How to undermine volunteering


Volunteering is an activity that the government does not understand. For politicians, the populace is seen in crude terms, often through the lens of focus groups.

A report from CFE entitiled Cultural Volunteering in the East Midlands, paid for by a collection of publicly funded bodies, apparently demonstrates the “value of volunteering both to the individual and the organisations they volunteer for". This is not exactly a revelation.

The policy recommendations make depressing reading. It argues for the development of a regional policy and strategy on volunteering. While local government “is expected to facilitate an environment in which volunteering is increased and ensure local people can identify opportunities to volunteer and thus fulfil an active role within their communities".

Included in the recommendations is the suggestion that “Local authorities could maximise the engagement of cultural organisations and volunteers by providing volunteer managers in cultural organisations with appropriate information about services, polices and decisions". In essence this is a blueprint for undermining volunteering in the East Midlands.

By its very nature volunteering is set apart from the coercive state. Although usually well intentioned, politicians are taking away the autonomy of charities and with it the values that make them distinct from politics. It is a pity that many charities are happy to lap up public funds not realising that they are drinking poisoned water. Further, they are undermining those charities that know better.

The rise of the surveillance society


Following the 9/11 and 7/7 terrorist attacks, there has been an exponential increase in Britain’s surveillance: currently, Britain has a quarter of the world’s security surveillance cameras with around four million cameras in use and we are currently the world’s most watched nation – something which is very unnerving and reflective of the surveillance dystopia envisaged by George Orwell in his fictional work “Nineteen Eighty Four".

The steady expansion and the overuse of the surveillance in Britain risks undermining the right to privacy; it poses a huge risk to individual liberty; and one more step towards a police state in the United Kingdom. Currently, there are few laws in place to limit the use of CCTV, brought about to “protect national security": this has lead to a “mission creep" in the use and abuse of surveillance. Local councils have been accused of severely abusing the surveillance in the United Kingdom by using CCTV to prevent fly tipping, dog fouling and, recently, CCTV was used by Poole Borough Council to monitor the actions and whereabouts of a family who were wrongly accused of lying about where they live on a school application form.

Britain’s surveillance society can be closely linked to the works of Jeremy Bentham and Michel Foucault. In 1785, Jeremy Bentham proposed the idea of the Panopticon: the Panopticon is a conceptual prison design that allows the prison guard to watch the prisoners without the prisoners being able to tell when they are being watched, in order to gain significant psychological control. Bentham described the Panopticon as "a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example". The French philosopher, Michel Foucault, took up this theme in his 1975 work “Discipline and Punish", where he pursued the link between surveillance and social control. Thus, comparing the effects of surveillance to the effects of the Panopticon.

Although the use of surveillance clearly has its advantages in terms of fighting crime, its overuse can prove counter-productive and can ultimately be viewed as a challenge to Britain’s liberal democratic status.

The rise of the surveillance society is written by Daniel Button, 3rd prize in The Young Writer on Liberty 2009.

Cut public spending by a third


Sir John Major, former Chancellor (and ex-PM) said at the weekend that public spending should be reduced by a third, including cutting the number of civil servants and ministers.

That would mean reducing government spending from nearly £700 billion to around £450 billion. Since the Treasury expects to collect just under £500 billion of tax this year, it would turn the monstrous £175 billion borrowing into a surplus of about £45 billion.

I’ll let you play fantasy Budgets, but that surplus would be more than enough to abolish council tax, fuel duty, or corporation tax, or increase the tax-free personal allowance to £15,000.

So Major’s proposed cut would mean significant tax cuts as well as a balanced Budget instead of record debt.

That sounds like an incredibly radical measure, even though a necessary and desirable one. But is it really (as I am sure the public sector unions will scream) a savage cut that would cripple public services, or is it a feasible, moderate policy?

Let’s look back a few years, to before the recent government profligacy.

In 2000, three years into the Labour government and with “Prudence" Brown as Chancellor, total government spending was just under £350 billion. Increase that by inflation, and it would be about £450 billion next year.

So the radical-sounding cut of one third of public spending just means that the government does what it did in 2000, with its costs increased by inflation. Is that really so difficult?

Just think of all the wonderful things that the government does now, that it didn’t do in 2000 (go on, try). Are they worth beggaring the country for?

As Tom blogged here last week, “all that extra cash has achieved more or less nothing." Well – except for a crippling public debt!

Kindness not enough to cut the queues


Cheers all round as the Human Tissues Authority announce that the number of people donating kidneys to strangers has increased by 50 per cent. The only problem, alas, is that the increase is from ten people to fifteen. And three of those have yet to undergo surgery. In a country where 7,000 people are in need of a kidney, an increase of two donors is hardly a cause for celebration. Fortunately there is a long-ignored solution: compensating organ donors.

The sacrifices made by the fifteen new altruistic donors should not to be ignored; they are committing the most noble of acts, and as a recipient of a kidney myself I cannot overstate my admiration for them. But altruism is not enough; nowhere in the world does it make serious leeway into the long queues of people in desperate need of transplants.

According to the International Society of Nephrology, kidney disease affects more than 500 million people worldwide, while in the USA the number of people dependent on dialysis tripled over the last two decades.

Also, bans on organ vending have created a terrifying global black market in organs which sees people in poor countries forced into perilous situations. Efforts have been made to clamp down on the illicit market in organs, but where demand exists, supply finds a way to meet it. Even when countries such as China, India, and the Philippines had some success in thwarting the trade, it simply switched to other areas like the Eastern Europe. Patients will go to extraordinary lengths to save their lives, turning to underground sources when legitimate avenues are banned by governments.

Due to the corrupt nature of the black market, donors get little or no protection. Deprived of the security of contract law, they often fail to receive the money they are promised, go without follow-up medical care and are forced away from the institutions designed to protect them. These appalling conditions are not a result of a marketplace, but a result of laws that drive it underground, away from where it can be a transparent regime devoted to donor protection.

Such a regime should include an impartial not-for-profit or state body matching donors to patients, with donors carefully screened for physical and psychological problems. The provision of follow-up care, potentially for the rest of the donor’s life, is mandatory. This system therefore rewards all patients, not favouring the rich. Donors, meanwhile, receive excellent levels of care.

The only way to stop illicit markets is to create legal ones. Indeed, there is no better justification for testing legal modes of exchange than the very depredations of the underground market.

Momentum is growing. In the British Medical Journal, a leading British transplant surgeon called for a controlled donor compensation program for unrelated live donors, while Israeli, Saudi and Indian governments have decided to offer incentives ranging from lifelong health insurance for the donor to a cash benefit.

I heartily applaud the donors in the UK who have given their kidneys to strangers, and know what a precious gift this is. But we need thousands more. There is currently no room for individuals who would welcome an opportunity to be rewarded for rescuing their fellow human beings. The system is gridlocked, while those on waiting lists lose their lives.

Sally Satel M.D. is a practicing psychiatrist and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

The boys in green


In the police state of Britain we are already harassed by the ‘boys in blue’ on a frequent basis, whether that be for taking photos in public, holding a peaceful protest or parking on double yellows. But now the government has decided to attack us from another side, sending in the ’boys in green’ to bully our firms and industries.

The Environment Agency is creating a new team to enforce the Carbon Reduction Commitment (CRC). The team of Green Police have been given powers to search company premises and inspect utility bills without the permission of the owners. This is just another way in which the state is trying to flex its muscles, rather than aiding them by letting them get on with the jobs in hand.

The most efficient way to combat carbon emissions is not to set restrictive top-down quotas on firms and then enforce them with jack- booted Carbon Cops. Rather, firms should be free to lead the fight against climate change, with profits as the incentive. As an Environmental Kuznets Curve shows, over time if left to the market, carbon emission will begin to fall as firms search for cheaper environmentally friendly fuels and consumers are willing to pay more towards greener firms.

This latest scheme is poorly timed. Many firms are struggling to survive, with falling revenues and increasing costs. By imposing stricter regulation upon energy producers, costs will inevitably rise, costs which will passed onto consumers – individuals and SMEs.

Asim Khalid joins the ASI


I have just finished my penultimate year at Oundle School, based near Peterborough, and look forward to going back in the Upper Sixth Form next September. Having achieved a good set of results at GCSE, I have challenged myself in undertaking 6 A-Levels (or equivalent qualifications) in Double Maths, Chemistry, Physics, Economics & Pre-U Economics. Although I have only taken four AS modules this year, as the system has changed, I hope to apply to Oxford University to read Economics & Management.

With the financial crisis inevitably taking its toll, the financial industry has proved to be quite a volatile sector for employment, however I hope to eventually work in this industry specifically pursueing banking or marketing. Gaining this work experience at ASI is a brilliant opportunity for me to not only get an insight into the working life in London, travelling to and from the city independently, but is also a chance to work in one of the UK's leading innovators in free-market economic and social policies; which, to me, is one chance not to be missed.

The socialist calculation problem


The standard leftist/socialist argument about the economy is that it would all work vastly better if only it were planned. Omniscient and benevolent bureaucrats (or possibly politicians although few believe in the benevolence or omniscience of that tribe any more) will decide what should be produced where and how at what price and children will therefore gambol happily in the streets. The delusion isn't new of course, it's been around at least since Diocletian, but despie repeated failures still it persists.

Post 1945 Labour saw it as the way to build the New Jerusalem, the 70s was infested with the idea, even nominal Conservatives like Michael Heseltine have embraced it. But as various people have tried pointing out over the centuries, economies are complex things and it's going to be difficult to even measure everything, let alone make decisions in time to have an effect. Even the manifest failures of GOSPLAN in running a relatively simple society doesn't seem to cool the ardour.

The latest meme to ride to the rescue is that all encompassing cry of "computers!" As they get better, faster, more complex, we can model more complex things upon them. We will, at some point, reach that happy place where we can model the entire economy properly and thus plan it. Hurrah!

I'm afraid I have bad news for this secular but most pious hope:

Then there is the sheer number of products: Eric Beinhocker, author of The Origin of Wealth, reckons there are probably 10 billion distinct products and services available in a modern economic environment such as London, Tokyo or New York.

No, you're simply not, ever, going to be able to collate the information and then run the program on 10 billion discrete variables. It just isn't going to happen whatever happens to computers in the future.

For those who do suffer from the planning delusion might I suggest dusting off some Hayek?

Why interventionism works


Short Term Serial Correlation and Long Term Mean Reversion sound rather heavy. And so they should. They were conceptualised by statisticians, after all; people who make economists sound normal. Yet an understanding of these two phenomena helps explain why the myth that politicians can and do solve real problems continues.

Short Term Serial Correlation emerges because people like to see patterns. Random events are never evenly distributed; some areas will manifest more incidents than others. Geographically, there may be a larger concentration of accidents, or geniuses, or Stephens in one locality; chronologically, there will be more crimes, or jackpots, or bankruptcies in one month than another. For some of these there may be real causes (a criminal has moved into the area, thus triggering a local crime wave) but very often apparent rises or falls in frequency are just the results of random coincidence.

Long Term Mean Reversion is the inevitable “return to form". If there is no cause for these clusters, in the long run they will even out. The average reasserts itself. Because there was no reason for the cluster of incidents, it is not sustained and everything returns to normal. All very dry stuff, you might think, and blindingly obvious. Except that this duel-phenomenon may explain why interventionism is so popular. Take two examples:

  • A number of traffic accidents in a short space of time lead to a public outcry and a demand that something be done to improve safety in what is, apparently, a dangerous stretch of road. Local people focus not on the 10 year average but the tragedies of the past 12 months. Action is called for and local councillors step in. Money is spent changing the road layout, building speed humps or erecting a camera. The following year the number of accidents falls (returns to the long-term average) and both councillors and residents claim it is a success.
  • The economy goes into a bit of a slide. Shares fall and unemployment rises. Worried citizens demand that something be done to prop up asset values and protect jobs. The government – ever eager to please – steps in with a lot of expensive and headline-grabbing measures. After a period, economic activity recovers its upward momentum. Government officials are quick to point out that the recovery results from their own policies. Put like this, the significance of these phenomena should be obvious.

The natural instinct of people to cry that “Something must be done" very often leads to policies that appear to have the desired result. This perpetuates the belief that politicians can make a difference and that without them the world would rapidly go to hell in a hand basket.