Young Writer on Liberty 2015 Winners

We’re delighted to announce the winners of our 2015 Young Writer on Liberty competition, and will be showcasing some of their work in the coming days.

The theme of this year’s competition was ‘The road not yet travelled: Three paths the next government should take for a freer United Kingdom’. Entrants wrote three, 400-word articles on this theme, each outlining a policy proposal to make the United Kingdom richer, freer and more prosperous.

We received dozens of entries and competition was fierce with incredibly high standards. This year for the first time, entries were spilt into ‘Under-18′ and ’18-21′ categories, with a winner and a runner-up in each.

The runner-up of the Under-18 category is Alan Petri, and the winner of the Under-18s is Theo Cox Dodgson. The runner-up of the 18-21 category is Tamay Besiroglu, and the category winner Theo Clifford.

Runners-up will have one of their entries showcased on the ASI blog tomorrow, and category winners will have all three of their pieces posted over the week.

Category winners will also receive £150 prize money, whilst both winners and runners-up will receive boxes filled with liberty-related books.

Check-in next week to read the entries!


Milton Friedman – a birthday tribute

Milton Friedman was born on July 31st 1912.  He was one of the two most influential economists of the 20th Century, the other being John Maynard Keynes, and he promoted monetarism as an alternative to Keynesian orthodoxy.  His economic scholarship was unimpeachable, and won him the award of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics in 1976.

He was no less influential in promoting free market economics as an alternative to the once fashionable mixed economy consensus that prevailed in the post-war era.  He did this at a popular, as well as at a scholarly, level, with a series of articles in Newsweek and other popular journals.  He was an excellent communicator, able to explain complex ideas in simple, easily understood language.  His “Capitalism and Freedom” remains a classic to this day, still relevant, still persuasive.

His TV series, “Free to Choose,” together with the book he co-authored with his wife Rose, were immensely popular, and were hugely influential in gaining popular support for the economics of free enterprise, choice and incentives, and a widespread skepticism of government intervention.

He pioneered many ideas that eventually gained traction, including an end to military conscription in the US, floating exchange rates, and school choice amongst many others.  His monetarist views influenced the Federal Reserve’s response to the 2008 financial crisis.

He was a supporter of the Adam Smith Institute and took a keen interest in its work in translating sound economic ideas into viable policy options.  He addressed ASI meetings, and regularly chatted with its members at meetings of the Mont Pelerin Society, which he continued to attend until his death in 2006.  He went out of his way to help others, to support student groups and to lend his wisdom and advice to free market organizations.  He even acted as my referee when I applied to Cambridge, with a hand-written note endorsing me.

He was engaging, personable and likeable, nearly always with a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye as he corrected economic nonsense from his opponents.  Happy birthday, Milton; we miss you.

Antony Fisher, herald of freedom

One hundred years ago was born someone you have probably never heard of, but who helped bring freedom to large parts of the world. 

The story of Sir Antony Fisher shows how one person with a vision can change history. He was a Battle of Britain pilot in World War II – a conflict that claimed the lives of his brother and two cousins. After the War, he grew despondent that the freedoms his family members had died for were being casually thrown away. The radical 1945 Attlee government nationalized all the main industries – coal, steel, electricity, railroads – and created a ‘Welfare State’ with state healthcare, public housing, and ‘cradle to grave’ social benefits.

Fisher thought about going into politics. But by chance he read the Reader’s Digest abridgement of F A Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, a book that showed how European socialism morphed, too easily, into Nazi totalitarianism. So he visited Hayek, who told him bluntly to forget politics. Politicians just follow prevailing opinions. If you want to change events, change ideas.

Fisher went on to pioneer battery farming, turning chicken from a luxury to a staple food in war-impoverished Britain, and used his early profits to follow Hayek’s advice. In 1955 he created the Institute of Economic Affairs, which pumped out books and articles, explaining the advantages of personal and economic freedom over state control. When Margaret Thatcher became Tory leader in 1975, she devoured its ideas, famously forcing aides to read Hayek’s Constitution of Liberty and telling them “This is what we believe!”

The IEA gave Thatcher’s gut belief in freedom a deep intellectual foundation, making her not just a politician but a formidable champion of freedom. That made her a hugely important ally to Ronald Regan. Thatcher saw the Soviet Union as not just morally but intellectually bankrupt, and as such it could be faced down. She and Reagan succeeded.

But Fisher did not stop there. He helped create one new ideas factory after another – the Fraser Institute in Vancouver, the Manhattan Institute in New York, the Pacific Research Institute in California. He set up the Atlas Foundation as a catalyst to help start even more. By 1988 there were already 35 think tanks in the Atlas family. Today there are 450.

They are changing events all over the world – from land reform in Peru, through privatization in Britain, public debt control in Pakistan, to low-cost private education in India. And spreading the ideas of liberty in even the most unlikely places, in the Muslim world from Morocco through Turkey to Yemen and  Kazakhstan; in Africa from Mali and Ivory Coast to Ethiopia; in Europe and the Far East. 

Antony Fisher was an unassuming man who helped change history and who is now helping change the future. As Oliver Letwin MP put it in the Times in May 1994, that is “quite a chain of consequences for a chicken farmer.” Quite so.

STEM: men go to Mars, women go to Venus

Tim Hunt, the Nobel prizewinning UCL biologist recently chased out of his professorship by a baying mob for joking that women scientists cause problems by falling in love with their male counterparts and crying if you criticise them, was recently asked if he thought the relative dearth of women in harder sciences was a problem. He said, in the purest crimethink:

I’m not sure there is really a problem, actually. People just look at the statistics. I dare, myself, think there is any discrimination, either for or against men or women. I think people are really good at selecting good scientists but I must admit the inequalities in the outcomes, especially at the higher end, are quite staggering. And I have no idea what the reasons are. One should start asking why women being under-represented in senior positions is such a big problem. Is this actually a bad thing? It is not immediately obvious for me … is this bad for women? Or bad for science? Or bad for society? I don’t know, it clearly upsets people a lot.

Although not directly responding to Hunt, prominent Spanish language website Politikon has a piece up (kindly translated for me) pre-emptively denying that the sorts of relevant sex differences that might cause these differences ‘legitimately’ exist.

Of course everyone accepts that there are huge differences between men and women in some domains. For example no one thinks than men’s thicker jaws or higher basal metabolic rates are socially constructed. No one thinks the fact that even athletically-trained women are much weaker than normal men is down to society.

But some people, including author Guido Corradi, do think that social construction is responsible for men and boys being judged better at mathematical subjects. He attacks Simon Baron-Cohen as a main progenitor of this view, and suggests the perspective is speculative and lacking evidentiary backing. He accepts that men are stronger at visuospatial skills (e.g. 3D mentalrotation), but not that they are stronger mathematically overall.

More recent studies (Lindberg, et al. 2010) support the hypothesis that there are no mathematical skill differences. It has to be mentioned that since they started to be tracked, differences in general mathematical achievement have been decreasing. In a seminal meta-analysis by Hyde (1990) this tendency is observed.

Lindberg et al. do seem to convincingly show us that girls and boys are equally good at maths on average. But this doesn’t mean that things are the same the whole way along the scale, because men may differ more widely than women. Corradi appears to know that this possibility exists, but completely dismisses the point without considering it seriously.


Lindberg et al. find a small variability ratio, of 1.08, but other studies suggest this is still enough for a substantial gap at the top end. Johnson et al. (2008) at the highest level of mental ability, there tends to be a ratio of two men to each woman. Deary et al. (2007) find, in a sibling study to control for genes and environment, that when you get to the top 2%, there are also about two times as many men as women.

We can see how this opens up a wedge when you start selecting particularly talented groups, e.g. SAT-takers:


And it widens by the time you get to GRE:

Screen-Shot-2015-06-24-at-13.09.42This explains part of the different attainment between men and women in Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics, but ratios at the level of tenure track positions are somewhere in the range of 7:1 to 14:1, leaving a lot left over. Is this down to discrimination? Stereotyping? Social construction? Different preferences?

One large part of the gap is down to the distribution of skills. Women who have high mathematical skills are more likely than men to also have high verbal skills, opening up a number of extra options the men at that level don’t have. Those with high verbal skills tend to take these options. This explains a fraction of the remaining gap.

On the other hand stereotype threat, which Corradi alludes to, is much in vogue. I myself, I must admit, promoted one of the studies suggesting that male-female mathematics differences could be down to stereotyping. But it doesn’t seem like these results have held up over replication (e.g.this meta-analysismoremoremore).

By contrast, men and women do seem to have starkly different preferences about how their lives should go. For example, women tend to like different kinds of relationships (one-on-one ‘dyadic’ pairings vs. gregarious multipolar groupings), and they tend to do more child-rearing.

Women (even the most talented women) tend to want to work less and more flexibly; neither of which fit with the long blocks of hours expected at the top of STEM professions or in STEM academia. Goldin (2014) explains how this leads to no gender wage gaps in industries with constant returns to hours, and large ones in industries where 60 hours work in a week is more than double as productive as 30 hours.

Su & Rounds (2015) review 52 samples between 1964 and 2007, including  209,810 male and 223,268 female respondents and find large differences in interests.

We found gender differences in interests to vary largely by STEM field, with the largest gender differences in interests favoring men observed in engineering disciplines (d = 0.83–1.21), and in contrast, gender differences in interests favoring women in social sciences and medical services (d = −0.33 and −0.40, respectively). Importantly, the gender composition (percentages of women) in STEM fields reflects these gender differences in interests.

Overall the evidence seems to tell us that though men and women are equally smart, men are more prominent on both tails: they are more likely to be very dull and very bright. This variance isn’t huge overall, but when you start selecting for the top 0.01% or the top 0.0001%, like Fields Medallists, Nobel Prizewinners, or Harvard Professors the differences become overwhelming. The women who do have these incredible quantitative skills often also have excellent verbal skills, giving them alternatives they prefer.

While there may be residual discrimination, there is substantial evidence that on top of differing variance and skill distribution, men and women also have different preferences. Women tend to prefer to do less hours and focus more on the other important things in life. Men want to compete, earn lots of money, and work with objects.

Corradi makes a rash and unwarranted leap: there is good evidence for multifarious sex differences—not just in cognitive ability but in interests and preferences—that make complete and exact similarity between men and women in STEM a mirage.

Magna Carta – and EU law today?

Lord Sumption has been telling the papers that we owe our freedoms more to the French Revolution and its Declaration of Rights than to Magna Carta, the 800th anniversary of which we celebrate this month. He is wrong. But each passing day makes him more right, and that is the whole problem. A real problem for freedom, not some merely smug debating point.

Sumption may be a distinguished mediaeval historian, but he is a poor political economist, or legal scholar for that matter. He calls the Charter a ‘turgid’ document of its time, and says it has ‘nothing to do’ with our libertarian tradition.

He is right that it reads like something rather turgid and technical. It was indeed mainly a list of demands, and was never meant as a constitution. But what it demands is critical to the development of limited government and representative democracy in the centuries that followed.

Magna Carta is the re-assertion of property rights that Anglo-Saxon England enjoyed before the Norman Conquest. The limits it imposes on authority – preventing the King’s arbitrary confiscation of people’s property and freedom – occupy only three or four of its 63 clauses and are therefore easily dismissed by those who think the Charter was just a hotchpotch of ‘trade union’ demands by the aristocracy.

But those who drew up the Charter knew that these few clauses are absolutely crucial. They are there precisely to guarantee those property rights that are spelled out in the rest of the document. What good is it to have rights if they are unenforceable because the authorities can act without restraint.

From that assertion of property rights, grows parliamentary democracy. Sure, as Sumption sneers, the Charter is by no means a democratic constitution, and concerns itself only with the rights of a rich few. But it reasserted the pre-Norman tradition that the rules of taxation and justice should be based on agreement, not on the whim of monarchs. To reach agreement, you need debate. And to debate, you need some kind of representative parliament.

It also explains England’s later history as a great trading nation, and the entrepreneurial flair that abides in the Anglophone nations. The Charter guaranteed property rights, and that principle was quickly expanded from just the nobility to everyone. So people could build up capital without fear of being expropriated by kings, ministers and officials.

And the common law that was reasserted by the Charter allows people to do what they want, provided only that others are not harmed by it. Top-down Continental law, by contrast, requires you to seek official permission first. It is obvious which one is likely to encourage more innovation.

Sumption also tries to show the Charter’s irrelevance by dismissing its insistence that justice should be based on the ‘law of the land’. The assertion as worthless, he says, because the King decided what the law actually was. But the whole point was that the Charter reasserted the commonly agreed fact that the ‘law of the land’ was much older and more fundamental than King-made law. It was the common law of the Anglo-Saxons, built up, by the common people over centuries. This law had evolved and endured, despite the efforts of feudal authorities to supplant it, because it worked and because it was made by the people as they went about their everyday business. This common law was a matter for everybody, not just for the king to decide and hand down to everyone else.

We have the same issues today, with Britain’s common law tradition being swamped by top-down law in the shape of EU regulation. Here again, the Continental tradition that you need detailed regulation that says what you can do is at odds with Britain’s common law approach that you are free to act as you choose unless there is some proven and agreed reason not to.

The difference is crucial, and that is why Sumption is so horribly wrong to suggest that our libertarian tradition owes more to France than to Runnymede. Perhaps our rights and freedoms are indeed being subjected more and more to this Continental legal tradition. But this legal harmonisation is something to be mourned and feared, not celebrated.