Liberty & Justice

The perils of a country over run by cocaine fiends


Italy has just made a rather interesting discovery: the country has been over run by cocaine fiends for years now and no one has noticed in the slightest. Which does rather lead to a thought that if the consumption of cocaine doesn't in fact matter then why ban it, with all of the associated violence, murder and misery that the illegality causes? It was, of course, coca tea that was openly and brazenly upon sale. But with sufficient active ingredients that consumption of a cup one day would set off a cocaine test the next:

The company doctor, not wanting to see him suspended, asked him to bring two tea bags to his office, after which he made himself a brew and drank it.

The next day the doctor performed a drugs test on himself and tested positive for cocaine.

As all are noting, this tea had been on sale for years and no one thought anything about it at all. But the reaction is predictable:

Italian police have ordered that a Peruvian coca tea be removed from the shelves, after it was found to contain significant levels of cocaine.

So something that doesn't cause a problem must be banned. Because. As various people like Mill have pointed out the only justification for limiting the activities of a person are that such activities harm others. And there simply is no record of any harm here whatsoever, to anyone. As is actually true of pretty much all drugs all the time. There may be harm to those who take them, there's most certainly harm to the society as a whole from their illegality, thus the correct response is that they should be legal. Not necessarily on the grounds that an entire society tooting is all that great an idea but on the grounds that there are no moral or practical reasons as to why it should not be permitted, if that is what people wish to do.

We might even go further in this tale of our bus driver:

The discovery was made earlier this month after a 38-year old bus driver from Genoa named Roberto tested positive for the illegal stimulant after undergoing a routine drugs test, La Repubblica reported. The driver insisted he had not taken cocaine and had an exemplary 10 years of service at the Genovese transport authority, Amt. He told the company doctor that the only reason he might have failed his test was because the day before he had drunk a large cup of the tea, which he often brought from an ethnic food store in the centre of the city. He said he enjoyed the tea because it made him feel more alert at the wheel.

Coca tea manages the near impossible of getting an Italian bus driver to be alert and paying attention to the traffic around him? Hell, why aren't we subsidising it, never mind banning it?

Yes, Polly's spouting nonsense again


So once again Polly Toynbee steps into the breach to tell us all about the gender pay gap. And at one point she's spouting simple nonsense:

Latest figures from the Office for National Statistics show the gap for median hourly earnings standing at 19%.

No, they don't. And Polly has been told this many a time. By Sir Michael Scholar no less. To mix the part and full time pay rates to gain a general gender pay gap is a "misleading quantification" which "may undermine public trust in official statistics".

The full time pay gap is 9.4%, the part time pay gap is a negative 6.5%.

However, Polly does in fact get one part of it correct:

A bigger question is why is it still women who do most of the caring?

That is indeed the cause of the gender pay gap that we can see, something more properly known as the motherhood pay gap. And we agree that we're not scientists or biologists but we do have a small sneaking suspicion that this might be to do with humans being a dimorphous and viviparous mammalian species. Sometimes this doesn't matter at all, as with who we decide should be bus drivers. At other times it matters rather a lot, as we decide who should bear a child to term. And we don't insist at all that it does matter when considering the question of who cares for children and families. Rather, we just note that the vast majority of human beings act as if they do think it matters. And that's the thing that will have to be changed if that gap is to disappear.

Which, given that the gap is thus the outcome of how people prefer to organise their lives, means that we think the remnant gap is of no importance at all.

An unelected check is better than no check on the House of Commons


Who says politicians are useless and inefficient? They are superbly efficient at one thing, at least – curbing any restraints on their own power. Thus Lord Strathclyde, the Conservative grandee charged by Prime Minister David Cameron with reviewing the role of peers in the governance of the United Kingdom, is set to propose that the Lords lose their veto over delegated or ‘secondary’ legislation. It all stems from the Prime Minister’s (and the Chancellor’s) agitation at the House of Lords blocking plans to cut tax credits. And that was not the first time that the Lords has irritated the House of Commons by questioning its legislative plans.

The argument is that the Commons is elected and the Lords (mostly) isn’t. So the Lords have no right to block Commons legislation. But even the most slavering MP these days would not suggest simply abolishing the Lords and giving the House of Commons absolute power. That would lead to riots. But they figure they can get rid of the ‘problem' a bit at a time. The Lords have already lost their powers to block financial legislation; they can delay but not veto other measures; and the Parliament Act, designed to be used in dire emergencies, is now deployed with dazzling frequency, to push through measures that the Lords feel queasy about.

Lord Strathclyde’s proposals are just the latest sortie in these one-sided air-strikes. Secondary legislation is the detailed regulatory stuff that MPs can’t be bothered with, and delegate to officials: so (runs the argument) why do we need the Lords to worry about that?

Well, we should all worry about it, as we can at least get rid of MPs and even overturn laws, but we can’t vote out regulators. Scrapping regulations ain’t so easy, either. So it is good that such proposals are properly scrutinised before they get going. Give it a year or three, though, and there will be some other issue, and the Lords’ powers will be trimmed again. And again.

Don’t mistake me: there is a lot wrong with the Lords as a legislative chamber (it should be one-eighth of the size, for a start). But it is better to have a crude check on the House of Commons than not. The UK has the most extraordinary ‘constitution’ in which the Executive sits in the House of Commons, and the Commons can vote for anything it wants – including changing the constitution itself (as with devolution – and see where that is getting us). About the only thing that can stop it, apart from the public armed with pitchforks, is the fact that there is a House of Lords standing in the way.

The earliest liberal thinkers on constitutional matters understood the importance of checking power with power. Montesquieu (1689-1755) argued for separate legislative, executive and judicial bodies – and that the legislative branch should comprise two Houses, so one could block the decisions of the other. He was not wrong. Our politicians don’t want to understand this: the worry is that the public and the commentariat don’t seem to grasp it either.

The Freedom of Information Act is supposed to be a burden


We have the usual delightful sight of a bureaucracy complaining about the very point and purpose of something. For this is what is happening here, local authorities complaining about the manner in which the Freedom of Information Act is a burden upon them. Yes, it's supposed to be, that's what it is for, the purpose, point and design of the entire thing.

Councils, leading universities and dozens of other public bodies have demanded that Britain's freedom of information laws should be significantly weakened to make it easier for them to refuse requests. Local authorities said that requests should be subject to fees and that the limit on the amount of time they have to spend responding to them should be lowered from just 18 hours to eight. The Local Government Association described freedom of information laws as a "burden" and even suggested that the cost of censoring material that they release to members of the public should be accounted for when they respond.

That burden being that the various levels of government currently swallow some 40% of everything that we all produce in any one year. And we thus get to know what the hell you're all doing with that loot.

Yes, we get to know, in detail, how you've spent the cash, who you've talked to about how to spend it, what evidence you've used to reach your spending decisions, we get to demand management reports from our employees. And we also get to ask pointed questions about specific pieces and parts of the process: thus our right to make such information requests.

And is this a burden to those who must respond? Sure it is, just like having any manager breathing over your shoulder is a burden. But then that's the point of it, that it should be a burden. No, fees should not be charged: why should we have to pay in order to find out how you're spending our money?

If anything, the law should be further liberalised to as to increase that burden, not restricted.

Controversial = ill-suited for public discussion?


As we know, free speech has come under renewed attack recently, with calls from an influential portion of Britain’s student population for our universities to retract their provision of an effective platform for wide, open public debate. Renowned critic of Islam Mariam Namazie’s recent experience at Goldsmiths is yet another demonstration of this phenomenon, as her speech was severely disrupted by the university Islamic society (ISOC). An attempt at fair warning was offered by the society beforehand, however, in an email to the ASH society (Atheist, Secularist, Humanist) who hosted the event:

 As an Islamic society, we feel extremely uncomfortable by the fact that you have invited Maryam Namazie. As you very well probably know, she is renowned for being Islamophobic, and very controversial.

Just a few examples of her Islamophobic statements, she labelled the niqab- a religious symbol for Muslim women, “a flag for far-right Islamism”. Also, she went onto tweet, they are ”body bags” for women. That is just 2 examples of how mindless she is, and presents her lack of understanding and knowledge about Islam. I could go on for a while if you would like further examples.

We feel having her present, will be a violation to our safe space, a policy which Goldsmiths SU adheres to strictly, and my society feels that all she will do is incite hatred and bigotry, at a very sensitive time for Muslims in the light of a huge rise in Islamophobic attacks.

For this reason, we advise you to reconsider your event tomorrow. We will otherwise, take this to the Students Union, and present our case there. I however, out of courtesy, felt it would be better to speak to you first.

What I’d like to point out about this message is that it attempts to obscure what are genuinely worrying sentiments with simply mislead ones.

The writer notes that, at a time so sensitive for Muslims, it may not be prudent to have a speaker who actively criticises many of their beliefs and customs. I think there are issues with this perspective. Namazie’s criticism is largely intellectual and unlikely to lead to discriminatory outbursts – especially when you consider that her audience is constituted of young, liberal thinkers and not violent hooligans.

However, this point is relatively unimportant: consider that the writer says that Namazie is ‘very controversial’. The presumptuous nature of these words – the implicit identification of controversy with being inappropriate for public discusion – is what I find positively terrifying.

There is also the argument made that Namazie’s presence would ‘violate’ the ISOC’s safe space. Isn’t the point about spaces that there are lots of them and that they are separate? In what possible sense can it be claimed that their space has been encroached on – unless the ISOC would have their ‘safe space’ as the entire university and thus demand that any dissent be reserved for off campus.

Of course, that the ISOC eventually resorted to forcefully blocking Namazie’s attempt at generating discourse is disgraceful. But the assumptions evident in this email highlight another, more troubling issue: that in some areas of our student body, free speech is not being challenged on an intellectual basis, but forgotten and neglected without second thought.

American police now steal more from the citizenry than the robbers do


There's a good reason why we don't arbitrarily allow the State or any of its agents to take the property of the citizenry. That reason being that however logical those first steps onto hte slippery slope seem it always, but always, descends into an orgy of said State and its agents plundering the population they are supposed to be protecting. A case in point:

Between 1989 and 2010, U.S. attorneys seized an estimated $12.6 billion in asset forfeiture cases. The growth rate during that time averaged +19.4% annually. In 2010 alone, the value of assets seized grew by +52.8% from 2009 and was six times greater than the total for 1989. Then by 2014, that number had ballooned to roughly $4.5 billion for the year, making this 35% of the entire number of assets collected from 1989 to 2010 in a single year. According to the FBI, the total amount of goods stolen by criminals in 2014 burglary offenses suffered an estimated $3.9 billion in property losses. This means that the police are now taking more assets than the criminals.

The point of the police, of the criminal justice system in general, is to protect us from the thieves, not for them to become the thieves.

We in the UK have only just started down this road: we should change path immediately and go back to the old system. Once you've been convicted by a jury of your peers you can be fined, jailed, forced to pay compensation, all sorts of things. But absolutely nothing is due to the State until that jury has ruled.

It appears that George Osborne doesn't understand the law

This is very puzzling:

Bankers who received taxpayer money during the financial crisis are not unlike shoplifters, Chancellor George Osborne has said.

Speaking at the Bank of England, he said that at the time of the financial crisis, and in the years that followed, there were no laws in place to allow regulators and lawmakers to punish offenders in the financial services sector or bring criminal charges against them.

It's puzzling because it's flat out wrong. In evidence:

Former City trader Tom Hayes has been found guilty at a London court of rigging global Libor interest rates.

He was sentenced to 14 years in prison for conspiracy to defraud.

There's plenty of law to deal with those who have actually committed criminal offences: the proof is rather there in that definition. If it's a criminal offence then there's a law under which it can be prosecuted.

What there isn't is a law, or even a series of them, about bankrupting a bank: that would rather run against the very idea of having limited liability of course. Nor is there a law or series of them about being greedy, misled, ill-informed, over-exuberant or even plain flat out wrong. Fortunately so, for there'd be no one at all left outside chokey if that were true.

And that is what went wrong: it wasn't that the financial markets were all being run by crooks (although there were obviously some in there, as there are in any field of human endeavour) it was that the people in said markets had some incorrect beliefs about the world. And that just ain't and cannot be made into a criminal offence.

Although we think we could be persuaded on one possible change to the criminal law. Along the lines of Sir Pterry's suggestion about Antipodean Prime Ministers. Simply put them in jail the moment they are elected as everyone finds that this saves time. The possible change that we could be persuaded about being that anyone who is spendthrift to the point of shaming terminally alcoholic mariners should be jailed for life. That should sort out the retirement plans for most Chancellors of our collective lifetimes and if strictly enforced would alleviate that terrible pressure on the Lord's dining facilities. For all previous members of the Commons would find themselves with more pressing duties than taking up the ermine.

We don't exactly suggest that this should be so, rather that the more we think about it the more we think we could be persuaded into it.

Please Sir, can we be oppressed some more?


An interesting little example of what happens when you grant privilege to certain groups within a society. And this is to use privilege properly, as Sir Pterry told us it was to be used, meaning a private system of law, one that only applies to that specific group. For when some or other group does gain such privilege then people will clamour to be part of that group that enjoys said privilege:

In the reverse of the usual desire for upward mobility in life, young people from a populous Indian caste long regarded as prosperous and privileged have been staging violent protests as they clamour for a downgrade to “backward” status. The agitation by the Patels has so shaken the government in Gujarat – the home that they share with Narendra Modi, the prime minister - that the authorities been rounding up key organisers.

So why would an entire (or at least, enough of that caste to produce a crowd of 300,000 people) wish to do that?

At stake in the unconventional class struggle is access to millions of government jobs and free college places allocated to lower castes under the “reservation system” of affirmative action to counter ingrained discrimination. Up to 50 per cent of such positions are ring-fenced for Dalits (previously known as the “untouchables”), tribal peoples and social groupings designated together as “other backward classes” (OBCs), whose ranks include Mr Modi, a tea-seller’s son.

Perhaps best not to create those privileges in the first place, eh?

But of course we do not do that, all are equal in the British system. Except we can't help wondering about those stories of well to do, upper middle class even, children who are taken out of grammar and private schools to do their A levels at Tech and Further Education Colleges. Because, so the story goes, university admission systems think that those who have gone to such educational establishments are underprivileged and thus should be judged more kindly upon their A level grades.

People really will manipulate any such system of privilege. So, perhaps best not to have private systems of law for certain groups then, eh?

We're astonished that Polly Toynbee actually said this


Which, given the things Polly Toynbee normally says, inuring us to astonishment much of the time, means that it must be particularly outrageous:

I see a compromise here – though junior doctors may resist. Why not pay them fairly, train and employ many more so they are not endlessly filling gaps and overworking – but oblige them, in exchange for their expensive training, to work for the NHS for, say, a decade.

If they were indentured to the NHS, along with dentists, nurses and the other medical professions,

Toynbee is seriously suggesting that we bring back time limited slavery? Indenture?

Yes, that does astonish us. Two further points occur. The first being that of course if we're going to enslave people whose education the State has paid for, we'd really rather better stop hiring people that another State has coughed up the education fees for. Thus no foreign trained doctors or nurses should be hired until, say, a decade after they finish their training. not that the NHS would survive such an imposition. The second being that if those who have been educated at the expense of the taxpayer are to be indentured then, well, taxes finance the secondary educations of 93% of the populace. Why aren't all of them to be held in, bound to, the UK economy for some years? That Tony Benn repeatedly suggested that this should apply to any university degree shows that it is a vile idea: but if it applies to nurses then why not to everyone?

Better information makes drugs markets work better: so why not legalise them to make them work even better?


Over at Quartz there's a fascinating piece where the economist meets the pot dealer. And the two discuss how the dark net, the use of Tor and illicit drugs markets on it, improve the markets for drugs. Now, of course, it's entirely possible to insist that drugs are fer' the devil and we should simply stamp it all out. And given that no human society yet has managed to do that that's probably not going to be successful. That idea also doesn't address our own belief that consenting adults should be allowed to ingest what consenting adults wish to ingest: it is, after all, their own body doing the ownership and we're all pretty sure these days that no one, not even the state, owns the body of a consenting adult other than that consenting adult. Given those two, it is therefore interesting to see what happens when dealers need to stand by their product and reputation is important:

The root cause of this market inefficiency is information asymmetry. You don’t know how good an illegal drug is until you consume it, and you can’t turn to the law to enforce agreements, return a substandard product, or complain to your dealer if he tries to rob you. That prevents price discovery and risk compensation, key features of a well-functioning market.

What makes the dark web a game-changer is that it has those features. Suppliers have detailed reviews on their product, the market is competitive, and people can shop around easily. Aspiring sellers struggle to get a foothold without a history of good reviews; sometimes they offer special deals and an easy exchange policy in return for good reviews. And the markets are global, so it’s possible to see prices in other countries. All this produces a well-behaved price distribution like the one you’d find in any functional, legal market.

Assuming that those are all features that we'd like to have where consenting adults do as consenting adults do, that's a good argument for the legalisation, not just the decriminalisation, of drugs. For while these illegal markets do work by reputation, just as brands do for many consumer items (and in exactly the same manner too) it is of course better to have such promises baked up by the usual resources of the civil law.

as above, some part of the opposition to the taking of drugs is simply this idea that people shouldn't. Which is a projection of personal desires onto the lives of other which we do not think has a part of a liberal society. Once that is over come then we want the provision of whatever it is to be as efficient and simple, with the greatest consumer protections, as possible. And given the way that these illegal markets are developing, we can see how they would continue to develop if legal. Towards being markets much like those for toothpaste and canned soup. Reliant upon reputation, delivery, quality, rather than who has the most and most violent thugs to control a particular territory.

We find it difficult to imagine why anyone would be against such beneficial developments quite frankly.