One cheer for democracy

Today (20 January) is hailed in the UK as Democracy Day – the 750th anniversary of the establishment of the first parliament of elected representatives in Westminster. Let’s not get too dewy-eyed. We classical liberals are democrats, but we are sceptical democrats. Yes, some (minimal) functions require collective action. We think that the public, not elites, should make those decisions – and that representative government is probably the best way to do it.

But we are fully aware hat the democratic process is far from perfect. It is not about reconciling different interests (as markets do), but about choosing between conflicting interests – a battle in which only one side can win. Democracy is tainted by the self-interest of electors, of representatives and of officials; it can produce deeply irrational results; and all too often it leads to minority groups being exploited, and their liberties curbed, all in the name of ‘democracy’.

That is why democratic decision-making must be bound by certain rules, and should focus, with precision, only on those issues that cannot be decided in any other way. Many people (and almost all of those who happen to be in power) argue that more and more things should be decided through the democratic process. But that means deciding them through the political process; and politics is not always a benign force. The more things that are decided politically, the easier it becomes for the rights and liberties of individuals to be eroded, and for minority groups to be exploited or suppressed by those who are wield the coercive power of the state.

But rights and freedoms are for everyone: they are not a matter of numbers and majorities. Election success does not license the winning majority to treat other people exactly as it chooses. The power of majorities needs to be restrained.

That restraint really has to come from within the understanding and culture of the people. A constitution might curb the excesses of politicians for a while, but even countries with seemingly strong liberal constitutions are not immune from rapid increases in the size of government and from the erosion of individual rights and liberties by majorities. Constitutional freedoms are hard to protect if the general public loses its understanding of their importance and its will to protect them. Let’s hear it for Limited Democracy Day.

Cameron’s ‘full employment’ pledge isn’t very convincing

Earlier today in Ipswich, Prime Minister David Cameron pledged to turn Britain into a nation of “full employment”, aiming to overtake Germany for the top percentage of people in work.

From the BBC:

The PM is aiming for Britain to have the highest percentage of people in work of any developed nation.

Labour said the Conservatives’ promises would sound like “empty words” to the unemployed or those on low pay.

Mr Cameron’s goal of “full employment” would involve the UK, currently 72%, overtaking Germany’s 74% in terms of the percentage of people in work, said BBC assistant political editor Norman Smith.

There is no timescale, but it is an “aspiration which he wants to achieve”, he added.

It’s a nice ‘aspiration’ sure, but Labour’s not the only group to think these are ‘empty words’ coming from the PM.

Why?

His pledge to bring full employment to Britons includes measures to increase the number of start-up loans provided by the government, as well as plans to invest in infrastructure, which he hopes will attract business and support new apprenticeships.
But no word about changes to the minimum wage. Not a word about the personal allowance or National Insurance tax.

Research that my colleague Ben recently highlighted shows what a negative effect the minimum wage can have on unemployment – it’s estimated that “minimum wage increases reduced the national employment-to-population ratio by 0.7 percentage point(s)” in the United States during the late 2000’s.

What’s more, a job is significantly less valuable to the newly employed if she is still unable to provide for herself and her family. At the same time the PM scraps the minimum wage, he should raise the tax-free personal allowance to the Living Wage, taking the poor out of tax completely. National Insurance tax should also be scrapped for low-earners, as it works as just another form of income tax.

A backtrack on minimum wage increases combined with pegging the personal allowance and NI to a Living Wage would be a serious indication of Cameron’s commitment to ‘full employment.’ But while he continues to spout plans for increased government spending and building, I remain unconvinced.

Democratic discrimination: Minors’ voting rights, poorer households and inequality

Usually, across countries, relatively low-income households tend to have more children than higher-income households; this difference also holds between countries that have relatively high incomes versus low incomes. It’s also the case that the voting age in most countries coincides with the age at which one is no longer considered a minor but a fully-grown adult (16, 18 or 21, usually).

Since it’s not just the individuals who vote but also the entire household that is affected by the government’s economic policies – the moral principle of affected interests, would seem to imply that children should be granted the vote. Poorer households have, on average, more children than wealthier households, by denying minors the right to vote, the law is essentially discriminating against poorer households and communities on the whole. Even though both wealthy and poor households are affected by the elected government’s policies, if we presume that both households have an equal number of adults (say, for example, 2), the average wealthier household would actually have a disproportionately higher voting power relative to its own size and the size of the average poorer household. So, if the poorer household had 2 adults and 3 minors (a total of 5) and the wealthier household had 2 adults and 2 minors (a total of 4), though the poorer household is larger and, therefore, more people are impacted by the government’s policies, their voting power is equal to the wealthier household’s since only the adults can vote. In this way, by denying ‘minors’ the right to vote, the wealthier household is favoured and the poorer household is discriminated against.

In many developing countries, there is a high fertility rate amongst both urban and agricultural communities when compared to their developed counterparts and, furthermore, within these poorer countries, the difference in the fertility rate between a wealthier and a poorer household is even larger than in a supposedly free, developed country. Therefore, denying minors the right to vote discriminates against poorer households even more so in developing countries than poorer households in developed ones and, by that same logic, favours the wealthy elite in the developing nations even more so than the wealthy in developed countries!

This has repercussions for subsequent policymaking and the government’s calculations for re-election next term. If those who are less fortunate have proportionally less self-determining power in elections than others, less attention will be paid to them in proportion to those biased proportions.

Furthermore, people are generally much younger in developing countries and when we consider that various diseases, poor employment opportunities, food shortages etc. might lead to a large number of children in many developing countries dying before they even reach the legislated voting age, it is imperative that they be given the chance for self-determination as soon as possible.

One could easily argue that although there are many minors who might be able to walk, talk and vote independently, there are still those who might be unable to do so in an adequate manner (such as newly born babies and toddlers). My suggestion would be to allow children to claim their right to vote whenever they feel ready rather than at some arbitrary, legally imposed age that results in biased representation of socioeconomic groups in elections.

How about an online platform through which citizens can repeal laws?

A platform through which citizens could directly vote to abolish laws would enable the electorate to directly limit the size of government. Enabling institutionalised, immediate public backlashes to legislation and responses to previous legislation would help modernise governance by creating a new, peaceful and legitimate check-and-balance on power that enhances the democratic process.

One of the arguments for having elected representatives (as opposed to Direct Democracy) is that the deliberative, legislative is inherently complicated and it would be impractical for everyone were directly involved. Representatives, supposedly, effectively synthesise and present the interests of a heterogeneous constituency. Of course, it would be difficult with the current state of technology for all eligible, voting citizens to propose amendments, directly deliberate etc. in the policymaking process. However, it would only, in theory, require a majority of eligible voters to simply repeal laws (voting in favour of repeal and abolition does not, after all, require careful rewording etc.).

Some might argue that this would make government’s job very difficult since there could easily be a popular, legal revolt against newly enacted, controversial pieces of legislation. They argue that unpopular legislation is necessary “for the sake of the public good” but who are they to impose on others their vision of an ideal society? If people cannot be persuaded about the merits of their proposals, what right do they have to impose them? Providing a legal means of revolt will create an alternative, much-needed, non-violent channel through which legislators will also be able to gauge exactly how people feel about some laws.

There may, in the end, be very few laws that a clear majority of eligible voters would even agree to abolish. However, even if there are currently only a handful of laws that we would collectively repeal from the vast, voluminous collection we are subject to, it reduces the need to lobby and burden our representatives with something we ourselves, as the people, could do. This will also enable increased deliberation by representatives on more salient issues.

Wouldn’t it be an absolute pleasure if we could, en masse, stop proposed tax increases and limit the continuous extortion of individuals by government? That’s just one example though. Think of all the other absurd laws that we would collectively have the power to stop without having to lobby our representatives. Most importantly, we can see first-hand whether we would collectively choose to continue restricting ourselves or to actually abolish those laws that inhibit the free society.

Osborne’s cuts take us back to the dark days of, umm, 2001

It’s good to see that we’re not the only people who have realised that Osborne’s cuts are not about to plunge the nation back into the penury of the 1930s. We’re actually going back to the dark old days of 2001:

Because the government does not want to raise taxes to fund these plans, public spending is forecast to fall from 41% of GDP today to just 35% by the end of the decade.

That has prompted accusations that the government wants the country to go back to the late-1930s—and the Britain Orwell describes in his cri de coeur against poverty. The Office of Budget Responsibility, Britain’s fiscal watchdog, stated that Mr Osborne’s plans would force public spending down “below the previous post-war lows reached in 1957-58 and 1999-00 to what would probably be its lowest level in 80 years”. “You’re back to the land of Road to Wigan Pier”, one BBC journalist roared. The opposition Labour party also sensed good electioneering material; on December 17th, Ed Miliband accused the prime minister of wanting to send Britain “back to the 1930s”.

Hmm, well, yes:

Stripping away the hyperbole about Mr Osborne’s plans shows that in reality they only amount to a reduction to the levels of public spending seen in 2002-03 in real terms, or 2001-02 in real terms per capita. The government could, back then, clearly afford a welfare state, as it will be able to still do in 2020.

You might think this a tad cynical, in fact, so do we think it a tad cynical. But then we are cynical about politics. Blair and Brown were elected: they stuck to the previous Tory budget plans for their first couple of years. Then they let rip: raising public spending as a portion of GDP from the levels it had so painfully been managed down to. No, this isn’t bank bailouts, nor is it just the result of the recession. It was a deliberate plan for what they thought would be a better Britain (obviously we disagree on that betterness). All that is being done now is a reversal of that Brown Terror and splurge. You might agree that this should happen, you might think that it should not, but those screaming that it’s a return to the 30s well, here’s the cynicism: we think they’re the people that that extra money has been spent on these past 12 years. No one likes to see the gravy train shunting back into the yard one last time, do they?