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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

A vision of the liberal ideal in education

Written by James Stanfield | Monday 23 July 2012

To date, many of the arguments for increasing parental choice in education and allowing a diversity of provision have focused on a number of practical arguments such as the need to improve the performance of failing government schools, the need for additional school places and the general desire to ensure that all children can benefit from the best schools available, irrespective of income or location. These arguments originate from the “what matters, is what works” school of politics where ideological principles are no longer relevant.

However, while this evidence, results or outcomes-based approach can be very persuasive, it may not be sufficient if the proposed reforms are to win widespread support amongst both politicians and the general public. According to Nobel Laureate James Buchanan, evidence of “what works” must be supplemented with a vision of the liberal ideal that attempts to capture the minds of people.

Consider, for example, the suffragettes who were campaigning for the right to vote at the start of the twentieth century. Their case for reform was not based on any evidence which showed that extending the right to vote to women would guarantee a better election result than the existing voting system. In fact, many opponents of the reforms (mostly men, but not exclusively) warned of the perverse consequences and the chaos that would follow if women were allowed to vote on the important and complicated matters of national government.  Instead the suffragette movement were campaigning for a fundamental freedom and a basic human right – the freedom and right of women to vote. A voting system based upon universal franchise was therefore deemed to be superior to one which was based upon a restricted franchise, irrespective of the results or outcomes of subsequent elections. In this example the evidence-based approach was clearly of limited use and, in fact, it could be argued that those who attempted to appeal to evidence had completely misunderstood the nature of the problem and the key issues at stake.

This same line of reasoning could also be applied to the current debate in education. An education system in which all parents have the freedom to choose would be deemed to be superior to the current system which continues to restrict these freedoms. Any appeal to evidence or what works would therefore be dismissed as irrelevant.  Buchanan refers to the repeal of the corn laws in the 19th century as a successful example of when evidence was supplemented with a vision of the liberal ideal to help gain support for proposed reforms. If we were to heed his advice then a national campaign for the repeal of the school laws, which restrict freedom in education is now required.

A campaign for freedom in education would be based on the principle that it is parents and not politicians who are ultimately responsible for their children’s education - a responsibility which can only be carried out if parents are free to choose the nature, form and content of education which their children receive. Parental choice or freedom in education therefore is not desirable simply because it may help to improve the efficiency of failing government schools. Nor is parental choice in education simply the latest policy reform that will go out of fashion in a few years’ time. Instead, it is important for the same reasons that religious freedom or freedom of the press are important - because they are both recognised as basic human rights or fundamental freedoms, which deserve to be respected and protected at all costs.

A vision of the liberal ideal in education would therefore recognise that the responsibility for educating children cannot be transferred to others; nor can it be side-lined or placed behind other considerations. Instead, it is the key principle upon which the whole education system is based. This means that governments must not in any way restrict, undermine or distort this important relationship between parent and child and the natural growth and development of education. As a result, it will not be the role of politicians to dictate which schools children should or should not attend or how much parents should invest in their children’s education.  This will, once again, be the responsibility of parents. Nor will it be the role of politicians to dictate who can and cannot set up and manage a school.

The liberty to teach and the freedom to educate must be respected and it will ultimately be parents who decide if a new school will flourish or not.

While politicians have previously argued that education was far too important to be left to ignorant parents and the chaos of the market, they must now be prepared to admit that education is far too important to be left to politicians. Politicians must have the humility to recognise that their own personal views on what works on education are completely irrelevant. After all, what does any politician know about the detailed and very specific circumstances of each and every pupil and parent across the UK?

Therefore, a future education sector where the rights and responsibilities of parents are both respected and protected will not be planned or directed by central government, nor will it be used to achieve any “national” objectives. Instead, it will consist of a variety of different national and international private, independent, autonomous, for-profit and not for-profit institutions, each with their own specific missions. The needs and desires of parents (and not politicians or governments) will be supreme and the government will be restricted to establishing a regulatory framework that will encourage a variety of different institutions to compete and flourish on a level playing field.

According to Buchanan a vision of the liberal ideal would also be based upon our desire to be free from the coercive power of others, combined with the absence of a desire to exert power over others.  Another Nobel Laureate, Milton Friedman, helps to explain:

Willingness to permit free speech to people with whom one agrees is hardly evidence of devotion to the principle of free speech; the relevant test is willingness to permit free speech to people with whom one thoroughly disagrees. Similarly, the relevant test of the belief in individual freedom is the willingness to oppose state intervention even when it is designed to prevent individual activity of a kind one thoroughly dislikes.

Therefore, this provides a useful test to all those who continue to view parental choice or increasing diversity in the provision of education as an unnecessary evil. Do they have the discipline to place their personal views to one side and recognise that the rights and responsibilities of individual parents must always come first? If they do, then they should be willing to oppose the existing government restrictions which prevent profit-making companies from managing state-funded schools, despite the fact that they may not want their children to attend such a school. From this perspective, a vision of the liberal ideal should be seen as much less self-obsessed and instead much more compassionate towards the private beliefs and the opinions of those who are directly responsible for children’s education – their parents.

For those politicians concerned with the “vote motive”, the fact that most parents are also voters might imply that reforms that increase parents’ freedom to choose in education have a good chance of gaining electoral support if the case for reform is communicated and presented in the correct way.  The time may also be right to launch a campaign for freedom in education because a vision which is based upon liberty and democracy is currently a common denominator of both the Conservative and Liberal Democratic Party. There can be nothing more liberal and democratic than extending the right to choose to all parents, irrespective of their income or location. The following advice from Bastiat should therefore appeal to both parties:

Away, then, with quacks and organizers! Away with their rings, chains, hooks, and pincers! Away with their artificial systems! Away with the whims of governmental administrators, their socialized projects, their centralization, their tariffs, their government schools, their state religions, their free credit, their bank monopolies, their regulations, their restrictions, their equalization by taxation, and their pious moralizations!

And now that the legislators and do-gooders have so futilely inflicted so many systems upon society, may they finally end where they should have begun: May they reject all systems, and try liberty.

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A visit to the happy world of Will Hutton

Written by Tim Worstall | Monday 11 November 2013

As ever, Will Hutton gives us a glimpse into that happy world where more government is the solution to everything. Here it is to the lack of innovation which supposedly pervades our economy:

Inventive startups need big corporations to invest in and support them, but too many in Britain are foreign owned or obsessed by their share price and directors' remuneration. We need a state that can unleash visionary innovative initiatives at scale rather than preach endless austerity.

I'm afraid this just doesn't work and to prove it allow me to give you an example from my own working life. Over here in the Czech Republic they've got some EU money to throw at innovation. Mixed industry and academic sorta stuff and we've a couple of projects that fit into their desired categories well enough. So I had a pint with someone who knows how to apply for these funds: heck, if there's free money out there why not? The first deadline for applying is 22 of this month. The actual cash would be available, assuming we passed all the hurdles and tests, in May 2015.

Yes, 2015: and no, this is not how innovation or start ups work. 18 months is in fact the entire lifecycle of an innovative start up these days: Instagram was bought for a billion dollars in about half that time from starting to purchase.

The world simply moves to quickly these days for the state processes to be able to help with innovation. Sure, it might have been different when industry moved in rather slower c ycles (although the record of government supported entrepreneurs is not all that good even from those times) but it would be completely absurd these days to try and have the state doing anything other than just getting out of the damn way of innovation.

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A warning from Halligan

Written by Wordsmith | Thursday 22 April 2010

To repeat: between now and 2040, on conservative assumptions, the UK's national debt will spiral from 100pc to 500pc of GDP, or 300pc if we take measures to rein in state age-related entitlements that go far beyond what is currently proposed.

Why aren't our politicians being forced to address this reality? Why aren't the massed ranks of "strategy men" in the Treasury waving this BIS paper under the noses of our so-called leaders, telling them "we have a very serious problem"? Why aren't other mainstream economics commentators screaming from the rooftops, using their media platforms to jump up and down and shout "WE SIMPLY MUST CHANGE OUR WAYS"?

Liam Halligan, 'Televised debate made history, but what about the herd of elephants in the room?',

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A warning of things to come?

Written by Mariam Melikadze | Friday 11 June 2010

I woke up this morning to find Hayek’s Road to Serfdom topping the bestseller list on Amazon. And while it’s quite disturbing that it took Glenn Beck’s promotions (the guy who called President O a racist and regularly preaches doomsday on Fox) to get it there, I’m quite happy for the result.

The Road to Serfdom outlines the dangers of falling prey to socialist principles, however honorable they may seem from afar. Due to the complexities of the economic system, a centralized, planned economy is only feasible in practice under a tyrannical regime. This, in turn, breeds economic inequality, the very opposite of what the structure strives to achieve.

Road to Serfdom was first published in the 1940s to a world that had just emerged from the cruelty of the Nazi regime and was facing the looming threat of Communism. It’s bewildering that almost seventy years later we are still debating the merits of such a system.

With the onset of the recession, more and more people are turning to socialism, interpreting the recent events as a failure of capitalism. Cries can be heard from left and right for increased regulation and government control. Yet we are conveniently forgetting the unavoidable dangers that all such admirable ideals entail (The Communist Manifesto was veiled as a call to arms for the cause of equality). The choices we make in the pretense of the greater good may result in unintended consequences. In the words of Hayek:

To the great apostles of political freedom the word “freedom” meant freedom from coercion, freedom from the arbitrary power of other men, release from the ties which left the individual no choice but obedience to the order of a superior to whom he was attached. The new freedom promised, however, was to freedom from necessity, release from the compulsion of the circumstances, which inevitably limit the range of choice of all of us. Freedom in this sense is, of course merely another name for power or wealth.

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A wasted legacy

Written by Dr Eamonn Butler | Saturday 19 January 2008

brownspeech_copy.jpgA new report from Global Vision suggests that while Germany is in shape for economic recovery, Britain isn't – quite a turn-around from a decade ago. While Germany and most of Continental Europe have adopted at least a measure of economic common sense in the last ten years, Britain seems to be taxing and spending itself into oblivion.

OECD figures show that general government outlays accounted for 41.2 percent of the market-price measure of GDP in Britain in 1997 compared with 48.3 percent in Germany. Since then, the share of government outlays in UK GDP has risen by 3.4 percent to 44.6 percent, while Germany has cut it by 4.4 percent to 44.3 percent.

Economists David B Smith and Dr Eugen Mihaita of the University of Derby say that even the limited reforms of 2003, when Germany was facing crisis, have helped. But the real reason why Germany's prospects are rising and Britain's are falling is down to a decade of Gordon Brown. He inherited low taxes, low spending, a deregulated economy, and has spent the past decade letting them all slip away.

Who's part of 'Old Europe' now?

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A welcome shift from Barack Obama on foreign aid

Written by Sam Bowman | Friday 24 September 2010

obamamdgsPresident Obama’s speech to the UN yesterday on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) is somewhat encouraging to those of us who object to the current global aid regime. In an uncharacteristically pro-market speech, the President accepted that the current system of target-based aid is broken and badly needs to be reformed. Though he praised the MDGs, Mr Obama accepted that the only way to raise the quality of life of the world’s poor is to allow their economies to grow, and to this end he pledged for a new emphasis on trade with the developing world. Mr Obama, and like-minded policymakers in the UK, should follow this logic to its conclusion and accept that we cannot engineer or create growth through the dumping of aid onto the developing world.

Currently, the global aid regime is focused on the MDGs, which set lofty targets for aid-recipient countries like providing their citizens with access to clean drinking water. These are very admirable objectives, but the approach is wrong. By trying to achieve a top-down implementation of specific economic and social goals, the development community has assumed that it has perfect knowledge of economies and incentive structures of the recipient countries. Politicians should recognise that they can no more engineer economies in the developing world than in their own countries.

The question of development is not how aid money can be spent in a way that effectively targets the needs of the poor, if indeed it can be spent effectively. (My own view is that it cannot but this is a separate question.) The top-down approach of the MDGs does not do this, and its bluntness risks distorting the economies of developing countries, further inhibiting their growth and exacerbating poverty.

A new focus on removing trade barriers between the developed and the developing worlds will avoid the Hayekian ‘fatal conceit’ of top-down planning that has proved to be unsuccessful and often counterproductive in reducing poverty in the developing world. Experience has shown us that planning has failed in our own economies, and it’s time we realized that the developing world is no different. The developing world’s road out of poverty is not aid, it is economic growth, and Mr Obama’s speech to the UN suggests that he is beginning to recognise this. Nevertheless, until he accepts that governments cannot manufacture growth by dumping cash, he has some way to go.

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A win for the people

Written by Karthik Reddy | Sunday 01 August 2010

 The Coalition government should be lauded for Friday’s announcement of a plan to permit people to exercise control over inordinate council tax hikes that have increasingly squeezed the budgets of English households across the country. Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles announced his intention to allow people to decide through a referendum process whether to accept or reject council tax increases that exceed the rate of inflation. This is expected to be in place by March of 2012. Under the current system, Whitehall decides when an increase is “excessive” and must be capped. The move is positive for two reasons: it will likely arrest the dramatic increase in such taxes, and will allow people to better control their local governments.

First, the growth of council taxes, which has been unacceptably high, will at long last be controlled by the measure. Council taxes in England have nearly doubled over the last decade; the average council tax per dwelling in the country has increased from £656 in 2000 to nearly £1,200 today. Last year, the Telegraph reported that the increase in council taxes over the preceding decade outpaced inflation by a factor of four. That the referenda, which can be costly to administer, will be funded by the councils themselves will provide significant incentive for councils to make difficult budgetary decisions instead of irresponsibly raising taxes and further burdening families.

Second, the measure puts people back in control of their local governments. The central government is ill suited to make determinations about tax rates in local communities. Whitehall does not have sufficient knowledge of local concerns and cannot make appropriate determinations about which tax increases are “excessive” and which are acceptable. Such control belongs to the people, who know their communities much more intimately than bureaucrats in Westminster. Local government needs to be checked in some fashion, and it is only logical that such a check should come from the people most affected by its decisions.

The recent announcement is a heartening indication that the Coalition government has faith in the ability of communities to manage their own affairs. The referendum plan is a step in the right direction that further empowers the people, and simultaneously forces governments to make the crucial tradeoffs that English families must make everyday.

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A winter of malcontents?

Written by Nigel Hawkins | Wednesday 16 June 2010

Looking back, it seems very strange that in the early 1980s the genteel town of
Eastbourne witnessed marches of hundreds of people chanting ‘Maggie, Maggie, Maggie....Out, Out, Out’.

Of course, by the standards of the time, these political activities were relatively innocuous. But the subsequent year-long miners’ strike, which began in 1984, brought a new viciousness to industrial disputes. The violence in many Nottinghamshire pit villages, along with the quasi mediaeval riots at Orgreave, will be long remembered.

With large public sector job losses now almost certain, union militancy is likely to reappear this winter - with a vengeance.

Public sector unions are already anticipating industrial action, with local government, education and the NHS being obvious target areas. Aside from large job losses, wage cuts and less favourable pension scheme terms will be at the heart of many disputes. Union discontent is not limited to the public sector. The futile dispute at British Airways continues – to the undoubted benefit of other carriers, such as Ryanair and EasyJet.

The Communication Workers Union (CWU) will shortly be holding a ballot amongst its 50,000 staff at British Telecom. The Royal Mail, too, may well face action from the CWU. Given the unions’ fractious relationship with Network Rail, strikes are also expected on the railways during the coming holiday months. At least, a widespread miners’ strike will be avoided. There are now only a handful of underground pits operational in the UK compared with more than a 1,000 in the early 1920s, when close to one million miners were employed.

As the sun sets on the summer of 2010, the likelihood is that the following few months will be very challenging. The Coalition Government will come face to face with a wide range of malcontents.

How tough will it need to be to ensure that its policies prevail?

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A worryingly uncertain future

Written by Max Titmuss | Tuesday 20 September 2011

As I sit looking out of my window here in Berlin I see all manner of depressing buildings: pre-fabricated tower blocks, industrial-looking chimneys; all suitably lying under a grey, overcast sky. If any one place in the world displays the battle-scars of the twentieth-century and the ravages of totalitarianism, that place must surely be Berlin.

Looking back at what happened here over the last 100 years should give cause for anybody to think: the state, under various guises, has done its utmost to destroy this city. In 1914 pickelhaubed soldiers marched down Unter den Linden to the battlefields of northern France. Although the allegiance and ideology of the troops, shells and bombs that came subsequently changed, be they Hitler's brownshirts or Honecker's Nationale Volksarmee, they all acted on behalf of the state.

Today, however, much of this seems relegated to the history books – done and dusted. We are told we live an enlightened age; we are experiencing the End of History. Whilst we concern ourselves with our 42” plasmas and obsess over Kate Middleton's daring fashion exploits, the barbarity of the state has been replaced by politicians giving away teddy-bears; politicians who 'understand' us and who want to be 'our mates'. We have become politically inert, but not to worry; our friends up top have it all under control.

But is it so? Or are we merely being duped by a class of political elites out of touch with reality? By almost every yardstick our politicians are failing us, and despite the cuddly façade of our political elite there are dark clouds on the horizon. Our economy remains in the doldrums despite being 'injected' more times than Pete Doherty. The Eurozone staggers from one crisis to another like a drunk navigating an obstacle course. Our personal liberties are increasingly curtailed whilst we are being 'nudged' in directions deemed suitable by the state. If the last century has taught us nothing else, it is that humanity is better served with minimal state interference: the state is history's largest mass-murderer.

But so what? One only has to observe history to realise that the state is most dangerous when it is of an extreme persuasion. Electorates tend only to swing to the outer reaches of the political spectrum when socio-economic uncertainty is rife: people are loathe to throw their lot in with an unknown, potentially psychopathic, ruler when everything is running smoothly.

It is with these thoughts in mind that I look upon events unfolding in Brussels with peculiar mix of emotion. Whilst an unaccountable, undemocratic and, in my eyes, dangerous behemoth may be in the last throes of life, at what cost has this come? It may prove overly-wishful to believe that the EU will simply fizzle out be followed by a resumption of normality – there is too much economic and political baggage for such a simple resolution. A dissolution of Europe as we know it could lead to a political environment not seen since the darker decades of the 20th century.

History reminds us that things often don't stay trouble-free for very long, especially when government is at hand. Will the state be as deadly to this century as it was the last? Only time will tell.

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A year of Clegg

Written by Tom Clougherty | Thursday 18 December 2008

Today is Nick Clegg's first anniversary as leader of the Lib Dems. He may not want to celebrate it too loudly: the party is not doing much better in the polls now than it did under Clegg's predecessor Sir Ming Campbell. And with the partial exception of Vince Cable MP, the Lib Dems still struggles to make themselves heard in the political debate. Indeed, come election time the Lib Dems will probably struggle to keep the parliamentary seats they've got – a far cry from the electoral breakthrough that has occasionally seemed possible in the past.

That said, there have certainly been good things about Clegg's leadership. Most importantly, he has successfully repositioned the party on the issue of tax and public spending. Clegg has embraced a higher personal allowance and lower taxes for those on low-mid incomes, tax simplification at the wealthier end of the spectrum, and small reductions in public spending. It's not perfect policy – Lib Dem proposals to reform capital gains tax would hamper wealth creation, and the party could and should be much more radical about cutting spending – but it's a good start.

The Lib Dems have also been saying good things on education (where they now advocate school choice) and on health (where they would expand direct payments and personal budgets, and give people 'vouchers' to go private if the NHS can't treat them within a set time).

On a theoretical level, meanwhile, Clegg has pushed the party back towards its classically liberal roots – something I think is very welcome. He's still got a long way to go, but it is better than nothing. Britain would benefit from a genuinely liberal mainstream political party, like the German Free Democrats or Ireland's Progressive Democrats, if only to counteract the big-government paternalism that too often comes from both sides of the House.

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