Playing with crime figures

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No, no, don't worry, I'm not about to wade into which set of crime figures are correct, the survey or what the police write down. Nor even about which political party is tripping over its own feet least in playing football with the figures. No, rather, I just want to address a particular point that's often made.

While the definitions of some crimes may have changed over time, or be either way crimes, murder is murder so that's the gold standard to look at. Changes in the murder rate will therefore be the best guide to whether crime is increasing or not.

This isn't, I sorry to have to say, entirely true. Yes, we can indeed measure murder rather better than we can all other crimes. But we're still missing something. That is that medical treatment of trauma victims has got a great deal better over the decades: people attacked who would have died in earlier times (ie, would have been murdered) now survive (and are thus not murdered). So by counting only the number of people successfully murdered we're confusing two entirely different things. The number of people attacked so that they might be killed and the number of those who survive or succumb to such attacks. Yes, this is just a newspaper report, but the estimates of how important this is are large:

Improvements in emergency care over the last 40 years have helped to lower the death rate among assault victims by nearly 70 percent, a new study says.

Those figures are for 1960 to the turn of the century. Over that time (page 9 here) murders have gone from 300 ish a year to 600 ish a year (one year's figures are no good for one event, a bombing, or Harold Shipman, can change the figures hugely). Population has also changed of course, from 48 million or so to what, 65 million today?

Now quite how you want to crunch all of those figures together is up to you but the number of murders has doubled while population has risen by only 35%...and we would expect, as a result of better medical care, the number of murders (assuming assaults of equal severity taking place) to have fallen substantially.

All of which leads to two points. Murder is, by definition, successfully killing someone and if the rate of success changes then we cannot use the simple number of murders as our standard by which to measure crime rates. And when we adjust by one way of looking at that success rate, the medical care which prevents such success, then it really does look at if Britain has become a much more violent place over the decades. For murder should have fallen and it's risen.

Banning the burqa

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Under David Cameron’s leadership the Conservative party has taken great pains to rebrand itself as a multicultural, more socially liberal party. However, there will always be individuals that will let this front down, and most recently this has been done through the comments of Philip Hollobone, MP for Kettering.

According to The Telegraph, Hollobone used a Commons debate on International Women’s day to state: ''I seriously think that a ban on wearing the burqa in public should be considered.'' He reveals he realized “how inappropriate and, frankly, offensive, it is for people to wear this apparel in the 21st century'', when he stumbled across a burqa’d woman in a park. For a start, the context for this ‘revelation’ seems to suggest how little exposure Mr Hollobone has to Britain’s veiled Muslim population, making one wonder how informed his judgment of the burqa can be. However, it is his suggestion that the burqa should be banned because he, and others, find it offensive that is his mistake.

Freedom of expression and freedom of worship help form the bedrock of a free, open and tolerant society. For Hollobone to say, therefore, that the burqa “goes against the British way of life” is at best absurd, and at worst rather worrying.

By choosing International Women’s Day to highlight his opposition to the more restrictive forms of Islam, Hollobone may have believed he was championing women’s rights. However, his ill-thought plan to ban the burqa would cause more harm than good, by attacking a visible symptom of an illiberal movement and not the roots. Making it illegal to wear the burqa in public would do nothing to change the opinion of those who believe it is essential for women to remain covered, and would simply see women confined to the walls of their homes.

Labour "will not increase taxes"

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Liam Byrne, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, has said that if Labour wins the election, there will be no tax increases. This is a straight lie, of course, and everyone should say that. It's what they said last time. They said they would not raise income tax rates, and then did so. Brown actually said at one stage – and sent his spin doctors out to back him with a meaningless gibberish of false statistics – that he had reduced taxes.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies has already said that Labour cannot deliver this. They say that there will have to be tax rises or even deeper spending cuts than those already trailed, or both. City experts are already spelling out the scale of tax rises Labour will have to impose simply to keep its current spending proposals.

In fact Brown has taken Britain from being one of the low tax countries of the EU to one of its highest, from being an attractive place to do business to being one which businesses are deserting. He has corrupted the honesty of the system by his use of stealth taxes which people do not realize they are paying. Of course Labour will raise taxes. It is what they do. They favour government spending because they can control and direct it, rather than have us spending on ourselves in ways they can neither predict not control.

One can readily imagine Brown trying to brazen it out, "and that is why I have allocated an additional £427m of resources to secure the reduction of 21,000 taxes, directed at the most needy elements of society..."

Fortunately the false promise of no Labour tax increases , the latest of many, is unlikely to be put to the test. Parties which do not expect to be elected have few restraints on the glib promises they can make.

Should we have open-carry?

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The BBC news on Thursday night featured a report on the upcoming Supreme Court decision on the Chicago gun ban; litigation launched after the successful case of DC v Heller, which overturned a similar outright prohibition on handguns in Washington DC.

The legal argument is actually very interesting, and detailed opinions on it can be accessed at the Cato Institute here. However, even for those who don’t share my academic interest in 2nd Amendment jurisprudence, the BBC’s report was worth watching. It largely focussed on the effect of laws already in force in Wisconsin, which allow the open-carry, but not concealed-carry, of handguns. It showed how responsible, law-abiding citizens carrying guns openly leads to people both feeling and being safer.

The story that ran slightly later in the news concerned the jobs due to be lost at train station ticket offices across London, chiefly because of the advent of the automated Oyster card. The RMT Union gave its predictable little spiel arguing in effect for swapping motor cars for cycle rickshaws, because they don’t understand the economic benefits of technological advancement. However, a lot of customers interviewed by the reporter did seem genuinely concerned that a lack of visible staff at stations would lead to an increase in crime.

That’s when the connexion between the stories struck me. Why don’t we stop relying on low-paid staff at stations to provide visible security, and instead have open-carry firearms laws?

Open-carry is very ‘visible’ – far more so than staff in neon jackets on station platforms, or standing behind ticket counters. It allows people to take charge of their own security. In addition, it empowers people to look out for one another as good neighbours, rather than relying on there always being someone official on hand to bail them out. It also means that criminals, who in our country seem to have no qualms about carrying and using knives to assault innocent citizens, would be placed at a disadvantage – far more of a disadvantage, in fact, than they are if, carrying knives, they are confronted by a station clerk, not carrying a knife.

Beating the bully briefs

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Some commentators have pointed out that as the election nears, the Downing Street attack dogs have been unleashed again. The tactics are those of the off-the-record briefing which contains the smear, what Alistair Darling referred to as "the forces of hell." It is very effective because it serves both the media and the government. A chosen journalist is favoured with an inside story which he or she then runs, earning praise from their editor and the envy of their colleagues. So when the anti-bullying help-line boss reveals that Downing Street employees have called for help, within minutes the story is twisted to one of 'breach of confidentiality,' with various figures trotted out to back the new slant and trash the charity concerned.

This is not something just done to benefit the Guardian and the BBC. The centre-right press has proved just as gullible in reproducing stories they have been given to support the government version of events.

There is something that might be done. As we found with expenses, there is nothing like daylight to send insects scuttling. If this were publicized every time it happened, with names named, it might begin to lose its effectiveness. Step forward Guido Fawkes. Mr Fawkes has long denounced the lobby system and the confidential briefings. Those appalled by what the system is doing should now make it their business to report every case to Mr Fawkes, anonymously of course, naming the journalist and the person who did the briefing. They could even tip off Guido when they have been given such a story themselves, doing it in third person to make it appear that someone else has exposed them.

Once it became routine for these so-called 'briefings' to appear on the Guido Fawkes site, complete with the names of the guilty parties, its dishonesty would become transparent, and people might think twice about doing it. Over to you, Mr Fawkes.

Social care for the elderly

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It was reported yesterday that the government is considering the introduction of an additional death tax to fund their aspiration to create a 'National Care Service', which would provide universal, free-at-the-point of use care for the elderly. It would be levied at 10% of the deceased's estate, up to a maximum of £50,000. According to The Times:

All three parties agree that the current system of means-tested care is unfair, and have promised to introduce legislation in the next Parliament to ensure that in future people will not have to remortgage or sell their homes or spend their savings to fund the costs of residential care or other services.

Surprisingly enough, I don't agree with any of the parties. Their position amounts to saying that even if you have the cash to pay your own way, or even if you have assets that could be liquidated to allow you to do the same, someone else should be forced to pay for you. And what is 'fair' about that?

You'd think they would have learned something from the failings of the NHS, and that rather than creating a social care equivalent, they might think about doing something to promote private saving and insurance, and above all personal responsibility. People need to get the message that cradle-to-grave welfare is not sustainable, and that increasingly people are going to have to provide for themselves.

I'm sure there are people out there who will read this and accuse me of not caring about the elderly. In reality, however, I think the lack of respect and dignity accorded to the aged is one of the most depressing aspects of British society. I just don't think more collectivism is the answer.

People should save for their retirement while they are earning, and not expect current workers to pay their bills. Families should be far more prepared to look after their own, rather than passing the buck to the rest of us. Those who care about the elderly should be far more willing to fund voluntary care organizations. And the state should only step in as a last resort, to help those who really have no other options.

Why is American healthcare so expensive?

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Yesterday I wrote on some of the misrepresentations used to attack the American healthcare system. However, as Mark Littlewood pointed out in Tuesday’s debate, the American system is not one we should want to copy in its entirety. Although America has the highest quality treatment of any country in the world, and leads the world in medical innovation, the cost is simply too high.

The intelligent response therefore, is to ask why the cost is so high.

The answer to that is actually straightforward, but those on the economic left simply don’t want to admit it. It is, in fact, the same problem we have with healthcare in our country: People don’t pay for their own care.

Yes, you read that right; the problem at the heart of the increasing costs of healthcare is the same on both sides of the Atlantic, despite us having superficially very different systems. In Britain, it is obvious to people using the NHS that the government picks up the tab. In America the cost is borne either by the government, by the patient’s insurance company, or by their employer. In both systems, it is ultimately the patient who pays; through taxes, insurance premiums or lost job opportunities because of the costs imposed on employers. However, the cost is never made apparent to people in the same way it is when shopping for other goods.

In a functioning market, like we have for televisions or cars, people pay for what they take – they aren’t insulated from the costs. As Cannon and Tanner noted for the Cato Institute, if the current healthcare logic were applied to food, people would only ever eat fillet mignon (except vegetarians, obviously).

The solution is to channel government help through patients, not providers; putting the patients themselves in charge of their healthcare funds, so that people will see for themselves just how expensive healthcare really is. The patients themselves can then decide if they want to eat fillet mignon, sirloin steak or hamburgers, and will push for those innovations that drive healthcare costs down, just as they do when buying anything else. This will solve what is essentially the same problem on both sides of the Atlantic.

If it’s broke...

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Ian Craig, England's Chief Schools Adjudicator, has called on councils to make random checks on 10% of school applications to cut fraud and set up hotlines to catch parents who ‘cheat’ to get their children into their chosen school.

As it's only Mr Craig’s job to determine admissions arrangements, he really has only two options in the face of the estimated 4,200 fraudulent applications that were made in England: do nothing or act. In choosing the latter, he is advocating bringing in abhorrent impositions upon the freedom of the people of this country. This always happens when the state has a near monopoly on anything, fails to satisfy the demand, and people as a consequence dare to break the rules.

The real bogeyman in this instance is the Schools Secretary Ed Balls. He backs Mr Craig’s ideas. His defense of this position belies the failure of his government's approach to schooling:

While I am reassured that only a tiny minority of parents apply dishonestly, I am also clear that every place gained by deception is denying another child their rightful place.

Mr Balls' cake is only so big, so we can only have so many 'good' state schools: bad luck if you don't live in the right area.

And the following rhetorical twisting and turning shows that despite his best intentions, Mr Balls is ideologically up the proverbial creek without an intellectual paddle in sight:

No child should be punished for their parents' actions, but neither should families on waiting lists be unfairly disadvantaged or delayed.

I have not an ounce of bad will towards parents who lie about where they live in order to get their children into the best schools possible. These are taxpayers that have been let down by the government's failure to deliver an adequate education for their children.

I’ll end with a quote from a spokeswoman for the Local Government Association on this matter:

In an ideal world there would be no need to ask councils to investigate parents, because the system works best when everyone is honest and open in applying for school places.

What was it that Kant said about always treating people as ends in themselves, never as means to an end?

A balanced-budget rule

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An American colleague sent me a recent speech by Governor Christie, New Jersey's new, conservative governor.

"By the time we got here," he say, "of the approximately $29 billion budget there was only $14 billion left. Of the $14 billion, $8 billion could not be touched because of contracts with public worker unions, because of bond covenants, and because of commitments we made accepting stimulus money. So we had to find a way to save $2.3 billion in a $6 billion pool of money. When I went into the treasurer's off in the first two weeks of my term, there was no happy meetings. They presented me with 378 possible freezes and lapses to be able to balance the budget. I accepted 375 of them."

Tough measures indeed, but necessary. Because nearly all US states have a balanced-budget provision. They have to balance their books, and there is little scope for fudging. That is why, just this week, Virginia – with a falling population and hard-hit by the credit crunch – has voted for spending cuts that would shrink spending to 2006 levels. Virginia legislators added plenty of spending when times were good: now they have to scale back again, and are trying to do so without cutting essential services.

A balanced-budget rule is something UK politicians should aspire to as well. All too often, government expenditure rises in the good times, but when there is a downturn we are told that it cannot be cut without damaging public services. Phooey. Governments just need to do what every family and business has been doing – identify the priorities, keep on with them, but cut out some of the inessentials. Spending has risen 50% under this government – but are our public services now 50% better? Hardly. We could lose all that spending without noticing the difference.

The incoming government will no doubt try to buy itself some time with public-sector wage and budget freezes. But that is no long-term solution. We need to re-think and prioritise what government actually does. And adopt a balanced-budget rule, so that the government sector's coat is cut according to the wealth-creating sector's cloth.

American healthcare: It is not a free market

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Healthcare featured prominently in the debate at ISOS event yesterday. Mark Littlewood of the IEA and Rushab Ranavat of Debate Mate had to defend the claim that the free market can provide efficient medical care, in order to propose the motion ‘that humans would flourish if the state withered away’. As was to be expected, the opposition, consisting of Tim Horton of the Fabian Society and Peter Barton of Debate Mate, praised the NHS and attacked the American system as the result of free market madness.

This misrepresentation of the American system is an error made all too frequently, even by those who otherwise defend free markets. The American healthcare system does not represent a free market any more than the British one does, or the Cuban one for that matter.

Firstly, out of every dollar spent on healthcare in the USA, 50 cents is spent by the government – The US government spends more on Medicare, Medicaid and SCHIP than is spent on defence by The Pentagon. Secondly, despite the government using the ‘commerce clause’ of the U.S Constitution to legitimise just about every reprehensible thing it does, it still hasn’t managed to use it for its proper purpose of breaking down barriers to trade - like those that forbid the selling of health insurance across state lines. Thirdly, enterprising people who have tried to set up small, cheap clinics aimed particularly at the uninsured have found themselves the targets of massive bureaucratic red tape, and been forced to close.

The claim that this ‘free market’ in the USA does not cover the poorest members of society was also debunked with a concise and neat speech from the floor during the debate yesterday. The point was made that of the 40 million uninsured; the vast majority can either afford insurance, or are eligible for government-provided cover. This point has also been made very eloquently on the Free Market Cure website, which is definitely worth a look.

One thing is for sure. Whilst critics of the free market continue to misrepresent American healthcare, the debate will not progress. Tomorrow I will show what the debate should focus on – the real problems and the real solutions.