors. The point is the decision of the voter about the executive is distinct from their decision about their local legislative representative.)

Often there are different party majorities in the two houses of Congress. Sometimes both houses have majorities for the opponents of the President’s party. There is a long and distinguished history of strong independent candidates, at least in the Senate. Presidents have to work to “get things done”, by convincing the other representatives of the citizenry. And why stop there? Many states directly elect many other individual executive offices, like Attorney General, and even the fabled Dog Catcher. We could elect a Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer and a Labour Health Secretary.

“Oh come on,” says Big Jim, “What about the ‘Shutdown’ in 2013? Surely that shows that a Parliamentary executive is better than a Presidential one?”

Americans are, in general, pretty sceptical of what government can achieve, and so Federal law requires it to have time limits on all its funding. Sometimes that funding is not renewed, and there is no legal basis to pay the people running some of its operations. So they go home and the government “shuts down”. There have been 18 Federal government shutdowns, all since 1976, and most recently in 2013.

Amazing as it may seem to Europeans and Brits who think government is just awesome, this is a feature, not a bug. The US constitution is designed to limit the powers governments can hold, and require them to face the representatives of the people periodically, and check those powers are still what they want. If there isn’t broad enough based support – and remember, all forms of collective choice are flawed – then it errs on the side of not forcing the view of the government on the minority. Which is exactly what Little Timmy wanted, if you remember.

Comedian, actor and batshit revolutionary Russell Brand

The myth of “The People”

There is a lot of anger in the UK at the moment about its government, and justifiably so. The way the public sector is organised in this country is far from how I would prefer it to be, and many of the current government’s policies in my opinion are bad. Like this one, for instance.

A certain current of opposition goes a bit further, and argues that the problem is that the government has lost touch with what it is supposed to do, which they reckon is to “serve the will of The People”. Some of them are calling for a “revolution”, or a “people’s assembly” to change, and generally to expand, government’s function. By which I think they mean putting people in charge of it who will “serve the will of The People” and thereby make everything awesome.

It’s a very positive view of what government can achieve if it’s done right: so much so in fact that they think it should do a lot more, possibly everything. Only, now they’d do it for “The People’s will”, in supposed contrast to the current system.

I disagree, for reasons that might seem a bit pedantic or even stupid at first, but bear with me. The government is not failing to serve the will of the people, because there is no such thing. “The People” does not have a “will”, because it is not a person, and only people have wills.

“Well, obviously,” you say, “by ‘will of The People’, I mean what a majority of voters want, or some other mechanism for choosing how things should be that accounts for everybodys’ desires”.

Fair enough – but “will of The People” is a misleading term for that. We are used to dealing with individual people, with consistent preferences, and that is what is conjured up in our minds when we talk about a “will”. But there is no guarantee that what a group of people will decide – however they do it – is consistent enough to warrant the term “will”. In fact it almost certainly won’t be.

“The People” is an irrational agent

Suppose we have a plot of land, and we can grow apples, bananas, or pears, but only one. To decide, we could take a poll: “which of apples, bananas or pears is your favourite?” The votes come in: 30% have apples as their favourite, 30% bananas, 40% pears. Great, let’s plant pears, more people want that. But wait a sec – that’s against the “will of the people”, as 60% don’t want pears.

Ok, we’ll try again. We’ll take each pair of potential fruits and ask everyone which they prefer, and narrow it down like that. The votes come in: 60% prefer apples to bananas; 60% prefer bananas to pears; and 60% prefer pears to apples.

Which should we plant? Not apples, because “the people” prefers pears. Not pears, because “the people” prefers bananas. And not bananas, because “the people” prefers apples. Oh dear, I guess we’re not going to do anything then. We starve.

The reason for this unfortunate situation  is that this definition of “The People’s will” does not ensure a consistent set of preferences, and in fact as long as there are at least three courses of action none that considers all members’ preferences can.

When asked “do you prefer apples or bananas?”, and “do you prefer bananas or pears?”, a real person who preferred apples to bananas and bananas to pears would prefer apples to pears – the two questions are enough to figure out how they rank the three goods. (By the way this is exactly what economists mean by people being “rational”. There are counterexamples, but it’s broadly true of almost all of almost every person’s choices under almost all circumstances).

But as the example above shows, it’s not true of groups of people: there is in general no way of ranking outcomes for the population consistently with the way each of them does. If, of the people who prefer apples to bananas, enough prefer bananas to pears, and enough pears to bananas, majorities can be inferred  that prefer apples to pears and pears to apples.

So, even if the most wonderful group of angels is in charge of it, even the most completely democratic government you could ever imagine is necessarily coercive. And the more things you have it decide, the more coercion is likely.

And this is inherent, not some flaw that can be fixed with some complicated voting structure, or super majority mechanism or something. It’s because government action is forced purchase by everyone, to the exclusion of alternatives they may prefer.

Maybe all this is obvious. It certainly seems it when written down. You might be surprised to hear that this rather banal observation warrants the grand title of “Arrow’s impossibility theorem” in an area of economics known as public choice theory. And actually almost everyone is aware of it on some level. But they don’t act like it.

Consistent “Democratic Socialism” is an oxymoron

For example, some people despair when they see that majorities back both that UK citizens should have unrestricted access to EU countries, and that EU citizens should not have unrestricted access to the UK, and make very patronising remarks about “the people’s” ignorance. Leaving aside the fact that this particular story left out the “don’t know” column in their presentation of the survey results, which is sufficient to account for the disparity, and that the impacts of the two questions on the relevant populations are asymmetric and uncertain, why do you expect a consistent preference from a majority of people at all?

And then there are the Utopian Revolutionary Types I mentioned before, some of whom are angry at “neoliberalism”, and what they see as “rule by the market” in the great part of life, and want to replace it with a “democratic system” of distributing all wealth and goods, or at any rate more of them than currently are, and in a different, better, way. But if there’s inconsistency in social choice between three goods, how bad is it going to get when you try to do it with everything?

The absolute best you can say about this kind of “democratic socialism” is that in a population of completely uniform people with identical preferences it would correctly allocate things in the way that everybody by definition wants, which they presumably would have done anyway. So it’s at best useless. In a real population of diverse individuals it will be a very dumb way of organising things indeed.

This is generally dismissed with a wave of the hand, the statement that “obviously democracy’s not perfect”, and maybe a Churchillian quote. And maybe you’re thinking: “well, obviously I don’t mean all the people when I say “the people”. I mean ‘people with less than a certain amount of money’. Or maybe ‘people who work in a physically demanding job, or who work at all, and don’t just rely on income from capital assets that they inherited’”.

And if you prefer those people, fair enough, but don’t call the people you favour “the people”, and yourself a democrat, because excluding people from a say in the objective of government action is the opposite of democracy.

The truth is that democracy just isn’t a very good mechanism for doing most things. Markets are generally good because they respect everybody’s choice to allocate their own resources, and generally they know best how they want to use them.

It’s true that those choices are restricted by the individual’s own resources, and that sometimes when they choose to consume something that can hurt others, so there are potential moral problems with markets.

But it’s equally true that the overall possibilities of a society are limited by all its individuals’ resources, and that groups forcing others to differently allocate those resources necessarily hurts them, so even if there is some problem with markets, it doesn’t follow that government will be better. So I favour the former over the latter, all other things being equal.

The right kind of corruption

I think some of the Utopian Types recognise that government acts by force, but actually regard that as an argument for more government. So, they reckon the fact that government forces reallocation of resources is a good thing, it’s just that currently it’s the wrong group of people forcing the wrong other group of people to allocate their resources wrongly, and that all we need is the right group of people to force the right other group of people to allocate their resources correctly. Basically: “government is corrupt, so we need a lot more of it. Just the right kind of corruption”.

In a sense, I agree: we do need the right kind of corruption. I’m not saying we shouldn’t have a government, or that if we do, it shouldn’t be democratic. We should, and it should be.

It’s just that the kinds of things it should do should be limited to things which for whatever reason we can’t do individually. I can think of good, if perhaps not wholly watertight, arguments for using it for: defence; protection of private property and personal safety; and providing a minimum standard of living, health and education, for instance.

But the burden of proof should be on those promoting its use for that, and the structure of society should be such that it facilitates that justification process. Basically, I’m not anti-government, I’m a government sceptic. Government is a terrible but probably necessary thing, and should be treated as such.

The Utopian Types have the opposite view, that government is a potentially awesome but difficult thing, and we should structure society to enable it to do what it can because the best way it could do stuff  is potentially really great, never mind all the terrible ones we might get.

I find that a dubious argument, if only because there are a lot more bad ways of doing things than good ways, and the information necessary for making the good way is difficult or impossible to obtain.

Now, I’ve been assuming all along that the Utopian Types were angels with the best of intentions. I think a lot of them are; quite a few of them are my friends.

But suppose you weren’t an angel with the best of intentions, were aware of government’s role as a means of forcing one group’s preference on everybody, and wanted to use it to force your own view on everybody else. What would be the best way of pitching that to a democratic society? Well, you’d say you wanted government to act for “the will of the people”.

Calling a subset of the population “the people” is a very good political marketing strategy for evil or selfish people looking to use government for their own benefit at others’ expense, because everyone believes themselves to be part of “the people”, and if it’s in the interests of “the people” then it’s in mine.

But all government is about imposing one group’s values on another by threat of violence, so anyone who uses this term is either ignorant or manipulative, and you should be wary of them. Let’s give Russell Brand the benefit of the doubt and say he’s just ignorant.


Minimum Wage Rage

So, I’m against minimum wage laws. That said, I’m open minded, and willing to have a valid debate about it. But my GOD it’s hard to have that debate.

It’s hard because when I try to have it, a lot of people would much rather have a different conversation with me instead. One about who is a cuddly, warm-hearted person, and who is an evil blood sucker who enjoys making poor people miserable. It’s a fun conversation for them, because everyone thinks they’re the former, and people who disagree with them are the latter, and we all love to feel morally superior. Unfortunately it’s a comic book view of the world, and the feelings of anger it tends to stimulate prevent clear thinking.

There was an instance of this sort of thing last week, when a junior UK government minister, Lord Freud, said for some disabled people the minimum wage law should be replaced with a minimum income. Partly because of what was either ignorant or cynical reporting, lots of people got very upset and shouty (here’s an example basically picked at random). I agreed with Freud (with a caveat, of which more later), and some of the Very Upset And Shouty People got very upset and shouty with me, too.

Now I can’t see in their brain, so I don’t know for sure what their thought process was. But after some discussions with them, I think it was a bit like: “I like disabled people. Freud proposed something which would hurt disabled people. Therefore he dislikes disabled people, and if you agree with him, you do too. So I dislike you. GRRRRRRR”. The problem with this is I think the second statement is false, which invalidates the conclusion.

There are three steps to deciding your position on a policy. Understanding what it says, predicting what effects it will have, and deciding whether the resulting benefits to the people it helps outweigh the costs to the people it hurts. When faced with a disagreement over a policy, people often jump to the third as the source of it, mistakenly assuming agreement on the first two. I believe that the Very Upset People didn’t understand Freud’s proposal, or what its effects would be, so when it came to the weighing of the costs and benefits they were looking at different calculations to me.

Actually, I don’t think they understand the existing minimum wage law at all, or else – given their undoubtedly noble intentions – they would likely be as appalled by it as I am. It’s not the case that the poor and disabled benefit from a minimum wage law and opponents like me begrudge them that in favour of rich corporate fat cats – the poor don’t benefit. In fact, in a perfectly competitive labour market, literally nobody benefits from a minimum wage law at all.

Literally nobody

Minimum wage laws are not rules that require employers to employ people at a certain wage. They are rules that prevent employers from employing people at below that wage. They contain no legal obligations for anyone to actively do anything; only legal restrictions stopping them doing some things. They should probably be renamed “low-skilled employment bans”.

A wage is the price an employer pays an employee for their labour, which they do because it helps them to produce something which they can then sell. In a competitive market that price will tend to reflect the portion of the proceeds of the sale of the product that the employee’s labour is used to produce in preference to their competitors – known as their “marginal product”. If the employer offers any higher they will make losses and ultimately go out of business; offer less and the employee will find someone to outbid them. Similarly, if the employee demands more they will be ignored in favour of their cheaper peers; any less and they undercut themselves.

This is what Freud meant when he said that some disabled people “weren’t worth the minimum wage” – that what they can produce for employers cannot be sold for enough for the employers to be able to afford to pay them it and remain profitable.

So what is the effect of a minimum wage law in this idealised market? People whose marginal product was worth more than the new minimum are unaffected – they remain employed and earn the same. The only contracts that are affected are those involving people whose marginal product is worth less than it – i.e. the least skilled, the poorest, the most vulnerable – their previously available contracts are now illegal. Fearing jail, people won’t enter into them.

This sucks for the employers – they wanted to use this labour to produce more. And it sucks for the consumers – they wanted the option of buying those additional products. But most of all it sucks for those low skilled workers, who are no longer workers, they’re unemployed. And as bad as £2 an hour might sound to some of those Very Upset And Shouty People, it’s better than zero per hour. Again: literally everybody is worse off.


Now before I get accused of being a “naïve neoliberal” or something, let’s be clear that this perfectly competitive market is a fictitious model that does not describe everything in the world accurately. Competition is imperfect; information is scarce; and lots of things that exist in the real world don’t in the model: profit, and corporations, for a couple of obvious examples. The study of real market processes and co-ordination is a vibrant area of economics, in fact the one that I work in. So I’m not naïve.

But the example is important because it makes it clear that to the extent that there are any arguments in favour of a minimum wage, they must be based on evidence of imperfect competition in the labour market, and explain how this imperfect competition makes somebody benefit from a minimum wage at a cost to someone else that is acceptable. This is that “valid debate” I was talking about.

For instance, some macroeconomists, who tend to view the world in terms of aggregated statistics, may believe they have some knowledge about the sensitivity of the UK labour market to external changes. Other studies of real world data from the introduction of minimum wages claim that it’s hard to find bad effects, at least.

I and others counter that those macroeconomic models hide far too much of the complexity of the labour market to be convincing, and that looking at data from a complex evolving system before and after introducing some policy is not the same as comparing otherwise identical treatment and control groups, as they do in real science. But it’s worth talking about.

It seems likely to me that, if anything, imperfect competition would actually act to make the effects of the minimum wage law even worse. The biggest driver of imperfect competition is in the limited information of market participants, and it’s hard to see how outlawing some voluntarily entered contracts – by definition the best options the two parties can find – could improve their information.

But one plausible qualitative argument for who might benefit – and for the political reasons the laws persist – is that competing with the lowest skilled means that some more highly skilled (or unionised) workers are prevented from finding employers to pay them their marginal product, and so have to accept a wage below their labour’s market value. A minimum wage law could then potentially take some of that competition out, and make it easier for the more highly skilled to find those higher offers and raise their wages, at the expense of the now unemployed lowest skilled (as well as the employers and consumers).

So here’s the absolute best thing that I think can be said about a minimum wage law: some sort of econometric super being – one whose knowledge and abilities far outstrip the current experts – might be able to set a minimum wage law at such a level that with adequate certainty some of the richest parts of the poor do slightly better, while everybody else does worse. In this case, of those who are worse off, the poorest are most worse off.

A minimum income is better for (almost) everybody

I think that is a tough sell, especially compared to what Freud was proposing. To understand it we have to remember that what matters to a person’s standard of living is their income, not their wage. What he said was that some disabled people were languishing on unemployment benefits, because they were outlawed from employment by the minimum wage law. He claimed it would be better if the law were changed to allow them to work for what they can get, then have the state pay the difference between that and the minimum wage.

So: who benefits, and who pays? Start with the disabled people most pertinent to the question. If they can find someone to offer them, say £2 an hour, they can take that job and the state will pay them an extra £4.50 an hour – taking their income up to the minimum wage – instead of their current benefit rate. If it’s more, then they do that; if not they stay on benefits. Either way, they’re better off. Employers and consumers are also better off from the extra labour and available products, but probably not by as much as are the lowest skilled disabled people.

The only people who might not benefit are the general taxpayers. If the sum of the extra payments to top up wages exceeds the sum of current benefit payments, they will face a cost of that amount. Some of those won’t be either disabled, a potential employer of the disabled, or a potential consumer of the products of those disabled people, and they will be objectively worse off. I suspect there’s a level at which I – and Milton Friedman – would consider the cost acceptable to improve all those other people’s lives, but it’s a subjective question. And, of course, the new payments could be less than current benefits expenditure in which case literally everyone’s a winner.

So we can disagree, but on this basis, please. You are entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts, as they say. I’ve presented my reading of those facts, and it’s entirely possible that I’m wrong. If so, please explain why. Do not assume you can see into my brain and decide who I care about. Even if it makes you feel all awesome and superior.

But there is that one caveat about Freud’s policy I mentioned. And it’s this: what’s so special about disabled low-skilled people that they should benefit from this policy? What have the able-bodied low-skilled workers done to deserve their punishment by the minimum wage law? I want to abolish it for everybody, and replace it with a minimum income. If you are a cuddly, warm hearted person, you should too.