Monday, 16 April 2007



In an interesting and thorough article in the Telegraph last week David Hughes [1] argued that history tends to favour the inexperienced outsider in leadership elections, and the following day Simon Heffer [2] also encouraged Miliband to go for it. I particuarly noted this sentence in Heffer's article:

"Mr Miliband should not imagine this will be one of several chances he will have to lead the Labour Party."

It's strikingly similar to the advice (which seems to have been taken to heart) that I humbly offered Barack Obama [3] prior to his entry into the US presidential race. Regardless of my (hitherto undecided) personal preference for the Labour leadership, I'm inclined to agree that if Miliband holds any ambition to be Labour Leader and Prime Minister then he should not tarry.




Social mobility will eat itself

Social mobility will eat itself

There is a consensus in mainstream British politics that meritocracy is a desirable thing: that individuals should have, as far as possible, equality of opportunity (primarily through access to education), and that their chances of success in life (in terms of their career and income) should be based on ‘merit’, which seems to mean a combination of intelligence, skills and work ethic.

It is assumed that the extent to which a country is a true meritocracy can be determined with reference to the degree of social mobility – the percentage of those born into the bottom income quartile that move to the top income quartile by the age of 40, or some similar measure – because those born into low-income, working-class families, but possessing plenty of merit, can use the crampons of opportunity to scale the cliff-face of class.

In this context, the apparent decline of social mobility in the UK [1] tends to cause a fair bit of concern, as it is generally taken as evidence of a shift away from equality of opportunity. While it has been pointed out (by Jamie Whyte in the Times [2], for example) that before arguing that we have too little social mobility we should consider how much of it ought to be expected in a meritocracy, it seems intuitively reasonable to say that if there’s less of it than there used to be then we must be less of a meritocracy than we were.

However, discussing this issue the other day I managed to talk my way round to the idea that following the conditions for meritocracy first being in place you might expect to see social mobility increase initially only to decline again a few generations later, without any necessary reduction in opportunity. The key assumption here is that the components of merit (intelligence, skills, work ethic) are, through a combination of nature and nurture, somewhat hereditary, so that people who themselves possess the tools to succeed in a meritocracy are more likely to produce similarly well-equipped children. This would result in the following sequence of social changes as a meritocracy develops:

1) Pre-meritocracy
Society has a rigid class structure and extreme inequality of opportunity. Social mobility is low as those born with merit at the bottom of the social scale lack the necessary crampons to climb to a higher ledge.

2) Early meritocracy
Expansion of (principally educational) opportunities and decline of other barriers (e.g. discrimination) sees social mobility increase as people whose merit would have been wasted in previous generations are now able to use it to their advantage.

3) Established meritocracy
With consistent access to broader opportunities people have sorted themselves into reasonable merit order, so that those with more merit are now mostly to be found in the top half of the social scale. Given that merit is hereditary, those born with merit don't move into a higher class bracket between birth and middle age as they were in the correct one to start with – the quantity of social mobility (as defined earlier) is lower than in early meritocracy, even if the opportunities for social mobility are the same.

I'm not necessarily arguing that public policy has not, through factors such as (to take one preferred explanation from each side of the spectrum) the decline of grammar schools or greater income inequality, increased inequality of opportunity in the UK – just that an observed decline in social mobility does not prove this on its own.


Thursday, 1 February 2007

Whose life is it anyway?

Although not reaching the front pages, recent news stories from around the world have prompted further contributions to the well-rehearsed debate about the rights and wrongs of euthanasia: an Italian doctor who switched off the life support machine of a paralysed man was cleared of wrongdoing by a medical panel; the British Social Attitudes Survey found that eight out of ten people support a law change to allow doctors to actively end the lives of terminally ill patients who want to die; the Indian Supreme Court admitted a public interest litigation seeking the 'right to die' with dignity of persons suffering from chronic terminal diseases and likely to go into a permanent vegetative state; and Australian Senator Bob Brown plans to introduce a private member's bill to legalise euthanasia.

I find that the debate on euthanasia tends to be conducted between two opposing viewpoints, which can be broadly described as: "euthanasia is ethically valid, and should be legal"; "euthanasia is unethical, and should be illegal". You generally don’t hear anyone say: "in my view euthanasia is an immoral act, but should not be illegal".

My personal view on the morality of euthanasia is irrelevant to my point here which is that arguing that something is immoral should not necessarily lead the speaker to argue that it should be illegal. In debates of this nature I always refer back to J.S. Mill's distinction between 'self-regarding acts' - whose primary effects are on the agent himself - and 'other-regarding acts'. In my view this distinction is key to describing the proper role of the state in regulating social behaviour. In On Liberty Mill argues that:

"The sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number is self-protection. The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant."

Making a deliberate choice to end one's own life is clearly a self-regarding act. I would not take issue with the right of opponents of euthanasia to argue that it is an immoral choice, or not in the individual's best interests, and therefore to seek to dissuade people from making such a choice, but it is not appropriate to legislate to prevent it.

I would add that the (incorrect) assertion that euthanasia is unnecessary because palliative care is adequate is beside the point - arguing about the practical merits of an issue is not the same as arguing about the ethics. To say "the Iraq war will not lead to the establishment of a stable democracy in Iraq" is qualitatively different from saying "it is not justifiable to invade a country in order to establish democracy, even if that objective is clearly achievable" - either statement may be true (or false) independently of the veracity of the other. In my experience resort to arguing over practicalities usually indicates a failure to make a convincing case on the ethics: "yes, ok, but it won't work anyway".

Tuesday, 30 January 2007

Sweet Science

I was listening to some discussion on Radio 5 this morning about this news item, in which the anti-boxing participant (Peter McCabe - chief executive of Headway, a brain injuries charity) went on to voice his support for the BMA's call for boxing to be banned.

The BMA is not professionally competent to argue that boxing should be banned. It is professionally competent to argue that boxing is physically harmful, but that is not the same thing. The question of the harmfulness of boxing is a medical one, but the debate about whether it should be banned is a political and ethical one, which medical expertise can inform but not decide.

I take the liberal view that adults* should be entitled to knowingly expose themselves to risk. Such a choice involves weighing up the costs and benefits of different courses of action. In the case of boxing, the BMA is only qualified to comment on one element of the cost - risk to health. There are many other factors in the decision, including: time, effort, and money expended on training and equipment (costs); enjoyment, physical fitness, and the possibility of professional success, status and wealth (benefits). There are others (such as boxing coaches) who may be qualified to give advice on other elements of this equation, but the only person who is competent to weigh costs against benefits, deciding how much value he places on each element, to reach a decision, is the individual.

*This post is intended to discuss the general issue of the status of boxing. I am aware, with reference to the original story, that liberalism does not demand for children the same liberty to take risks that is granted to adults, and that the school could be in the wrong if the activities offered ('fitness for boxing' and sparring) expose children to unacceptable risk.

Monday, 29 January 2007

What would make me vote Tory?

As I've said before, I'm generally a Labour voter, but my support is not of the unconditional, 'my party right or wrong' variety. The fact that the floating of this proposal a couple of weeks ago got me thinking about this probably tells you what I think of it (Tim Worstall puts it better than I could), but I did reach some conclusions on the general issue. So, here are my top 6 [hypothetical] reasons for voting Tory (or anyone else non-Labour):

1. Policy Disagreement
First up, it's always possible that the Labour Party could come up with a manifesto that I wouldn't vote for. This could be a matter of general positioning - a situation where they moved sufficiently far along the political spectrum that they were no longer the party closest to my own views - or conceivably could be the result of one 'deal-breaker' policy.

2. Chronic Incompetence
Speaks for itself really - however close the manifesto is to my preference for how the country should be governed, if they can't deliver then the outcome won't be close, which is what matters. It would be preferable to have an imperfect programme, perfectly delivered, as opposed to a perfect programme that never leaves the drawing board.

3. Tactical Voting
I subscribe to the view that we are responsible for the unintended but foreseeable consequences of our actions, as well as the intended ones. Therefore, if my constituency was likely to be contested primarily between the Tories and the BNP I would consider it morally reckless to vote Labour and risk a BNP victory. To pose a more likely scenario, in an election the Tories were expected to win I would vote Lib Dem in a Lib Dem / Tory marginal on the basis that reducing the Tory majority would tend to drag them towards the centre.

4. Bad Local Candidate
Another one with a couple of sub-clauses. Firstly, if I was in general agreement with the Labour manifesto, I would be disinclined to vote for a persistent critic of the Labour leadership. One high-profile far-left nutter (I'm sure you can think of some examples for yourself) does more damage to the electoral chances of the Labour Party than one anonymous Tory backbencher, and probably doesn't vote with them any more often either. Alternatively, a candidate who was politically sensible but personally corrupt would lose my vote equally reliably.

5. It's a good one to lose
Sometimes losing an election is good for you in the long run. Although it didn't feel like it at the time, 1992 was one of these for Labour. Black Wednesday, followed by several years of scandal and infighting, did such damage to the Tories' reputation that they were condemned to a decade out of power. If Labour had won in 1992 Black Wednesday would have happened to them just the same (ERM membership had cross-party support), it would have seemed to confirm the claim that Labour could never be trusted with the economy, and they could have lost in 1997. This raises the question that, if you're sure that an election is a good one to lose for your party, should you use your vote to make it happen? I suspect this would be a tough call to make in practice without the benefit of hindsight, but it's certainly a possibility in theory.

6. Personal Greed
I'm not saying that this ought to be a motivating factor, just recognising that it could be in practice. I don't vote with my wallet when it comes to the standard tax-and-spend debate - I've voted Labour knowing that it would cost me money because I believed it was the right thing to do. But I can't guarantee I would never be swayed by an electoral bribe of heftier proportions. The obvious one that springs to mind is the right-to-buy scheme, which offered residents' discounts of up to 50% of the market price in the 1980s. Even I am not so morally incorruptible that I couldn't be swayed by a free half a house.

That's the list, although I'll add a couple of caveats: even if reasons to desert Labour present themselves, actually doing so depends on the availability of a preferable option; if they are going to lose whatever you do you might as well vote for them anyway, in the hope of limiting the scale of the defeat and keeping them in the game for next time.

Some thoughts on the gay adoption row

Ok, a declaration of interest before I start - not really an issue of bias because I won't be siding with the Catholic Church on this matter, but I thought I should own up - I was brought up a Catholic and, although agnostic on the existence of God and normally in disagreement with the Church on the oft-debated 'personal morality' / 'lifestyle' issues, I still go to Mass fairly frequently. I'm planning to blog separately about this and the broader tension between religious and secular / progressive values, but for now I'll get back to the matter in hand.

I found Rowan Williams' assertion (speaking in support of the Catholic Church's position) that "rights of conscience cannot be made subject to legislation" particularly striking because I'd say it's fairly obvious that it doesn't stand up to scrutiny. If by "rights of conscience" we take him to mean "the right to act in accordance with one's own moral judgement", then it is plain that this cannot be absolutely protected from legislative interference. People's consciences tell them to do all sorts of things that are directly 'other-regarding' and which are therefore a proper province for legislation, even where the individual firmly and honestly believes their actions to be right. At the risk of seeming like a serial Obamaniac I'll quote a superb illustration of this point from a June 2006 speech by Barack Obama:

"We all know the story of Abraham and Isaac. Abraham is ordered by God to offer up his only son, and without argument, he takes Isaac to the mountaintop, binds him to an altar, and raises his knife, prepared to act as God has commanded. Of course, in the end God sends down an angel to intercede at the very last minute, and Abraham passes God's test of devotion. But it's fair to say that if any of us leaving this church saw Abraham on a roof of a building raising his knife, we would, at the very least, call the police and expect the Department of Children and Family Services to take Isaac away from Abraham. We would do so because we do not hear what Abraham hears, do not see what Abraham sees, true as those experiences may be."

(Thanks to Daniel Finkelstein for pointing this out.)

Perhaps the Church would maintain that this is a matter of personal religious observance and does not involve 'other-regarding' acts that the state is entitled to regulate, but I would argue that the actions of an organisation that is partly state-funded and is responsible for safeguarding the best interests of children cannot reasonably be considered 'self-regarding'.

There also has to be a question mark over whether an adoption agency can possibly be acting in the best interests of a child while refusing to deal with gay couples. I’m sure most people would agree with Cormac Murphy O’Connor’s view that "the best way of bringing up a child… is having a mother and a father", but this presents a false dichotomy. A child adopted by a gay couple would not necessarily otherwise have been placed with a heterosexual couple, particularly in the case of the one third of hard-to-place children said to be handled by Catholic adoption agencies. Is the Cardinal prepared to argue that a child is better off in care than adopted by a gay couple? Vincent Nichols' admission on Newsnight that the Church would place children with single gay people, but not couples, further highlighted the laughable incoherence of their position.

I also note that the Catholic Church wants to continue its policy of referring gay couples to other adoption agencies. It is strange, if the Church is convinced that it is against the best interests of a child (not to mention the will of God) for it be brought up by a gay couple, that they are willing to co-operate in such an arrangement. It smacks of a 'clean hands' approach to ethical dilemmas rather than a genuinely principled stance.

If the churches want to gain support for their position they’ll have to come up with better arguments.

Wednesday, 24 January 2007

Obama is right to run for President in 2008

Following the announcement that Barack Obama has taken the first formal step towards entering the 2008 Presidential race there has been a fair bit of discussion in the press about his prospects and in particular about whether he is right to run for President while still relatively inexperienced rather than waiting for next time around. I would argue that if he doesn't stand for 2008 he wouldn't be likely to get another serious chance.

If another Democrat wins in 2008 (and the Democrats are comfortable bookies' favourites at present) then the Democrat nomination won't be on offer again until 2016. Even if the Republicans win he would be running against an incumbent President in 2012, a far less favourable situation than facing a new candidate from an unpopular (at present) party.

Furthermore, the momentum / excitement that is behind him at present isn't necessarily something that can be put in a box and saved for next time - if a week is a long time in politics, by 2012 or 2016 he'll not be the man of the moment, he'll be "that Obama guy who people were talking about a few years back".

Gerard Baker in the Times reports an unnamed Democrat senator's sound advice to Obama:

"There is nothing like timing in presidential politics. There are only half a dozen people in America at any time with a real shot at becoming president, he told him. When your name is among them you do not tarry."