Category Archives: Politics

Political baggage

Back in the USSR

"You don't know how lucky you are, boy"

“You don’t know how lucky you are, boy”

Before I went to Belarus, I was warned it would be like going back to the Soviet Union: brutalist architecture, statues of Karl Marx and a hankering after the Communist era. In fact, I ended up teaching English to a very nice couple called Mikhail and Natasha, who were very generous and hospitable to me and had a far from typically Russian (or Belarusian) attitude to politics and economics. She ran a chain of pharmacies, he worked in the agriculture business, and neither of them could understand their friends’ passion for Russian imperialism.

I flew out in March 2014 after a last-minute scare when the agency tried to bring forward my flight with only three days’ notice! Fortunately, that was resolved happily enough, and I was met at Warsaw airport by a driver who would take me across the border to Brest (aka Brest-Litovsk). The city didn’t have its own airport, so it was a choice between driving across the border from Poland or flying to Minsk and facing an even longer trip by car. When we arrived at the border, big men with big guns stopped the car to check our papers, and we waited to be allowed through. An hour and a half later, we were still waiting! That has to be the worst border crossing I’ve ever had in my life…

My driver took me to the Hermitage, which was the best place in town (I checked: it was €83 a night – or free if you knew the owner!), but I had a shock when I unpacked my bag and tried to boot up my laptop. LOT Polish Airlines had managed to drop it from a great height, and was so battered and bruised that the only thing it could do was beep forlornly! (In hindsight, I should perhaps have put it in my carry-on rather than my checked luggage, but I had all my photographic equipment in my camera bag, and there wasn’t really enough room…) I met Mikhail and Natasha in the hotel restaurant and told them what had happened, and Mikhail very kindly offered to ask his IT department to have a look at my laptop and see if it could be fixed. Natasha even lent me her MacBook until eventually I got mine back – minus a memory card slot that was too damaged to fix…

I was in town to teach Mikhail and Natasha, but they generously farmed me out to a couple of friends of theirs and even Natasha’s mother at one point. (Same iPhones, just different brand of luxury German saloon…) We quickly slipped into a daily rhythm. I’d start the day by having breakfast in the hotel. On the way to the restaurant, I’d always pass an old German shop till that looked rather photogenic. I planned to come down and take a few pictures of it one day, but it wasn’t until my final week that I eventually got round to it. Unfortunately, I left the ISO rating on 1600 by mistake, so I had to do the shoot all over again, but I was rewarded when the users of Pixoto voted this my best photo ever!

My best photo ever...?

My best photo ever…?

Breakfast was a struggle, not just because of the rather limited Eastern European rations but because of having to listen to Lana del Rey’s latest album on a loop every morning. I asked at reception if they had any other CDs, but I was told that there was an exhibition of paintings in the foyer, and the artist had made it a condition that Lana del Rey would be played all the time to set the right mood! One day, the barman tried to compete by playing drum ‘n’ bass at full volume to drown out the sound of Miss del Rey, but it didn’t last…

At nine o’clock, I’d leave the musical torture chamber and walk over to my clients’ apartment, where I would teach Mikhail for an hour and a half and then swap to Natasha for a similar period when she got home from work. I’d then have a couple of hours to myself before meeting them both for a (very) late lunch at Caffè Venezia, which Mikhail always paid for. They knew the owner, and it was right next door to Mikhail’s office, so it was his favourite place. There would always be someone to talk to, and the Italian owner knew enough English to be able to keep up a good conversation. After lunch, Olga would pick me up for her lesson, and I’d spend an hour and a half at her house before getting dropped off at my hotel again. In the evenings, Mikhail and Natasha would usually invite me to dinner, either at a restaurant or at their place. Mikhail explained that there were only three decent restaurants in town – Caffè Venezia, Times Café and Jules Verne – and we ate at all of them. Natasha was also an excellent cook, and Mikhail had a very well stocked wine fridge, so a typical meal would consist of smoked salmon and caviare washed down with champagne followed by salade de magret de canard and lightly grilled sea bass accompanied by a rather nice Puligny-Montrachet! We also had dinner with Olga and Sergei one evening, and I had the novel experience of helping Olga and Natasha make ‘pierogi’, a kind of semi-circular dumplings similar to tortellini, which we filled and wrapped. I also had the rather dubious honour of nibbling on black bread topped with carpaccio of pig fat! Well, nothing tastes too bad after four glasses of vodka…

Another constant part of our routine was talking about the Crimea. The annexation by Russia was on the news every day, and we inevitably ended up talking about it as part of our lessons and over lunch or dinner. Today, Crimea. Tomorrow, the Ukraine. The day after that, perhaps Belarus. You don’t quite realise the difference in your countries’ political traditions until you hear stories about living next door to the Russian bear. Natasha told me a couple about her own family. Once, when Gorbachev was briefly threatened by a palace coup in 1991, she and Mikhail had actually emigrated to Poland for the day – just in case perestroika and glasnost had come to an end and the borders had been closed. How many times do we feel we have to leave the country before a British General Election?! She also told me about her grandmother, who decided to take her family to Poland back in the 1920s, when it was briefly possible to leave the old Soviet Union. She was waiting on the station platform, ready to catch the train, when she suddenly realised her wallet had been stolen! With all her money gone, they couldn’t possibly afford to leave home – and their family history was changed beyond recognition for the next 60 years…

Mikhail and Natasha were also very sporty, and they were kind enough to include me in their regular plans. We went for a long (and very energetic!) walk around the city before dinner one night, and I even had games of volleyball and tennis with Mikhail. I hadn’t played volleyball for about 30 years, so I rather embarrassed myself on court, but at least I beat him at doubles – although that was probably because I was playing with the coach! We also spent the final Saturday cycling in the Białowieża Forest with Olga and Sergei, which is now a National Park and World Heritage site that spans the Belarusian/Polish border a few miles north of Brest. The forest is great for cycling as it has a grid of roads from which cars are banned. We drove there in an old van that was big enough to hold all the bikes. Once we’d arrived, I was given a mountain bike, and we set off into the woods. Our first stop was the zoo, which was a series of enclosures containing all the local animals to be found in the forest (and a few others). This was my chance to take a few pictures of my very first Russian bear, together with wolves, ostriches and a family of European bison.

Close-up of a wolf head in profile

Close-up of a wolf head in profile

We then cycled around the forest for a couple of hours and had a picnic lunch at the residence of Father Frost – a kind of Santa’s Grotto but without the snow! I always like a civilised picnic, but this was the first time I’d had one with pancakes, venison and samogon – or Russian moonshine…

I always try to take advantage of my foreign residential jobs to take pictures of the local landscapes, flora and fauna, so it was good to have a chance to use my camera again. There weren’t many photogenic sights to be seen in Brest, apart from a few onion-domed Russian Orthodox churches, but I found inspiration in the animals. The following day, I went walkabout and visited the Brest fortress, which is where the first battle was fought in Hitler’s 1941 invasion of Russia. To commemorate the occasion, they’ve installed an enormous block of stone with a Russian soldier’s head carved out of it called the Courage Monument. CNN once ran a story placing it first in a list of the world’s ugliest monuments, but they swiftly had to remove it when the Russians and Belarusians took offence!

Eyes of soldier on Brest fortress monument

Eyes of soldier on Brest fortress monument

That evening, I walked back into town to find St Simeon’s cathedral, which I’d first seen on my walk with Mikhail and Natasha. Russian Orthodox churches all have the distinctive ‘onion domes’, often painted gold, and they can look spectacular under floodlights.

St Simeon cathedral in Brest at night

St Simeon cathedral in Brest at night

I have to say that I really enjoyed my fortnight in Belarus. It was sometimes quite hard work spending so much time with my clients, as I had to concentrate on their English (and my own) even when we were just chatting together, but I was very lucky to be placed with a couple of similar ages with such similar interests and values. When people come home from holiday, they often say, “The people were very friendly,” but I’m never quite convinced. After my trip to Belarus, I can safely say I’ve changed my mind. Whatever the economic, political and military history of the country, I’ve never been looked after quite so well, and I have to thank Mikhail and Natasha for showing me the best of Belarus. I’m also even more thankful to have had the English Channel to protect us from invasion. Our history would have looked very different without it…!

 

If I ruled the world…

That's me kneeling down

I used to be passionate about politics. I debated at school and college, edited the Oxford Union magazine and generally had arguments at the drop of a hat about how the country should be run. Happily, I’ve calmed down since then, and I know now that my political beliefs are just the expression of a few pesky genes. That means there’s no ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ in these matters. We’re all simply following orders. This post will simply outline what would make me happy. I don’t claim it would solve all the country’s problems, but it would be nice to think it would appreciated by any like-minded readers out there. Apart from Daniel Hannan, there aren’t many popular writers and politicians speaking from the libertarian camp, so they need all the help they can get.

I believe in freedom of contract and caveat emptor. I believe the role of government is to decide binary questions of right and wrong where there is a clear victim of force or fraud. In all other cases, the market has the flexibility to arrange as many different solutions as there are people on the planet. Some libertarians believe in limited government. As far as taxation goes, I don’t believe in government at all. I also don’t believe that the end justifies the means. That means that every law has to apply to every citizen in every situation. If it doesn’t, it should be scrapped.

So what would the world look like if I had my way? Clearly, transitional arrangements would have to smooth the road to this economic and philosophical nirvana, but I don’t imagine all that much would change. We would still go on with our lives, earning money and tending to our loved ones. All that would happen is that we would get richer much faster, and the scope for government corruption and inefficiency would be dramatically reduced.

Government

The first thing to say is that we would still have a government. Laws would still have to be passed or (more importantly) repealed. Treaties would still need to be signed and decisions made in all walks of life. However, the scope for misgovernment would be much smaller because there would be no taxation to pay for government spending. Parliament would have to be funded by voluntary subscription on the part of the voters, and there would be so little it could do without any funds that it would probably only sit for a few weeks or months a year. I would keep the House of Commons and either abolish the House of Lords or replace it with politicians voted in by proportional representation. To be honest, the exact shape of parliament wouldn’t matter, because it would have so little power. Updating the criminal justice system every now and then is not a full time job for 650 politicians, and major decisions would be taken far more often on the basis of referenda. The population would even have a say over whether we went to war or not. After all, killing people costs money, and kings throughout history have had to go down on bended knee to their paymasters when they wanted to go to war. In this case, the paymasters would be the citizens of the entire United Kingdom, and that means that we would no longer be able to be members of the European Union. If there is one thing I’d be sure to do, it would be to make certain that parliament was once more sovereign. The idea of foreigners passing laws affecting citizens in the UK is wrong, and that’s all I have to say about that.

Taxation

Taxation is wrong in my view, so the first and most obvious change to people’s lives would be that we stopped paying taxes. That sounds like pie in the sky, but we’ve become so used to the post-war status quo that we’ve forgotten the historic norm. Over hundreds and thousands of years, people haven’t been taxed until the pips squeaked. There have been cruel despots and tyrants aplenty, but the total peacetime tax take and government spending as a share of GDP has hardly ever been as high as it is now. Sixty per cent of our taxes go towards paying for services. If I ruled the world, the government would stop providing those services and hand over the job to the private sector. The other 40% of the funds is currently earmarked for redistribution. All that would happen in future is that people would have to examine their own consciences and decide how much to give and to whom. Worthy causes would flourish. Others would get little support. The voluntary sector would take over looking after the poor and needy, and we’d never again have to complain about poor government decision-making during economic hard times.

Health

People worry about the privatisation of the NHS, but it’s clearly not fit for purpose in its current state. Something has to change, and the obvious solution is to spin off individual hospitals into the private sector. Doctors are already largely private practitioners, so it’s not as though we have an entirely government-run healthcare system at present, and there are already major health insurance providers such as BUPA. People may protest that smokers or those who have ‘unhealthy’ lifestyles are a drain on the system, but that is one of the glorious benefits of the private alternative. Nobody would have to pay for anybody else’s bills. That doesn’t mean that the poor would starve or be left to die. Hospitals and clinics were always until very recently set up by benefactors, charities or the church. Returning to such a system would restore the incentive to live a healthy life by linking personal choices to the price of healthcare insurance and treatment.

Defence

Some say the armed forces are a ‘public good’ that cannot be provided by the market. Well, I cannot imagine even for an instant that the people of this country would discard our army, navy and air force just to save a few quid on their taxes. I honestly don’t know how we would arrange to pay for our defence without the guaranteed income from taxation, but it would have to be from some form of voluntary levy. Yes, some people wouldn’t pay it, but others would. As with every other service the government currently provides from money taken by force from the taxpayer, it would in future be provided by the market, by charity or voluntary subscription.

Emergency services

If the armed forces can be paid for and organised without the benefit of taxation, then the emergency services certainly could. Different towns might set up different systems. In some places, there would be a voluntary levy, in others an insurance-based system for fire and theft. Whatever the solution, it would be down to the local population to decide.

Education

It boggles the mind how far people are prepared to test a failing system to destruction. Albert Einstein once said that the definition of insanity was doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Again, I honestly don’t know what the education system would look like in my imagined future, but one thing is certain: the government would have no say in it. It’s not the government’s job to school our children. It’s not the government’s job to set exams. It’s not the government’s job to decide the entry requirements of our universities. Government was never a part of the equation until late in the 19th century, when it took over the role from the church and other charitable providers by bribing them with taxpayers’ money and then finally nationalising almost all schools.

Business

Individuals would not be the only beneficiaries of the abolition of taxation, of course. Businesses would benefit hugely from the removal of VAT, corporation tax and National Insurance. There would probably be a flood of foreign businesses setting up shop in the UK to benefit from the generous new régime. Red tape and tariffs would also have to be cut to stimulate trade and employment. The minimum wage is an offence against freedom of contract so would have to go, as would any government licences to practise medicine, the law or any other profession. People should be free to choose the doctor or lawyer they prefer without having to pay for the hike in fees brought about by government-sanctioned monopolies. Our withdrawal from the EU would also mean an end to the Common Agricultural Policy and any other regulations brought in to interfere with free trade. We would finally be able to trade with whomever we liked and prove David Ricardo’s insight that removing all trade barriers – even unilaterally – would make the country richer, not poorer. There would be winners and losers, and in some cases the new rules would not benefit the country as a whole, but then that’s not the point. ‘Natural monopolies’ would not have their profits reined in by regulators, so prices might go up, but at least the companies would reap the rewards of their investment, and the monopolies could be contested by new entrants. There are always network effects and economies of scale in every business. The answer is not to create a special regulator for each industry but to grant companies a level playing field.

The dream

I have a dream, and the consistent feature of this dream is the removal of government interference from my own life and the lives of millions around me, whether family, friends or strangers. In this dream, I would try to put in place a system that was fair to each individual. I wouldn’t try to maximise the wellbeing of the whole country, but I’m quite sure Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ would make sure that the country was still better off than it is now, whether economically or from any other point of view. I know my view of ‘fairness’ is not everyone’s – in fact, I know it’s just a product of my genes – but even a prisoner of his genes can write a manifesto.

My fair nightmare

All publicity is good publicity

All’s fair in love and war…and politics, apparently.

Bankers’ bonuses, workfare, the 50% tax rate – every headline in the news at the moment seems to be about ‘fairness’. Now, I know what we regard as ‘fair’ is simply a byproduct of our genetic strategies, and I know you can’t prove a ‘should’, but despite that – or perhaps for that very reason – I’m still amazed (and deeply depressed) by people’s extraordinary double standards. If rich people go shopping for groceries, we don’t expect supermarkets to charge them higher prices than poorer customers – in fact, it’s illegal – and yet the tax system is built on the assumption that the rich should pay more than the rest of us. We now know that the richest 1%  pay over a quarter of this country’s income tax bill, but that’s not just because they earn so much more than the rest of us. We expect them to pay tax at a higher marginal rate, irrespective of the fact that they generally use public services less than those who can’t afford private healthcare, public schools and chauffeur-driven limousines. Why is their extraordinarily disproportionate contribution not enough? When will it ever end? Will ‘fairness’ never be achieved until all our bankers are forced to retreat to their ski chalets in Switzerland?

If I allow reason to take over from emotion for a moment, I can see exactly why. As Darwin eventually revealed, we’re all in competition with one another. Never mind the fact that we have a set of genes left over from the African savannah that’s 40,000 years out of date, we still want to be better than our peers. And it just so happens that democracy and economics are fundamentally at odds. We live in a constantly shifting equilibrium, in which the distribution of wealth is skewed dramatically towards the wealthy, whereas political power is apportioned equally to each voter, regardless of income. That means the poor will always be able to demand more from the rich – up to a point. A balance is only struck because the maximum levels of wealth creation and income redistribution lie at opposite ends of the curve. As Arthur Laffer pointed out, too high a tax rate removes any incentive to work, but too low a tax rate results in zero income available for redistribution. The calls for punitive taxation from the masses constantly bump up against the limits imposed by economics, while the rich are beaten with the ‘fairness’ stick to within an inch of their lives.

I understand the inevitability of the ratchet effect, as government grows and grows, but I comfort myself with the knowledge that there is a limit. If one of our parties were brave enough to shrink the tax burden and therefore the deadweight cost of government, people might find out that the economy would grow faster, and rich and poor alike would be better off, but that wouldn’t solve the problem. People will always want to compete with one another, which means absolute levels of wealth are never so important as relative wealth. Given a choice between earning £20,000 when their neighbours earn £15,000 and earning £50,000 when their neighbours earn £100,000, people will, sadly but inevitably, choose the former. It may not be ‘rational’ to an economist, but it makes perfect sense if you’re in a race. The lesson is: be careful what you wish for. You might get the economic system you deserve!

Freakish economics

Simple, really...

A few months ago, I received a letter demanding £6,000. If I didn’t pay it by the end of January, the amount would start to go up. If I still didn’t pay it, I’d have all my possessions taken from me. If that still didn’t cover it, I’d be taken by force and locked up without ransom in an unknown location for months or even years. If I ran, I’d be followed. If I resisted, I’d be shot.

The whole experience was obviously incredibly traumatic, and I had no choice but to comply. The letter, of course, was my annual tax demand…

Only freaks see taxation as extortion or the police as kidnappers, but the only difference is that this is a crime our elected representatives have actually voted for! As one of those freaks myself – we like to be called ‘libertarians’… – I’m used to people disagreeing with me, but I’ve long since given up believing I’m right. I accept that economic arguments are almost always about values and not methods. Who am I to say that something is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’? You can’t prove a ‘should’. Like everyone else, all I have is a strategy for survival and reproduction. Just because my genes (and an early trip to America when I was ten) have programmed me to believe in individual freedom doesn’t mean I should become Chancellor of the Exchequer or Governor of the Bank of England. I just have a problem with authority!

John Rawls tried to finesse the values issue in A Theory of Justice by asking what kind of society each of us would like to be born into. The more equal the society, the less the risk of poverty and ill health, but the more unequal the society the greater the chance of ending up lord of the manor. It’s a brave attempt to define ‘fairness’ from first principles, but everyone from Socrates to Kant has had a different opinion. Even the Judaeo-Christian ‘golden rule’ is no more than a simple version of ‘tit-for-tat’: “I’ll trust you until you betray me, then I won’t trust you again until you’ve proved to me that you’ve changed.” This strategy (or a modified version of it) is the dominant strategy when pitted against less philanthropic – and even downright criminal – versions in computer simulations carried out by sociobiologists, but it still won’t drive out all the rest. The point of the exercise is to show that all of them can happily co-exist, even when the majority of ‘law-abiding’ citizens tries to lock up all the ‘criminals’.

People can’t easily or consciously change their strategies (even if there is such a thing as ‘free will’), and the idea that something is ‘not fair’ is a familiar rallying call, even if ‘fairness’ collapses into what sounds more like tribal loyalty. In an exit poll for a recent British election, the main reason Labour supporters gave for not voting Conservative was that it was ‘the party of the rich’, but, in the words of Mandy (Rice-Davies, not Lord Rumba of Rio), they would say that, wouldn’t they? Given a choice of voting for wealth creation or redistribution, the have-nots will always choose the latter as they have more to gain. It’s an unwritten law of economics that the many will always be poorer than the few. It’s an unwritten law of democracy that the few will always get screwed by the many!

Take the BBC licence fee as an example. When it was first introduced, the justification was that it wouldn’t be ‘fair’ for people to tune in to the BBC without paying something for the privilege, and the technology didn’t exist to prevent them. The unfortunate side-effect, though, is that anybody who doesn’t watch (or listen to) the BBC still has to pay for it. How can that be fair?! Well, in the game of high-stakes poker we call economics, a cross-subsidy always beats a free rider. Now that’s freakish…

Priests and democrats

Priest...

...or democrat?

“Are you a priest or a democrat?”

That was the question my English tutor asked me during my very first tutorial at Oxford. Confused, I thought he might be talking about my father, who happened to be a Methodist minister, but instead he was introducing me to a rather useful distinction. It turns out that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who believe decisions should be made by the best and brightest and those who believe the people should decide for themselves – however misguided they may be – for fear of tyranny or incompetence.

At that stage in my career, with all the arrogance of an ‘Olympian Oxford Man’, I considered myself one of the best and brightest and therefore a ‘priest’, but now, when I think of all the bad decisions made by our politicians, business leaders and others in positions of authority and how powerless I am to influence them, I can’t imagine being anything but a ‘democrat’. It doesn’t stop me moaning, of course, but at least I have the hope that the existing lot might eventually be thrown out and a new lot brought in to clean up the mess.

I used to have many alcohol-fuelled arguments with people about economics, politics and ethics, but I don’t any more. That’s partly because I see the futility of such conversations (and the enormous potential for offence!) and partly because I realise most arguments are caused by a simple difference in values. You can’t prove a ‘should’, as they say, so the chances of convincing people that they’re wrong about what ‘should’ be done are virtually non-existent. My tutor used to say we should be discussing the classical trinity of ‘the true, the good and the beautiful’, but perhaps all three collapse into just one truth. Whether we’re talking about morality, science or aesthetics, we wouldn’t want to say anything that wasn’t true, would we…?!

It’s also a matter of perspective. The classic appeal of the Communist is: “I’ve got nothing. You’ve got something. Let’s share!” He’d be lucky to get half my money, but that doesn’t stop me understanding his point of view. We all have strategies for getting on in life. Some of those are conscious, some unconscious. We are what we are, and a Darwinian would suggest that we’ve reached an equilibrium point with a mixture of angels and devils, heroes and villains, go-getters and scroungers. It’s like the story of the hawks and the doves. Just because hawks are birds of prey and eat doves for breakfast doesn’t mean they’ll dominate the skies, because they need the doves to provide food, and if they ate them all then the hawks would die out, too. That means there’ll always be a balance. The girlfriend of my roommate at Oxford was actually a biological determinist, and she once told me that we didn’t have ‘free will’ at all. It’s just an illusion. How could we possibly make ‘decisions’ when there’s no effect without a cause? We’re simply glorified computers desperately trying to maximise our well-being under an unpredictable bombardment of conflicting drives, both physical and intellectual. As such, our  minds can only ever come up with one answer, just as a computer will always ‘decide’ that 2 + 2 = 4. We might get it wrong sometimes, but we’ll always reach what we feel is the ‘best’ conclusion given the information available.

Come to think of it, that worldview makes any discussion of ‘priests’ and ‘democrats’ pointless, because we can’t even choose to be one or the other, but I still believe in freedom – even if it is illusory – and I can still watch from the sidelines, cheering on my fellow democrats!