Thursday, January 31, 2008

Inspiration deficit disorder

Do you reckon I could get away with pretending that boredom is a legitimate psychological disorder that requires me to take time off work?

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Myths about sentencing

Future of 'Titan' jails in doubt

Sometimes a news headline sends your mind in completely the wrong direction…

Tartarus, the dungeon at the most awful depths of the underworld, may be mothballed following Home Office cuts.

Hades, the prisons minister, said that it was no longer cost-efficient for the high-profile detention centre to be used exclusively for imprisoning the Titans defeated in war by the Olympians.

It is proposed that Tartarus will instead be used to house lesser first-time offenders, such as Sisyphus and Tantalus, although sources suggest that the facility will still focus on longer sentences.

Among alternatives being considered for the Titans themselves are a series of prison barges moored off the banks of the Styx, or in some cases, community service. One Titan, Atlas, was sentenced to hold up the sky after the war, as well as tidying litter in local recreation grounds.

The Howard League for Penal Reform issued a statement saying that “the real problem is that the Titans have been imprisoned indefinitely and without a fair trial… Moving them elsewhere will not address this injustice but simply sweep it under the carpet.”

The UN has also criticised the way in which the so-called ‘unlawful combatants’ have been treated while in Olympian custody.

Speaking at Prime God’s Question Time yesterday, Zeus dismissed such concerns as “misplaced sympathy for the offender” and suggested that he may introduce fast-track ‘thunderbolt’ legislation to bypass the judiciary, frequently seen as more liberal than the government.

The Conservatives have argued that the underworld itself is not “fit for purpose” and that what the Titans really need is “a hug”.

Update: within an hour of my posting this, the BBC have changed the headline to 'Titan' jails to go ahead - Brown. Pah. All that satire for nothing.

Conway, Hain, dithering and decisiveness

Peter Hain and Derek Conway have not exactly edified British politics lately, in their different ways. Neither can have any excuses.

But what of how they were dealt with by their respective party leaders?

Gordon Brown expressed specific criticism of “an incompetence” but general support for his man’s integrity and abilities, and insisted: “The matter must rest with the authorities, who will look at these matters.” He held to this position, through a torrent of ridicule, until the Electoral Commission referred the case to the police – at which point Hain resigned.

David Cameron, after the Commons Standards and Privileges Committee condemned, fined and suspended his man, had his office issue a statement saying: “Derek Conway has apologised fully on the floor of the House of Commons and the Whip has not been withdrawn. The appropriate punishment is being administered.” The next day, after a bout of derision from the press, party activists and millionaire donors, Cameron decided to withdraw the whip after all.

But while Brown’s position seems to have been consistent, while Cameron changed his mind, it’s clear that the latter is operating on a consistent principle. Look back to what he said about the Hain case.

On January 12, the BBC reported that “so far the Conservative front bench haven't bayed for [Hain’s] blood and are waiting to see what any inquiry throws up”. That turned out not to be quite right. The next day, when he had seen what ferocity the Sunday papers had thrown up, Cameron said: “I think if he goes on like yesterday I think his time will be up. I think it's no good when all these questions are being asked just to sort of come out and read out a statement and then scurry back indoors again.”

And the day after that:

Cameron says that if there are lots of questions being asked of a minister like Hain, then the minister should "get out there" and explain himself "in the court of public opinion". "Then you might have a chance of keeping your job." Hain should explain himself, or leave the cabinet, he said.

So Brown’s view was that Hain’s position depended on what the official investigation into him decided. Cameron’s view, as criticism of Hain and Brown mounted, came to be that how things appeared in the media should be the determining factor. (The “court of public opinion” generally holds that they’re all a bunch of crooks, no evidence needed.)

Cameron applied this approach scrupulously fairly to Conway. When Conway was found to have misused public money and given a parliamentary punishment, no further party punishment was deemed necessary. When the public criticism mounted, though, he had to lose the whip. That, we’re told, is ‘decisive’ – compared with Brown’s ‘dithering’.

Two exciting new definitions, then: to dither is to fail to give the media a quick and bloody resolution to a story; to be decisive is to see which way the wind’s blowing and then fart in that direction.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Preaching to the converted, ranting to the rest of us

Slow as ever, I’ve just got round to watching the Tom Cruise scientology video. I honestly don’t see what all the fuss is about.

Yes, his confidence is in inverse proportion to his coherence. Yes, watching celebrities zealously pontificate on life, the universe and everything can be pretty funny. But, simply put, he comes across as nothing more than a bog-standard American megastar who’s got religion. The only reason people are laughing and gawping in such numbers is that it’s scientology, which is a ‘non-standard’ belief system.

A religion is a cult whose founder is long dead. Time and good PR bring familiarity, which renders the absurd mundane.

But it’s hard for that to happen nowadays. Christianity, for instance, had the fantastic stroke of luck of getting official endorsement from Constantine, and then being spread as orthodoxy throughout the empire. The frenetically diverse free media that exist today in pluralistic democracies make such a thing all but impossible. New belief systems can spread, certainly, but it’s harder for them to become mainstream, let alone dominant.

If Jesus had been crucified in the 1990s, St Paul would now be recording podcasts for the Corinthians. And they’d mostly be laughing at the poor quality of them, and putting spoof versions up on YouTube.

Mind control

Tony Blair’s gone and bagged himself another job in business. Never mind the details, just look at this horrific piece of corporatese from the gushing chief exec:

His appointment sits alongside other initiatives where Zurich has partnered with external thought leaders to challenge and enhance our operational and strategic thinking.

Thought leaders? Ugh. And a bit sinister. A bit like ‘community leaders’, only getting inside your head.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Most damning indictment yet of Ken

Livingstone’s newest supporter: the celebrity cat-impersonator who’s just quit and/or ‘distanced himself’ from the faction that he led that split off from the bigger group that he set up that congealed from an assortment of disaffected contradictions after he was booted out of the party that Livingstone was booted out of and then let back into…

My head hurts.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Please try not to be so contemptibly, wantonly, pusillanimously f***ing stupid

If there’s one thing worse than clinging to primitive arbitrary dogma, it’s pre-emptively abasing yourself in front of what you suppose to be someone else’s primitive arbitrary dogma:

A story based on the Three Little Pigs has been turned down from a government agency's annual awards because the subject matter could offend Muslims.

The CD-Rom digital version of the traditional story of the three little pigs, called Three Little Cowboy Builders, is aimed at primary school children.
But judges at this year's Bett Award said that they had "concerns about the Asian community and the use of pigs raises cultural issues".

The feedback from the judges explaining why they had rejected the CD-Rom highlighted that they "could not recommend this product to the Muslim community".

Speaking as a member of the non-idiot community: I’m offended. And I’m sure a lot of Muslims will cringe to hear of this.

The left knee doesn’t know where the right knee is jerking

The Lib Dems are trying to have it both ways.

I know, I know: it’s almost impossible to believe such a thing of the party that has made its name driving opportunism and inconsistency out of politics. I was every bit as shocked as you.

Shiny new definitely-not-David-Cameron leader Nick Clegg has been writing about the NHS: “We are entering a new era for public sector reform. Labour's approach – more money and more central control – has reached its limits.”

He pours particular scorn on “gross inequalities” in health between rich and poor areas – although his implication that these are due to the NHS seems to ignore the many income-related lifestyle factors that affect health. His diagnosis (as we are legally obliged to call any political assessment of the NHS): “The centralised system has failed for the people who need it most.”

He wants to see a more bottom-up approach (I’ll forgo the colonoscopy joke); indeed, he wants “a People's Health Service”.

(As well as definitely not being David Cameron, he’s definitely not Tony Blair either.)

I wonder. Clearly there’s a case often made that more ‘localism’ and patient input into the NHS could generally improve standards. But there’s no reason to think that such a move would promote equality. The more variation you have within a service, the more – how to put this? – variation you have.

To compound this, Clegg proposes: “Communities should have the right to raise, or lower, a local income tax to suit the needs of their health service.”

Perhaps they should. But making health spending more dependent on the amount of tax that can be raised locally means that richer areas will have better-funded services and poorer areas worse-funded services.

These ideas may have some merits, but reducing health inequalities isn’t one of them.

So much for the money. How will his plan work?

A People's NHS would replace top-down targets with personal entitlements to high-quality care. To drive the NHS to deliver, everyone should have the right to private treatment, paid for by the NHS, if the waiting time is not met.

Target-bashing is a great sport these days, and Clegg’s keen to join the game. I’m not completely sure, though, how we’ll tell whether “the waiting time” is “met” without some sort of target.

And what’s this in the very next paragraph? He says that the treatment of mental health patients “is a national disgrace: there aren't even targets for mental health treatment, let alone entitlements”.

Too right. If there aren’t targets, things must be bad.

The value of your investment may go all over the place as well as nowhere

Listen very carefully: today, I’m going to explain how financial markets work. I shall use the performance of the FTSE 100 share index yesterday as a case study to illustrate everything you need to know. It’s all about trading-floor psychology and market sentiment.

(Chart from the BBC.)

The London Stock Exchange opened at 8.00 a.m. This early start so dismayed the traders that the FTSE promptly dropped over 200 points. Not all of them were even in by then.

It then bobbed up and down a bit as they checked their emails and whether they’d made any pretend Facebook friends overnight, and by 8.30, as they were getting some coffee into them, things picked up a bit. As 9.00 neared, the sight of other people rushing through the streets to get to work amused them, providing a further boost to shares. After this point, though, the fun wore off and things just bumbled along for a bit.

There was another injection of caffeinated liquidity into the market just before 10.00, which had the usual energising result. However, by this stage the markets were starting to realise that they still had another two hours of the morning left, and – barring the fire alarm test at 10.30 – nothing was really going to happen. And so, nothing much did. This is known as rational expectations theory, and if you drop this phrase casually into the conversation at cocktail parties, then boring people will be impressed and want to sleep with you.

At noon, the FTSE started to drift downwards as the traders went out for lunch, leaving a work experience kid and two temps whose names nobody knew in charge of the stock market. Luckily, none of them had a login for the system and so couldn’t cause any real damage.

The traders got back in around 1.00, and nosed around surreptitiously on the internet until the managers went off to lunch (they, of course, get in to work later). Unsupervised, they decided to mess around with the graph to kill the boredom of the early afternoon, with an initially euphoric leap, but they made sure to get it back to where it had been by the time the bosses got back.

One of them was asked who’d been responsible for all the sudden activity, and replied vaguely that there’d been an unusually high level of trading. This was technically true, although most of that trading had been on eBay.

The New York Stock Exchange opened at 2.00. Here I’m afraid I have to explain a little economics, but do bear with me, as it’s vital to grasping how this all works.

America has much, much more money than Britain.

This means that when they start trading, anything we might do is going to be irrelevant by comparison. So, from 2.00, our traders were able to slack off some more for a while without being noticed. As a result, very little happened. After half an hour or so, the managers cottoned on and discreetly asked how things were going, prompting another flurry of activity. One of the temps was sent out to Starbucks.

As going-home time drew nearer and nearer, the mood among the trading floor grew more and more bullish, pushing the FTSE to a one-day high. This was marred only by the sudden gloomy realisation, just before close of trading, that they were going to have to get home via the Tube.

You see, once you appreciate how these people think, it really becomes very simple to understand. I confidently predict the same pattern today.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Compassionate noises and stealth conservatism

I’ve written before that Neal Lawson likes “to attack the government while gushing about David Cameron”, which you might think odd behaviour for someone apparently on the left, and that Lawson’s public statements “seem carefully designed to rubbish the government’s successes and reduce its popularity”.

He’s doing it again:

British politics is in a state of extraordinary flux. What is at stake is the emergence of the first truly post-Thatcherite political party. But what is breathtaking is that we don't yet know whether it will be Labour or Conservative.

He argues that “New Labour can best be defined as an attempt to humanise Thatcherism, not replace it” and that “the party never really believed in social justice, only employability”. I’m not sure how this is supposed to square with the introduction and regular increases to the minimum wage, or the increase in employer NI contributions to fund the NHS, or signing up to the EU Social Chapter – I’d recommend Lawson to listen to the wails about ‘red tape’ and ‘tax burdens’ from the likes of the CBI.

He says that “New Labour transferred the rules of the economy to public institutions, resulting in the commercialisation of public services”. Well, some aspects of user choice have been introduced into some public services, with predictably mixed results – and this has gone a lot less far than many advocates of that model would like to go. He doesn’t consider that choice within free-at-point-of-use public services is a very different beast from choice within a market driven by ability to pay.

He adds that this government’s view has been that “The market was not just more efficient, but provided a moral vision for rampant individualism in which democracy is replaced by consumerism.”

I’m not really sure what this sentence means, but I think ‘people democratically deciding not to vote for parties that don’t accept the principle of a not-too-regulated market economy’ would be more apt than ‘democracy is replaced by consumerism’.

Lawson charges New Labour with “neoliberalism”, the second-dirtiest word he knows (the dirtiest also begins with ‘neo’). Neoliberalism is “the ideological belief that markets are always preferable to the state or other social institutions. For the notion of the social demands a limit on the role of the market. There are places where profits should not and must not be secured.”

Strange, then that the state should have expanded so under New Labour. I do recommend dipping into the comment pages of the Telegraph, the Times or the Spectator for a corrective to the view that the government is basically a creature of the right.

But of course there must be limits to the role of the market (just as there must be limits to the role of the state – and the trade union, the family, the NGO…). Private markets can’t themselves deliver an equitable health system, say. But that doesn’t mean that competition and profit motives can’t possibly operate within the NHS. Do any nurses make any money from their work? Have two doctors never vied for a promotion?

Lawson goes on:

Strangely though, as the tide turns against New Labour it isn't ebbing back to raw neoliberalism. People can still taste the free-market medicine of the 1980s and don't want more. David Cameron knows this. In a speech shortly after becoming leader he said that "social justice means social responsibility: the idea that we're all in this together, that there is such a thing as society" - but went on to say: "It's just not the same thing as the state."

He notes, rightly, that there are “contradictions” between Cameron’s rhetoric and his broad policy approach, but despite this:

As only Nixon could go to China, could only Cameron attempt to save society, or will Labour take up the real political challenge? …
If the [Labour] party continues to refuse to seize the moment by defining the terms of this new collectivism then Cameron, in all his contradictions, will.

It’s in this last sentence that the defining flaw of Lawson’s politics is made clear. Cameron “will” what? Seize the moment or define a new collectivism? And is defining a matter of communicating an impression or implementing a policy agenda?

It doesn’t really matter. What Lawson really wants is to hear narratives that are passionate and earnest about the needs of society. Blair used to be wonderful at that. Now Cameron is moving onto that turf. It seems hardly to matter that, on all the (non-rhetorical) issues where Lawson finds Labour too right-wing, Cameron’s policies are farther to the right.

There is a certain sort of person: middle-class, well-educated, passably well-off, socially liberal, cosmopolitan and internationalist, distasteful of ‘excessive’ corporate greed, and emotionally if not intellectually concerned with the ‘fabric of society’. They loathed the last Tory government, voted Labour or possibly Lib Dem in 1997 and then grew to resent Blair. They find Brown deathly dull and impossible to relate to as a person.

They want a politics that allows them to feel that they’re expressing their social concern without having to make sacrifices, that the ills of the nation – whether they persist or even worsen – are not in their name. It’s the dislocation of values from outcomes.

I’m not saying that Lawson fits this description perfectly; he doesn’t. But articles like his are a small part of the conveyor belt that’s slowly drawing these people nearer towards voting for ‘compassionate’ conservatism.

Careful how you go.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Thinking uncharitable thoughts

Alasdair Palmer argues bravely that the rich deserve charity:

The Charity Commission has unveiled its understanding of the new "public benefit test". Introduced by the Charities Act of 2006, the test stipulates that to count as a charity, an organisation must prove that it benefits the public. Last week, the Commission claimed that private schools do not pass it because they benefit only those rich enough to afford the fees. Unless private schools can prove that they also benefit people who are not rich, the commission concluded, they shouldn't have charitable status.
… "Public benefit", as applied to charities, is meaningless. No charity benefits everyone: women's charities benefit women, cancer charities those with cancer, and charities for animals don't benefit people at all. It cannot be an objection to a charity that it benefits only part of the population, for every charity does that. In practice, the question becomes: which parts of the population will be allowed to count as "deserving"?
There are two ways to answer that question. One is to say that they all count equally: it's not the job of the state to decide who should receive charity - citizens can donate their money to whatever group they choose, provided that group is not involved in harming others.
The other is to give an unelected quango the power to decide who counts.

He’s in favour of the former way, of course.

But what’s at stake here? Very simply: taxpayers’ money. At the heart of the debate about which organisations get to count as charities is the tax relief that such status brings.

Certainly, as Palmer says, “it's not the job of the state to decide who should receive charity - citizens can donate their money to whatever group they choose”. But private schools don’t quite work on this model. The model they work on is one of providing a service to private individuals who personally pay for it, and then claiming tax breaks off the state. There is, I think, the tiniest of cases for saying that it is the job of the state to decide to whom it gives tax breaks. And I think it’s comically hard to portray the fee-paying parents and their children as the recipients of charity, in any meaningful sense of the word.

But Palmer’s also right that even the most bona fide of charities are unlikely to be benefiting everyone, so how do we decide how to construe “public benefit”?

Well, according to the Charity Commission’s guidelines, which he purports to have read: “Benefit must be to the public, or a section of the public”. It adds: “Where benefit is to a section of the public, the opportunity to benefit must not be unreasonably restricted” – this includes restrictions “by ability to pay any fees charged”. Fees are not ruled out, though:

Charities can charge for the services or facilities they provide. … However, where, in practice, the charging restricts the benefits to only those who can afford to pay the fees charged, this may result in the benefits not being available to a sufficient section of the public.

‘Not excluding’ people who are unable to pay the fees from the opportunity to benefit does not mean providing some sort of ‘token’ benefit to such people. It should be more than minimal or nominal benefit and does not include benefit that occurs merely by chance. But neither does it mean there have to be no financial barriers to accessing benefits.
Therefore, where charities do charge fees, people who are unable to pay those fees must, nevertheless, be able to benefit in some material way related to the charity’s aims. This does not mean that charities have to offer services for free.

Another point on which Palmer is right: the Commission’s guidelines are not objective but a political document. They have clearly been written with the aim of firing a shot across the bows of the private schools.

But they’ve also taken care to give the schools escape routes:

Examples of ways in which organisations might provide benefits to people who are unable to pay the fees include:
• providing concessions, subsidised or free places. For example, in the case of schools, by offering bursaries or assisted places…
• providing wider access to charitable facilities or services. Some charities may provide additional facilities or services for people who would otherwise be excluded because they are unable to pay the fees. … For example, a charitable independent school allowing a state-maintained school to use its educational facilities;
• the educational benefits to state school pupils who are able to attend certain lessons or other educational events at independent schools;
• the educational benefits to pupils in state schools arising from collaboration and partnerships between state schools and independent schools…

These guidelines will not mean the end of private schools’ charitable status. They’ll probably have to do a bit more, but not painfully so.

If I were running the country, and for some reason I’m still not, I’d say that for a school to qualify as a charity, it would have to be equally open to children regardless of their parents’ ability to pay. They’d need to make up the funding gap through having an endowment or soliciting donations, same as any proper charity.

Palmer also argues, though, that private schools do provide one clear benefit to the whole public: “relieving the state of the cost of educating 500,000 children counts as a benefit to everyone who pays tax”.

By this logic, any activity that reduces the demand for any tax-funded service is charitable. How much money did Harold Shipman save the NHS in long-term care, I wonder? The same point is put well (and in somewhat better taste) by Simon Jenkins: “this is like registering my car as a charity because it reduces my claim on public transport. … Not using a public service may relieve the state of a claimant, but it is not an act of charity to the needy.”

Jenkins also notes that, while having educated children is a good thing for society, private schools may cause public harm as well:

Nor are bursaries to able pupils a public benefit. As Anthony Seldon, master of Wellington college, said last week, if schools conceded a quota of places to clever local children it might benefit those children, but the resulting creaming of talent from local comprehensives could not qualify as a public good. It might widen the social base of private schools to the edification of their inmates, but narrowing the social base of state schools would promote what Seldon called “social apartheid”.

On one final point, I do agree with Palmer (and not, this time, as a prelude to a wider disagreement): there’s no way that “the advancement of religion” should figure on the Commission’s list of accepted charitable purposes (it’s just between “the advancement of education” and “the advancement of health or the saving of lives”).

Dame Suzi Leather, chair of the Commission, says:

If you look at most of the modern faiths, the act of being charitable is an important part of demonstrating the right relationship between a believer and God and between a believer and their fellow man and woman. It's a really important underpinning of a lot of charitable activity.

Palmer retorts: “So is being rich - but she does not think that it makes being rich of general public benefit.”

It’s drivel. If X can often motivate Y, that doesn’t make “advancing” X a kind of Y. To the extent that religiously inspired groups perform genuinely charitable activities, then they may count as charities. But otherwise, no.

If I benefited from activities carried out by a tax-subsidised organisation that promoted atheism, I don’t know how I would dare to look my fellow (non-atheist) taxpayers in the eye. A belief system that demands state subsidy for its own propagation is pretty contemptible.

(And I do believe that also counts as an argument against state funding for political parties.)

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Peanut butter disproves evolution

An intelligently designed video clip:

“You may smile at this, but hopefully you’ll never forget it.”

Too right.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Imposing democracy

A feudal society, a relic of the British Empire, is moving towards free and fair elections following demands from the UK Government.

Not Pakistan. Not Kenya.

Sark, whose population is very nearly that of the House of Commons.

Every little helps.

Friday, January 18, 2008

It’s not unusual to be cruel to anyone

The Eighth Amendment of the US Constitution reads:

Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

This features prominently in arguments against the constitutionality of capital punishment. But I think one little word floors those arguments: “and”.

There are two ways of reading the amendment: (a) that it prohibits punishments that are cruel and punishments that are unusual; or (b) that it prohibits punishments that are both cruel and unusual at once.

The death sentence is not, in fact, unusual. So the constitutional abolitionists’ case depends on interpretation (a). Interpretation (b) might perhaps be used to rule the original introduction of capital punishment unconstitutional, but that wouldn’t affect the fait accompli that it now has become usual, even if it shouldn’t have.

Two considerations tell against (a).

First, the form of the amendment is ‘X shall not be done, nor Y done, nor Z done’. The writers clearly knew how to express disjunctions. They could easily have written ‘Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel punishments inflicted, nor unusual punishments inflicted’. But they didn’t. They lumped “cruel and unusual” in together as a single category of punishment.

Second, if punishments that are unusual (but not cruel) are forbidden, then there could never be innovation in sentencing. This seems a perverse interpretation. Therefore it seems equally perverse that punishments that are cruel (but not unusual) would be forbidden.

(NB: I am not an American constitutional scholar. I am, however, a blogger with a bit of time suddenly on his hands, and I am therefore amply qualified to talk on such issues.)

A school history lesson

The schools minister warns about attempts to break the admission code, which aims to prevent oversubscribed schools from cherry-picking the kids (and parents) with the best league-table potential and casting the dregs into the sink. Not everyone agrees with this aim.

Matthew D’Ancona rages at the “old fashioned public sector rationing system doing its bleak work”, the “crushing of diversity”, “the pseudo-egalitarian gesture and the Whitehall diktat”. He cheers for “choice and freedom”, although I’m unable to tell whether he means the freedom of schools to choose pupils to let through the door or the freedom of the parents who can afford it to choose catchment areas to live in. School performance, as we all know by now, is strongly dependent on intake.

This is just the latest small twist in an ongoing story. Let’s travel back in time.

One man who has done more than most to shape secondary education is Kenneth Baker, education secretary in the late 1980s. In 1999, he gave an interview to the Guardian’s Nick Davies. The blunt honesty that comes with arrogance and being safely retired made it fascinating:

[Baker] went ahead and rewrote the rulebook for Britain's schools - standard assessment tasks, league tables, national curriculum, parental choice, local management of schools and, later, Ofsted.

He knows a lot of people tried to say… that secretly the big master plan was to wipe out comprehensive schools by stealth. And now he's laughing because the funny thing is - they were right!

The introduction of parental choice was part of a much bigger silent coup. His real target, he says, was the comprehensive system of schooling itself. "I would have liked to bring back selection but I would have got into such controversy at an early stage that the other reforms would have been lost." But did he realise that the introduction of "parental choice" would polarise the system and effectively kill off the comprehensives? "Oh, yes. That was deliberate. In order to make changes, you have to come from several points."

The political appeal was simple: choice means freedom, and freedom is good. But the real objective was a lot more destructive. "I hoped it would open it all up and it would lead to the poorer schools literally having to close."

At first, he had wanted to undermine the system by introducing a formal voucher system, under which parents could spend their education voucher on the school of their choice, starving unpopular schools of funding. His predecessor, Sir Keith Joseph, had first floated the plan.

Instead, he combined parental choice with his new funding formula, which meant that the vast bulk of each school's budget depended entirely on the recruitment of children, whose parents were now empowered to choose their schools. "Well, yes, it's not a formal voucher system, but it's very tantamount! "In effect, it was a voucher system. I just didn't call it that. It was a subtler approach."

The attack on the comprehensives worked. … His reforms polarised the entire system between schools which gather the brightest children and the most funds and which are effectively grammar schools; and the contemporary equivalent of secondary modern schools, invariably in poor areas, where there is a concentration of disadvantaged children struggling for education on a reduced budget.

Ah, sweet memories. Halcyon Baker days…

Thursday, January 17, 2008


Somebody earned his money today:

A passenger plane has crash-landed short of a runway at Heathrow Airport, ripping off part of its undercarriage.
All 136 passengers and 16 crew escaped from the British Airways flight BA038 from Beijing. Eighteen people have been taken to hospital with minor injuries.
An airport worker told the BBC the pilot on the Boeing 777 had said he had lost all power, and had been forced to glide the plane in to land.

"It's a miracle. The man deserves a medal as big as a frying pan."

Gliding a powerless Boeing in to save 152 lives. Give him a medal as big as a damn tractor wheel. And put him and John Smeaton on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square!

Politics and the hunt for inconsistency

Chris makes a sound observation:

our politics [is] dominated by a rule-based rather than virtue-based morality.
The test of whether a minister should keep his job is: has he followed the rules? It‘s not: has he behaved with dignity and excellence? …
The problem is that there can be trade-off between the two standards. In some cases, rules can stop people behaving excellently… But also, a concern to follow rules and keep one’s nose clean breeds a prissy pedantic obsession with mindless regulations that preclude any attempt at excellence.

This reminds me of the difference between two theories of truth: correspondence theory (propositions are true if they correspond to an actual state of affairs) and coherence theory (propositions are true if they cohere with the other propositions within a system).

The media, bless them, often work with a coherence theory of political reporting. It works like this: Politician says X. Never mind whether X is an accurate factual analysis nor whether it’s a good proposal. Is another politician of the same party saying Y? Aha: split! Had the politician said Z a year or two ago? Aha: U-turn!

It’s so very easy to do. All you need is a record of what people have said, and you just look for areas of incoherence where you think there shouldn’t be. It can be carried out entirely by political reporters or political opponents (or, yes, bloggers) without the need for any specialist knowledge or evaluative judgement – and it gives you a clear, quick answer. It has the added benefit of forcing the accused into responding by either explaining away an inconsistency or explaining why they got it wrong previously, which typically makes them look shifty and/or idiotic. It allows political discourse to float that bit freer of the real world.

The rule-based morality that Chris identifies is a little like that; here, though, behaviour is supposed to be consistent with the rules. Never mind whether they’re good rules, and never mind what non-codified virtues someone’s behaviour might display or not.

In a similar way, policies themselves (when they get a look in) are often judged simply in terms of their (in)consistency with official guidelines, or in terms of some comparator whose meaning in itself is rarely considered (are we 5% less than France? 2% up on last year? ‘Higher or lower?’). This requires you to know some figures, but you needn’t worry about whether they’re objectively good or bad, high or low – and never mind what exactly it is they’re measuring – just how do they fit with the benchmark? The benchmark will do all your thinking for you, and the numbers will give you an air of authority.

I’m blaming the media, and they do deserve blame for promoting this unthinking approach, but it’s politicians who set the targets, write the rules and so on. It’s hardly surprising that people are turned off politics when they see integrity, achievement and debate reduced to box-ticking and facile comparisons.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Gordon Brown wants your body

I don’t feel at all uncomfortable with the idea that we should switch from an opt-in system of organ donation to an opt-out one (so that the default, if you don’t express a preference, is that your organs can be used).

But some people are bothered, generally people on the political right. Matthew D’Ancona is typical, fuming at “the nationalisation of the body”. He argues: “As a matter of philosophical principle, the State should presume my consent for nothing unless I specifically give it.” (Cassilis is a notable exception – but while generally on the centre-right, he’s refreshingly hard to pigeonhole.)

People on the left seem mostly not to be worried. Justin McKeating is a good example : “They might as well be saying 'Gordon Brown can pry my liver from my cold dead hand' for all the sense they're making. …
What it boils down to is putting your principles before the lives of dying people.”

That’s more or less how I feel. Corpses have neither needs nor property rights, and an opt-out system will lead to more organs being available to save more lives.

And this is nothing like inheritance tax: you won’t be leaving your kidneys to your children, who despite having decent jobs are finding it really hard to get onto the dialysis ladder.

As for the state’s ‘presuming my consent’, I don’t see how this is different from having income tax taken from your wages via PAYE, which you then might claim back – whether you’ve voted for such a saystem or not.

But I wonder. Sometimes our opinions on one thing are shaped by our broader attitudes.

Try a thought-experiment. Imagine we live in a country where healthcare is private. A new law is proposed, which would let health insurance providers start introducing clauses in their contracts saying that if you die as a member of their scheme, they have the right to use your organs for transplant – although you can ask them for a form to fill in to specify that you’re withholding consent.

How do you feel now? You’re still dead. You still don’t need the organs. People’s lives are still being saved. The opt-out is still freely available, although your consent is still initially being presumed. The utilitarian and libertarian issues remain the same.

Do leftish opt-out supporters feel less comfortable now that it’s profit-making private companies using the organs, rather than the NHS? Conversely, do rightish opt-out opponents feel more comfortable now that this is a transaction in a marketplace, rather than the clunking fist of the state reaching into your chest cavity?

Does a lot of this boil down to how much, in very general terms, we trust the state?

Something for a rainy day

Do they do waterproof burqas?

That'd make it tempting to convert - in both senses.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Body of Christ

An art gallery in Gateshead is exhibiting a plaster statue of Jesus with an erection.


Evangelical group Christian Voice expressed outrage at the work, calling it blasphemous and saying it had created a “storm” of protest.

I wonder. Is it conceivably the case that this “storm” of protest might (a) be more akin to a breeze in its proportions, and (b) have been created by Christian Voice rather than the statue itself? Christian Voice appears to be something of a roving storm in search of an unholy teacup: its recent press releases decry this statue (twice), the proposal to scrap the blasphemy law, and ‘Jerry Springer: The Opera’.

Its director, Stephen Green, said:

It's just so disgusting, pornographic and offensive, it's hard to find words to express the outrage.

He then found many, many more words to express his outrage, with particular reference to the facts that the artist who created the sculpture is Chinese and the collector who has bought it is Jewish.

He added:

I have written asking for the statue's destruction.

Not asking for it to be removed from display. Not asking for any display to be in a separate room with a warning on the door. But “destruction”. That’s his answer to thought-crime. Sigh…

It doesn’t look a particularly impressive sculpture, and it’s a bit on the puerile side for my liking. But my response will be just not to go and see it.

As to its blasphemous nature – isn’t it part of the doctrine of the incarnation that Jesus was both fully divine and, ahem, all man?

(Hat tip: the Barefoot Bum.)

(Footnote: you might think that two posts about genitals in one day is a bit much. I prefer to think of them as two posts about arrogant stupidity.)

“Referring to female genital cutting as mutilation is a value judgement”

Wouldn’t it be funny if feminist academics, responsible for teaching undergraduates and, you know, supporting women’s rights, went around spewing out apologias for female genital mutilation (as long as it happens – I paraphrase – in darkie countries)?

No, it wouldn’t.

Friday, January 11, 2008

I [heart] 1975

We all know that Gordon Brown has moved somewhat rightwards since the 1970s (along with a lot of the Labour Party – and, for that matter, a lot of the Tory Party).

Susan Press quotes part of his 1975 ‘Red Paper’: there’s “The market can no longer be seen as the efficient allocator of resources”, “the private control of industry has become a hindrance to the further unfolding of the social forces of production”, and of course the S-word is everywhere.

(He’s not lost his knack for turning a catchy phrase!)

One idly curious thing:

If the prospects for the least fortunate are to be as great as they can be, then they must have the final say – and that requires a massive and irreversible shift of power to working people, a framework of free universal welfare services controlled by the people who use them.

Doesn’t that last bit sound pretty contemporary? More recently, Brown has talked about responding to:

people's desire for an individual, often personalised tailor-made service that is customised to meet their needs and their requirements…
…we should think about how we can empower the aspirational individual, the active citizen, the responsible parent, the informed patient who will take more control over the decisions that affect their lives…

Ditto, as if you didn’t know, the Tories and Lib Dems. User control over public services is all the vogue nowadays (rhetorically, at least).

Plus ca change, plus c’est les values traditionelles dans une setting moderne…

Brown also said (back then) that:

the transition to socialism must be made by the majority of people themselves and a socialist society must be created within the womb of existing society and prefigured in the movements for democracy at the grass roots

Because, you see, society’s not the same thing as the state.

Unlikely lovechild

There’s a guy at my work who looks like a younger David Blunkett and sounds like Frank Dobson.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Knowledge is hot

Via the Barefoot Bum. Heh.

Tax pays for things

George Osborne on David Blunkett on social mobility:

I don't agree with all Blunkett's proposals - increasing taxes on higher earners is not going to solve the problems of any sink estate. But many are worthy of serious consideration, and chime with Conservative thinking. For example, he proposes a "personalised supplementary educational allowance" - a complicated term for the simple idea that schools need extra help with disadvantaged children.

Now here’s what Blunkett had said:

One solution would be to introduce a Personalised Supplementary Educational Allowance that would invest extra money in staff to provide general mentoring and support for the poorest school children. … One way to fund this could be to tax the child benefit received by higher rate tax payers for children over 16…

So the allowance might be a good idea, but paying for it wouldn’t be.

Two truths: the Conservatives are instinctively against tax; and oppositions are naturally drawn to potentially costly new ideas. The two don’t go together very convincingly. Even in a case such as this, where Blunkett has so clearly spelled out ‘this could pay for that’, Osborne cannot help but separate the two elements and judge them separately.

No, taking money from high earners will not help the poor. Not will taking pills out of the bottle ease your headache.

Aside: Why is Osborne against reducing the child benefits paid to certain (well-off) parents of older children? Aren’t the Tories all in favour of reducing welfare dependency? Just this week, they produced plans to cut the benefits paid to certain (lone) parents of older children. It’s a mystery…

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Exclusive: what the primaries REALLY mean

  • Candidate who was doomed last week now triumphant
  • Candidate who was reshaping politics last week now flash in pan
  • Opinion polls fallible
  • Other 87 candidates still confident, forgettable, insincere, gesticulating, weird, grumpy, dopey and sleepy

I’m going to hold off blogging about the US elections until they actually have a pair of candidates. Then I’m going to hope the Democrat wins. That may be quite a short blog post.

In the meantime, there seems to be a laughably high ratio of interpretation to information.

It’s like the first hour or so of the BBC election specials, where Dimbleby, Paxman, Snow, Curtice and assorted party hacks analyse polls, rumours, other media reports, each other and thin air. Only it lasts weeks.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

What’s so good about being brave?

Norm wonders:

Suppose that someone acts in a way we might normally describe as brave, but that they do so in pursuit of a bad purpose - for example, in carrying out a political assassination we consider to be without justification. Bravery is something we generally admire; we think of it as a virtue. In the example supposed, does this mean we allow that the assassin has shown himself to possess at least one of the virtues?
A way of avoiding this conclusion would be to say that the qualities of mind and conduct we call bravery are not bravery - or courage - when put to the service of a bad moral purpose. In that case, though, you wouldn't be able to say that soldiers can fight bravely in an unjust war, or that an individual can show courage in carrying out a daring criminal raid…

Norm has his own idea of how to resolve this: that virtues can be “packaged together” with vices in the same person at the same time, even in the same action. That’s surely true, but I think this particular case could be handled on different grounds.

Here are two ways we might treat the issue:

(1) Courage and bravery (is there a difference?) are partly about overcoming fear. There remains a question about what one overcomes one’s fear with. In the case of somebody who risks their life to unjustly assassinate a politician, fear of death has been overcome by hatred of that politician and what she stands for. In the case of somebody who runs into a burning building to save a stranger, fear of death has been overcome by concern for the person whose life is threatened.

Fear might also be overcome by love, ideology, greed, sense of duty, another fear…

Courage and bravery, then, are the virtuous overcoming of fear. Other cases of overcoming fear might be bold or daring, say, but they still lack that vital normative element.

(2) Courage and bravery are simply about overcoming fear. However, they are not, as such, virtues. We might think that intelligence, for instance, is a virtue, but it isn’t. It’s a value-neutral ability, or set of abilities, which is very useful but can be used virtuously or otherwise.

The ability to overcome fear is likewise: it may be desirable to have, but its moral evaluation will depend on which fear is being overcome, and to what end.

I think both of these approaches have some truth in them, but from a purely semantic point of view, I’d personally tend to go with (1). A quick dictionary check favours (2), with value-neutral definitions of courage and bravery, but I think the words do have strongly virtuous connotations.

Saw no evil, Hurd no evil

Radio 4 recently had two former Foreign Secretaries – David Owen and Douglas Hurd – in to discuss democracy promotion. Unsurprisingly, Kenya came up in the discussion.

Owen said, on former President Daniel Arap Moi:

I think we lost a great opportunity to solidify democracy in Kenya when we acquiesced in the rigging of the 1992 election by Moi. I think that was an absolute tragedy and Moi was allowed to stay in with British government support all through the 80s and 90s doing terrible harm to Kenya.

Hurd was invited to respond to “the accusation made about British policy in 1992 when you were, of course, foreign secretary”. He said:

There's a cycle in these things. When Moi first came in he was a straightforward schoolmaster from a minority tribe, elected to clear up the mess. He deteriorated, as people do…

Interesting. Also misleading. Remember that Hurd was asked about the 1992 Kenyan election.

It’s true that when Moi “first came in” to politics, he was a schoolmaster. That was in 1955. He held ministerial office from 1961 onwards. A machine politician, he became President in 1978, following not an election but the death of the incumbent.

Through the 1980s he consolidated his power by playing divide and rule with Kenya’s different tribes, instituting a one-party constitution and sending the secret police to disrupt pro-democracy groups. He managed to win a couple of unopposed elections.

By 1992, other parties had been allowed to contest the election, but it was not free and fair. Moi appointed a crony to chair the Electoral Commission. On top of that:

The Attorney General attempted to shorten the nomination process for opposition parties; legislation preventing meetings of more than three persons without a permit was used to prevent opposition rallies; journalists and opposition activists were arrested and detained without charge; and villages were attacked, crops burnt and meetings disrupted throughout the campaign.

Moi managed to win that election too.

It would be too strong to call him a tyrant, but his attitude to human rights – throughout his presidency – was one of contempt.

This didn’t trouble Douglas Hurd, who spent the early 1990s focused on more important business, such as stirring up apathy in the guise of neutrality while Bosnia and Rwanda became charnel houses.

He had started in the Foreign Office not too badly:

He oversaw Britain's diplomatic responses to the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, as well as the first Gulf War… Hurd cultivated good relations with the United States under President George Bush Sr., and sought a more conciliatory approach to other members of the European Economic Community, repairing relationships damaged during the increasingly Eurosceptic tone of Margaret Thatcher's final years.

He deteriorated, as people do.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Rights are for individuals

Ophelia is giving it with both barrels to those who trumpet ‘group rights’. Specifically, she deals with those who support ‘religious rights’ as giving ‘specificity’ to the usual notion of human rights, and those who (typically with religious motivation) support ‘the rights of the family’.

The thing about rights, you see, is that you choose how and whether you exercise them. How does a group make that choice? Where does the power in that group lie? What happens to the weaker members who may disagree?

That we form and maintain groups is one of the most essential and wonderful things about human nature; but groups are good precisely insofar as they are good for all their members. Unequal, exploitative and coercive groupings – be they familial or religious or whatever – serve to stifle what’s best in humanity.

Rights are for individuals – including the right to form a group with others, the right to exercise other rights in partnership with fellow members of a group, and the right to leave a group.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Global warming, global economy

Vino S notes that China overtook the USA last year to become the world’s biggest emitter of carbon dioxide.

But: “Given that China has a much larger population, though, the US still emits more per capita.”

True. From the climate’s point of view, though, it doesn’t care whether a total quantity of CO2 comes from a few rich Westerners or a lot of poor Chinese.

But, more to the point, much of China’s economic growth – and hence its carbon growth – is being driven by exports being bought by rich Westerners. As we’ve outsourced and ‘offshored’ our heavy industry, so emissions have shifted.

Emissions cuts should be made wherever they can be biggest. I’m glad that UK political parties are committed to reducing UK emissions (and likewise for many other developed countries), but it’s at least as important to seek policies that will lead to results elsewhere.

We should be throwing green technology at developing countries, and rewarding with trade deals those that improve their carbon efficiency. We should also be paying Brazil and Indonesia not to deforest.

An international emissions deal won’t work if it’s just ‘we’ll sort our country out if you do yours’ – that’s a recipe for backsliding, dodgy accounting and ineffectual haranguing. What we need are genuinely collaborative, transnational projects.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Parris on Iraq: bad hopes and bad memories

Norm Geras takes Matthew Parris to task for an unedifying column, in which Parris said:

Many of the antiwar brigade, too — we who from the start have railed against the occupation of Iraq — have in our secret hearts suppressed a twinge of disappointment that the surge of US troop reinforcements in Baghdad has been accompanied by a reduction in civil atrocities. We kind of thought — did we? — that the whole place was going to go up in one enormous explosion, leaving almost everybody dead, and settling the argument finally in our favour?

Norm responds:

Perhaps Parris isn't being serious. … He's well placed, naturally, to speak for himself… But it's better for him if he's being facetious. For, though most of us are subject to the temptation of wanting to be right, there are fewer who want this want to be satisfied where the cost of its being satisfied is death and destruction to others.

I doubt that Parris really wants ever-increasing carnage just so that he can feel right; but I fully believe that he does feel this “secret… twinge of disappointment”. Poor kitten.

I’m strongly reminded of the media sniping a while ago that followed Martin Amis’s ill-judged musing that he’d felt “a definite urge - don't you have it? - to say, 'The Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order.'” His protests that “I was not 'advocating' anything. I was conversationally describing an urge - an urge that soon wore off” cut little ice.

Parris’s remarks are pretty much equivalent, I’d say.

Here’s the odd thing, though. You’d think, as Norm does, that Parris is well placed to speak for himself. Not so. In February 2003, as the Iraq war loomed, Parris wrote an apparently thoughtful piece on his opposition to it:

Would [the candid peacenik] be ready to admit that he had been wrong to oppose the war if an attack proved quick, straightforward and relatively unbloody?
Because I happen to think it might.
And after that? What if, once Saddam and his regime have been routed, the… predictions of mayhem prove wrong? When doves insist that even if the war succeeds the peace will fail, how firmly do we attach ourselves to that argument? Would we still oppose war, even if we could be persuaded that it would bring a better Iraq?
Because I happen to think it might.

I do not think that the war, if there is a war, will fail. …
I am afraid that it will succeed.
I am afraid that it will prove to be the first in an indefinite series of American interventions. I am afraid that it is the beginning of a new empire: an empire that I am afraid Britain may have little choice but to join.

(I think that his ultimate reason for opposing the war was less than impressive, and note that it has the virtue for the pundit – over the other, consequentialist reasons for anti-war positions – of not requiring any predictive abilities or factual knowledge.)

My point is, though: he didn’t think, as he now professes to have thought, “that the whole place was going to go up in one enormous explosion”. Furthermore, he was not, as he now claims, one of “we who from the start have railed against the occupation of Iraq”.

In July 2003, as the problems with the postwar reconstruction were becoming more apparent, he wrote:

Whatever the past, whatever mistakes may have been made, regime change must now be accepted as an honourable endeavour in whose success the whole world has a stake.
… What is to be gained by moaning? The unwilling should now join the willing in trying to make the occupation — and ultimately the handover — work.
There is no point in crowing or carping, for the alternative to a successful transition is grisly.

Grisly. Quite. If he does feel even an idle and occasional yearning for slaughter that would allow him to say ‘I told you so’, he could at least check first that he really had told us so.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Votes of no confidence

Today’s papers bring us two sceptical voices about democracy in non-Western countries, in light of the recent turmoil in Kenya and Pakistan.

First up is Simon Jenkins, who offers up another version of his standard column about how (a) we have a nasty, imperial past, (b) we are imperfect, (c) the rest of the world is none of our business, therefore (d) we should not express opinions about how other countries should run their affairs. He writes:

Students of politics are taught to tick off the qualities that award the status of democracy to a polity. Are there free and fair elections? Can the franchise turn a regime out of office? Are there supporting institutions such as an open parliament, security of public assembly, elected local government, a free media, the rule of law? No one of these is either sufficient or necessary for democracy, which is rather a sliding scale of liberties, to which constitutions and regimes ascribe varying degrees of priority.

In fact, most of these – particularly free and fair elections, and rights to expression and assembly – are necessary for democracy, if not sufficient. That said, though, Jenkins’s definition of democracy as “a sliding scale of liberties” does remove almost all normal meaning from the term.

But his concern is more with the content of Foreign Office press releases than the nature of political regimes around the world, so through sheer apathy I’ll move on. [Update: see Norm and Ophelia for more.]

Mary Dejevsky’s piece is more substantive and interesting. After praising the principle of democracy, she rightly notes:

In many parts of the world elections divide voters, not along political lines – which may foster productive debate – but along ethnic, religious or clan lines. …
Where clans, birth and names matter, the circles of power become closed. A seat in parliament, even national leadership, is inherited. And while a ruling caste may produce responsible leaders born and trained to rule, it may equally spawn an effete priviligentsia that sucks the country dry, perpetuating a cycle of penury and popular revolt.

Crudely put, the conditions for democracy working well and enduring safely are that both leaders and supporters of the different political factions should be willing to accept defeat (not trying to destabilise a government that has won re-election nor to keep out an opposition that has rightfully displaced you), and to be magnanimous in victory (not trying to rig the rules of future elections nor to persecute the losers who might one day become winners).

These depend on a sense of national unity that transcends personal or factional advantage. This is hard to come by.

Dejevsky argues:

some of today's most [economically] successful countries… are neither democracies or dynasties. Some, such as Russia, might fancy themselves to be democracies, or moving in that direction; others, most egregiously China, are nowhere near. What we supporters of democracy have to recognise, however, is that there are governments that would not qualify under any definition as democratic, that are nonetheless doing well by the vast majority of their citizens. And they are doing so by virtue of an essentially technocratic, apolitical approach to nation-management.

There’s a lot to digest here. Certainly, China’s GDP growth is a remarkable phenomenon, and millions of Chinese have benefited from this. But millions of poor rural Chinese have been forgotten, or in many cases displaced to make way for dams and other industrial projects. Pollution from these is more of a concern to those who breathe the local air or fish in the local rivers than it is to Western eco-warriors. HIV rates are shooting up. China is run for the benefit of the state, not of ‘the people’. Enriching some of those people is in the state’s interests, but those who are non-middle class, non-Party member are primarily treated as resources to be used or ignored as appropriate. Demands for democratic reform in China are growing, and go well beyond “intellectuals who set more store by spiritual than material things”, as Dejevsky dismissively puts it.

Russia’s recovery from its 1990s collapse is impressive as well, although less so once we recall that much of it has been driven by oil and gas exports, with profits going to companies owned by post-Soviet tycoons or the state. Russia has been excellent at creating billionaires, but not so good at “doing well by the vast majority of [its] citizens”. Putin’s popularity owes more to his populist hard-man act than to the living standards of the masses. The retreat to authoritarian ‘managed democracy’ – not just a sensible correction to Yeltsin’s mis-steps – was quite unwarranted, and has not been the cause of Russia’s recent growth.

And neither country’s government is taking an “apolitical approach”. China’s approach could more appropriately be called ‘anti-political’, with people prevented from organising against the Party. And Putin has fed his people nationalistic politics while centralising power.

Dejevsky continues:

If there is an ostensibly competent ruling group that renews itself as and when, while producing rapid growth rates and rising living standards across the board, then what? If there is not Western-style freedom, but enough to satisfy most people, then what? …
Should we then allow perhaps that a stage of benevolent authoritarianism, with a selected – rather than elected – meritocracy at the head, might provide an answer, especially if it kept internecine rivalries at bay?

Setting aside the size of those ‘if’s (and whatever ‘non-Western-style freedom’ might be), she is making a huge category mistake here. She’s confusing a system of government (autocracy) with the nature of a regime (benevolence).

Of course not all unelected rulers are monsters or even decadent rogues. But championing autocracy in the hope of responsible leadership is deeply misguided. Who will do the ‘selection’ of leaders? Who decides what counts as ‘merit’ to rule? Absent accountability, power will reside in the hands of those best able to seize and hold it. These are not ideal criteria for identifying those who will promote national wellbeing.

Buying a winning lottery ticket is an excellent way to enrich yourself. But it’s more likely that you won’t understand your loss until it’s too late.

Dejevsky adds the caveat that “benevolent authoritarianism” would only be temporary:

The get-out clause would be that such a stage would last only so long as economic well-being were regarded as the chief determinant of contentment. In time, surely, more personal freedom would be granted from above, or successfully demanded from below.

“Regarded” by whom, exactly? Comfortable elites do not tend to spontaneously grant personal freedoms that may undermine their rule. And this nimbly skirts around what it is that determines whether demands from below are successful (and what happens if not). It is the persuasiveness of the argument? Or the column of tanks in Tiananmen Square?

Electoral politics can indeed be dangerous in countries where elite factions have blood feuds against each other, or where demographic divisions overpower national unity. But autocratic rule is rarely a good way to smooth things over.

The UN’s bid for world domination

No, no, no, I’ve not turned into a harrumphing Republican paranoiac.

Emmanuelle Jouannet, in the European Journal of International Law, discusses “one of the central recurrent questions in international law: the relation between the universalism of certain of its principles and the possibility that they are imperialist in nature”. She argues:

The paradox of international law will never be definitively overcome, because international law is intrinsically paradoxical. It is paradoxical because it is both one and the other, it is an instrument for universalization and a reflection of ambivalent particularities; a means of domination and a space for cooperation and emancipation.

If you like that sort of thing, then do tuck in. But it reminds me of a part of the UN Charter that gets very little notice.

Amid all the talk of universal internationalism and respect for the sovereignty of member states, article 2.6 takes quite a different view of non-member states:

The Organization shall ensure that states which are not Members of the United Nations act in accordance with these Principles so far as may be necessary for the maintenance of international peace and security.

Or ‘we will force them to do what we want, subject to our saying that we really really need to’. This is, in principle, the greatest imperialistic claim ever made – although the original intention was merely to keep the losers of World War II (not founder members) on notice to behave themselves.

As UN membership has grown, the significance of this has shrunk. We do, though, collectively retain the right to bomb the crap out of the Vatican, should we feel the need. They also have plans for world domination, I’m led to believe.