Month: September 2006


Blair and Me

September 8, 2006

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What do I think of the current Blair feeding-frenzy? I admit to being a bit conflicted.

First, chris dillow is right as usual that compared to real questions about policy, all this is relatively insignificant.

Related to that, I think the press just wants him out, because they’re bored and would like to see something happen. I can understand that feeling, indeed I share it, but it can’t be a good reason to change the Prime Minister.

I don’t think we’d get better policies either from Brown or from whoever emerges as anyone-but-Brown.

What is distinctive about Blair is his idealism. This leads him to overambitious social and economic engineering projects, which is bad, but it also causes him to resist (to an extent) the Labour Party’s “core values”, meaning the prioritisation of the interests of public sector workers above everybody else. That is good. Will his successor’s corruption be worse than Blair’s idealism? Hard to say.

Then there is the next election. Will an early change be better or worse for Labour? Will the Tories be any better? Is Cameron lying when he says he is really just like Labour? What pressures will be on Cameron from the rest of his party? What would happen to the Tories if they lost the next election? Would they become better or worse, and in each case would that make them more or less likely to win the election after next, and what effect would that have on a Labour government in the meantime?

When it comes the the question of how to influence such an enormously complex and unpredictable system for the better by throwing a single vote at it, the only possible rational response is to give up and do something useful instead.

Current levels of voter turnout and engagement with politics are inexplicably and frighteningly high.


Fairy Dust

September 8, 2006

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From my comment on Tim Lee’s question about Blair:

Blair’s “third way” is the traditional socialist belief that the economy, the country and the world can be managed and moulded to greater effectiveness, but with the old socialist economics modified by a magic sprinkling of private-sector fairy dust that would prevent repetition of the failures of the old state-run industries.

There is a perfect consistency between the belief that every public service and every industry can be improved by expert target-setting and regulation, and the belief that the Middle East can be made better by expert regime change.

The fairy dust is worth elaborating on. What I am talking about, of course, is PFI – the Private Finance Initiative, the idea that private-sector efficiency can be achieved in public functions by means of contracting with private suppliers to fulfil the functions.

The idea is not totally false. If there genuinely is an already-existing market for a particular service – say rubbish collection – then there is a good chance that the government can do better by entering that market than by organising and employing its own collectors. But it is usually the case that if there is a working market for something, the government should not be doing it at all in the first place, either directly or indirectly. PFI has most often been employed in areas which are in practice pretty much government monopolies. There is no competitive market in running prisons, and not much of one in building hospitals.

The reason I refer to PFI as “fairy dust” is because it is employed without any understanding of what makes the private sector different. The point is not the manner of organisation, but the pattern of incentives. The sales manager of a business unit which sells services to the government under PFI is as much a part of the public sector as any civil servant. His personal success depends on satisfying his government superiors/clients, accounting to them for the services he delivers and the resources he expends. If he satisfies them, he will win more contracts. He is in competition only with his peers – those who are selling the same class of services to government.

Von Mises produced an incredibly precise critique of PFI decades before its introduction to the UK, in his 1944 book Bureaucracy

It is a widespread illusion that the efficiency of government bureaus could be improved by management engineers and their methods of scientific management. However, such plans stem from a radical misconstruction of the objectives of civil government.

Like any kind of engineering, management engineering too is conditioned by the availability of a method of calculation. Such a method exists in profit-seeking business. Here the profit-and-loss statement is supreme. The problem of bureaucratic management is precisely the absence of such a method of calculation.


Education

September 8, 2006

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It is a frustration of mine that whenever I start to talk to anyone about education, the conversation always seems to turn to schools. Schools are pretty much irrelevant to education. Schools are for babysitting, social conditioning and political indoctrination – valuable functions in many cases, of course, but not much to do with education.

Recognition of this fact seems to be beginning to build. See this piece in the Washington Post arguing that Americans, who learn exceptionally little at school, learn well after school. See also The Overselling of Higher Education

I happened to read a novel the other day set in 190x Spain. I didn’t know anything about the period – Spain was a complete blank to me from Napoleon to the Civil War. I happened to spend an hour or two poking about on Wikipedia, and I chatted about it with my wife in the evening. I now know as much about the period as if I had spent half a term on it at age 14. (True, what I “know” is not 100% reliable – but in my experience that is as much the case for secondary school lessons as it is for Wikipedia).


Those immigration estimates

September 6, 2006

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John Kay looks at the spectacular underestimates of immigration from Poland and the other new EU members. The basis of the estimates was research commissioned by the European Commission.

My view is that, while planning and estimating things like this is important for the government to be able to manage the country, they don’t matter because the government shouldn’t be managing the country in the first place. If 15,000 East European immigrants are OK for Britain, why aren’t 600,000? The question isn’t how many we’re going to get, it’s how many we want. The idea that we know just what is going to happen as a result of any policy is a dangerous illusion, and leads to overconfident intervention in things that are not government competencies.

And I really don’t see the problem. There are three reasons for opposing immigration:

1) It’s bad for the economy
2) There isn’t room
3) Our culture will be swamped by foreigners

1) is tosh. The only possible harm would be if they all came and started claiming benefit. This is unlikely – Britain isn’t an attractive place to come because of its benefits, it is attractive because of its jobs. And if it happens it is only necessary to restrict benefits.

2) is also tosh. Our population isn’t growing organically, there’s easily room for twice the current population, and a lot more young working people is just what we need.

3) is not a respectable argument, but I find it hard to honestly assert that it couldn’t conceivably happen. The danger tends to be exaggerated, but it’s not impossible that life in this country could be made much more unpleasant by the presence of a large immigrant community with an incompatible culture. But Poles? If there’s a clash of cultures going on in Britain today or tomorrow (which I don’t think is the case to any serious extent, but am prepared to consider for the sake of argument), then, to put it bluntly, the Poles are on our side.



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