Letters from the Lakes


One problem with being on holiday (although, clearly, I'm not really complaining) is that you get much longer to read the papers. And for someone with libertarian leanings, that means that every leisurely breakfast is inevitably accompanied by news of countless new government initiatives – most of which are pointless, intrusive, expensive, or all of the above. Deeply depressing stuff.

If I had a shorter fuse I'd probably end up hurling my cornflakes at the wall. As it is, I just feel compelled to write letters to the editor. Below are a couple of unpublished ones I sent to The Times while wandering around the Lake District.

On the idea of 'minimum space requirements for new housing...

Sir, Rebecca O’Connor reports that new-build British homes are among the smallest in the world. I can well believe it. But couldn’t this have something to do with our planning system, which forces developers to meet minimum density requirements and obliges them to set aside land for loss-making ‘affordable housing’? Whatever the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment might think, we don’t need more regulation to fix this problem. We just need to free developers to build the sorts of homes that people actually want to live in.

And on Mexico's drug war...

Sir, Your leading article of August 11 is misguided. Decades of bitter experience have shown that no amount of military might can win a ‘War on Drugs’. Indeed, all such interventions actually achieve is to raise the market price of these substances, and give the cartels an even greater prize to fight over. The human cost of this failure is enormous. Surely it is time to accept that the only sensible solution is to take narcotics out of the hands of gangsters, and legalize, licence and regulate their production and sale. As well as depriving criminals of a lucrative market, this would have considerable health and social benefits, reducing the incidence of overdoses and poisoning, and making treatment of addicts much easier. Empirical evidence from Portugal, which decriminalized drugs in 2001, bears this out.

In future, I think I'm just going to stick to the sports pages.

Monster in the media


Its not just in music and radio that the BBC distorts the market and creates an unfair playing field. It has the same effect on the UK's online space. Even though the BBC is neither a newspaper nor magazine it competes with its huge online prescence, paid for by the taxpayer via the TV tax.

The Conservatives have been complaining about this Gorilla in the room before:

Back in 2003, John Whittingdale, the Shadow Culture Secretary of the time, said that the website should be closed down. Last year, Phillip Davies, another Conservative, said: "Basically the BBC with its massive licence fee does completely distort the market and makes it virtually impossible for its competitors." But given bbc.co.uk's popularity, closing it down would not be a sensible option for any government.

The trouble is that the BBC is trying to do all things media and its site suffers for it. Its not just the Conservatives that are concerned about this either:

Do we really have to count on the BBC to reveal that "Blue Square Premier side Tamworth have completed the signing of former West Brom youngster Anthony Bruce"? Surely this would be better left to theTamworth Herald's website, or the Blue Square Premier's site, or theNon-League Paper. Tamworth are, after all, a non-league football team which last season had an average gate of only 815.

Harry Underwood has it right. This is why Murdoch is mad enough to start charging for content.

Welfare isn't working


Further evidence of how ineffective our welfare system is at galvanising people into finding jobs can be seen on Channel 4 over the coming weeks. The programme 'Benefit Busters' (Episode 1 from Thursday can be seen here) follows the work of A4E as they attempt to return those on benefits to the workforce. The first episode focused on lone mothers as they undertook a 6 week course titled 'Elevate'. The company receives £100 per week per participant and a bonus should they find a job.

The programme shone a light on the unintended consequences of welfare. One participant openly stated that as benefit recipients, "they got too much for doing nothing" and that benefits, "did not give people the initiative" to act over their own lives. Even though they successfully placed the course's participants one lone mother had to go back on benefits due to the difference between a low wage job and a life on benefits. A politician view the latter problem and promptly recommend that the minimum wage be increased, there would be relatively few of them who would grasp the fact that taxes considerably eat into the earnings of the poor. Those in minimum wage jobs who can be rewarded with more money on benefits need to have their allowance levels raised so they are removed from paying tax.

We are paying for attitudes to work to be repaired following the damage that welfare has imparted upon its recipients. This is why we should be looking at reforming the welfare system (as we have suggested here in Working Welfare). The Channel 4 series continues next week looking at the long-term unemployed and examining their approach to life. From this series it is plain to see that government welfare destroys lives.

The 46 million myth


As my colleagues Steve Bettison and Tom Papworth have pointed out in previous blogs, the frequently quoted figure of 46 million uninsured Americans is something of a myth. To restate some salient facts:

  • 9.7 million of these uninsured are not US citizens.
  • 14 million of them are eligible for the government programmes Medicaid or SCHIP, but not registered. If they ever presented at an 'emergency room' they would be signed up.
  • 17.6 million of those without insurance earn more than $50,000 per year. 10 million of them earn more than $75,000. That means that around 38 percent of the uninsured probably make enough to afford health insurance, but for some reason choose not to buy it.
  • 18.3 million of the uninsured are under 34. Many of those may simply think, mistakenly or otherwise, that they do not need health insurance.

It is also worth pointed out once again that the 46 million figure does not mean that 46 million people are permanently without insurance. Indeed, it is estimated that 10-20 million are only temporarily without coverage. In many instances, that could be because the US tax system creates huge distortions in favour of employment-based health insurance – something which causes problems when people switch jobs.

Clearly, some people will fall into more than one of the categories I've outlined, so you can't you can't just subtract all of those numbers from 46 million to give you a fair figure. However, most people seem to think that 10 million or thereabouts would be an accurate reflection of reality. Back in 2003, a Blue Cross survey found the 8.2 million Americans were actually without health coverage in the long run because they are too poor to afford private insurance but earn too much to get government assistance.

Quite plainly, that is still a problem, but it is not a problem that suggests huge government intervention is needed (which is probably why President Obama prefers the 46 million figure). Interestingly, research from the University of Minnesota has suggested that if the US government simply permitted its citizens to purchase health insurance across state lines, 12 million more people would be able to afford insurance.

Fabricated evidence


Tory MP Damien Green has claimed a ‘small but significant victory for freedom’ as he has successfully campaigned to have his DNA records deleted from the national Police database. Damien Green is correct, this is a ‘small’ victory, but it’s hardly significant – the deletion of one DNA record, for entirely political reasons, is nowhere near far enough.

The Home Office seem very proud of their national DNA database, which isn’t surprising considering they have spent £300million (the equivalent of 10,000 police salaries) of our money developing it. This is probably why senior policemen have been told to continue logging the DNA of innocent people, despite a Human Rights ruling from the European Court. Their website boasts that our database is the largest in the world, holding the records of 5.2% of the population – Maybe this is a reflection of our governments inability to prevent crime, rather than their data collecting prowess.

The most fundamental problem with the DNA database as it stands is that there are around 850,000 records which should be deleted. These belong to people who were never convicted or tried and should therefore be considered innocent. It seems wholly against freedom and liberty for somebody’s DNA to be held on a database, accessible to many public servants just because a policeman considered them the ‘type of person’ that might one day commit a crime.

Not only is this expansion of this database an unnatural infliction upon our freedom, it is also an increasing security risk. This government’s track record of ensuring the security of individuals personal data is pathetic at best. Recent evidence suggests that DNA within blood and saliva can now be fabricated and cloned. This scientific advancement could eventually destroy the utility and reliability of DNA evidence in criminal investigations. Although this could prove to be a step backwards for policing, at least it may signal the end of the dreaded DNA database.

Taking aim


Just over a week ago a man appeared outside a town hall meeting in New Hampshire carrying a sign that read, "It is time to water the tree of liberty". Nothing sinister in that. What was apparently sinister was the fact that he had a loaded firearm in a leg holster. This has sent certain sections of the media into howling, screaming fits of rage. As can be witnessed here when Chris Matthews interviewed Wiliam Kostric the man who was carrying the sign and the firearm. The discussion surrounding this issue was ramped up further when others openly carried arms at a speech by President Obama to veterans.

This debate has exposed how parts of the media view the issue of state's rights and gun laws. Their shrill intonations also expose how they suffer from quick knee jerk reactions and completely misunderstand the issue of gun laws that vary from state to state. They have a conception of an America that is primarily a federal jurisdiction and their own beliefs should be channelled via the President to ensure that the Second Amendment is abolished.

It seems that while the President, state enforcement agencies and those carrying the guns are level headed, the media are running around and wildly screaming. The media is a devilish mistress and one that is continually becoming a hindrance to liberty rather than a promoter of it. It is no longer acting as a brake against government wrongdoing. In America it consistently chooses to ignore the Constitution and suggest a tyrannical course of action. Is it any wonder that they are going out of business and being overtaken by internet based news websites/blogs? They have disconnected from their customers to follow their own politicised agenda, a self-inflicted suicide.

Private vs. public healthcare


People in the operating room pay attention to a rich patient's wishes because they know a rich person can make their lives miserable. He can complain to the hospital president, or call the mayor. But the side effect is that their high quality care becomes habitual, and all patients receive it. When a poor person complains in most environments, no one listens. But in health care, through a common private insurance system, poor people go to the same hospitals and doctors as rich people and thus enjoy the benefit of rich people's power.

The public option severs this link. Dissatisfied with government-run health care, the rich will exit the system. The poor and middle-class will be left to flounder alone inside the public system. Government-run health care will become like the public schools.

 Ronald Dworkin, 'An Anesthesiologist's Take on Health-Care Reform', WSJ

Alcohol, localism and the post-bureaucratic age


Cameron is planning once more to get tough on cheap booze. The Conservative’s have yet to give any clear policies on this matter, but a minimum price for alcohol might well be on the agenda.

Drinking alcohol and getting drunk are of course not problems in and of themselves. However, the antisocial side of its effects are best dealt with through the devolution of political powers to local levels. Sadly localism comes with its own problems, but short of the privatization of all land and the natural creation of contract-based communities, at present there might be no politically realistic alternative. With more representation and varying policies at the local level, people will have a greater say over where and how they live. Alcohol can flow to where it is most readily appreciated. This transfer of power should be done contemporaneously with an end to the national taxation of alcohol and a hefty reduction in centrally dictated regulations.

As for the more serious cases of alcoholism, once again the centralised state and politics does not have the answers. Regulations and prohibitions will not solve the underlying causes of people’s decent into alcoholism. Salvation ultimately comes from the strength of the individual and the support of institutions predating the modern state: family, friends and charity. And despite the Ian Duncan Smith’s constant calls through CSJ for the state to support these institutions, much better would be to leave them alone to flourish as they did prior to the massive extension of the state.

A minimum price for alcohol is hardly in the spirit of the post-bureaucratic age Cameron is so keen to promote. And this is ultimately the problem with this vision; he has has not signed up to the reduction of the central state that is essential if localism is to be anything more than another control upon our lives. A skeleton central government as the defender of our freedoms and local governments as the many and varied expressions of the will of the community could and should be the practical reality of Cameron’s post-bureaucratic age.

This would be no small revolution, and a serious blow to collectivism. Of course there are solid arguments that this does not go far enough, but in reality, it would be more than we can currently expect.