Minimum Wage Debate

A recent post by Cynicus Economicus has sparked a debate on the merit of the minimum wage between Tiberius and fellow commentator (and prospective Conservative councillor) Steve Tierney.

For practical reasons, the exchange has been moved here.

Tierney:

You ask: “Do you support the Minimum Wage?” and then suggest that if I don’t I must not be humanitarian.

Well, clumsily as ever, that is not exactly what Tiberius meant to suggest: it depends on what grounds a person rejects the Minimum Wage.

In practical terms, Tiberius’ own view is that, within the current system as it stands, a person cannot both object to a ‘Minimum Wage’ and defend that objection on humanitarian grounds.

Cynicus himself accepts this moral compromise in his post on benefit reform, where he writes:

At this stage it would be easy to characterise this point of view as heartless […] as a reader you have to either accept the economic rationale behind what I have said, or condemn me as a heartless monster.

And though Tiberius wouldn’t use such emotive terms, he cannot but describe as ‘non-humanitarian’ the following sentiments:

The UK can simply not support the ‘luxury’ of a system that lets people stay idle on benefits.

So what happens to those who exceed their allowance of one year of benefits? Quite simply, they will need to fall back on charity, friends and family. In the traditional usage of the word, they will be destitute.

What about a young person who is having trouble finding their first job? I have already outlined the education system in my previous post. If a person is unable to find a job then they will have the option of continuing education, provided they can be funded for this. If they can not either find an educational opportunity or work, they will be destitute and reliant on charity, friends and family.

That, to Tiberius’ mind, is no way to set out a road to a healthy society.

[Note: What Tiberius admires about Cynicus is his intellectual honesty in this regard: he diagnoses the problem, he acknowledges that his prescription will not be popular, yet he proposes the treatment anyway.

But does Tiberius agree with him? No, the more of Cynicus’ work Tiberius reads, the more he realise the fundamentally disagreement in their outlooks – economically, politically, and socially.

This, however, is precisely why Tiberius enjoys reading CE’s blog so much: he learns far more by listening to people with a perspective so opposed to his own than he ever could visiting sites where his own political biases are simply confirmed.]

Returning to the Minimum Wage, Tiberius believes that in this system as it stands you either accept that the labour of each citizen has minimum value that cannot be undercut, or you do not. Now, at a more abstract level, he also reject a Minimum Wage – but only on the same grounds that he rejects all forms of wage-slavery: that one cannot put a price on human labour, and man should always be an ends, and not a means. But that is purely theoretical economic system and probably has no relevance for what we are discussing.

[As a (possibly) interesting side note Tiberius’ position is not even a particularly radical one; a person of a more revolutionary persuasion may would agree with the argument that we should scrap the Minimum Wage ( and other forms social security) but for the opposite reason implied by Cynicus’ example.

What such a person may argue is that all forms of forms of social benefit ultimately serve as nothing more than a States’ buying-off of it’s people’s ‘revolutionary potential’.

An analogy would be that people in the Capitalist system are born into a prison of servitude which they are ‘naturally’ averse to. Therefore, in order to keep their inmates pacified and less inclined to riot, it serves the gaoler’s interest to furnish the cells with a few ‘luxuries’ to distract the inmates from their predicament. Take these away these provisions and the incarcerated masses begin to notice the bars of the institution, and begin to fight for their emancipation.

The more pure ideologues would go further than this and say this is the only way a free, equal, ‘revolutionary society’ can be born.

Tiberius puts little stock in such “out of the ashes” rhetoric, however, he does have sympathy for the argument that anyone seeking to eliminate all kind of State subsidies, is unwittingly or not, promoting a revolutionary agenda; this is why some on the ‘far-left’ supported Ron Paul presidency ]

To return to practical matters though: removing any of the government provisions that ensure people have enough money to feed themselves, that families do not go destitute, that people are able to maintain a minimum standard of living, cannot, Tiberius believes, be morally defended. (An illustration of this point was provided last year when a Ron Paul-supporter wrote to Noam Chomsky saying that: “I really can’t find differences between your positions and his” and was politely schooled by the Professor on the vast gulf in the men’s beliefs; it is worth reading it full here.)

That being said, Tiberius is always interested to hear from others who do not believe that this is the case…

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  1. Tyberius,

    An interesting debate about the humanitarianism vs. non-humanitarianism of various libertarian stances. I’m looking forward to Steve’s reply, but here are some of my own thoughts on the subject (and others).

    When someone states that something like the elimination of the minimum wage is “the right thing” to do (in an ethical sense), one has to ask him to explain exactly what he means by “right”. One would assume that it means that it leads to a greater good. A plausible argument comes to mind:

    1. Elimination of the minimum wage will create new employment, allowing people who currently have no job to get one, thus raising them from poverty and dependence on the state. Instead of living off state benefits, the newly employed will contribute to the general well-being by paying taxes.
    2. This will also lower the cost of goods and services, benefiting all.
    3. The additional employment will lead to a larger number of goods and services produced in a society, thus raising the GDP.
    4. The lower labour costs make exports competitive, and reduce international trade deficits of the country.

    This kind of argument (with variations) is repeated endlessly in all libertarian literature. But aside from the fact that the argument depends on a simplistic (and totally divorced from reality) model of the way an economy works, there is no empirical evidence that any of the above outcomes follow from the abolition of the minimum wage.

    Even assuming that the argument is valid, we can see that not everybody benefits. For example, the group of people currently employed at the minimum wage would lose. This is supposedly offset by the extra employment of currently unemployed people (and lower costs for all etc.). Some people win, some lose. But who makes this decision? Is it a result of a referendum? Even if so, why should a majority victimize a minority? One group of people (who happen to be more “equal” than others) will definitely win – the employers. They can expand their production of goods or services at the same cost, or keep the additional profits. But do they really win “in the long term”. If wages are pushed down too much, some employees, who could afford to keep their spouse at home taking care of children, will have to send her to work. Perhaps, a few years down the line, the offspring of one of the workers will rape the employer’s daughter. Will the extra profit from the wage reduction be worth it for him?

    Sticking for now with “thought experiments”, one can easily come up with other, equally plausible scenarios. Here’s one:

    1. Employers will lower wages, but won’t increase the number of people employed, or lower prices, simply pocket the extra profits. This will make the already poor workers even poorer. Since poor people tend to spend almost all of their money in an economy (unlike rich people), this will lead to lowered economic activity in the country creating even more unemployment. What’s more, falling incomes will force more people into the labour market, looking for second and third jobs just to maintain their current (low) standard of living, creating even more downward pressure on wages (which now don’t have a “bottom”). We do seem to have something like that happening in the US right now.

    2. This self-reinforcing downward spiral will lead to ever-greater polarization of society, into the “haves” and “have-nots” (squeezing out the middle classes). To prevent social unrest, the government will become increasingly authoritarian and spend more and more resources on police, security, surveillance etc. (doubtlessly enthusiastically aided by the private sector). Incarceration will increasingly be used as a means of controlling social tension, keeping the economically excluded (and troublemakers) out of the way. I guess some will see this as a worthwhile allocation of the nation’s wealth…

    3. There are only two known ways of keeping a competitive edge in exports. The first way (as exemplified by Japan, and to a certain extent Germany) is to control strategic, very high-end technologies, such as advanced manufacturing (not the assembly of prefabricated components in sweatshops), precision engineering, electronics, materials engineering and probably in the near future, biotechnologies. These have very high barriers to entry, require massive capital outlays (usually provided by the state), decades of research and development, and an appropriate scientific/educational infrastructure to support it. Labour costs in Japan are currently 30% higher than in the US, which doesn’t stop Japan from being the biggest export economy in the world, and the second biggest economy overall. The second way is the “race to the bottom” in terms of cost. This is not just labour costs, but more significantly labour, safety and environmental regulations (or rather lack of thereof). In order to become “competitive” with China (or Vietnam, Cambodia), we would not only have to reduce wages to Chinese levels, but also strip away 100 years of regulations, such as child labour laws etc. It still wouldn’t work – because of the way Chinese society is structured, the existence of informal extended family and social networking and the fact that people here are used to “living off the land” in a way that’s been forgotten in the West two hundred years ago, a Chinese can survive on a dollar a day in China, whereas a newly impoverished inhabitant of say, Leeds can not. So eliminating the minimum wage will do absolutely nothing for export competitiveness.

    I give these two examples as an illustration of what I see as the futility of much of what passes for “economic debate”. Social and economic reality is so complex, convoluted and non-linear, that it simply cannot be captured by these kinds of narratives. And there is no way that any of these narratives can be empirically tested or falsified. So why do they keep coming up?

    People adopt positions (consciously or unconsciously) which benefit them personally. Libertarian attitudes are very popular among rich people who don’t want to pay taxes (to put it simply). They are not interested in funding social services (public education, public health care, welfare, unemployment benefits etc.), which they (their families and friends) will not likely be using. The ideology of libertarianism provides a “theoretical” justification why their selfishness is “for the good”. It’s as simple as that. An example of what you called “The short-sighted selfish bastards” in one of your posts. That (“the tyranny of short-sighted selfish bastards”), I think is the real danger facing our Western societies now. But that is a different story…

    Best Regards
    Matt

  2. Sorry its off topic, enjoyable debate btw, but matt, what do you do in shanghai?

  3. @ Mark

    I am a chief technologist for a high-tech (electronics) start-up in Shanghai. Been here for over 5 years.

  4. MattInShanghai,

    Thank you for your (as always) thought-provoking post. I wish I had more time to reply to it in detail, but can only rush a few comments at the moment:

    re “people here are used to “living off the land” in a way that’s been forgotten in the West two hundred years ago, a Chinese can survive on a dollar a day in China, whereas a newly impoverished inhabitant of say, Leeds can not”

    You ought to try getting an allotment in this city!

    re “Libertarian attitudes are very popular among rich people who don’t want to pay taxes (to put it simply).”

    To be honest, I’ve never actually met someone claiming to hold a serious ‘Libertarian’ position (the American version thereof), so I’m unsure what these people actually do believe. Generally though, I think the rich – well, the intelligent ones at least – are more pragmatic when it comes to taxes and don’t mind throwing a few crumbs from the table so long as it is in their interest to do so. Many understand that a great deal of what constitues the state apparatus: education, security, even health to a certain extent, exists mainly in their interest.

    re “The ideology of libertarianism provides a “theoretical” justification why their selfishness is “for the good”. It’s as simple as that. An example of what you called “The short-sighted selfish bastards” in one of your posts. That (”the tyranny of short-sighted selfish bastards”), I think is the real danger facing our Western societies now. But that is a different story…”

    Yes, though I didn’t mean to suggest that these people were born this way….as you say, ideologies again.

    All the best,

    T.

  5. Tiberius,

    Thanks for your reply (and kind words). Sadly, we have to pin our hopes on the “enlightened self interest” of our betters, although judging by their performance so far, it is easy to lose faith.

    I noticed that you also have been caught up by the “expenses scandal” which seems to be gripping the UK at the moment. But without resorting to “conspiracy theories”, think about this. Fiddling of expenses by our elected officials must have been going on for decades, at the very least, and thousands of people had to have been aware of it (including all of the media). Why has the “scandal” been exposed just now?? I mean, even if the PM hired his brother to clean his house at taxpayer’s expense, surely this did not cause the UK economy to collapse. Maybe it has something to do with a (temporary) split between the politicians and their masters? The politicians, currently in power, facing immanent defenestration might have gotten a misguided idea that going after some fat cats might just restore their street-cred enough to get reelected. If so, they were certainly put back in their proper place. Just a thought…

  6. P.S. Another interesting article about the kinds of economic scenarios I mentioned

    http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Global_Economy/KE30Dj02.html

  7. Matt,

    That article is excellent – very Cynicus Economicus-eqsue! I hope our mutual friend has had the opportunity to read it.

    re MP’s expenses

    I agree with what you say, but my reply explaining my position has turned into somewhat of an essay, which I will post on the main site when I have time to complete it.

    Hope the Shanghai weather is as glorious as the UK’s at the moment!

    T.

  8. I told Tiberius that when my election campaign was over I’d try and find the time to comment here and I like to keep my promises.

    I should point out in advance that I know I’ll get little sympathy here. I disagree with pretty much everything Tiberius says (above) but do acknowledge that he argues and writes clearly and well and enjoy his intelligent style.

    There are many, many arguments against the minimum wage – some better than others. I’m just going to concentrate on one for now mainly due to time constraints.

    Why does the government have any right to tell me what price I can sell my own time for?

    I am not a slave of the state, I am a free individual. As are all of you, I presume. I cannot sit by as the government takes ever more control of my liberty. I’m sure they “mean well” but I just don’t care. I don’t want the government in aspects of my life where they have no business.

    The leftist argument is always from the point of view of ‘serving’ the poor versus the ‘evils’ of business. But you can easily flip the statement into reverse. Instead of saying “the government is empowering you by insisting your time has a definitive minimum value” you can say “the government is constricting you by telling you how much you MUST charge for your time.”

    Price fixing is a terribly weak tool – and minimum wage is just another form of price fixing. Each time the government ‘intervenes’ to ‘fix’ a perceived problem it creates new problems. Which then require more fixes later. All this complex top-down control is expensive and counter-productive.

    Now I will not say that simply removing the minimum wage at this stage would be a good idea. There have been too many ‘fixes’ to counteract problems created by minimum wage. A comprehensive rethink would be necessary to remove this legislation without crippling the people who “benefit” from it. I don’t suppose we’ll ever see that sort of change so this entire argument is just a thought experiment.

    There are many hundreds of books about free trade which explain far more clearly than I could the economic reasons against minimum wage. You may choose to follow that economic stream of thought or not. But I cannot understand how anybody can fault the single most potent reason against: The government just has no business telling me what I can charge for my time.

    If I want to work for £1.00 an hour – if I CHOOSE to do so – why can’t I? Am I committing murder? Am I stealing? Am I breaking some biblical law of the tribe? No. It is my time. I am my own person. I should be able to choose what recompense I will accept for my time – or not. I really can’t see how it could be simpler than that. Those who feel otherwise obviously believe in the inherent right of the state to command the individual. I do not. I believe the state is our servant. Not the other way around.

    The argument for removing minimum wage is a difficult one because so many people presume they would ‘lose out’. When you talk about taking money away from people the immediate response is negative. The person proposing is then painted as the bad guy.

    I must say that I have worked for minimum wage several times since it was introduced, and I worked for less before it was. I’m saying that because these arguments usually elicit the charge of ‘silver spoons’ and the like. I was brought up in working class family in a working class neighborhood just like the majority of people.

    If I say to somebody “I’m going to do away with minimum wage” they get very red in the face. If I say “I’m doing away with minimum wage and replacing it with a grant for a million pound a year to every person” the redness disappears. Obviously, my latter premise is nonsense. But my point is that the argument is coloured by the perceived result.

    In my humble opinion, if the minimum wage did not exist, the average person would be better off because markets would be able to do what they do best when there is no tinkering with them: deliver cost-effectively in accordance with demand. People are usually perfectly able to negotiate their own contracts and where they are not able to other tools come into being like unions and their ilk. (markets at work again)

    The argument that employers “benefit” from the lack of a minimum wage is silly. Employers don’t care. If they have to pay more, they charge more to cover it. The cost of minimum wage comes to the economy trying to compete with a sharp, hungry dynamic foreign market with which it is unable to compete. Then the jobs start disappearing completely and the idea of a minimum wage becomes like that of a 60 MPH speed limit in a gridlock. Laughable.

    I believe in fair redistribution of wealth actually. I just don’t think minimum wage is the way to do it. It sends the wrong message and is a fundamentally flawed premise. How would I prefer to redistribute? Low taxation to allow people to keep more of what they earn, particularly raising the starting point of tax so as to take poorer people out of tax altogether. Changing regulation and taxation so as to encourage small business and personal enterprise, enabling people to realize their own potential. Reducing the cost of employment to employers and the regulations they are bound by, so as to increase the jobs available and encourage more employment. I could go on, but I’m sure I’ve already given enough ammunition to be flamed for a year. I’ll go get my asbestos suit…

  9. Steve, thank you for a really interesting post.

    I said that I didn’t see how the abolition of the minimum wage could be defended on humanitarian grounds, but that was about the most convincing attempt I have read.

    Let us start with our point of agreement: We both believe in a fair redistribution of wealth (let’s leave aside for the moment exactly what constitutes ‘fair’) and we both think that, in principle, the role of the state in people’s lives should be a minimal one.

    The question of minimum wage then becomes, essentially, a tactical one: does it achieve the results that we would both would like to see? Your answer is a resounding ‘No!’ The problem, as I see it, is that you take too much of the economic scenery as a given. But before I say why, I’d like to make brief point on the ‘principle’ of the minimum wage.

    You say “Why does the government have any right to tell me what price I can sell my own time for?”

    As I see it, the minimum wage is less about government taking away the individual’s rights to work for as little as he/she chooses, and more about limiting the corporation’s right to exploit workers. However, let’s stick to your line of reasoning.

    You argue that people have the the right to set their own price, I would ask where you would draw the line – or, if you think the right is absolute, do you therefore believe people have the ‘right’ to set their price to zero and become slaves?

    Imagining for a second you do believe in the ‘right to be a slave’, let’s say two people go for a job – one of whom says he is willing to be a slave and requires no wage (only food and lodgings) the other person says he would like X amount to live on independently. Assuming X to be higher than the employer would pay in food and lodgings for the slave(which is not a given, one of the reasons for slavery’s abolition is so this cost would not have to be incurred), then he will choose the the slave over the ‘free man’. In effect, one persons right to be a slave has undermined another person’s right to an above-subsistence wage.

    You might argue “But why would anyone want to be a slave?”, but I would ask “Why would anyone want to work for less than has been decreed the minimum by the State?”

    I wouldn’t say that there is an “inherent right of the state to command the individual”, but I would say that, in a democratic system, the state is given certain rights/responsibilities to act as arbitrator where the rights of its citizens are in conflict (which is inevitable rights since aren’t an axiom system). We empower the State to make this distinction in most cases (free speech vs harassment, self defence vs assault), it seems somewhat arbitrary to say it shouldn’t do so in an economic example

    In terms of practicalities, you’re right when you point out that, under the current conditions, the minimum wage provision in the UK causes capital to a) relocate elsewhere, b) transfer those costs onto the public. However, for me these are not convincing arguments to abolish the minimum wage.

    Instead, they make the case that a) we should be supporting some kind of minimum wage provision in other countries and rethinking the underlying rules of economic globalisation (i.e. capital is free to move, labour is not), and b) there needs to be greater democratic control over corporate power (initially through the state, but long-term through direct worker control) to regulate monopolies, price-fixing, ‘externalities’ etc.

    In summary, I believe the minimum wage is a progressive step forward for humanity – it establishes that there is an intrinsic value to the labour/time/existence of each and every person that cannot be undermined. That this principle doesn’t work very well in practice is a symptom of the exploitation that we tacitly accept elsewhere in the world – that is what needs abolishing.

    With regard to wealth redistribution through taxation. Presumably as well as lowering the tax burden on the lower earner you would increase that on the higher earners (does that mean you support the 50p rate, for example?). I really don’t see how this will be much different in effect to the minimum wage–I’d have thought you’d still get the same capital flight, brain drain, etc. (but I could be wrong as I don’t claim expertise on these subjects!)

    Anyway, would love to write more but time is the enemy. Mainly just wanted to share some thoughts and thank you for your excellent contribution – With our natural aversions to “top-down control” I’m sure you and I have more in common than you might think!

    All the best for now,

    T.

    PS, And not a flame in sight!

  10. Just a couple of points I’d like to take up.

    I absolutely DO support the right for a person to choose to work for no wage at all. I just don’t accept that means what you suggest it means.

    You seem to believe that somebody who works for no wage is a ‘slave’. In fact, that’s wrong (and classic misuse of terminology to give the illusion of strength to an argument).

    A slave is somebody who is forced to work for somebody else and cannot choose to leave their employ. The amount of remuneration is not the issue at all. This is fairly easy to prove:-

    Case 1/
    I go to work in Africa helping people dig wells and plant fields for a year. I’m not paid, but I choose to do it for the good of humanity and I am fed and given a place to sleep. Am I a slave?

    Case 2/
    I live in a cage at my employers house against my will and if I try to leave I will be shot. I am forced to work for him for fear of the lash. But the employer gives me two hundred pounds a week allowance to spruce up my cell. Does the allowance make me NOT a slave?

    You presume I will argue “why would anybody CHOOSE to be a slave”. Not a bit of it. Charity work is people choosing to work for nothing. I know people who have been part-time nannies for basically the cost of room and board. It helped them get through Uni and gave them a safe base. If my mum needs help in her garden, I don’t charge her for my time. There are lots of reasons to work for nothing. In the end there doesn’t HAVE to be a reason though. Free will = my choice.

    Legislation to prevent people becoming slaves – ie. trapped in employment against their will in some form – is entirely possible without recourse to minimum wage. False Imprisonment, Blackmail etc. are examples.

    You say that you prefer to think of the minimum wage as targetting the employers. Of course you do. It is a comfortable way to look at it for you. But you did not answer the intrinsic question of my original argument, deftly avoiding it in fact. Why can’t I choose to work for whatever price I think is best? Why does the government get overrule my decision in this simple matter? The reason you prefer to use the “normal” flip of the argument is that there is no good answer to the reverse position.

    Your argument about: “spreading minimum wage to other nations” is an impossible dream. Do you really believe we can reach a point where every country in the world follows the same minimum wage rules? Honestly? And how would be enforce that? Legions of tax police? Cameras at every workhouse recording the hours people work? Wars?

    Even if this were possible I do not believe it would be a good thing. Prices and events change – the entire human race is a complex entity – there is no “price fix” that can survive the random fluctuation of events. All that happens is every more regulations and rules to try and cope with changing circumstances.

    There is, however, one well-known tool which is able to move with the rise and flow of the world’s trade. That is able to adapt incredibly quickly to changing circumstances. That can deliver, and has delivered, prosperity and economy. It’s called the Free Market. Tamper with it at your peril!

  11. Steve,

    You seem to believe that somebody who works for no wage is a ’slave’. In fact, that’s wrong (and classic misuse of terminology to give the illusion of strength to an argument).

    Well what I meant was that ‘a slave works for a subsistence wage’, not ‘all people who work for subsistence wage are slaves’. I understand the whole “all bird have two legs, therefore everything with two legs is a bird” fallacy, and your point about voluntary labour is taken.

    A slave is somebody who is forced to work for somebody else and cannot choose to leave their employ. The amount of remuneration is not the issue at all.

    I’m not sure I can follow your definition of ‘slavery’ so exactly. If your definition is a legal one i.e. what is traditionally called ‘Chattel slavery’, then you are correct in what you say. I was, however, using the term in a more generic sense and also implying ‘wage slavery’. Apologies for any confusion.

    In practical terms, if I am working for a subsistence wage, you may say that I am not being ‘forced’ (in the sense that I am not legally bound to do so), but if my only alternative is to starve, then in I would argue that I am not really free to make a choice in any meaningful sense.

    There is a distinction to be made here between a negative freedom (i.e. no one stops you) and a positive freedom (i.e. you can actually do it in practice).

    Also, as your case studies make clear, the boundaries of what constitute being a ‘slave’ is often a blurred one incorporating psychological, motivational, and ethical dimensions also.

    Charity work is people choosing to work for nothing.

    True, but I think voluntary work should be a dispensation since it is assumed people can ‘afford’ to do it.

    You say that you prefer to think of the minimum wage as targeting the employers. Of course you do. It is a comfortable way to look at it for you. But you did not answer the intrinsic question of my original argument, deftly avoiding it in fact.

    I thought I made that point as an aside before moving on to answer your question! Second time lucky I guess!

    Why can’t I choose to work for whatever price I think is best? Why does the government get overrule my decision in this simple matter?

    By the same logic I could ask: “Why can’t I choose to kill people if I want to? Why does the government get overrule my decision in this simple matter?”.

    The simple reason is that in both cases we want to perform an action (working/killing) which will have a direct effect on other people (albeit less visibly so in your case!) – and government’s role is to legislate for that.

    Now, you can either say a) I don’t think it does affect other people (in which case I’d think you were wrong), or b) it does affect people – but that still doesn’t give government the right to intervene (which I’d think was arbitrary and logically inconsistent).

    To be honest, I’m still not exactly sure what your position is.

    Your argument about: “spreading minimum wage to other nations” is an impossible dream. Do you really believe we can reach a point where every country in the world follows the same minimum wage rules? Honestly?

    Well, in my defence, I didn’t use the word ‘spreading’!

    It’s not a case of I “believing” we can reach point, more that I think it is logically possible – whether it is likely or not I couldn’t say.

    For example, trade unions leaders in Colombia would probably win much better rights for their workers were they not routinely assassinated by paramilitaries. These paramilitaries would be unable to (literally) get away with murder so were it for their tacit acceptance from the Colombian state. This state, wouldn’t have the means to operate such violent policies against its own population were in not for the high levels of military aid they receive from the US government. The US government would probably not be able to do this if the US tax-payer had a better understanding of how their dollars are spent.

    So, if a worker in a bottling factory in the US loses his job because the plant relocates to Colombia to take advantage of the lower wages there, he is, in effect, the victim of conditions his own taxes helped to create – albeit unwittingly.

    Your solution would seem to be to remove the minimum wage in the US so it becomes more competitive (what some call “the race to the bottom”). I would prefer to see a popular movement in the States forcing changes in that county’s relations with Colombia and ultimately allowing for social progress there. This would (eventually) lead to more of a levelling out in the cost of labour in the two countries.

    I’m not saying that it will happen though!

    And how would be enforce that? Legions of tax police? Cameras at every workhouse recording the hours people work? Wars?

    No, I think something like the ‘free market’ could do the job. However, the point of the ‘free market’ is that is supposed to operate in conditions of, well, freedom. Since we don’t have that, we don’t have a ‘free market’ – and what’s more we never have. Your assertion that it “can deliver, and has delivered, prosperity and economy” is, in essence, a matter of faith.

    As far as ‘tampering’ with it goes, the minimum wage is way down on the list of ways the government intervenes in the economy.

    T.

  12. Steve,

    Apologies for not sticking to the points of the debate, but I was wondering if you could enlighten me on something that’s been bothering me for quite some time now. I have a friend, who like you, has been active in Conservative Party politics (also in Cambs) since his teens, and is now embarking on a similar political path to yours. He is younger than yourself (late 20’s), so probably has a little way to go before getting elected to office. His background is similar to yours in that his conservatism is genuine, i.e. not the result of a privileged upbringing or opportunistic calculation. I suspect that many of the people entering Conservative politics are similar in that respect to both of you.

    Now, if I were to summarize some of the values that define my friend’s conservatism, I would mention an emotional attachment to Britain, its culture, traditions, values, institutions. Also, an anti-ideological frame of mind, a skepticism toward abstract theories. An emphasis on community. A (perhaps infantile) desire to see “Great Britain great again”, in the sense of “soft power” rather than military clout. Using common sense and persuasion to solve problems. Distrust of an intrusive government bureaucracy. Might have missed some points, but you get the picture…

    What really puzzles me (and this is a feature of American conservatism as well as the British variant) is that virtually all “conservative-leaning” people I encountered (in the sense of holding the above-mentioned values) express an uncritical attachment to free-market dogma. Now, I can understand this in the case of politicians who have “climbed the greasy pole” and are faced with “realpolitik”-type dilemmas when dealing with actual power. What is surprising, is that people like my friend or you (as well as conservatives who have no political ambitions) swallow the “party line”.

    To be clear, I am not arguing here about whether the free market doctrine is good or not (this is an entirely different matter). What I am saying is that attempts to actually implement “free markets” lead to the destruction of the very values that the vast majority of conservatives hold dear. Free market dogma is not a conservative doctrine at all. It is a highly radical (one might even say reactionary) ideology. It atomizes communities into egotistical “consumers” concerned with gratifying their private needs, destroys traditional social structures, any sense of community, is completely indifferent to national interests and the fate of any particular group or country. It enhances unaccountable corporate power. It is inimical to democracy. Free markets, or what passes for them in our globalized reality, no longer work in our national interests. You might think that the case I make is perhaps overstated. But I hope that at least you can see there is a potential for discussion. I have yet to see any sign of it in conservative circles. Instead, all I see the constant repetition of the mantra “Mr. Market knows best”…

    Best Regards
    Matt

  13. @Matt

    >>What I am saying is that attempts to actually implement “free markets” lead to the destruction of the very values that the vast majority of conservatives hold dear.<>Free market dogma is not a conservative doctrine at all. It is a highly radical (one might even say reactionary) ideology.<>It atomizes communities into egotistical “consumers” concerned with gratifying their private needs, destroys traditional social structures, any sense of community, is completely indifferent to national interests and the fate of any particular group or country.<>It enhances unaccountable corporate power. It is inimical to democracy.<>Free markets, or what passes for them in our globalized reality, no longer work in our national interests. <>I have yet to see any sign of it in conservative circles. Instead, all I see the constant repetition of the mantra “Mr. Market knows best”<<

    Actually, most Conservatives I know talk up "free trade", but when you interrogate them you get all sorts of trade control policy ideas. Pure free trade advocates, the real ones, are few and far between. I'm not one of them. If it sounded like I was in my discussion with Tiberius, that was because I like to keep a debate "clean" without opening avenues for another six different debates within the first (where possible).

    @Tiberius
    Your argument for why the state can tell me how much to work for falls flat at the first hurdle, I'm afraid.

    The classic "for the same reason they can tell you not to kill people", in that it might affect somebody else, just makes no sense.

    Everything I do in life affects somebody, somehow. Unless I live in a vacuum.

    By your logic, the government can tell me to do pretty much anything it likes and I have to tip my hat and thank them for the privelige.

    If I own a computer shop and decide to sell my hard drives for cost price that will affect all the other local sellers of hard drives negatively. So I presume you'd be happy if the government stepped in and set the minimum price for hard drives.

    Some people are afraid of kids in hoodies, so by your logic its fine if all clothes with hoods are banned?

    The truth about our laws are that they were originally based on the protection of society and generally on safekeeping things we consider good and proper in society. (The Bible had a fair amount of influence too) We consider physical harm to others, stealing and other such crimes as wrong in our society. These are very old, very tribal rules. There is no comparison to the amount of worth we place on our time and murder. It's another colourful metaphor that doesn't belong in the debate.

  14. Steve,

    There is no comparison to the amount of worth we place on our time and murder. It’s another colourful metaphor that doesn’t belong in the debate.

    I am trying to establish first principles!

    The point is that you do not have a problem with State regulation of human behaviour in and of itself, but rather you have a problem with the State regulating certain types of behaviour.

    Okay, so then question becomes: What types of behaviour should the State regulate and which types does it have no business regulating?

    I offered the starting point that ‘behaviours that affect other people should be subject to some degree of regulation’, but, with respect, I think you build a straw-man out of this when you say:

    Everything I do in life affects somebody, somehow. Unless I live in a vacuum.

    By your logic, the government can tell me to do pretty much anything it likes and I have to tip my hat and thank them for the privelige.

    I’m not saying that at all – in fact I wasn’t saying anything – I was trying to understand what you were saying!

    What I believe is that a States’ regulation of its people’s behaviour should be commensurate to the level that that behaviour affects other people. Behaviours that have virtually nil-effect on others (e.g. taking drugs in the privacy of your own home) should not be regulated at all; behaviours that have a massive effect(murder, rape, etc) should be regulated heavily.

    This is a spectrum. The point I’m trying to make is that ‘the amount one should be compensated for working’ lies somewhere on that spectrum.

    Now, of course, these are all open to interpretations and they aren’t set in stone (Biblical references notwithstanding!) and should always be democratically accountable and open to review.

    To take your example of ‘kids in hoodies’. The “right to wear what you want” and “the right to not be intimidated” are in friction with one another. I therefore think you have to judge the case on its own merits – is it ‘reasonable’ that these people should feel intimidated? Is intimidation the intention of the people wearing them, or just a by-product?

    Personally, I wouldn’t be in favour of banning hoodies – but that doesn’t mean that I hold it as a point of principle that “right to wear what you want” is absolute; I would be happy to accept that all clothing showing a swastikas should be banned if that was democratically decided upon (though I’d rather those decisions were made at a local level, not a national one).

    T.

  15. @ Steve

    Actually, I wasn’t talking only about free trade, but more generally the entire “neo-liberal consensus” which seems to be universally held by all our parties and their politicians, regardless of whether they are coming from the “left” or “right”. For that reason I don’t see any difference between Conservative and New-Labour governments. Do you really think that had the Conservatives been in power during the last 10 years, they would have done anything differently, and prevented our current disaster? So when there is nothing but personalities, and slight variations in rhetoric to differentiate the various established political parties, you can see why many thinking people, like myself, are cynical and view politics as what it in reality is – a meaningless piece of theatre. My argument was that neo-liberalism is an anti-conservative ideology, and I’m puzzled why so few conservatives seem to be aware of the fact. Although your arguments against the minimum wage were mostly made from a libertarian standpoint (which is a smart move, since our host Tiberius is a self-confessed fan of Chomsky), judging from your comments on Cynicus’ blog it does seem that you do have a tacit belief in the validity of the free-market model, and that this belief underlies many of your practical positions.

    But, kudos to you for keeping your promise and spending time to engage in a very interesting discussion with someone whose views are so different from yours.

    M

  16. These discussions are fun, but they swing wildly about from one variation of meaning to another and so are almost impossible to actually pin down. That’s exactly why I avoid them on CEs site.

    Tiberius you have (to my mind) still failed to answer my basic question with anything that I would agree was convincing. Your riposts have basically been a counter-challenge which, while clever, don’t get us anywhere. You seem to me to be a kinda left-leaning Libertarian. Good luck with that! Conflicting ideologies must make your head spin! I respectfully suggest that when you really sit down and consider the full implications of Minimum Wage, outside your knee-jerk reaction, you’ll eventually and regrettably admit its a faulty idea.

    Matt – your feeling that the “political parties are all the same” just sounds (to me) like something the media have chosen as this week’s soundbite. It doesn’t gel with anything I’ve experienced in my own life. Yes I do believe the last ten years would have been different under the Conservatives. Yes I do think we’d have avoided the sheer depth of our current problems. But we’ll never know for sure.

    You’re right Matt, I do have an underlying belief in the “free” market, but I also respect that government needs to regulate to some extent to keep the free market … free(ish). Experience tells us that people are always trying to circumvent the freedom of the market for personal gain and so government certainly has SOME role. But just where the boundaries are will be an argument for people long after we are gone.

    Tiberius – You suggest that I accept state control in some things and then challenge what I think the boundaries are. I am not a lawyer and so am not expert in the application of astute legal phrasing. But trying to argue that undercutting another worker by accepting a lower wage is somehow in the same ballpark as theft or some other physical crime really doesn’t do it for me.

    The price you are prepared to accept for your time is the same as the price you are prepared to accept for any other thing. Time is a resource like any other, albeit a little less tangible. If you are prepared to accept Minimum Wage (a price control) you must surely also be willing to accept price controls on all other resources. This is quite the opposite of the free market and quite the opposite of small government. They don’t fit with your self-proclaimed ethos at all.

    Matt – thank you for getting into this debate. I’ve enjoyed it. I find these sort of discourses interesting and useful for two prime reasons. The first is that they are great practice for future debates I may get involved in. By seeing what people throw at me I can hone my arguments for other encounters.

    Second (and more important) is that through good argument I am often forced to revise, adapt or even change my position. Without wanting to get all “zen” and pretentious this is a valuable journey towards some final “truth”. I very much appreciate the opportunity to debate with you both and have enjoyed your intelligent and well-stated positions. Thank you.

    (Ps. This isn’t even one of my more radical subjects. You should hear me on Intellectual Property…) : )

  17. Steve,

    I’d suggest that the issue is not so much that we don’t agree but rather we are speaking different languages. If I have failed to answer your question it is because I haven’t understood it – my ‘riposts’ have been me trying to clarify for my own sake as much as anything.

    With regard to ideologies, I tend to follow the adage that they can a weigh a person down and so I try not to burden myself with too many of them. If pushed, I’d probably describe my current perspective as ‘Libertarian Socialist’, but (given the bastardisation of both those terms) it’s not a position that many people can understand, let alone accept.

    In the final analysis, I also reject the legitimacy of the Minimum Wage because I reject the legitimacy of the State itself (which I said in my initial post). However, it makes more sense for me to adopt a position that reflects the world as it is, not as I would like it to be. I think that the nation State is incompatible with Socialism, but given the inequalities in power, resources, capital, that exist in the world at this time, I also think it is a necessary evil.

    You could say that I currently support the legitimacy of the State (and therefore such provision as the Minimum Wage) because I see it as the lesser of two evils when compared to say corporate power (which I would see as private tyranny). Similarly, I support some of the work of the Church in many parts developing parts of the world even though I don’t believe in what they teach.

    My position isn’t knee-jerk, I’ve thought about it for many years – but I will concede that I may have poorly expressed it.

    More specifically, you say:

    But trying to argue that undercutting another worker by accepting a lower wage is somehow in the same ballpark as theft or some other physical crime really doesn’t do it for me.

    But this isn’t what I’m saying.

    If I told you I was thinking of a number between 1 and 100, this doesn’t mean I’m saying that ‘the number is in the same ballpark as 100’ any more than I am saying ‘the number is in the same ballpark as 1’.

    Now I accept that human behaviour isn’t as discreet or quantifiable as numbers are but I’d still hold that, just as human speech exists on a range from inaudible/whispering to highly audible/shouting, so to do human actions/behaviours exist on a scale.

    Now, where you’d choose to place it on the scale less important than the idea that you would place it.

    Lets say you gave this action (undercutting someone else’s work) an ‘Effect Rating’ of ‘5 out of 100’, it still remains that somewhere between 5 and 100 you have drawn a line between what you think it is and is not legitimate for a State to legislate on. Now what did you base that on? You made a reference to the Bible, but I don’t think you are suggesting ‘revelation’!

    If you are prepared to accept Minimum Wage (a price control) you must surely also be willing to accept price controls on all other resources.

    If you mean, do I think the State should be able to set a minimum price on say, bread and milk? Then ‘Yes’. But, as in the case of the Minimum Wage, this is tackling the symptoms of a problem rather than a the underlying causes and ideally you’d want people to do something about both at the same time (i.e. I wouldn’t advocate letting people starve to death while governments broke up monopolies).

    This is quite the opposite of the free market and quite the opposite of small government. They don’t fit with your self-proclaimed ethos at all.

    I think the ‘free market’ is a fiction and that ‘small government’ in the present economic context (i.e. where huge multinational corporations exist) would be a huge mistake – so I’m not sure where you got my ‘self-proclaimed ethos’ from!

    Anyway, according to the stats on my blog a couple of hundred people have read this exchange over the last few days so perhaps they can let us know their thoughts – who knows, maybe they can even translate for us!

    T.

  18. It’s “ripostes”…

  19. Thanks Matt, but I was hoping for a more comprehensive translation than that! 😉

  20. If one typo/spelling error is the best I can do after writing several very lengthy responses then I should probably try harder. : )

  21. OK, let me try to take this discussion into the “meta discussion” level.

    I will do this by making one (longish) point.

    I think that one of the reasons that we have been in a sense talking at cross purposes here is the difference between our starting positions, in particular in our understanding of the purpose of a discussion.

    If I may take the liberty of “deconstructing” Steve’s position I would say that as someone engaged in practical politics, his approach is different from mine or Tiberius’. In Steve’s case, the context in which discussions take place is this: There are “us”, i.e. people with whom I identify ideologically (in Steve’s case “the right”), there our “opponents” (“the left”) and there is an audience (“the public”). The purpose of the discussion is to convince as many members of the audience as possible that “we” are right, and our opponents are wrong. There is absolutely nothing wrong with such a view, and if I ever contemplated engagement in politics (perish the thought), I would think in the same way.

    I fully realize that this characterization is a caricature, and it does not fully capture Steve’s viewpoint, but I think it is useful to highlight the problem I wish to discuss. To show that this characterization of Steve’s position is not entirely untrue, I would point out his frequent references to “right of centre”, “left of centre” etc. views expressed by other commenters on Cynicus’ blog (these are political labels, so in a sense “ad hominem” arguments) and his stated lack of interest in “converting” those whom he sees as his ideological opponents. Again, from a political standpoint such a partisan position is completely understandable. This model of discussion may be called the “adversarial” model, and it is well entrenched in our political and judicial tradition.

    But there are other models of discussion, of which the “Socratic dialogue” is a good example. The purpose of such a discussion is to increase understanding and through a “dialectic” process arrive at a better approximation to “truth”. This kind of discussion is prevalent in science (especially the “hard sciences”, where it is easier to distinguish truth from falsehood). Here, an attack on an opinion is not generally viewed as an attack on the person or their belief system or ideology, simply a challenge to give a clearer account of that opinion. There are no “winners” or “losers” here.

    This kind of attitude is rare in economic discussions, but it can be found. For example, one of the reasons why I participate in Cynicus’ blog – although I disagree with many of his opinions – is that he has managed to create a discussion forum where any biases that he might have (and we all have our own biases) are subordinated to the task of trying to understand reality. This intellectual honesty attracts many interesting commentators across a wide spectrum of political and economic opinion and makes the site so good.

    So my approach (and I strongly suspect that Tiberius’ also) is firmly in the second camp. I have no ideological position to defend, and ultimately the only person I need to convince is myself. That’s why both Tiberius and I like to “dig into” an issue, examine the stated and unstated assumptions, their meanings, consequences and so on. While gratifying to a certain small group of people, such nit-picking discussions tend to be boring to the vast majority. As far as trying to convince e.g. an electorate, this way of conducting a discussion is political suicide (as many an egg-head discovered to their cost).

    So, to (finally) come to the point I’m trying to make, I think the lack of mutual understanding that Tiberius mentioned is due to the different discussion models of the participants. Steve (probably by now instinctively) adopted the adversarial model and his objective was to convince an audience. He decided to defend his opposition to the minimum wage by stating a simple libertarian proposition that it is “wrong for the state to make me do something against my will”, in this case to stop me from accepting a wage which is lower than some established minimum. He then, deftly refused to be drawn into any wider implications of this statement, its real-life consequences or underlying justification, despite Tiberius’ repeated attempts to force “clarification” from him. When Tiberius attempted to provide this clarification himself, Steve attacked, by forcing Tiberius to justify his position, by pointing out alleged inconsistencies in his previous statements, by denying the relevance of his points, and other well known techniques of (adversarial) discussion.

    So finally, to judge the results, I would say that in the discussion above there are two “winners”. As far as political debate goes, Steve has shown himself to be very adept in the way he conducted this exchange. He stuck to his single point, refused to be drawn out, waited for Tiberius to expose himself (figuratively speaking) and then spent the rest of the debate attacking (fairly and unfairly) Tiberius’ positions. If this were a public debate on TV, I’m sure that Steve would be declared the winner.

    As far as the “Socratic debate” goes, did Steve make a strong case justifying his position? Well, it’s hard to say, because he didn’t really make any case for it at all. He just made his entire argument a special case of a very general (and false) statement. I don’t think Socrates would be impressed 😉

    Anyway, it’s been a pleasure gentlemen.
    M

  22. P.S. Tiberius needs to brush up on his adversarial debating technique if he wants to win political (as opposed to academic) debates. I suggest Schopenhauer’s “The Art of Controversy”.

  23. Tempted by Tiberius’s invitation for comments, here is what I thought of the exchange. I was amused to find a politician talking about the people and its government in “us and them” terms! On the one hand when he imagines himself to be everyman he is unhappy to be pushed around by authority (government is servant not master etc), on the other hand as an aspiring politician he is content to tell us all where the limits of government should be. In other words, I do not like to be told what to do but rather I would like to be the one telling others what to do.

    Just to hypothesise a little, if the people were in fact sovereign here, would it matter much that the politicians got it wrong from time to time, say on the question of the minimum wage or a declaration of war or some such important matter. Patently it would not because these situations would be transient, easily corrected by the people if the majority of them so wish. On the other hand if some legislative decision on minimum wage fails to irritate many, it may go unchallenged by the people. The point I am making is that politics is in the end about preferences, not about logical arguments that can be determined right or wrong by a bunch of King Solomons.

    I think valuable effort is being dissipated when a discussion such as this remains within bounds of the permissible spectrum of opinion as determined by life-long indoctrination through schools and corporate news and entertainmant media. Left, right, socialist, libertarian, conservative.. the really important perspective here and one that is missing, is that of a true democrat. The government ought to exist or not exist to the extent and in the form that is desired by the people. Any politician with an ideological point to make invariably comes across as though they wish to impose their views on the rest of us – very undemocratic indeed.
    Evgueni.

  24. @ Evgueni

    I’ve been meaning to post a comment to the one you’ve written on another thread, but haven’t had the time.

    I agree with most of your points, but I think that what makes Swiss democracy work is not just er… democracy. Switzerland is quite unique in that it is a very wealthy country, which has managed to stay out of XXc conflicts (for many different reasons, such as geography) and prosper, while the rest of the continent destroyed itself in two world wars. It also has had a very specific history, different from other European states. It is a democratic, but a very exclusive country. It is almost impossible for a foreigner to get Swiss naturalization (unless they are extremely wealthy, and even then I’m not so sure). In some cantons, getting naturalization requires holding a referendum. Even a Swiss parent is not enough to ensure Swiss citizenship. Foreigners legally living and working in Switzerland are subject to immediate deportation for the slightest offense (such as traveling on a train without a valid ticket). Swiss society is also very militarized – all able-bodied men serve in army reserves until their fifties and often keep heavy weaponry in their homes throughout this time. A Swiss colleague of mine boasted that he has “his own” tank and heavy machine guns parked on his family farm.

    So while the Swiss democratic model has much to commend itself, I’m afraid it is not directly implementable in other places (just like the Japanese model), unless the other elements of Swiss society are also adopted (nationalism, closed-borders, wealth, a high level of education of the electorate, and an oppressive self-policing attitude among the population).

    Best Regards
    M

  25. Matt,

    I am curious how your comments with regard to Switzerland are so similar to the response that I generally get from educated Brits, most of whom have not been to Switzerland or read a book about it, yet alone lived there. Still somehow they all tend to agree that Switzerland is this wacky place and the Swiss experience does not translate. Perhaps this is part of the national curriculum which I missed out on account of not being a native of the Albion myself 😉

    I lived for a couple of years in Zurich and have since read up on the Swiss democratic tradition since returning to the UK. I can recommend Gregory Fossedal’s Direct Democracy in Switzerland as a starting point if you are interested.

    You say Switzerland is a wealthy country, I agree its per capita GDP is consistently at the top of the comparison tables. (You seem to imply this wealth is due to Switzerland’s neutrality in European wars. As an aside, that is an interesting assertion but by no means obviously true because other European countries also managed to maintain neutrality and avoided invasion, not all of them now feature at the top of the wealth table.) You go on to say the Swiss are exclusive, nationalistic, politically highly educated, militarised and keen on self-policing. Then comes the leap of faith – you say these are necessary conditions for direct democracy to be transplantable elsewhere.

    I think this is a case of correlation being mistaken for causation. It is also possible and in my view more plausible that all the qualities of the Swiss society that you mentioned are in fact wholly or in large part results rather than pre-conditions of popular sovereignty. I am discounting here the third possibility that something alien in the Swiss DNA is causing them to behave in those funny ways and to be more democratic!

    First let’s look at the question of wealth. It is not disputed that in general countries’ wealth and extent of industrialisation correlates well with democratic form of government. The Swiss cantons with their varying degrees of direct democracy are another indication – more democracy correlates with more wealth (curiously also self-reported happiness!). By itself that is neither here nor there, correlation versus causation again. I think the causal direction democracy -> wealth is more plausible than the other two possibilities but in any case we cannot categorically say that wealth begets democracy.

    Now let’s imagine what tendencies we would see here in the UK if we won the right of initiative & referendum. For example I cannot see us continuing with our regular little wars of aggression as before. Certainly nothing like Iraq would hapen, probably not even Afghanistan. Perhaps we would not quite go as far as to declare neutrality as a national principle, but I hope you agree the tendency would be away from wars.

    Then there is the question of immigration, I think we would again become more like Switzerland in that respect. Without a doubt there are enough people here who feel sufficiently strongly about the issue to trigger a referendum, and the majority of those who care enough to vote would support tougher restrictions on immigration. I wonder also if the immigrants already established in the country would surprise us by turning out in numbers and voting against further immigration. By the way, your idea of exclusive and unfriendly Switzerland is well, odd. Here are some facts. The non-Swiss nationals make up something like 30% of the population of Zurich which is the largest city, this figure for Geneva is reported to be 45%. Roughly 20% of the total population of Switzerland is composed of foreign residents (non-nationals). This is despite the requirement for employers to demonstrate that they are unable to recruit from amongst the Swiss nationals when they apply for work permits on behalf of foreign nationals. A relatively recent development in some cantons is to allow foreign residents to participate in local politics – remember the granting of these rights to foreigners has to be approved by the Swiss nationals through referenda! By comparison in the UK we only allow EU nationals to vote and only in local elections that in our centralised state are a lot less meaningful. To become a Swiss national is a different matter, though not really that different from the UK (I am talking from first-hand experience). Ten years of prior residence is required (every year of childhood counts for two), a good command of language (surely not unreasonable) and character reference. Money does not come into this process. The big difference is that in some of the smaller cantons where this is still practical the decision whether to grant citizenship is made at an assembly – a nice way of acknowledging that citizenship is something more than just business. As for foreigners being thrown out for fare-dodging I can only tell you that my own (accidental!) experience of being caught without a ticket on the train was very civilised. I was trusted to supply my name and address without showing any ID, to receive a fine in the post later.

    The Swiss being more highly politically educated is not disputed. I beleive there is plenty of published research from not just Switzerland but many countries, that shows strong correlation between degree of democracy and degree of political engagement in the general population. It makes sense, being able to vote in general elections is less meaningful than being able to vote on specific issues that affect people directly. The prospect of being able to participate meanigfully in democracy should prompt more people to educate themselves about the issues, and vice-versa: being very remote from decision-making creates apathy as we know.

    I am not sure how a standing army based on conscription facilitates direct democracy or affects the outcomes. I can tell you that the long-term continuation of conscription in Switzerland is not assured, it already came once within a gnat’s whisker of being scrapped in a referendum.

    Finally, the self-policing. It is true and it makes sense why it should be. After all, in a society where many get involved in law-making directly there is a greater sense of ownership of the laws resulting in greater compliance and also in strong resentment toward those that choose to flout. There is a similar effect with tax – compliance is higher in places where the general population can get involved with deciding on tax issues. The reverse is true in countries like the UK – our laws and taxes are imposed on us from above and therefore we have a general attitude that they are somebody else’s laws and taxes, to be avoided when possible.

    In the end I agree with you in one respect, that it is by historical fluke that Switzerland came to practice modern forms of direct democracy much sooner than anywhere else. As a result it now has the most developed direct democracy in the world, at both local and national levels. But the establishing of direct democracy is in no way unique to Switzerland, many countries around the world now have DD movements striving to introduce these practices at local, municipal and national levels. Many already have some degree of direct democracy – Germany, Italy, Venezuela, US in some of the states, Canada, NZ, Oz, some central and eastern European states, this is not an exhaustive list by the way. Even in the UK we now have the Sustainable Communities Bill that allows for direct democracy at the parish level. However the decisions that affect our lives in the most profound ways are generally taken at the national level. These are decisions about who is allowed to collect land rent, who is allowed to live off proceeds from inflating the nation’s money supply, which sovereign state we will invade next, which inefficient burocraces get to spend our taxes, which monopolies get to cream and so on. I think the right of I&R at national level would address directly the main source of our problems here. Charter 88/Unlock Democracy, The Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s Power Enquiry, Saira Khan’s Our Say are just some of the manifestations of the nascent DD movement in the UK. There is nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come, the trouble is we will wait a long time for endorsement from main parties and the media moguls, all of whom understand the implications for themselves and would much rather avoid this discussion.

    I apologise for the long post, to paraphrase Mark Twain I didn’t have time to write a short one. Leisure time is a problem!
    BR, Evgueni

  26. Evgueni,

    Thanks for your post. I will try to reply to your points soon, it’s 2am here and I need to go to work tomorrow…

    All the best
    Matt

  27. Evgueni,

    I’m sorry that my hurried characterization of Switzerland gave you the impression of a dismissive attitude to the country and its institutions. Actually I have the greatest respect for the Swiss political system, and have only half-jokingly been saying for years that one of my greatest regrets is not being born Swiss… I would gladly pay their taxes and would even serve in the army (despite my congenital anti-militarism) in return for the quality of life and security which Switzerland offers its citizens.

    You are correct in that I am in no way an authority on the country itself. I visited it a number of times as a tourist and on business, have Swiss friends and colleagues and some of my friends have lived in Switzerland, working in various academic institutions, so my information about the place is mostly anecdotal, and I suspect that some of it may be out of date or inaccurate.

    My disagreement with you concerns the question whether the Swiss system of direct democracy is applicable to other countries.

    In the first place, I would say that democracy by itself is not a sufficient condition for having good government and even for averting outright disaster. I hate to trot out the worn-out example of Hitler, but the fact remains that the Nazis gained power by purely democratic means, under an electoral system which was much more representative than the one we have now in the UK. More recent examples include the economic disaster in California, caused in large part by their system of direct democracy. Various populist initiatives led to referenda, which capped the amount of property tax that the state government could collect, thus depriving the budget of funds needed to support schools, hospitals, prisons, welfare etc. and causing a chronic state of financial distress. Another very democratic country, Iceland, has just gone bankrupt, after a large number of its citizens decided to switch careers from fishing to investment banking and currency speculation.

    I would claim, that in order for democracy to “work” in a particular society, other conditions must also be met. In the first place, there needs to exist an educated, responsible, well informed, politically engaged electorate. Public servants and the political class should be motivated by a sense of civic duty and responsibility towards the citizens and the welfare of the country, otherwise they become paid agents of special interest groups. There should be strong cohesion and mutual solidarity among the population; this means that you cannot have too much inequality or “cultural diversity”. A free press and media should provide a wide range of opinion, giving voice to many different positions on current affairs. It is also important for the country to have a long historical tradition of democratic institutions at various levels of society. An independent judiciary, and so on.

    On the other hand, general poverty, high levels of inequality, sectarian, ethnic, religious or racial divides, fanaticism, ignorance, a tradition of despotic rule, lawlessness, war, foreign occupation and so on, are not the kinds of conditions under which a successful, Swiss-type democracy can be built (in my humble opinion). The best one can hope for is some form of government similar to what Tiberius called “Shamocracy”. Remember that in the ’60s, Lebanon was called “the Switzerland of the Middle East”. Look where it is now…

    You go on to say the Swiss are exclusive, nationalistic, politically highly educated, militarised and keen on self-policing. Then comes the leap of faith – you say these are necessary conditions for direct democracy to be transplantable elsewhere.

    I have made a mistake in my argument. What I meant to say was that those features of Swiss society are what make Swiss democracy work. So for example wealth, and I need to add, wealth widely distributed throughout Swiss society, creates a large group of people with a real stake in the prosperity of the country as a whole, and thus encourages political engagement. The unique Swiss military system forces responsibility, when any military escapade that the country may decide to embark on will put in harm’s way not state-paid mercenaries (as is the case in the US and UK), but many of the voters themselves, their family members and friends. Nationalism creates emotional bonds with fellow-countrymen and helps in resolving conflicts within society, and so on.

    So I’m not saying that only “Swiss-clones” can hope to build a successful democratic system on Swiss lines. A different combination of national characteristics may also work, providing they they create similar conditions within society.

    Now, looking at our societies (and here I mean the UK and US), are conditions ripe for a Swiss-type makeover of our political system? I would say no. We don’t have a well informed electorate (the American electorate is probably the most ill-informed and ignorant group in the world, and that includes the so-called “developing countries”). The situation in Britain is only little better. Wealth in our societies is very unevenly distributed, and most people are not even aware of the fact that the top 1% own something like 60-70% of the wealth (with the largest amount of wealth falling in the top 0.1% bracket). The richest people in our societies, who have real influence on how government behaves, feel no responsibility towards their fellow-citizens or the country as a whole. They are often not citizens at all (e.g. Murdoch). There is little social solidarity. Instead, we are indoctrinated by corporate media to behave like atomized, egotistical “consumers”. Social cohesion is further eroded by mass immigration policies engineered by the “elites”. Our media is corporate-owned and provides mostly propaganda, and mindless entertainment. Our politicians work for special interest groups, who are their real constituency. I could go on and on, but Tiberius (among many others) has already described the situation in “Democracy-Shamocracy”. So the prospects are not good…

    The problem of reforming our political system is also not merely a matter of convincing and educating enough people. Powerful interests have a stake in preserving the status quo. I wish all the best to the various grass-roots democratic initiatives you mentioned, but I’m afraid they face a very tough battle.

    All the best
    Matt

  28. Matt,

    Thanks for your post-mortem on the debate that (as you point out) never really got going as such.

    I think you’re probably right in your assessment – and I concede that I am probably to blame for initially framing is as a ‘debate’ rather than, say, a ‘dialogue’ or ‘discussion’. Anyway, I learned much and am very thankful to Steve T for participating.

    With regard to my brushing up on my own ‘adversarial debating technique’, I think that my life and viewpoints tend to court enough ‘Controversy’ enough already without developing them into an art form! 😉

    Evgueni,

    I understand the point you’re making but think that since Steve was responding as an individual rather than a “politician” it is wrong to imply that he holds a double standard; I don’t have ideological problem with people joining institutions they inherently disagree with if they think they can reform them from within.

    The distinction you make about politics being “about preferences, not about logical arguments” is, I think, a fairly artificial one. People’s preferences often depend on the reasoning they employ – which may or may not be logical.

    I think valuable effort is being dissipated when a discussion such as this remains within bounds of the permissible spectrum of opinion….

    Well I think my own view is (generally) well outside those bounds! But generally, there is only a certain amount that can be practically discussed if people are speaking a different language (as they above exchange show). Attempting to develop a common lexicon may br considered impure (ideologically speaking) but I think it reflects the reality of most dialogue.

    Left, right, socialist, libertarian, conservative.. the really important perspective here and one that is missing, is that of a true democrat.

    I’m not sure that I understand what you mean by a ‘true democrat’. In terms of political democracy, as already mentioned, I think that it is impossible outwith some form of economic democracy. You seem to imply that the former is needed in order to achieve the later, whereas I tend to think that the opposite is true.

    The government ought to exist or not exist to the extent and in the form that is desired by the people. Any politician with an ideological point to make invariably comes across as though they wish to impose their views on the rest of us – very undemocratic indeed.

    In some respects (and without wishing to sound too much like a Leninist) I think that the greater political democracy is precisely the opposite of what is needed right now. What you call the ‘desire’ of the people is too open to be engineered by those with power (‘manufacturing consent’, ‘conditioned preferences’, ‘controlled insanity’, etc). For example, the recent employment of Sir Alan Sugar to government position, I see as no more than the (hairy) face of Fascism Lite. However, if a referendum was held over the issue I am pretty convinced that a popular TV character like Sugar would get the public’s consent because a) we live in a celebrity-obsessed culture and b)many people are very much still in the ‘what’s good for business is good for the economy is good for me’ mindset. In this sense I think the public kind of need protecting from themselves. Vanguardist? Possibly – but I just don’t see any real alternative as things stand.

    Your points about Switzerland are interesting but, as I understand it, that country has a tradition of direct democracy that goes back 700 or so years. Giving direct democracy to the UK population would be kinda like giving computers to tribes people – I do not think that they lack the intellectual capacity to use them but to do so would require massive infrastructure change and educational provision.

    A fascinating exchange though, and I am pleased to be able to host such interesting viewpoints on this blog.

    T.

  29. Matt,

    thanks for clarifying your position. I am not sure that we mean the same thing by ‘democracy’. I wrote in another post that I do not consider regular and fair elections to be a sufficient condition of democracy. True popular sovereignty is in my view one necessary condition, another is an electorate that is informed with facts rather than with spin. The Swiss have the former but perhaps not the latter, although there are provisions under their law designed to improve information flow.

    I would like to dispose of this notion that direct democracy is somehow ‘Swiss’. Even the tradition of ‘assembly self-rule’ is not exclusive to Switzerland and was practiced in independent communities in the past in some form throughout Europe and the US. It is a natural tendency in groups of individuals who are in a significant sense independent (e.g. free to leave and join another group). For example Ukrainian Cossacks self-organised in this way. Further, the modern forms of self-rule, the referendum and the initiative, were both imports into Switzerland from the French revolution of 1793 and the French and German revolutions of 1848 respectively (source: Andreas Gross). So what is Swiss about the Swiss direct democracy? The way it came about 150 years ago through a fortuitous combination of external influences and existing culture of diversity and independence of mountain communities (so some geo-determinism). Is it clear from this that other countries could not arrive at the same point in their democratic development by another route? I do not see how.

    So instead of proposing some kind of a perfect solution that is stamped “made in Switzerland”, I am simply saying true popular sovereignty is preferable to a very limited one under a purely representative system, proportional or otherwise. How much more preferable is debatable perhaps but at the very least I think we can agree that no major disaster has ever resulted from people having a say in their own affairs, in Switzerland or elsewhere. Degeneration of the Weimer Republic into a violent dictatorship does not prove that the opposite is true by the way. Although superficially its constitution looks very democratic with PR and Initiative rights, it had profoundly anti-democratic flaws. The most important of these was Article 48 which allowed the government emergency powers, in effect unlimited rule by decree ‘to restore public order and safety’. Sovereignty of the sort that can be taken away at a moment’s notice under an ill-defined pretext is nothing but an illusion of sovereignty. Coupled with extreme social and economic turmoil that resulted from Germany’s humiliating defeat and the impossibly high reparations, these flaws proved crucial in aiding Hitler’s rise. (ref Gordon Alexander Craig).

    As for California, its implementation of DD is different from a Swiss canton’s in a critical respect – a two thirds majority is required for approving state budgets. This is demonstrably anti-democratic and is frustrating progress there. Although it is a matter for debate how serious an economic disaster is in fact unravelling there. Ultimately the legislature and the electorate are united in wanting to resolve the situation so it seems unlikely that they will continue to call each other’s bluff for long in the face of crumbling public services.

    Iceland as I understand is a ‘shamocracy’ like ours, so if anything its recent economic madness may be the result of the democratic deficit there. Their Democracy Movement party certainly view things this way. However this is not to say that popular sovereignty would necessarily prove wholly effective against what went on in the banking sector there. A limitation of any democracy is that it may not act on something that does not concern the electorate or the ruling elites, and it may also be powerless to counteract influences external to the state. The Icelandic banks operated in large part internationally and were subject to such external influences.

    Your comment about Lebanon being called “Switzerland of the East” (presumably because of its advanced banking sector before the civil war) seems spurious to me. Budapest is known as “Paris of the East”, what does it mean? Lebanon is not a ‘failed Switzerland’, its people have not been able to determine their own fate and the country has been subject to enormous external interference.

    Just to get this out of the way, I do not have a strong opinion on whether direct democracy can be adopted by a society like say, Afghanistan without going through the other stages of development first. It is absolutely without dispute that poverty, war and other serious strife could seriously damage prospects of any sort of a democratic transition. I am not sure how our discussion became so wide though. Let’s limit ourselves to the (relatively) developed world.

    I agree that the electorates of UK and USA are at a great disadvantage when it comes to valid information. However where I disagree (it seems) with you and agree with Chomsky, is that an electorate is not so naive after all in spite of the disinformation and lack of information in mass media. Chomsky sites numerous examples of opinion polls in the US that demonstrate how the ignorant majority nevertheless disagrees profoundly with the political elites on the important questions of foreign and domestic policy such as foreign wars, social security, medical insurance etc. Although I have not seen similar evidence for the UK I expect the same is true here. So this is what happens with topics that are either covered by the mainstream media in some way, or are self-evidently important even without such coverage.

    At the same time I share your pessimism about raising the level of political education in the UK on topics that are avoided by the media altogether. There is no possibility of widespread self-education in the absence of ample leisure time, and leisure time is a luxury that comes only with relative wealth. However there is no contradiction between this view and the view that a gradual piecemeal transfer of sovereignty from politico-economic elites to the people is possible and perhaps even inevitable. The elites are not united and from time to time squabble amongst themselves. These internal struggles can often provide opportunities for positive change. The MPs expense scandal is such an opportunity and progressives within the ranks may well succeed in seizing this chance to introduce some democratic reforms. My guess is that Clare Short meant exactly this when she said that a hung parliament would be the best thing for Britain. Well I hope she didn’t mean it literally! 😉

    Meanwhile the grass-roots organisations are growing. Charter 88 have been talking about electoral reform for many years. Several political parties now openly advocate the use of direct democracy devices. UKIP talk about referenda because they see this as the only means to get their way on EU issues. English Democrats would like to introduce local direct democracy in order to prepare gradually the way for eventual adoption at the national level. George Galloway of Respect is in favour of popular sovereignty in principle. You will even find the words Direct Democracy on the Tory website, though it looks like just a cynical attempt to redefine and obfuscate the meaning of direct democracy. There are also enlightened individuals in the main parties that are beginning to talk about direct democracy at fringe meetings around party conferences. I think I am not mistaken when I say these are new developments. So in my view the transition towards popular sovereignty is inevitable (though not necessarily just around the corner), for the reason that political groups that are otherwise very different in their aims will find themselves united at times by the realisation that the only way to achieve some of their aims is to involve the electorate directly. When this happens, the ideas of popular sovereignty begin to filter out into the open and enter the public consciousness. The result is positive even if the first attempts are unsuccessful because this breaks the self-censorship of the media and the privileged groups.

    Outside of the UK, there were serious attempts to get Initiative & Referendum into the EU constitution. There are significant political movements in Canada and the US that aim to introduce DD at the national level there. Something similar is happening in NZ and Australia. Some of the newly independent European states have adopted new constitutions that incorporate Initiative & Referendum rights. Similar things are happening in South America – Venezuela and Brazil are examples.

    Popular sovereignty in the long term ought to result in more equitable and at the same time sensible societies, without the disincentives that go hand in hand with ideologically motivated forced redistribution of wealth. This in turn should result in significant efficiency gains as a higher proportion of the population will be motivated and empowered to be creative whilst more of the nation’s capital is directed to productive use. If so then this will become more apparent with time and people elsewhere will start to take notice. Well that is the theory. I think the fact that you and I are talking about this, enabled by what could be an even more powerful democratising tool than the printing press, is only the beginning.

    BR,
    Evgueni

  30. Evgueni,

    Our host Tiberius said in one of his blogs that “democracy is a spectrum”, and I agree with him in the sense that there are various political arrangements which to a lesser or greater extent are “democratic”. Perhaps the word “spectrum” is a little misleading, since it tends to imply that there is some absolute scale, on which existing systems of government can be ordered, with some being 0% democratic and some 100% democratic. I think that such systems can at best be partially ordered (in a mathematical sense), so we can dismiss the notion of “Democracy” as some fixed, limiting point of a series, an “ideal” that might be (or has been) reached. So you are probably correct in saying that we understand the word “democracy” differently. To me there is no such thing as “democracy”, only relations between concrete political systems, namely: “more, less, or equally democratic” and “don’t know” (and I wouldn’t even claim that “more democratic” is necessarily better than “less democratic” in all cases). I used Switzerland as an example of a practically functioning country which is considered to be “very democratic”, by most people’s standards. I’m sure that looking through history, we can find other examples.

    Tiberius made two deep points in his comments. One was that “true democracy is impossible without some form of economic democracy”. The other was that “giving direct democracy to the people of the UK would be like giving computers to cavemen” (I paraphrase 😉 ). I think that the focal point of the difference between your position and mine (which position I think is in many ways shared by Tiberius) is the way we view the relation between society and its political system, or in other words, the way they influence each other.

    You seem to believe that by “reforming” the political system (through informing people, introducing democratic mechanisms such as initiative and referendum into law-books, agitation, breaking the “self-censorship” of the media) one can effect changes in the structure of society. I sympathize with your values and the goals you wish to achieve, but I’m afraid that they are not realizable in the “real” world in which we live, at least by these means.

    To avoid getting bogged down in a lengthy exposition, full of qualifications and caveats, let me just give a brief sketch of my position re. the relationship between a society and its political system. It is a complicated, reciprocal relationship (esp. when the time factor is included), but to strip it down to its bare essentials I claim that the “shape” of a society is largely determined by the power relationships between the various groups of which it is composed. Any content that a particular form of government adopted in this society has (whether it’s “democracy”, monarchy, dictatorship or what not) is simply the reflection of the its underlying power structures. So even though a country like Pakistan is nominally “democratic”, its society is largely feudal, dominated by landowners with an independent, powerful, and nuclear armed military. Their electoral system may be more representative than that in the UK, but it still doesn’t change the content of politics in the country.

    So my view of causation in this case is opposite to yours. It is only by real changes in the structure of power relations within society that any meaningful political change can take place. You cannot have “real” democracy in a society where most people are debt serfs (or wage slaves). You cannot have it in a society where all the wealth belongs to a tiny minority of its members. If by luck, you do happen to be born in a country of truly free men, it matters little whether its political system is called “democratic”, or whether it is a constitutional monarchy or an anarcho-syndicalist collective. I’d much rather live under a Swiss hereditary monarchy than under a “democratic” system in Iraq…

    Anyway, it’s been nice to have this exchange with you, I hope we will “meet again”

    All the Best
    Matt

  31. Tiberius,

    Thank you for hosting this discussion on your site. I appreciate the chance to speak my mind and to get intelligent feedback.

    I understand the point you’re making but think that since Steve was responding as an individual rather than a “politician” it is wrong to imply that he holds a double standard; I don’t have ideological problem with people joining institutions they inherently disagree with if they think they can reform them from within.

    In principle I agree. I was not so much accusing Steve of a double standard as pointing out the contradiction in his argument. Of course I am in favour of progressive thinkers finding their way into elite political circles in order to ‘reform from within’. At the same time I am aware that a majority of MPs and aspiring politicians are elitist in their thinking, which leaves little room for humility. I think this attitude cannot be discouraged enough in those that seek to represent us (still all effort is probably in vain!).

    The distinction you make about politics being “about preferences, not about logical arguments” is, I think, a fairly artificial one. People’s preferences often depend on the reasoning they employ – which may or may not be logical.

    I can see now what I wrote was ambiguous. By logical argument, I mean logical in the mathematical sense – cast iron, indisputable. The minimum wage question is one of many examples of something that cannot be resolved logically in that sense. It will come down to the balance of preferences that will in turn in some part depend on whatever reasoning was employed, rational or otherwise. So the best that the politicians can hope for, if they wish to represent us, is that they happen to have preferences that are representative of those of the whole people. That is unlikely to hold true at all times, but I saw no recognition of this truth in the preceding discussion. My beef is with people who wish not only to reason for us, but also to make the decisions for us regardless whether we have bought their argument. Actually if we recognise this problem of representation the question that follows is why should a few people decide for the rest of us? In fact I think this is easily justified on the grounds that it just happens to be the most efficient way to do government. Most of the time our representatives will have preferences that are broadly in line with ours, so we can delegate the preferring and get on with our lives. But we need to address the problem of diverging preferences, and this is also quite simple. You know where I am going with this already 😉

    Well I think my own view is (generally) well outside those bounds! But generally, there is only a certain amount that can be practically discussed if people are speaking a different language (as they above exchange show)…

    This was a sign of frustration on my part, at the way the discussion/debate was framed in such a limited way. I was looking for recognition that the ‘truth’ that was being sought may not be knowable through an exercise in logic (again, of the cast iron type). Then what? By permissible spectrum of opinion I mean the spectrum that fits inside the perimeter staked out by the labels ‘left’, ‘right’, ‘socialist’ etc.

    I’m not sure that I understand what you mean by a ‘true democrat’. In terms of political democracy, as already mentioned, I think that it is impossible outwith some form of economic democracy. You seem to imply that the former is needed in order to achieve the later, whereas I tend to think that the opposite is true.

    By ‘true democrat’ I mean someone who recognises that the people are sovereign and that the political system must reflect this. I do not see how such a position can be easily reconciled with any ideology, since proponents of various ideologies invariably wish to impose theirs on others, even if they intend to do this by acquiring a majority in Parliament first.

    Earlier I argued that more equitable distribution of wealth is likely be a result of direct democracy, as it is by no means clear how the wealth might become more equitably distributed without democratisation occurring first. Some democratisation is inevitable by virtue of technological progress, the printing press being a prime example, and later even more rapid means of communication (telephone, radio, TV, internet). What could happen and is happening – everybody could be getting more affluent in real terms through various efficiency gains in society, e.g, in technological, institutional, business practice spheres. At the same time in relative terms inequality can be rising, and is apparently rising for example here and in the US. The whole thing is certainly more complex, with cause and effect relationships in both directions. For example increasing absolute wealth would allow for more leisure time and make new means of communications accessible to more people. This has a democratising effect as more people get better information and more opportunity to evaluate it and act on it. The resulting murmurs of discontent in turn prompt concessions from the ruling classes, enabling further economic gains for the oppressed, and so on. I think in principle it is reasonable to suppose that the process of democratisation cannot begin in earnest until a significant majority are living above subsistence level, with immediate needs such as food, shelter and security satisfied, so that these people can afford the leisure time to start thinking beyond just survival. We reached that stage in the developed world some time ago. It doesn’t matter so much that Bill Gates is a million times wealthier than me, what is really important is that I and many others like me are able to take the time to think of ways of opposing the existing order and we can afford to do it without putting the basic welfare of our families at risk. This is nothing to do with relative wealth.

    In some respects (and without wishing to sound too much like a Leninist) I think that the greater political democracy is precisely the opposite of what is needed right now. What you call the ‘desire’ of the people is too open to be engineered by those with power (’manufacturing consent’, ‘conditioned preferences’, ‘controlled insanity’, etc). For example, the recent employment of Sir Alan Sugar to government position, I see as no more than the (hairy) face of Fascism Lite. However, if a referendum was held over the issue I am pretty convinced that a popular TV character like Sugar would get the public’s consent because a) we live in a celebrity-obsessed culture and b)many people are very much still in the ‘what’s good for business is good for the economy is good for me’ mindset. In this sense I think the public kind of need protecting from themselves. Vanguardist? Possibly – but I just don’t see any real alternative as things stand.

    You are not wishing for an enlightened dictator, I hope! Actually I believe you are in disagreement with Chomsky on this. His view, with which I concur, is that the intellectual and political elite circles are by far the most indoctrinated sections of the population. It stands to reason since they are net beneficiaries of the status quo and what they read in the newspapers is usually what they wish to hear: ours is a fundamentally sound system though perhaps a few minor adjustments could be made, etc ad infinitum. By contrast, as the US polls sited by Chomsky illustrate, the general population’s preferences can diverge profoundly from the elite consensus, despite all the propaganda. It cannot be the case that the entire voting population is easier and less expensive to dupe than a few hundred individuals competing for privileges and favours and often easy targets for various lobby outfits.

    You may be missing another important point in my argument. There is unfortunate ambiguity in the term referendum. In the context of direct democracy this is very different from the only ‘referendum’ we know in Britain. The kind we are familiar with is a plebiscite, where the framing of the question and the timing of the poll, and sometimes even whether the result will be binding, all this is decided by those in authority who hope to benefit from organising it. It is just a tool for legitimising existing power structures, little at all to do with reaffirming the sovereignty of the people. There is an abyss between this and referendum as a device of direct democracy. This is binding and is triggered by a proposed change in the basic law of the land (mandatory referendum), or a popular challenge to a change in law (optional referendum). Furthermore, the initiative referendum is in effect the exact opposite of a plebiscite, enabling popular control over the political agenda and the timing of the poll. So unlike the plebiscite referendum, the initiative and the mandatory/optional referendum are practical ways of ensuring that the people have the last say, if they so wish, and also that their fundamental right to have the last say cannot be taken away from them.

    Vanguardist – no, you do not strike me as an “end-justifies-means” kind of tyrant (I got immunised against Leninism in a former life :-). However, your thinking is elitist, something that I understand we are all predisposed to as humans, even without the handicap of a privileged upbringing. In the end the argument that the ‘public need protecting from themselves’ is the same kind of argument that has been used throughout history to justify not extending the franchise to women, black people, gentlemen without property.. Ultimately, arguments against direct democracy come down to arguments against democracy in general and are easily debunked as such. You can google “arguments against direct democracy” (363,000 results) to get the gist of this.

    Your points about Switzerland are interesting but, as I understand it, that country has a tradition of direct democracy that goes back 700 or so years. Giving direct democracy to the UK population would be kinda like giving computers to tribes people – I do not think that they lack the intellectual capacity to use them but to do so would require massive infrastructure change and educational provision.

    Your position here partially overlaps with Matt’s so you know some of my response already. Not trusting the general public with politics comes across as rather patronising, arrogant even. I understand that most of us suffer under the illusion that we are somehow ‘better’ than our peers in a number of areas. This is natural and is possibly to do with maintaining self-esteem. Whilst it is patently true that an individual can be more knowledgeable than the average person in questions relating to their chosen speciality or extensive experience, it cannot be true in politics for the reasons outlined earlier. A humble tradesman may console himself with the thought that he is very good at his chosen trade and concede that the politicians must know better how his taxes are to be spent. I may think that since I am educated and able to string grammatically correct sentences together into logically coherent arguments, then I would necessarily be ‘better’ in some sense at making political decisions. But both of us would be wrong in thinking that.

    A fascinating exchange though, and I am pleased to be able to host such interesting viewpoints on this blog.

    I am glad you think so and I hope I do not come across as too blunt. The accusation has been levelled at me before and in my defence I can only plead residual Johnny-foreigness 🙂

    Evgueni.

  32. Evgueni,

    It is probably the first time that I have come across a paragraph written by an intelligent commentator, with whose values I sympathize, in which I strongly disagree with every single statement. The paragraph in question occurs about mid-way through your comment, but before discussing it in detail, let me point to a different statement, with which I also have problems.

    You say:

    By ‘true democrat’ I mean someone who recognises that the people are sovereign and that the political system must reflect this.

    You then imply that this sentiment places you outside any “merely ideological” squabbles which occur among people who are not “true democrats”, and who simply want to impose their “elitist” views on “the people”. Unfortunately, as it stands, your statement is devoid of any discernible content — it may work as a slogan in an election campaign (it is certainly vacuous enough). In order to provide it with content, you would have to elaborate on what exactly do you mean by “the people”. Do you mean all the people in the country, or all normal people, or some group which is in some way representative of “the people”? If you mean all the people, what makes you think that their interests are the same? What if a part of “the people” wants to enslave or exploit another part? How would the exercise of “the people’s” sovereignty work in this case? How would internal conflicts be resolved? In order to coherently defend your position, you would need to propose some model of society which would add real meaning to the terms in your statement, and thereby join the club of “Left, right, socialist, libertarian, conservative.. ” ideologies from which you thought you were aloof. Your argument is self contradictory.

    As to the paragraph I mentioned at the beginning, I will tackle its assertions in order, but if this comment becomes too long, I will stop.

    Earlier I argued that more equitable distribution of wealth is likely be a result of direct democracy, as it is by no means clear how the wealth might become more equitably distributed without democratisation occurring first.

    Well that’s an extraordinary statement. Any significant power shifts in society have always been the result of wars, bloody revolutions or the rise of new players in power elite struggles. For example, a powerful industrial class emerged in early XIX c Britain, which challenged the interests of the landed aristocracy which up till then ruled the country. The struggle for the repeal of the Corn Laws, although it took a “democratic” form, was just a naked power confrontation between these two groups, and it succeeded because the industrialists were “stronger”. Welfare states came into being after organized labour and the existence of “alternative” social models (in Soviet Russia) frightened the “powers that be” into making significant concessions after the last World War. Sometimes privileged groups relinquish some of their power as a result of a cost/benefit calculation, under changed circumstances. That’s how the British Empire was wound down after WW2. As far as I know, there has never been a case in history where people who have wealth and power have decided to relinquish it simply because of the introduction of direct (or any other) democracy in their societies.

    Some democratisation is inevitable by virtue of technological progress, the printing press being a prime example, and later even more rapid means of communication (telephone, radio, TV, internet).

    I’m sorry, but I fail to see this. The printing press has been around in Europe for the last 500 years, and in China for much longer. The mass spread of the telephone and radio coincided with the rise of the most despotic and lethal totalitarianisms in human history. I seriously doubt that TV has had any positive influence on creating enlightened societies. As far as the internet is concerned, it does have potential, but is extremely fragile, since it depends on an infrastructure which is under the total control of a tiny group of people, and which can be completely shut down in minutes. I’m sure its “revolutionary” capabilities will be castrated long before it becomes even a remote threat to the existing order. The fact that, being in China, I have to go through 10 proxy servers just to access this blog is a sign of things to come…

    What could happen and is happening – everybody could be getting more affluent in real terms through various efficiency gains in society, e.g, in technological, institutional, business practice spheres.

    The reality is that despite huge productivity and GDP gains in recent decades, “real” wages in developed societies have not grown at all during the last 30 years, even according to “official” statistics. All the gains have been skimmed off by the tiny minority at the top of the pile, with some percentage going to their “little helpers” (lawyers, accountants, “financial engineers”, management consultants, politicians, PR officers (our next PM), media people, and the like). Actually, the “real” situation of the majority of people in the US and UK is much, much worse. In the 50’s a skilled auto worker in the US could support a non-working wife and children, provide medical insurance for his entire family, pay for his children’s college education and afford his own house. A middle-manager working in a UK industrial firm around the same time could also support a family and pay for his children’s schooling in private establishments, secure in the knowledge that his professional career will progress according to a well established trajectory. All this is gone now, and our (labour) politicians are congratulating themselves on us having such a “flexible” work force.

    The problems resulting from offsourcing, moving production into cheaper countries, and the resulting losses in blue- and now increasingly white-collar jobs, have been widely commented upon. But most people have missed a different side to technological progress.

    Most commentators, whether from the “left” or “right”, view ever-more sophisticated technological development as “a good thing”. The idea is that technology increases productivity, and thus the amount of wealth per head generated in society. What most people have failed to notice is the effect that technological progress has on society itself.

    In the first phase of the development of industrial society (up to about the 1960’s), as technology progressed, there was a constantly growing demand for highly skilled labour, at all levels of the economy. This need was met by huge investments in state educational systems, from elementary education, vocational training, all the way to post-graduate studies, and this resulted in the emergence of a large, educated populace. But, and this is quite interesting, further technological progress reversed this trend. Advances in technology led to the de-skilling of an ever-increasing number of jobs. Before, these jobs often required skills which sometimes could only be acquired through years of practice. When you think about it, you can probably come up with hundreds of cases where this happened. Take for example, secretarial staff. Thirty years ago, every company had to employ large numbers of clerical and secretarial people. A secretary, at the very minimum, had to be able to type and take dictation. If you’ve ever tried to learn shorthand, you will appreciate that it is a difficult skill to master, requiring at least a year of intensive study. She also needed to have a good grasp of written English, understand business correspondence and be acquainted with technical vocabulary. It was a solid, middle-class job. Thanks to the computer revolution, we don’t need highly-trained secretaries anymore. Most execs type their own letters and emails, and the helpful paper clip in MS Word will correct the spelling (and sometimes the grammar) of the most educationally-challenged secretary. From the point of view of economic efficiency, this particular technological advance has brought undoubted benefits. From the point of view of society, it has eliminated a large chunk of middle-class careers. I could give many more examples where jobs have been “dumbed down” (car mechanics, TV service personnel, watch repairmen, bank staff, short-order chefs etc). The net result of this process is a regress to XIX conditions of a single, uneducated, low-skill, homogeneous work force with very little bargaining power. The collapse in our educational standards is simply a reflection of the new reality. Why bother training computer programmers, when all computer programming in the future will be done in India and China?

    For example increasing absolute wealth would allow for more leisure time and make new means of communications accessible to more people. This has a democratising effect as more people get better information and more opportunity to evaluate it and act on it.

    That’s what the 70’s futurologists claimed — increases in productivity and technology will make us so affluent, that our only problem will be how to organise our leisure time effectively. Again, there is very little sign of this happening. There are two “leisure classes” in the US and UK: the rich and the unemployed. Neither of them has the potential to become a new “revolutionary class”. The rest are wage slaves with no time or inclination to spend time “getting new information and acting on it”.

    It doesn’t matter so much that Bill Gates is a million times wealthier than me, what is really important is that I and many others like me are able to take the time to think of ways of opposing the existing order and we can afford to do it without putting the basic welfare of our families at risk. This is nothing to do with relative wealth.

    You are right, it has nothing to do with relative wealth, it has everything to do with relative power. You don’t have any, people like Gates have all. What will happen is what people like Gates decide is in their interest. They won’t ask you for your opinion. Everything else is just smoke and mirrors….

    Sorry to be so pessimistic.

    All the Best
    Matt

  33. Tiberius,

    Haven’t heard from you in almost three weeks. Hope you’re OK.

    Cheers
    Matt

  34. Matt,

    Thanks for your message.

    I am alive and well but the last few weeks before the summer holidays are always very busy for me. Hopefully will have plenty of time for blogging in the near future!

    All the best,

    T.

  35. Matt,
    Apologies for delaying my response to your two posts, I did not want to rush it and between a full-time job and a young family at home I get little time to myself. Besides, although thinking is my favourite pastime, I am decidedly slow at it..

    I think you make your thesis clear, if I understand it correctly – ‘every advance in democratisation of a society must be preceded by events that result in a more equal distribution of wealth’. However your arguments for this are not so clear to me. But let me state where I stand with regard to ‘arguing a point’. When I am talking about something more than a simple statement of fact, a theory of some sort, I accept that this can never be ‘proven’. Perhaps more certainty can be attained in falsifying a theory, but since what we put forward are not strictly scientific hypotheses, even that is dubious. Therefore I do not like to get passionate about my views, rather I prefer to think of them as plausible explanations and look for logical flaws that could falsify alternative, ‘competing’ ones. Ultimately just about the only thing I feel passionate about is that everybody must be in the same boat when it comes to predicting the future or rationalising the past – i.e. nobody (including me) owns the truth and nobody is qualified to tell others what they ought to do, no matter how much better I imagine myself at understanding the real world. To accept this is to accept that the only fair way to make decisions of policy is to allow everyone an equal voice if they wish to participate in the decision-making, in other words to arrive at the concept of popular sovereignty. (Actually I tend to agree with John F. Knutsen that popular sovereignty is a practical expression of individual sovereignty, a more intuitive concept.) I hope that from this it is clear what I mean by ‘a true democrat’. It is to be sufficiently humble to accept that ideologies, proposing models of society and so on, are secondary to the overriding principle of popular sovereignty. I was hoping that from my comments it is evident that I do not mean by ‘people’ some sub-group that is supposed to be representative of the whole. Besides, the definition of popular sovereignty is not mine to change. I do not see any reason to join any of the ideological clubs, though I defend your right to do so, to paraphrase Voltaire. Is this still vacuous and self-contradictory in your opinion?

    When you allude to the so-called problem of ‘tyranny of the majority’, I think you misunderstand the argument for direct democracy. It is not a proposal for a perfect society, it is a proposal for an improvement compared to the kind of society in which a minority is entitled to exercise power over the majority (representative democracy, constitutional monarchy, ‘benevolent’ dictatorship etc). So we can turn the tables around if you like – why is the tyranny of a minority better than the tyranny of a majority?

    I think it is fair to say that the people have always been ultimately sovereign, although in practice until relatively recently in historical terms the only practical way to communicate that sovereignty to the elites was through the medium of violence i.e. revolutions and uprisings, as you say in your post. As societies developed new and more democratic institutions, less violent means of communicating have become available, which now include institutions of representative democracy, trade unions, the law courts etc. These are still rather crude and could be much improved (e.g. with direct democratic devices as discussed already) however at least they now provide ways of diffusing tensions before violence erupts, most of the time. Hence, it seems to me, further democratic transitions in the more advanced societies are becoming less violent and more gradual. This continuing process of developing institutions for communicating popular sovereignty contributes to democratisation. So far nothing controversial in the above, I hope!

    So where we do not see eye to eye is when we put forward plausible explanations of how the democratisation has taken place and is likely or otherwise to continue to take place. Here one thing that continues to trip us up is our differing interpretations of what constitutes democracy, and hence what constitutes democratisation. For me, the ultimate definition of democracy comes back to “everyone has access to the same information”+“everyone who wishes to participate in decision-making can do so”. I hope it is uncontroversial to say that we may not talk of democracy if either no information is available, or if everyone is excluded from participating. Information then seems to be just as important as participation. You appear to concentrate in your argument on democratisation in terms of opportunities to participate only.

    So where you say that the only true measure of democratisation is how equitably the wealth is distributed in a society, I say what about how equitably access to ideas and information is distributed? This is not merely a function of wealth distribution, as it depends more on the state of technological advancement of society. The democratising consequences of technological advances are never the intended ones. The printing press represented a commercial opportunity, but it opened the way for the spread of ideas by a new means. The effects of this were felt amongst elite educated circles at first but these were the people that mattered for the democratisation process at the time. We must keep in mind that at the early stages of transition away from absolutism, democratisation was a process taking place within a small elite. Magna Carta was not intended for us peasants and workers, blue collar or white.

    I agree that television and radio are particularly suited to being effective tools of propaganda and as such the case for these having a democratising effect is not so clear. However, these rapid means of disseminating information from time to time also produce results unintended by the elite circles that are undoubtedly otherwise in control of them. Chomsky’s view is that in period of acute political crises the self-censorship of the press can erode to allow for fairly candid discussions to take place openly. The MPs expenses scandal could be a case in point if some democratic reform comes out of this crisis.

    The internet is a little different from mass media such as the agenda-setting TV, radio and printed press in the sense that it adds to the overall information stream what would otherwise not be available at all. To get at this information still requires a conscious decision to seek it out, of course, but we cannot deny that this is an improvement on the situation 20 years ago. Your argument that it could be shut down in minutes is surely going too far – the internet is a vast commercial network that is making money for a lot of people. Those with the collective power to shut it down would have to fear extreme outcomes for their personal wellbeing and safety in order to take such a drastic step. In societies that have developed advanced institutions such as those in Western Europe for example, the prospect of a large-scale violent uprising is non-existent. Revolutions are no longer what they used to be 🙂 But this does not mean further democratisation is impossible.

    When you say that information by itself does not ensure democracy I agree of course. I never implied that it does and I accept that the printing press, TV, radio and the internet are all fairly irrelevant without opportunities to participate. China, USSR, Nazi Germany etc are examples of this as you say. Conversely, information becomes proportionately more important the more participation is possible.

    And of course, history does tend to meander a bit and occasionally goes down blind alleys like Nazism or Communism. But in general its wheel seems to have a preferred direction of travel – away from absolutism and tyranny of a minority and toward more and more inclusive governance. It is patently not true to say that all power is concentrated in the hands of a small clique controlling 90% of a society’s resources. Government has real authority and it is ultimately accountable to and legitimised by the majority who share the other 10% of resources, albeit the mechanisms of accountability are still crude. To make government more accountable to the people is to force it to wrestle more of the power away from the economic elites. These elites are able to retain their hold on society’s resources in large part through maintaining a legal framework that is favourable to their aims. This framework is in the hands of the politicians who can be forced to act to reform it in favour of the majority. In this country we already have the collective power to put whoever we want in Parliament, if we want it badly enough. We are however continually being indoctrinated to prefer political views that favour the status quo and prevent us from considering any ideas outside the false dichotomy of Labour versus Tory. We are mostly unaware of the various ways in which the benefits of our ever-increasing productivity in society are creamed off by a minority. This is clearly a problem of information as much as participation.

    About my idea that more equitable distribution of wealth is more likely to follow in the wake of democratisation of a society rather than the other way round, you say it is an extraordinary statement. Yet the examples that you give of revolutions and uprisings resulting in concessions by the ruling elites support my view. I find it hard to follow your stated argument – how does more equitable wealth distribution occur first and then how does it lead to democratisation? As I said in an earlier comment, I can see how increasing affluence across the board can bring about such a result – by allowing more people the opportunity to learn and organise because they are able to devote a smaller proportion of their time satisfying the basic needs of survival and subsistence. However increasing affluence across the board and increasing inequality of wealth distribution are not mutually exclusive.

    I do not dispute that “real” wages have not grown, but what is this real wage and is there a problem of measurement here? We are not really saying that the quality of life has deteriorated for most people in the West. Most people live healthier lives, enjoy more personal freedoms and are able to have more leisure time if they choose. We talk more about work-life balance, go travelling abroad and find time to write on weblogs. Fewer men are able to support a household alone on their salary, but is this an indication that we must work more to maintain the same standard of living, or that as a society we have come to expect to own and to consume more and are willing to work more to get it? Perhaps this is an unintended consequence of the emancipation of women? Note I do not say “work harder”, even that is not clear as work conditions have generally improved. It is difficult to see how it can be said unequivocally that in absolute terms we are on average poorer now than 30 years ago. At the same time this is a far cry from 70s futurology and the Fukuyama-esque end-of-history nonsense, I resent being lumped together with that lot 🙂

    Anyway this thing has snowballed outside any original intent on my part. I sense that you and I are both beginning to tire of it. Perhaps we ought to agree to disagree 🙂
    BR, Evgueni


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