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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

Blog Review 543

Written by Netsmith | Friday 21 March 2008

Were the Russian privatisations of the 1990s as bad as some say? Perhaps not, given that they're now well functioning and profitable companies.

Most interesting to see how policy is actually made at the EU level. Don't expect to even be allowed to stay in the meeting if you're not adhering to the party line. 

Sadly, policy at the national level doesn't seem to be much better organised. 

A most amusing story about a vociferous Darwinist attempting to view a creationist film. 

The latest internet campaign seems to be gathering strength. 

Well, at least they're looking for the answer, even if we were hoping they already knew it. 

And finally, perhaps not quite the right day, but new verses of a religious manner come to light. 

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Time for a change

Written by Tom Bowman | Friday 21 March 2008

educationpic1.jpgAccording to a report in the Times, "soaring numbers of parents are lying about where they live to get their children into leading schools." It's hardly surprising. Almost twenty percent of children are denied a place at their first choice of school. In some parts of London, that figure rises to fifty percent. Few things will be as important to a parent as getting their child into the right school, so it's little wonder they are prepared to lie. The tragedy is that we have a system which forces them to do it.

Britain has a severe shortage of good school places, which means children frequently have no option but to be assigned to a school by their Local Education Authority (LEA), even if its quality is low.

There are two reasons for this shortage. The first is the 'surplus-places policy' which prevents popular schools from expanding if there are unfilled places in another local school. That's like the government preventing a good restaurant from laying more tables, because the bad restaurant next door has spare places. The second reason is that it is very difficult for people outside the public sector to establish new schools to meet demand.

Sweden does not have these problems. There, parents can send their children to any school of their choice (whether state or private) and these schools are eligible for government funding on a per-pupil basis. Good schools expand, poor schools close and, crucially, new schools are easy to establish. They just have to meet a few basic requirements: they must not charge additional fees, and must accept pupils on a first-come-first-served basis.  The latter requirement rarely has to be invoked, however, since most children now find places in their first choice school.

The UK school system is plainly in need of a radical overhaul. See our report Open Access for UK Schools for more.

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Common Error No. 67

Written by Dr Madsen Pirie | Friday 21 March 2008

67. "Some things, such as health, should not be provided for gain."

Why not? If gain will motivate people to supply necessary goods and services, then it can be a useful way of ensuring supply. All goods and services cost something, and the prospect of gain is a good way of encouraging people to produce them. Price, as an indicator, tells them where to direct their activities. Where prices are high, people produce because profits can be made; and in producing, they alleviate the shortage which caused those high prices.

A genuine market in such things as health would put resources where they were needed. Enough people would go into health care to meet the demand for it. It would settle at a level that people were freely prepared to pay for. For decades Britain has spent less per head through its NHS than have its partners with larger private health sectors. People spend more themselves than they will do through taxation.

This is not because the British NHS gives better value. On the contrary, it achieves poorer results overall. Britain has less scanners per 1,000 of population, less renal dialysis units, less kidney transplants, and less of almost every objective measure. It also has higher early death rates on many major illnesses.

Food might be thought even more important, but imagine what the food situation might be if most people were dependent on government supplied food, financed out of taxation, run by the bureaucracy, and available only from approved supply outlets. Even though food is important, the private market is much more capable of guaranteeing us the appropriate supply than would a state-planned system.

If we want a society in which even poor people have adequate healthcare, there is a better way than mass state provision. It is to ensure that quality healthcare is widely available, and that resources are provided to give poorer people access to it.

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Insuring your nose

Written by Tom Clougherty | Friday 21 March 2008

Wednesday's Times carried the news that Ilja Gort, a Dutch wine producer, had managed to insure his nose and sense of smell for £4 million with Lloyd's of London. The article revealed that Ken Dodd's teeth are insured for the same amount, while Bruce Springsteen's voice is valued at £3.5 million, and Heidi Klum's legs go for the bargain price of £1.15 million.

The serious point here is that there are very few risks that we cannot insure ourselves against, which rather undermines the argument that only the state (and not the market) can provide 'welfare'. In reality we could take out health insurance, long-term care and incapacity insurance, unemployment insurance, and so on. We could save into private pension accounts, and we could put money aside to cover minor healthcare expenses. And for majority of us, doing this would be less costly than the taxes we currently pay to fund the state alternatives. Needless to say, with government removed from the equation, we would get a better return on our investment too.

Of course, that isn't to say that there would be no role at all for the state in such an ideal, free-market system. Most of us would surely be happy to see government tax revenues fund the truly disadvantaged so that they too could take advantage of this 'welfare market'. But that's a radically different vision of government from the one that prevails at the moment.

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Saving the health of the nation

Written by Tom Clougherty | Friday 21 March 2008

This week I attended the launch of Saving the Health of the Nation, an excellent short film from the Stockholm Network which looks at the failings of the National Health Service and introduces the idea of Health Savings Accounts as the most promising route for reform. The film features contributions from Stephen Pollard, president of the CNE, James Bartholomew, author of The Welfare State We're In and an ASI welfare fellow, as well as Dr Eamonn Butler, our own director.  

You can see the film online by going to the Stockholm Network video player, then selecting documentaries and clicking on 'Saving the Health of the Nation'.  

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Blog Review 542

Written by Netsmith | Thursday 20 March 2008

The excellent and surprising value of mobile telephones on the lives of the poor.

A very different take on the current financial markets turmoil. 

Should we be concerned about falling asset prices? Well, if we're interested in redistribution of assets, possibly not. 

An invaluable (if not exactly new) guide to hedge funds. 

Churchill the first man to walk on the moon according to British schoolchildren? This statistic explained. 

Advocacy groups can make life difficult: suing a school board for allowing pupils to escape failing schools and when that succeeds, sue them again for n9ot allowing pupils to escape failing schools.... 

And finally, bad song lyrics coming out of trading rooms. Well, it's not as if they've got anything else to do at present, is it? 

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A strong and ineffective touch

Written by Philip Salter | Thursday 20 March 2008

csr.jpgDespite encouraging Conservative policy positions on cutting regulation, its stance on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is rather less impressive.

Speaking at the launch of the Conservative Report, A Light But Effective Touch, David Cameron claimed: "We will only get tax and regulation down... if business plays its role in being responsible... I want low taxes and a low regulation economy, but we won't get that unless we reduce the demands on the state." However, the answer is not to transfer responsibility from the state to business, but from the state to individuals.

The proposal in A Light But Effective Touch is for the introduction of Responsibility Deals: "a mechanism that enables companies to collaborate more effectively with other groups in society to address issues of common concern in a coherent and focussed way." Although the report claims that much regulation is already in place, it admits that new regulation will be necessary.

In his foreword, David Cameron states that: "The Conservative Party has always been the party of business: we instinctively understand and appreciate the vital role that businesses play in creating the jobs, wealth and opportunity on which all else depends" and writes of a "post-bureaucratic age in which the state does less, but does it better." Yet when it comes to business regulation, "less" and "better" are more or less the same thing. The report claims to favour the free-market, but also demands that it be "shaped to provide not just products and services, but social and environmental goods as well." Regulation by another name.

Clearly this is a response to a societal trend. But if businesses want to push in this direction it should be an entirely voluntary matter, one that the government takes no part in. In reality much social and environmental policy that goes under the name of CSR does little to help society or the environment. However, if businesses see it as expedient to engage in projects to increase prices, attract more customers and the best workers, then it is entirely their "business". Ultimately, they don’t owe responsibility to society or government, but to their shareholders.

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Common Error No. 66

Written by Dr Madsen Pirie | Thursday 20 March 2008

66. "Schools should provide our children a risk-free environment."

There is no such thing as a risk-free environment. There are degrees of risk and there are ways of managing risk. Growing up is not a risk-free zone. Children learn by making mistakes. They hurt themselves and each other at play. Each day has its coterie of bumps and bruises and grazes. On more serious occasions bones are broken.

Schools cannot be risk-free. They have hard surfaces and corners, desks and chairs. They feature sports and games. Children will injure themselves. There is a balance to be struck between recklessly exposing children to potential dangers and maintaining such tight controls that they have no independence or learning experience. Schools which ban marbles because people might slip on them or swallow them, or which ban conkers because a child might get struck by one, are in effect banning part of childhood.

The attempt to be risk-free leads schools to abandon foreign visits such as ski trips, and adventure holidays such as canoeing or camping. Even educational visits can be banned because of the risk of traffic accidents en route. None of this does the children any favours. It denies them learning experiences, and it even denies them the carefree fun and excitement that childhood should involve.

Part of the problem is the litigation culture which assumes that everything that happens is somebody's fault, and that someone has to pay every time any child is injured. Part of it is the health and safety bureaucracy seeking to cover itself. Anything that happens will be laid at its door, so its officials seek to anticipate all eventualities and allow nothing that could come back at them. They try to make schools places where no-one has cause to sue, or to blame health and safety officers for failing to anticipate accidents. In doing so they make schools unfit for children. Schools, like childhood itself, cannot be risk free.

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Sir Arthur C Clarke giving wings to the imagination

Written by Dr Madsen Pirie | Thursday 20 March 2008

arthurcclarke.jpgOf the three greats of post-war science fiction, Heinlein, Clarke and Asimov, I was fortunate to meet two of them – Clarke and Asimov. The passing of Sir Arthur C Clarke, aged 90, marks the final end of that era. These were the writers who stretched the imagination and let it soar. They
were the companions of my boyhood, radiating an optimism that planted itself deep.

The backdrop of their stories was that humans will always face danger and adversity, but can win through by force of character and ingenuity. They radiated the sense that humanity can solve its problems by a combination of creativity and effort; if people apply themselves they can overcome the difficulties that assail them.

Clarke himself was a futurist as much as a writer. He was more realistic than the others, in that the things he described seemed more possible and more immediate. From the geostationary TV satellite to the space elevator, his imagination created the technology of the future, and it spurred people on to help bring it about.

None of the three saw a limited future for humankind, or one where humanity learned to live within its means. On the contrary, they saw our descendents making the universe their canvas and painting an unlimited future upon it. They profoundly affected the psyche of their generation and its successors; we shared their dreams and couldn't wait for the opportunities and choices they would unfold.

Rest in peace, Sir Arthur, and thank you.

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And another thing...

Written by Junksmith | Thursday 20 March 2008

The doctor's taken me off my antidepressants. It hasn't affected me at all, but suddenly my husband's become a complete idiot.

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