Privacy or Freedom?

March 11, 2005


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Four immigrants have been removed from their homes in 2001 and imprisoned in Belmarsh Prison. They have not been charged or convicted of any crime. (They are free to return to their countries of origin, but cannot be forced to do so).

The Law Lords ruled that this was a breach of human rights. In an attempt to reduce the threat posed by their release, the government has tried to get a new law passed that it can use to restrict their freedoms and movement after release. This law is being held up in the House of Lords.

These four are therefore now being released.

Their names are “E”, “H”, “Q”, and “K”.


Oh, we can’t be told their real names. That would violate their privacy.


The government is prepared to overrule basic principles of freedom in this case — both ancient ones (Magna Carta) and modern ones (ECHR). It says it is necessary to take these extraordinary steps to protect us from these men. It has imprisoned them for over three years without trying them. So why can’t it tell us who they are?

Talk about swallowing camels and straining at gnats.

If it is necessary to compromise our liberties in the face of the terrorist threat, and perhaps it is, then surely we should have some kind of scale of which rights we are more willing to lose and which we are more determined to keep.

The idea that someone subject to legal proceedings should have their identity protected is something which I would happily give away for nothing. Indeed, I think the legal process should be open and public.

The right of people anywhere in the world to stay in this country, even if they are believed to be a threat, if they would be in danger in their home country, is worth a bit more. I would quite like to keep that, or at least to require that some justification for the belief that they are a threat be presented. I am open to discussion of this matter, though.

The right of citizens of this country to be either tried for an offence or allowed to go freely about their business is incomparably more valuable. I am nowhere near being convinced that we need to compromise this at all.

So why have we jumped straight to abolishing that essential freedom, when the stated objective could be so easily attained at much less cost.

I am sure the Police and Security Services are sincere in their desire to do their very important jobs as well as possible, and are asking for the power they think they need. But the dynamics of their organisations are such that they will always be asking for the most power they have any chance of getting. I do not blame them for that, but it is the role of our elected government to make the important trade-offs, and not to hide behind “advice” of these agencies as an excuse for not making them.

Legislative Productivity

The main political news at the moment is the Government’s attempt to pass a controversial Anti-Terrorism bill through both houses of Parliament. It’s in a bit of a hurry — Blair wants the new law in force by Monday.

I’ve already stated my position on the law itself, but the spectacle of legislative process at full throttle raises other issues.

Parliament has a certain amount of time available to debate laws. It uses all of it. Also, at the end of every legislative session, there are usually laws that haven’t been passed because there wasn’t time.

Now, how many laws should be passed? Given that we get as many laws as possible, to the very limit of the time available, there is no reason to believe that the level of legislative production is exactly the ideal level. The behaviour of Parliament suggests that they think we need many, many more laws, but there just isn’t time.

If this is what they think, and they are right, we should surely be looking at some constitutional reform to allow more laws to be passed than is possible currently. To some extent, the addition of extra layers of government — regional and European — provides this opportunity, but I’ve never heard them advocated in these terms.

I suspect this is because no-one really believes that what this country needs is higher legislative production. But that leads to the question: if we don’t need more laws than Parliament has time for, why does Parliament pack as many as possible into the time it has?

I believe that it does so because it is in the interest of politicians and bureaucrats to personally pass as much legislation as they can, independent of the interests of the public.

What are the effects of this conflict of interest?

First, obviously, that we get more laws than we really need. We could manage without a law to make it illegal to tidy up the countryside without a license.

Second, less obviously, there is less scrutiny than there should be of laws. This gives enormous power to the government and Civil Service, as they can “scale up” their resources without limit to the level of legislative production, and Parliament can not increase its “quality control” function to match.

What applies to Parliament, applies even more strongly to the public as a whole. If Parliament considered one bill per month, we could all hear about it and form an opinion. At the rate of legislation actually in force, only a specialist can even know what laws are being considered at a given time. If you are affected by a proposed bill, it takes time to gather a grass-roots campaign to influence it. At the present hectic rate of legislation, you do not have time to do this.

The legislative sprint is anti-democratic in another way. Because Parliament as a whole is trying to pass as many laws as it can, any attempt to modify a bill is resisted, not just by those who actively support the particular bill, but by the others who have no strong opinion, but do not want to “waste time” on your objections because of the knock-on effect on the schedules of other bills.

I think this is one of the problems we are seeing in the EU legislature with the software patent situation.

But this effect reaches a whole new level in the European Parliament, because of the rules governing it. Where, as in this case, the Council adopts a proposal different from that adopted by the Parliament on first reading, Parliament is assumed to approve the changes, unless it finds time within a three-month period to disagree! This truly is a revolution in legislative productivity. Imagine if, say, the US Senate worked under this rule. Rather than have to find time to pass the laws you want to pass, all laws will automatically pass except the ones you find time to oppose.

This obviously gives even more power to whoever arranges the Parliament’s business.

One other obsolete obstacle to legislative productivity is the “quorum”. In most debating chambers, a minimum number of members are needed to approve a measure. Once again, the EU throws off these shackles, with another innovative rule. In the EU Parliament, a minimum number of members are needed to stop a measure! If less than half the members oppose the bill, it passes, even if nobody supports it, and even if the Parliament has already rejected it once on first reading.

Oh, and all this will stay exactly the same if the proposed constitution is passed.

(p. 117 of this document)

Update: Matthew Yglesias makes a very similar point about the US legislative process.

Electoral Metaphysics

As General Election time rolls round again, it’s time to address the age-old question, is it really worthwhile to vote?

The case against is made most eloquently by Steven Landsburg in the context of last year’s US presidential election. The probability of one vote making a difference to the outcome is negligible — comparable to winning the lottery 1000 times in a row.

There are some objections that can be made to this, most obviously that the result of the election isn’t just who wins. The margin of victory has an effect on the actions of the government throughout their term. Indeed, in the US we have seen endless pontificating on what lessons parties should draw from the answers voters gave to pollsters on their way home.

There’s another objection, however, which attacks Landsburg’s reasoning directly:

Let’s get mathematical:

Let a be the result of the election ( candidate X votes – candidate Y votes, to be simple) if I don’t vote

Let b be the result of the election if I do vote (say for candidate X).
Now, b = a + 1, so the actual outcome of the election will only be different if a=0 or a=-1 (whatever the rules are for tied elections). This is Landsburg’s calculation.

But what is the real justification for saying b = a + 1?

We can assume that my vote doesn’t affect anyone else’s vote. After all, they’re not supposed to know.

But that’s not sufficent. For b to equal a + 1, the votes of other people have to be statistically independent from mine. Can I assume that?

Now we get philosophical. The common view of me as a mind with “free will” seems to imply the independence assumption. But it isn’t backed up by sociology or neurobiology. On the basis of either observation or a reductionist, mechanistic view of the human brain, my vote is likely to be significantly correlated with other peoples’ votes. That, after all, is the assumption behind opinion polling.

And based on that correlation, ba cannot be assumed to be 1. It might be 5, or 100, or 10000.

Imagine, as a thought experiment, that we are all identical robots. We process our various inputs, and reach our conclusions. In the simplest possible model, either we will all vote for the same candidate, or none of us will vote.

As one of those robots, my vote will not affect anyone else’s, but if I vote for X, X will win.

We are not identical, and we will not all vote the same. But the correlation, though less than one, is surely greater than zero.

The tricky question: If I use this argument, and therefore vote, will there really be more votes for my candidate? Again, the opinion pollsters believe so. I think they’re right.

Psychologically, we do not reach decisions entirely via explicit logic. In fact, we invent reasons to excuse the decisions we would have made anyway. If I am determined to vote, more other people will vote than if I am indifferent. If my candidate wins by 10 votes, I will say, “If I hadn’t voted, he wouldn’t have won.”

Of course, if you live in a safe constituency, your vote won’t alter the result. That makes the case for a better electoral system all the stronger, since it shows that many people are denied political influence in a way that other people are not.

In any case, I will vote for a fringe party, so my candidate won’t win. But the same effect will amplify the secondary effects of my vote. A good percentage will have a real impact on UK politics.

Why is the EU so corrupt?

March 8, 2005


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For the benefit of those surprised by the software patent scandal, it is worth asking, why is this style of behaviour so characteristic of the EU institutions? A caricature of a Eurosceptic might say that it is to be expected of “foreigners”, but in fact the EU is more corrupt than any of its member countries.

Like asking why some countries are poor, this is in a sense a reversal of the real question. It is normal for people to be poor, and it is normal for governments to be corrupt, and it is the exceptions that need explanations, not the normal case. Nonetheless, there is still a discrepancy to be explained, as the EU is unusually corrupt when compared to governemnts in the developed world.

I see two major reasons. First, necessity puts a lower limit on national governments’ corruption and incompentence. Even in the modern era of bloated state sectors, there is a lot which a national government does which is considered essential to the lives of its citizens. If the Italian government could not keep order in the cities, if it could not keep the state-run transport system and basic nationalised services running, it would collapse. It would be overthrown as its failure became obvious to everyone.

In contrast, absolutely nothing that the EU does is essential. Every member government is capable of running its own country, and some have done so for centuries. There is no minimum level of competence or effectiveness below which the EU cannot fall, no degree of corruption which is unsupportable.

Secondly, the EU has a huge weight of idealism supporting it. While other state enterprises are judged on their achievements and their merits, the EU project can count on a large body of support on the basis of its ideals, independently of its actual structure or behaviour. It can upset one group or another with individual acts of defiance of law and democracy, but there are always more people who assume, in ignorance, that it is a force for good. When it comes to a vote, the diffuse good feeling outweighs the outrage of those that have experienced the Eurocrats directly.

The weakness of these two arguments is that they apply equally to the USA. It also is a federal layer over states capable of running their own affairs, and it also commands a unionist idealism. While by no means free of corruption, it is not so mired as the EU.

It is important to recognise that the USA is unique in this. There have been a number of other superstates, but none of them have been democratically controlled except for the USA. They have all been effectively ruled, as the EU is, by nominal civil servants with control of the bureaucracy. Though an opponent of Communism, I think the problems of the USSR were as much the result of federalism as they were of Marxism.

So why has the USA succeeded? I think its exceptional status comes from a number of different elements, but here are a few:

  • It was founded on a principle of strictly limited government. The founders had a clearer idea of what they were against than of what they were for.
  • In particular, federal powers are much more sharply circumscribed by the Bill of Rights than by any vague doctrine of “subsidiarity” in the EU lexicon.
  • Its population does not consist of distinct nations (ignoring Native Americans, which they did). Citizens see the federal institutions as being part of their own country.
  • Americans have a more “legalistic” attitude than Europeans, who have a more “pragmatic” attitude to law. This pragmatism tends to dissolve separations of powers.

Related links:
Software Patent article

Larry Siedentop – the argument about legalistic / pragmatic law is from him. I highly recommend his book as an insightful and non-partisan study of its subject.

Software Patents

The EU Council has adopted the Software Patents directive unanimously, despite the fact four of its members opposed it.

To many Europeans with an interest in software freedom, this issue has been their first encounter with the mechanisms of the EU. They might easily assume such anti-democratic manoevering is exceptional. It isn’t. It’s business as usual. What the politicians at the heart of the EU want, they get, and the rules don’t matter.


The EU’s annual accounts have not been audited — for ten years running

Denmark voted against the Maastricht Treaty in a referendum in 1992. A small change was made and they were asked to vote again. If it was the same treaty, they had already rejected it. If it was different, all the other signatories needed to ratify the new one. Never mind.

The stability and growth pact was agreed before the single currency was introduced, limiting members’ fiscal deficits. Several member states have exceeded the deficits, and the pact has not been enforced.

Whenever a new Treaty is introduced, we are always told that if we reject it we will lose all the (alleged) benefits of EU membership, despite the fact that everyone has committed to the previous treaties, which logically would remain in force. The implication is that prior agreements are worthless. (example: see the very end of this piece from “Britain in Europe”).

That’s just off the top of my head. (now updated with references: I don’t demand anyone take my word for this stuff).


The Northern Bank Robbery and the Peace Process

March 6, 2005


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Fascinating article on the Northern Bank robbery, from the Observer

When I originally wrote my article “The Structure of Terrorist Movements”, my plan was to follow it up with two sequels; First, a recent history of the IRA, and second, a piece on international terrorism. My overall intent was to challenge Eric Raymond’s “Anti-Idiotarian Manifesto” on what I saw as its one flaw: the lumping together of terrorists and their supporters as one undifferentiated enemy.

What I found when I tried to write my summary of Northern Irelands terrorist war was, first, that people had spent years doing serious research on this, and I didn’t have time even to read what they’d written, never mind improve on it, and second, that on many important issues, the real facts simply aren’t known.

There is at least a good reason why the facts are so unclear: It was necessary during the peace negotiations for both sides to present the settlement to their followers as a victory. Each side recognised the other’s need to do this, and were therefore prepared to disguise the cold facts in places.

So, of necessity, what follows is not the factual summary I originally envisaged. It is much more an opinion piece, describing what I believe has happened in Northern Ireland since 1992. Almost every statement I will make can be challenged.

First claim: the war is over, and has been since 1998, though it was not clear at the time. Violent incidents have occurred since then, notably the Omagh bomb which killed 29 in August of 1998. They will continue, but they are no longer the acts of a coherent political movement. They should tail off over the years. The individuals involved may have links to mainstream republicanism, but that mainstream, including Sinn Fein, no longer depends on them. Sinn Fein has almost completed the movement to being a purely political, rather than terrorist, organisation.

full article…

BritBlog round-up

March 6, 2005


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Weekly roundup of British Blogs at Tim Worstall’s

I’ve added some bloke calling himself Beowulf and Jon Barnard to my list.

(I’m assuming Beowulf is not his real name. After all, who would call a child Beowulf? Other than me, I mean.)

More on Denbigh High School

I have found the actual Appeal Court judgement on the Denbigh School case:

Update: URL moved

It bears out, so far as I can see, my interpretation in my previous post:

75. The decision-making structure should therefore go along the following lines:
1)Has the claimant established that she has a relevant Convention right which qualifies for protection under Article 9(1)?
2)Subject to any justification that is established under Article 9(2), has that Convention right been violated?
3)Was the interference with her Convention right prescribed by law in the Convention sense of that expression?
4)Did the interference have a legitimate arm?
5)What are the considerations that need to be balanced against each other when determining whether the interference was necessary in a democratic society for the purpose of achieving that aim?
6)Was the interference justified under Article 9(2)?
81. Nothing in this judgment should be taken as meaning that it would be impossible for the School to justify its stance if it were to reconsider its uniform policy in the light of this judgment and were to determine not to alter it in any significant respect. Matters which it (and other schools facing a similar question) would no doubt need to consider include these:
Whether the members of any further religious groups (other than very strict Muslims) might wish to be free to manifest their religion or beliefs by wearing clothing not currently permitted by the school’s uniform policy, and the effect that a larger variety of different clothes being worn by students for religious reasons would have on the School’s policy of inclusiveness;
Whether it is appropriate to override the beliefs of very strict Muslims given that liberal Muslims have been permitted the dress code of their choice and the School’s uniform policy is not entirely secular;
Whether it is appropriate to take into account any, and if so which, of the concerns expressed by the School’s three witnesses as good reasons for depriving a student like the claimant of her right to manifest her beliefs by the clothing she wears at school, and the weight which should be accorded to each of these concerns;
Whether there is any way in which the School can do more to reconcile its wish to retain something resembling its current uniform policy with the beliefs of those like
the claimant who consider that it exposes more of their bodies than they are permitted by their beliefs to show.

In other words, the school didn’t write the correct arse-covering memos before deciding to apply its school uniform policy.

School Uniforms and Thought Crimes

March 4, 2005


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Update: Denbigh win appeal to House of Lords

As the blogosphere’s man in Luton, I suppose I should comment on the Shabina Begum case. The only “local colour” I can contribute is to confirm that one doesn’t see many jibabs around the streets of Luton.

The other point that was made when the case was originally decided in favour of the school, but not made in the press now that the appeal has gone the other way, is that Denbigh School is 80% Muslim. Various arguments I have seen do not take this into account.

That is by the way. I’m less interested in whether religious traditions should override school uniform policies, than in the bizareness of the legal argument that the Appeal Court used.

Their finding seems to be that the School erred by not considering whether their uniform policy breached the pupils’ human rights. If they had considered it, they could have decided, as the lower court did, that the uniform policy was fine, and they would have been OK. They lost because they didn’t have a piece of paper on file saying that they had taken human rights into account.

(I’m open to correction on my understanding here, as I’m working very much from secondary reports, including the Council’s own statement on the judgement.) UPDATE: I found the primary source; more details here.

This trend of legal and regulatory requirement is intensely stupid and irritating. It replaces restrictions on actions and policies with thought crimes. I mean that precisely; the fault of Denbigh School was not in its actions but in the way it decided its actions.

The result of this legal attitude is to drown all activity, in both the public and the private sectors, in a snowstorm of pointless arse-covering paperwork. Hypocrisy is made paramount, and the key managerial skill is, as Dogbert has it, “pretending to care”.

Thought crimes produce hypocrisy, because it is impossible to tell what someone is really thinking. You can act for one reason and claim to be acting for another reason, and if your reasons rather than your actions are regulated, you can get away with anything.

Time after time: employment law, money-laundering law, accounting law, human rights law, we are being required to take various principles into account, and document that we have done so, rather than being judged on results which can be objectively assessed.

This even links with yesterday’s post. I am a fanatical believer in honesty and openness. I like to tell the truth about what I’m doing and why, and prefer other people to do the same. Thought crimes mean that I am still free to act as I choose, provided that I’m prepared to lie about it. It leaves a culture of disinformation which harms everyone’s decision making.


March 3, 2005


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Via Hit and Run, an overwhelming case for openness in counter-terrorism.

The bullet points: If law enforcement had kept fewer secrets from the public, the Sept. 11 attacks would not have happened. If they had kept more secrets, the attacks would have been more successful.

Our key advantage over the terrorists in our midst is that there are more of us than there are of them — by a factor of tens of thousands. Secrecy is a necessity for them: it evens the odds by taking nearly all of us out of the fight. If they know our secrets, there’s actually not enough of them to exploit it. If we know any of their secrets, then someone, somewhere, can use that to learn more or to act against the terrorists.

In Britain, the government believes there are people against whom no legal case can be made, but who pose a huge danger if released into society. Its solution is to put them under house arrest, without legal proceedings, and a law is now before parliament to permit this. My solution would be to publish their names, addresses and photographs in the Mail on Sunday, and suggest that people might want to keep an eye on them.

There is, of course, a danger that “mob rule” might get out of hand, but I trust the people more than I trust the government. Apart from anything else, private individuals are more accountable than officials, as they do not have the Official Secrets Act to protect them from the consequences of their actions.

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