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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

Goodbye, ASI

Written by Alex J. Williams | Sunday 23 December 2007

alexwilliamspic.jpgSo the time has come to say goodbye to the Adam Smith Institute and move on to pastures new. After a Christmas that will be centred around friends and family, I will be paying a visit to Moscow, before taking up a new post at the Policy Exchange in January.

I am pleased to have spent this time at the ASI, and have certainly found it challenging. This is an exciting time for anyone involved in politics, and I wish the ASI the best of luck in helping to shape the future agenda.

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The sickening effects of social democracy

Written by Alex J. Williams | Saturday 22 December 2007

News this week that a key mental health unit in Surrey is to close is yet another hallmark of a disturbing reality that plagues the National Health Service.

The principle behind the NHS is that politicians motivated by a desire to win elections will have an incentive to provide good healthcare to the public at large. This glib and simplistic and view – typical of the naive school of thought that forged the UK's public sector culture – overlooks a key clash of values between politics and health.

Politics is an industry that is essentially based around popularity, while healthcare is one based around necessity. It is because of this fundamental contradiction in values that the unholy nationalisation of British health has resulted in healthcare priorities being set by ill-informed politician under pressure from a largely ignorant populace. The end result is that a government's performance in health is measured in terms of how much money is spent rather than how much suffering is alleviated. Indeed, health and education must be the only industries on earth where rising costs and falling productivity are considered signs of success.

When healthcare is run by the state and driven by a desire for headlines, it is not surprising that NHS provision of mental healthcare remains shockingly low, with minimal funding and appalling disregard for the needs of the patient.

The government would be better to measure progress in new ways, for no matter how much money they say they have spent, when a priority patient still has to wait up to 3 months to see a psychiatrist it is time to start asking how many vulnerable souls have been allowed to fade from lack of available help.

It is unlikely that any government will be able to prioritise such 'unexciting' areas whilst still keeping up the required level of media-hype to stay popular, so perhaps it is time to consider the ultimate humbling of the NHS – to acknowledge that the present model reeks of failure and that it is time to try something new.

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Romney on the rise?

Written by Alex J. Williams | Monday 10 December 2007

romney.jpgMitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts and Republican presidential hopeful, has enjoyed buoyant support in the key early states in the primary calendar – due in large part to his social conservatism. However, the boost in support for the blues-guitar playing Baptist minister Mike Huckabee has seen some of his popularity ebb away. The main problem seems to be Romney's Mormonism, which troubles many American voters. Last week he sought to put this behind him, with a speech only a few miles from where JFK allayed concerns about his membership of the Catholic Church in 1960.

The thought of a candidate giving a major campaign speech about their religious faith is troubling to many Europeans. However, the word ‘Mormon’ was used only once in the 20-minute speech, in which Romney focused more on the relationship between faith and public life than on his own religious convictions. As Joe Loconte wrote in response to Romney's speech, the purpose of American secularism "is not to quarantine religion from public life, but to protect the religious liberty of people of all faiths, or none." So just as Romney promised not to serve any one religious or interest group while in office, and demonstrated clear enthusiasm for the institutional separation of church and state, he simultaneously promised not to separate America from "The god who gave us our liberty".

Romney went on to tell of the strong admiration he had for every faith he had encountered, and how he wished that aspects of them were present in his own. In his most confrontational moment, he warned of the perils of an established state religion, pointing to Europe where he claimed that magnificent cathedrals had become little more than a "postcard backdrop" thanks to government dominance.

Clearly, the primary goal of this speech was to diffuse Christian concerns about Romney's Mormonism just a month before the primary selection process begins, but it also offered a brave and refreshing explanation of the place for religion in a structurally secular country in which faith remains an important part of many people’s lives. It remains to be seen whether Romney has overcome his doubters, but if he has, the Republican race could be blown wide open.

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A sensible approach to party funding

Written by Alex J. Williams | Friday 30 November 2007

poundcoins.jpgThe party funding scandal that has engulfed the government will undoubtedly be used as an excuse for more regulation and more state funding of political parties. This is a mistake. The Labour Party is in trouble precisely because it has broken existing laws and been found out, not because there was not enough regulation to guide their conduct.

Indeed, what this new scandal should show us is that placing restrictions on party funding doesn't really work. More regulation does not produce better ethics, just as more state funding would not reduce political corruption – it would just make the taxpayer foot the bill.

In any case, British politics is not an industry awash with money, and all parties are under pressure to make ends meet. So why not go for a more straightforward approach and say: “Let them get it where they can”. The role of the law should limited to insisting on transparency.

The usual argument posed against this approach is that it would enable a few rich people to dictate the policy agenda. But political parties are ultimately driven by a desire to win power, and thus it is the will of the people that dictates policy (for better or worse). A rich man’s money is no good if it is conditional on the implementation of a programme no one wants to vote for.

It is also generally unfair to ascribe sinister motives to party donors. Like most people in politics their desire is to make the world a better place (as they see it), rather than to pursue a purely instrumental agenda. And when 'influence' is sought, it usually only takes the form of after dinner speeches or informal 'face time' with politicians.

Ultimately, if we try to regulate the finances of political parties, we are only setting ourselves up for disappointment. Letting the market do its thing is the only sensible way forward.

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Ready for take-off?

Written by Alex J. Williams | Sunday 25 November 2007

heathrow.jpgIt was no great surprise to hear from the Transport Secretary Ruth Kelly this week that consultations are to begin on proposals for the expansion of Heathrow airport. Among the options to be examined are proposals for a 2,200m third runway and a sixth terminal.

The announcement that consultations are to begin on the expansion of Heathrow Airport has reignited the old debate between those who seek to defend the countryside and those who favour the benefits of increased air travel. These plans – which include the destruction of an entire village to make way for terminal six– have proved particularly controversial.

The issue is a difficult one. On the one hand, good airport infrastructure is vital in a globalized economy. A lack of capacity can prove damaging to economic competitiveness, whereas greater air travel can aid growth. On the other hand, the rights of property owners and communities in rural areas deserve protection.

Ultimately, the flaw lies in the premise of the debate – that this is a matter for the government to negotiate a compromise on. Indeed, the very existence of such a heated argument is a result of the decision lying in politically motivated planners’ hands.

It should be up to the airport to negotiate with local residents and landowners to try and find a solution that works for all concerned. Their interests cannot possibly be understood or represented by disconnected Westminster politicians. Where agreement cannot be reached, it should be for the common law to ensure fair and just compensation for parties affected by the expansion. Judges are far better at balancing the competing claims of neighbours than government.

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China comes in from the cold

Written by Alex J. Williams | Tuesday 13 November 2007

It’s been hard times in Beijing for those who feel the cold, as it emerged this week that the nation’s heating is only switched on centrally by the government today. It's interesting that just as many in this country are arguing for greater state control over such electrical consumption as domestic heating, the highest polluting nation shows the inability of central state-driven controls to cope with the real world.

Isn't socialism stupid?

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