That tricky point about competition in the NHS


One of the more ridiculous pieces of wibble in the public discussion these days is the idea that competition inside the NHS is a bad idea. The likes of Polly keep on about how cooperation, rather than that competition, is the right way to go. To which there are two responses: the first being that competition is actually how you decide who you are going to cooperate with. We might think that Pepsi competes with Coke, but neither are competing with Tesco: they are competing to decide who cooperates with Tesco. The second is that cooperation is indeed good: it's just that in groups of more than perhaps 3,000 or 4,000 people (derived, not entirely accurately, from Elinor Ostrom) we find that it's not really possible to have central control of peoples' cooperation. We need to use the market to organise that cooperation. All of which brings us to this lovely experiment:

NHS hospitals in England are rarely closed in constituencies where the governing party has a slender majority. This means that for near random reasons, those areas have more competition in healthcare – which has allowed the authors to assess its impact on management quality and clinical performance.

The answer? More competition improves the health care service.

We know the same from other sources as well. NHS England is, as Polly would put it, more accursed with competition than NHS Wales or NHS Scotland. NHS England has been, by all the usual measures (whether financial, patient satisfaction, health outcomes) getting better faster than NHS Wales or NHS Scotland. And that's what we would predict too: for we do't in fact say that competition is necessarily a better way of running something. We do however shout very loudly that it's a good way of making something better over time. Competition incentivises productivity improvement that is.

So, every time we go out to test this we find that competition makes the NHS better. The case for not having more competition in the NHS is therefore what?

Well, yes Mr Tyrie, yes, you do have a point


It is entirely true that the ONS is not perfect. Nothing created by human beings ever will be of course but even then the Office does fall a little short of what could be achieved. So, Andrew Tyrie does have a point in stating that things should be better. The more specific criticisms are also true: no one as yet has quite got to grips with the effects of the digital economy upon the numbers in general and it really should be the ONS leading that charge. We'd also throw in our own bugbear which is someone getting to grips with the appalling layout and logical structure of the website.

However, there's one part of the critique which we think is most unfair:

“The ONS has fallen a long way short, lacking intellectual curiosity, prone to silly mistakes and unresponsive to the needs of consumers of its statistics.”

Because unless you're about to propose privatising the Office there's not much anyone can do about that is there? For you've just described government itself.

A Garden of One’s Own: Suggestions for development in the Metropolitan Green Belt


Our new paper on where to build on London's Green Belt is out now. Below is part of the press release we sent to the media; for the full press release, click here. To read the whole paper, click here. London must build on low quality Green Belt spaces around existing commuter infrastructure to solve its housing crisis, according to a new paper from the Adam Smith Institute.

Building on 20,000 acres of the Metropolitan Green Belt (roughly 3.7%) would create room for the 1m new homes needed, estimating 50 houses per acre; nearly all of which could be built within 10 minutes walk of a station.

The paper, A Garden of One’s Own: Suggestions for development in the Metropolitan Green Belt, identifies specific areas where tens of thousands of dwellings can be built, and points out how providing the housing Londoners need does not require ‘concreting over’ the countryside, destroying amenity, or overcrowding.

The author of the paper, Tom Papworth, considers the five main justifications given for the green belt: to check sprawl; to prevent towns merging; to safeguard the countryside; to preserve historic towns; and to force land recycling; and notes that many pieces of land currently designated that way do not meet any of these.

For example, there is an area of land between Hainault, Barkingside, Chadwell Heath and Colliers Row, totalling about 1,200 ha—or 60,000 dwellings at standard densities outside of London—where none of these purposes apply. It is already swallowed by Redbridge, it would have no impact on merging with London, there are no historic towns, and land recycling is irrelevant.

The table below lays out the total land available of different types that could be used to fill the 20,000 hectare demand, assuming standard densities. At inner London densities of 120 dwellings/ha it would take much less land, and at lower densities of 30-40/ha it would take more.

Screen shot 2016-01-08 at 11.05.17

Funny this, Facebook is just like all other media


Apparently not all is perfect in this new media garden. Facebook does not turn us all into enlightened seekers after truth, Instead, it allows us to reinforce our own prejudices:

Facebook reinforces the beliefs of users because they tend to seek out news and views that tally with their own opinions, according to a new study. The social networking site creates an "echo chamber" in which a network of like-minded people share controversial theories, biased views and selective news, academics found. This means that any bias held is simply repeated back to them unchallenged and accepted as fact.

Quite amazing, eh?

The research, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, analysed Facebook data about the topics people discussed on the social network in 2010 and 2014. It concluded: "Users tend to aggregate in communities of interest, which causes reinforcement and fosters confirmation bias, segregation and polarisation.

"This comes at the expense of the quality of information and leads to proliferation of biased narratives fomented by unsubstantiated rumours, mistrust, and paranoia."

Sounds just like the opinion pages of The Guardian. Or the comments section of the Daily Mail. The reason being that it is exactly like those two things. Because one of the lesser known but hugely important things we know about the media is that it does not shape our views so much as chase our pre-existing ones. Editors do not say "We must convince the readers that coffee cures cancer", they instead ask whether they want to advertise things to those who might be interested in reading an article about whether coffee does indeed cure cancer.

Similarly, amazing though it may seem, there are groups in this country interested in reading Owen Jones' misunderstandings of economics, Polly's insistence that the only way is Labour, the strange neuroses that drive Mail columnists and so on down (or up, as you wish) the list.

The importance of this in the wider sense is that calls for "unbiased" media simply don't make sense. Because it presupposes that the creators are trying to create a bias that benefits them, the creators. Not in the slightest: creators are angling to identify an extant view in the population that they can then pander to.

You knew this quote was coming, didn't you?

Sir Humphrey: The only way to understand the Press is to remember that they pander to their readers' prejudices.

Jim Hacker: Don't tell me about the Press. I know *exactly* who reads the papers. The Daily Mirror is read by the people who think they run the country. The Guardian is read by people who think they *ought* to run the country. The Times is read by the people who actually *do* run the country. The Daily Mail is read by the wives of the people who run the country. The Financial Times is read by people who *own* the country. The Morning Star is read by people who think the country ought to be run by *another* country. The Daily Telegraph is read by the people who think it is.

Sir Humphrey: Prime Minister, what about the people who read The Sun?

Bernard Woolley: Sun readers don't care *who* runs the country - as long as she's got big tits.

Pander might even be too weak: chase the prejudices might be more accurate.

Sure there's media bias: but it's not bias emanating from the media, it's the population being reflected in it.

Which does rather lead to an interesting point we can make. The general complaint about media bias is that the free market media has a right wing bias. Something which, if true, says that England at least is a rather right wing place. Because if the largest market in the country weren't rather right wing then that wouldn't be the bias the media had.

The Junior Doctors Row: Striking Won't Help


Rumour has it that, after the controversy surrounding Andrew Lansley’s NHS reforms, his successor Jeremy Hunt was instructed to do one thing: keep his head down. Instead, it’s wanted on a plate. As talks between the Government and junior doctors again break down once more, one of this Parliament’s most persistent political stories just won’t go away. The health secretary hasn’t helped himself: he came under fire over his misrepresentation of the “weekend effect” (the link between weekend hospital admissions and poorer patient outcomes including higher rates of mortality). He has been rightly criticised for his subtle suggestion that the increase in basic pay is an 11 per cent increase in overall earnings, when in reality most doctors’ salaries are substantially reliant on additional money from working evenings and weekends – which will be cut.

Nonetheless, you may start to feel some pity for Hunt – after all, he’s inherited a ticking time bomb, an obsolete behemoth that works neither for its consumers nor its staff. As Kate Andrews has suggested, the successes of market-based systems in Europe can’t be ignored much longer, as the NHS staggers towards its breaking point.

And doctors have long used collective protest to shape the NHS and their role within it. In 1947, doctors contested plans for the new NHS, looking to retain their independent contractor status rather than becoming salaried employees. In 1975, both consultants and junior doctors engaged in partial strikes over hours and overtime. This ties in neatly with Peter Hoskins’ blog this week. In it, he examines all disputes going back to the 1930s.

Time lost to strikes, he finds, was much higher in the 1970s and 1980s than previously or since. The overall peak came in April 1980, when around 32 million working days were lost to industrial action in the 12 months up to and including that date. He says:

“Industrial action is consistently low, nowadays. In fact, the average 12-month total for the Labour years is about 613,000. For the Cameron years, so far, it is 658,000. This suggests not just that incidences of industrial action are much lower than they were before the 1990s, but also that they have remained consistently low. The unions have been defused by a combination of Margaret Thatcher’s reforms and wider, historical forces. The industrial strikes of the 1980s are unlikely to be repeated in a de-industrialised nation.

“None of this is to downplay or excuse the industrial action that’s being planned by the British Medical Association and junior doctors. Each strike must be judged according to its own facts.” Are doctors paid enough? It depends on whether you believe anyone “deserves” a particular salary. But junior doctors must resist the urge to back a strike, one that would compromise the safety and wellbeing of NHS patients.

Since the resumption of talks in November, there has been significant movement on almost all outstanding issues on the contract. As Sir Robert Francis QC pointed out yesterday, continued negotiations must proceed: both sides have a duty to continue exploring all avenues, including conciliation and meditation.

Stress Testing without the Stress – the Bank of England’s Stress Tests

This is the first of a series of postings on the Bank of England’s 2015 stress tests of the financial strength of the UK banking system, which concluded that the banking system is able to withstand a severe stress scenario and still function well. It turns out that the stress scenario – often described in the press as a ‘doomsday’ scenario – is surprisingly mild. And because of this, we cannot conclude that the UK banking system is strong enough to withstand a severe stress scenario. To make matters worse, the much vaunted rebuilding of the UK banks’ balance sheets didn’t happen either and UK banks may be as vulnerable now as they were in 2007.

On December 1 last year, the Bank of England released the results of its second round of annual stress tests of the capital adequacy or financial strength of the UK banking system. This exercise is supposed to be a financial health check for the major UK banks – it tests their ability to withstand a severe adverse shock and still come out in good financial shape.

The stress tests covered six major banks and one building society – Barclays, HSBC, Lloyds Banking Group, the Nationwide Building Society, The Royal Bank of Scotland Group, Santander UK and Standard Chartered. Between them these institutions account for over 80% of lending to the UK economy.

The stress tests were billed as severe and the press would commonly label the stress scenario as a ‘doomsday’ one. Here are some of the headlines:

“Bank of England stress tests to include feared global crash”

“Bank of England puts global recession at heart of doomsday scenario”

“Stress tests: the Bank of England’s doomsday scenario”

“Banks brace for new doomsday tests”

All this is pretty scary, but fortunately there was a happy ending: there are one or two small problems but on the whole, the banks come out smelling of roses:

“UK banks pass stress tests as Britain's "post-crisis period" ends”

“Bank of England signals end of the financial crisis era”

“Bank shares rise after Bank of England stress tests”

“Bank of England’s Carney says UK banks’ job almost done on capital”

Phew! The Bank of England put the UK banks through a daunting stress test but the banks came out in good shape and we can sleep safely in our beds.

Going further, at the press conference announcing the stress test results Bank of England Governor Mark Carney couldn’t have been more reassuring:

UK banks are now significantly more resilient than before the global financial crisis.

This year’s test complements last year’s effort. It is focused on an emerging market stress that prompts reassessments of global prospects and asset prices; considers the implications of deflation not inflation; and places greater emphasis on exposures to corporates rather than households. It also includes an unrelated but important stress of costs for known misconduct risks.

The stress test results, taken together with banks’ capital plans, indicate that the UK banking system would have the capacity to continue to lend to the real economy even under such a severe scenario.

They testify to the value of the reforms that have rebuilt capital and confidence in the UK banking system.[1]

The key point to take is that this [UK banking] system has built capital steadily since the crisis. It's within sight of [its] resting point, of what the judgement of the FPC is, how much capital the system needs. And that resting point - we're on a transition path to 2019, and we would really like to underscore the point that a lot has been done, this is a resilient system, you see it through the stress tests.[2]

The message was that there would be no more major increases in capital requirements and we were now at the end of the post-financial crisis era.

Well, it’s a great story Mark, but it just ain’t so.

Let’s go back to the stress scenario. This single scenario envisages a hypothetical global downturn emanating from China: economic growth there falls from just under 7.5% to 1.7%, and trigger a Chinese/Hong Kong house price crash. Financial markets freeze up, some trading counterparties fail, emerging currencies slide against the dollar, the UK and the Eurozone go into recession and the oil price tumbles. Plus various other bits and pieces including the misconduct issues that Governor Carney mentioned in his remarks at the press conference.

But how severely would this scenario impact the UK?

The answer is surprising.

Consider the main variables hitting the UK banking system as the scenario takes its course:

  • Bank Rate is projected to fall from 0.5% at the end of 2014 to 0% in 2015Q3 and then stay there. CPI inflation is projected to fall from 0.1% at the end of 2014 to bottom out at -0.9% in 2015Q1 and then recover to 0.5% by end-2019.
  • Annualised real GDP growth rate falls from 0.6% at the end of 2014 to bottom out at -1% in 205Q4 and recover to 0.9% by end-2019.
  • Unemployment falls from 5.7% at the end of 2014 to peak at 9.2% in mid-2017 and then fall back to 7.2% by end-2019. UK residential and commercial property prices fall by 20% and 35% respectively.
  • Bank lending expands by 9%: this looks odd for an adverse scenario, especially given the long contraction in bank lending post-2007.
  • Impairments on lending to UK businesses remain modest.
  • Bank pre-tax losses of £37 billion: this compares to UK bank losses of at least £98.4 billion over 2007-2010, and which wiped out at least 185% of banks’ capital.[3]
  • The Vix financial market volatility index – often called the ‘fear index’ – is projected to rise from just over 20% at the end of 2014 to peak at 46% in 2015 before falling back. This compares to its 2008 peak of just short of 70%.[4] Annualised world GDP growth dips to -0.7% before recovering, compared to its fall to -2% in the Global Financial Crisis.

The rise in the unemployment rate and the falls in UK property prices are on the moderately severely side but are still lower than what we have witnessed in other countries in the EU since the onset of the Global Financial Crisis. For their part, the other projections in the Bank’s adverse scenario range from mildly adverse to highly optimistic. Not exactly doomsday.

The banks’ projected reaction to this scenario is also on the mild side. The capital ratio that the Bank prefers to cite when discussing the stress tests, CET1 capital divided by Risk-Weighted Assets, falls on average by 3.6 percentage points from 11.2% at end-2014 to 7.6% by end-2016; its secondary stress test capital ratio, roughly speaking, the ratio of capital to total assets, falls on average from 4.4% to 3.5% over the same period; and the CET1 capital measure falls by £55.5 billion from £298.1 billion to £242.6 billion.

In short, the Bank’s stress scenario is not particularly stressful.

But if this is so, then how do we know that the UK banking system is strong enough to withstand a severe stress test?

We don’t.

The Bank’s confidence that the banking system is sufficiently “capitalised to support the real economy in a global stress scenario which adversely impacts the United Kingdom” may be a touch premature.

The banking system might be able to withstand a mildly adverse scenario, but we cannot extrapolate from any such conclusion to infer with any confidence that the banking system can withstand a more adverse scenario.

If the stress tests can’t be relied upon, let’s turn to a different test that we can rely upon – the inter-ocular trauma test more popularly known as a reality check: just look at the data and see what they say

Well, there is the good news and the bad news.

The good news is that by the capital-adequacy measure that the Bank cites most - the ratio of Tier 1 capital to RWAs – the banks are getting stronger. By end-September 2015, the average value of this ratio across the UK banking system had risen to 13%.[5] An alternative capital ratio, the ratio of Common Equity Tier 1 capital to RWAs, had risen to 12% by the same date.[6] Back in 2007, the average ratio of Tier 1 capital to RWAs across the big UK banks was little more than 6%.[7] By this comparison, the Bank of England is entitled to claim that the UK banking system has undergone a major recapitalization.

Moreover, given its view that the optimal Tier 1/RWA ratio is about 13.5% - and about 11% if certain risk measurement improvements are made - then the Bank could also rightly say that the job of recapitalizing the banking system is nearly done: only another 50 basis points to go.

But before getting the champagne out, we should pause to note that there are several rather big ‘ifs’ in there.

One relates to the Bank’s confidence that the optimal Tier 1/RWA ratio is about 11% post the risk measurement improvements they have called for. A few years ago the experts – the Basel Committee (including Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney) and the Vickers Committee – were telling us that the optimal ratio was 18%. Now the experts – including Bank of England Governor Mark Carney – are telling us that the optimal ratio has gone all the way down to 11%. So one wonders whether they were right then or right now. Personally, I don’t believe they were right then or right now: I don’t believe any of it, and this is in large part because I have no confidence whatever in the RWA measure on which these recommendations are based.

Why the Bank relies on this measure I don’t know: a brilliant analysis by its own (now) chief economist in 2013 elegantly destroyed whatever credibility the RWA measure might once have had. Comparing the average leverage and average RWAs of the big global banks in the run-up to the crisis, Andy Haldane sardonically observed that as the crisis approached,“ the risk traffic lights were flashing bright red for leverage [whilst] for risk weights they were signaling ever deeper green.” Thus, RWA really means Really Weird Assets and the inescapable implication is that RWA-based capital ratios should not be touched with a barge pole.

So the bad news is that the capital ratios based on an RWA denominator tell us nothing useful about the banks’ real capital strength – except, perhaps, to signal that a higher ratio of capital to RWAs might perversely indicate a weaker bank.

A basic principle of good scientific methodology is that measures of the things we measure should actually measure the things that we think they measure.

We therefore need to reject RWA-based measures as nonsense and go back to old-fashioned ratios of true capital to un-risk-weighted assets. According to data from the Bank itself:

  • The UK banks’ average leverage ratio (as judged by the ratio of equity to total assets) in 2007 was about 4.3%.[8]
  • By end-September 2015, the average leverage ratio was 4.6% if we go by the ratio of Tier 1 capital to leverage exposure, and 4.2% if we go by the more reliable ratio of CET1 capital to leverage exposure.[9]

To pull all this together, the Bank’s stress tests have no real stress in them and the recapitalisation of the UK banking system didn’t happen.

The core metrics indicate that UK banks may be just as weak now as they were in 2007 – and maybe more so.

In the following postings, I will further explore the Bank’s stress tests and suggest additional reasons why the Bank’s confidence in them might be premature.

Sneak preview: even if we accept every single feature of the Bank’s stress tests – and we shouldn’t – the banking system only just passes the tests. Adversely stress the slightest feature and one or more or all of the banks fail the test. This has got to make you wonder…


[1] Financial Stability Report Press Conference, 1st December 2015, ”Opening remarks by the Governor,” p. 1

[2]  Bank of England Financial Stability Report Q&A, 1st December 2015, p. 11.

[3] Local Authority Pension Fund Forum, “UK and Irish banks capital losses – post mortem,” September 2011, p. 3.

[4] Accessed December 20 2015.

[5]  Bank of England, “Financial Stability Report,” December 2015, Issue No. 38, p. 9.

[6]  Bank of England, “Financial Stability Report,” December 2015, Issue No. 38, chart B.1.

[7]  Bank of England, “Financial Stability Report,” December 2015, Issue No. 38, chart B.1.

[8] Bank of England Financial Stability Report June 2010, p. 44, chart 4.1. This chart shows that in 2007 banks’ average ratios of assets to equity was about 23. This makes for a leverage of 1/23 or approximately 4.3%.

[9] Data assembled from Annex 1 of the Bank of England’s 2015 stress test report.

The EU's method of dealing with climate change always was insane


There have always been multiple layers of insanity to the way that the European Union and various layers of bureaucracy have tried to deal with the problem of climate change. Assuming, for the sake of argument, that there is a problem that needs solving. It is still true that the actual system of attempting to deal with it is, well, doolally. As this little example from Drax shows:

Drax's hopes of securing lucrative subsidies for its biomass conservion have suffered a setback after the European Commission launched a full state aid investigation over concerns the payments may be too generous. The Yorkshire-based power plant is in the process of switching from burning coal to biomass, and was awarded a £1.7bn Government subsidy contract in April 2014 for the third of its six units - subject to state aid approval. The contract would see Drax paid a fixed price of £105 for every megawatt-hour (MWh) of biomass-fired power the unit generated until 2027 – well over double the current market price. Drax shares fell 5pc on Tuesday after the European Commission said it was concerned that the rate of return from the subsidies "could be higher than the parties estimate and could lead to overcompensation".

The first level of nonsense is that they've decided to pick and choose between different technologies. Some, those favoured, will gain subsidy. And that subsidy will be different for each technology. No, bureaucracies are not good at choosing between technologies. Further, if there is to be subsidy it should be one flat rate subsidy for all technologies. Those that can make that standard succeed: those that cannot do not. Without people being able to lobby for just a little bit more subsidy if they can catch the ear of the bureaucracy (as the absurd Swansea Barrage has).

The second level of loopiness is in the actual technologies that have been chosen. Outside those who consume or grant subsidies there's no one at all who thinks that shipping 2.4 million tonnes of low energy wood pellets across the Atlantic is going to do anything at all to reduce either emissions or climate change.

The third level of madness is that having designed such a system the bureaucracy is taking archaeological ages to manage to make any decisions. Market economies, heck, successful economies, do not allow 20 months for the papershufflers to even start hemming and hawing about what is going on. That it's an entirely ridiculous project is true: but that there's simple paperwork delays of this length will strangle any and every activity in the economy. It's better, by far, for there to be the wrong decision, the wrong investment or activity even, than the entire economy grind to a halt while waiting for permission.

This is why we here at the ASI have always been in favour of a carbon tax. We know very well that, whatever the reality of climate change, some fool somewhere is going to do something. So, let's make sure that what is done is minimally damaging and might even have some useful side effects. If emissions have externalities then tax the emissions and let the market sort out the rest of it.

As, actually, Lord Stern recommended. It's just that having taken the argument that something must be done from that Stern Review everyone has rushed off to do exactly the thing that the Stern Review said don't do. Do not use this as an excuse to plan the economy. Rather, use this as a reason to adjust market prices and then use that most efficient human discovery, that market, to make all subsequent changes.

Whether or not something must be done is an entirely different argument from what should be done if something must be. We should not, for the sake of our own future wealth, and that of our children, confuse the two. Yet we've ended up doing what the argument that says something must be done proves should not be what we're doing.

This is simply insane.

Can National Health Sense Be Dawning?


A trio of former health ministers has called, on 6th January, for a cross-party commission to be set up to review the future of the NHS and social care in England. An epiphany indeed. Alan Milburn (Labour), Stephen Dorrell (Conservative), and Norman Lamb (Lib Dem) should be congratulated.  The NHS has never been a strong card for the Tories and they should be particularly delighted to take this opportunity to remove the rod from their back. This call could be the first step to taking politics out of the NHS and should be welcomed.  Once again we have the prospect of a junior doctor strike brought about by ministerial meddling.  Yes the BMA is intransigent but the lesson of history is that there are no bad soldiers, only bad generals.  Politicians, who know nothing about management, should get out of trying to micro-manage the biggest employer in Europe.

This has nothing to do with privatization: as discussed before, the public corporation should resource internally its core functions and whatever it can do efficiently and economically and outsource the rest.  It should not run blast furnaces to make steel for its own surgical instruments.

Three more strategic changes need to be made and the cross-party review should consider which should take priority: the links with social care, removing bureaucracy and dividing the NHS into right-sized units.  Taking the last first, it is absurd that the NHS Scotland and NHS Wales should both be considered “right-sized” in terms of taxpayer value when one is 60% larger than the other.  Either one is too big or the other is too small.  And Northern Ireland?

And it is still more absurd that NHS England, covering a population 10 times the size of Scotland’s as to be a uniform, standardized organization providing the same uniform standardized service everywhere.  In this logic, Truro is identical with Newcastle but Newcastle is totally different from Edinburgh.

The NHS is too big and needs to be divided into managerially feasible units achieving their own goals in their own ways.

Much of the NHS bureaucracy has been created over the last 70 years in response to ministerial meddling.  Remove the latter and we could have the first ever purge of the time wasters.  A neighbour provided a neat vignette the other day.  “Have you ever wondered,” he said “why it is impossible to find a parking space in the King’s Lynn hospital car park during the week but the car park is empty at weekends?  The number of patients and their visitors are much the same and medical staff not that much reduced.  The bureaucrats have all gone home.”  We should send most of them home permanently.

Finally, as also discussed before, the NHS should focus on “cure” and with “care” managed separately.  They have quite different objectives and need different skills albeit the transition between the two should be seamless.  Keeping those who should be in care in far more expensive NHS hospital beds is bad for everyone.  We need a National Cure Service working closely with a National Care Service.

Well, that didn’t take long did it?  Let’s hope the cross-party review can report and its recommendations implemented before this bright new year concludes.

It's all about power


Many people seek to impose their will upon others. They want others to live as they think they should live, rather than as they might choose to. Many religious wars of past and present have been fought to make others follow beliefs and practices they do not share. Wars of conquest have been fought to bring other peoples under the will and power of the conquerors. It's all about power. Strip away the ideology and verbiage used to justify totalitarian regimes, and look at the practice. It's about forcing everyone to succumb to the orders of the ruling elite, and to lead the lifestyle they insist upon. It is about preventing others from being free agents making their own decisions, and forcing them to surrender to the decisions of those in power. The sanction is force, not persuasion. It can be the physical violence of imprisonment, torture and death, or the forcible seizure of property and the imposition of lifestyle conformity through a monopoly of legal power.

Dictatorships use thugs to beat up, terrorize and murder their opponents. From Russian Cheka to Nazi Brownshirts and Iranian Revolutionary Guards, they bully people into following the leaders' will, and execute or imprison those who do not comply. It's not about persuading and convincing people, it's about forcing them into submission. Even in a modern democracy when street thugs abuse and intimidate opponents, they are bullying, not arguing.

Bolshevism, Trotskyism, and their modern day successors are not about giving power to the people. They are about taking power from the people, making them live out someone else's vision of how they ought to live rather than their own. Unequal people interact to produce an unequal society; since this contradicts the vision of those who favour equality, coercion is necessary to produce the preferred outcome instead. It's all about power, the power to make other people conform to the vision of the enlightened elite.

Censorship of contrary views is the exercise of power, whether done in parliaments or universities. It is not about making society or campuses "safe spaces," but about preventing people from expressing views that others disagree with. It's all about power, the power to silence opponents.

Democracy makes it difficult for minorities to impose their will, but easier for majorities to do so, especially if they claim to represent the moral voice of society. The answer, and it is only a partial answer, is for there to be constitutions and institutions that restrain those who would impose their vision upon us. "We tolerate monomaniacs," said Michael Oakeshott, "it is our habit to do so; but why should we be ruled by them?"

People have falsely supposed that morality checks power. But only power checks power. Power can be restrained by constitutions and institutions only if they are backed up by power to impose sanctions on those who transgress their limits.

It is only a partial solution because the real answer requires a widespread recognition that the price of not having another person's vision imposed upon you is that you do not attempt to impose yours upon them. Your right to withstand power is reinforced if you don't yourself attempt to impose it. It's all about liberty, yours and theirs.

The government finally decides to do something about housebuilding


Not that the government has decided to do the right thing about housebuilding of course, that would be far too much to hope for. But they are doing something:

Ministers want to break the stranglehold on the country’s building industry, with eight developers responsible for more than half of the homes built every year. Under the plan, the Government will arrange for planning permission to be granted at five areas in England and then offer the sites to developers. The sites, which comprise 13,000 homes, will be offered in parcels of 500 homes each to smaller house builders.

We do not believe the idea that the housebuilders are trying to maximise profits by dribbling housing out onto the market at all. We think they're being entirely rational in keeping a stock of perhaps 6 years of housing plots simply because it takes 6 years to move currently unplanned land along to something that has been built upon. Just as we rather expect a coffee shop that gets weekly deliveries of beans to hold a week's stock of beans, one enjoying daily deliveries to keep only a day or so's stock. To us therefore the answer has always been blow up the planning system so as to allow more building.

But let's say that you do believe the landbanking story (although your believing it will put you in company with Polly Toynbee, not somewhere an economic rationalist ever wants to be intellectually). So, if you think there's a cartel monstrously and outrageously hoarding building sites, your response would be to create more building sites of course. Which is what is being done. But instead of creating enough for 10% or so of current new build you would instead, well, you'd blow up the planning system and make absolutely sure that there were many potential building sites, wouldn't you?

You would so expand supply that there could be absolutely no chance of cartel, monopolistic or oligopolistic behaviour. We would return to the planning system of the 1930s. Which was, actually, the last time the private building industry produced the sort of volume of new build we think the country needs and or desires. And which also, as matter of simple historical fact, dragged the country up out of those Depression doldrums.

Hmm, more housing, cheaper housing, an economic boom from the building of it all and we get to kill off a pernicious bureaucracy to boot. All sounds most wonderful: and all we have to do to achieve it is carry out that most enjoyable task of killing off that pernicious bureaucracy. As we've said around here before often enough, repeal the Town and Country Planning Act and she'll be right. And as we also like to emphasise around here, the solution to troubles that government is trying to deal with is often to stop government doing the damn fool things it is already doing, nothing else.

And to complete the trifecta, as we also like to note, it's surprising how often stopping government from doing something is the correct solution to our woes.