Quotulatiousness

August 14, 2014

The decline of the British pub won’t be stopped by more rules and regulations

Filed under: Britain, Business — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:01

In sp!ked, Rossa Minogue agrees with the Campaign for Real Ale that the British pub as a fixture of daily life is in rapid decline, but warns that CAMRA’s proposed remedy will not turn things around:

Britain’s pubs are in peril. In 1982, there were almost 68,000 pubs in the UK; today there are fewer than 55,000. They continue to close at a rate of 31 a week.

Pubs in the suburbs are said to be worst affected, with three per cent of all suburban pubs having closed in the past six months alone. A report by the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) blames the closures on lax planning regulations that allow pubs to be bought and converted into other kinds of businesses without having to seek permission from the local council. CAMRA’s answer is to call for more planning regulations that would make it difficult to convert your favourite boozer into a Tesco Metro. Publicans have blamed cheap supermarket booze for eating into their revenues and have backed calls for minimum pricing to make drinking at home less attractive. There are no doubt many other factors at work. The ubiquity of mobile phones, for one, makes it easier to arrange a meeting with a friend at short notice, which means the idea of being the ‘regular’ who pops into a ‘local’ unannounced in the hope of bumping into someone one knows is becoming a thing of the past.

Further regulation, however, is not the answer. In fact, as demonstrated by their enthusiastic support for the smoking ban, CAMRA has failed to see that regulations are one of the main things that are killing pubs. Stricter planning laws would do little to address the underlying reasons why pubs are closing. After all, if pubs were drawing the crowds they needed to be viable, why would they be selling up in the first place? Rising rents have been cited as a cause, but the businesses lining up to take over pub premises don’t seem to have a problem paying them.

Pub culture is under threat, but not by greedy property developers desperate to turn every suburban highstreet into a row of Costa Coffees. Rather, the threat comes from the degradation of public life, a process nudged along by a state that disapproves of our habits.

July 21, 2014

The retreat of civil society and the advance of the nanny state

Filed under: Law, Liberty, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:27

In The Week, Michael Brendan Dougherty wonders why so many parents are being arrested these days for letting their children do things that used to be utterly normal:

Last month, when the first wave of these stories came out, I suggested it was a problem of helicopter parents enforcing their notions of parenthood on others. But the number and variety of such incidents suggest that something more is at work. The communities that are happy to watch the kids in the neighborhood, and help parents with an extra set of eyes and a few caramels, are just gone. We’re arresting parents because civil society is retreating from children altogether.

Timothy Carney, a columnist for The Washington Examiner and a father of five, attributes it to a decline of “neighborliness.” And that’s certainly true. People see a kid, imagine a bad thing could happen to them, and then think they should call the cops. Whereas “neighborly adults look after other adults’ kids when the parents are unavailable.”

Gracy Olmstead, in a very smart article for The American Conservative, says that all of this waning of society and waxing of the state was predicted by communitarian libertarian Robert Nisbet:

    Nisbet predicted that, in a society without strong private associations, the State would take their place — assuming the role of the church, the schoolroom, and the family, asserting a “primacy of claim” upon our children. “It is hard to overlook the fact,” he wrote, “that the State and politics have become suffused by qualities formerly inherent only in the family or the church.” In this world, the term “nanny state” takes on a very literal meaning.

[...]

But today those communities seem rarer, and so, too, those shared premises about how kids should behave. More than that, there’s a fear of taking responsibility for kids in the neighborhood. Deliver a short report on a child’s behavior and his parents may snap back, “Don’t tell me how to parent my child.” A neighbor’s interest may seem invasive or even creepy. Lacking church or community, bystanders in a neighborhood refer their concern about a suboptimal parental situation (one they usually know little about because they are not very neighborly) to the only other institution empowered to look out for the welfare of children: the state.

Update: Scott Greenfield on the whole “see something, say something (to the authorities)” situation with parents and children.

[...] the most fundamental cause for some people to feel empowered to rat out a parent [is] because they just aren’t managing their children the way I think they should!!!

Everything that fails to comport with the way the most sensitive soul in the neighborhood feels it should must now be a crime. Do it for the children. Do it for the women. Do it for … just do it.

Parents always question other parents’ parenting skills and choices. We naturally believe with all our heart and soul that whatever choices we made were better than theirs, whoever they may be. This is human nature, given our own belief that we are right and anyone who disagrees with us is wrong. Conversely, everyone who agrees is brilliant, confirming that we, too, are both right and brilliant. These thoughts are nothing new.

But the problem in Douthat’s parade of bad parenting isn’t merely some prissy busybody’s decision that some parent has inadequately bubble-wrapped their kid. The problem is that they conflate their parenting choices with righteousness, such that anyone who doesn’t share their sensibilities has committed a crime. It’s a crime to neglect your child, with neglect defined as doing anything less than providing absolute safety and comfort to children as the most delicate flower perceives it.

[...]

Years ago, there was a saying in the parent’s handbook, “spare the rod and spoil the child.” Today, that’s Endangering the Welfare of a Child in the First Degree. This isn’t to suggest that beating kids is a great method of child rearing, but to remind all the self-righteous that their beloved nanny used to beat their mother to a pulp when she misbehaved. Are you ready to lock granny up? If not, what moral authority do you have to call the cops on someone else, whose crime is not meeting your expectations of safe enough?

The criminal law is not a child-rearing tool. If you spent a few seconds thinking beyond your overly passionate feelings, you might consider whether a child would do better to be reared by a loving parent who isn’t inclined to keep them locked in protective custody throughout the formative years, than as a ward of the state. How does turning a parent into a criminal, losing a job, perhaps even a home, make a child’s life better?

June 10, 2014

The Catholic case against libertarianism

Filed under: Economics, Liberty, Religion — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:14

First, let’s talk about the evils of the free market and how God wants to abolish free exchange of goods for our spiritual and moral welfare, shall we?

Something strange happened in Washington last week: A panel of Catholic intellectuals and clergy, led by His Eminence Oscar Andrés Maradiaga, was convened to denounce a political philosophy under the headline “Erroneous Autonomy: The Catholic Case against Libertarianism.” The conference was mainly about free-market economics rather than libertarianism per se, and it was an excellent reminder that the hierarchy of the Church has no special grace to pronounce upon matters of specific economic organization. The best that can be said of the clergy’s corporate approach to economic thinking is that it is intellectually incoherent, which is lucky inasmuch as the depths of its illiteracy become more dramatic and destructive as it approaches coherence.

[...]

The increasingly global and specialized division of labor and the resulting chains of production — i.e., modern capitalism, the unprecedented worldwide project of voluntary human cooperation that is the unique defining feature of our time — is what cut the global poverty rate in half in 20 years. It was not Buddhist mindfulness or Catholic homilies that did that. In the 200,000-year history of Homo sapiens, neither of those great religious traditions, nor anything else that human beings ever came up with, made a dent in the poverty rate. Capitalism did. One of the great ironies of our times is that so many of the descendents of the old Catholic immigrant working class have found themselves attracted to an American Buddhism that, with its love of ornate titles, its costumes, its fascination with apostolic succession, and its increasingly coddled professional clergy, is a 21st-century expression of Buddhism apparently committed to transforming itself — plus ça change! — into 15th-century Catholicism. Perhaps it should not be entirely surprising that it has embraced the same intellectual errors.

Cardinal Rodríguez Maradiaga and likeminded thinkers, stuck as they are in the hopelessly 19th-century distributist model of economic analysis, apparently are incapable of thinking through the implications of their own dogma. The question of how certain goods are “distributed” in society is a second-order question at best; by definition prior to it is the question of whether there is anything to distribute. To put it in Christian terms, all of the great givers in Scripture — the Good Samaritan, the widow with her mite, Joseph of Arimathea — had something to give. If the Good Samaritan had been the Poor Samaritan, with no resources to dedicate to the stranger’s care, then the poor waylaid traveler would have been out of luck. All the good intentions that we may muster are not half so useful to a hungry person as a loaf of bread.

Those who put distribution at the top of their list of priorities both make the error of assuming the existence of some exogenous agency that oversees distribution (that being the Distribution Fairy) and entirely ignore the vital question of what gets produced and by whom. Poverty is the direct by-product of low levels of production; the United States and Singapore are fat and happy with $53,101 and $64,584 in per capita economic output, respectively; Zimbabwe, which endured the services of a government very much interested in the redistribution of capital, gets to divide up $788 per person per year, meaning that under circumstances of perfect mathematical equality life would still be miserable for everybody. Sweden can carve up its per capita pie however it likes, but it’s still going to be 22.5 percent smaller than the U.S. pie and less than two-thirds the size of Singapore’s tasty pastry. You cannot redistribute what you don’t have — and that holds true not only for countries but, finally, for the planet and the species, which of course is what globalization is all about. That men of the cloth, of all people, should be blind to what is really happening right now on the global economic scale is remarkable, ironic, and sad.

May 27, 2014

The argument against raising minimum prices for alcohol

Filed under: Economics, Government, Health — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:37

Earlier this year, A Very British Dude explained why “evidence-based” policy making isn’t actually what it says on the label, and illustrates it with the example of minimum pricing for alcohol:

Who could possibly be against “evidence-based” policy?

The problem is very simple. It’s almost impossible to conduct experiments in the social sciences. No government can alter one economic variable and measure the outcome. The noise to signal ratio is absurdly high. What you’re left with is explanations of the data that may or may not stumble on the actual causality.

Some things are obviously and self-evidently stupid. Socialism for example — high marginal tax-rates, nationalisation, closing down markets where possible in favour of state monopolies failed. And in as perfect an economic experiment as any undertaken, two nations, both shattered by war and populated by Germans went head to head. The Capitalist system turned out to be much, much less shit than socialism. Yet many social “scientists” still seem intent on manufacturing evidence that the solutions once tried in East Germany are not only feasible, but that any other approach is both doomed to failure and wicked.

Instead of evidence-based policy, what you often get is policy-based “evidence”. You have the same political arguments, dressed up in a kind of pseudo scientific hocus-pocus.

Take the “debate” about minimum pricing as a classic example.

First make a heroic assumption. Assume a fall in alcohol consumption per head is desirable (it isn’t, what we want to do is reduce “problem” drinking). Second, ignore the fact that your desired outcome is happening anyway. Third, ignore all the evidence that “problem” drug-takers have a lower elasticity of demand and assume that minimum pricing will mostly affect the consumption by alcoholics. Fourth, express these assumptions in a spreadsheet, with no real-world evidence. Fifth, describe this spreadsheet as a “model“. The zeroth step is, of course to get a university to describe you as “professor” first. Then you’re able to tout your guesswork and call it “evidence”, to politicians, and unmolested by any critical thought on the Today program and be paid handsomely from tax-payers’ funds to make this “evidence” up into the bargain.

So you have an “evidence-based” policy to impose a minimum unit price on Alcohol. It’s regressive, and probably won’t work. It will reduce moderate drinking by sensible people, making them at the margin, unhappier. It is unlikely to reduce problem drinking, but may make problem drinkers substitute clothes, or food, or heating for their more expensive booze. Nice one. Everyone’s poorer.

May 20, 2014

Scotland ratchets up the Nanny State

Filed under: Britain, Government, Law — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:27

Last year, the Scottish government introduced legislative proposals to nominate state guardians for all Scottish children, to be called “named persons” and to exercise rather Orwellian powers over the child and the child’s parents. The legislation is now in force, and Stuart Waiton explains why it’s such an intrusive step:

The children’s minister, Aileen Campbell, has been dismissive of those people who have criticised the act as state snooping, or, as many Christian groups have put it, an ‘attack on the family’. For Campbell, the new powers and duties being given to the state guardians are simply another service to help families in trouble and further ensure that children are protected in society. Indeed, Aileen Campbell at times appears to be nonplussed by her critics, incapable of seeing why her caring approach is not instantly celebrated. The claims of state snoops undermining the family, she argues, are simply ‘misunderstandings’ and ‘misrepresentations’ of the new law. When someone raised the point that this act undermined the role of parents in child-rearing, Campbell, somewhat comically, replied, ‘we recognise that parents also have a role’.

However, given the increasing ways in which all children are being categorised as ‘vulnerable’, the way in which all professionals are being educated to put child safety at the top of their agenda, and at time in which ‘early intervention’ is promoted as the only rational approach to solving social problems, there is a serious risk that the relationship between the ‘named person’ and parents will become one predicated on suspicion. Given that the red line for when it is appropriate to intervene in a child’s life is also being downgraded, from the child being seen as at serious risk of harm to mere concerns about their ‘wellbeing’, the potential for unnecessary and potentially destructive state intrusion into family life with this law is significant.

[...] There is also a great danger here that by incorporating every single child in the child-safety rubric, the few children who need state intervention in their lives will get lost in this vast system and not get the support they need. As one concerned parent has noted, when you are looking for a needle in a haystack, why make the haystack bigger?

January 17, 2014

The Nanny State ethos – you’re too thick, so we’ll do the thinking for you

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Government — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:37

At the Adam Smith Institute blog, Tim Worstall talks about the way regulatory agencies approach problems:

It’s claimed as one of the great victories for enlightened (sorry) regulation, the way that the EU and US have both banned the incandescent light bulb through bureaucratic action. The ban came about by raising the efficiency standards required: this meant that the traditional bulb could no longer be sold.

The argument in favour of doing things this way was, in public at least, that everyone’s too stupid (or, in a more polite manner, subject to hyperbolic discounting) to realise that the new bulbs will actually save them money in the long term by consuming less electricity. There are also the more cynical in the industry who insist that it’s actually a case of regulatory capture. The light bulb manufacturing companies managing to get us all away from using cheap as spit bulbs and onto something with a decent margin on it.

[...]

This has a number of implications in the larger world as well: for example, it means that bureaucratic regulation on car mileages (like CAFE in the US) is contra-indicated. A simple tax on petrol will drive up average mpg because we’re not all as thick as bricks. Assuming that climate change really is a problem that must be dealt with then a carbon tax is going to do the job. For we’re not all so dim that we cannot work out the utility of using fossil fuels or not given the change in prices.

That is, we don’t need to be regulated into behaviour, we can be influenced into it through the price system. Something that really shouldn’t be all that much of a surprise to us market liberals: for we’re the people who already insist that people do indeed respond to price incentives in markets.

January 9, 2014

The Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill, “a revolution in law-making, creating an unprecedented form of blank-cheque state power”

Filed under: Britain, Law, Liberty — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:30

Josie Appleton on the amazingly restrictive bill wending its way through the UK parliamentary process:

The bill includes Injunctions to Prevent Nuisance and Annoyance (IPNAs), which can be issued against anybody whose conduct — or threatened conduct — is capable — on the balance of probabilities — of causing nuisance or annoyance to any person.

Few things in the public space are incapable of at least annoying someone. Some people can be annoyed by busking, ball games, skateboarding, street preaching, protests, and all the rest of it. As the former director of public prosecutions Lord Macdonald QC judged: ‘It is difficult to imagine a broader concept than causing “nuisance” or “annoyance”. The phrase is apt to catch a vast range of everyday behaviours to an extent that may have serious implications for the rule of law.’

[...]

However, the problems don’t stop with clause 1. Other clauses in the bill include Public Space Protection Orders (clause 55), which allow local authorities to ban any activity which has a ‘negative effect on the quality of life’ of the area. This ban can be applied to particular groups or individuals, and can also impose conditions with which such groups must comply. This is drafted so broadly it could target anything from sleeping rough, collecting for charity, public drinking, begging, feeding pigeons, or smoking in parks. Indeed, the lead civil servant agrees that the law could be used against groups ‘if there is a localised issue’, such as a ‘group of Goths’ or ‘twentysomethings listening to music in a park’.

At base, this bill represents a revolution in law-making, creating an unprecedented form of blank-cheque state power. The aim is explicit: rather than create specific powers, it seeks to remove limitations to local authorities’ actions. The civil servant says: ‘We don’t want to put too many constraints in the legislation.’ Well, there is no danger of that.

The bill completes the transformation of the role of the British local authority, from a limited body concerned with public provision to a summary law-maker and public-order power.

December 31, 2013

2013 in review

Filed under: Humour, Liberty, Politics — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:09

I nearly ran Steve Chapman‘s wonderful little squib as a QotD entry: “The course of freedom and democracy in the world is an evolutionary process, though sometimes it proceeds in the wrong direction. Wines have good years and bad years. If 2013 were a wine, you’d use it to kill weeds.”

Looking ahead to 2014, Radley Balko has some Dire Civil Liberties Predictions to ring in the new year:

As we come to the end of a year that saw revelations about massive government spying programs, horrifying stories of police abuse, and brazen violations of the Fourth Amendment, I thought I might offer my own grim predictions about where civil liberties are headed in the coming year. Sure, some of these may seem outlandish. But to borrow from H.L. Mencken, nobody ever went broke underestimating the grade and lubriciousness of the slippery slope.

On a less-depressing note, Nick Mediati rounds up the “top” memes of 2013, including the latest attempt to de-grammaticize the internet:

Doge meme of 2013

After years and years of cats dominating the Internet, dog lovers were finally thrown a bone in 2013 with the emergence of the Doge meme. The meme typically features photos of Shiba Inu dogs with internal thoughts overlaid in brightly colored Comic Sans. And it’s frickin’ awesome. You might find yourself spontaneously speaking in doge. Such language. So words. Very thought. Wow.

November 21, 2013

QotD: Michael Bloomberg wants you to pick a fight this Thanksgiving

Filed under: Humour, Politics, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 13:54

I don’t know what holiday dinners are like at Michael Bloomberg’s house, but I suspect there’s an awful lot of picking at food while the windbag at the head of the table lectures the assembled guests about why he’s right and they’re all idiots. That’s the message I get from his pet Mayors Against Illegal Guns organization, which wants its loyal minions, if there are any, to sit down to their Thanksgiving feasts and immediately start fights with relatives they haven’t seen in a year about gun control. All you need is a handy list of tendentious talking points — and a shitload of patience from Cousin Bob, who rebuilds old pistols for fun and just wrapped himself around half a bottle of Jack Daniels.

J.D. Tuccille, “Bloomberg Group Wants You To Start Fights About Gun Control at Thanksgiving”, Hit and Run, 2013-11-21

“The food police have a gargantuan appetite for ordering other people around”

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Business, Health, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:32

In Reason, A. Barton Hinkle explains why the Food and Drug Administration’s latest regulatory move may cost more than a billion dollars, require millions of hours of work … and provide no measurable benefits whatsoever:

In comments shortly after the menu labeling rules were proposed, the Center for Science in the Public Interest — they are the folks forever hectoring the public about the dangers of Chinese food, Italian food, movie theater popcorn, etc. — insisted that “if a restaurant has both an inside and drive-thru menu board, both must list calories.” And: “The calories should be at least as large and prominent as the name or price of the item.” And: “Calories should be posted for each size beverage available.” And: “The color, font size, font type, contrasting background, and other characteristics should all be comparable to the name and price of the item.”

What’s more: “Deli items or prepared foods that are dished up into standard containers should have signs posted next to each item with calorie counts for each container size available. For example, potato salad that is typically dished up into half-pint, pint and quart containers should list calories for one half-pint of potato salad, one pint of potato salad and a quart of potato salad.”

Rules such as these, the CSPI says, should apply not just to restaurants and supermarket delis but also to “salad bars, buffet lines, cafeteria lines, and self-serve, fountain soft drinks.” Moreover, “Calories must be posted for each pizza topping, sandwich component, omelet selection, sundae topping, or salad ingredient or dressing.”

The object of such Byzantine busybody-ness is plain enough: to “nudge” (former Obama regulatory czar Cass Sunstein’s favorite word) people to ingest fewer calories.

Just one small problem: It doesn’t work.

“Restaurant menu labels don’t work, study shows,” reported Today back in July: “No matter how much calorie information is on the menu list, people still choose the food they like, not what’s supposed to be healthier, researchers from Carnegie Mellon reported Thursday. … ‘Putting calorie labels on menus really has little or no effect on people’s ordering behavior at all,’ says Julie Downs, lead author of the new study published Thursday in the American Journal of Public Health.”

November 13, 2013

The end of the ASBO … and the start of something worse

Filed under: Britain, Law, Liberty — Tags: , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:09

In sp!ked, Patrick Hayes talks about the new social control mechanism being introduced to replace the notorious ASBO, the Injunction to Prevent Nuisance and Annoyance:

It sounds like a joke, but IPNAs — introduced in Clause 1 of the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill, which received its second reading in the House of Lords last week — really do seem quite easy to enforce. Indeed, they make their predecessors, New Labour’s notorious Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs), seem like a level-headed intervention into community life in comparison.

The bill says that in order for an IPNA to be granted, a court needs to be satisfied ‘on the balance of probabilities that the respondent has engaged or threatens to engage in conduct capable of causing nuisance or annoyance to any person’. Once satisfied, the court can issue an IPNA in order ‘to grant the injunction for the purpose of preventing the respondent from engaging in anti-social behaviour’.

It seems that for the Lib-Con coalition government, the problem with ASBOs was not that they circumvented the normal exercise of law by dishing out behaviour-controlling orders to people who hadn’t actually committed any crime, but rather that they only covered behaviour that might cause ‘harassment, alarm or distress’. So it has introduced IPNAs, which cover everyday nuisance and annoying behaviour, too. In fact, you don’t actually have to be annoying to get an IPNA — even the threat of behaving annoyingly can earn you one of these orders that do not require criminal-law standards of proof and can instead be handed out, to anyone over 10, at a court’s convenience. If you flout an IPNA, you face up to three months in prison.

November 10, 2013

Latest federal initiative shows “patronising contempt, arrogant presumption and impressive stupidity”

Filed under: Cancon, Economics, Government — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 13:39

The federal government is launching a program to help “ordinary Canadians” become better at managing their finances. Richard Anderson points out the amusing aspect of this:

I sometimes wonder if the hacks who put out these releases aren’t giggling to themselves the whole time, amazed at what they’re getting away with. You work for a Conservative government that wades through a sea of red ink every year. This same government has no credible plan to deal with the entitlement crisis, except point out how we’re less screwed than the Yanks. So naturally you go about lecturing the common folk on how to balance their chequebooks. This is like the morbidly obese diet coach of legend.

We see here a unique combination of patronising contempt and arrogant presumption that does not, so far as we have been able to determine, exist outside of Ottawa. Even the Soviets assumed that an ordinary adult could balance their personal budgets without being lectured to by a full time commissar. Then again they were communists, not nannies. Herein lies the great difference between the totalitarian projects of the last century and the petty authoritarianism of this one, the end result. The communist, fascists and Nazis envision a new man who would change the world. Note the underlying assumption: Man.

At some point, after rigorous indoctrination, the boy would become a man. The modern nanny state assumes that the boy never becomes a man, he’s always a boy needing to be hectored to and monitored. As the press release notes: “…brushing up on the basics of money management at any age and will include events for Canadians of all ages.” No matter how old you get, the federal government will be there to tell you how to manage your affairs. That generations of Canadians did this quite well without government involvement never comes up.

October 28, 2013

Nanny gets bigger – mission creep in “public health”

Filed under: Government, Media, Politics — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:15

In sp!ked, Christopher Snowdon starts off by listing a few “public health” proposals that have been suggested recently:

An abridged list of policies that have been proposed in the name of ‘public health’ in recent months includes: minimum pricing for alcohol, plain packaging for tobacco, a 20 per cent tax on fizzy drinks, a fat tax, a sugar tax, a fine for not being a member of a gym, graphic warnings on bottles of alcohol, a tax on some foods, subsidies on other foods, a ban on the sale of hot food to children before 5pm, a ban on anyone born after the year 2000 ever buying tobacco, a ban on multi-bag packs of crisps, a ban on packed lunches, a complete ban on alcohol advertising, a ban on electronic cigarettes, a ban on menthol cigarettes, a ban on large servings of fizzy drinks, a ban on parents taking their kids to school by car, and a ban on advertising any product whatsoever to children.

Doubtless many of the proponents of these policies identify themselves as ‘liberals’. We must hope they never lurch towards authoritarianism. [...]

As the definition of ‘health’ has been changed, so too has the meaning of ‘public health’. It once meant vaccinations, sanitation and education. It was ‘public’ only in the sense that it protected people from contagious diseases carried by others. Today, it means protecting people from themselves. The word ‘epidemic’ has also been divorced from its meaning — an outbreak of infectious disease — and is instead used to describe endemic behaviour such as drinking, or non-contagious diseases such as cancer, or physical conditions such as obesity which are neither diseases nor activities. This switch from literal meanings to poetic metaphors helps to maintain the conceit that governments have the same rights and responsibility to police the habits of its citizens as they do to ensure that drinking water is uncontaminated. It masks the hard reality that ‘public health’ is increasingly concerned with regulating private behaviour on private property.

The anti-smoking campaign is where the severe new public-health crusade began, but it is not where it ends. Libertarians warned that the campaign against tobacco would morph into an anti-booze and anti-fat campaign of similar intensity. They were derided; ridiculed for making fallacious ‘slippery slope’ arguments. In retrospect, their greatest failing was not that they were too hysterical in their warnings but that they lacked the imagination to foresee policies as absurd as plain packaging or bans on large servings of lemonade, even as satire.

October 27, 2013

Good news – we’re not in 1984; Bad news – we’re in Brave New World instead

Filed under: Liberty, Media, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

I’ve already quoted from this week’s edition of Jonah Goldberg’s The Goldberg File email, but I quite liked this passage as well:

The bad news is that we don’t feel that way — anymore — about softer, more diffuse and bureaucratic forms of tyranny. Every American is taught from grade school up that they should fear living in the world of Orwell’s 1984. Few Americans can tell you why we shouldn’t live in Huxley’s Brave New World. We’ve got the dogmatic muscle and rhetorical sinew to repel militarism, but we’re intellectually flabby when it comes to rejecting statist maternalism. We hate hearing “Because I said so!” But we’re increasingly powerless against, “It’s for your own good!”

(Sadly, the surest route to the 1984-ification of America is to embrace Brave New Worldism. Once you’ve created a society of men without chests — in C. S. Lewis’s phrase — you’ve created a society ripe for a father-figure to make all of the decisions).

For instance, when the national-security types intrude on our privacy or civil liberties, even theoretically, all of the “responsible” voices in the media and academia wig out. But when Obamacare poses a vastly more intrusive and real threat to our privacy, the same people yawn and roll their eyes at anyone who complains. If the District of Columbia justified its omnipresent traffic cameras as an attempt to keep tabs on dissidents, they’d be torn down in a heartbeat by mobs of civil libertarians. But when justified on the grounds of public safety (or revenue for social services or as a way to make driving cars more difficult), well, that’s different.

And it is different. Motives matter. But at the same time, I do wish we looked a bit more like the America Edmund Burke once described:

    In other countries, the people, more simple, and of a less mercurial cast, judge of an ill principle in government only by an actual grievance; [In America] they anticipate the evil, and judge of the pressure of the grievance by the badness of the principle. They augur misgovernment at a distance; and snuff the approach of tyranny in every tainted breeze.

October 21, 2013

The nudge notion rebranded as a “human-centred” approach

Filed under: Government, Media — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:26

In sp!ked, James Heartfield discusses a new book by David Chandler:

In his new book, Freedom vs Necessity in International Relations, David Chandler, professor of international relations at the University of Westminster, offers a masterful summation of the latest trends in policy internationally and domestically. The book lays bare the claims of governments to put people and their decision-making at the centre of policy. What Chandler shows to great effect is that the latest claims of policymakers and theorists to a human-centred approach result in something like its opposite. In a wide range of cases — from the United Nations’ Human Development Report to the Cabinet Office’s prioritisation of the ‘choice environment’ — Chandler explains how ‘human-centred’ policy is, in fact, very far from human-centred. The real aim is for people to align their behaviour and choices to the outcomes chosen by those in power, rather than deciding such outcomes for themselves. ‘Human-centred’ policy turns out to have as much to do with people deciding for themselves as the Ministry of Peace had to do with Peace, or the Ministry of Plenty to do with Plenty in Orwell’s novel.

Chandler draws attention to the irony of a worldview that imagines a much greater role for human action ending up making the case for greater restraints on freedom. As he explains, one of the marked prejudices of our times is that people have a far greater impact on the external world — for example, with the question of pollution — where mankind’s industrial output is held to threaten the very existence of life on the planet. Similarly, he observes, we have an exaggerated view of the way that our own health is shaped by the choices that we make. Political loyalties, too, are now widely seen as a great destructive force, limiting more positive outcomes.

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But as Chandler explains, Sen’s own approach, enshrined in the UN Development Report, is less respectful of people’s own choices than you might expect. According to Sen ‘the outcome one wants is a reasoned assessment’ but ‘the underlying question’ is ‘whether the person has had an adequate opportunity to reason about what she really wants’. Building capacity turns out to mean building capacity to make the right choices — in other words, the choices that development economists think are the right choices. ‘Reducing risk-taking among youth requires that they have the information and the capacity to make and act on decisions’, explains the World Bank’s Development Report.

You’ll be free to make choices, as long as you’re careful to only make the approved choices. A very restrictive kind of “freedom” indeed.

Update: Also in sp!ked, Sean Collins talks about the introduction of so-called “libertarian paternalism” aka the nudge:

When Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness was published in 2008, it seemed like it might be a fad bestseller, like Freakonomics or one of those Malcolm Gladwell books.

Nudge authors Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, both American academics, proposed that government and employers should more consciously direct people to make ‘better’ choices in health, personal finance and other areas, in order to improve their lives. They gave the example of a cafeteria that lays out food in a way that encourages people to select carrot sticks over French fries or dessert. The authors label their approach ‘libertarian paternalism’: ‘paternalism’ because they want to steer people in a certain direction, and ‘libertarian’ because they would still offer people an array of choices (if you really want the chocolate mousse, you can reach under the counter at the back).

Although a new idea at the time, nudge was hardly a Big Idea. And yet governments around the world picked it up and ran with it, giving the concept more substance and longevity than might have been expected. As Sunstein has noted, the findings from his and others’ behavioural research have informed US regulations concerning ‘retirement savings, fuel economy, energy efficiency, environmental protection, healthcare, and obesity’. Sunstein himself implemented many of these measures in his role of Regulatory Czar in the Obama administration (described in his recently published book, Simpler: The Future of Government). In the UK, prime minister David Cameron set up a Behavioural Insights Team, also known as the ‘nudge unit’, in 2010. This has led to a variety of new policies and schemes directed at anything from obesity and teenage pregnancy to organ donations and the environment.

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