Tuesday, 29 December 2009

The attack on thrift

Last Wednesday, when I was in my local newsagent, I noticed a copy of the the Times, with a big headline on the front cover about thrifty families being blamed for prolonging the recession. This struck me as preposterous, and clearly I’m not the only one, for Samizdata has described this as the dumb headline of the day.

But what struck me was the implication that this was virtually a moral issue. Thrift has become a vice; spending money on things that you don’t need has become a virtue.

And that is surely the way a lot of politicians see it. The temporary cut in the VAT rate was designed to encourage spending on luxuries. The car scrappage scheme was surely intended to encourage people who were not planning to buy new cars to go out and buy one anyway. And of course, the government has shown that it regards thrift as a bad thing, because its reaction to the economic slowdown was not just to encourage citizens to go out and spend - but also to increase borrowing so that it could itself spend more.

I think that this is economically dubious. But I think that it is morally dubious as well.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

And the government shall be

upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9:6)

May all readers of this blog experience the goodness of God this Christmas.

(And my apologies to anyone who believes that the above greeting constitutes bullying.)

Monday, 21 December 2009

Know thyself: a guide for the perplexed

Wondering which party to vote for? Help is at hand with the Hunch UK Political Parties quiz.

In its favour:

1) It's short. (In fact, it is as short as the so-called "World's Smallest Political Quiz.")

2. It doesn't just seek to place you on a political spectrum or tell you your ideology. There are already a lot of political tests which do that. Rather, it aims to be a voter guide - to help you discover which party's policies most closely match your views. I cannot recall seeing such a test for British politics before - though several appeared on the internet in 2007 and 2008 to help Americans decide which candidate for the presidency they were closest to.)

3. It gives people a choice of several answers, asking them which is closest to their position, rather than simply asking "Do you agree or disagree with this statement?" I find that when the latter approach is taken, there are sometimes several reasons why someone might disagree with a statement; hence a statement of disagreement doesn't, in and of itself, actually tell anyone anything.

4. It actually includes the Libertarian Party among the parties listed!

5. It seems to work, because it decided that the Libertarian Party was the one for me.

Against it:

1. Several parties which are considerably larger than the Libertarian Party were not included.

2. It lacks sophistication. Not only is it brief, but some of the questions were odd, and the some of the scoring was even odder. (I'm sure that the erudite readers of this blog could design a considerably better test!)

By the way, I must confess that I am a sucker for these kinds of tests, and cannot resist almost taking every one that I encounter. The best of them, in my opinion, is the Political Spectrum Quiz. One of the basic problems of political ideology tests is that they generally use only two axes, which results in gross simplification. (Surely it is ridiculous to suggest that all political ideologies can effectively be reduced to just two axes.) The Political Spectrum Quiz effectively uses four axes.

A good example of the problem of using two axes is found in the Political Survey 2005. It asks good questions, but then chooses two very strange axes to plot the results on, so that the results are almost meaningless. However, they do implicitly acknowledge the difficulty of using only two axes.

The best known, Political Compass, is overrated. It's better than many, but a lot of the questions are odd, or poorly phrased. And it tells me that I am to the left of the 2008 Labour Party. Hmmmm. However, related to this, there is one thing I like about it. It describes Labour as a party of the right, and the BNP as a party of the left. That may be not actually be true, but at least it must annoy the Labour Party. :-)

Saturday, 19 December 2009

Human rights culture and tyranny

Writing in the Telegraph, Mr Charles Moore says that Britain's new supreme court "is effectively saying that a religion's way of defining its own membership, practised over 3,500 years, is illegal."

He continues "I would argue that the judgment goes wider still. It is part of a current idea of equality and of human rights which, in the name of freedom, is beginning to look like tyranny."

Well said, Mr Moore!

I believe that, in particular, he is profoundly right about two things. This is not simply about one judgement of one court. It is about our the whole of our current political culture. And it is looking like tyranny.

Indeed, always winter, and never Christmas.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Creative writing at the University of East Anglia

(Hat tip to Bishop Hill)

Note those words: "Since it was founded in 1963, UEA has broken the mould in a number of areas, from creative writing to environmental sciences."

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Is libertarianism compatible with Christianity?

Not my question, but that of Mr. Stewart Cowan of Real Street, asked in a comment on a post on this blog.

It is a question that has been discussed a lot in other places, but why not have another discussion here? Blogs are for reinventing the wheel, are they not?

I. Stewart's question

Is libertarianism compatible with Christianity? We know that the truth will make us free and that behaving however we want will lead us into sin and enslave us.

To which I answered, in brief: "I agree with your second sentence. Libertarianism is about political freedom, not ultimate freedom. Politics cannot make anyone free, and operates in a completely different realm from the gospel - though politics can bring political freedom. So I'm not sure what the connection is between your first sentence and your second sentence.

If you can persuade me from Scripture that libertarianism is not compatible with Christianity, I shall be grateful. But my view is that it is more compatible with Christianity than any other form of politics in a sinful and fallen world."

II. Definitions of Libertarianism.

My definition: Libertarianism: the philosophy that holds that the ultimate political value is the freedom of the individual, and that the most effective way to uphold that freedom is to limit the scope of the state to those activities which directly defend that freedom.

Leg-Iron: Libertarianism . . . means fewer and simpler laws that are easy to understand and follow. . . . You are free to do whatever you want in Libertarianism as long as it hurts nobody else. Cause trouble and the proverbial ton of bricks comes into play.

Counting Cats: The basic principle is: "Thou shalt not initiate the use of violence." Everything else derives from that. Note, this is not pacifism; if someone initiates violence against you and yours, or your friends and allies and theirs, you are free to respond as you see fit. (And "violence" basically means "coercion", as I understand this definition.)

Bella Gerens: Libertarians believe you should be free from coercion – and that you must not coerce anyone else. Libertarians believe you should be free from interference – and that you must not interfere with anyone else. Libertarians believe you should be free from oppression – and that you must not oppress anyone else. Because these are to be universal freedoms: what you do not wish done to you, you must not do to anyone else.

There are many more, but those give one a basic idea. (A lot of libertarians speak about "self-ownership" being the basic principle of libertarianism, though I find that philosophically problematic, and don't accept it.)

III. So,what are the options?

1. No philosophy of government is compatible with Christianity. All fall short. And so, by implication, Christians should not be involved in politics or waste time discussing political matters.

2. Christians have a duty to "christianise" society, and should use political (among other) means to do so. This implies using force on unbelievers. This is what many would call the Constantinian or "Christendom" model. However, in my opinion, 2000 years of church history show that this has a nasty habit of turning, er, nasty - though there are plenty of people working on non-nasty variants. But these often end up being virtually indistinguishable from mainstream western political parties.

(I have dealt with both those options, to some extent, here.)

3. Libertarianism is not compatible with Christianity, but some other (basically secular) political philosophies are.

4. Libertarianism is compatible with Christianity. Indeed, it may be more compatible with Christianity than other political philosophies.

IV. A brief vindication of the thesis that libertarianism is compatible with Christianity.

1. The New Testament nowhere suggests that Christians have a duty to use the power of the sword to christianise society by political means.

2. What is the main thing that Christians are to seek from government?

I Timothy 2:1-2 "First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way."

The main thing Christians are urged to pray for, when we pray for politicians, is that government will allow us to lead a peaceful and quiet life, and to let us get on with being Christians. This implies that the main thing that we are to look for from government is to basically leave us alone and protect us from those who would attack us. Which is basically the libertarianism position.

3. If we want to be allowed to lead a peaceful and quiet life, then we should want others to be allowed to lead a quiet life and do what they want to do. As a Christian, you cannot consistently ask the government to grant you the freedom to do what you want, if you, at the same time, want the government to deny others the freedom to do what they want (as long, of course, as it does not hurt someone else). Luke 6:31 "Do to others as you would have them do to you."

4. I have never seen anything in the Bible which suggests that libertarian principles are not compatible with Christianity.

If readers believe that I am wrong, then I invite them to point out my errors.

Monday, 14 December 2009

More on state control of education

The Scottish Government is currently in the process of bringing in the modestly named Curriculum for Excellence.

The front line troops in Scottish education are, apparently, not totally convinced . . .

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Children, the state, and social engineering

(Or "Some thoughts on compulsory education")

Via Longrider, I see that the "think tank" Demos has produced a report entitled Service Nation, arguing that a scheme of civic national service would be a good idea. They come out saying that that they don't think that it should be compulsory for all citizens to undertake a a civic service scheme at a certain point in their lives. However they do say "A lifecycle approach to service learning should begin with school, with compulsory service learning as part of the national curriculum." And they also say "If it is to work, the service must be universal. . . . That’s why our proposals run from the age of seven to adulthood, rather than a scheme for young adults." And they talk about the huge public benefits.

Seems pretty harmless, doesn't it? Though of course we need to remember that every time something is added to the national curriculum, something else that the school is doing with children has to go. And that, in itself, is sufficient reason to assume that this is a bad idea, unless it can be shown otherwise.

But I have another problem with this. It is basically about that it is all about the state deciding how children are to be brought up. And this is something I am highly uneasy about because the state increasingly feels that it has the right to say how children are brought up and what they are taught.

Once upon a time, it wasn't like that, of course. But in Victorian times, those with good intentions felt that it was not good enough just to make education available to families. They felt the need to go further. And so compulsory education in England and Wales (for children aged 5 to 10) was introduced by the 1880 Elementary Education Act.

Scotland, however, was well ahead, since the 1872 Education (Scotland) Act had already made education compulsory for all children aged 5 to 13. But the 1872 Act is interesting for another reason. It decreed that the existing parish and burgh schools should be taken over by the state and managed by locally elected School Boards. The Church of Scotland and the Free Church of Scotland handed over their schools without charge to the School Boards. (Interestingly enough, the Roman Catholic Church and the Episcopal Church chose to not to.) In other words the 1872 act represents an important milestone in the growth of the power of the state. Not only did the state force parents to educate their children upon pain of punishment, but it also took control of most education in Scotland away from the voluntary / private sector.

In actual fact, the school boards that were set up by the 1872 Act were locally elected, so the element of state control was fairly limited. However, over the course of time, things changed. In 1918, these school boards were abolished and their powers were taken by local government, and this remains the case today.

There are two other ways in which the state can increase its control of education - and has done so. The most obvious is increasing interference in the classroom by central government - like the National Curriculum that was introduced by the Education Reform Act 1988, and the 5-14 curriculum in Scotland of the same era.

The other is to place limits on the two alternatives to state education: private schools and home education. For financial and practical reasons, these two alternatives are not actually open to most parents. Nonetheless, politicians are often uneasy about them. Germany bans home-schooling, and the Badman proposals make it likely that home education in Britain is going to become more difficult. And as for private schools, as recently as 1983, the Labour Party’s manifesto promised their virtual destruction:
Private schools are a major obstacle to a free and fair education system, able to serve the needs of the whole community. . . .We shall . . . withdraw charitable status from private schools and all their other public subsidies and tax privileges. We will also charge VAT on the fees paid to such schools; phase out fee charging; and integrate private schools within the local authority sector where necessary.
My contention is that both the compulsion of parents and increasing control of education by the state are wrong. The latter is a threat to freedom, the former is a breach of basic freedoms. Yes, increasing control of education by the state does lead to greater consistency between schools. And yes, compulsory education undoubtedly increases literacy rates. And yes, most parents have no problem with compulsory education and state control of education. But there are nonconformists. And they have a right to be respected.

And so let me finish this post by crossing the Atlantic to Ohio, and going back in history to 1922 with a tale of nonconformity. My source is A History of the Amish by Steven Nolt.

In 1921, the state of Ohio passed the Bing Act, requiring compulsory school attendance up to the age of 18. This was considered by the legislators to be a major social and educational advance, but the Amish community in Ohio wasn’t at all enthusiastic. The Amish believed that formal education should be basic, and in harmony the church and home, and that what was being taught to older children in state schools was not helpful for their children. When some Amish children did not turn up for classes, or refused to read some of the objectionable content in high school texts, the state stepped in. In January 1922, officials arrested five Amish fathers on charges of neglecting their children’s welfare. Most of the men’s school age children became wards of court. The authorities sent them to an orphanage and would not allow them to wear their Amish clothes.

Says it all really. “You are not bringing up your children in accordance of our newly passed law. Therefore you are not good parents, and we can take your children away from you, and take away their religious identity.” Isn't it funny the way that passing laws makes government officials behave in irrational ways?

Monday, 7 December 2009

Amanda Knox, climate change, and the human mind

Amidst all the publicity concerning the trial of Amanda Knox, the thing that interests me is the fact that Miss Knox's family and friends are convinced that she is innocent, while the parents of Meredith Kercher feel that the guilty verdict was correct.

You are not surprised, are you? Confronted by pretty much the same evidence, people not only come to different conclusions, but you can pretty much guess which people are going to come to which conclusions.

So it is with Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW), or "climate change."

Take my parents. The circles they move in are largely church circles - and in particular, church circles where people have an interest in Africa and in development projects. They are interested in the environment and 'green issues'. They rely for news almost entirely on the output of the BBC. You know what they think, don't you? But I'll tell you anyway. Despite (or because of?) the fact that neither of them have a background in science, they regard disbelief in AGW as about astonishing as believing that the earth is flat.

Libertarians are a different breed. As I wander around the wilderness of the blogosphere, dropping in on blogs - generally libertarian in outlook - I rarely encounter any true believers in AGW. It seems that almost every libertarian in the world is a climate change sceptic. I can't think of a single libertarian true believer in AGW.

I cannot believe that this is a coincidence. Nor can I believe that all these libertarians have pored objectively over the evidence and come to one conclusion, and every green has pored over the evidence and come to the opposite conclusion. Is this not puzzling?

I think that the Heresiarch, over at Heresy Corner, has pretty much got the answer:
Scepticism about the science of global warming is informed by scepticism about the means being proposed to tackle it: regulations, targets, interventions, the shadow of global governance, top-down control. Free-marketeers naturally hate the artificial mechanisms that are beloved of meddling politicians.
Or, to put it another way, freedom lovers can see that if everybody accepts AGW, then we are going to get a huge number of intrusive laws, so they hate AGW's acceptance among the political classes. Greens can see that if everybody accepts AGW, we will get a huge number of laws that force everybody to be green, so they love it when the political classes accept AGW . And so both freedom lovers and greens form their conclusions about the truth of AGW accordingly.

And so I conclude that men's brains are truly slaves of their passions.

Saturday, 5 December 2009

The Equality Bill

(I've just posted this as a comment on Cranmer, but for those of you who don't read Cranmer, I thought I'd post it here as well.)

I believe that the Equality Bill being proposed by Her Majesty's Government is wrong.

In fact, I am less than enthusiastic about Mr. David Drew's amendment, which was voted down this week, because it doesn't go far enough. It only seeks to make certain limited exceptions to the principle of non-discrimination. In fact, I believe that non-discrimination legislation should only apply to government, and that all non-governmental organisations should be free to employ whoever they want. Anti-discrimination legislation is an attack on freedom of association.

That said, I'm not sure that this dire Equality Bill needs to be such a big problem for religious organisations.

As Cranmer says, "churches are by definition primarily concerned with theological enlightenment and spiritual development."

If a church believes that homosexual activity is wrong, its main concern should not be whether a job applicant is homosexual or heterosexual, or whether the applicant is celibate or non-celibate. Its main concern should be with whether a prospective applicant believes and publicly affirms and teaches that homosexual activity is wrong. And my understanding is that even if the Equality Bill is passed, they will still be able to ask about such matters in job interviews.

Edit: I have also written on the subject of anti-discrimination law here.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Badman: Government responds to Home Education petition

Home educators, and others of us who have misgivings about the proposals in the Badman report (see here), petitioned the government to express our concern. The government has now responded, and has indicated that it is not going to give an inch by saying "The recommendations set out by Badman are proportionate and reasonable." Of course, it says "We will take into account the responses to the consultation and any report arising from the Select Committee Inquiry into the review of home education when deciding how to proceed," but it looks like it intends to implement most of the proposals in the Badman report.

The key line in the government's response is "Most home educators do an excellent job but we can’t afford to let any child slip through the net – in terms of their education, or safety." In other words, the government believes that it is responsible for every single child, and that it is potentially capable of ensuring that every child in the country is kept safe and given a good education.

Hmmm. There are at least four problems with that statement that jump out at me immiediately.

1) No one seriously thinks that the state is actually able to keep every child in the country safe.

2) Even to keep every child in the country safe from his or her parents would require incredible intrusion into family life.

3) Note that politicians believe that it is for them to define what constitutes a good education.

4) If you speak to a lot of parents in this country, you will discover that several of them have real doubts as to whether their local state schools actually do provide a good education. Some also have concerns about how safe their children might be in their local school.

The general impression I get is one of incredible hubris on the part of the government. They really do believe that they can solve all the world's problems.

[Note that whatever action the government takes will not apply to Scotland. However, Scotland's rules concerning home education are actually slightly tighter at the moment than those of England and Wales - in that in Scotland, parents already require local authority permission to withdraw their children from school, and there is a recommendation that home educating families be visited once a year by the authorities. (For more on the prospects for home educators in Scotland, see here.)]

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Of foxes, chickens, direct democracy, and Swiss minarets

I suppose that when one considers that we live in a country where the sale of 100 watt incandescent light bulbs is banned, the ban on building minarets in Switzerland does not seem quite so bizarre.

The fascinating thing about this decision is that (unlike the light bulb ban), it was taken not by politicians, but by the ordinary people, voting in a referendum. I must confess that I admire the Swiss system of allowing citizens to over-ride the will of the politicians by making decisions in referenda. I think we should have more direct democracy in Britain. But should we allow a vote like this?

Let’s look at the issues concerned. There are two sets of rights. One is the right of people to build minarets. The other is the right of people not to have to look at minarets. Now I am willing to submit that in picture postcard alpine villages, with their baroque church towers, a minaret would look somewhat out of place. But this vote is not merely about banning minarets in some scenic areas, it is about banning them everywhere in the country. And, to be honest, minarets are not horrible looking. Many are quite aesthetically pleasing. I can see no argument that people have a right not to look at a minaret. And if the Swiss are worried about being woken by a call to prayer at some unearthly hour in the morning, I would suggest that alternative legislation could be used.

Or perhaps they believe that Islam is not a good thing, and they wish to stop its spread. Well, I too believe that Islam is not a good thing. As a Christian, I take the view that any religious system that teaches that Jesus Christ was merely a prophet, and not the eternal, incarnate Son of God, is a bad thing. That does not mean, of course that I want to ban it or believe that the law should be used to inhibit its spread. But even if I did, I can’t see how banning the building of minarets would help. In short, it is pointless and petty and will probably do nothing to stop the spread of Islam in Switzerland.

So this all comes down to the right of Muslims in Switzerland to build their mosques the way that they want to build them, since minarets do no harm to anyone. Which means that Swiss law permits referenda which are designed to take away some of the freedoms - religious freedoms, in this case - of some of its citizens. One is reminded of the saying: “Democracy is two foxes and a chicken deciding what to have for dinner.”

And as for the argument that you won’t see any church towers in Saudi Arabia, this must be the worst argument of all in favour of the Swiss decision. Whatever happened to “Do to others as you would have them do to you”? (Luke 6:31) I trust that all serious followers of Jesus Christ in Switzerland voted against this ridiculous ban.