Thursday, December 21, 2006

Windy manifesto - a reply (part one)

I promised a response in parts to D-Squared’s posting “I shit on the progressives of this planet”. I also accept Phil’s rebuke (in the comments on that post) for ‘flamebaiting’, so I’ll try and stick to the point here.I’m going to address the first part today – I’d prefer to do the whole lot but I’m a bit flat out at the moment.

So, the three headings that this response covers are:

  • First of all, do no harm
  • We are a First World country
  • The government can’t make you happy
D-squared tells me (in the comments on his own thread) that he doesn’t want to hear arguments from John Lloyd’s book (“because it’s crap”). It seems that I’m also not allowed any ‘waffle’ about where power really resides. I thought John Lloyd’s book was quite good (and I recall that it good sympathetic reviews from writers who had a vested interest in slating it). I think that Mr Bourdieu’s book is more succinct though. And a large part of my argument is that the publicly discussed version of how power is held is misleading.

I’m not going to restate the view that the popular discourse about politics does not reflect the reality because I’ve never seen it seriously refuted. But avoiding the common themes of public administration and a widely respected perspective on how the media effects politics is like asking me to play without wingers or strikers. So I’m not going to avoid them.

In addition, there is going to be a problem responding to this whole post for now, because the definition of ‘progressive’ given here is as precise as my definition of ‘hippy’. It seems to be anything that D-squared objects to. He thinks PTAs are ‘progressive’ (!) so you can imagine the problem I have here.

Apparently, it isn’t ‘statist’ either so I could just keep guessing, I suppose. Anyway, here goes:

Summary: If you want to reduce the state’s capacity to do harm, you could ask if that capacity is growing or changing? You could say why it has that capacity and how it can be reduced.

Whatever the definition of ‘progressive’, the call for inaction (which I’m inclined to agree with in some cases) doesn’t acknowledge that many of those government schemes spring from a popular view that ‘something must be done’. You won’t win elections by refusing to respond to popular (tabloid?) demands. There are plenty of electoral reforms that anyone could suggest that would result in an executive that is less responsive to such tabloid demands, but electoral reform falls squarely within the remit of ‘doing something’.

You could say “just ignore them” but the fact that everyone who has succeeded in politics did so by ignoring that advice.

I think that the way ID cards are discussed provides a good overview of how the dynamic between public discourse and those framing policies has stopped working.

He says:
“The trade-off between liberty and other social goods is very different for us than for the vast majority of humanity now and throughout history. Even if such tradeoffs exist (which I doubt), they should not be taken. The possible material gains are just too small for what is being sacrificed.”

Those trade-offs are happening all the time – whether we want them or not. It isn’t just governments that remove our liberties.

Or take the topical debate on liberalisation of the laws on prostitution or drugs: Whatever your view on this, there is a case to be made for both of these. But even a serious politician who privately supports liberalisation knows that – if they are responsible for achieving it - the following will happen:
  1. The advocates of liberalisation will demand more – ‘hasn’t gone far enough’ etc– so there’s no reward for doing less
  2. The press will treat it as ‘the end of a thousand years of history’ (the same papers whose columnists have demanded liberalisation)
  3. The first drug-related fatality / offspring-turned-hooker will result in an orchestrated ‘family’ campaign in which the politician concerned will be called upon to take sole responsibility
  4. The initial advocates of liberalisation will not offer any support, or intervene
So, we seem to be offered two choices here: Simply resign ourselves to atrophy, or understand what the barriers to effective collective action are. Mancur Olson took the view that strong politicians and weaker pressure groups were to answer, and I agree with him.

I’d like a lot of fairly strong politicians instead of the current situation - a very small number of over-powerful and highly compromised ones. That politicians, by themselves, do harm is a moot point anyway. What happens is that politicians make a request to the institutions that, in theory, are supposed to respond to them, and the request is then combined with the pre-existing strategic intent of those organisations.

The net result is, therefore, very different from the one intended by the politicians – but the politicians have little choice but to take the blame for those outcomes. To ignore the strategic intent of bureaucracies is to present less than half an argument, and that is not – I would argue – reasonable.

There is no question that politicians should be more careful than they are about what they wish for, because their officials often delight in serving it up to them. A bit like those wishes Dr Faustus made.

But, currently, the meagre rewards for initiativitis are preferable to the penalties for inactivity. So if you prefer less active government, prepare yourself or further decades of frustration – until this problem is cracked. This is probably my main argument: That the way that politics and policy is discussed is counterproductive.

Alternatively, if you wish to reduce the capacity of individual politicians, departments of state, or other players to do harm, the obvious thing to do would be to argue for smaller departments of state – and stronger, more dispersed equivalents.

I’ve always argued that politicians should have less capacity – as individuals, or within their offices – of doing as much as they appear to be able to do. This is why this blog is quite repetitive in it’s advocacy of…
  • Stronger local democracy – and regional constituent assemblies
  • Political decentralisation – that cabinets choose the Prime Minister, rather than the other way around
  • ‘In-and-outers’ – political parties that are able to redirect the state when they win an election
  • Weaker political parties in other ways – parties that have less hold over elected representatives and less patronage than they do at the moment.
This last objective can be achieved by giving elected representatives at all levels the resources that they need (ones that can’t be snaffled by the parties as they are at the moment) to develop a degree of independence. This could be achieved by a new approach to state funding for parties, and a quasi-constitutional approach that would give more scope (and less bureaucratic censorship) to elected representatives to develop their own positions.

If you search this blog on the term ‘constipators’, you’ll see what I mean.One of the measurable outcomes of this last strategy, I would suggest, would be shorter manifestoes that state principles rather than specific prescriptions.

I’ve also argued that the power and influence of the mass media should be diluted as they are, I believe, the biggest engine room that has driven the increased political centralisation that has taken place over the last century.

I’m happy to admit that I’m a bit stuck on how to achieve this as I’m not keen on censorship per se. One of the reasons that I blog is because I’m hoping someone will pop up in my comments box with an idea on how this can be done.

Is this all post-hoc rationalisation on my part, I hear you ask? Well, use that little search box at the top of this blog to find posts about “representative democracy”, “decentralisation” or “demagogic simplification” for starters.

On the other hand, I would suggest that D-Squared call for inactivity translates into a call for atrophy. I don’t think that this is a position that he would sustain for very long, and that’s why I’m suggesting that it is a post-hoc rationalisation that has been hastily drafted to counter the charge of ‘negativism’ that led to his response.

I’d certainly find it impossible to believe that this version of liberalism is the rationalisation behind most negativism from other bloggers - which is why I'd suggest that narcissism or cowardice are a better explanation.

(I’ve started indexing these posts using the new blogger indexing system, but it’s far from finished at the moment, for which apologies.)


Shuggy said...

Hmmm, coming to this rather lengthy conversation a bit late. I agree the concept of the 'progressive' is a rather porous one, not least in Mr Squared's hands. However, apart from anything else it might mean, it often carries the idea that 'movement' per se is a Good Thing, and to fail to move, agree with movement, or fail to come up with an alternative movement to the one suggested is Conservative, or Reactionary. I think D-squared is, in this sense, right; it is a perfectly legitimate thing to suggest as a 'better alternative' that on some, many, or even most cases, 'we' should simply do nothing rather than the one suggested. And isn't the demand to come up with a solution like, in some respects, the way irrational believers go on? "The lights in the sky are green men in space ships. You disagree? Well how do youexplain them?" I don't. And I don't have to in order to reject the green men in spaceships hypothesis.

ID cards are a case in point here. I'm not sure what you meant in your own reference to the debate that surrounds them but here's an example of something that there was, as far as I can tell, no demand from the electorate that 'something should be done'. In this sense, the government is attempting to create a demand for something where previously there was none. And there's no need to

Also, isn't your idea that doing nothing leads to 'atrophy' something akin to the above definition of 'progressive'? Why, for example, would not introducing ID cards, not introducing an extension to detention without trial, or having left the right to silence intact, lead to this atrophy of the system?

[Disclaimer: It could be, as is so often the case, that I've misunderstood the point here. In which case, just ignore this. But I wasn't about to wade through all those comments threads you've linked to.]

dsquared said...

I just don't agree with this view of politics (and I didn't agree with it in John Lloyd's book either). Both you and Lloyd are very long on generalities and very short on specifics.

Which tabloid newspaper was demanding a massive expansion of the PFI? Where was the populist campaign for NHS fundholding? Did the Sun really put its editorial weight behind the transfer of council-owned housing stock to ALMOs? Or the introduction of tuition fees? etc etc. We could even play a game of poker here; for every one instance of policy driven by populist demagoguery, I'll name two cases of major changes to the direction of the state which have quite clearly been enacted by the central government off its own bat, for reasons of their own ideology. For heaven's sake, the defining characteristic of this government is a war that was never popular.

And the idea that "regional assemblies", or stronger local government is the solution seems crazy to me. You're talking about Pat Lally and his equivalents. Does anybody think that what Lambeth needs is a more powerful Lambeth council?

Blair and his government came to power on the basis of a specific plan to make Britain a better and more successful place, on the cheap, by pushing a mix of two parts neoliberalism to three parts paternalism. The things that they've done over the last nine and a half years did not happen by accident. I personally believe that the Blairite experiment has failed, crashingly, and needs to be ended. Hence, negativism.

dd said...

Also, I really don't think it's legitimate to recruit Bourdieu to your point of view. PB certainly didn't want journalists to start turning themselves into amateur-hour sociologists and nor did he have this fetish for "reporting the objective facts" that seems to be a big part of your critique. In general, Bourdieu's writings on journalism are partly generalisable, but partly specifically Frenchm and it seems weird to me that you're bringing the inventor of the concept of symbolic violence into a debate on the side against people who are specifically rejecting the right of politicians to be listened to.

It really looks to me that you're reinventing the "bias against understanding" and the "mission to explain" and the spiritual father of this crusade is not Bourdieu but Birt.

Chris Baldwin said...

Eeee, well I guess I support the "progressives" here, although I don't believe in "progress" for its own sake, but I really wish people would stop calling themselves "progressives" - why can't we just be socialists or social democrats or social liberals? That way people know what we mean. Also I'm pretty sure "progressive" used to be a euphemism for "fellow traveller" in France.

Larry said...

it is a perfectly legitimate thing to suggest as a 'better alternative' that on some, many, or even most cases, 'we' should simply do nothing rather than the one suggested.

Perhaps if this is repeated often enough, it might eventually be understood as the obvious common sense that it is.

Paulie said...

For the most part, I'd agree with you Shuggy. I've no objection to the general view that no situation is so bad that it won't be made worse by the deadly combination of political reflexiveness, civil service inflexibility and rent-seeking on the part of management consultants.

Politicians are over-responsive for a reason though. The quality of public debate is part of that reason. The civil service are inflexible because they aren't scrutinised or motivated as effectively as they could be. I've often said here that wish some of the resources that are squandered on kremlinology and a largely worthless paid commentariat were spent on reportage and investigative journalism instead.

But things do change, and sometimes, we all have to adapt to that change. If you object to any such adaption, I would suggest, there could be an onus on you to either

- show that things aren't changing as much as people say they are, or

- acknowledge those changes and suggest alternatives.

Personally, I have a tendancy to argue the former a lot of the time (as do you, I think?). I usually prefer agnosticism to the conventional certainty that 'there is a problem'.

The media almost always argue the opposite though. Under-reaction is not in their M.O. And I think that - where an executive has distributed power rather than the fairly centralised version we have in the UK - then you get a lot less of the crude determinism and the reflexive calls for action from the press that we are prone to in the UK.

On the ID Cards question, I posted on this here:

I think that there is more to be said on this as well. Suffice to say that, when the history of how ID legislation came into place is written, it won't simply show an unreconstructed authroritarian imposing his will in a vacuum.

D-squared, I don't think that I (or John Lloyd) made the case that there was a direct link between the demands of newspaper editors and specific policies.The idea that the intricacies of NHS Fundholding or any of the other examples you're giving here were the result of a specific demand from a newspaper is either a misunderstanding on your part, or a wilful simplification of the argument. This is another of your strawmen here.

I understand what you mean by 'ideology' in this context, the 'revealed ideology' - but i doubt if it tells you much about where they are going to go next. The Third Way and it's successors - the paternalism and neo-liberalism as you characterise it - always struck me as little more than a course that was plotted between suspected floating mines.

Newspaper headlines and the tone of public debate are two such mines. At the risk of sounding like a smartarse, I'd say that there are no aetheists in foxholes - and there are few agnostics in minefields either. To reuse the old adage, 'politics is the art of the possible'. 'The possible' is, of course, a very subjective value. In a state as centralised as ours, only the subjectivity of a small group of people counts.

I think that could change and I'm happy to suggest how it can be changed. In France, for example, policymaking is much less reflexive - and this could be because Prime Ministers are much more frightened of their cabinets that their British counterparts are?

And all of this discussion around how the lethargic state can work is very interesting. But it can be had any day of the week. The way you are conducting it is the interesting bit here.

As an example, you seem to be arguing that local government can't ever work because of something that Lambeth has done to annoy you or because of some dodgy Weegie? And are you saying that - because there isn't some popular upsurge deminding strong local government, that there is no point ('crazy') in making the case for it?

Your immediate response to any argument is to simplify it inaccurately, present a worse case scenario as a probable outcome, and then say that actually making the suggestion is idiotic in itself. I'm not even that interested in getting into the argument of whether decentralisation is a solution at all for the purposes of this debate (happy to do it another time in a constructive way though). My point is that I'm offering decentralisation as a way of reducing the activism of the state, and you are trying to claim that this can instead be acheived by promoting a public spitting-match about personalities and the surface narratives of current affairs.

That is what I mean by negativism. The rest of this argument is just a fig-leaf for it.

Chris, this whole argument started because I used the word 'progressive' to describe a blogger who (I thought) had decent enough intentions, but was undermining his case by the negative tone of his comments. It was an imprecise term, but DSquared lighted on it as a smackable target. He drew the conclusion that 'negativism' was a charge leveled by 'progressives' and that negativism could be defended by attacking progressives.

If you can make any sense out of his fluid definition of 'progressive', let me know. I'd be interested in a second opinion.

Cian said...

Bourdieu's book on TV was kind of a rant wasn't it? I don't remember him saying anything that Neil Postman hadn't said better, and he lacked Postman's formal understanding of the medium, and how this structured the messages that were possible. I thought John Lloyd's book was just an extended opinion column, filled with the windy generalisations endemic to the form. Does the world really need bad sociology from pseudo-journalists?

I don't know of any serious thinkers (popular, or otherwise) who would deny that the media has a significant affect on politics. This seems like a strawman. If you want to take this further and argue that the media are more powerful than the government (or indeed than well connected investment banks and multinationals), then you need a rigorous, and factuall supported, argument. Which you don't currently have. ID cards certainly isn't it.

ID cards are certainly an example of how communication between the government and the governed (which is how Blair's court seem to see us) has broken down, but not in the way that you suggest. Nobody wants them, and the government has failed to provide a good reason for why they are needed. If implemented (a big if, given this governments incompetence over the NHS IT project), they are actually likely to make us less secure as various security experts have repeatedly pointed out. But of course Tony knows best, and so he's ignoring them.

Nor do I really accept the defense that its all the fault of civil servants. If it is, it can hardly be due to inflexibility as the civil service has been in a state of permanent revolution since the late Thatcher years. New Labour accelerated the process, bringing in external hires, management consultants, more restructuring and more management, while contracting everything they could to external companies. After ten years the civil service is their own creation, and if its still not working that's their problem.

The problems with many disasters have actually been due to Labour's insistence on micromanagement. So police forces have been forced to deal with national targets that make no sense (West Dorset police had real problems finding enough crack heads to arrest), NHS trusts have been placed in an impossible position where they are handed fixed targets and fixed budgets, fixed costs and then told to get on with it. Teachers are completely demoralised and exhausted due to the fact that every year they have to deal with more changes, more tests and more training. The armed forces have been handed an appaling semi-privitised logistics setup. And so on. The problem with this government is that it won't leave things alone.

However I think the crux of your problem comes with your discussion about liberalising the laws on prostitution/drugs. Any argument on what should be done should be based upon a desired outcome. What are you trying to achieve? Is it harm reduction? Punishing criminals? Or just a belief in liberalisation? Each of these comes with an attached story. If you want to reduce the harm done by drugs, then you simply enact a series of policies which include good treatment for addicts, supplies of clean drugs; and combine these with a series of stories leaked to the press which show how the current system is killing/harming people. You won't convince everyone, but its perfectly possible to frame the debate in such a way that the argument becomes about how do we minimise harm to addicts. And as long as the government emphasises from the outset that no system is perfect, but look how bad the current system is, its a debate that's winnable. By encouraging a debate on their terms, they control that debate.

The problem with NuLab is:
a) they don't know what they want to achieve - their outcome remains opaque. Instead they strike poses - they want to be liberal, no they want to be tough. And because they strike poses, they are vulnerable.
b) They are afraid of debate, so they do everything they can to minimise the chances of a true debate. Its immature politics and it leads to immature outcomes. But then is Britain, so unsurprising I guess.

"But, currently, the meagre rewards for initiativitis are preferable to the penalties for inactivity. So if you prefer less active government, prepare yourself or further decades of frustration – until this problem is cracked. This is probably my main argument: That the way that politics and policy is discussed is counterproductive."

Again, this is a ludicrous statement. NuLab have passed more laws per year than any preceding government. They have shaken up the major institutions multiple times. If the penalties are as strong as you suggest, how do you explain this whirl of activity. Given that for the most part this activity has either not improved things terribly significantly, or made things worse, inactivity might not be such a bad thing.

Paulie said...


Leaving aside the windy bollocks contained in the first three paras of your comment, above, your comments about the civil service are fair enough, as far as it goes.

I'd agree that the 'state of permanent revolution' is the reason for a lot of waste and mismanagement. I'd agree that a highly centralised and micromanaged public administration is nearly always likely to fail.

That is why I consistently argue for decentralisation on this blog. It's why I argue that the civil service needs a significant reform, so that politicians have a vested interest in ensuring that the permanent state works effectively, rather having two sides of the government simply covering their arses whenever they interact.

It's why I argue for stronger elected representatives who are less in-hock to pressure groups and political parties.

If you don't agree with me about decentralisation or 'in-and-outers', then again, that's fine. Argue with me about it. But let's stick to the point here, rather than spend ages bickering about red herrings, shall we?

On the question of drug / prostitution liberalisation, you seem to have missed my point. I wasn't necessarily arguing for it. While I'm inclined to think that they could be a good solution, I'm not sure. I offered them as an example of what would happen IF a government - any government - were to decide that such a measure would help them achieve their goal. I try to make it a matter of principle to be agnostic on specific policy areas that I'm not an expert. Go and read it again.

Having said all of that, I'd add that - fascinating though this all is - it's a little beside the point, isn't it? You seem to be labouring under the delusion that I don't want the government to be criticised - I do. I just think it's a bit pointless getting obsessively critical of the Aunt Sallys that represent the surface of government. I'll repeat the reply I've given to your comment on the previous post:

It doesn't matter who you vote for, for the most part, The Government will always get in. I'd like the way government works to be changed, and I'd suggest that changing it's public-facing personnel is a bit like changing deckchairs on the Titanic. Negativists are the objective allies of those who wish to preserve the status quo whereby politicians fiddle at the edges, and the central state continues to grow.

On your last two paras, you've simply misunderstood what I was saying. The para you quote ("meagre rewards for initiativitis") does contain something that - on a very superficial reading - could be close to a double negative, so maybe I can see why.

What I'm saying here - for the avoidance of doubt is...

Whatever governments do, most people will be pissed of with them. BUT, doing lots of things results in less earache from the press and from pressure groups than doing nothing much. So they do lots of things. And this is the way things are going to be for a long time to come - unless the causes of political hyperactivity are addressed. If you read the "meagre rewards for initiativitis" para again, you will see that this is what I'm saying.

Again, for the avoidance of doubt, I'm not arguing for hyperactivity. If you look at my blog (look around, there's about 20 months worth of posts), and the comments I've given in response to D-Squared, you will see that I'm not arguing against his call for a lethargic state. He raised it as a red herring, in response to some strawmen that he calls 'progressives' who he thinks are the opponents of 'negativists.'

Did I say, it's all one big post-hoc rationalisation?

Cian said...

I'd wager that I've forgotten more about ID cards and biometrics than you'll ever know. I didn't find your other post about ID cards terribly convincing (shorter version of your post: "with incredible effort the security services can already find lots of stuff about you, so why should we worry about the fact that they'll now be able to routinely do the same.").

"On the question of drug / prostitution liberalisation, you seem to have missed my point."

I didn't, though perhaps I could have been clearer. I was simply pointing out that all the problems you mentioned would be quite easy for a more serious government to sidestep. If a government decided that liberalisation was the way forward and was committed to it (ie. was prepared to weather criticism), it would be perfectly possible to push it through. Combining a series of stories on how the current policy is failing, how much it costs (policing, prisons, crime) and pushing an agenda of harm reducation to society (emphasising how many muggings/house burglaries are drug related would probably get through to the daily mail crowd) which emphasised a serious program of treatment, education and controlled supply would render most of the Daily Mail's objections irrelivant. The tabloids are hypocrites on drugs, making them pretty easy to defeat if you're not. Its harder with prostitution, but no less possible. The grown up way to do policy is to analyse the problem, and then look at ways of minimising the harm it does (while acknowledging that no solution is perfect), and then presenting your argument to the electorate. Or you can have kneejerk analysis, which is the NuLab way and then push it through with an ad/PR campaign. Which is why they're so vulnerable to tabloid criticism.

"Having said all of that, I'd add that - fascinating though this all is - it's a little beside the point, isn't it? You seem to be labouring under the delusion that I don't want the government to be criticised - I do."

No, I get what you're saying. You think that the politicians are largely unimportant, compared to the infrastructure (media and entrenched bureacracy). This is a pretty fashionable claim of the last 15 years in one form or another (other variants range from corporations having all the power, the market, globalisation, etc). Which I think is as unrealistic as claiming (as some people do, I guess) that the politicians are responsible for everything. The politicians set the political agenda, create the initiatives and have constructed the barmy frameworks which teachers, hospitals and the police have been operating within. Home secretaries are not interchangable, and there's been a noticable difference in what happens each time the home secretary changes. You're right to argue that parts of the civil service are incompetent, though other parts work fine (and successive government are to blame for at least some of this. After all if you pay peanuts and create a bullying management structure, the results will be pretty mediocre) - but even if the civil service were perfect we would simply have bad (in the sense of incoherent and poorly planned) policies implemented more efficiently. I'm not sure that's much of an improvement. The story of NuLab is not high ideals/good plans undermined by cynical media carping, and lazy bureacracratic intrasigence.

I agree with you that the centralisation of government is a problem (something made far worse by this government, btw. Tony, after all, is the guy who made it impossible for us to find out what our local councillors are actually doing), though I'm not convinced the solution is as easy as you think it. My wife is from a politically well connected family in the US, and the results typically dwarf anything in Lambeth. However, I really can't see how to practically achieve such a thing without a revolution of some kind - politicians don't like to cede power once they have it after all.

"Whatever governments do, most people will be pissed of with them. BUT, doing lots of things results in less earache from the press and from pressure groups than doing nothing much. So they do lots of things."

I don't agree with this. I agree this explains NuLab, but then NuLab was a project more concerned with getting and keeping power, than doing anything constructive with it once they had acquired it. And one of the reasons that NuLab is so unpopular now, is that they have conspicuously failed to deal with any of the substantial issues that people care about, hence the cynicism. Furthermore, they have typically overresponded to criticism; if a policy was criticised, their response was to change course, change the policy, change something. That's the sign of a weak government.

And while I would agree in general with your point about pure negativity, in this particular instance I disagree for three reasons:
a) This has been a particularly incompetent and arrogant government, which given the previous one...
b) the government's policies have been for the most part so destructive, unnecessary and stupid, that I was more interested in trying to stop them, than I was in trying to propose an alternative. The status quo was an improvement.
c) The government don't listen, aren't interested in what we think and have done their best to minimise the impact that their own rank and file can have on policy. At least constant criticism has rattled the bastards.

Cian said...

Looking at my first paragraph, it was a little sarky. It was written after your rather sarcastic suggestion that Dsquared should read something other than from the 3 for 2 table at Waterstones, which to be honest would be the first place I'd look for John Lloyd's book. Yes I'm an academic snob, but you started it...

I like Bourdieu's work a lot, which might be why I found that book disappointing. While I disagreed with what quite a bit of what he was saying, I found his analysis very shallow. Neil Postman's book (Amusing ourselves to death) is much better.

If you want a serious book that you probably can't even find in Waterstones on the structure of power, then the work of C. Wright Mills is a good place to look. Its about America, but generalisable And Anthony Simpson's work is very thorough ("Who Runs this place", essentially).

The second paragraph was my attempt to work out what your argument about the nature of power in Britain is, and respond. It fails, because I couldn't really work out what you were saying. Kind of like grappling with smoke.

The third paragraph was a response to your original post on id cards. I think a better response would have been this:
Just because you can do something bad already, does not mean we should make it easier (otherwise there would be no argument against limiting access to nuclear weapons - after all it does is make it easier to kill people).

There is a further problem with the proposed implementation of ID cards.

1) The technology is unproven, making it hard to know how much they will ultimately cost (except that it will probably be far higher than the proposed costs). Are there better things we could spend the money on? Probably. The government's costs are ludicrously low, and the LSE's projection is probably a lower bound.

2) By placing biometric information on the cards, this means that if thieves steal this information, then they irreversibly have access to your identity (you can change a number, a pin, or whatever. Try changing your DNA, or your eye). And this will make identity fraud far more serious for victims, not least because institutions will believe that this new system is totally secure and so will ignore problems (this has happened repeatedly with banks, as well as governments, with other systems).

Even if they manage to secure the cards (which knowing as much as I do about the history of bank/computer securit I'm pretty pessimistic about), in practice there will be little to prevent thieves from simply getting jobs in the minimum wage centres where this information is entered/stored. The front door might be locked, but the back door will always be open.

3) Given that the NHS IT project has been a disaster (and it has - this falls within my personal area of expertise), why is anyone seriously suggesting a new project?

4) Nobody has explained what problem these cards will solve in anything other than generalities. They won't help with terrorism, they are unlikely to help with illegal immigration (even if one thinks this is a serious problem, which I think in practice NuLab don't).

Addressing your points on the other thread:

1) I fail to see how ID cards could have any effect on crime, except possibly identity fraud. As for identity fraud, the problem there is more to do with lax controls in government and private records - fix that before talking about expensive techno fixes (especially as without doing so, identity fraud will be only slightly more difficult than it was before). I'm not sure what you're getting at with the tipping point, or why "sensible" (code word for "ignorant and uninformed"?) people would feel safer for carrying a bit of plastic?

2) Nobody has yet proposed any concrete way in which ID cards would have any effect on terrorism, or any way in which any terrorist activity that has happened would have been affected. You're right, there's a perception among some people that they'd be safer, but then there was a perception among some people that Iraq had WMD.

3) While people might think that ID cards would reduce ID theft, in practice they'd probably have a negligible effect unless the problem with existing (public and private) databases were fixed. And if those problems were fixed, most of the problems would disappear. They are unlikely to affect credit card fraud (how do you check them over the phone?), which is probably the easiest form of fraud. I'm not sure why you think that ID cards would make government more efficient. Joined up databases might make governent more efficient, but that's utterly orthogonal from ID cards (which will suck funds away from doing this). We already have a unique key (social security number), so that's not a problem.

4) It might have an effect on certain kinds of benefit fraud (organised crime) by making it more difficult to create multiple claims/identities. I don't know enough about the problem to be sure if it would, though I suspect that better IT systems (and a relationship between that and other databases) would probably be the first step towards a solution. Certainly the IT systems within benefit offices can't be very good, given some of the types of fraud that are currently possible, so its hard to see how ID cards would help here. Obviously it would make very little difference to other forms of benefit fraud.

5) Tax fraud. Hardly. How do you think they could possibly make a difference here?

6) There are arguments for some kind of ID card (provable identity has its advantages), but that's a very different argument to the one that you (and the government) have been making. A limited, and voluntary, ID card might be quite popular - particularly if they were strong statutory limitations on how it could be used. But this hasn't been proposed, which betrays why the government wants it. Instead it has been followed by Blair's suggestion for a "new social contract" (with its implicit claim that we the people exist at the suffrence of the state, rather than the other way round). Its about control, basically.

Suffice to say that, when the history of how ID legislation came into place is written, it won't simply show an unreconstructed authroritarian imposing his will in a vacuum.

Well no, history is rarely that simplistic. However it will show a government pushing a solution that did not solve any known problems, and for which there was no demand from the population. I tend to see it as part of a continuum which includes the NHS IT project (and biotech, I guess), as evidence of a government which though technology was magic and a GOOD thing, but that probably reflects my professional biases.

Paulie said...


Keep your money in your pocket. I've taken an interest in privacy policy but I'm no expert. I do have some expertise in the study of public administration and a fair bit of experience in Government IT projects though.

I thought that my ID card post made it clear that I was arguing about how the subject is discussed - not about what conclusions we should be expected to reach. Your comments would probably have been better placed in that thread. And I'd disagree with you saying that 'nobody wants ID cards'. Sure. There's no 'We want ID cards' campaign. But there are plenty of demands on government to be *seen* to be doing things - and the intention to create an ID card scheme helps to silence a lot of those demands.

You say no-one wants them, but I don't see a popular mass movement opposing them either.

And I'm not sure that we're disagreeing much when you talk about who is to blame for poor administration in general. You say that every story has a number of factors - and that politicians are a major one - and I agree. We certainly disagree about the exact balance of power (media / politicians / pressure groups / bureaucracies) but we agree that there is one.

I just think that you will achieve more by arguing for a structural change than in arguing for a change in personnel.

I'm not sure what you mean when you say...

"...Tony, after all, is the guy who made it impossible for us to find out what our local councillors are actually doing"

That's not my experience (and this is one area that I've got a bit of expertise in). I'd be interested to know what you mean before responding properly.

You say that "I really can't see how to practically achieve such a thing [decentralisation] without a revolution of some kind - politicians don't like to cede power once they have it after all.

I don't agree. In a short, knockabout peice, I outlined how this could happen here:

... please don't pick it apart in *this* thread (feel free to do so in the orignal though if you like), my point is that simply saying "nothing can be done, so why bother" is exactly what I'm arguing against. This negativist position is a systematic bias in the way that public policy is discussed. It isn't true (which is why I flagged Orwell's 'neo-pessimism' piece here).

Not only is it not true, those that argue for it - pace Orwell - make themselves into the objective allies of reactionaries.

The conclusion to your first post seems to say, in summary, that you are generally against negativism (as I've outlined it) but this government are *SO* bad that you feel that people are driven to it.

This has nearly always been true from some perspective or other. With the 'availability bias', we will always think that the current government is the worst ever. Personally, I don't think that the current government are more incompetent or arrogant than, say, the Thatcher government. And certainly not anywhere near as incompetent as the Major government or Alec Douglas-Home's lot in the early 1960s.

Remember Geoffrey Howe's budgets? Remember the near-collapse of manufacturing in a such a short period? Riots in the streets of every major city? A massive, vindictive and destructive collision with organised labour culminating in The Miners Strike? The Poll Tax? In the 1980s there were always two sorts of opposition. Those that just opposed, and those that advanced an alternative of some sort, because there was a constructive workable alternative to every course that those governments took. You could argue that Iraq proves that this government is worse than any of the others, but personally, I wouldn't. I couldn't. I'd still argue for liberal intervention in principle, even though I was inclined (as far as my complete lack of qualification to support or oppose such a war allowed me) to oppose this particular instance in 2003 - and on different grounds to the vast majority of that war's opponents.

Even if you DO think that the current government are worse than Thatcher / Major / Home incarnations, to simply join the ranks of the oppositionists seemed like despair to me then, and it still does now.

I'd really like to agree with your argument that - if you want to promote a policy, simply make the case with conviction and sound argument. You say "...the tabloids are hypocrites on drugs, making them pretty easy to defeat if you're not."

All I can say is 'good luck'. It is not something that even the detractors of new Labour within the party would agree with. And I doubt if the press officers of any of the major parties or pressure groups would agree with you either. If your prescription were a realistic one, why haven't any of the pressure groups that argue for liberalisation of drugs / prostitution been able to make the case?

Finally, in response to your last post, yes. I regretted the '3 for 2 table' quip the moment I posted. I try not to spirit my mistakes away by stealth though. I put it in because I really didn't want anything by Pilger or other assorted fuckwits being quoted at me. My MSc was in public administration and I'm familliar with Sampson. I've been quoting Bourdieu because he is very quotable in a short blog-post, and I don't think his book is as poor as you say it is.

I don't need to make the case that the media are *more* powerful than politicians. I'm saying that they're an un-ignorable factor though. I wish my scanner was working and copywright laws were abolished - I'd probably use the venn diagram on the flyleaf of Sampson's book as my blog-header.

Again, your response to my post on ID cards (I think) misses my point. I was saying that there are perceived factors that have led to the policy being tried. You are saying that those perceptions are wrong. Sometimes I'd agree with you and I'm not going to argue the individual points here with you (tempting though some of them are).

I'm quite encouraged that you think that ..

"A limited, and voluntary, ID card might be quite popular - particularly if they were strong statutory limitations on how it could be used."

I'm inclined to agree with this. You never know, a positive proposal might come out of this thread yet.

Tim Almond said...


"Which tabloid newspaper was demanding a massive expansion of the PFI?"

None. But The Sun and Express (nor most of the public) have supported tax-and-spend.

Policies like PFI and stealth taxes were an indirect result of the public rejecting tax-and-spend, but believing that a government could spend more without raising more.

There are a few policies that have been deliberately created for Labour's own ends, but the more fundamental ones have been about keeping the electorate happy.

"For heaven's sake, the defining characteristic of this government is a war that was never popular."

That was about keeping the electorate onside, too. Backfired, though.

Cian said...

Actually PFI seems to be a combination of two things. First of all a rather simplistic faith in the power of private enterprise. Secondly a desire to keep public spending of the books (PFI is a form of invisible borrowing).
The public for the most part support higher taxes on the wealthy and corporations (they also seem to be reasonably tolerant of higher taxes in general, but just want the load to be distributed fairly - which seems reasonable). Yet no new direct taxes.

One of the things the government has kept emphasising (and has gone to considerable pains to make happen), is that they want more private involvement in public organisations. PFI (despite it being a horrible idea) fit snugly into that vision.

There are a few policies that have been deliberately created for Labour's own ends, but the more fundamental ones have been about keeping the electorate happy.

Ridiculous. PFI has been massively unpopular as soon as people understood what it was about. There is massive resistance to bringing private companies into the NHS, or education. The government has pushed it through despite it being both unpopular, and costing them electoral success. This simply doesn't stand as an argument.

I'd be fascinated to see your argument explaining how the Iraq war was about keeping the electorate onside.