Saturday, May 17, 2008

Buttoned up Britain. A good thing?

This post - about how government departments hold, manage and share data - makes a few very good points - it's well worth reading, even if you're not interested in government IT. It also prompts me to ask a few questions that I've been storing up for a while.

The whole ID card debate intrigues me, but it annoys me as well. It's a bit like the debate on the Iraq war a few years ago: I was against the war, but I found few of the arguments made by it's opponents very satisfactory. (My opposition was based upon a lightly-held agreement-on-balance across a wide range of anti-invasion arguments rather than an enthusiastic strongly-held agreement with any of them).

Similarly, ID cards. I kinda hope we never have them, I think that introducing them could be very problematic. IT incompetence and profligacy blah blah blah. I think there is enormous scope for unintended consequences - not always deliberately malign - arising from the type of info that his held / how it is acquired and used . There is also a reasonable (but widely overstated, I think) argument that such cards could be used by officialdom - and even future tyrants - in ways that would horrify us. They they would be used in ways that annoy us and inconvenience us is undoubtedly true.

On the other hand, they could save us all lots of time. They could make lots of transactions a lot more simple and they could increase the levels of trust in the economy. They could reduce crime - and not just by increasing the ability of plod to snoop on us. On a banal level, they could ultimately reduce identity theft, or allow us more control over our privacy rights.

And - to wrap this up, I'll add that I'm sure that this is far from being an exhaustive summary of the pros / cons. I'm no expert on this, and - as I've said - the way the debate has been conducted has annoyed me enough to make me stay out if it a lot of the time.

But here's a question: How far do we benefit from a relative openness of society? Note - I'm not asking if we do benefit - that would be a stupid question. But how far? The fact that the state doesn't track and cross-reference every financial transaction that we make, for instance: It is - I think most people would agree - a good thing? Our freedom to enjoy our little deviances, indeed, all of the individualisms that liberal societies rightly defend are not only fun for us, they are good for the general well-being as well. More creativity, innovation, social capital, etc.

In the same way that micro-management and hyper-accountability can be extremely demoralising and inefficient, any tax system that could give the taxman a true insight into our behaviour, allowing him to come up with fairer avoidance-proof ways of redistributing would undoubtedly be massively counterproductive as well as generally illiberal, irritating, and the cause of massive unintended consequences.

Again, how much? And let me make the question a bit more concrete.

In the UK, the police are not the world's worse by a long chalk. A bit pedantic, a bit bureaucratic, but no longer actively resisted by almost any section of society. In 1941, Orwell remarked that they were almost uniquely (for Europe) unbribeable, and I doubt if anyone could make the case that we have a force that is, by most standards, corrupt. Civil libertarians find it quite hard to get the public worked up about Plod's nosiness (with the exception of the vocal minority who get worked up about speed cameras and traffic wardens).

Similarly, on tax. A bit nosy. Too complicated, for sure. Clearly too lenient on high-earners - on dodgy pro-market grounds. But tax isn't brazenly avoided either. Not on the scale that it is avoided in other countries - including EU members states. It's legitimacy is fairly widely unchallenged. Tradesmen sometimes even look at you a bit reproachfully if you suggest that they take cash to avoid VAT.

Corruption is another one. Most examples of poor governance that bother most of us are down to incompetence and (in the case of disasters like Metronet), political wrongheadedness rather than calculated corruption, I think? Effective and mendacious lobbying is probably the biggest villain here.

We have negotiated our way / allowed ourselves to be conditioned into being a fairly regulated society that pays a fair slice of the tax that we are supposed to, and has a strong-ish centralised state - subject only to occasional recall at big elections, but moderated by fairly detailed independent scrutiny from NGOs and officialdom. Many would even make the case that this recall is fairly superficial. A shuffling of a governing caste. It doesn't matter who you vote for, the government always gets in, etc.

On the other hand, there is Italy, where none of this applies. Taxation is routinely and brazenly avoided at all levels. The black economy is most of the economy. Law enforcement is farcical and massive crimes regularly go unpunished while the dogs in the street can point at the culprits. Officialdom is massively inefficient and widely detested. Stupid pointless rules make law-breaking entirely justified in many cases. The police are hugely (and wisely) distrusted. Overt corruption is rampant, and massive public works are commissioned on spurious grounds. The contracts are divided up among cronies. EU funding is - frankly - stolen with the connivance of Italian officials. Political demagoguery is endemic. The media is largely owned by political cabals... and so on.

Two very different scenarios that are plainly possible in developed European economies.

We are very unlike the Italians, it's fair to say. We are very buttoned up here.

But are we at the optimal level of buttoned-up-edness? There is a widespread fear that ID cards will deepen this mood of public compliance and that we are sleepwalking into this - and that this may make things worse on lots of different levels.

On the other hand, there is also the view that the massive demographic and technological changes in society are weakening a lot of the pillars that support the UK's fairly stable settlement, and that - when they are gone, all hell will break loose. As St Thomas Moore is imagined to have said in Robert Bolt's 'A Man For All Seasons' on the related subject of a pragmatic abandonment of the rule of law:
"And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned around on you ― where would you hide, Roper, the laws being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast ― Man’s Laws, not God’s ― and if you cut them down ... d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then?"
Are our buttons in danger of coming a bit too loose? And is this a bad thing?

There is, I believe, a partial justification for ID cards along these lines. Technology as an anchor in changing times. It will reduce the speed with which the wheels come off old settlements. It may not necessarily be a wholly convincing case, but it's one that deserves looking at. I also think that this justification doesn't dare voice itself very widely. Policymakers will hear it, and be able to consider it reasonably patiently, but I doubt that it will be discussed in places like this very freely. (If a long posts like this gets any comments, I expect a few will be the usual memebots).

But let me return to my big question: Can anyone point me to something that is worth reading that makes the case either for the deepening of the general British buttoned-up-edness OR something that would make the case that there are more hidden benefits in a general loosening on our current settlement. I've never read much Karl Popper, for instance, and I've found other people invoking him in this debate.

But any pointers would be gratefully received.



Automation, computing power and memory storage must now have got to the point where the State could indeed cross-reference everything, if it wished. GCHQ already uses programs to monitor telephone communications for key words and phrases, and as you know all email is accessible forever. Who knows what has been set up already? Fancy a printout of all the library books you've borrowed, evrything you've purchased by credit or debit card etc, cross-referenced with similar activity by convicted criminals and suspects? How about a map of all the places your car has been, using number plate recognition? A fruitful area for counter-terrorism, but also well down the road to 1984. As information technology continues to get cheaper, all this and more will become easily feasible.

I understand that it's a military principle that you don't go by what you think the enemy intends, but by what he is capable of.


And how about this?

stephen said...

I am rather more puzzled by how it came to pass that so many in the Labour party have become convinced that ID Cards are a good thing. How did that happen? I can understand how the Tories became fixated with the Poll Tax. There was always a strong constituency of opinion in the Conservative party that thought that rates were 'unfair', that 'responsible property owners' were having to pay tax when 'feckless bedsit renters' could live high off the hog tax free. It is easy to see why Thatcher thought that replacing rates with the Poll Tax would be a vote winner and why she persisted with the policy when every sane person could see it was a fucking disaster. The Tories Poll Tax debacle made some sort of sense. By contrast, Labour's ID Card fiasco makes no sense at all. There is no constituency out there in voter land demanding ID Cards. 25% of the population are hard core opponents. The best you can say is that nearly half the population are either indifferent or mildly in favour. You'd get betters odds in favour of restoring hanging! So why is Labour doggedly pursuing it? I truly don't get it.


P.S. Re Popper, in this context people are probably thinking of this work:

... rather than his idea that science is not about proving assertions, but about making assertions that risk being disproved (seeing 1,000 white swans doesn't prove that all swans are white, but seing a black one explodes the theory).

Peter Risdon said...

Unbribeable... heh. I personally had to intervene once, a long time ago, to persuade a policeman to drop a demand for a £50k bribe. When a pal of mine joined the Met in the 1970s there was a weekly brown envelope for everyone in the CID.

Paulie said...


Yes - there is always the Met in the 1970s.

But I think that the point still generally stands about UK coppers, don't you?

I could tell you a story about being shaken down by Customs Officials in one European country, but I think it probably needs telling verbally, without witnesses


Peter Risdon said...

Sounds alarming, Paulie. And intriguing...

(typo in last post, it was £20k)

Peter Risdon said...

I should have answered - yes I agree: we have things a lot better than most countries, with our coppers. At least, those of us who live outside the West Midlands do.