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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

When the khat is away, the mice will play

Written by George Kirby | Monday 08 July 2013

The government still hasn’t got the message. On Wednesday I saw that Theresa May has decided to ban khat, a herbal stimulant popular among Somali, Yemeni and Ethiopian communities. This goes against advice from the government’s own Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), which claimed there was “insufficient evidence” that khat caused health problems.

I agree with the ACMD that khat should remain legal, but for different reasons. The legal status of recreational drugs should not be decided by their healthiness. They should all be legal. Individuals should be free to harm their own bodies if they wish to do so. The government should be limited to providing information about the risks, providing customer protection through licensing and quality control, and helping those who struggle with addiction.

With this new ban, khat will go the way of other recreational drugs. Where there is demand, there will be a supply, regardless of the government’s ban. People who want to buy khat will now have to go through the black market. They will become involved with drug dealers who they would otherwise have no business with. These dealers will be unregulated, of course, so there will be none of the customer protection found in a legal market.

The BBC report says: "Somali groups in the UK had told the ACMD that use of khat was a 'significant social problem' and said it caused medical issues and family breakdowns."

Banning khat will likely exacerbate this problem. People whose khat habit is causing a problem will be less likely to seek help, for fear of being branded a criminal and punished by the state. The real problem is pushing the drug business underground. Dealers are risking years in jail for responding to a legitimate demand, so the incentive to obey other aspects of the law is limited and some have no qualms about cutting the drugs with more harmful substances, or assaulting their customers to keep them obedient.

These dealers would not exist if drugs were legal. I realise that while cigarettes are still legal, there is a significant black market in them. This is mostly due to the huge taxes the government hits them with: 82% of the price of a packet of fags is tax. But when recreational drug users can only get their highs illegally, the black market is much bigger. As ever, the example of alcohol prohibition 1920s USA is illustrative.

Finally, legalising recreational drugs would help the government’s finances as well: the tax revenues would be huge. In 2011/12, the government received £2.8m through taxing khat. That was £13.8m worth of khat - the overall drugs market is estimated at between £2.15bn and £6.54bn. But instead, the government ignores advice it has requested, as it did in the case of ACMD chairman David Nutt in 2009. Nutt himself uses a clever analogy to refute the khat ban. But it seems that the state’s illogical control freak attitude will stubbornly persist.

The government should legalise not only khat, but all other recreational drugs. This would correct the current infringement on liberty, make it easier for addicts to get help, bring in tax revenue, and destroy the black market and related crime.

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A sorry reminder of the state of free speech

Written by George Kirby | Thursday 04 July 2013

This morning, I was appalled to see more evidence that free speech in this country is under attack. Emma West, 36, was given a 24-month community order. Her crime? “Racially-aggravated disorderly behaviour likely to cause harassment or distress.” West shouted racial abuse at fellow passengers on a tram between Croydon and Wimbledon. The rant was filmed on Youtube and has over a million views.

I have seen the video, and it’s not pretty. Allow me to clarify that I do not share West’s view that immigration has ruined the UK, and I believe people should not be discriminated against because of their race. Repeatedly swearing in the presence of young children is something else I would always try to avoid doing. 

But West’s rant should not be a crime. (At least, not for the reasons given: a case could be made that she should have been expelled from the tram for causing a public disturbance. But the words she used did not deserve an arrest.) Free speech is one of the most important aspects of life in a free country. The extent to which governments infringe on free speech is an indication of their general attitude to the citizens they are supposed to represent. In the UK, it appears we have a nanny state, which takes any opportunity to relieve of us of our right to independent thought.

Having freedom of speech means having the freedom to offend. Passengers feeling “upset . . . disgusted, shocked and horrified” is not a reason for an arrest to be made. Everyone is different, and might take offence at different things. It’s not hard to imagine that West herself was upset, disgusted, shocked and horrified - at the supposed "invasion" of the UK by immigrants. Why were the non-white passengers not arrested for their "crime" of offending West?

Police, lawyers and judges should never have been involved in this incident at all. The only acceptable limitations to free speech are those against threats, and incitement to violence. If the government is willing, "in the public interest", to censor some minority views, what guarantee is there that it won’t do the same to those which it finds difficult to answer? The Chinese authorities might well be ‘upset’ that some of their citizens do not agree with their policies, but they are not justified in silencing journalists because of it.

Furthermore, I believe that allowing "undesirable" views to be aired is the best way to stop them from becoming dangerously prevalent. Censoring fascists, for example, denies them equal participation in the democratic process. This is more likely to result in violent protest, as peaceful debate is not an option. Instead, fascists and other extremist groups should be allowed to speak their minds. If and when their beliefs are rejected by the vast majority of people, the matter is settled – fairly, through reason, not oppression. As soon as they use violence to further their agenda, the full force of the law can be used against them.

When is it wrong to stop someone else committing a wrong? When the method used to stop them is worse than their wrongdoing. Even in the developed world, we must always be vigilant in ensuring that the government does not go too far in its regulation of our lives.

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A lunchtime reminder of the golden rule of liberty

Written by George Kirby | Tuesday 02 July 2013

During lunchtime last week, I was queuing for a popular street-stall which sells kebabs to the hungry workers of Westminster. I thought the queue had managed to double back on itself enough to avoid blocking too much of the busy street. Apparently, I was wrong. A middle-aged woman (let’s call her “Mary”), who seemed to be otherwise uninterested in the kebab-stall, decided the queue needed to change shape so that it was more compact. We, in the queue, grumbled but obeyed her directions and shuffled around into the new formation. Whether this had any effect on the flow of pedestrians was unclear, but Mary seemed happy and wandered off, leaving us to discuss her sanity and lust for power.

This got me thinking: to what extent are we private citizens justified in ordering each other about? Mary had no authority over us: she wasn’t a government official, company boss or even an employee of the kebab-stall. We were equals in every respect. For deciding how to act, I was glad to see everyone more or less obey the golden rule of liberty: no interference is justified except to prevent harm.

How does that apply to this situation? Mary’s belief that the queue was blocking the street (and thus causing “harm”) provided justification for her intervention. Furthermore, I believe everyone has the right to freedom of speech, so whatever the circumstances, Mary would have had the right to open her mouth. But what if we, the people in the queue, had ignored her directions? Could Mary have been justified in gently tugging sleeves to form a less disruptive queue? While this would hardly be assault, it would go beyond the right to free speech. It could be argued that people who spend their time trying to help society run more smoothly, as Mary did, should be hailed as heroes of “the Big Society”. I certainly think that, in general, people are too passive about minor intrusions in their lives (for example, those selfish individuals who feel it necessary to share their music tastes with the rest of the bus).

But this is what happens in the ideal society: the citizens sorting themselves out, willing to listen to the advice of a stranger without feeling their autonomy is being violated. More important, in my opinion, are the laws that we need for society to operate to a basic level of satisfaction. In this case, Mary’s right to exercise free speech, but not go beyond that into physical involvement. After all, the actions taken to correct an error should be in proportion to the error itself. Physical coercion seems fine when used against criminals, but over-the-top for rearranging a kebab queue. (This isn’t totally accurate: the police may have the authority to physically control crowds at public events, for example.)

Still, the main point is that Mary had the right to suggest that we re-form the queue, but nothing more. If we had ignored her (and assuming that the queue shape was indeed causing a problem) that would have left a small imperfection affecting the flow of the street. This can be applied in a wider sense to government in general. A control-freak large state might iron out inefficiencies in some areas, like Mary reducing the blockage of the street by physically rearranging the kebab queue. But it is not worth giving up individual rights (and the long-term benefits of a limited state) for these small savings.

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Mongolia chooses right in plans for the future

Written by George Kirby | Monday 01 July 2013

Last Sunday saw Mongolia’s 6th Presidential election. I was glad to see the incumbent President, Tsakhia Elbegdorj, win with just over 50% of the vote. Mr Elbegdori, the candidate for the centre-right Democratic party, was heavily involved in the movement to end 70 years of Communist rule, which was finally successful in 1990. He has a good track record of loosening the grip of government on the country’s businesses, and he is passionately anti-corruption. Another of his achievements (in my opinion) is his work to abolish the death penalty.

It’s great to see an emerging democracy choosing to shrink the state. It may be unsurprising that the people want to get away from the Communist ideology of the past, but the false promises of socialism are always tempting. Mongolia has great mineral wealth, and everyone will want a slice of the pie, but the best way to get rich is through laissez-faire economics. The focus of the presidential race was on Oyu Tolgoi, a huge copper and gold mine: both of Mr Elbegdorj’s rivals advocated a renegotiation of the government’s contract with Australian mining giant Rio Tinto. But Rio Tinto has put a lot of investment into Oyu Tolgoi, and too much government involvement may cause problems. Mr Elbegdorj is more friendly to foreign investors, which bodes well for Monglia’s future.

The country has been doing well recently: this year it is the world’s fourth fastest-growing economy. Poverty has been decreasing, from 39.2% in 2010 to 29.8% in 2011. Of course, there are still obstacles to be overcome, but at the moment it looks as though Mongolia is in capable hands.

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Osborne plans to scrap benefits for wealthy pensioners—he should be scrapping the pensioners themselves

Written by George Kirby | Friday 28 June 2013

Don’t jump to conclusions: I’m not advocating a purge of the elderly. Rather, what I’m saying is that the government should get rid of its concept of a pensioner, and all the benefits which go with that. There should be no division of law-abiding adults into "working-age" and "pensioners": they should have exactly the same rights.

Of course, "pensioner" just means someone who is receiving a pension. The state definition of a pensioner as a person over a certain age completely ignores the huge variation amongst individuals. ‘Pensioner’ conjures up an image of a frail old person in need of help. While it’s clear that some pensioners are dependent on others, many are not, and it’s illogical to treat them all the same based on an arbitrary definition. One area of difference is employment: some 70-year-olds, say, are much more able and willing to work than others. If a 70-year-old is able to work, why should she be treated differently to a 30-year-old working man? And if a 30-year-old is unable to work why should she be treated differently to a disabled 70-year-old? One’s age does not itself indicate one’s need for state assistance.

A response to this would be to say that the elderly are more likely to be dismissed from their job, due to age discrimination. But I believe such dismissal or ‘compulsory retirement’ should be completely up to the employer: it is their right to employ whoever they want. Also, calling it compulsory retirement is misleading – the dismissed employee is free to take up another job. I think employers should be much freer to fire employees of any age. This would make companies more willing to take a risk in hiring people, as they could be fired if they were not suitable.

The state also ignores the varieties in wealth amongst pensioners. Only now are ministers moving to scrap benefits such as free TV licences and winter fuel allowances for wealthy pensioners. To me it seems crazy to have been handing out these benefits at all: the whole point of redistribution is to take from the wealthy and give to the poor. Taxing the wealthy and then subsidising their TV licences and bus travel is simply a waste of money. At least Osborne and co. are finally moving in the right direction.

The main justification for the benefits of state pension age (at least for poorer pensioners) is that pensioners’ lower income means they cannot afford to pay for as many goods and services as a working person can. But this lack of money is partially caused by the whole scheme. Subsidising bus fares and TV licences costs money, paid for by taxes. If people were taxed less, they would have more money, and would be able to save to pay for these things themselves, if they so desired. Also, over time, a smaller state would lead to easier business, more wealth, and cheaper goods, further easing people’s dependence on the state.

The other injustice the government causes through its ‘pensioner’ classification is the state pension, paid for by National Insurance. This is another example of the state being unwilling to leave the individual to make their own choices. If I want a pension I should be left to sort it out for myself directly through a provider or my employer. If a company requires that its employees pay into a pension pot, that is fine—if I don’t want to contribute to the pension, I can choose not to take the job. But to force me to put my own hard-earned money into a pension, with the promise of greater reward in the future, is simple coercion.

Finally, the name ‘National Insurance’ is deceptive. It is income tax by another name (around 8.5% for the average wage).  It is used to pay for more than the state pension: for example, it also funds Maternity Allowance. It is yet another example of how the government takes our money dishonestly: ministers can raise National Insurance contributions and say that income tax has stayed the same.

The government’s pension age should be scrapped, and all the pensioner-benefits with it. Currently, people are taxed heavily only to be given benefits back later in life, when it would be more efficient to leave people to provide for themselves. The state pension scheme is coercive, and National Insurance is a deceptive tax which should be abolished.

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Let's have a United States of Britain

Written by George Kirby | Wednesday 03 April 2013

The UK should become a federation of states, hugely increasing the power of local compared to central government, thus allowing the individual more control over his life. Also, it would allow more differentiation across the country, meaning a variety of policies could be tested in all areas of the public sector. The most successful could then be imitated, meaning progress for the nation as a whole.

I envisage a division of the country by region, such as the South-West, the East Midlands, and so on. Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland would each be a state, as could the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man. Territories further overseas might also become states, or they could retain their current status. States should have independence similar to Swiss cantons, with their own government and parliament.

Such a rearrangement of the country would, of course, be a huge change. But that is not an argument against it. Indeed, we could use the opportunity to at least debate some fundamental questions concerning the structure of the state: for example, the power of the monarchy, and the lack of a codified constitution. A more plausible objection is that local governments already have sufficient powers. But they have limited power over taxes - “England’s local government finance system is one of the most centralised in the world” – and laws.

Most of local governments' funding comes from central government grants, This means that councils have less incentive to spend responsibly, as they don't have to answer to the people they get most of their funding from – the nation's taxpayers. Thus, councils often spend money unnecessarily as the tax year nears its end, to ensure they don't have their budget cut for the next year. If local councillors had to face, on a daily basis, the source of most of their income, they would be more inclined to spend it wisely.

Local control over laws would be another important aspect of such a change. If the population of one region wants to legalise drugs, why should it be held back by the rest of the country? As a state, London, say, could go ahead with some drug legalisation. Then, if and when its policies proved successful, other states which had doubted drug legalisation's benefits could follow.

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Allemannsrett in Britain?

Written by George Kirby | Thursday 21 March 2013

Allemannsrett (literally 'All Man's Law') is an ancient custom, most clearly found in Norway, Sweden (Allemansrätten) and Finland (Jokamiehenoikeus), where it has been formally enshrined in law.

Currently, in Britain I am largely restricted in my freedom of movement, despite thousands of miles of footpaths, bridleways and other rights of access,. Furthermore, in England and Wales, I cannot camp in the 'wild' – instead I must pay to use a campsite.

Implementing Allemannsrett in Britain would change this: it allows everyone to use rural, uncultivated land for walking, camping, foraging and other outdoor activities, regardless of who owns it.

An objection might be that this infringes on the right to personal property, but I believe Allemannsrett is in accordance with J.S. Mill's harm principle. The laws of the Nordic countries clearly demand that those taking advantage of the Allemannsrett are respectful to the land they are using: there are rules concerning littering, the lighting of fires and so on. The saying 'take only pictures, leave only footprints' sums it up well. Therefore, those who use Allemannsrett properly are acting within the basic libertarian principle. The rules on foraging, and other more controversial aspects could be adapted as desired.

Another issue is that of privacy: landowners would not want hikers peering in through their windows. The Nordic laws cover this as well: any 'trespassers' must maintain a respectful distance from houses or cabins at all times (at least 150 metres in Norway).

A final objection is the claim that it would be pointless to introduce the Allemannsrett in Britain as it is in Scandinavia, since here we have a much higher population density. But the vast majority of the British population lives in urban areas, and the country has many places of natural beauty and sparse population where greater rights of access could allow much greater appreciation of them.

Allemannsrett in Britain would allow each individual to enjoy the countryside to its full extent. It would out us back in touch with our ancestors, by allowing us to camp 'wild', away from the mod-cons of everyday life. All this could be achieved without infringing on the basic principle of liberty, as clear rules would ensure respect for the land and its owner.

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It's time to legalize kidney sales

Written by George Kirby | Friday 15 March 2013

George Kirby is the winner of this year's Young Writer on Liberty Prize, beating out dozens of applicants. We are delighted to post his excellent winning pieces to the blog over the next few days, and look forward to seeing much more of him in the years to come.

Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights holds that “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.” Through this right to power over one's own body, it is legal to donate a kidney, whether to a friend or relative (Human Organ Transplants Act 1989), or to a general waiting list as a 'stranger' donation (legalised in the Human Tissue Act 2004).

Yet these Acts stipulate that “making payments for the supply of organs for transplantation or advertising a request for, or offer of, such organs for payment” is an offence. Concerns about the possible exploitation of the healthy poor by the nephropathic wealthy have led to more state control of the free market. Meanwhile, “three people a day die on the UK kidney transplant list”, according to the BBC.

This should change. A surprising example of a legal kidney market is that of Iran. Two state-surveyed charities match those who need a kidney with those who are compatible and prepared to sell. The vendor “is compensated by both the government and the recipient”. This system means that “there is no shortage of the organs”. A similar system in the UK would save thousands of lives and help alleviate the financial strain on the NHS, which spends more than £1.4 billion each year treating chronic kidney disease.

Furthermore, selling a kidney helps the vendor. Sue Rabbitt Roff, a researcher at Dundee University, suggests students could use the money to pay off university debt.

Those who oppose such a proposal argue that the state is the best judge of the individual's interests. Dr Tony Calland, chairman of the British Medical Association's medical ethics committee, said,

"Introducing payment could lead to donors feeling compelled to take these risks [of donation], contrary to their better judgement, because of their financial situation."

As it is, the dangers are greater for those selling organs via the illegal market, where advice, safe surgery and support are lacking. The government's policy against the trade of kidneys makes it more dangerous for who will sell anyway, needlessly costs patients' lives and, most fundamentally, infringes on individual liberty on the grounds that it is for our own good.


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