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"Little else is requisite to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism, but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice" - Adam Smith

Don't drive right-wing extremism underground

Written by Anna Moore | Friday 29 July 2011

Today, police brought Anders Behring Breivik, the man responsible for the Norway attacks, back in for questioning. He will have been asked about his links to other right-wing nationalist groups, a subject of obvious interest to the police. Such movements are not unique to Norway, and Britain has been doing some soul-searching of its own over the past week. Attention has turned to the English Defence League (EDL) in particular, a group to which various news sources (BBC, Telegraph, Guardian) have linked Breivik. Though I suspect that doing so may have put me on a government watch-list, I took the time this morning to browse the EDL website.

The EDL denies in its official statement that it has ever had a relationship with Breivik. Indeed, the welcome page encourages “protesting peacefully,” and the three most recent postings are articles decrying “extremism.” Unquirk the eyebrow that shot up at the claim that the organisation eschews “extremist beliefs.” It may well be that EDL members meet in secret to learn how to assemble assault rifles, but they are trying hard not to look like it. Regardless of how convincing you find them, the EDL’s efforts to seem normal are significant. They smack of self-censorship and the moderating influence of public discourse.

In the aftermath of Norway, politicos have proposed a new MI5 unit dedicated to “the Right,” shutting down the EDL and BNP, and myriad other ways to muzzle nationalists. Enacting these proposals would be intensely unwise. Without public platforms, I suspect that the EDL would produce literature of a far different stripe than that posted on its website. Restrictions on freedoms of expression and assembly are not only rights violations but also ill-conceived policy; they serve only to push speech underground, where it radicalises and becomes more virulent. Right-wing extremism needs to be diffused, but the best way to do this is to let it burn itself out.

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Because they're worth it

Written by Anna Moore | Thursday 28 July 2011

I hope that you’ve some appetite left for the advertising standards debate, for today marked yet another instalment in the rigmarole of Nanny v. the AdMan. Following objections from LibDem MP Jo Swinson, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has banned L’Oreal ads featuring Julia Roberts and Christy Turlington. Apparently the ads are sufficiently airbrushed as to be “misleading” under the advertising standards code.

Swinson’s problem is that the ads are “not representative of the results the product could achieve.” This is a strange charge, as in a sense that is surely true of all advertising. Sudden transport to some solstitial dune thick with beach-ready babes is unlikely to be one of the effects of drinking light beer, but we allow Budweiser advertisements that suggest this. Indeed, it is plainly misleading to suggest that any foundation will make you look like Julia Roberts or Christy Turlington – airbrushed or not. Advertisements often hint at things that can never be guaranteed, and drawing a bright red line at greater-than-average airbrushing is arbitrary.

Even if some clear line could be delineated, though, I would still see no reason to prohibit this kind of ‘misleading’ advertisements. A ban is only justified to prevent a serious harm and when there is a direct and necessary causality between an action and that harm. These adverts should not be forbidden under either criterion. First, the only direct harm I can see is that women might be disappointed. This is not enough to limit freedom of expression; there is no right not to misspend.

Second, though, there is no direct causality between ads and greater harms. The problem that Swinson is really targeting is low self-esteem and its associated evils: eating disorders, depression, and self-harm. Body image issues are serious, but they are not a reason to censor advertisements. The fact is that not everyone who sees an airbrushed advertisement will suffer because of it, and we cannot ban everything that maybe, might harm some people. We criminalise poisoning, not leaving cleaning products lying around.

Swinson’s agitation comes from a good place, but it is misguided. We hold our right to freedom of expression too dearly to violate it on the grounds that Swinson and the ASA present. Just because the expression in question comes from a big, bad corporation does not make it any less worthy of protection. Here’s hoping that the next blow in the never-ending ad standards saga comes for freedom of speech.

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Who pays for parking?

Written by Anna Moore | Thursday 21 July 2011

parkingThere’s more than one row going on in Westminster. Over the weekend, Westminster Council announced changes to its parking policy that would charge for spots on evenings and weekends (you can read the details here). Churchgoers plan to protest the Sunday parking fee, the effect of which would surely be nothing less than mass apostasy. The Council is due to weigh such grievous harms and decide in August whether to implement the proposal.

I doubt that the Council will make its decision on the basis of Church objections, or I at least hope that it will not. A secular government has no business subsidising access to religious services. The bigger question, though, is whether the government has any business subsiding parking at all.

Free parking is something of a misnomer. Automobiles are unique among modes of transport for the enormous terminal capacity they require. Unlike trains, airplanes, and ships, which require their respective – ports, cars demand several parking spaces each. The high cost of this parking is not borne by the motorist but is subsidised by local governments, business owners, and employers. Donald Shoup, the author of The High Cost of Free Parking, claims that the annual invisible subsidy for free parking in the United States may approximate that country’s yearly national defence budget. The UK does not have the same “car culture” as the U.S., but it is still subsidising parking space. The free parking Westminsterites currently enjoy comes directly out of their own pockets, regardless of whether they use it.

This is unfair. The government does not have a responsibility to facilitate car ownership. There is no right to own a car. Many of the people whose taxes pay for parking never use the service. The subsidy makes car ownership artificially cheap, and is distortional. Westminster Council should not only charge on evenings and weekends, but should charge market rates at these and all other times. (As with all new government charges, this should be offset by a general council tax cut.) Or, better yet, sell off parking spaces to the private sector. Now there’s a heretical idea.

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Is Clare's Law just?

Written by Anna Moore | Wednesday 20 July 2011

Though it might now be mistaken for a political class cage fight, the News of the World scandal is really about privacy. Interesting, then, to see another public debate swinging wholly against the right to privacy. This Monday, a campaign was launched for Clare’s Law, a proposal that would force the police to reveal, upon request, an individual’s history of violence to his or her partner.

The law is so-named in memory of Clare Woods, who was murdered in 2009 by a man with previous domestic abuse complaints. The proposal enjoys the support of Victims Commissioner Louise Casey, former Home Office Minister Hazel Blears, and the victim’s father. Reportedly, Home Secretary Theresa May is also reviewing the proposal (though her plate is rather full at the moment).

According to Casey, the law will help women avoid abusive relationships. She says, ''This seems common sense to me. Our priority should not be protecting a perpetrator's privacy at the expense of costing a woman's life.”

Casey presents Clare’s Law as a trade-off between an offender’s privacy and a woman’s life. If that were really the choice, I doubt many of us would object. What Casey means, though, is that Clare’s Law barters an offender’s privacy for the possibility of a decreased risk of harm. Domestic abuse is horrible, but this is not the way to solve it.

The issue is risk. An individual has the right to defend herself against direct harm. She has the right to try to avoid risk. She does not have the right to violate another’s privacy to avoid risk, however. Privacy, like all other individual liberties, should be jealously guarded, and is only justifiably breached to protect against direct harm. Probability is insufficient.

To think otherwise denies a tenet of our justice system, that people are innocent until proven guilty. With Clare’s Law, Casey is juxtaposing a rap sheet and crime stats and assuming recidivism. This is unacceptable.

Justifying a rights violation on the basis of likelihood is an argument of infinite regress: mightn’t every woman with whom an offender comes into contact be at risk? Everyone, for that matter? The only acceptable bright-line is actual harm.

The proposal subverts the purposes of punishment. Submitting an ex-felon to perpetual privacy violations does nothing to further the aims of incarceration, deterrence, rehabilitation, or retribution (well, perhaps some ignoble part of the latter). It is likely to alienate offenders who are trying to move on with their lives. Indeed, Clare’s Law actively undermines rehabilitation. Treating offenders as statistical data points denies the possibility of reform.

Violence against women is unacceptable. So are witch hunts and privacy violations. We restrict who can access police files because we believe privacy is important, and correlation is not enough to encroach upon this right.

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The real bonus scandal

Written by Anna Moore | Friday 15 July 2011

There was much irony and turning of tables at Whitehall this week. Yesterday, the Telegraph reported that more than 1,000 senior civil servants would receive bonuses of up to £20,000 this summer. According to Dame Helen Ghosh, Permanent Secretary of the Home Office, the sums are “not exactly big bucks”. The total cost to the taxpayer is estimated at £10 million. Well, a mandarin’s stay in Santorini is better value for money than, say, the fire brigade, right?

At issue are the hypocrisy and merits of awarding the bonuses. One of the most useful verses I’ve retained from Sunday school is Matthew 7:5, “Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye.” Ministers had called on officials not to take their bonuses but were dismissed. Big bonuses. Bad timing. Shamelessness. Sound familiar? The government should not impose a super-tax against banker bonuses while it keeps its own bureaucrats on the gravy train. There is less call to meddle in the private sector than to get their own house in order.

It is also unclear how effective the bonuses are as performance incentives. The Ministry of Defence has experienced its fair share of scandal this year, with £6.3 billion in assets unaccounted for, and yet its officials will still receive bonuses. If bonus grants are unresponsive to serious controversies like that, then there appears to be little link between performance and reward.

A Cabinet Office spokesman said on Wednesday that the Coalition government plans to “restrict bonuses for senior civil servants to only the top 25 percent of performers.” This is a move in the right direction. Performance-based incentives, when they actually tie performance to reward, increase productivity. They might well be used to make departments more cost-effective. To achieve this, though, the Coalition must be prepared to reduce salaries and marry bonuses to measureable success.

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Think piece: How better regulation can make Private Military Contractors work

Written by Anna Moore | Tuesday 12 July 2011

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Are Private Military Contractors (PMCs) the villains of modern warfare? In this extended piece, Anna Moore argues that PMCs can play a vital – and valuable – role in making armies more flexible and streamlined, if properly used by governments. As in so many areas, private contractors can give states better results in key areas of public goods – if governments can avoid the oversight failures that have blighted PMCs' operations so far and strive for competition and transparency.

To Adam Smith, the first duty of the sovereign is the task of “protecting the society from the violence and invasion of other independent societies”. Smith did not specify how the end might be achieved, writing, “preparing this military force…is very different in the different states of society.” Libertarians debate whether defence is a public good. I am of the opinion that it is; national defence seems a true collective action problem and, like Smith, I believe that whatever government exists has a duty to provide it. However, I read Smith’s latter statement as acknowledging that this responsibility to provide does not confer an obligation to in-source.

The military should not be taken as sacrosanct, and immune to privatisation. Defence contracting is a legitimate complement to national militaries. In recent years, governments have failed to properly manage private military contractors (PMCs). Defence departments need to reform the way that they deal with contractors. With better oversight, competitive bidding, and clearer legislation, though, Britain and other nations can contract out more functions to cut defence spending while maintaining defence standards.

A discussion of defence contracting is timely because of the host of private military contractors (PMCs) in Afghanistan and Iraq. The United States is the single largest client. That country now has 15 times more contracts with PMCs than it did during the Balkan wars, and has more than doubled its spending on military contracts since 2001, reaching $500bn in 2008. According to Graham Binns, a retired British Army officer and current CEO of Aegis Defence Services, the UK has been “more reluctant” to outsource, but has increasingly done so since entering Afghanistan and Iraq. A 2009 report estimated that the Foreign Office had spent £51m on PMC contracts in Afghanistan and Iraq in 2008. Last year, it spent £29m on contracts in Afghanistan. Britain is also important on the supply side. At the height of the two wars, the UK was home to approximately 60 PMCs. [Continue reading]

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The MoD cock-up

Written by Anna Moore | Saturday 09 July 2011

At an obscenely delayed event I attended last year, a small, piqued man came on the mic to explain that the wait was due to “what can only be described as a massive cock-up”. The tragicomic line came back to me while reading of the apparent misplacement of Ministry of Defence assets. Some £6.3bn of equipment has simply vanished. Adding to the farce was the BBC’s title for the story, which described MPs as “alarmed” by the news. Yes, well, one would hope.

The Defence Select Committee released the news, quoting the £6.3bn figure from a 2010 National Audit Office (NAO) report. The lost assets include £183m worth of battlefield radios (bizarre) and even more in firearms (dangerous). This comes on the heels of a 2008-9 audit that found discrepancies between recorded inventory and stock count at 29% of locations. Indeed, last year the NAO refused to approve the MoD budget for a fourth year, citing “failure to adhere to the accounting standards required of government departments”.

This is unacceptable. Some “spillage” in the form of minor theft would be serious in itself, but £6.3bn seems to go far beyond that. It appears to speak of institutional sclerosis and endemic carelessness. Adding to the impression of mind-numbingly cumbersome bureaucracy is the timeline for resolving the whole mess. The MoD has 845,000 lines of stock across 78 IT systems, and sorting all that out may take anywhere from two to four years. After losing £6.3bn, that kind of wait is just offensive. Taxpayers should be apoplectic.

Liam Fox, on the other hand, may have reason to be quite pleased with himself. Last week, he announced plans for a shake-up at the MoD, a “radical new approach to the management of defence”. This will involve removing the heads of the three services from the Defence Board and eliminating 25,000 civilian and 12,000 military posts. Shadow Defence Secretary Jim Murphy has said that this is “going too far and cutting military capability too quickly”. That remains to be seen. What is clear is that some streamlining of the MoD is essential, and Fox’s plans could not have come at a better time.

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A brave stand for gay marriage

Written by Anna Moore | Tuesday 05 July 2011

On July 4, 993, Saint Ulrich of Augsburg was canonized. Well, that too, but perhaps slightly better known is the adoption of the Declaration of Independence by the Second Continental Congress in 1776. Yesterday America celebrated the anniversary of her self-rule, recalling her struggle for liberty.

A great irony and pity, then, to read this story in the weekend’s New York Times. On June 24, New York became the latest American state to legalize same-sex marriage, to the joy of proponents of individual liberty everywhere. As supporters clinked champagne flutes outside the Stonewall Inn, though, the four Republicans who voted for the bill doubtless brooded on their political futures. The NYT article ponders the same, describing staunch conservatives’ vows that the four will never be re-elected. Michael R. Long, chairman of the Conservative Party, says that none of the men will receive the party’s endorsement. The National Organization for Marriage, an anti-gay marriage pressure group, claims it will spend $2 million in an effort to defeat the legislators at the next election.

That’s fine. Mr. Long and his party are under no obligation to support senators who take positions with which they disagree. The NOM may campaign against people it considers unfit for office. But how horribly dispiriting it is that there is still such fervent opposition to gay rights in America. Senator Roy J. McDonald, one of the Republicans who voted for the bill, responded to a reporter’s question with, “Well, f--- it, I don’t care what you think. I'm trying to do the right thing”. Senator Steven M. Saland justified his “aye” vote in similar terms, saying, “I must define doing the right thing as treating all persons with equality”.

This, I think, is the heart of the matter. A Catholic priest should not be forced to marry a gay couple, but nor should Catholicism, or any other personal belief or doctrine, be used to bar that couple from marrying. Good on New York, fingers crossed for the rest of the Union.

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The American DREAM

Written by Anna Moore | Monday 04 July 2011

University graduate, Pulitzer Prize winner, illegal immigrant. One of these things is not like the other ones? Last week, journalist Jose Antonio Vargas wrote an essay in New York Times Magazine acknowledging that he is all of the above, having entered the United States illegally at the age of 12. “I’ve lived the American dream,” Vargas writes.

The American dream, as I understand it, is to bootstrap one’s way from rags to riches, using elbow grease and a can-do attitude. This involves much apple pie and baseball at Fenway Park. Quite another interpretation is the dream of entering America. Vargas has lived both, and writes to support the DREAM Act, a proposal that would grant permanent residency to young illegal immigrants. DREAM requires arrival before the age of 16, five years’ residency, and two years in university or the military.

The U.S. has seen passionate (vitriolic?) debate about DREAM. Champions like Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid say that the Act will pay for itself. The Center for Immigration Studies is not so sure; graduation is not required, and the earnings bump from “some uni” is modest. Projected benefits are long-term, doing nothing to offset the short-term costs of subsidising tuition for students whose parents have never paid tax. Conservative critics like David Frum and Mark Krikorian see the Act as incentivising criminality: information submitted under DREAM cannot be used in deportation proceedings. Frum writes, “DREAM sends a message to every teenager on planet Earth: Come to America.”

There are problems with DREAM. It appears to reward illegal immigration. It lets people pre-empt deportation by making evidence of their status inadmissible in court. It is unfair to legal immigrants. It is also just a stopgap.

Quotas are too low. Crossing Arizonan desert will always be worth escaping poverty, so there will always be illegal immigration. Everyone knows this, but prefers ineffective walls to higher quotas. Americans need to realise that they would be better off biting the bullet. Migrants would be documented, and taxed. Their children would be educated, earning more than their parents. The individual’s right to freedom of movement would be upheld.

Britain is guilty of similarly flawed policy. Venting of spleen has produced the Home Office’s new quotas. The number of students is to be cut by 230,000, with net migration below 100,000. I have written before how wrongheaded I find the student limits. Ditto for the net restriction. Rather than wait for things to get worse, Britain should lead the way in pro-immigration reform. The UK has a strong immigrant history, from William the Conqueror onward. It is time that we respected this heritage, individual freedoms, and the future of our economy by embracing healthy, legal immigration.

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Watching the watchers

Written by Anna Moore | Tuesday 28 June 2011

If you went to a school where you were subjected to years of Latin, or are a Star Trek: the Next Generation enthusiast, you will be familiar with the phrase, “Who watches the watchers?” Though Juvenal was decrying the corruptibility of men guarding their masters’ wives, his line is now used to refer to that quality in government—no comment on the evolution of the phrase. The problem of how to ensure government accountability is older than Juvenal, and sadly perpetual. Two recent stories on the Internet and police misconduct raise interesting questions about how technology might be used to guard the guardsmen in the modern era. Might we finally be getting it right?

First to cross my radar screen was a Telegraph article on a Merseyside Police scandal. Merseyside had 152 breaches of the Data Protection Act in 2009, an act that limits police access to information on private individuals. Most of the violations appear to have been the result of voyeuristic interest in Steven Gerrard’s affray charges, though there were a fair few private investigations into daughters’ boyfriends.

That we know of this is encouraging. It shows that the Freedom of Information Act, under which the breach statistics were released, is doing some of its job. It also shows that technology can make it easier to identify government wrongdoing; login information leaves a paper trail. The flip side, of course, is that technology in the form of databases makes all manner of unscrupulousness easier. Beyond waiting for professional standards departments to uncover misconduct and release it via the Freedom of Information Act, though, the Internet also offers citizens the opportunity to monitor police activity on their own. A piece from the Atlantic presents iPhone apps like “OpenWatch” and “CopRecorder” as story sources “for investigative reporting in an age when newsrooms are shrinking.” This may be one of their merits. The more obvious is their capacity to help keep the police honest.

CopRecorder has already been downloaded by over 50,000 users, and has spawned a webpage to which anyone can upload audio and video files of police encounters. The cynical take is that the chance of catching something truly horrendous is infinitesimal. That’s fair, but the likelihood without such programmes is much smaller. OpenWatch improves upon camcorders by allowing users to record and immediately upload files on a device to which most of us are conjoined, our mobiles. The Internet is a tool, and ultimately is what we make of it. Some police officers will abuse it, but misconduct is nothing new. More exciting are innovations that finally let the public counter-survey authority figures. Watching the watchers, indeed.

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