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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

Swedish privatization

Written by Dr Eamonn Butler | Tuesday 04 December 2007

In Stockholm, where I have been doing events at Timbro, the excellent local liberal think-tank, lunch with a selection of professors and politicians – including current MPs and former party leaders – was interesting.

In particular, everyone was very interested in the UK experience of privatization. The government here are trying to sell a few companies, but it's proving hard work. I think they are trying to sell the idea on the grounds of efficiency - but that's not something the pubic really relates to. And it's hard to measure even if you're successful: UK companies changed so much after privatization that you're really comparing chalk with cheese when you try to measure their performance. They become just different kinds of company.

Also, the government has a list of companies it wants to privatize. I see the merit of having a programme well thought out, but again, I'm not sure of the wisdom of this. It enables doubters – who invariably include the management an workforce of all the companies on your list – to combine together into a big opposition movement. Better to take on difficult challenges like privatizaiton one at a time.

But in reality there's no need for governments to make such mistakes in privatization, and I left Timbro with lots of links to our website where we have discussed these issues over many years.

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Blog Review 435

Written by Netsmith | Monday 03 December 2007

A debate in Australia over whether the State should be running schools at all. First point , would we invent public schools if we didn't already have them and secondly, don't public schools indoctrinate pupils?

The first answer is that yes, but what's wrong with a little indoctrination when it's the State doing it ? Netsmith can't help feeling that this needs a touch more logical rigour applied to it.

On the subject of schooling, it appears that in Scotland the lesson plans are actually a secret. It is not possible for a parent to find out what their own children are being taught

A pointer to how ludicrously large the US economy actually is

Amusingly, even the Committee on Standards in Public Life (such standards would, to paraphrase Gandhi, be a nice idea) is against the idea of State funding of political parties .

Iain Dale has the details of what looks like an excellent idea to spread a little Christmas cheer

And finally , don't anger the train spotters, you won't like them when they're angry. 

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Government targets are a healthcare cancer

Written by Tom Clougherty | Monday 03 December 2007

According to Saturday's Times, the government's new 'five-year plan' for the future of NHS cancer services (due to be released today) admits for the first time that the UK has poor survival rates compared with Western Europe, the US and Canada. Long waiting lists for radiotherapy and chemotherapy, as well as rationing which means too few sessions of treatment are given, are at the heart of the problem.

Money isn't the issue here. Since 2000 the government has tripled spending on cancer, and the UK no longer lags behind Europe or North America on this front. The problem is structural. As Karol Sikova, the former head of the cancer programme at the World Health Organisation, told The Times, most of the extra money lavished on the health service has gone towards the salaries of people who don’t work with patients:

We have funded mangers to deal with targets while in France, Germany and Italy that bureaucracy just does not exist.

Unfortunately, the government’s approach to improving cancer services does not appear to have taken this on board - doctors are simply being ordered to increase radiotherapy doses and, no doubt, there will be new targets for waiting times, and more mangers to make sure the targets are met.

The government's addiction to targets is understandable, and, I think, based in a genuine desire to improve customer service. In the absence of competition and market forces to drive up standards, targets and regulation are the obvious option. Trouble is, they just don't work and have significant unintended consequences.

The only way to really improve the National Health Service (assuming its continued existence) is to create the freest and most extensive internal market possible. That probably means breaking the NHS up into smaller, more localized commissioning units which would fund patients (at a set treatment price) to go to the doctor or hospital of their choice (whether state or private), as well as the introduction of a capped co-payments scheme for treatment (like those that exist elsewhere in Europe).

Sadly, the government is not still not prepared to think that radically.

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Joke of the Day

Written by Jokesmith | Monday 03 December 2007

Why was the cannibal was expelled from school?

He was buttering up his teacher.

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The Lifeboat Test

Written by Tim Worstall | Monday 03 December 2007

I'd like to propose a little test that we can use to judge the merit of any proposal for the spending of taxes, something I'm calling "The Lifeboat Test". As we all know there are some things that have to be done both collectively and with the powers of compulsion (at least in paying for them) that the State has available. There's also another set of things which do indeed need to be done collectively, but there is no real reason why we need the compulsion of taxation to pay for them. For as PJ O'Rourke pointed out, taxation is in the end extracted by the business end of a gun (don't pay it and they send you to jail: escape and they'll try to shoot you).

I'm using lifeboats as my test for they are indeed something that must be collectively provided but as is also apparent (this might puzzle some non-Brits: The Royal National Lifeboat Institution runs all lifeboats in the UK and it is entirely a private charitable institution. Other than the usual charitable tax concessions it receives no subsidy from taxes at all) that they can be provided both excellently and voluntarily. What I propose is that if something is more important than the lifeboats, we can consider whether tax money (that extracted by the gun, remember) might be used to pay for it. If it's less important then we can reject the idea of funding from taxation out of hand.

Gordon Brown is apparently considering the funding of political parties from taxation (that which is extracted at the barrel of that gun, remember):  

Mr Brown also sent a clear signal that he was prepared to consider a big increase in state funding for political parties.

So let us now apply our new test. The suggestion is that, by force, money should be removed from our pockets to pay for politicians to apply for their own jobs. Is paying for politicians to posture and preen in front of us more important than the lifeboats? No? I think not as well.

Good, State funding of political parties fails the lifeboat test and can therefore safely be rejected out of hand.

To enliven a Monday morning, what State spending (paid for by the taxes the government already forcibly removes from us at gunpoint) also fails the lifeboat test? 

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Visiting Timbro

Written by Dr Eamonn Butler | Monday 03 December 2007

I'm in Sweden giving a couple of talks at Timbro, the free-market think-tank here. It's the sort of place I visit very enviously. They have a couple of dozen staff, housed in modern, well-kept offices right in central Stockholm. When I arrived they were cleaning up from a book launch – two massive refrigerators groan with drink, and there's a full kitchen for coffee-making, lunch preparation and so on. Plus a big library, sitting around areas, you name it.

A number of related organizations have rooms on the same floor, like Neo, a political/literary magazine like a sound version of Prospect or a glossy version of The Spectator. And there's a group of former lefties who seem to be running a very robust campaign to remind people what communism was really like behind the iron curtain (and is like now in other parts of the world). And Timbro takes in students on an annual seminar programme, so the place has a young feel to it.

My evening seminar was a talk on Adam Smith to students, so Timbro was handing out copies of my monograph Adam Smith - A Primer. ('Monograph' makes it sound boring, but in fact it's a right rivetting read: all you need to know about Adam Smith in 60 pages.) Timbro has also just translated P J O'Rourke's new book On The Wealth of Nations into Swedish, which is another thing they have to be congratulated on. I don't know how they translated the jokes, and I see they sensibly left some of the puns in English, but I'm glad to see this excellent book made available to Swedish speakers.

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Join us tomorrow at the Christmas TNG

Written by Administrator | Monday 03 December 2007

tng_12.07.jpg

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Blog Review 434

Written by Netsmith | Sunday 02 December 2007

As noted, there's a very simple solution to the angst ridden political question of who may marry whom. Simply take the question out of politics and allow any adults who wish to to marry.

Finally, a politician Netsmith likes. Pity he's in Poland though. 

Some more good news on solar power . Yes, prices really are cascading down. 

Worth stepping back occasionally and getting a sense of proportion . The entire economic output of Saudi Arabia is about the same as that of Dallas, Texas. 

Possibly the best thing yet written on Sudan and the teddy bear

Watching the news, as we go over to Our Correspondent in Khartoum, it's difficult to maintain the normal level of seriousness that one usually brings to these situations. You're waiting for someone to break the spell, to shout out, oh for fuck's sake!...this is teddy bears we're talking about! We're dealing with idiots! But the standard requirement that we must treat these subjects with due solemnity and respect means that, as yet another clown explains why a punishment of 15 days in jail is nowhere near harsh enough for such a sin, the interviewer nods understandingly, for all the world as though it was a case of one rational adult talking to another, when they should be spluttering with incredulity - "and this is for...for naming a teddy bear? Are you completely out of your mind?"

So why is it that, just as you've managed to understand one social networking site, everyone moves off to the next one? Because , as all too few people remember, there are also diseconomies of scale. 

And finally , dread the coming of Comment Imperialism. 

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A sensible suggestion at last!

Written by Tim Worstall | Sunday 02 December 2007

It's unfortunately rare but it does occasionally happen. Someone makes a sensible suggestion for a government policy (err, writing for a think tank perhaps that should be sometimes people not working for this think tank also make sensible suggestions...).

Cocaine addicts should be prescribed the drug by chemists and nurses to help them overcome the habit, the Government’s drug adviser said yesterday.

If we're not going to be able to make people see sense on the liberty front (your body, ruin it as you wish) can we at least have policies which reduce the harm to the rest of society, of which this is obviously one. 

The ACMD also backed a change allowing nurses and chemists to prescribe diamorphine, cocaine or dipipanone to addicts under licence from the Home Office, in a bid to manage their problem. Ministers will now consider the proposal. But David Davis, the shadow home secretary, said: “If Gordon Brown signs up to this, it would show yet again that Labour merely seek to manage drug addiction rather than end it."

So yes, the idea is that this will be, for addicts at least, legalisation of a sort and thus a way to end some of the worst effects, impurities, disease, overdoses and the lethality of the scramble for profit in the illegal trade (btw, I looked it up: diamorphine for an addict would cost about £20 a day. Vastly cheaper for us as a whole than the current idiocy of the War on Drugs.).

My apologies to David Davis on this one (he is rumoured, as an ex SAS Territorial, to be able to kill me with a plastic spoon) but you're at the wrong end of the argument here. We've shown over the past few decades that we cannot end drug addiction (even if we were to destroy every vestige of liberty, as Milton Friedman pointed out) so all that is left to us is the possibility of managing it. We can do that sensibly, by making clean and pure drugs available to those who would take impure and grossly expensive ones if those were their only option, or we can carry on with the current policies which a) don't work and b) kill people.

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Joke of the Day

Written by Jokesmith | Sunday 02 December 2007

The local priest came across Paddy who had stumbled out of the town tavern.

"Paddy," he said, " I'm afraid I'll not be seeing you in Heaven one day."

"Really, Father?" slurred Paddy. "What have you done?"

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