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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

A British Bill of Rights?

Written by Tom Clougherty | Friday 07 December 2007

I received an interesting pamphlet yesterday from the Society of Conservative Lawyers. Entitled A Modern Bill of Rights, it contains extracts from the work of various Conservative lawyers on whether Britain should have a 'Bill of Rights' to replace the Human Rights Act (something David Cameron has pledged to do) and on what form such a bill should take.

The problems with the Human Rights Act (HRA), which incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law, are encapsulated rather well by Jonathan Fisher QC in the pamphlet's preface:

In some instances the recognition of the Convention rights had led to absurd outcomes, whilst in other cases the Convention showed itself to be an inadequate protection against the anti-libertarian tendencies of an authoritarian government.

In a subsequent section, Martin Howe QC elaborates on the Convention's deficiencies. Since it is based on very broadly defined rights and exceptions, he says, with some rights conflicting with others (like privacy with freedom of expression), the Convention requires British courts to make political value judgements. This is anti-democratic (political judgements should be left to elected officials), and also threatens to politicize the judiciary, eroding its neutrality.

They build a good case against the HRA. But how should its replacement, the British Bill of Rights, be drafted? A written codification of our traditional liberties and common law rights (habeas corpus, trial by jury, etc.) would probably be the best option. As Dominic Grieve MP suggests, it should be exempted from the Parliament Acts, so that both Houses' approval would be needed to change it. All legislation would be have to be interpreted in accordance with it. Unavoidably incompatible secondary legislation would automatically be struck down, while primary legislation would be subject to judicial 'declarations of incompatibility' (as is currently the case under the HRA).

Such a system would protect liberty far more effectively than the present arrangement. And because those traditional liberties are so clear, well established and understood in English law, the courts would no longer be forced to make political judgements or encouraged to deliver perverse outcomes. That would be a definite improvement.

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A British Bill of Rights?

Written by Tom Clougherty | Wednesday 16 February 2011

David Cameron has said that the government will establish a commission to consider a ‘British bill of rights’, according to PoliticsHome. On the face of it that sounds like a good thing – after all, we could certainly do with a bit more protection from big, intrusive government, keen as it always is to restrict our liberties and interfere in our lives.

And while the US Bill of Rights may not have protected Americans from the massive expansion of the federal government, it has at least ensured that considerations about liberty are always part of the debate. How nice it would be to having something similar here.

But I’m skeptical of Cameron’s plans on two counts. Firstly, this idea seems to have been brought forward in response to the Supreme Court’s decision that sex offenders should be able to appeal against being kept on the sex offenders’ register for life, with Cameron saying, “I think it's about time we started making sure decisions are made in this parliament rather than in the courts.” So this Bill of Rights may be more a sop to the populist press than a binding, principled commitment to liberty and the rule of law.

On the other hand, there’s a real danger that any Bill of Rights drafted today would be hijacked by the left-wing human rights lobby, which is seemingly incapable of differentiating between genuine rights (which ensure one’s freedom from arbitrary, tyrannical government) and social entitlements (which demand that wealth be transferred from others to oneself). But as Jacob Mchangama pointed out in his excellent briefing paper, The War on Capitalism, there’s a huge difference:

The ideological bias in favour of central planning and against capitalism of much of the human rights movement is a serious impediment to the effective promotion and implementation of human rights. If human rights become part of partisan politics they lose their moral power as generally recognized norms, which serve to restrain governments from arbitrary and authoritarian practices and to shame governments that engage in such actions. That is precisely the function of freedom rights and is what makes these rights capable of judicial and universal application regardless of whether political power is held by social democrats or classical liberals.

Social rights, on the other hand, institutionalize a vision of society based on a specific political agenda, which excludes political pluralism and undermines the rule of law and separation of powers. Moreover, rather than restraining government action, social rights require governments to take prime responsibility for large parts of human life that would otherwise be left to the individual. Ultimately, therefore, social rights endanger the freedom secured by freedom rights. Such a development is unacceptable and represents a huge step backwards from the hard-won liberty enjoyed by many people all over the world. It is therefore high time that advocates of human rights resist their politicization and focus their energy on fighting for the right of everyone to live in freedom. To that end, freedom rights should be embraced and social rights rejected.

To sum up, a British Bill of Rights devoted to the protecting the individual against the state would be a very good thing. But a Bill of Rights designed to make political populism easier, or to constitutionally entrench the welfare state, would be a strike against liberty and very much a step in the wrong direction.

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A broken window theory of the deficit

Written by Dr Eamonn Butler | Monday 12 April 2010

New York has changed astonishingly in recent years. New Yorkers used to go round in despair about the crime, the grafitti, the vandalism, the run-down building, the gum on the filthy streets. People on those streets looked stressed, workers in shops and service industries were surly. All that has changed. The place is far cleaner. Even the subway trains, once totally covered in graffiti, now have next to none. The streets don't have gum and litter on them like London's. The car drivers don't seem so determined to run you down any more. Sure, New Yorkers are still New Yorkers, but they now seem more polite, they shout less, and use far fewer profanities than the folk you see on Britain's city streetst. They're even quite cheery, and the fear of crime is far, far less.

Much of change is attributed to Police Commissioner Bill Bratton, and his 'broken window' approach. He believed that it was no good just despairing about crime and vandalism. You had to start, where you could, right away. Fix the broken windows and clean up the grafitti, so the place doesn't look so run-down, and people might start to care for it a bit better. Introduce neighbourhood policing so that citizens know who's supposed to be protecting them, instead of regarding the police as distant, donut-chomping layabouts who flash past in noisy squad cars.

It's a policy I would recommend for Britain's public finances too. Don't get overwhelmed by the (seemingly overwhelming) size of the deficit and the debt. Fix the broken windows of inefficient, top-down- control public services. Clean up the sticky mess of quangocracy and regulation that gets under the feet of enterprise. Introduce neighbourhood policing of public spending and politicians by posting all government expenditure and all proposed legislation online for the public to scrutinise. Return control of public service to local communities – and better, to the people themselves. Do that, and not only will we get Britain out of its debt malaise more effectively. We might even end up with a better society, too.

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A budget day wish

Written by Dr Eamonn Butler | Wednesday 12 March 2008

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It's Budget day in Britain. We've a new Chancellor, but one under the shadow of his predecessor, Gordon Brown, who is now Prime Minister. That's a pity, because the public finances need repair. Spending and debt have both soared, to levels that the current economic climate makes unsustainable. It's not a problem that you can solve in one day – particularly with the markets so jittery. It needs maybe a five-year programme of reconstruction, at a pace that taxpayers and investors can afford. A new start. But we won't get it.

Ten years ago, UK public spending was lower than the (roughly) 40 percent of GDP that the OECD averages. Now it is much higher, at 45 percent. And as spending has grown, the government has consistently been on the over-optimistic side of prudence. Receipts have been overestimated, and spending underestimated, in almost every Budget.

And what has the extra money bought us? The NHS budget has almost doubled. Education spending is up by around 50 percent, as is policing. But our health, education, and crime figures just aren't keeping pace.

Many economists believe that countries prosper more when their public spending is less. And they certainly prosper more when business is not facing the constant assault of regulation and taxation – and of the uncertainty that goes with both. That's why we need a long-term programme to reduce the burdens, not fickle, headling-grabbing stunts like the assault on non-doms.

We need policies such as an annual phasing down of corporation tax, right down to the Irish level of 12.5 percent – which would create more investment, employment, and wealth. And getting a year-by-year better grip on spending by not replacing civil servants who retire. And a genuine strategy to reduce the cost of regulations – not just talking about it.

In the private sector, many people are now struggling to pay off the debts they accumulated in the good times. In the public sector, the government now faces exactly the same problem. Over the boom, when it should have been building up a cash chest that would help us all through the bust, it has carried on spending and borrowing. Like those private borrowers, it needs to take a long, hard look at its future finances and produce a long-term plan to get itself out of the hole. We need a new beginning. How sad it is that the political realities make that impossible.

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A budget for jobs

Written by Tom Clougherty | Saturday 28 March 2009

According to the FT, Alistair Darling’s aides are "privately calling the April 22 statement a 'Budget for jobs'". Well, nice idea, but I'm sure they'll mess it all up by (a) coming up with some expensive and ludicrously complicated scheme for the private sector, while (b) boosting public sector employment at the unavoidable expense of lost jobs in the productive part of the economy.

Of course, if the Chancellor really wanted to do a 'budget for jobs' he could do so very simply by abolishing the employers' national insurance contribution. It's a perverse tax on jobs even at the best of times, but in a recession when unemployment is skyrocketing, it's just plain stupid.

In theory, of course, the abolition of employers' NIC would be a costly tax cut in terms of lost revenue. But in practice, I doubt the Treasury would lose very much at all. By effectively cutting labour costs by 12.8 percent, getting rid of employers' NIC would save countless jobs, and correspondingly reduce the amount being paid out in benefits. It would also make British companies far more competitive internationally, and in doing so help the economy to recover.

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A Burmese reminder

Written by Dr Eamonn Butler | Wednesday 14 May 2008

The cyclone in Burma reminds us of the misery inflicted by human disasters as much as natural ones. The (all too common) human disaster of totalitarian governments leaves people trapped under regimes which think that they know best. They know best how to plan and run the economy, they know best where people should live and what they should do, they know best how people should conduct their personal, cultural and spiritual lives, and they know best how to meet what nature throws at them.

Except they don't. They don't have a thriving economy because, as Hayek showed us, information is over-concentrated at the centre, and decisions are out of date or just inappropriate by the time they get out to the sticks. And they are unable to deal with natural disasters for much the same reason: information is slow to get to the decision-making centre, slow to be processed by the bureaucracy, and slow to get acted on. Economic backwardness, and the fact that capitalism is seen as a threat means that there is less capital – trucks, helicopters, cranes, hospitals, utilities – that can be focused on dealing with natural disasters.

Richer countries, by contrast, can build more strongly, defend themselves from storms, floods and earthquakes more effectively, and repair the damage more quickly. There is more capital to throw at the problem, more decisions are made locally, and more people are willing to get stuck in without waiting for the government to tell them what to do. If you want an example, remember the Hurricane Jeanne in 2004 that killed over 3000 people in poor Haiti but only 5 in rich Florida.

And yet, some people seem determined to compound the misery by keeping poor countries poor – refusing their imports in order to protect our own manufacturers, or demanding that they rein back industrial development in case it pollutes the atmosphere. If you really want to help the planet and the lives and welfare of all who live in it, my prescription would be liberal democracy and free trade. That's the best form of aid we could give to anyone.

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A businessman's prayer

Written by Sam Bowman | Tuesday 10 April 2012

After my optimistic blog this morning, this photo from India is a slightly less positive spin on how things are going in the developing world. (The image comes from a strike by jewelers over a proposed new tax. If only that was the sort of thing we striked about...)

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A busman's lottery

Written by Sam Bowman | Thursday 14 July 2011

The Economist reports on an interesting innovation in Singapore. To encourage more people to take the bus to work, travellers will be entered into a lottery every time they get the bus – and three times for every off-peak journey they take. The idea is that people are risk-taking when the stakes are small:

Offer individuals 20p to leave the house an hour earlier, and most will say no. But a 1-in-50 chance of winning £10 may seem more enticing.

The risk-seeking effect is amplified in small networks: regularly hearing about other winners leads individuals to overestimate their own chances of success. This worked particularly well in Bangalore, where Infosys commuters shared a workplace, and scheme winners were advertised through the company. The scheme in Singapore would aim to create a social network among users to produce a similar effect.

The hope is that the project will eventually be self-funding.

So, could a Singapore-like system work in London? I’m sceptical about how effective Singapore’s plan will be for them, but on the margin it might make things a bit better. The problem is that city bus companies are bad at innovating at the margin – picking the low-hanging fruit first – and usually end up wasting money on white elephant projects, like the new bus designs churned out every couple of years with great Mayoral fanfare.

TfL’s bus service is OK, but it gets around half a billion pounds worth of subsidies every year. Congestion in the capital is also crippling for the service: though many people do get the bus during rush hour, it goes incredibly slowly. Compared to the even more heavily subsidized Tube network, it’s a pretty unappealing option if you’re in a rush to work.

So, what’s the solution? Honestly, I’m not sure. A sophisticated road pricing scheme coupled with privatized roads might be the best option but, in cities at least, it’s a political fantasy right now. I think the next best solution would be to privatize the bus system and open it up to new competition. It’s happened in Manchester, with quite good results, and could happen here as well. I don’t know how to make buses nicer, but there’s no greater discovery process than the free market. If a Singapore-like lottery scheme works, great. If it’s something we haven’t thought of, even better. The great upshot of a private municipal bus system is that there will be “neighbourhood benefits” for everyone who doesn’t use the bus – a better, more competitive bus network would take cars off the road and reduce congestion in the capital for everyone.

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A Cameroon education

Written by Terry Arthur | Saturday 24 October 2009

On 3rd October David Cameron told the Sunday Telegraph that a Conservative government will "smash open the state education monopoly so that any qualified organisation can set up a new state schoo".

What sort of organisations will be able to qualify? Well, according to the Conservatives' two years old policy document, "The country which provides the closest model for what we wish to do is Sweden".

A major feature of the Swedish system is that profit-seeking enterprises, including PLCs, qualify. Indeed three-quarters of the new schools in the Swedish model are profit-seeking. Furthermore, an impeccable source wrote, in a recent article for the Spectator and the Daily Telegraph that "the Swedish model would not exist without the acceptance of profit-making organisations". Yet it has long been clear that Cameroons have no intention whatsoever of permitting such enterprises to "qualify". After all, that would be private enterprise; strictly passé for the Cameroons.

Or would it? During the conference week, part of the pro-Tory press was willing itself to believe otherwise. Thus on 8th October the Spectator editorial said “Crucially, it now looks likely that the new schools will be able to be run for profit" while in its Coffee House, Fraser Nelson wrote “Michael Gove’s new Swedish schools will, it seems, be allowed to make a profit".

This blog is some 3 weeks late while I have searched vainly for support of these notions.

I could be wrong, but if I am right, the Cameroons are guilty of serious misrepresentation of the "Swedish model". The same goes for another of their favourites – "the post-bureaucratic age" (largely via the internet and the information revolution). But the word "bureaucratic" refers to management in government and the public sector. The post-bureaucratic age is not a result of the internet as Dave the Vague likes to claim. It is the result of Adam Smith’s "invisible hand" – the most powerful information system the world has ever seen – bar none, whilst the internet is a mere side-show which enhances whatever market signals are allowed by the bureaucrats.

To reduce bureaucracy the Cameroons must slash taxes and allow private enterprise to flourish, rather than continue to tax us all and dish the funds out again to a few favoured voluntary groups. A good start would be to allow any entity, especially a profit-seeking institution, to create a school and charge fees directly, with a full tax rebate to those who thus reduce the cost of state education by moving their children out of it altogether. Don’t hold your breath.

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A cap on immigration will hurt Britain

Written by Sam Bowman | Sunday 17 October 2010

Britain's immigration policy is wrong-headed and detrimental to its economy, as recent events have shown. (I should declare an interest as an immigrant from the Republic of Ireland now permanently resident in the UK.)

Many have followed the saga of X-Factor contestant Gamu Nhengu. A talented singer, Gamu was seen as having a good chance of winning the talent show until doubts over her immigration status meant that she was removed from the show. The issue was that her mother allegedly claimed benefits while working, and it now seems likely that she will be deported to her home country of Zimbabwe.

Harry Phibbs has already written on this topic over at ConservativeHome, and the case is an example of the problems in the British immigration system. Gamu is an adult – why should what her mother does be relevant to her immigration status? And isn’t it a clear loss to Britain to lose this entertainer to a potentially brutal fate in Zimbabwe? Obviously Gamu is getting special attention because she is in the public eye – how many others are deported in similar situations without any attention at all? It’s surprising that so many on the right are (correctly) sceptical about the effectiveness of government programmes, but forget this when considering the supposed need for immigration control.

More happily, the UK-based winners of both the Nobel Prize for Physics and Economics are immigrants from Russia and Cyprus respectively. Whatever the full benefits of scientific breakthroughs taking place in the UK, it’s undoubtedly good for students at British universities to be taught by people of this calibre. Plenty of entrepreneurs come to Britain to escape worse regulatory environments and set up wealth-creating businesses. Many others come to work here and, as Bryan Caplan has recently been arguing on his blog, even low-skilled immigrants increase the wages of native workers, if those immigrants are allowed to work.

Immigrants are good for everybody – they make Britons richer and they make better lives for themselves. If there is a danger of ‘welfare tourism’, an easy solution could be to charge for use of public services for a certain period of an immigrant’s time in the UK. But most immigrants who come to Britain don’t want to sponge off the country – like Gamu Nhengu and the Nobel-winning Russian physicists at Manchester, they want to be the best they can in a free and open society. We should let them.

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