Liberty & Justice

Will Wilkinson on The Great Enrichment

Over at The Niskanen Center, Will Wilkinson has written an interesting piece on libertarian attitudes to social justice, giving a Bleeding Heart Libertarian take on what Deirdre McCloskey calls The Great Enrichment (Watch her give the annual Adam Smith Lecture on that very topic). 

Here are a few highlights:

Humans may be natural cooperators with a built-in instinct for distributive fairness, but we’re also natural opportunists who will negotiate over everything, including the very idea of distributive fairness, to increase or preserve our shares. “That’s not fair!” is always a bargaining move and only sometimes a fact.
When people talk about “social justice,” sometimes they’re really talking about “distributive justice.” The immense influence of socialist ideology in the 20th century encouraged the idea that social and distributive justice pretty much came to the same thing. But 1991 was a long time ago, and these days when people agitate for social justice, or refer derisively to those who do as “social justice warriors,” they’re likely to be talking at least as much about the distribution of rights and dignity as they are to be talking about the distribution of material resources and economic opportunities. That’s a healthy development.
You know what’s nuts? What’s nuts is that nobody kicks off a discussion of justice, distributive or social, with the fact of the Great Enrichment. Because the upshot of our best accounts of the most important thing that has ever happened to the human race seems to be that equalizing the distribution of rights and liberties, powers and prerogatives, respect and esteem led to an increase in the scope and productivity of cooperation, generating hugely enriching surpluses.

Read the whole thing here.

Finally, even the TUC gets with the program


We've been arguing for a near a decade around here that the UK does not in fact have a gender pay gap. Rather, we've a motherhood, or perhaps a parent, pay gap. In line with Madsen's idea of our function when we started saying it people were shocked at our stupidity. It's now becoming the conventional wisdom, so much so that even the TUC appears to be getting up to speed on it:

Women who become mothers before the age of 33 earn 15% less than similar women who haven’t had children, according to new analysis published by the TUC on International Women’s Day today (Tuesday). The pay penalty for younger mums comes about as they are more likely to have had a significant period out of work or working part-time, before returning to full-time work when their children are older.

Yes, very much what we've been saying. And there's other research which shows that earnings decline for women (on average of course) by 9% or so per child they bear. Other research published for this special day:

A separate study by The Fawcett Society said the motherhood penalty still existed in the UK because mothers were judged to be less committed to their work. Its survey of 8,000 people found almost half believed women were less committed to jobs after having a baby, compared to just 11 per cent for men. Chief executive Sam Smethers said: 'It is clear that when a woman has a baby she is overwhelmingly perceived as becoming less committed to her job, while a dad is much more likely to be seen as more committed. 'This drives inequality and forces women and men into traditional male breadwinner, female carer roles.'

We agree with the evidence there but not with the logic. We're absolutely fine with the idea that anyone can adopt any gender role they desire. But it does remain that most parents do choose to adopt what we might call traditional gender roles concerning their children. Mothers as the primary carer, fathers as the primary provider. If it is people being forced into this then of course we're against it. If people are choosing this then we're just as happy as Larry: liberalism is about people being able to enact their own choices.

And the truth does seem to be that it is those choices made as parents which drive what some call the gender pay gap. After we account for age, education, time in the workforce and all that, mothers make, on average, less than non-mothers and fathers make more than non-fathers. It's in the 8-10% or so range either way. And given that the majority do become mothers, the majority fathers, that's around and about enough to explain that 10% or so gender pay gap that ONS and others report.

Again, if this is imposed upon people then we're agin' it. If it's emergent from peoples' free choices about how to live their lives then not only why would we object but why would anyone want to do anything about it?

Against the Nordic model and in praise of Corbyn


Unusually, I have found myself in complete agreement with Jeremy Corbyn. The Labour leader’s support for decriminalising prostitution is laudable, and it is refreshing to hear endorsement of a civilised alternative to knee-jerk authoritarianism. It is disappointing (if not surprising) that his stance has provoked indignant outrage from Labour MPs and retrograde feminists. Decriminalisation, which is supported by Amnesty International as well as most sex workers, is the only way to protect the vulnerable, respect the autonomy of those who do it by choice, combat people trafficking, and make commercial sex safer, less stigmatized, and less exploitative.

There is evidence that decriminalisation increases the safety of sex workers. It is absurd to imagine that criminalising sex workers (or, indeed, prohibiting brothels) is helpful. Threatening someone with arrest does nothing to help them if they are forced into, rely upon, or actually enjoy their work.

If decriminalised, sex workers are more likely to be taken seriously when reporting abusive pimps and violent customers who are breaking the law. Working in a brothel is safer than working on the street, and it is even safer to work in an institution that is not breaking the law by existing. It is easier to prevent trafficking when sex work is not underground for the same reason that it is easier to monitor the employment practises of McDonald’s than those of a drug cartel.

Interestingly, the main opposition to this common-sense policy now comes from the authoritarian left rather than social conservatives. This is exemplified by the fashionable ‘Nordic Model’, which decriminalises selling sex and criminalises buying it in an attempt to undermine the sex market without harming workers. Although touted as progressive and nuanced, it is actually myopic, unethical, and dangerous.

The Nordic Model is largely motivated by the belief that buying sex is always exploitation because all sex work involves trafficking, coercion, or, at least, economic pressures. This is a gross simplification. Whilst trafficking is a huge problem and pressures exist for many sex workers, others genuinely enjoy their work and many simply prefer it to available alternatives.

Even if it were true that all sex work resulted from desperation, for many it would remain the only or least bad option available. Even if buying sex were always and everywhere inherently exploitative, it would still marginally benefit people who have to rely on it to survive.

It is irrelevant that the Nordic Model does not directly target sex workers: if the model successfully disincentives buying then it is harming the seller by depriving them of income. Either they lose clients or are forced to lower their prices. Alternatively, if workers have plenty of alternatives to selling sex, prohibition is merely a pointless assault on autonomy. And, if criminalisation is not a sufficient disincentive to customers (it tends not to be), then the policy is both pointless and actively causing harm by keeping trade underground.

Apple vs the FBI: Why Tim Cook is right


Nice to see someone in business taking a principled stance on a basic issue of individual liberty. Apple boss Tim Cook is standing up against US government officials' attempts to ride roughshod over the public's right to privacy. Apple is opposing the US Department of Justice in at least ten cases. The FBI wants them to help to hack the iPhones of known or suspected criminals, while the DoJ wants Apple to create a 'master key' on its devices so that such hacking can become routine.

Apple has been fighting a legal (and PR) battle over the iPhone of Syed Farook, who gunned down 14 people in San Bernadino three months ago. The FBI argue that the information on Farook's phone may help prevent another such act of terrorism. Cook argues that the very real dangers of compromising Apple encryption – which could expose people to criminal, as well as government, assaults on their data – outweigh the possibility that something "might be there".

The US government's efforts to enable themselves to conveniently hack whosoever they deem fit start, as usual, with cases like this. Nearly everyone would say that murdering swine like Farook should have no secrets from the police, especially if other lives might be at risk. But even universal agreement does not necessarily make it right.

Once such a principle is conceded, there is no obvious limit to the assault on justice. Exactly what crime does someone have to commit – or merely be suspected of – before the police can legitimately hack their data? Once the power is there, it will elide into wider and wider use – as the many abuses of 'anti-terrorism' legislation in the UK and 'racketeering' laws in the US demonstrate all too clearly. Quicker than you think, anyone's data will be up for grabs. And public officials are not angels: would you really trust some junior police officer to preserve the confidence of your personal data?

And it is another invitation for government officials to go on a fishing trip. If our data can be hacked because some junior government officer declares that there is a 'suspicion' that we are up no no good, what judge would resist the application, and which of us would be safe from random searching?

Tim Cook declares that there are things that are difficult, and things that are right, and he figures that his stand against the authorities' demand to access personal data, even of utter scumbags, is both. He is right.

We rather like this from Antonin Scalia


June 1996, United States v. Virginia:

"If it were impossible for individual human beings (or groups of human beings) to act autonomously in effective pursuit of a common goal, the game of soccer would not exist."

There will of course be those who insist that this point only details the need for the state to be the neutral arbiter, the referee. And yet that's not actually true. For the vast majority of the world's soccer is played without a referee. Without in fact there even being lines for a pitch let alone linesmen, piles of jumpers for the goal posts and so on. Although, obviously, there is always the kid who insists that it's his ball and he's taking it home with him unless...

Most certainly, there are arguments, there are even unfairnesses, in such autonomous pursuits but they do by and large get sorted out by the participants in the pursuit. Soccer games being, as so much of life is, an iteration of repeated games among much the same players. Meaning that those who do cheat rapidly become excluded from the game being played. Whether this be the soccer game on the wasteland or the bankrupt company in the marketplace.

And we're quite happy with the idea that at times this self organisation isn't quite enough, that there does indeed need to be that neutral arbiter, that referee. We're even happy with the thought that at times that's going to be the State. We would just emphasise that that's the exception, the vast majority of the time self-organisation does just fine, if not better.

Nicky Morgan has proposed the worst possible way to calculate a gender pay gap


Back in July 2015, David Cameron announced he'd close the gender pay gap in the next decade. Proposing to take the first step by making larger firms publish their pay gap figures, I wrote up a response for the Spectator's Coffee House, arguing that this was an ill-conceived idea:

His plan to force businesses with 250+ employees to publish their ‘wage gap’ figures will create more bogus numbers and further perpetuate the myth. It is impossible to know simply by looking at the numbers on the spreadsheet why someone’s salary is a certain figure. One’s education or training, previous work experience, negotiation manoeuvres, and unique character traits will all contribute to their salary; Jack and Jill may be headed-on-up the career hill together, but they will be coming from two completely different paths.

The government launched an official consultation to determine how, exactly, they would make companies publish their 'pay gaps'. The ASI responded to the consultation, recommending that if the government were to go through with this policy, it absolutely must get companies to compare jobs like-for-like. Without a direct comparison of men and women doing the same job (and ideally for the same amount of time, with the same educational background, etc), it would be impossible to know if any income disparity was a result of employer-based sexism, or the many other factors that can contribute to one's overall salary.

Today we discovered that Woman's Minister Nicky Morgan did not take Ben's advice. Instead, she has implemented what is probably the worst way to calculate a gender pay gap.

In 2018, businesses with 250+ employees will be forced to publish on their websites the mean and median calculations of their male and female salaries, as well as the 'pay ranges' of men and women (i.e. who's at the top and who's at the bottom).

The problem? Simply calculating the mean and median of male and female salaries controls for absolutely nothing. Without calculating in hours worked, job, department, previous experience, flexibility of hours, and time taken off work, these figures tell us nothing about whether employers are actually paying female workers less than men for the same roles.

Evidence suggests employers are big advocates of women. Indeed, when you do control for factors like background, hours and job, women are often more likely to earn more than men, and are more likely to be promoted as well.

But now, thanks to the government, in a few years time we're going to have a bunch of false stats that help perpetuate the myth that women are victims of sexist employers, and will never be able to access the same opportunities as men. A great day for professional feminists, who have been running out of talking points as women shatter those alleged glass ceilings left, right and center. An unfortunate day for the rest of us, who will have to continue to explain why comparing the CEO's salary to a first-year employee doesn't do much to prove 'sexism'.

Rupert Myers is rather missing the point about market exchanges


As Voltaire didn't say*, we don't believe that creationism has any truth to it at all but we'll defend to the death your right to believe in any damn fool thing you want to. The limitation is only that whatever you do believe not cause direct harm to others. Thus nonsense about how we all got to be here is just fine, nonsense about how we treat the others with whom we share here is not, just as one example. All of which makes this complaint by Rupert Myers something we don't agree with:

Someone who is on the record as believing that the earth is flat would be an unlikely anchor of the BBC’s flagship breakfast news show. A news reporter who denied basic facts from the past such as the French revolution, the explosion of Mount Vesuvius, or the Holocaust would surely raise eyebrows at interview. Climate change denial, or a denial of heliocentrism, would be unlikely to find favour at the BBC. And yet they have just selected a creationist to front their Breakfast show.

BBC hires someone with odd views is not exactly a surprise.

A belief in creationism may be a religious belief, and we must allow generous margins to the holding of such beliefs, but creationism falls beyond the spectrum. It should be consigned to the bin of unreasonable, untenable fact-allergic nonsense. Creationists cannot be trusted to report objectively, or to interact reasonably with their interviewees and with the public.

Not so and sadly it betrays a misapprehension about how market exchanges work. It is only in a society that does not operate markets that we have to consider whether someone is wholly acceptable in the round before allowing them to perform a task. If jobs are allocated on the basis of belief then obviously what those beliefs are is of importance. But a market society operates on the basis of "what can you do for me?" That's rather the joy of it. We don't have to know whether the window cleaner supports the wrong football team, has more traditional opinions on gender roles than we might be comfortable with or is insistent that the world popped into existence last Tuesday afternoon and all memory before that is simply a general hallucination. We care only about how well they clean windows and what they charge for doing so.

The same is true of all the other interactions which make up a market economy. We don't have to worry about the sexual preferences of the provider of our morning coffee, we care only about the coffee, the price, and perhaps the smile or not with which it is delivered. It is not necessary for the car mechanic to share our views on Che Guevara, whatever those might be, we want only that she can mechanic a car for us. And so it is with the pretty faces that mumble through the scripts to us on the television. We care only for the face and the mumble, not whatever beliefs occupy the void between their ears.

And no, this is not just some trivial matter. Humanity spent some millennia where only those who held the approved ideas on matters religious were allowed to perform certain jobs. It is only in this last century or two since the Enlightenment that this has changed and yes, it really is part of that liberal and market order which has so enriched us all. It is exactly the same thing that a creationist be allowed to read the news, a Jew to own land, an atheist to publish books and us all to be free to truck and barter across the society regardless of whatever damn fool beliefs we might have about anything at all.

* The "I disapprove of what you say" line is actually from a play about Voltaire, not from the man himself.

Reminder to CDC: Women are more than baby-portals


No one likes to receive unsolicited advice; and government recommendations are no exception to this. But the United States’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention didn’t heed that warning when on Tuesday it released a new alcohol advisory, aimed at child-carriers (who we in the 21st century have started to call ‘women’).

The CDC has recommended that women of a childbearing age who are not using birth control completely abstain from alcohol intake to avoid an accidental, alcohol-exposed pregnancy.

From the CDC's Principal Deputy Director Anne Schuchat, M.D.:

Alcohol can permanently harm a developing baby before a woman knows she is pregnant...About half of all pregnancies in the United States are unplanned, and even if planned, most women won’t know they are pregnant for the first month or so, when they might still be drinking. The risk is real. Why take the chance?

Why take the chance? In the off-chance that a woman could get pregnant during 3-4 decades of her life, why wouldn't she abstain from alcohol (and while she’s at it, cut out raw fish, cured meat and soft cheeses, stop skiing, avoid overheating and sign up to antenatal courses too.)

Those outside the- 4-decade span haven't been excluded fully from the press release either. While the CDC mainly addressed the effects of alcohol on pregnant women, their infographic suggests far more ambitious plans to cut down on women's alcohol consumption alltogether. Keep in mind "heavy drinking" is defined by the CDC for woman as "consuming eight drinks or more per week".

Screen Shot 2016-02-05 at 3.14.42 PM

Fear-mongering much?

Quite rightfully, the Internet went ballistic over the insinuation women should be prioritizing the biological possibility of pregnancy over their daily activities, which include drinking habits.

These recommendations in the States come just weeks after here in the UK the Department of Health changed its alcohol guidelines, lowering maximum unit intake to 14 a week for both men and women, making the UK’s recommendations some of the most restrictive in Europe.

The CDC's and DoH's recommendations are different, but the recommendations of both government bodies were created with the same, faulty assumption: individuals can’t be trusted to their own lifestyle choices, and if left to make up their own minds, will engage in risky behavior.

There is indeed an appropriate way to advise women about the potential consequences of drinking while pregnant, but terrifying non-pregnant women out of a glass of wine because of ‘what might be’ falls short of providing an education tutorial.

Gary Becker and Timpson


One of Gary Becker's great points was that irrational, or taste, discrimination is costly to the person doing that discriminating. That then leaves an opportunity to others, in that those being discriminated against are thus cheaper than an objective evaluation of their skills would indicate, meaning that those others can hire workers at less than their likely productivity. It's possible for us to take this idea further too, as we've mentioned before: if you think that taste discrimination is going on then you must also believe that those profit opportunities exist. At which point we've a useful metric to use to see whether we really do think such discrimination is going on. Which brings us to this from John Timpson:

Most of the Timpson drama is provided by the colleagues who run our shops, many of whom have overcome considerable personal challenges to make a success of their lives (10pc of the people on our payroll have a prison record). We pick everyone for their personality, consequently they have some fascinating stories to tell.

We are entirely willing to believe that those with prison records are discriminated against, some fairly, some not. Indeed, one of us, decades ago, deliberately hired a book keeper straight out of his prison sentence for fiddling the books of his previous employer. We knew that his being jugged has scared the Bejayzus out of him and that it wasn't going to happen again. We know, from personal life, of other such cases as well. We would not be surprised at all to find that Timpson is able to profit by taking advantage of that taste discrimination. Or perhaps we might say that it's a matter of asymmetric information here: not everyone who has served time is a lemon in the Akerlof definition, but how do you tell? Get that right and there is an opportunity.

But our deeper point here is that this can be used as a measure of other discriminations. Who does believe that deliberately and specifically hiring women because they are currently underpaid (as Dame Stephanie Shirley famously did with female programmers at FI Group 50 odd years ago) will lead to greater profits? Or insisting upon job shares? Or hiring those of a rather greater melanin blessing than the average of the UK population? For to believe that there is such discrimination is to insist that there is such a profit opportunity. A non-belief in the opportunity is a non-belief in the original accusation of taste discrimination.

We do not, by the way, insist that no such discrimination occurs. We don't think it does, not to any great extent, but that's different. There are those who insist that it does: at which point our question is, well, why aren't you out there making your fortunes by exploiting it?

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.