Sunday, February 20, 2011

Pragmatism vs Ideology

There comes a stage in relationships where the frivolity is over and you've both decided this is probably a Serious Relationship. You know it's at the Serious stage when one party brings out the Behaviour Modification Programme and starts to explain to the other where they've transgressed the Rules.

There's been one or two occasions where I've found the Rules surprisingly difficult to follow. This, in retrospect, was on account of the fact that they weren't actually rules by any accepted definition of the term. Explanations as to why the sort of things I did were so outrageous whereas similar things done by them were totally understandable, acceptable and even virtuous were so convoluted they made my head heart. I appreciate you may find this already heart-breakingly naive... I was, of course, missing the universal caveat into which all these nuanced interpretations of our respective behaviours could be collapsed - this being, "It's ok when I do it."

Don't mean to be sexist: girls will have had the same problem with their guys, or girls, or guys with their guys - but the experience is the same; you get a couple of people pretending to talk about, or scream about, abstract principles when all they're really doing is defending their respective corners.

I was reminded of this weighty truth when I read Nick Cohen's puzzlement at the Tories' failure to condemn large wads of tax-payers' cash being spent on feckless bankers:
"Tories of all people ought to hate the bank bailout. Their every fibre ought to revolt against the state using public money to reward failure.
[...]
Why can’t you stand by your principles?"
I take it the question is rhetorical but we'll assume it actually requires an answer. It is because it's ok when they do it - which is another way of saying they don't defend their principles because they haven't got any.

By this I mean the Conservatives have historically been a pragmatic party and it's perhaps the Thatcher experience that has clouded a proper picture of the longer-run tradition. I liked the story - told by Ian Gilmour, I think - of an occasion when Thatcher struts into a Cabinet meeting, pounds a copy of Freddie Hayek's Constitution of Liberty on the table and declares, "This is what we believe!", to the assembled Ministers who were now looking rather bemused, having been hitherto under the impression that they didn't believe in anything much.

It's something of a cliché but this pragmatism has generally been understood to be a feature of British politics in general. No need for Labour to have a Bad Godesberg, for example; they never were believers that way in the first place.

This is an over-simplification but there is some truth in this? Yet William Keegan's comments today reminded me of one area where this pragmatism doesn't seem to hold and that is in the area of economic policy:
"Britain has a reputation for pragmatism, but when it comes to economic policy, one finds that our policymakers generally are in the grip of some dogma or obsession."
There's some truth in this too. What William Keegan is referring to is the way that the British establishment has had a long history of fixating on particular targets - such as the value of the pound in the Gold Standard or the ERM, or inflation via the eighties' monetary targets - in the most doctrinaire fashion, only to see these blow up in their faces.

This is really a long-winded way of posing a question to people who know more about this than I do. Is this fair and if so, why is this? Sidney Pollard in this slim volume published nearly thirty years ago leaves space in his list of culprits responsible for the state of the British economy (a list which includes just about everyone, if memory serves) for economists themselves. His suggestion was that the often doctrinaire position of the 'Treasury view' could partly be attributed to the fact that it was, with all due respect to our Austrian friends, the English-speaking world that gave the world the 'dismal science'. This formed part of the reason why Britain found itself fetishizing things like the exchange rate while the Germans and the French just got on with making stuff that people wanted to buy.

I can't say I find this very convincing - and it probably doesn't do justice to Pollard's argument anyway. But there is perhaps something that requires explanation, which could be restated in a more circumspect way: the Conservatives' economic policies of the last thirty years have been a little short of their supposed pragmatism, especially in practice. Is this because the ideas of Freddie Hayek and Milton Friedman have had a profound and lasting impact on the Conservative Party and that what they believe is just narrower than more comprehensive ideologies? Or are they being doctrinaire when it suits them and not when, for example, their friends in the banks are getting a hand-up and a hand-out? Because ideology is ok when they do it, even when they do it inconsistently.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Welcome to the "I dunno about AV" campaign

The forthcoming AV referendum is only the second to be held throughout the whole of the UK in history. In this case, it doesn't follow the familiar pattern of referendums everywhere with governments holding them only when they think they'll get the result they want - for the obvious reason that the government doesn't agree on this. But this outsourcing of Cabinet deliberation to the electorate is also a common function of referendums; it was the case in 1975 as it is with this one too.

If you don't like referendums, you could always abstain or spoil your ballot paper - but this wouldn't distinguish you from those who weren't interested or who were unaware. So what to vote for? I'm surprised that the No campaign isn't doing better. You would have thought that those favouring the status quo along with those who favour a properly proportional system would easily be able to muster a majority. This was, after all, a system that no-one originally wanted. That there are signs that this might not happen might be down to an 'anti-politics' mood, as some have argued.

The only thing I'm certain about on the whole issue of voting reform is that too much is claimed for it and two of the most common claims have appeared in the Yes campaign that specifically touch on this issue of voter disillusionment:

1) By creating fewer safe seats, elected representatives would be less inclined to be complacent and corrupt.

Leaving aside the possibility that AV can sometimes increase the bonus for the winning candidate, surely only the most insular of political observers could possibly conclude that there is some kind of correlation, never mind causation, between voting systems and levels of corruption?

2) Voting reform would increase voter turnout.

That AV has improved turnout in the sole country that uses it is impossible to demonstrate since Australia has compulsory voting. Rather the unsubstantiated claim rests on crude comparisons with other countries that have properly proportional systems. Germany has AMS, German voter turnout is higher, ergo voting reform will improve 'voter engagement'.

These non sequiturs abound when people make the mistake of assuming to know the mind of people who stay at home on polling day. I don't know any more than anyone else why nearly half of the Scottish electorate didn't vote in the 2007 election but since Holyrood is elected by AMS, we can rule out the supposed disenfranchising effect of FPTP as a factor.

Given that turnout at local elections is pretty dismal across the UK too, is it possible that voters have a fairly clear perception of where power lies in the British constitution? If so, simply changing the mechanism by which representative arrive at their respective assemblies looks a much more conservative measure than its advocates claim, which brings me to this:

One of the problems with the No campaign is that it is by very definition a negative one. This isn't helped by adopting narrow claims about how much it will all cost. Now, some oppose AV on the grounds that they want a proper proportional system. I'm agnostic about this too but their reasoning makes sense and one that doesn't seem to have been considered by pro-PR people in the Yes camp. What reason is there to suppose that AV is a 'stepping-stone'? One of the functions of limited constitutional reform is to deflate demands for more far-reaching change. While not entirely comparable, this was the case with many of those who accepted the case for devolution. Why should this not turn out to be the case with AV too?

Another thing: If referendums and AV are good things, why are we not to be offered a multi-option referendum with FPTP, PR and AV on the menu? People could express their preferences as easily as 1, 2, 3...

Sunday, February 06, 2011

For Gary Moore

Very sorry to hear the sad news that the Belfast-born guitarist of Thin Lizzy fame Gary Moore has died this morning.

I'm cursed to be only good enough at the guitar to be able to recognise people who actually know what they are doing. Gary Moore was one of these. As well as being a great blues player, I have a special affection for him because he provided the theme music for one of the more dramatic episodes of my life, the details of which I won't bore you with.

Here he is playing a song also covered by the great Peter Green. The tipping of the hat to Peter's riff in 'Need your love so bad' is a particularly nice touch. RIP Gary Moore...

Schools face 4-day-week?

It is, apparently, one of the options seriously being considered by North Ayrshire Council:
"As Scotland braces itself for the full impact of spending cuts, officials from a cash-strapped local authority have put forward proposals to save money by introducing a four-day week in all primary and secondary schools."
The piece goes on to tell us that "critics have slammed the move as "stupid" and "a sad state of affairs"."

They're always 'slamming' things in newspapers. Why is this? Anyway, it has been inaccurately described as thinking the 'unthinkable'. What rubbish. Some of us have been thinking about abolishing Monday for ages and have long been of the opinion that it is an excellent idea. Yet it is absurdly described as a 'doomsday senario'. Hmph!

They won't do it, of course. I have a serious idea that would no doubt lose friends and alienate people in the teaching profession. Just about everyone seems to agree that small classes are a Good Thing. While I would agree that all other things being equal, they are usually better than big classes, I'm not convinced that they are all they're cracked up to be.

So I was wondering: rather than simply lifting the statutory maximum, is there any reason why we couldn't have flexible class sizes? Apparently the cost per pupil rises as they move up the school. But it is with these senior classes that I've often thought that the style of teaching you use could easily be applied to much bigger classes. You could do that for a few periods and then have one or two where they break down into smaller groups, perhaps?

Saturday, February 05, 2011

David Cameron on British values

One or two points to agree with in Cameron's speech. Agree, for example, that one shouldn't accept the notion that there's a "dead-end choice between a security state and Islamist resistance."

But the big wrong note he struck was with this notion that being British means subscribing to liberty, tolerance, equality between the sexes etc. "To belong in Britain is to believe in these values"? No - one of the essential elements of a liberal society is that the state doesn't require its citizens to believe anything. After all, we have within our borders people who not only don't believe in these values which Cameron is claiming for Britain, we seem to be able to cope with a fair number who don't believe Britain should exist at all.

One one hand, he's right to suggest that some are afraid to confront people with frankly fascistic views if the proponents of these happens to be brown people. On the other, given that there's something of a rainbow coalition of non-violent people who do not subscribe to Cameron's version of 'British values', it isn't difficult to see how his speech might be misconstrued, to say no more than that.

Another thing: The use of the phrase "state multiculturalism" is perhaps revealing. The problem with this is while 'multiculturalism' is a rather elastic and ambiguous term, in the hands of the Tory right 'state' is not. It is always used to denote a Bad Thing.

Democracy and scepticism

Chris Dillow argues that being sceptical about democracy in its present form does not mean one needs to be persuaded that it is superior to dictatorship:
"Those of us who are sceptical about democracy do not deny that democracy is superior to dictatorship
[...]
Instead, our concern is that there are trade-offs between democracy and other values such as liberty or justice. These trade-offs are not a big problem in benighted nations, as these are so far from the efficient frontier of values that they can (possibly) achieve more of every one. But they are more pressing in liberal democracies."
He argues further that 'empty sloganeering' about the value of democracy only serves to distract attention from this difficulty.

The idea that democracy can collide with other values is one I happen to agree with. It simply is not the same thing as liberty: in relation to the exercise of power, democracy is concerned with its source, liberty with its scope, as Isaiah Berlin pointed out.

But, as is often the case, Chris's post got me thinking: yes, democracy and liberty are both in theory and practice two different things - but historically they have been closely associated and it left me wondering if expressing the possibility of a collision of values in terms of a 'trade off' could lead people to infer, even though it's not implied, that the relationship between the two is a zero sum game?

If so, this wouldn't do justice to the more subtle and organic relationship here. These values collide but that they depend on each other, that the historical association is no mere correlation, on one level is not difficult to demonstrate. With a smattering of notable exceptions, when given the chance, the demos has consistently shown itself adverse to choosing governments that would oppress them. The confidence that this is likely to remain the case for most is what was missing from the remarks that the well-known enthusiast for democracy Tony Blair made about Mubarak. I don't know about anyone else but the case of the Egyptian insurrection for me reinforces the importance of not being too sceptical.

Yet examples of where institutions that are impeccably democratic produce illiberal results are also fairly easy to produce. They tend to occur when the majority of the demos are unconcerned about restrictions in liberty because they don't affect them.

Is there then some kind of Laffer curve for democratic participation? That something like this is what goes on is, I'm assuming, what is behind Chris's suggestion that the problem of our forms of representative democracy colliding with the values of liberty, justice and equality might be overcome by finding ways to make democracy more deliberative. While it may well be possible, I can't say I'm entirely convinced with most of the suggestions, which left me wondering whether this supposed scepticism about democracy isn't simultaneously too sceptical and yet not sceptical enough? Berlin's argument was, after all, not limited to observing that values collide; he denied that it was possible to fit them into a harmonious pattern at all.
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