Democracy’s not all it’s cracked up to be you know

As Churchill pointed out democracy does have something going for it, that it’s better than all other methods anyone’s ever tried. But that doesn’t mean that it’s perfect, not by a long shot. And interestingly we’ve that nice Owen Jones making the point for us:

The Aids crisis was building; more than half the population believed homosexuality was “always wrong”, peaking at 64% in 1987 when just 11% opted for “not wrong at all”; and later that decade the homophobic legislation, section 28, was introduced.

Meaning that under the pure rules of democracy that Section 28 legislation was entirely justified. Indeed, it should have been introduced as it was obviously the majority view of the people. All of which is a problem with democracy: for there are quite obviously times when that will of the majority conflicts with the civil liberties of various minorities. Meaning that we have to decide which we are going to regard as more important, those civil liberties or that will of the majority.

Those times that we have to decide coming in a variety of flavours. We could most certainly gain a majority for the idea that we should string the paedos up without much of a trial. There’s actually a substantial campaign to insist that legal protections for accused rapists should be weakened, even to the point (not in the UK thankfully, not yet, but in the Antipodes) that the presumption of innocence should be dropped. Here at home we have a campaign to insist that prostitution among consenting adults must be made illegal: quite clearly a violation of that right to ownership of ones’ own body and the income therefrom. And there’s been campaigns against the rights of property ownership for most of the past century. A subset of which today is the idea that the shareholders in a company may not decide how much they wish to pay the managers in their own employ (in the name of “equaliteeee” of course).

And the campaign against the arbitration part of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership is exactly a complaint that that treaty would insist that governments must obey the law of the land over and above whatever democracy demands as changes.

Jones has provided us there with a useful example of when those civil liberties are more important than whatever it is that the mob thinks. We should remind him of this point when he next, or his ilk, suggests taking away our economic liberties. Just because the Demos can be whipped into howling for it does not make a policy one we should enact.

Roger also trusts the state more than I do

There’s another subject that Roger and I disagree about profoundly.  He trusts the state more than I do.  Whenever he sees anything not going the way he’d like it to go, he calls for state action to “put it right.”  This applies to big things, such as instances of what he calls “market failure,” and it applies to little things such as people consuming foods or drinks he disapproves of.  In both cases he wants the state to stop it.

There are undoubtedly cases of market failure.  Left to themselves, business people would probably, like many of us, go for the easy way out, protecting their market share by monopolies or cartels, rather than by trying to keep their quality up and their prices keen.  Certainly we need laws to stop them doing this.  Where I part company with Roger is that he seems to think of politicians and civil servants as dispassionate guardians of the public good.  I see them as being rather like other people in pursuing their own advantage where they can.  Politicians want to be re-elected, and bureaucrats want to be promoted.  Both will, at times, act in their own interests, just as others do, even in some cases where this is against the public good.

When Roger talks of “society,” he doesn’t use it to refer to communities working together for common purposes, he uses it to mean the state, the political body that has monopoly control of the laws and of the powers to enforce them.  The problem is that when those powers are concentrated, people try to use them to impose their agenda on others.  Because some people drink unwisely, Roger supports minimum alcohol pricing.  Because some people become obese, Roger wants ‘fat taxes’ on sugars and fats.  In these cases he claims to be acting in people’s best interests, but when he votes to ban fox-hunting, it’s simply that he doesn’t want them doing it.

Roger is happy to give the state more power, confident it will be used appropriately, whereas I rather suspect that whenever the state gains extra powers, it will use them for whatever purpose it wants.  Surveillance powers granted to thwart terrorists will probably end up being used to prosecute people for not sorting their garbage into the right bins.  In short, Roger sees the state as a means of making people live as he thinks they should, whereas I see it as a source of power waiting to be abused by anyone who can grab control of its levers.

An African American high school dropout is more likely to be in jail than employment

Quite the most horrific number to come out of Paul Ryan’s poverty plan was the point that for young African American men, those who have dropped out of high school, they’re more likely to be in jail than they are in employment. John Cochrane has picked up on this and so subsequently has Mark Perry, from whom I’ve borrowed that chart above.

The cause, of course, is the horrible confluence of the appalling inner city education system in the US plus the effects of the near entirely insane “War on Drugs”. And do read Cochrane’s piece where we find this:

And really, that’s just the surface. Neal and Rick’s numbers don’t count the numbers on parole or otherwise under the supervision of the criminal justice system. And their numbers miss one of the biggest effects: In America, once you have a criminal record — often even just an arrest record — getting a job becomes next to impossible. So the flow through the criminal justice system, as much as the numbers currently in jail, is an important measure of its effect.

Becky Petit’s Invisible Men: Mass Incarceration and the Myth of Black Progress calculates the cumulative risk of imprisonment, which gives a sense of how many people are in this quandary.

The less than high school black number rose from 14.7% in 1979 to an astounding 68% in the latest numbers. Nearly 70 percent of black high school dropouts will spend time in jail. And pretty much end their hopes for conventional employment as a result. (Things aren’t great for white high school dropouts either, and 21% for black high school graduates is pretty shocking too.)

The UK’s not this bad, not yet, but we do have a large racial imbalance in the prison system. And again it’s largely due to those two activities on the State: the inner city education system and that War on Drugs.

We here support the legalisation (or at the very least, the decriminalisation) of drugs on the entirely liberal grounds that they’re out bodies and self-ownership means that we as individuals get to decide what goes into them. But if that’s not enough for you those numbers above might, or at least we hope they would, sway you over to our side of this argument. For the War on Drugs is having a great deal too much collateral damage, isn’t it?

Thomas Piketty ignores government capital

Thomas Piketty’s core argument in Capital in the Twenty-First Century is that the return on capital is (likely to be) greater than GDP growth and therefore those with capital will gain an ever greater share of wealth increasing inequality. This is not true in an individual sense or societally. Gilts returning 4% over an 80 year lifetime, paying 45% income tax, assuming RPI of ~3% and inheritance tax on two transfers would reduce a £100m fortune by 92% in real terms.

There are almost no historic fortunes. Crassus was supposedly the wealthiest man to ever live. The de Medici fortune, assuming a zero real return, would be worth about $23bn today. But in practice individual great fortunes have struggled to earn even a zero real return, even without destruction, let alone Piketty’s assumed 5% real return, which would have seen them dwarf Bill Gates’ paltry billions.

Piketty argues income is increasingly taken by the productive: As he shows on page 200 of his book capital’s share of national income has fallen about 40% from 1850 to 2010 despite a substantial real savings ratio. Piketty argues the productive avoid taxes making inequality greater. According to the ONS the top 10% of income earners pay 39 times more income tax than the average of the other 90%.

Redistribution is materially greater than increased taxes and capital’s falling share of income would suggest. Capital and the entrepreneur have created almost all of the growth in income. The hairdresser has not changed his productivity but has seen his real income grow. The farm workers who produce vastly more than 200 years ago, only do so because of the inventions and innovations of capitalists and entrepreneurs. While he drives a combine harvester he has not improved his skills, capitalists and entrepreneurs taught him how to use their inventions and better processes. Workers work ever fewer less strenuous hours, retiring earlier and nevertheless receive an ever increasing real income.

Piketty argues that the private capital to income ratio has grown materially to about 6, that its distribution is very skewed and government’s capital is zero, all as evidence of the inexorability of ever greater inequality. However, government has vast wealth in the form of the net present value of the tax flows they receive (and expect to receive in the future) to which he ascribes no value. But these flows are worth about 40x national income.

Even if he is correct about private wealth, the overall wealth of society is quite evenly distributed—the government’s 40 is increasingly devoted to welfare (and might usefully be imagined as de facto belonging to those who expect to receive it in the form of welfare and state provision of goods), redistributing from those who earned it to the rest of society. The capital value of transfers to a hypothetical individual who chooses to never work and relies entirely on the state is likely to be in the region of £1.5m.

Criminalizing consumption: Alcohol tags are a step too far

At 2:30pm, I’ll be going on Sky News to argue against the implementation of alcohol tags the Mayor of London has announced will be piloted in four major London boroughs: Croydon, Lambeth, Southwark and Sutton. For 12 months, courts will be able to instruct “alcohol abstinence and monitoring requirements” on 150 offenders for a determined period of time. Any consumption of alcohol could lead to stricter punishment, including imprisonment.

As custodial sentences go, alcohol tags are highly intrusive; the 24-7 monitoring over one’s consumption undermines their entire sense of autonomy. If such a policy were to be adopted, we must ask when – if ever – this kind of policing should be enforced.

The primary problem with the Mayor’s pilot plan is that is does not distinguish between violent offenders and more minor, drunken offenses. These tags are supposed to be part of an effort to create tougher community sentencing, which one could receive for committing assault, fraud, or playing music too loudly at night; policing one’s lifestyle choices for owning a speaker system seems nothing short of absurd.

There are also more principled problems, including the assumption of a second offense, which arguably undermines the notion of innocent until proven guilty. There is also a question of misplaced priorities; why does the government always jump to scale back the liberties of offenders, rather than addressing the deep, underling problems that lead to the offense in the first place?

Some former offenders have argued that alcohol tags have helped them to overcome their issues with substance abuse that have led them to commit crimes. Such testimonies, however, suggest that alcohol tags could prove useful in a voluntary, op-in system, when the offender has decided to tackle alcohol abuse and can use the tag as part of their support system.

But apart from that voluntary aspect, this new pilot sets a dangerous precedent that the best way to create order in society is for politicians and law makers to monitor and ban consumption and behavior until everyone fits neatly into line. Autonomy is sacred; even those criminals with their iPod docks don’t deserve to lose it.