Reforming politics


In the wake of the parliamentary expenses scandal, there are lots of different ideas being bandied about on how to reform parliament, clean-up politics, and so on. Some ideas are better than others, but almost all of them are based on the same fundamental misconception – that we actually need full-time, professional politicians.

It all stems from what I call the West Wing view of politics, which is full of deeply moral politicians and brilliant staffers, all earnestly striving to make a difference. Too many commentators share this outlook – they are so in love with politics that they imagine political power is the only real driver of progress, and suppose that if only we had the right people in charge everything would be better.

But this naïve faith in the potential of politics of misplaced. First of all, the brilliant idealists tend to be grand planners, so sure of their own intellect that they want to re-make the world according to their own preferences and expect everyone to be grateful. Ultimately though, one political master plan is as bad as another.

Moreover, most politics has nothing to do with idealism. On the contrary, it tends to be a sordid and cynical business, where winning is everything and the only rule is not to get caught. That's what the expenses scandal and the Damian McBride debacle have laid bare, but these are just headline grabbing examples of what's been going on for years. It's the nature of the beast.

And that's why the best kind of political system is one in which politicians have so little power over our lives that it doesn't really matter which of them are in charge. Any reforms to the system should be done with that principle in mind.

Like David Myddleton, I'd cut the number of MPs and place strict limits on the number of days parliament sat. I'd pay MPs a small attendance fee like the one they'd get for doing jury service, and expect them to spend most of their time doing a proper job. Perhaps then they'd realize that all most of us want from them is to be left alone.

Blog Review 970


The male teenager is an ugly beast that needs socialising: thus raising the school leaving age is a good or a bad idea?

Another way of stating the old saw: Don't just do something, stand there!

Even the unions don't think that the equity in Chrysler has any value: and that's after the bailout.

Worth checking out, a defence of free trade from 75 years before Adam Smith's.

On the meaning of paedgnostic and the spotting of true stupidities in the public sphere.

Something to occupy those long speeches. How to play Brown bingo.

And finally, when an African in America is not an African American.


Women are getting unhappier


Greg Mankiw notes a new paper:

By many objective measures the lives of women in the United States have improved over the past 35 years, yet we show that measures of subjective well-being indicate that women's happiness has declined both absolutely and relative to men. The paradox of women's declining relative well-being is found across various datasets, measures of subjective well-being, and is pervasive across demographic groups and industrialized countries. Relative declines in female happiness have eroded a gender gap in happiness in which women in the 1970s typically reported higher subjective well-being than did men. These declines have continued and a new gender gap is emerging -- one with higher subjective well-being for men.

Of course, we should all be happy in these gender egalitarian times that women no longer lord it over men in terms of their subjective happiness. As we all know, proper equality insists that we are all as miserable as each other rather than allowing any one group to be better off in any manner.

However, there shouldn't really be any surprise at this finding, not amongst those who have absorbed the second thing everyone needs to know about economics: that there are always opportunity costs.

It's true that women were restricted in the life choices that they could make only a few decades ago. A serious career was incompatible with marriage not all that long ago, a generation or two, and while that did get milder, it's only recently that the wider society has believed that children and a career were both possible. That all such choices, career or no, children or no, are seen as socially acceptable (even if the combinations might not be all that easy to carry off) this is an advance in the choices open to women and thus their liberty.

Hurrah! More liberty is good.

However, no one has ever said that such will make us happier. For with more choices comes a problem: there are more things that we cannot do. One cannot be both a childless career woman and a stay at home mother. One cannot be a career woman with children and simultaneously be a career woman without. As the number of possible paths increases so must the number of paths not taken. And as we all know, the true cost of something is what you give up to get it.

So, taking any one path means forsaking all those other paths, those number of paths which have in recent decades been rising in numbers. Thus the paradox of choice, that more such can make us subjectively less happy. But if you ask people whether having fewer choices would make them happier, no one ever actually says that yes, it would.

Just as an example, does anyone seriously think that insisting that women either pursued careers or had children, with no blurring of the roles allowed, would be an acceptable limitation of liberty in a free society: even if it did make those women happier?

No, I thought not maybe subjective happiness isn't the goal that society should be pursuing then?

If I were King...

According to the front-page of Friday's Daily Mail, "one is not amused!" And you can see what they mean – there's not much in the news at the moment to inspire pride in the country. Being Britain's monarch probably isn't what it used to be.
The question that occurred to me is, if the Queen really were that unhappy with the state of British politics, could she dissolve parliament and call a general election without having to await the advice of the Prime Minister? There's no doubt that such a move would defy convention, but legally I don't think there's anything to stop it happening.
It's probably what I'd do. And I might say something like,
"Naturally, it is up to the political parties to determine which candidates they field and how they are selected, and then it is up to the electorate to decide who will represent them. But I would expect voters to take a very dim view of any candidate guilty of parliamentary corruption, and of any party which selected them."
In other words, let the purge begin.
Now, I suspect readers might think it odd that a libertarian would write about what an unelected monarch could or should do. I can see their point. But there is actually an interesting libertarian case for monarchy, which Hans-Hermann Hoppe makes in his book Democracy: The God That Failed.
His argument is that democracy, by its very nature, produces bad leaders. To rise to the top in a democracy, you have to be a skilled demagogue. To stay there, you have to value immediate advantage over long-term considerations. A monarch, by contrast, is like a property owner – their incentive is to preserve the long-term value of the country. Of course, Hoppe doesn't advocate monarchy as an ideal – he is a proponent of a 'private law society' – but rather as the lesser of two evils.
It's certainly an intriguing perspective.


Blog Review 969


Increasing the CAFE standards: the only real problem is that it won't in fact work.

Sarcasm rather becomes this comment on the same CAFE standards.

Light rail isn't any better either.

How strange, when the taxpayers are actually asked the say no to more spending, no to more taxes and yes to paying politicians less.

On that M&S 1 p store story. Well of course the items ran out before the queue did!

No, the disdain for Gorbals Mick doesn't have anything at all to do with his religion.

And finally, did you know that information about driving licences is translated into braille?

Wanted: A culture of change


The world of British politics is a unique, complex confusing place. Parliament is confused in its approach to change; it seems unable to decide whether it is a progressive flexible body looking to the future or an established conservative organisation building upon history.

The past months events have highlighted not only the failures of many individuals within parliament, but also the system itself. I can still remember being taught the concept of parliamentary conventions during an A Level politics class and being slightly perplexed by their influence over such important decisions. When we questioned why politicians are obliged to follow the conventions with such rigidity the response was plain: “they just are, it’s always been like that".

The expenses scandal and subsequent removal of the Speaker has undermined the notion of parliamentary conventions, the taboo has been broken, and as such we are facing a constitutional crisis. Foreign democracies must look at British politics with an air of bewilderment. Under a codified constitution the rules surrounding MPs pay, the office of the Speaker, accountability and subsequent scrutiny would have been much less ambiguous. The system we currently have fails to safeguard the fundamentals we have the right to expect within parliament, including democracy and effective scrutiny of the executive.

There needs to be effective reform, soon, and not the type of reform made by MPs to benefit MPs. A new culture needs to be bred within parliament making it far less insular and with a focus on public rather than self service. These changes need to start from the bottom up, for example, by adopting US style primaries and implementing term limits we would stop the abundance of career politicians and make many safe seats more competitive. This would make many MPs work a lot harder for our money and remove much of the established dry-rot that plagues the houses. We would also not have another unelected Prime Minister.

This change needs to happen soon or there could be huge and permanent repercussions for Britain. Two months ago we would have said a Speaker would never by forced from office by MPs, just as we said it would be impossible for the fascist BNP to hold a seat of power – now that is an incentive if we ever needed one.

Financial Crisis lunch with John Redwood

This week the Adam Smith Institute hosted a lunch for politicians, economists and journalists to discuss the policy implications of the financial crisis. John Redwood MP led off with 10-minutes giving his own perspective, before we opened things up to general discussion. As we worked through the agenda, a number of interesting points emerged.
For instance, there was general agreement on the need to return to simple, prudential supervision based on cash and capital requirements, instead of the FSA's complex, process-driven approach (which has done more harm than good). It was also felt that responsibility for that supervision should probably rest with the Bank of England, who should also oversee government debt management once again. In other words, Gordon Brown's tri-partite regulatory structure should be scrapped. The case for a 'bad bank' for toxic debt was dismissed as weak (at best), while the idea of EU or global financial regulation proved distinctly unpopular.
One very interesting theme to emerge was the need for a more competitive banking sector in the UK – both so that banks do not become 'too big to fail', and so that customers get a better deal. Some people clearly thought the high street banks were exhibiting the characteristics of a cartel. Breaking up the government-owned megabanks – Lloyds TSB/HBOS and RBS – was suggested as a good way to start.