Thursday, 30 April 2009

How to be a good consumer

Many thanks to Patrick for this.

The words that come to my mind are: "Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions." (Luke 12:15)

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Hester Stewart and the drug they failed to ban

The story of the death of Hester Stewart is a very sad one. It appears that she died as a result of taking a drug called gamma-butyrolactone, but usually known as GBL. It also appears to be possible that she did not take the drug knowingly, and has been described by a friend as someone who would "never have knowingly taken this substance".

I know how I would feel if she was my daughter.

The interesting side of this is the fact that, according to the Telegraph,
"The Government announced plans to ban GBL in August and said at the time that the drug "can lead to dependence, unconsciousness and even death by intoxication". But a delay in the ban becoming law has meant that it is still legal today and freely available on the internet for as little as 50p a dose."
Miss Stewart’s mother has expressed anger that the Home Office, despite knowing that the drug was dangerous, did not ban it. She clearly feels that it should be banned. She did not actually say that if the substance had been banned, her daughter would still be alive, but she implied it. One cannot know this for certain. Banning dangerous substances does not mean that people will not obtain them. People do die as a result of taking banned substances.

But there is another issue. GBL is a toxic substance, and taking a sufficiently large amount can kill a person. Does it therefore follow that it should be banned? Well, most people would not say so. I have, in my house, various toxic substances - things like paracetamol and methylated spirit. It is possible to purchase a lethal dose of paracetamol quite legally. In other words, people also die as a result of taking substances that no-one seriously proposes to ban.

Alas, the goal of making Britain into a utopia where no one dies as a result of consuming toxic substances is unachievable. So should we ban every toxic substance, in the hope that every substance banned may save two or three premature deaths a year? I cannot see many people taking such a suggestion seriously. Most of us seem to manage quite successfully to avoid consuming toxic substances which are legal.

I am about as anti-drugs as it is possible to be. But I am wondering if there really is a sensible case for banning GBL - or other toxins.

[Note: There is, by the way, another issue raised by this case. The Telegraph, again:
Sources said that a party-goer had told police that he and Miss Stewart had taken the substance. The man has been interviewed under caution and not arrested. It is not an offence to take the drug or to distribute it.”
This would appear to conflict with the statement that Miss Stewart would never have knowingly taken this substance. If she took a toxic substance without realising that she was doing so, and died as a result, then the person who gave it to her should, I would have thought, be facing criminal charges.]

Monday, 27 April 2009

The 50% tax rate and the Bible

I’ve been musing about the new 50% tax rate that the government has introduced for high earners. It appears to have popular support. Some people may like it because they envy the wealthy. Some may support it because they believe in will bring in much needed revenue (though there are others who doubt that it will actually bring in anything extra at all.) But I suspect that most approve because they think that it is good and moral and appropriate and fair that the rich should pay more - much more.

For Christians, the interesting thing is that the principle of a proportionate tax on income is one that is found in the pages of the Bible. In the law that God gave to the people of Israel, we find the ‘tithe’ - i.e. a tax at a rate of 10%. The basics are found in Deuteronomy 14:22,28-29. “Be sure to set aside a tenth of all that your fields produce each year. . . . At the end of every three years, bring all the tithes of that year's produce and store it in your towns, so that the Levites (who have no allotment or inheritance of their own) and the aliens, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns may come and eat and be satisfied, and so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.”

What interests me is that everyone paid at the same rate: 10%. There was no higher rate for very wealthy Israelites. So it seems to me (as a Christian) that if that is the way God chose to do it, it must be fair, because God is just. God could have decreed that those whose fields produced more should set aside more than 10%, but he didn’t - presumably because everyone giving their tithe at the same rate was just.

And if that was the case with the tithe in ancient Israel, surely the same applies to income tax in modern Britain. The fact is that if everyone pays tax at the same rate, then the person who earns £200,000 a year will pay a lot more tax than the person who earns £20,000 a year. That seems fair. The biblical pattern is that everyone pays tax at the same rate.

So surely Christians should not want to depart from a pattern which is not only clearly fair, but also biblical?

Saturday, 25 April 2009

My journey to Libertarianism: 2

(Part 1 is here)

When I arrived at university in 1979, I joined the Liberal Party, and was, for several years a Liberal activist. It suited my soft socialist outlook on life. The Conservatives, particularly under Margaret Thatcher, were a party that didn’t care about the poor - or so it seemed to me. So I assumed in my childhood innocence that Labour were the good guys. But with the Aircraft and Shipbuilding Industries Act 1977, I came to realise that Labour believed in compulsory nationalisation. I was horrified. It seemed totally wrong to me that the state should use its power to take other people’s property. And even state ownership of the means of production seemed questionable. My socialism was a socialism of helping the needy, and to me, state ownership was not the same as poor people becoming better off. For that matter, state ownership was the not the same as ownership by the people - ownership of something means power to choose how it is used, and ordinary people have no power over how state owned enterprises are run. Furthermore, the Labour Party also supported the closed shop, and I thought it was unfair to force people to join a union if they didn’t want to. Freedom was important to me.

My time in the Liberal Party was positive in many ways. First, John Stuart Mills’ book On Liberty was spoken of with great reverence. I don’t know how many people actually read it - I didn’t - but respecting it has to be a good thing! Second, the Liberal Party was a party that believed in free trade. I was already committed to free trade, because I believed then, as now, that it is a force for helping the world’s poor to escape poverty. Third, the Liberal Party was committed to decentralisation, and community politics, and I became more convinced that it is better for decisions to be taken locally rather than centrally - as locally as possible, in fact.

However, there was one incident that indicated that my views on freedom were not those of the Liberal Party. At a meeting of party activists in 1984/85, one respected member spoke about being involved with members of a socialist group in disrupting meetings of the National Front (or BNP - I cannot remember which). I asked what the NF/BNP were seeking to do in the meetings, and discovered that they were just meeting and talking - the meetings didn’t involve public protest, provocation, or law-breaking. A few of us didn’t think that trying to disrupt these meetings was very liberal,but most people there didn’t seem to see a problem. I found it difficult to believe that members of the Liberal Party apparently believed that freedom of speech and freedom of association were only for those whose political views were not repugnant. I was quite shocked.

Later that evening, I told a close friend about the incident. He just smiled, and said “You libertarian, you.”

I wasn’t of course. Not yet, anyway.

Friday, 24 April 2009

The budget, government debt, and the Christian

After the recent budget, many commentators (e.g. Jeff Randall, Tim Carpenter, Cranmer, the Institute for Fiscal Studies) have expressed concern about the levels of debt that the government is incurring, and that will be inherited by tax-payers.

Should Christians be concerned about this? One angle on this is the fact that in the teaching of Jesus, sin is often compared with debt. Two obvious examples are the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:23-35), and the fact that in the Lord’s Prayer as found in Matthew’s gospel, disciples are taught to pray “and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” (Matthew 6:12) In other words, there is a correspondence between sin and debt.

Many may consider sin not to be serious, but the Christian does. I am reminded of the words of Anselm of Canterbury, addressing Boso in Cur Deus Homo (Book 1, chapter 21) “You have not yet considered what a heavy weight sin is.”

If sin is serious and Jesus compares sin to debt, surely it follows that for Christians, debt is serious as well. And if that is so, government borrowing which will saddle our country with huge levels of debt, possibly for decades, is serious.

Yes, it is true that in the Old Testament, there was provision for the cancellation of debt every 50 years in the Jubilee, but to argue that such a provision means that one of the world’s wealthiest nations (that has incurred its debts by living beyond its means) should have its slate wiped clean is simply ridiculous.

Perhaps the message for Christians who are not horrified by the levels of debt that we are incurring is: “You have not yet considered what a heavy weight debt is.”

Thursday, 23 April 2009

Allister Heath on Vince Cable

I am not an economist, but found Allister Heath's review of Vince Cable's book The Storm quite interesting.

More on car scrappage

Well, the government has, indeed, brought in a car scrappage scheme.

This is, as I have already argued, not good news. It could, however, be worse. First, because it seems that the scheme will be temporary, and only run until March 2010 - though it is, of course, possible that it will be extended. Second, of the £2000 discount the car buyer will get, only £1000 will come from the tax-payer. The car maker will have to provide the other £1000.

But it is bad. It doesn't even seem to be that environmentally friendly. After all, it will involve destruction of the vehicle, and there are many 10 year old vehicles that are in good working order. In other words, this scheme will lead to things that have value being destroyed, which is not economically wise (See the "broken window" fallacy of Bastiat and Hazlitt). And is it really a good use of the earth's limited resources to destroy an asset?

Environmentalists have also expressed doubts about the scheme. Phillip Selwood, chief executive of the Energy Saving Trust, has commented:
"The government's announcement on scrappage contradicts the carbon friendly announcements in the budget such as money for electric vehicles, CO2 related Company Car tax and the increase in fuel duty."

"This policy will increase car purchase regardless of CO2 emissions and the government has missed a significant opportunity by spending public money to incentivise any car upgrade when they could have incentivised the lowest carbon emission cars."
Now, I don't agree with all of that, but he is right when he says "This policy will increase car purchase regardless of CO2 emissions." Talk about old cars being dirty and polluting is simplistic. There are ten year old cars which run economically, and don't emit much carbon dioxide. And there are modern cars that are not economical and have high emissions. But under the scheme, you can trade in your old Citroen Saxo and get a new Mitsubishi Evo and be subsidised by the tax-payer.

And by the way, it is the tax-payer who pays. Curiously enough, the Telegraph wrote "The "scrappage" scheme, costing the Government £300 million, is intended not only to boost the ailing car industry, but to take some of the most environmentally unfriendly vehicles off the road."

Costing the government £300 million? Er, no. It doesn't cost the government. It costs us. Don't get the impression that the money will all be coming out of the pockets of politicians. It's your pocket it will come out of.

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Was Tolkien a libertarian?

The question was posed by Norman (to whom thanks) some months ago on Libertarian His answer is:
"Well, strictly speaking one must say no; the term was hardly around at the time. But in the following quote, he seems fairly clear that he is, philosophically, opposed to centralized power in a way that resembles modern libertarianism."
(That raises interesting questions. To what extent can one say that someone was a libertarian if they lived before the current usage of the word ‘libertarian’ became widespread? Was Thomas Paine a libertarian? Was Thomas Jefferson a libertarian? All thoughts on these questions are welcome!)

But here is the Tolkien quote:
"My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs) - or to ‘unconstitutional’ monarchy . . . Anyway, the proper study of man is anything but man; and the most improper job of any man, even saints (who at any rate were at least unwilling to take it on), is bossing other men. Not one in a million is fit for it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity. And at least it is done only to a small group of men who know who their master is. The medievals were only too right in taking nolo episcopari as the best reason a man could give to others for making him a bishop. Give me a king whose chief interest in life is stamps, railways, or race-horses; and who has the power to sack his Vizier (or whatever you care to call him) if he does not like the cut of his trousers. And so on down the line. But, of course, the fatal weakness of all that — after all only the fatal weakness of all good things in a bad corrupt unnatural world — is that it works and has worked only when all the world is messing along in the same good old inefficient human way."
There is some good discussion among the comments at LCC. Like Norman, I believe that Tolkien’s instincts - at least as revealed in that quotation - were definitely libertarian.

And after all, isn’t the Lord of the Rings (among other things) a parable about the danger of concentrating power centrally?

Thursday, 16 April 2009

The Baroness and the Badman - a fairy tale

Thank you very much to Renegade Parent for writing this. It is a brilliant piece of writing. Thanks also to Bishop Hill and Tom Paine for pointing me to it.

"May it go viral," as they say in modern parlance.

Car scrappage: another robbery coming up?

The government is poised to raid the taxpayers again, this time to give our money to car manufacturers and dealerships. It's called a car "scrappage" scheme. This idea had been spoken about for some time, but some of us trusted that the government had thought better of it. Now they are tipped to do it. I just hope the tipster has it wrong.

Basically it means that tax-payers' money is given to car buyers in exchange for an old car. They spend the money on a new car, which means that, other than having a new car, they are no better off - unless they were going to buy a new car anyway, in which case, they've just been given a nice present, courtesy of you and me. If you don't drive, you'll really appreciate being forced to pay up to subsidise motorists.

So who profits? Motor manufacturers and traders, of course, which is why the SMMT has been so keen on this scheme. It's good for car salesmen. And it's good for car manufacturers. Unfortunately, most manufacturers of cars bought in Britain are not British, so much of the money the government will be taking from us will be leaving the country.

In the government's favour, at least we are behind France and Germany in this - they've introduced such schemes already. But since French car buyers tend to buy mostly French cars, and a high proportion of Germans buy German cars, their schemes are not quite as foolish as a British one would be.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Daniel Hannan, anti-discrimination law, and freedom

This is old news (it’s about something that happened at the beginning of this month) and you will all know about it (because it’s on Daniel Hannan’s blog, and everyone now reads that), but it seems important to me, so I’m writing about it.

On the 2nd of April, the European Parliament adopted the report by Dutch Green MEP Kathalijne Buitenweg, which extends discrimination protection beyond the labour market to goods and services for the discrimination grounds of sexual orientation, disability, age and religion/belief. This appears (according to the Greens) likely to be adopted during the Swedish Presidency of the EU, following last week's commitment by the Swedish government to do so.

Daniel Hannan spoke against it, and as usual, spoke well.

But he comments that “Dozens of Christian groups wrote to me in advance of the vote urging me to propose an exemption for churches. In each case, I wrote back saying that, while their analysis was spot-on, they were wrong to seek such a derogation. The problem, I said, was not peculiar to religious organisations. The measures covering discrimination on grounds of sex, sexual orientation, nationality, political opinion, ethnicity and disability were equally flawed. . . . I gave my correspondents a Pastor Niemöller sort of reply.”

I suspect that these Christian groups included the Christian Institute, who rightly say “The Directive has great potential to interfere with religious liberty and free speech. It also hands power to Brussels to control important aspects of discrimination law.” (They might also have mentioned freedom of association.)

But Daniel Hannan has made an important point. Christians seek religious liberty for themselves. But they should to be thinking about liberty for other people as well. After all, the “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31) principle means that if we want other people to give us liberty, we ought to be seeking it for everyone else too.

Which seems to me to be a good reason why Christians ought to be libertarian.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Why do people make silly laws?

Yes, the Mexican government doesn't like this Burger King advertisement. That's because, according to the Telegraph, "Mexico has strict laws prohibiting the defamation of the flag."

I suppose someone thought these laws were a good idea. Maybe they thought they were necessary. But they seem a little pointless to me. I'm sure we'd never have come up with something as silly in Darkest Peru.

But there is another odd thing. The Mexican ambassador to Spain says that the ad "offends Mexicans and Mexico." Mexicans are offended by seeing their flag used this way? That's a bit odd, isn't it? No-one in England or Scotland or Wales or Ireland would mind their flag being used this way. And so I'm tempted to guess that few Mexicans would be offended if they didn't have these daft laws. In other words, the passing of unnecessary laws causes people to be unnecessary offended.

That can't be a good thing, can it?

McBride, the Press, and the Bloggers

"When the fallout settles [from the McBride affair]," Raenwald asks, who will have won and who will have lost?"

His list of winners includes the UK Blogosphere: ". . . the blogosphere will be increasingly important in the run up to the general election. As TV and print media are losing more professional journalists the boundaries are being blurred as the MSM is increasingly taking the tip from the web as to the current news agenda."

The truth is that people are turning increasingly to the bloggers to find out what is happening in the world. Even though the BBC, Sky, and all the daily newspapers are available online, some of us spend more time reading blogs. "Ah, but how reliable are blogs?" some will ask.

There is a parallel situation in the world of education. Pupils are increasingly doing their research using the internet rather than books, and the comment is made that they repeat things in their essays that they have read online, but which may be of doubtful accuracy. Quite so.

But the fact that words are written on a printed page is no guarantee of their accuracy. And this is particularly the case with regard to mainstream professional journalism. Newspapers are littered with inaccuracies, not to mention selective reporting, leading one to suspect that journalists simply don't care about the accuracy of their stories. A couple of months ago Tom Paine wrote (over at The Last Ditch) "I have long known that journalism (even specialised journalism) about my own field of expertise is always so utterly wrong that mere ignorance on the part of the journalists scarcely suffices to explain it. So why do I assume that there is any merit in their effusions about the subjects I know less well?" The comments to his post indicated that other people had the same experience.

The McBride affair has shown that blogs often have the news before the press. But, more worryingly for professional journalists, blogs may be a more accurate source of information.

Monday, 13 April 2009

Hold it. That was my money.

There are many facets of the Damian McBride affair. I, however, was particularly struck by a line in the report in the Times: “McBride, who was paid a six-figure salary by the taxpayer . . . .” I thought “Hold it. That was my money that was paying this gent to dream up ways of further lowering the esteem in which Mr Cameron is held.”

And it is rather a lot of my money too. A six-figure sum would buy a lot of buns and cocoa of the very highest quality. Personally, I think that it is wrong to take my money to spend it on that sort of thing. Now I am sure that Mr McBride did a few other things as well. My money did not all go into this extremely dubious project. But I really wonder if any of the money spent on Mr McBride’s employment contributed to the public good in any way at all.

And my concern is that this is just the tip of the iceberg. How many more people are employed with tax-payer’s money to do things that will one day be seen to be disgraceful - or at the very least, a disgraceful misuse of that money?

Many people are horrified, and rightly so, at the “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour” aspect of this story.

But I believe that people really need to be horrified at the “Thou shalt not steal” aspect as well.

Friday, 10 April 2009

Jean-Paul Rabaut de Saint-Étienne

For the past couple of weeks I’ve managed to escape from my computer screen, and what reading I have done has been from the printed page. Instead of reading about current affairs, and thinking about freedom in modern Britain, I’ve been reading a little history and thinking about the quest for freedom in France in days gone by.

And in my reading, I encountered Rabaut de Saint-Étienne, French pastor and revolutionary. He was born in Nîmes in 1743, the son of Paul Rabaut, a leading pastor in the French Reformed (Protestant) Church. At that time, Protestantism was illegal in France, having been banned by Louis XIV in 1685, and being a Protestant pastor was a capital offence. As the 18th century progressed, repression tended to ease, and the last execution of a Protestant pastor was in 1762. Rabaut de Saint-Étienne was ordained as a pastor two years later, and served until 1786, when, at the urging of the Marquis de Lafayette, he went to Paris and devoted himself full-time to working for freedom of religion. The following year, partly due to his efforts, the Edict of Toleration gave French subjects the right to profess religions other than Catholicism.

In 1789 he was elected to the French National Assembly, and was involved in discussions with Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson (who was then American Minister in Paris) about proposals for a possible declaration of rights. That August, the National Assembly passed the “Declaration of the Rights of Man”, with Rabaut de Saint-Étienne speaking strongly in favour of Article X: “No one must be disturbed because of his opinions, even in religious matters, provided their expression does not trouble the public order established by law.”

Rabaut Saint-Étienne was to be a major figure in the French Revolution, being elected President of the National Assembly in March 1790. And this was to be his undoing. As a leader in the moderate Girondist faction (the faction supported by Thomas Paine), when the Revolution went sour in 1793, and started devouring its own children, he was arrested, and later guillotined.

Ironically, the revolution’s lack of commitment to freedom of religion was to strike down his old father, Paul Rabaut, who had survived the years of persecution and who had rejoiced in the freedom of religion that the revolution had brought. In October a program of dechristianisation instituted the Revolutionary Calendar, and the clergy were ordered to move within a week a distance of about 70 miles from their churches. Paul Rabaut did not move and so was arrested. He spent a few months in prison, but was released after the fall of Robespierre. The imprisonment had, however, taken its toll on his health, and he died shortly afterward.