Month: November 2008

Uncontroversial Measures

November 4, 2008


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The Landsbanki affair exposed the fact that the government can, under the anti-terrorism, crime, and security act 2001, seize the assets of any foreigner or foreign government, if it reasonably believes them to be likely to take action to the detriment of the United Kingdom’s economy.

Since I found this very startling, I’ve been digging around to see what was said about it at the time the bill was debated and passed.

This won’t be a long post…

While debating an amendment to add a sunset clause to the bill, Douglas Hogg said:

The plain truth is that, because of time constraints, we are not going to discuss the substance of any of the clauses in the group whose consideration terminates at 6 o’clock. We have reached only the first line in the marshalled list. At least new clause 6 would apply a sunset provision to all the other measures that feature in the marshalled list, but which will not be discussed at all. Some of them, such as the power of the Treasury to freeze people’s cash, the power of Customs to go to the magistrates to get a seizure order in respect of “terrorist cash” and the extension of disclosure obligations are of great importance.

I shall not seek to debate the merits of those issues as you, Sir Michael, would call me to order if I did so. I point out only that, from any viewpoint, they are extremely important obligations and powers that are backed by penal sanctions. Furthermore, they apply to people’s property and may also affect the property of innocent third parties. However, we are not going to discuss them at all. That is one of the arguments in favour of sunset clauses, which are a very imperfect way of dealing with the problem that we face. We should not be in this position, but as we are, we must do something to provide a remedy. A sunset clause is one way of at least expressing our dismay about the position.

That’s it. That’s the only mention that was made of the power that the government later used against Landsbanki.

Ah, but what about the committee stage. Surely the Home Affairs Select Committee at least discussed it?

Have a look

Why did they debate detention of suspected international terrorists, Asylum, Judicial Review, Religious Hatred, hoaxes involving noxious substances, and the EU third pillar, but not the abolition of property rights for foreigners? Chris Mullin explained:

it is not our intention to trawl through every detail of this Bill, much of which is uncontroversial, but to home in, in the limited time we have, on the three or four obvious issues that are likely to be more controversial

There we have it. It was an uncontroversial measure.

Voting – altruism and other motives

November 4, 2008


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Voting once again seems to be under general discussion for some reason.

Alex Tabarrok at MR links to an article by Gelman and Kaplan, which points out that while the benefits of voting are small (because of the very tiny probability of one vote changing the result), they affect millions of people. If I am a little bit altruistic – say, if it is worth 10 dollars to me to make some other person 100 dollars better off – then the actual benefit of changing the result can easily be bumped up into the billions, which could make it worth heading off to the voting booth even with a one-in-ten-million or so chance of changing the outcome.

The fact that so many people make charitable donations – where doing 100 dollars of benefit costs 100 dollars plus some overhead – implies that the 10% coefficient I use above is very plausible.

(To be clear, we’re not just talking about cash benefits here. I might consider it a benefit worth $100 to me to have someone else sent to university, or treated for a disease)

The Gelman and Kaplan argument is so obviously correct – not just logically sound but the real reason why people do actually vote – that I’m embarrassed to have spent so much time looking for alternatives.

Is everything rosy with democracy then? Unfortunately, I think G & K stopped a bit too soon. After all, altruism is real, but it’s not the only motive out there on top of selfishness.

Let’s say I have a particular hatred of muslims. It might be worth $10000 to me to cause the death of a muslim. By changing government, I might kill thousands of them! That would be worth a lot more to me than a cut in sugar tariffs.

But is $10,000 realistic? It’s surely not that hard to get someone killed if you have a few grand to spend on it – we’d be up to our knees in corpses. But in normal life, the main cost of killing someone is the risk of being caught and punished. And plenty of people get killed anyway. Democracy isn’t just a way of having an effect (good or bad) on millions of people; it’s a way of doing so with total impunity.

The arithmetic I’m throwing around here isn’t really rigorous. What does it mean to say that I value a better house for a poor family at $200, or someone else prevented from playing online poker at $100, when I have no way of directly causing these things to happen? It doesn’t matter. The original question is: is it worth 30 minutes of my time to have a 1-in-10-million chance of causing a million poor families to get better housing, and to stop five million people from playing poker, and to cause 100,000 muslims to become dead muslims? (etc.) If those are the things I want, it might well be.

Is this good or bad? I think most people are more altruistic than anti-altruistic, at least towards their own countrymen. So voters should be expected to vote mostly for the general benefit as they see it, but perhaps be a bit on the warlike side. The impunity thing, though, has some nasty implications. The large-scale altruism expressed through voting is in some degree in competition with direct small-scale altruism, but the “effectiveness multiplier” of democracy is greater in the case of punishing others, because it detaches the harm from any responsibility.

Anti-altruism isn’t always a bad thing. A certain level of vindictiveness benefits society by discouraging anti-social behaviour, even in those circumstances where Homo Economicus would rather cut his losses. But I worry that when detached from the human scale, the natural willingness to punish individual enemies becomes a generalized animus against everyone resembling some enemy.

Finally, none of this contradicts Bryan Caplan’s critique of voters. The individual benefits come from the good feelings of believing I have had the influence I desired. I can still have those good feelings without putting in the effort to convince myself that the effects will be what I expect. “I personally stopped a million people from eating trans fats in restaurants”. If that gives me the good feelings, it would be silly to put lots of effort into working out whether it actually did anyone any material good. The costs of being wrong are tiny.

Value of politicians

November 1, 2008


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Here’s a little factoid that I think is relevant to my politics as entertainment theme:

Three employees of our government, and their approximate salaries:

Gordon Brown, Prime Minister: £200,000

Mark Thomson, Director-General of the BBC: £816,000

Jonathan Ross, Entertainer: £6,000,000

Where is the power really in our system of government? Jonathan Ross’s earning power is the result of a “tournament” effect of the star system in entertainment, so maybe we should leave that out. But what does it mean that the manager of the BBC is worth four times as much as the PM?

Possibly he is better qualified? Wikipedia suggests not. (Brown has a PhD in history from the university of Edinburgh). Hmm, Gordon Brown took a doctorate in history and I never knew. Is there some significance in the lack of public attention given (by me, at least) to that? Isn’t it really quite important? Does the fact that the thesis was on a bit of the history of the Labour party make it less important?

Back to the pay, can we explain it away by saying that the mechanics of the different roles means that the director of the BBC needs to have special expertise, whereas the PM doesn’t, instead having (highly paid) civil servants to supply the technical expertise?

OK, perhaps this isn’t a big deal. Being Prime Minister certainly has perks beyond the salary. But the fact that taxpayers pay 30 times as much for Jonathan Ross than we do for a Prime Minister at least takes some of the ridicule away from my theory that politics provides more value as entertainment than as government.

Legislation – the details

November 1, 2008


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I was planning, in relation to the previous post’s subject, to mention the government’s classification of an Icelandic bank as a terrorist organisation in order to freeze its assets.

As is so often the case, as I researched to fill in the details of exactly what happened, I found it wasn’t what I thought. As is occasionally the case, the truth is more interesting than the falsehood.

The order freezing the assets of Landsbanki, and section 4 of the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 under which the said order was made, make no reference to terrorism, except in that the section is part of that act.

The government is not “misusing” anti-terrorism law to grab the money, they are doing precisely what they were empowered to do in 2001.

4. Power to make order

(1) The Treasury may make a freezing order if the following two conditions are satisfied.

(2) The first condition is that the Treasury reasonably believe that—

(a) action to the detriment of the United Kingdom’s economy (or part of it) has been or is likely to be taken by a person or persons, or

(b) action constituting a threat to the life or property of one or more nationals of the United Kingdom or residents of the United Kingdom has been or is likely to be taken by a person or persons.

(3) If one person is believed to have taken or to be likely to take the action the second condition is that the person is—

(a) the government of a country or territory outside the United Kingdom, or

(b) a resident of a country or territory outside the United Kingdom.

4.(2)(b) is not relevant since the order cited 4.(2)(a) instead, so no allegation of terrorism of any kind needed to be made. The government has the clear legal power to seize the assets of any foreigner who it believes is likely to take action detrimental to the economy of the United Kingdom.

Holy shit.

How did it get that? Well, the clue is in the act. This was the act that was passed in December of 2001, against the votes of many Labour MPs who objected to the detention-without-trial provisions. The “seizing the assets of foreigners for any economic reason” bit escaped any public debate.

This is the lesson that we have to take from the Landsbanki saga. The anti-liberty measures that get argued about on the 9 o’clock news are the tip of an iceberg of literally unbelievable powers being accumulated by the government, that will be unveiled in a few years when the fuss has died down, and used against people who you would least expect to be the target.

Authoritarian MPs

November 1, 2008


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There are a couple of schemes in progress responding to the breakneck progress of the all-knowing, all-powerful state in Britain.

One is the sending of copies of 1984 to every MP, and another is the stroll that some bloggers have in mind for Wednesday.

Alarmed as I am by the situation, I think these protests are fundamentally misdirected.

I do not believe that the Labour Party is pushing in this direction (ID cards, national childrens databases, national ID databases, detention without charge, ID required for buying mobile telephones, etc. etc. etc.) because the MPs are a bunch of authoritarian bastards, despite appearances. It is not their aim to see all these powers gathered and used. I suspect they actually aren’t bothered about it one way or another, and, given the chance to offer their honest opinion, would probably say most of it isn’t worth doing.

They are pushing it all because they think it is a vote-winner, and for no other reason.

That being the case, demonstrating that there is a small group of people who are very strongly opposed serves no purpose. They know that, but we only have one vote each, and they don’t believe there are enough of us to matter.

The only way to win this is to gain the attention of the ordinary voter, and bring home to them the problems of having the all-powerful state monitoring their every move. The biggest publicity victory we have had so far was the news that local councils were using anti-terror surveillance powers to monitor people putting non-recyclables in recycling bins. That beats the by-election victory of David Davis and the Lords’ defeat of 42-day detention.

Even politics doesn’t help. It is true that, in the boxing match of electoral politics, the Conservatives have taken very good positions on most of these issues, and therefore, if they win, there should be some relief in the short term. But in the longer term, the fundamentals will reassert themselves. The Tories will find their pro-liberty positions a liability, and, in due course abandon them. Liberty simply isn’t what the MPs went into politics to fight for, and if push comes to shove, it will be sacrificed to improve electoral chances and therefore whatever it is that they are aiming for.

More personal information

November 1, 2008


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Further to my last piece, on the unsurprising facts that people with access to others’ personal information use that access for any reason, including ordinary curiosity, a topical example has cropped up:

Helen Jones-Kelley, director of the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, disclosed today that computer inquiries on Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher were not restricted to a child-support system.

The agency also checked Wurzelbacher in its computer systems to determine whether he was receiving welfare assistance or owed unemployment compensation taxes, she wrote.

(Wurzelbacher, aka “Joe the Plumber” is currently enjoying 15 minutes of fame for asking Obama awkward questions in public)

While the searching of government databases on Joe is less surprising than that it was found out, its ordinariness makes it more significant. You can get away with a lot these days, provided you keep your head down. But stick your head over the parapet, by becoming an activist, or falling out with a government official of some kind, and you know that you will suddenly be subject to a degree of scrutiny that would otherwise be easily avoidable. I think that is a key reason why we do not have the democratic ideal of the “politically involved layman” – the risks involved in politics are too great to be taken on lightly; they’re only worth it if you are prepared to devote yourself to activism in a major way. It’s a soft barrier, but its one more barrier between the political class and the rest of us.

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