In defence of Anarchism

As some of you may know, I’m not a big fan of Anarchism. I consider it either to be vulgar, immature right-wing politics for those who want to be anti-establishment without donning a Che Guevara T-shirt, or hopelessly deluded left-wing politics for those who have a hopelessly utopian vision of fundamental human motivations. I’m happy to have a go at either trend, but if you asked me which one I thought was the true definition of anarchism, I would immediately give the former; for I think that in reality, Anarchism would be the wet nightmare of right-wing politics that not even the most extreme capitalist would wish to have.

A real capitalist, of course, would not wish to see a true free market anyway, at least, not if they were busy applying their skills in the modern economy. For one thing, a market favourable to a big business often delivers it the power to try and prevent said market from changing, or at least to try and control the rate of change — stability of the market is something in the interests of any business, so it follows naturally that businesses, even rivals, are not opposed to all government intervention — just some.

Generally, up til here, a Marxist would be agreeing with me, so I’m tempted to turn on marxists next, just to keep the trend up of irritating as many ideological trends as possible. But I’m not going to, because I’m trying to give this a point and some direction, so I’ll come back to right-wing politics, capitalism, and the free market.

Recently, I have been made aware of a trend in ideological (or “intellectual”) thought, that I must confess I did not realise existed beyond the fringes of the internet; that which advances “fundamental property rights”, and an entirely free market. Quite why both ideas go together I am not sure, though I do believe that those who take this disturbingly narrow-minded direction of thought economically and politically may have made the fatal mistake of believing in more than one fundamental truth: for everyone knows that the person who only accepts one premise as true is impossible to argue with.

It is still incredibly difficult to counter this, generally because the complexity of society throughout history being what it is, there is actually no real example that comes to mind of an entirely free market with absolute property rights (to which one is tempted to add, “Thank goodness” or “I wonder why”). This means that it is very difficult to argue that one knows with a certainty what such a society would look like, given lack of historical precedent. One place where it appears reasonable to start, however, is in the basic distinction between the absolute property rights and free market (hereby abbreviated to APRFM) school, and anarchist (of the honest sort, that recognises the oxymoronic nature of “left-wing” anarchism).

The difference is that the APRFM school of thought does not disagree with all features of government — presumably because it can see how in a perfectly ‘free’ society, property rights and freedom of trade might not be achieved (due to the irrationality of free human beings, one supposes, who cannot see the bountiful advantages that come with free trade and absolute property rights). Instead, the APRFM concede that a “strong”, but “very small” government is needed, to enforce property rights, and ensure free trade.

The latter idea is problematic, for in a free market society, it follows that money is (purchasing) power (of whatever is profitable to sell in the market). It also follows that businesses are allowed to expand as the market allows, without restriction, and thus gain more power than they might be allowed to in a regulated market society that had laws to limit the scope of business expansion.

So far, so straightfoward. Now the real problems begin to appear: we have already established the need for government (“to enforce property rights, and ensure free trade”, remember), so therefore the power of businesses in relation to government sets off immediate alarm bells. There are two options: either government is small, and businesses are allowed to dominate government via exercising their market power; or government is strong enough to insulate itself from business interests, in which case it will almost certainly have to be very big. And if it is this big, it stands to reason that it may start to get ideas into its head about society beyond the market, and want to start intervening in ways other than those involving the protection of free trade and property rights.

So either way, a sustainable free market looks unlikely, given that either way you have it, there is at least on powerful interest (or set of interests) attempting to dominate the process of government. Either established businesses will attempt to dominate the process of government to their exclusive advantage, or government will be big enough to get ideas of its own. Heads I win, tails APRFM lose.

That’s one half of the equation — the free market. Believe it or not, it’s not until here that it starts to get juicy, as we get on to (“absolute”) property rights.

The concept of absolute property rights strikes me, I must admit (in fact, I take pleasure in admitting) as a strange one, as it seems to be self-contradictory when one thinks through the possible ramifications. Presumably, absolute property rights entail an absolute right of ownership of whatever is classed as one’s property. It would seem logical to assume that certain basic things are automatically one’s property from birth: such as one’s body, one’s labour, one’s skills. Therefore it follows that with absolute property rights, these uncontested items of private property can also be sold on the market. Or, in a language everyone will be able to understand: slavery.

The thing is, this rather amusingly demonstrates that the all too frequent ideological core of the APRFM school, that “the property rights of some should not be violated for the benefit of others” is breached by the concept of absolute property rights, which is at the heart of their ideology. For if one person owns another in the absolute sense, owning their body, labour and skills, then they themselves have control over said person’s property rights. But if you attempt to limit the owner’s property rights so the slave’s property rights are intact, then you merely breach the owner’s property rights. Absolute property rights is thus a self-defeating concept.

As is the free market. Setting aside the tendency toward monopoly for the time being (which APRFM apparently do not “accept”), absolute property rights would clearly infringe upon the concept of free market, as the market would no longer have a universal consumer and distributer base due to the legitimisation of slavery, but curbed property rights will be a limitation on the market, which would also prevent it from being free. Both rights are at odds with one another, as well as with themselves. Internally and externally, the school of thought is inconsistent.

And this is before we get into anything remotely practical. How APRFM see their ideology being inforced when it comes to intellectual property, for instance, I do not know. Attempt to regulate internet providers, or shut down the survers hosting filesharing sites, and you’re infringing upon the free market and property rights, but leave filesharing websites unchallenged and you’re failing to support the intellectual property rights of artists and record companies. Heads I win, tails APRFM lose.

And then there are areas where enforcement on an individual level of property is so difficult as to be impossible: such as what are currently territorial waters and the oceans. The whole concept of building a school of thought upon two absolute, contradictory and internally contractory premises, whose scope is limited to what is possible for any holder of property, is utterly ridiculous.

In defence of Anarchism? Well, after analysing that, Anarchism looks rather good in comparison.

Democracy and the ways in which my mind doesn’t get on with it.

I have a confession to make. Despite having always regarded myself as “something of a democrat” (which means… democratic, just not too much of a good thing), my voting intentions have never worked very well with the particular concept of democracy most people in this country have.

For instance, before I understood the voting system, and how the terms of the contest varied from region to region, I used to claim that “if Labour were going to win, I would vote Conservative, if the Conservatives were likely to win, I would vote Labour”, unashamedly, even though I could understand the logical problems with this sort of tactical voting, not to mention what it says about your ego that I believed that I was smart enough to vote tactically for good reasons.

I still have something of this idea in me, though watered down by a greater understanding of FPTP and the knowledge that in my home constituency of Leominster, the best opposition to the incumbent MP would be from the Liberal Democrats. However, my University constituency is a Labour seat, with the Conservatives the nearest opposition (to my knowledge), and I cannot help but think that I would vote differently were Labour at all likely to win the forthcoming election (which they are not, at present) than in the context of the present polls. This is because of what perceive to be a fundamental problem with elections, the fact that enough people can prefer one party moderately enough over another to give them a landslide majority, despite the fact that if the magnitude of their preferences were to be taken into account, they would not probably wish to deliver such landslide levels of control.

There are some of you who would probably say that this is meaningless anyway, as the Conservatives have only ever gone past the 50% level once, and that with a “fair” voting system, they would not be delivered a landslide majority, which is fair enough. But even if it’s only a hypothetical consideration in the full, I feel it is still an important one: electoral contests are an imperfect way of reflecting upon someone’s opinions, because even with the most ‘proportional’ voting systems, what is not taken into account is how much of a role you envision for the losers.

Of course, some of you would probably argue Single Transferable Vote as an exception to this, in that you can “divide” your preferences between different parties to quite a sophisticated level in some cases (depending on the size of the constituency, and how much attention you want to give to the ballot paper). But even Single Transferable Vote is tricky: the likely-hood of a vote being “transferred” is hit and miss, and the chances depend on the level of popular support a candidate gains to begin with. I suppose the latter factor puts something of a lid on the chances of a candidate gaining too disproportionately from the appeal of being “marginally better” than the other contestants, but it’s still a clumsy tool. It may, unfortunately, be the best one for addressing this problem.

Still, there are other issues. The problem with the “all in one” nature of British democracy at the moment is that people have to balance the needs of Local Representation, National Representation, choice of government agenda, choice of legislative agenda, their preferences on the level of the individual candidate and their preferences on the level of the national party. The Conservatives have laughably tried to insinuate in the past that this maximises choice in national elections: the reality is that it stretches it to the barest thinnist it could conceivably be.

What is probably more crucial is that we have a greater choice in terms of representative democracy, including greater local devolution and a largely democratic House of Lords, unpalatable connotations though these ideas may have at first. For even if a “perfect” voting system of representation exists, it cannot possibly fulfill all of the needs for each type of political representation rolled into one. Two constitutional experiments in the last decade have shown particular promise: Devolution, and greater bicameralism. It is just as critical that we draw from this pool than attempting to plaster a problem over with electoral reform, be it improving the voting system or primaries.

Before I put on the gloves, a word in defence of Dan Hannan

As some of you may know, I am very scathing about Dan Hannan in general. He was vaunted for what was, in my opinion, quite a humble pot-shot across the bow of Gordon Brown’s ever-sinking ship, and ever since then people have been more inclined to listen to his tastelessly neo-liberal views, judging them not on their merit but on the skill of Hannan’s rhetoric, which is undeniably good.

Furthermore, Hannan has felt the need to interject in the American Healthcare debate, urging them to defend their system against an alternative no-one there in a position of influence has actually proposed. Given that Hannan has given the Americans no credible reason to stick with a system that charges them more in tax for healthcare than our supposedly costly NHS does, for far less healthcare coverage and, for the most part, lower quality government care, this seems stupid to say the least. For this reason, I find myself frustrated that not only did Daniel Finkelstein find it necessary to defend Dan Hannan on the grounds that what he said was “unconventional”, but he subsequently thought it necessary to criticise him on even thinner grounds than he defended him, for citing Enoch Powell in a way the rises above the historical stereotype.

I am not particularly sympathetic to Hannan’s citing of Powell as a “hero”, but the furore over this has been nonsensical. If you were to compile a list of what Powell had done in his life other than give the infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech (and its aftermath), it would probably account for 99% of the total, and be completely unknown to all but a minority. Likewise, were you to assess Winston Churchill’s contributions to history, one might conclude that there was a significant amount that failed to live up to the reputation created by his place in the second world war.

This is, in fact, the argument being used by all reasonable-thinking people in the fallout from Hannan’s perhaps inadvisable comments (I think even the most ardent of Hannan’s admirers would reluctantly conclude that Hannan should probably have mentioned that he did not approve of Powell’s views on immigration, for example) in the pages of power today, but it does not appear to satisfy Daniel Finkelstein. This is, it appears, because he has chosen to inflict upon us another of his pet theories following the success (yeah, right) of his citing the “Endowment effect” in an article about healthcare in a way in which it need not factor at all.

This time, after putting the “Endowment effect” to such good use in patronising Healthcare reformers, Daniel Finkelstein appears to have picked on “central intervention”. Those eagle-eyed (or eagle-eared) among you may have noticed that when politicians coin grandiose phrases it invariably follows that the ideas lying behind them tend to be proportionally less impressive. And yes, the same would appear to be true of media commentators.

Daniel says:

Churchill was flawed. He said many things that were wrong. But the central intervention of his life was heroic.

In Powell’s case the position is the opposite. he was right on many things, but the central intervention of his life fell far below the level of heroic. You cannot possibly assess his contribution to public life without including his Tiber speech.

Daniel’s point seems to centre around some kind of quasi-mythical “defining moment” that a good chunk of character writing in fiction seems to be dedicated to. You know the drill, after a lifetime spent on the streets as a hopeless boozer, smoker, journalist, you pick your pejorative term, character A decides to do something fundamentally worthwhile, and is subsequently redeemed.

On the other side of the coin, character B, after appearing to live a life of continual (snobbish) good behaviour, good deeds to the poor, table manners, etc., suddenly proves himself to be a right and utter bastard by reacting the wrong way when the love of his life suddenly decides he is not Mr. Right.

Daniel Finkelstein appears to be trying to apply this method of analysis to political history. Perhaps we could call it the “Climax method”. Historians analysing the life of a person should look to see where the climax should come in a (semi) biographical thriller, what would make the most sellable “defining moment”. In writing the concluding summation of said person’s contributions to history, the bottom line must hinge on the character of their defining moment. Was it sad, tragical, comedic, farcical, villainous, heroic, or ill-definable? It would certainly spice up the work of our nation’s historians, and possibly generate a boost to our film industry in the process by providing them with many more scriptwriters.

But to cease the sarcasm-laden analysis for a moment, who really decides what the “defining moment” of a person in history is? There are many different factors, but what it rarely is is the person themselves. Why should we regard the book as closed on the lives of historical characters when in fact, as any historian will know, there is so much we do not know, and so many ways in which new material could completely change the way in which they view them? Why should we make assumption the watchword of the day, and stifle much-needed debate on the quality of a person’s life?

Daniel Finkelstein is a media commentator, and clearly likes things to be cut and drawn, so he can tell us in an instant how we will react. The media has a lot of power already over how people react to everyday life, but his interjection smacks of wanting more, to have his cake and eat it. He should not complain when someone decides to stand up and challenge a stereotype, just because it goes against the media’s chosen line, rather than complements it.

Lies, Damned Lies, and the Heathcare debate.

David Frum writes — or rather wrote — in the Times today (or rather a few days ago) an article which attempts the impressive feat of trying to convince a British audience of an American argument on healthcare reform.

As you can tell from the above, I have been on holiday. To Sweden (any one who thinks that I may have miraculously been persuaded of the “evils” of public healthcare will no doubt give up right here). Whilst there, I have had a peaceful, laid-back time, in which I have not even felt the urge to write a note. Well, I’ve felt the urge, but I’ve actually resisted it, which is at least something. Being away might turn out to have been a wise long-term choice. I may have missed the worst of Swine flu in Britain, but far, far more importantly, I may have missed the worst of the apoplectic style ranting about healthcare.

Indeed, the worst offenders I have come across have not been American, but rather British. Dan Hannon has been sticking his head out, and regrettably, since mouthing off against Gordon Brown, people seem to be more inclined to listen to what he says. Indeed, Hannon has evidently so taken to the American people that he wishes to save them singlehandedly from the misfortunes of a system where they would pay less in taxes for more public coverage, despite the fact that it isn’t even being offered anyway. No doubt he is proud of his life-saving interventions.

I have also discovered the existence of an even darker side to the Conservative party in the form of a blog that’s nutty as a fruitcake, but thankfully, at least, no-one seems to be listening to it, so I don’t think it’s high profile enough to be worth mentioning. The relevant people (or rather person) will know to whom it applies.

But in general, even from the enlightened holiday-place of Sweden, I have managed to notice an awful lot of rubbish being spouted about the healthcare debate. What has been pretty thin on the ground is a clever argument, what with all of the nonsense about death panels, healthcare rationing, monopolies, higher taxes, socialism, communism, pinko liberal communism, yadayadayada, etc.. Which is why I found David Frum’s article so refreshing as to be worth posting as a link, despite the fact that I still disagree with it, and I still think many of the arguments are just as misinformed. This is because it at least tries to engage meaningfully in debate about the issue, rather than rant incoherently about socialism and evil.

It’s a clever article. Frum clearly knows his audience, and tries to argue in such a way as to persuade it. For example, he uses none of the exaggerated language that most of the right in America does (and instead posts exaggerated examples of the arguments we use against the US system). Frum clearly tries to position himself on the open-minded side of the spectrum, ignoring the extremes from both sides and embracing the facts.

It’s an interesting article, but it fails. Because it doesn’t.

After a refreshing introduction, Frum starts to go wrong almost immediately.

Tens of millions of people lack insurance. Yet they do not go uncared for. Rather they use the most expensive care, emergency care, and hospitals add the cost on to the bills of paying patients.

In beginning the argument in defence of the way the American system treats the uninsured so simplistically, Frum is immediately condescending to their plight. Insurance is based around addressing long-term risks, but in making this argument Frum ignores the most obvious potential ailment, long-term illnesses.

Saying “they do not go uncared for” because the uninsured get emergency care is like saying “he did not go uncared for” once the proverbial good Samaritan fails to turn up because the victim gets a flashy funeral. The real scandal of US healthcare centres around conditions, not emergency care.

Not only are you screwed if you develop a long-term condition and cannot afford insurance, but you are often screwed full stop if you develop a long-term condition and do not have insurance, even if you had been able to afford it previously. The insurance system is wonderful at delivering the best coverage to the people who need it least. If you have a long-term condition, good luck in trying to find affordable coverage.

But apart from all this, it isn’t even factually in terms of detail. Many hospitals in the US will charge emergency care fees, even if they aren’t allowed to turf you out the door. So the costs are not always passed on to the paying patient, contrary to Mr. Frum’s claim.

On to paragraph number two…

Almost all the problems of the US health system trace back to a pair of unexpected ironies: profit-driven private insurance corporations find it much harder to say “no” than governments do, and American governments are more unsustainably generous than their European and Canadian counterparts.

I find it difficult to believe that profit-driven private insurance corporations find it much harder to say “no” when they are famed for putting such lucrative resources towards finding creative ways of denying costly coverage. I also find it difficult to believe in face of the numerous accounts of insurance companies denying treatment at the most needed times, due to smallprint clauses and other get-outs. I also find it difficult to believe in light of his second statement that “American governments are more unsustainably generous than their European and Canadian counterparts”.

But to throw Frum a bone here, I don’t agree with that statement anyway. When it comes to Medicare, he may have a point — I don’t know enough about it, really, to comment — but when it comes to Medicaid it is well known that the coverage is very, very basic.

I’ll add a caveat here — it is true that the American government spends more on healthcare than, for example, Britain or Canada — but this isn’t out of the spirit generosity but high costs. They don’t have a choice in this and it’s precisely because of the private insurance-based model. More on this point later.

I agree with Frum’s next paragraph, but unsurprisingly, it is a critical point of the US system in any case.

Next:

For all practical purposes, healthcare is just as much a right in the US as it is in Europe. Since 1986, federal law has required all hospitals that receive federal money (ie, just about all of them) to provide emergency care to any patient who presents himself or herself. Many states back this federal law with even stronger laws of their own.

This is largely the same stuff as two paragraphs previously. Emergency care =/= all healthcare — it’s not even close. Only the last statement is true, although I haven’t heard of a State introducing something truly radical, such as a single-payer system or a public service competing within the market. Massachusetts, which I have heard cited as one of the more progressive states in this area, has instead opted to make some form of insurance coverage compulsory.

Frum’s next paragraph is very interesting:

Government generosity drives private health costs higher and higher. Health insurance is regulated by state governments. Each government decides what local insurers must cover and how they may cover it. Fifteen of the 50 states require insurers to cover fertility treatments. Twenty-four states require coverage of eating disorders. Thirty-five states require coverage of reconstructive surgery after a mastectomy. New York state requires insurers to charge the same rate for all customers, regardless of health conditions, while 11 other states tightly restrict the ability to charge more for more sick patients.

I don’t really disagree with what he’s saying. Government “generosity” is driving private health costs high and higher because it’s all in the field of regulation, rather than provision.

This is a distinction I have been coming to more and more of late, which I believe is as fundamental as the distinction between the public and private sectors. When government regulates the private sector, it nearly always drives up costs in some way or other, because it’s an inherently clumsy control that the private sector rarely truly cooperates with because of its for-profit basis.

Whereas where government provides alternative services, it invariably removes the need for a certain amount of regulation. Where the US regulates healthcare is not, as the right mistakenly believes, due to government generosity, but due to the fact that they don’t have any choice. The government is pushed from two different powerful forces, the voice of the society, rising up against injustice, and the voice of powerful insurance lobbyists. The government mistakenly tries to reconcile these two, with the result that healthcare costs are driven higher and higher as the government tries, and fails, to placate both voices at the same time.

The result is that the insurance companies fight against the government anyway, and the public still aren’t covered well enough. Both have contempt for their political masters, who lack the guts to take any real action to improve anything. The government will have to prevent the worst injustices from happening in the system, otherwise the public will do them in, but they have to do it in the most expensive way possible, otherwise the insurance companies will do them in. It’s heads they win, tails you lose.

Again, in no other system is as much in tax spent in securing as little in healthcare. The US has the highest healthcare costs, for the least in treatment.

Frum goes on to point out how there is in fact less difference between parties in their record on healthcare than people realise, which is again fair enough, although it is worth noting what different governments attempt, and fail, as well as what they do. Again, the politics of government are different to the politics of political opposition. Governments are torn between the two forces, whether it is the Elephant or the Donkey.

Frum also tackles expensive medicare for the Elderly, which further complicates the equation. How to improve coverage without readjusting public priorities? Within the incredibly expensive private insurance system it seems an impossibility.

But again, only within such an expensive system need it be so. If the State actually provides an universal public alternative, rather than trying to play everything through the wealthy and powerful private entities, then it can secure far, far more public coverage per taxpayer dollar by slashing regulation on the private sector and allowing people to choose between public and private provision. But of course, this is what private providers fear the most: having to compete in a way that forces them to offer value for money to the consumer. Far better to have the government as their tool, as a way to increase and improve their domination of the healthcare market.

Then we have:

Objective studies find little difference in outcomes between America’s costly care and the much cheaper care in more statist systems.

Frum here makes the classic mistake, again disguised through placatory language: describing Universal Health Care systems as more “statist”.

Yet he provides no argument to actually back this assertion up. And what makes America’s regulation-heavy system less Statist than one that provides a public option to compete within the market? From a control perspective, certainly, Britain’s system is less Statist than America’s, as it revolves around State provision rather than State control/regulation. The “Statist” argument is a misconception that the US healthcare debate suffers from all too often.

All of these misconceptions that litter Frum’s article in defence of the American system undermine and deride his final points, that

What the US system offers to those who enjoy good coverage is much harder to measure: convenience, security, responsiveness to patients and personal attention from doctors who compete to attract customers.

Perhaps it is cynical, but I find it all too easy to think that the reason that this is “much harder to measure” is that it doesn’t really exist. A system which offers no security for those who need it most (those with constant long-term healthcare problems) is not a system which offers security in any meaningful way. A system which only offers convenience to those least in need of it is not a system which offers convenience in any good way. A system which offers responsiveness only to an elite with the most expensive coverage is no system worth defending.

And as for competitiveness, Frum fails to show how the US system makes providers in any way more competitive than a system which allows people the choice between a universal public service or private coverage, when common sense would dictate that the latter is far more competitive. He also ignores the facts: people have a choice between Doctors in the United Kingdom, and our personalised GP care is well-known, regardless of broader issues with the model. The UK health system is in fact one of only a few which allow access to a Doctor to be absolutely free at the point of delivery.

In essence, this is the problem with the debate on healthcare within the US. This is an example of one of the more nuanced arguments; yet it is wrong in nearly every detail that matters. In a debate where contributions are only more vitriolic and closed-minded, meaningful reform is only likely to be years, if not decades, away. Let us hope that this is not the case.

Why the right veered towards Primaries as the left veered towards PR, when the sunlight briefly shone out on our Politicians.

The scramble towards constitutional reform when the sunlight, grandly taken advantage of by the Daily Telegraph, shone through a haze of mist on MPs expenses; was amusing from the perspective of a student of politics, even more so a thoroughly amateur one. For many reasons, quite a few obvious ones that do not need going into (such as the only tangential connection to the actual scandal itself), but one of the less remarked upon ones being the way in which each party”s line of direction so aptly reflected its historical ideologies.

One of the things which fascinated me the most was the way David Cameron played his hand. Ever on the nervous look out as the result of the more extravagant expense claims, perhaps not surprisingly, being disproportionately amongst his own party; he had to be careful to ensure that the field of debate was not captured by the left, or the government, both of whom have felt more comfortable in the field of Constitutional reform than the Conservatives in recent years (though admittedly, the Conservatives’ hiatus from government possibly had something to do with it). This is mostly due to the Conservatives’ historical attachment to traditional institutions and practices, and their recent savage opposition to any form of electoral reform (to the extent of applying arguments against PR to thoroughly non-PR alternative voting systems, as Cameron did in a recent Prime Minister’s Questions).

Shrewdly understanding that he could not compromise on this important — and recent — support of historic tradition in the Conservative party, coupled with his evident need to make a contribution to the debate, Cameron obviously spent a little time researching other forms of Constitutional reform that lie outside the field of alternative voting systems, enough so to have at least a better grasp of them, though the extent is debatable. When he made his move, therefore, he was able to talk with apparent ease about such diverse ideas as fixed-term parliaments, recall elections, and Primaries; as if they had been key to the conservative tradition all along.

Except to an extent, this wasn’t just clever manoeuvring, for though the latter isn’t demonstrably connectible to conservative thinking in recent years, it is far more palatable an idea to the right than it is left, and in a savage world where a possibility exists that one must choose between being reformers or being left out in the cold, it is not surprising that the right latch on to it with such fervour. Because introducing open primaries throws the political equivalent of a massive spanner in the works of the left’s agonisingly slow progress towards promoting reform of the voting system.

I was struck by Vernon Bogdanor’s contribution to the Indie’s ‘panel of experts’ analysing the expenses scandal back in May, that I only dug up today. In it, he says:

Primary elections would ensure that MPs were chosen by a wider group than the small unrepresentative cliques who often now act as an electoral college. In the long run, the single transferable vote method of PR would give every elector the chance to combine a vote in a general election with a vote in a primary election.

In it, Mr. Bogdanor seems to believe that a change to open primaries could be part of a gradual transition towards imposing the Single Transferable Vote. But I feel that this is a grave mistake to make.

Primaries are not perhaps quite as individualist as caucuses, but they are the closest democratic thing, and as such they would make the perfect reform for the right to make to stave off reform of the voting system for decades. For whilst STV is intended as a compromise between a desire for broad proportionality, and retaining the individual basis of elections; open primaries are an active attack on the role of parties in the political system, designed to weaken them permanently. Hence from a politically individualist — and broadly right-wing point of view — open primaries are the perfect weapon against reforming the voting system. “Why”, the question would run, “is reform of the final election process needed, when we have opened up participation in the build-up by so much?”

But if this explains why the Right is broadly far happier with the idea of open primaries, and why it caters to their sensibilities, it doesn’t cover the left’s preference for reform of the voting system, and why it should be hostile to primaries or not.

And when I come to think about it, it actually surprised me how much reason the left has to be hostile to primaries.

It has to do with more than just ideology, or semantic disputes about exactly what role parties should serve in the electoral process (I saw a debate which I felt fell into that trap, concentrated in a small-scale dispute over the nature of consensus politics versus democratic choice). It has to do with real-life evidence, and the far greater importance, to the left, of equality, freedom from economic circumstances, and demographic representation.

Proportional representation systems, and moderate representation systems such as STV are equipped with the tools to represent broad ranges of opinion in a community. In the former grouping it is through the power of the parties, who can institute selection procedures such shortlists designed to favour demographic equality if they so wish. In the latter it is through the system itself, which is designed to deliver a minimum of wasted votes and ensure as many votes as possible are used in allocation of each seat.

For this reason, persons at a disadvantage when it comes to standing for election (those with limited financial resources, business-unfriendly, union-unfriendly, independents, etc..) tend to do better with non-primary systems, and better still with STV (so long as they build up a profile with the people that matter, the local voters; at least in theory that’s how it works). Primaries disproportionately punish all these people, because they make campaigns by necessity far longer, and thus far more expensive, and you can probably see where this is going — they vastly increase the political power of money.

For this reason the left should be very, very cautious about primaries. For campaigns which involve a lot of money vastly increase the hold of businesses over politicians, and could potentially introduce a number of problems with the process of government similar to those seen in America. And if the left supports primaries on the false assumption that doing so will improve social democracy, it is badly mistaken, and could breed a generation of future struggle for itself, needlessly. It should be aware, and beware, of any reform that places more influence into the hands of lobbyists.

House of Lords Reform ~~ An Update

In reading about the House of Lords in a 1990s book “Does Parliament Work?” — in an effort to improve my knowledge about the Lords and Parliament in general — and reading with interest the part about the house’s greater informality than the House of Commons, a thought struck me.

One of the things most agreed by consensus in favour of the House of Lords is its ability to include expertise and specialism when debating legislation. I have often argued in the past for the crossbenchers, among whom are experts appointed by the House of Lords Appointments Commission, to stay holding the balance of power within the House of Lords, whatever other reforms are made to its composition, to secure as best possible the retention of this expertise, complementary to the other purposes reforms may serve. But it struck me that there exists an even better way of ensuring the expertise, as well as the continued informality of process. And, as my friend Ewan Short would like, a check upon the potential for democratically elected peers to get ideas above their station in the event of democratic reform.

I think that the House committees should have the ability to, if sufficiently inspired, offer temporary rights to people outside the House of Lords to take part in debates and have limited voting rights. This would open up the House to popular participation in a more informal, caucus-style way than pure democracy would, which would reward popular participation and, more importantly, dedication in areas of public interest.

It would also prove a check against democratically elected peers getting the idea that they were the most “important” part of the house in a part-democratic House of Lords. It would (if used properly) strengthen the houses’ claim to diversity, speciality and expertise, and make it a better understood and respected national institution. It would also promote it as an alternative means of representation to the House of Commons.

It strikes me that if we go down this route, it will also take fire out of the hands of “all-or-nothing” democracy campaigners for the House of Lords, which would be No Bad Thing. All in all, I think this could be not only quite a nice idea for the future of the House of Lords, but potentially quite an important one as well.

As usual, please notify me if I have completely missed obvious or important things by adding your comments underneath.

Dave

Whip round note.

This is a “whip round note”, when I post something on facebook where I feel a particular need to draw attention to my waffle, and tag anyone I think would (or should) take an interest in a leading issue. Obviously, that doesn’t apply at all here (this is technically another archive, from a few days ago), but it explains the title.

The issue is Extradition. The Catalyst is Gary McKinnon.

I wish to focus more on the former than the latter because, like it or not, Gary McKinnon is only one small piece in the overall larger picture of concern that is laid before is from time to time. I sympathise with his case, and strongly object to his being extradited, but in fact much more is at stake with this issue.

Gary McKinnon committed a serious crime, but moreover the fact is that at every point the American approach has been wrong.

Firstly, they have unequal arrangements constitutionally. It cannot be in doubt that were we to try and extradite an American citizen in similar circumstances, it would most likely be blocked at the first hurdle, due to the superior constitutional protections for US citizens.

Home Secretary Alan Johnson was correct to argue that the legislative conditions of the treaty were more or less equal, but only technically. One cannot divorce a law from it’s constitutional connections, and our lack of constitutional protections re: extradition makes the arrangement a lop-sided one.

Secondly, the are attempting to bring a prosecution on what amount at best to highly unreasonable charges, and at worst outright malicious ones. Had Mr. McKinnon been tried in Britain, he would have been tried for the actual crime. In the US, they wish to try him for terrorism charges, and, to put it bluntly, exercise the maximum possible punishment for exposing the inadequacies of their network security.

The Pentagon asserts that Mr. McKinnon’s actions cost them “$800,000” — one wonders, from the information available, this was merely the price of installing competent network security.

Thirdly, it is possible that the severity of the charges pursued are intended as a leverage to ensure Mr. McKinnon’s cooperation and secure a plea bargain to save the irritation of seeing the process of justice through.

For those of you who might think this justifies the excessive charges, let me persuade you to think again.

The entire concept of plea bargaining is anathema to the concept of justice. It creates an assumption of guilt; not only generally, which we know of Mr. McKinnon, but that the entire approach of the prosecution is correct, which is far more in doubt. It assumes that the the process of a fair trial is merely an inconvenience, not the centrepiece, something that should be brushed aside by those prosecuting as easily as possible. It is perhaps one of the most abhorrent institutionalised mechanisms to load the trial in favour of the prosecution and against the defendant. It is fundamentally unjust.

When regarding the extradition treaty, we should bear in mind just as much the concern over the US process of justice as we do individual cases such as Gary McKinnon’s, or the weighted nature of the treaty arrangements. Even in cases where guilt seemed as clear-cut as the Natwest Three, plea-bargaining has rendered the process murky.

Finally, the galling conclusion is that this ongoing case is that of a country that is only pursuing such a disproportionate reaction against this person because of reasons of government embarrassment. By all accounts, the US network security was laughable. But instead of acknowledging the fact, the US seems hell-bent on bringing disproportionate charges against a conspiracy-obsessed hacker, and ignoring far more real cases of terrorism.

The case of Gary McKinnon against his extradition should be supported across the board, but more to the point the legislative case for amending the treaty arrangements, currently being brought by both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, should be supported with equal passion. For there will be more abuses of justice unless the root cause is targeted and attacked.