On the subject of poverty porn

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We here at the ASI thoroughly support the idea of food banks. Who wouldn't support the idea of voluntary cooperation to feed the hungry? Even, of a private sector organisation that was able to fill in for the malevolence and or incompetence of the State? However, that's not to say that we need go overboard and swallow uncritically everything we're being told by the poverty porn campaigners. To take just one example, this piece in The Independent.

 Christmas shoppers are expected spend £1.2bn today, as 13 million consumers hand over £21m every minute. But while those who can afford it stock up in the desperate rush for gifts on “Panic Saturday”, another 13 million people will have more sobering reasons to worry – living in poverty in a festive Britain characterised as “two nations” divided.

That 13 million living in poverty. It's a highly arguable number. Depends on what your definition of poverty is and how you're calculating it. And the way that it is calculated is that it's a measure of inequality, not of poverty. It is less than 60% of median income adjusted for household size either before or after housing costs. To get that 13 million figure it is after housing costs. If before, it is rather lower:

The number of people in the UK living in poverty fell by 100,000 in the past year to 9.7 million, according to official figures.

The data suggests the percentage of those in poverty is at its lowest level since the 1980s.

Poverty is defined in this context as when households have an income before housing costs below 60% of the median.

Note that this is still not a measure of poverty. It is a measure of the income distribution perhaps, of inequality, but not of actual poverty.

Fortunately we do also have a measurement of poverty, of actual material deprivation:

Trends in combined low income and material deprivation and severe poverty: New material deprivation items were introduced in 2010/11. The proportion of children living in low income (below 70 per cent of equivalised median household income, BHC) and material deprivation and severe poverty (below 50 per cent of median household income and in material deprivation) for 2011/12 has fallen to 12 per cent and 3 per cent respectively in 2011/12, representing a 1 percentage point fall for both measures compared to 2010/1122. As the proportion of households with children falling below the 70 per cent and 50 per cent low-income thresholds remained the same in 2011/12 compared to 2010/11, this fall was primarily driven by a decrease in the proportion of families experiencing material deprivation.

That is, whatever it is that is being done about poverty is reducing it by the measure that most of us would use in a colloquial sense. Material deprivation is falling. This might even be at the cost of more inequality in the use of those relative numbers. Possible causes there are reductions in general benefits and the targeting of that benefit and or tax system at the truly poor rather than simply at those just under 60% of median. Which, if reducing poverty is your goal seems like a pretty reasonable idea to us really.

What has really happened here is that in the past few decades the institutional definition of poverty has changed. Beveridge was not worrying about whether families had 50% or 60% of what everyone else had. He was worrying about whether there was dripping on the bread for tea. As that problem largely became solved the definition was shifted so that we are all urged now, in the official figures, to worry about inequality, not that actual poverty that so effectively tugs at our heartstrings.

Essentially, as the problem was solved the definition was changed so that there would still be something to berate us all with.

There are, of course, other inconsistencies in the numbers being thrown about:

The Trussell Trust warned it is expecting its busiest Christmas ever in providing emergency rations – with one million people now relying on food banks run by the charity and other organisations.

That's not so either. The general meaning, the colloquial takeaway from that, is that 1 million people are dependent all of the time on those food banks. Not so at all. The actual number is that over the past year 1 million people or so have been served by a food bank once or more times (and generally the limit is three days food in one visit and only three visits allowed). That gives us 8,200 people actually relying upon a food bank on any one day.

Yes, we can still say that that's too many people, we can still say that we're delighted that people give up their own time and money to fill in for the inefficiencies of the State. But it is a rather different picture of the scale of the problem being solved, isn't it?

As 2014 draws to a close there are 13 million people in poverty – including 27 per cent of the 2.5 million children in the UK, according to the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG).

Again this is inequality of income, this is the below 60% of median equivalised household income. This is not poverty nor is it material deprivation.

Inequality in the UK is now so extreme that the five richest families are wealthier than the bottom 20 per cent of the entire population, according to Oxfam.

Of course. This happens with absolutely every conceivable wealth distribution. For it is entirely possible to have negative wealth (in a manner that we do not record negative incomes). That newly minted Oxbridge graduate about to start earning £100k a year in the City is recorded as having negative wealth as a result of student loans. The truth is that if you've got a £10 note and no debts then you are richer than all of the bottom 20% households in the wealth distribution. No, not just richer than each one of them, richer than all of them in aggregate.

Meanwhile, the housing charity Shelter predicts that 93,000 children will be homeless this Christmas, as the number of homeless families trapped in temporary or emergency accommodation exceeds 60,000.

Interesting how that number is made up don't you think? As a society we provide temporary and emergency housing for those that need it. When we do so they are still classed as being homeless. This does have an inevitable effect: the crisis never goes away, does it?

The general numbers we get thrown at us about poverty in the UK are not actually about poverty in the general meaning of that word. They are about inequality in the distribution of income. Of course, you can worry about that inequality if you want to do so. But the reason those measurements have been changed, the reason that the "relative" so often gets dropped from "relative poverty", is because those who wish to spread this poverty porn know very well that most of us are concerned about, would happily do something about, actual poverty and as to inequality, well, there's a general reaction of "Meh".

As such we must be fed the figures about relative poverty so as to tug at our heartstrings as if it were absolute poverty, that material deprivation.

Or, the TL:DR version: they're fiddling the figures.

Finally, one further calculation. There's some 8,000 people a day receiving those food parcels. Let's say each parcel is worth perhaps £30 (we've got to use some sort of estimate after all). That's around and about a £90 million a year problem. One of the solutions proposed is that the minimum wage should be raised up to the Living Wage. That's a pay rise of £2,000 a year for 1.3 million people or so (taking only the number paid the current minimum wage, not including any effects on those between it and the Living Wage).

It's a £2.6 billion partial answer to a £90 million problem.

It might well be better to continue with the food bank solution.

Bankers earn more than medics: what can we do?!

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A common criticism leveled against the financial services industry concerns their remuneration compared to those from more ‘noble’ professions – such as Medical Doctors. Proclamations such as “it’s ridiculous that the average Doctor earns less than the average investment banker” are not unusual to hear in common parlance; Doctors cure ailments and save lives whereas Investment Bankers supposedly wreck households and exploit taxpayers. It is, therefore, unfair that Bankers are paid more than Doctors. The oft-proposed solution is heavier taxation and regulation on Investment Banks. However, these critics conveniently forget the other side of the coin – the inadequate remuneration for noble professions. Increased taxation and regulation on Investment Banks does nothing to address the inadequate gratitude expressed to them (which these same critics seem to implicitly believe is measured purely by financial compensation).

For Doctors to be remunerated fairly, we need only look at the USA to find that, on that side of the Atlantic, it’s Medics (Anaesthetists, Gynaecologists, General Practitioners etc.) who dominate lists of the most highly paid professions. Their average pay in the USA is higher and their hours worked less than average Investment Bankers. Freer markets ensure fairer, more just remuneration.

Nursing and teaching are also considered noble professions (though they are often undervalued, and wrongly so, relative to Doctors). Fair remuneration and freedom with which they can care and teach in an appropriate, effective and efficient way is only viable in a mostly (if not, completely) free market.

In Higher Education, the phenomenally high research activity of US Universities is unrivalled. This can be attributed to the flourishing mix of private alternatives, the relatively generous remuneration of Professors and the abundance of private funding opportunities available for academic pursuits.

One might argue that healthcare and education must be universally accessible and it would greatly harm society if we repealed the public healthcare available via the NHS. However, a pragmatic compromise would be issuing healthcare vouchers so that individuals are given the money that they can spend freely on their own healthcare. In this way, the public can choose between public and private alternatives with their vouchers.

Free markets lead to an improvement in welfare for all those involved by providing the consumers with more choice (whether they be patients or students) and higher quality products through competitive mechanisms whilst ensuring the fair remuneration of producers - whether they are medical professionals or involved in education.

How can we possibly survive?

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The recent computer crash of the UK's aircraft control system which downed scores of aircaft landings and takeoffs and which could have caused a disaster of huge proportons has been blamed on the faiure of one line of computer code. The authorities have given some very lame excuses why this should have happened, entirely ignoring the fact that this particular line of computer code has served the system well enough for 40 years despite the huge growth in aircraft traffic since then. It is unlikely that the real reason will ever be willingly or fully revealed by the various enquiries that will now be undertaken because it might cause widespread panic all over the world, both among airlines and passengers. Almost certainly the reason why it failed is that a particular cosmic ray from outer space hit a particular transistor junction in the computer. Many of the circuits (on which the old computer codes worked) are still very simple ones. Thus the breakdown of one transistor could do a huge amount of damage -- in this case striking at the total functioning of the many systems surrounding it. What you can be certain about is that the software people did not re-write that particular line of computer code -- it is as good as ever -- instead, the engineers replaced some of the physical computer elements.

Millions of cosmic rays from outer space rain down on earth every second of every hour and every day. They are sub-atomic in size but very powerful for all that. Cosmic rays do a tremendous amount of damage. Every second of every hour of every day, cosmic rays are penetrating life-forms on earth -- and that means us also. We might also mention that, every second, highly damaging rays are also penetrating us from the natural radioactivity that is occurring in rock strata beneath our feet. (In some places -- Cornwall for example -- radiation from underground granite is quite high. The aircaft control system could also have been hit by such radiation -- it will be impossible ever to know but cosmic radiation is more likely.)

As with computer circuits, the DNA in our bodies is being assaulted and damaged constantly. Every day each of us receives radiation which cause small explosions in our genes and potentially could completely disrupt the functioning of our bodies. How can we possibly survive? What's more, how can some of our oldest genes remain just as perfect and useful today as they were billions of years ago when originally formed?

The answer is that our chromosomes (the 23 immensely long strings of DNA, each of which contains something like 1,000 genes) have what can only be called "gene repair ambulances" (more like hospitals!), constantly travelling up and down each chromosome at great speed. Whenever they reach a piece of damaged gene they compare it with its mirror-template on the opposite helical strand, thus knowing how the damaged gene should be restored, and repairing it. This happens thousands of times an hour in each of us, because our genes are infinitely more sensitive to radiation damage than, say, the damage to a computer transistor -- which, in comparison, is a rare event. Nevertheless, the latter occur from time to time. Unlike us, however, computer circuits don't have repair mechanisms.

Not being a computer techie I have no idea how aircraft control systems will be improved in future years all over the world. Whether they will have repair mechanisms virtually similar to nature's own I don't know. But I think we can take it that they will be as well instituted as man can devise. Airlines and passengers need not worry unduly about safety in future years.

However, we can take it that, because nature has had billions of years to devise its own safety methods, man's systems will never be as good -- at least not for hundreds or thousands of years to come. Our computers will always be prone to radiation damage, rare though the serious events may be. But there's another intriguing aspect to all this. This is that some research biologists are already looking at the possibility of DNA, being self-repairable and thousands of times smaller than computer circuits, might be an infinitely better type of memory device than our present, relatively crude computer circuits. Combine this thought with the ever-increasing automatons being devised for manufacturing (and services) and we have the highly likely prospect of DNA-based machine tools, not in hundreds or thousands of years' time, but fairly imminently (say, in 50 or 100 years?).  Not only this but we have the prospect of future production tools not only being able to make products of great sophistication but, by changing their DNA-code, are able to switch from making one product one day to a different one the next. This is not science-fiction with its time-travel worm-holes and other nonsenses but an almost certain development one day. Just a thought to leave you with.

Maybe Keynes was right after all?

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It has to be said that we're not great fans of macroeconomics around here. Not enough good data from enough different places to definitively answer most questions: and that's before we get onto Hayek's point about simply not being able to calculate the economy without using the economy itself to do so. However, this makes us think that Keynes might well have been right on one point: It took far too long but Britain’s traumatic national pay cut is coming to an end. Even on the somewhat crude median earnings measure, pay is finally going up again, even after accounting for the effects of price rises. Wages are rising a little faster and inflation has collapsed, a golden combination for employees across the country.

Ever since the Industrial Revolution and the spread of capitalism, gradually rising wages have been the norm, apart from in wartime and during brief periods of extreme economic dislocation. The fact that this process went into partial reverse over the past few years despite the recovery came as a shock and helped to explain why so many people began to fall out of love with capitalism. It is therefore excellent news that normality is finally re-establishing itself.

One view of unemployment is simply that it happens when labour is more expensive than people are willing to pay for it. That's obvious in that one sense of course. The question becomes then well, how quickly will the repricing happen if we do ever get to that stage? There are those who insist that it happens immediately and thus unemployment and recessions cannot happen. Not an entirely convincing view. There are also those who insist that it can take forever and this justifies all sorts of interventions. And then we've got the evidence of the past few years.

It could be argued that labour in the UK did become too expensive. We had just had the largest and longest peacetime expansion of the economy after all. So, a repricing was necessary. And this is where Keynes could be said to be correct. It takes time because nominal wages are sticky downwards. People really, really, don't like lower numbers on their paycheques. They'll grumble about their real wages falling if it's disguised with a little bit of inflation but they'll riot if the equivalent fall were at a steady price level.

We don't say that the past few years prove it: only that what evidence we have is consistent with this explanation. And, given the paucity of our evidence base, that's probably the best we can do.

Ease up on Assisted Reproductive Technologies to close the gender wage gap

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Of course, there is debate over whether the gender wage-gap exists or not. I, for one, believe it does exist but that the answer does not lie in legislating protection for maternal (or even paternal) leave. Charlotte Bowyer wrote about how firms such as Apple and Facebook have begun to offer female employees the opportunity to freeze their eggs (so that they can delay pregnancy until later in their career). One reason for the gender wage-gap is that women in modern society most often face the dilemma of having children earlier and potentially jeopardising career progress or having children much later and hopefully advancing their career. Each option has its pros and cons but neither is particularly appealing for many women. It’s a choice between probable fertility, children and significantly lower pay or probable infertility, childlessness and career success. Unsurprisingly, a sizeable proportion of women opt for the former and this means that the gender wage-gap persists (of course, econometricians can make it disappear using a bunch of control variables and certain methodologies).

Assisted Reproductive Technologies (ART) helps alleviate the situation for many women. Sure, they don’t provide what many might currentlyconsider a ‘natural’ conception, pregnancy or birth (as contemporary social perceptions depict them) but it does mean that there is an alternative to women being constrained one way or another.

Some Assisted Reproductive Technologies are completely unregulated, some are loosely regulated and some are definitely quite heavily regulated. For example, in certain jurisdictions where forms of ART is available, laws stipulate that only heterosexual couples (as opposed to say, a homosexual couple or a single person) can use these technologies. Such a restriction means that marriage is a pre-requisite for ART; again, however, this constrains her. We need to completely abolish restrictions like these (which exhibit a clear, conservative bias) in order for ART to be an effective means by which the biological causes of gender wage-gap persistence are overcome.

More importantly, we should ensure that the current freedom of access to ART is defended against misinformed, prejudiced zealots. This ensures not only that people have more freedom to choose but also partially addresses the social inequity and labour market outcome inequity arising from biological gender-inequality via the technological innovation that a relatively free market makes possible.

As we've been saying, there isn't really a gender pay gap

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But there is a motherhood pay gap. Interesting research:

Studies from countries with laws against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation suggest that gay and lesbian employees report more incidents of harassment and are more likely to report experiencing unfair treatment in the labor market than are heterosexual employees. Gay men are found to earn less than comparably skilled and experienced heterosexual men. For lesbians, the patterns are ambiguous: in some countries they have been found to earn less than their heterosexual counterparts, while in others they earn the same or more.

The results for the UK are that gay men earn less than hetero, lesbians more than hetero women. In fact, lesbians earn around what men do and gay men earn around what hetero women do.

We could, as this report does, speculate about societal standards, the idea that lesbian women have, in some manner, "male traits" which lead to that higher pay.

A much simpler observation of the evidence would be the influence of children. We know that fathers earn more than non-fathers among hetero men (yes, even after adjusting for age and education etc). Also that mothers earn less than non-mothers. Gay men tend not to be fathers (this is not being categorical of course, "tend") as lesbians tend not to be mothers.

If the so-called gender pay gap were simply the influence of children upon earning patterns, as we largely think it is, then we would expect to see what we do see when looking at the earnings of non-hetero society. This does not prove we are correct of course, but it is supportive of our view.

‘Radical’ policy, electoral cycles, protests and term-length

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Implementing ‘radical’ policy carries risks. Abolishing marriage law, scrapping the minimum wage or converting a central banking system into one of free banking carries the inherent risk of ‘shocking’ the population, to put it mildly. There are remedial measures that can be taken but rigid electoral conventions and the length of governments’ terms makes their implementation more difficult. For example, suddenly abolishing the minimum wage would likely cause immediate harm to those on it (or being paid close to it) if it were done in an improper, ‘shocking’ manner – and that’s not even considering the long-term sociological impact of the resulting aversion to ‘free market’ ideas involving ‘liberalisation’ and ‘deregulation’. Putting aside the long-term individual, communal and intergenerational psychological impact of poorly managed liberalisation policies, the immediate harm is mainly caused by the fact that the affected individuals have little time to prepare for it and, therefore, any immediate harm can be mitigated if policy is announced well in advance.

On the 9th December 2010, the House of Commons voted to raise the tuition fees cap. By then, so many students had already applied to university and were due to start in 2011 (though, admittedly, the tuition fee rise would not be effective until 2012) and the students from the year below who had made plans based on previous estimates would feel the brunt of this. One and a half years is hardly enough for those students and their families to make suitable provisions for a 3 or 4-year, full-time course at Uni (which has increasingly become the preserve of the middle-class).

Furthermore, the sense of an impending tuition fee rise no doubt exacerbated the sentiments necessary for a strike. If, instead, they announced their plans at the start of the term but delayed actual implementation until mid-way or late into the term, any protests may actually be smaller since people would have had a longer time to lobby/reason with the government and, indeed, for the policy’s advocates to reason with and persuade the people.

Thus, when planning to implement such policy, an adequately advanced announcement ensures that those affected have time to make provisions and, therefore, significantly diminish any potential, immediate harm caused upon implementation.

The problem, however, is the phenomenon of behavioural changes during electoral cycles; politicians and governments behave differently before and after elections (think promises before and actions after elections as well as populist policies in the run-up to elections) – they want to win elections and, sometimes, expectations-stability when implementing radical policy is sacrificed.

One possible policy suggestion here is to allow the electorate to choose how long they would like the government’s term to be during the elections (by indicating a preferred term-length and then collating the results according to a collated ranking system or weighted average of some sort – of course, selecting the optimal social preference ordering methodology is controversial but that is beyond the scope of this blog post). If the electorate were to opt for a longer term-length, it would be a signal (quite possibly of confidence or of a desire for longer-lasting stability or simply a desire to delay future elections etc.) and this means that otherwise shocking policy can be implemented with less immediate harm. Conversely, shorter term-lengths will ensure that those governments with shaky mandates will be time-constrained in implementing their more extreme policy proposals.

Free movement and discrimination: the case of football

The more you open markets up, the less discrimination you get on grounds of 'taste' (racism). The stuff left over is usually 'statistical' (i.e. where certain groups are different in their average levels of job-relevant criteria). There was already a great paper showing this for the Fantasy Premier League (which I play avidly), but now there's also one for the real Premiership! Pierre Deschamps and José de Sousa look at the impact of the 1995 Bosman Ruling on the gap between black and white footballer wages in the English league. They find that when only 20 clubs competed for their skills, black players were underpaid relative to white ones, indicating that owners were able to indulge their preference against non-whites (or indulge their fans' preferences).

But once the whole of Europe were effectively on an equal footing, blacks became highly mobile and garnered equal pay for their efforts:

This paper assesses the impact of labor mobility on racial discrimination. We present an equilibrium search model that reveals an inverted U-shaped relationship between labor mobility and race-based wage differentials. We explore this relationship empirically with an exogenous mobility shock on the European soccer labor market. The Bosman ruling by the European Court of Justice in 1995 lifted restrictions on soccer player mobility.

Using a panel of all clubs in the English first division from 1981 to 2008, we compare the pre- and post-Bosman ruling market to identify the causal effect of intensified mobility on race-based wage differentials. Consistent with a taste-based explanation, we find evidence that increasing labor market mobility decreases racial discrimination.

The figure below shows how the 'turnover' (i.e. churn between clubs) of black English players jumped when European markets opened up. Market freedoms; exit; a sort of 'voting with their feet', outperformed voice in bringing equality. And we know from ASI research that this did not harm the English national team.

This is in line with a lot of what we have been saying recently—markets are a good way to bring about justice!

Compulsory Education, Child Rights, and the Foundation of Society

Vishal Wilde's series of think pieces continues with a radical look at the role of government in education. Why, he asks, do we assume that both children and society are better off when we make education compulsory in childhood? He suggests that using state coercion in this way is reprehensible and unproductive. Instead, children should be liberated from the constraints the state currently places upon them, for their own benefit and ours. Everyone loves learning. The thing is that not everyone likes studying and what’s even more frustrating is being told how and why we should study. Making education available to everyone is benevolent but making education compulsory for everyone is something that we are so used to that we do not see the blatant problem with it – the deprivation of freedom that prevents the flourishing of precisely those who have the most potential in society; children. Children, when you think carefully about it, are the most oppressed people across all societies.

One might argue that we often only see the value of things once we have gone through them and we might not have realised that had people not guided us onto and through that path. There is, however, a distinction between gentle guidance and legal coercion via making something compulsory. Imagine if we made undergraduate degrees, master’s degrees and doctorates compulsory – this would, quite likely and certainly justifiably, result in public outrage due to the deprivation of civil liberties.

Of course, when children are forced to go to school, since they are unable to argue comprehensively against the injustice of the situation, we do not listen to their outcries. Now, there are children who enjoy going to school. What about those that really don’t, though? What about those who have genuine passions and interests outside of the syllabus and classroom? The crude manner in which we are organised according to our ‘ability’ or ‘academic potential’ from an early age is hardly representative and within each ‘ability set’, there is still a wide spectrum of potential with respect to the taught material and there is, therefore, an oft-documented tendency for some to feel bored and some to be left behind.

A way to handle this problem is reduce class sizes and one way to reduce class sizes is to make education non-compulsory whilst still allowing people to attend the classes that they want to, in order to attain the skills that they themselves think would be useful. For example, if a child realises that they’d like to learn how a computer works (whether this be in terms of software or hardware), they will quickly realise that in order to effectively learn about this (like many other things), they will need to learn become numerate and literate. Therefore they will, by innate means, come to value numeracy and literacy and, most likely, expend more effort in attaining the necessary level of proficiency in these skills as a means to their final end.

Furthermore, the way in which various subjects are taught in school is essentially a form of paradigmatic, scientific indoctrination. Yes, teachers are taught to be unbiased and impassionate when teaching subjects such as History and Economics, but this does not prevent the syllabus itself from being biased toward a particular methodology, ideology, interpretation or analysis. Thomas Kuhn (1962) argued in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions that sciences such as Physics, Chemistry and Biology are taught as if they had progressed in a linear fashion and the History of Science is completely misrepresented to students from a very early age. The education system is the method by which we are trained to think dogmatically under the rules of a specific paradigm rather than rationally and independently whilst being aware of the prevailing rules of the paradigm. Ultimately, this stifles the speed of articulation and shifting of these paradigms. The representation of ‘scientific’ knowledge that many are so quick to praise because of the rapid development it has enabled will also, in future, be deemed the dogma of our era, whose limitations were self-imposed, unnecessarily prolonged and continuously reinforced by means of compulsory education.

However, what would children do if they were not forced into education? Play? Work? Whatever they want? All of these might seem like horrifying propositions to some but this is because we have been conditioned into believing that education means being up to the standard of certain metrics, sitting in a classroom, being passively taught and raking in the qualifications that correlate with higher earnings. Making education non-compulsory does not mean that people would not learn, it would just mean that people would, from a young age, be empowered to learn how they learn best rather than be taught how they supposedly learn best; they would have a more holistic understanding of what constitutes an education and this would enable them to think more creatively with less regard to the standards currently imposed by civilisation.

What about those children who do not feel motivated to advance scientific knowledge and are, rather, interested in pursuing work opportunities? After all, not everyone is interested in working at the so-called ‘frontiers of knowledge’. The phrase ‘child labour’ appals people because it conjures imagery of children working in horrific, mind-numbing and often life-threatening conditions. I’m certainly not actively advocating that children should be sent up chimneys or work with dangerous, heavy machinery once more but I’m saying that children should be allowed to work non-life-threatening jobs that they feel they might get some valuable experience from. For example, if a child who has taken a particular interest in computer programming was allowed to do some coding jobs for a software developer, would it not be wrong to prevent them from doing so? Coding is not life-threatening, it pays well, the child might love it and indeed, the child may be able to think in ways that adults cannot and he or she may well be far more suited to the job than any adult.

Similarly, if a child had a passion for art and he wanted to work as an assistant or apprentice in an artist’s studio, why on earth would we deny them the opportunity and instead force them to go to a classroom to learn the things the government thinks they ought to learn? One of the arguments put forward is that children need to go to school in order to be economically productive in society and work well within it – however, if they find that they don’t need to go to school to do this or that only certain classes taught within school are worth attending to attain this end, then education cannot be made compulsory purely on this ground. In fact, studies, life experience and even common sense repeatedly reveal to us that much of what we are taught in formal education turns out to be of very limited use in the interests we choose to develop in future.

The gender differences in educational attainment (girls outperforming boys) and in pathways (boys being over-represented in mathematics, engineering and the sciences versus girls who are over-represented in the arts and humanities) may also possibly be addressed when individuals are able to express their passion for a subject in their own way.

Indeed, we might find far more passionate teachers outside of the classroom than in the classroom. By making education non-compulsory, children would be able to pick and choose their teachers and they would naturally gravitate towards those who complement their personalities and this would, in turn, naturally foster passion for their interests.

The gist of some of the arguments for compulsory education is that “since we went through it and it has done something good for us, they should go through it as well”. This logic doesn’t hold when we consider the example that something good, such as lessons learned with respect to what we should like to never repeat, might have come out of some appalling eras in History (Mao’s Great Leap Forward, Gulags in the Soviet Union, Hitler’s Third Reich) but we would certainly not wish them to be repeated again for the sake of the lessons being ingrained in us once more.

You might think that the three aforementioned examples were extreme comparisons but when you think about it and scrutinise education policy closely, they may still be apt comparisons – Mao thought that his reforms would do good for China, Hitler suppressed and slaughtered entire peoples because he thought the world would be better off without them and Stalin thought that imprisonment and forced labour was the optimal way to deal with political dissidence. There are many children who love going to school and get a lot out of it but what about those who don’t? When those children that love reading fantasy stories, learning about dinosaurs or ancient civilisations get told to put down their books, lay aside their passion and listen to what must be taught – is it not suppressing their thoughts, is it not the slow slaughter of the people they could be, is it not forced labour as punishment for intellectual dissidence?

Of course, we don’t see this when the child cries not to go to school because they would rather do something that we perceive to be unproductive. “But how will they learn the skills necessary for economic independence from their parents? How will they learn to be good, functioning members of society if they do not go to school with their peers?” Isn’t there more than one way to learn from and interact within society? Do we really want to teach a child that what really matters is how much they make from their education? Should education be viewed purely as a monetary investment?

Surely by telling children what they must learn and what is best for them without allowing them to think for themselves from a young age we are preventing them from thinking independently about how best to tackle the world – it is, after all, independent thought that is the necessary precursor for all other forms of independence (such as, but not limited to, the financial variety) and a vital ingredient for advancing civilisation.

Suppose they were granted the right to, when some children leave the classroom to embark on their own personal journey of learning, a high proportion of those who remain in the classroom will be composed mainly of individuals who see value in the taught syllabus, for one reason or another. This leaves together those who see value in what they are doing and the mutually shared interests of the class will enable all of them to collectively cover more ground and explore deeper questions. Incidentally, this would also cut the cost of education to the taxpayer since children would only learn what they want to and enrol in the classes that they’d like to even from the primary years.

Even though life expectancy has increased over the centuries, this does not give the State (or any other person, for that matter) the right to encroach upon and dictate what we do with our, on average, increasing amount of time spent in this world. Parents might say “but they are my children, I need to guide them” and no-one would deny them the opportunity to guide their children but you should never forget that though you might think of them as your children, their lives will never be your lives.

The government continuously inhibits children’s’ development, albeit with good intentions. By all means, let education be available and optional but enforced compulsion tramples upon that most powerful, cherished and important civil liberty – the freedom of thought, the foundations of a truly flourishing society. The panacea to this poison is to make our education system wholly optional.

Space disco, Kate Bush, and more: the ASI's best of 2014

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Ben:

Song: #####.1 by #####

Album: It's Album Time by Todd Terje

Musician: The Pizza Underground

Movie: Grand Budapest Hotel, but I'm ashamed to say I only saw five

Book: Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov

Restaurant: Rex and Mariano, Soho (runner up The Manor, Clapham)

Favourite article: I Can Tolerate Anything Except the Outgroup, by Scott Alexander

Favourite moment: #Gamergate

Favourite person: Scottish highlander on BBC Question Time

Kate:

Song: Wild Child by Kenny Chesney, with Grace Potter

Album: 1989 by Taylor Swift

Musician: Jason Aldean (for continuing his tradition of writing songs about trucks)

Movie: Magic in the Moonlight

Book: Goodbye, Mr Chips by James Hilton (1939)

Article: Bring Back the Girls - Quietly by Peggy Noonan (WSJ)

Political moment: #Bridgegate

Person: Senator-elect Cory Gardner, CO (I have now forgiven Colorado for their nightmare decision in 2012. Ohio, on the other hand, I am still not speaking to)

Charlotte:

Song: minipops 67 [120.2][source field mix] by Aphex Twin (because it only took 13 years to come out proper)

Album: Rivers of the Red Planet by Max Graef (jazz/hip-hop/house, good background music)

Musician: Kate Bush (the year I got round to listening to her albums)

Movie: Under the Skin (amazingly shot)

Book: Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind (one of the few I actually read)

Restaurant: Bone Daddies, Soho (who can't love a huge bowl of pig fat & garlic)

Article: The Socialist Origins of Big Data - The New Yorker (on Chile's project Cybersyn)

Political Moment: The world thinking Kim Jung Il's public absence was because he broke both his ankles because he ate so much Emmenthal (because obviously)

Person: Shia LaBeouf (for everything he's given us)

Sophie:

Single: Shake It Off by Taylor Swift (I do not enjoy this song but LOVE watching Charity, one of my best friends and Swift’s greatest fan, singing it)

Album: Artpop by Lady Gaga (the pop genius’s works are not only the epitome of freedom of expression and individualism but Gaga demonstrates the natural force with which the world sucks up anything walking into a gaping hole in the market)

Musician: Kate Bush (my eyes opened to her brilliance and creations this year by Sam, her sounds and voice open creative avenues in my mind)

Movie: La Grand Bellezza (released 2013 but watched this year, you MUST see this, it’s an indulgent party for the senses to devour)

Book: The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley (only read this year though it was released in 2010)

Restaurant: Le Relais de Venise, Mansion House (holds fond memories of both an amazing steak and my first time dining with the ASI team)

Political moment: remaining a United Kingdom (were endless obscure and hilarious ones in 2014, though building up to the referendum for two years and the elation experienced at the result makes this undoubtably number 1)

Person: Malala Yousafzai (the 17-year-old global role model is courageous, ambitious and hard-working, existing to fight for others’ education—I was reduced to tears of inspiration when she spoke at my university)

Nick:

Song: Fancy by Iggy Azalea and Charli XCX (albeit for entirely non-I-G-G-Y related reasons)

Album: Kenny Dennis III by Serengeti (see No Beginner, Off/On)

Musician: Jonwayne (partly for being the neckbeardiest rapper/producer going - see Andrew, Be Honest)

Movie: Locke (of the four or so I watched)

Book: Time's Arrow by Martin Amis (1991) or The Rise of the Meritocracy (1958) by Matthew Young (honourable mentions to We by Yevgeny Zamyatin (1921) and Girl, 20 by Kingsley Amis (1971))

Restaurant: Jam Jar, Jesmond, Newcastle, if only for their Cow vs. Pig burger

Article:Tories should turn their backs on Clacton’ and ‘Voters, not the politicians, are out of touch’ by Matthew Parris, King of trolls (Times)

Political moment: The UKIP defections and the resulting betting, which netted me a sum of no less than £10

Person: For me, 2014 was the year of the unimullet (s/o r/YoutubeHaiku)

Sam:

Song: Attachment by Hannah Diamond (My top 50 singles of the year are here, Youtube playlist link here)

Album: It's Album Time by Todd Terje (Thanks Ben for introducing me. I also enjoyed FKA Twigs's album LP1 and got into Susanne Sundfor in a big way this year)

Musician: AG Cook / the PC Music grouping in general

Movie: Interstellar (but I only saw about 5 films all year)

Book: Vanished Kingdoms by Norman Davies (Worth it for the chapter on the Kingdom of Dumbarton Rock alone. Matt Ridley's The Red Queen, on the evolutionary biology of sex, was a close runner-up)

Restaurant: Santana Grill (a burrito stand on Strutton Ground near the office—just delicious; I also ate at KFC at lot)

Article: An open letter to open-minded progressives, by Mencius Moldbug (I disagree with much of Moldbug's work, but I can't think of a more interesting contemporary political thinker)

Podcast: Serial

Political moment: Shinzo Abe storming to victory in Japan (also for his amazingly awkward handshake with Xi Jinping)

Person: Richard Dawkins (boring as an atheist, brilliant as Social Justice Warrior-bait)

Philip:

Song: Turn Down for What by DJ Snake and Lil Jon

Album: Syro by Aphex Twin

Musician: Matador

Movie: Guardians of the Galaxy

Book: Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking by Daniel Dennett

Restaurant: Gymkhana, Mayfair

Article / blogpost: How Farming Almost Destroyed Ancient Human Civilization by Annalee Newitz

Political moment: The landing of the Rosetta spacecraft's Philae probe on Comet 67P

Person: David Sinclair (for his work on lifespan extension)