Do students need a union?

Pretty much every university student must be at least passingly familiar with their student union. Although the quality of such establishments – and it is as establishments that they are most widely known on campus – varies enormously from place to place, let nobody think that I want to get rid of the student union in its familiar, homely on-campus sense.

But do students really need the other aspects of a union? I mean, they’re called trades unions for a reason, and the student-college relationship is fundamentally different to the employee-employer one.
The relationship between a business and its employees is that the business buys labour with wages. In this relationship the business is the consumer, not the worker – hence the term ‘labour market’. As I argued in my Young Writer on Liberty submission, trade unions parallel business cartels by seeking to restrict supply of a good (labour) in order to inflate prices (wages).

The student-college relationship differs from this in that it is the student, not the college, that is the consumer. We purchase a university education, including access to teachers, libraries and online material, from a university via our tuition fees. This would suggest that what students need is not a ‘union’ but a ‘Which?’-style consumer champion.

Is this distinction important? Or am I simply playing around with semantics?

During my time at the University of Manchester I got quite well-acquainted with the workings of the fairly large executive council of the student union. I found that these positions could be divided between the useful - those that focused on students’ relationship with the university, each other, oversaw events and societies or government welfare – and the big-budget playthings of political poseurs.

On the one hand, it is certainly true that the work of the former – the welfare, student societies and academic-related officers – could be carried out as effectively under the auspices of a ‘union’ as anything else. On the other, in my view many of the problems in the ‘student movement’ – another awful term – stem from the casting of student interests in the trades union mould.

For example, student leaders fundamentally misinterpret the nature of student problems – and the solutions to those problems – by viewing the issue through the prism of labour relations rather than consumer relations: for example, supporting lecturer strikes and other measures out of ‘solidarity’ when they are not in the interests of current students as consumers of education.

As I argued in the Manchester student paper, the idea of a student ‘strike’ having any discernible impact on a university is absurd because students pay universities once a year and aren’t willing to get kicked out for non-payment. What then is the student equivalent of a withdrawal of labour?

A total waste of money, that’s what.


George Monbiot's stupidity

George Monbiot begins his Guardian op-ed this week with this jaw-dropping assertion:

Self-deprecating, too liberal for their own good, today's progressives stand back and watch, hands over their mouths, as the social vivisectionists of the right slice up a living society to see if its component parts can survive in isolation. Tied up in knots of reticence and self-doubt, they will not shout stop.

Has Monbiot been asleep for the past 18 months of deficit-denying, Wall Street Occupying, Murdoch-pieing shenanigans? Has he heard of UK Uncut or 38 Degrees? Did he notice all the strikes and marches in London? Does he, indeed, ever read his own newspaper? His article—titled ‘The right’s stupidity spreads, enabled by a too-polite left’—appeared on the same day as the The Guardian published such opinion pieces as ‘The NHS bill could finish the health service—and Cameron’ (Polly Toynbee) and ‘Why we need more banker bashing’ (Sunny Hundal). This is hardly unrepresentative of the organ’s output.

The issue that the left is “too polite” to mention is an academic study which Monbiot (wrongly) claims to have “revealed that people with conservative beliefs are likely to be of low intelligence.” Have you heard about this well-guarded piece of secret research? Of course you have. Only two days earlier, the reticent and self-doubting Charlie Brooker covered the ‘right-wingers are stupid’ story and proved his point by quoting comments left on The Daily Mail’s website. Guess what? Some of the things people say underneath Daily Mail stories are really stupid! One hopes Brooker waived his fee for this journalistic turkey shoot.

In a classic example of confirmation bias, Monbiot declares the study’s findings to be “embarrassingly robust”. This is not the view of the statistician William M. Briggs, who calls the study “a textbook example of confused data, unrecognized bias, and ignorance of statistics”. The study’s methodology does indeed appear to have been designed with the preferred conclusion in mind and it is not difficult to guess the political persuasion of its authors. Even if the findings were sound, the study would only serve as a reminder of how useless that ridiculously broad and pejorative term “right-winger” is.

Monbiot fails to mention it, but libertarians and free-marketeers do not have a dog in this fight. The study examines homophobia and racism with a selective definition of “conservative ideology” thrown in for good measure. The researchers define right-wing ideologies as “socially conservative and authoritarian”, which rules out Monbiot’s hated libertarians and “neo-liberals” at a stroke. People who agree that “Schools should teach children to obey authority” and “Family life suffers if mum is working full-time” are, by the questionable definition of these researchers, “right-wingers” and they find correlations—though not very strong ones—between these attitudes and weaker cognitive abilities. There are similar correlations with racism and homophobia. It turns out that bigots are not always very intelligent. Who would have thought it?

But Monbiot is not prepared to leave it at that. Although the study clearly relies on a North American view of the political spectrum in which the left is socially liberal and the right is socially conservative, Monbiot cheerfully conflates it with the economic outlook of the British Left and Right. The “Conservative appeal to stupidity”, he says, manifests itself in reforming the benefits system and checking whether people on disability benefit are actually unable to work. But one wonders how many Americans on the left or the right would consider capping benefits at £26,000 ($41,000) a year to be unreasonable, let alone “stupid”.

Much as Monbiot would like to think otherwise, a study of social prejudices tells us nothing about the wisdom of his brand of Malthusian, zero-growth economics. Tax-and-spend leftists and Spirit Level suckers who still cannot grasp the broken window fallacy after 160 years should hesitate before calling people dumb. In 2010, researchers exposed the left’s economic incomprehension when they asked people whether they agreed with statements such as “Restrictions on housing development make housing less affordable”, “A company with the largest market share is a monopoly” and “Free trade leads to unemployment”. They found self-defined Progressives and Liberals to be consistently more ignorant of basic economics than self-defined Libertarians and Conservatives.

The study was, however, criticised for choosing statements designed to trip up left-wingers. When the researchers conducted the experiment again last year, they added statements designed to appeal to the prejudices of the right, such as “Making abortion illegal would increase the number of black-market abortions” and “Legalizing drugs would give more wealth and power to street gangs and organized crime.”  With these new statements included, the differences between political factions evened themselves out somewhat. Progressives still did worse than Libertarians overall, but it was concluded that “all groups do poorly, with each group tending to do relatively poorly on questions challenging its positions”. Regardless of political affiliation, people tend to believe what they want to believe. This is a conclusion that Monbiot should bear in mind before he allows one piece of flawed research to confirm his bias.

Would an independent Scotland sink or swim?

As the United Kingdom approaches its date with destiny and the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, the debate surrounding the possible shape of a post-Union Scotland are only going to get fiercer. What Scotland might look like outside the United Kingdom, whether Scandinavian utopia or isolated backwater, is one of the key fronts on which the battle for the hearts and minds of Scottish voters will be fought.

Alex Salmond’s vision, designed to maximise separation’s appeal, is of a Scotland with options: joining the Euro; membership of the Common Market without the single currency; keeping the pound. All intended to give the impression that an independent Scotland would be the master of its own economic destiny.

Yet there are good grounds for suspicion that this is not the case. For a start, it is unlikely that Scotland would be able to claim automatic membership of the European Union as the SNP often claim.

In the instance of Scottish independence, the continuity-UK would almost certainly qualify for ‘successor state’ status under international law, due to possessing (much) more than 50% of the territory and population of the United Kingdom as presently constituted.

Thus the UK would retain its identity and membership, leaving none for Scotland to inherit. Were Scotland to then apply for membership in its own right, there are further hurdles. The UK’s treasured opt-out from the single currency is not offered to new members; likewise the option of joining the European Economic Area without acceding to the EU.

Thus Scotland would either have to join the EU, single currency and all, or not at all. Even assuming the SNP retained their former enthusiasm for the single currency and took the plunge, there’s no guarantee they’d be accepted. Spain, Italy and Belgium are all wrestling with their own separatist movements and will not want to establish the precedent of secessionists gaining EU membership – see Spain’s position vis-à-vis Kosovo.

If not Europe, then what? In an effort to soften the blow for soft-unionist Scots, the SNP are keen to stress the links that they would seek to retain with the UK. Scotland could, the nationalists argue, keep the pound, and British submarines could still be stationed at Faslane to fend off the fear of defence cuts.

Assuming all this was true (and in the case of defence it almost certainly isn’t), Scotland on the pound would be tied to the British economy without having a say in the governance of it, while trying to keep whole communities going via sustaining now-foreign military bases.

The SNP thus risk locking Scotland out of the UK without breaking free from it. As the pro-Union campaign put it, there are polities outside the UK with similar relationships. Until recently, they were called ‘dependencies’.


With competition laws like this, no wonder Europe is doomed

A French court has found Google guilty of "unfair competition" and ordered it to pay €500,000 to a rival. (H/T Cato @ Liberty.) Google's crime was to offer its Maps application for free to anybody who wanted to use it. A rival firm which charges for its product sued Google for allegedly plotting to eliminate rivals from the market and then start charging for Maps.

For a start, this is obviously wrong. Google's entire business model is based around making money from advertising in free products: see its Gmail, Blogger, Youtube, Calendar and Search sites for examples. Google don't even charge businesses for using its products with their own branding (Google Apps). This is the dominant business model for most successful sites. The court has failed utterly to grasp business in the internet age. A product that doesn't charge can still make money from advertising, as Google and Facebook both do with some success.

That the rival firm is too backwards to be able to compete isn't a problem for the consumer. The only people who think Google will ever charge for any major service are the same tweenage girls who post Facebook statuses about "Facebook Gold" coming in at midnight unless 10,000 people post this message as their status. And the French courts.

This sort of kowtowing to uncompetitive firms victimized by "unfair competition" hits on why Europe's outlook is so bleak. "Unfair competition" laws put the needs of inefficient businesses ahead of those of consumers. The laws have been spectacularly abused in the last twenty years. Microsoft was fined €497m for bundling Windows Media Player into Windows, Samsung has had devices banned from sale because they used a 4x4 rectangular layout for its smartphone screens that looked a bit like Apple's, and Apple is currently being sued because its Apple Stores are too good and outcompeting local French stores. In every case, the consumer has lost out.

Most recently, Google's new privacy policy is facing an EU probe. Not only is Google wrong to provide high-quality products to everybody for free, it seems, but it must also let the EU determine its privacy policy. A normal person might think that, if you object to a company's privacy policy, you should just not use that company's products. But EU commissioners are not normal people — they seem to think that everybody has a right to use Google as they see fit, whether Google like it or not.

Absent state intervention, firms will only be successful if they satisfy consumers better than anyone else. "Unfair competition" laws punish firms that have satisfied consumers the most. They are conceptually and practically anti-consumer.  With rulings like the French Google Maps decision on one hand, and the European Union's bizarre, anti-private interference in private citizens' contracts on the other, it's hardly surprising that there are no French Googles or German Facebooks.

Tackle the root causes of slavery and human trafficking

On the BBC’s Today programme last Thursday, it was reported that vulnerable individuals from the UK are being trafficked within the EU to work as forced labour. The predictable response was to ask an EU official what the government response to such a problem should be which was outlined as information-sharing, enforcement, inter-governmental co-operation via the European Convention on Action Against Trafficking and so on.

A similar position can be found in this report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation from 2007, looking at trafficking and slavery into the UK. This report suggests that appropriate policy recommendations should be based around governmental solutions; public awareness campaigns, tougher regulation of gangmasters, a more rigorous enforcement of the 2004 Immigration and Asylum Act provisions against trafficking and so forth.

Unfortunately, most of these proposed actions focus upon symptomatic treatment and do not tackle the underlying causes of human trafficking and slavery. The JRF report recognises that many of the problems are integral to the issue of migration. In terms of the countries of origin, there is little that can reasonably be said without entering into a discussion of development economics (barriers to trade and migration and the stultifying effects of aid are for a different discussion).  It is clear, however, that UK immigration policy – by tying visas to specific jobs – enhances the ability of unscrupulous employers to coerce the victims. Tougher enforcement is unlikely to be very effective given its failures thus far; as the JRF observes, there have been very few prosecutions for trafficking. Comparison with the drugs trade would suggest that tougher enforcement merely drives up prices and further enriches the traffickers without having any noticeable impact on supply, amongst other harmful effects.

Eliminating the causes of human trafficking would be far more effective in these circumstances. The JRF report argues that the UK’s labour markets are the most flexible in Europe and it is the demand for cheap seasonal and temporary labour that creates demand for forced labour. Supermarket monopsony forces suppliers to drive down costs and employ the cheapest possible labour. Whilst the UK’s labour market may be more flexible than some, it is still highly inflexible in absolute terms.  Temporary labour is favoured because of the bureaucratic costs of employing permanent labourers. Attempts to impose the same costs on temporary labourers will also further encourage a resort to illegal labour unencumbered by regulation. Similarly, the minimum wage creates an incentive to employ bonded labour either to avoid paying such wage rates or because of the reduction in supply of labour that minimum wages and bureaucracy imposes. Further, while it is a complex issue, the supermarket monopsony can hardly be explained in terms of a free market as the supermarkets receive various state-imposed economies of scale and barriers to competition which they would not receive in a free market.

One major aspect of the problem is the sex trade. Unlike the grey area of seasonal labour the sex trade is illegal. This creates the ideal incentives for trafficking and exploitation, and it is one of the strongest arguments for legalisation of prostitution. Instead, in an absurd piece of wrong-headedness, politicians like Harriet Harman advocate exactly the opposite. Sex workers themselves recognise the folly of this argument. It must also be pointed out that a slave is someone denied control over their body – which is what, in effect, prohibition of prostitution is doing. Criminalisation also makes it easier to engage minors in the sex trade as customers have fewer means of ensuring the legitimate nature of the business they are dealing with.

Of course, trafficking is not a simple phenomenon. In the case of forced marriage there is a case for state intervention because the slavery is an end in itself and is not a market-related phenomenon as such. These cases are rather more limited in number, however. It is also typical of interventionism in that it seeks to remedy one unintended consequence of interventionism with another, rather than removing the initial intervention. In other words, the government is enabling and incentivising a negative behaviour that it then seeks to remedy with further investment of resources, but it is amazing when everyone is surprised that such an approach fails. Thus it is liberalisation of labour markets and migration, not further state interventionism, which would mitigate against human trafficking.


How Nimbyism hurts taxpayers and the environment

If you want an example of how anti-development councillors are harming the public, look no further than Basingstoke. There, contrary to the wishes of the Coalition government, the council seems determined to prevent any significant house building at all.

For those utterly hostile to new housing that might sound OK, until you realise the massive waste of local taxpayers’ money this has involved.

Back in 1995, the council bought a 2000-acre plot of land at Manydown for the purpose of building new houses for £10 million. It paid a premium for the land because it was land destined for development – previously farmland with little in the way of natural interest.

Now the council has decided that it won’t allow any development on Manydown at all, and is proposing – ludicrously – to force any new housing into the Loddon Valley. This is a place designated as a “Site of Importance for Nature Conservation” and which is protected by the Convention on Biological Diversity. The council’s position is ridiculous, like proposing that coal-fire power stations be built in the Lake District or that we demolish Stonehenge.

So why is it taking this position? Well, two of the councillors living near Manydown are being the most vocal in their campaign against development. Perhaps they are worried that they will lose their seats. If so, it’s a pity, because development done right can actually improve local areas, bringing prettier neighbourhoods and better amenities.


Let us hope that the euro and the EU do collapse

Now yes, agreed, I am known for my euroscepticism, both of the very EU system and of the currency, thinking them both thoroughly bad ideas from start to finish. But I'd like to point out that there are those not as entirely crankish as I am on the subject who think that the toppling of one or both wouldn't be so bad: could even be desirable.

The claim that the downfall of the euro and the EU would produce chaos and war may be interpreted to be just a strategy necessary to get support for helping the highly indebted nations such as Greece, Portugal, Spain, or Italy with ever more financial support. However, conversations I have had with persons from various European countries suggest that many people really believe that Europe will disintegrate and that wars are looming if the EU dissolves. I hold this view to be seriously mistaken.

Good, just to get that out of the way.

The individual countries in Europe will quickly form new treaties among themselves. Collaboration will be maintained in all those areas where it has worked well. Some countries will remain in a newly formed and smaller Eurozone, for which the appropriate treaties will be designed. A similar reconstitution will take place with respect to Schengen, which will then encompass different members. Only those countries that find it advantageous will join a new convention on the free movement of persons. In contrast, those nations that do not find such new treaties attractive, or that are not admitted to them by the other members, will not join.

The result will be a net of overlapping contracts between countries, which the various nations will join at will. These contracts will not be based on a vague notion of what ‘’Europe’ may mean, but rather on functional efficiency. Crucially, the individual treaties will be stable because they will be in the interest of each member.

What is being suggested is a multi-speed Europe, a contractual one or, if you prefer, a liberal conception of inter-state cooperation rather than the building of  new over arching state. And it's a vision that I find very attractive indeed. I see no need or, no reason for, a new State of Europe while I can see the obvious benefits of cooperation across the continent.

But let's have that cooperation freely given, freely negotated and split out into its component parts. As Bruno Frey (for it is he) points out:

The essence of ‘Europe’ is variety and diversity rather than étatisme and bureaucracy.

So why in hell is anyone at all trying to constrain such variety and diversity under one set of rules and one set of rulers?