By Jamie Whyte, Corvo Books Ltd., 2005, 0954325559
It’s a shame that Jamie Whyte’s books are so brief. They keep me rolling on the floor almost continuously. Then again, I would probably develop an even worse set of lungs if I spent more time rolling around dirty carpets gasping for air.
Whyte tears apart Blair’s (and policitian’s in general) prose and logic with amazing clarity and wit. The quotes below are long, but contain some gems, e.g. “But as far as I know the seven deadly sins are not ranked: sloth is no worse than greed.”; “None distinguishes Mr Howard from Mr Blair or from Gordon Brown or, indeed, from anyone who can operate a toaster.”; and “There is something mesmerising about obvious falsehoods declared with conviction.”
[p14] Beginners in specifying political goals ought to study this list well. It is a beautiful example. First, there are ten goals. Ten is really the only suitable number of goals. Not only is it a round number, it is likely to bring to mind the Ten Commandments with all its divine authority. Seven, though also biblical, might conjure up the deadly sins and so should be avoided. Twelve is OK, what with the twelve disciples and all that, but the number has been tainted by the Alcoholics Anonymous twelve step recovery programme. You don’t want to cast Britain as a recovering alcoholic.
[p16] In January 2004, shortly after becoming leader of the Conservative Party, Michael Howard published a personal creed of sixteen principles. Sixteen is a strange number of principles; for reasons already considered, it should have been ten. And in the case of Mr Howard’s principles ten would also have had the virtue of reducing their number. For they are pathetic. None distinguishes Mr Howard from Mr Blair or from Gordon Brown or, indeed, from anyone who can operate a toaster.
[p24] Any system that depends on the superior morality of its participants is poorly designed. A well-run army does not require heroic soldiers, and a well-structured polity does not require honest politicians. Political deceit should be so readily discovered and punished that even the most conniving politician becomes utterly trustworthy.
[p28] Even given the great progress of British sentimentality, American political campaigning still strikes most of us as gauche. But that doesn’t mean British politicians do not indulge in the same shenanigans. They simply employ a style better suited to British sensibilities. Irrelevant associations needn’t be boldly declared in red, white and blue; they can be subtly suggested just as well.
[p61] But if people really did want to spend more of their income on education, they were free to do so. They could hire private tutors for their children or donate money to local schools to improve facilities or hire extra teachers. The only justification for increasing tax to spend on something is that the [p62] money would not otherwise be spent on it. Mr Salmond wanted to increase income tax and spending on education precisely because he doubted people would spend the money if not compelled to. A policy of compulsion may be right, but it cannot be right because people want to do what they will now be compelled to do.
It isn’t only some on the Left who claim that people should be compelled to do what they prefer to do. John Hayes, Conservative MP for South Holland and Deeping, recently wrote an article in The Spectator lamenting a new liberalism infecting the Conservative Party. He claimed that the party should adopt a policy of actively promoting certain virtues, such as ‘duty, restraint and loyalty’. Why? Because these are the values of the vast majority of British citizens. Yet if they are, why would the government need to promote them? Why waste money encouraging the values that people already have?
Mr Hayes favours policies that promote his values. You would expect him to justify this idea on the ground that his values are right but sadly uncommon. Alas, that would look undemocratic. Who is he to impose his values on a population that does not share them? So instead he claims that his values should be imposed on people precisely because they share them. It may be crazy but at least it’s democratic.
[p64] It is an absurd argument insofar as it is intended to win your vote. If something really is inevitable, then it should make no difference to how you cast your vote; it will happen whoever comes to power. But the absurdity of an argument never stopped a politician making it.
[p65] There is something mesmerising about obvious falsehoods declared with conviction.
[p69] Creationists believe the biblical story of the Earth’s origin. They believe, among other things, that the world was created around 4000BC by a word. The word was God and the word was with God. (God was apparently beside himself at the time of creation, which is understandable.)
This theory has at least two problems. It is inconsistent with what modern scientists believe about the age of the Earth, which they estimate to be not 6000 but 4.5 billion years old. And there is no evidence for the theory, beyond the opinions of the authors of relevant bits of the Bible, who we cannot regard as reliable sources: they fail to explain either their evidence or their research methods.
Creationists are acutely aware of the first problem. They devote much energy to challenging contemporary theories about the age of the Earth and its natural history: evolution, dinosaurs and all that nonsense. But they fail to notice the second problem. They argue as though refuting the contemporary scientific view would suffice to establish the truth of [p70] Creationism. They argue as if modern science and Creationism were the only options.
They are not. There are also the creation stories of the world’s other pre-enlightenment cultures. Establishing the truth of Creationism by a process of elimination would require the refutation of these stories too. And not just these stories but all those possible creation stories that have not been made up but could have been - that the earth is a giant pomegranate that fell off the back of a cosmic fruit truck or was created three weeks ago by the number 12 or whatever you like.
When there are infinitely many possible answers, you cannot gain victory for your hypothesis by eliminating the alternatives: there will always be another you have not yet defeated. And you certainly cannot win by eliminating just one of them. Creationists who think that they can prove their position by attacking the popular scientific view commit the false dichotomy fallacy. They argue as though there were only two possibilities when in fact there are many.
What’s good for the priest is good for the politician.
[p81] The standard argument against fox hunting is that it is cruel to foxes. Or, as the Blairite Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell, recently put it: the government supports ‘the right of the majority to live in a humane, modern society, which does not treat the killing of animals as “sport”‘.31 But the sports of fishing and shooting involve the killing of animals. Surely they too should be illegal. What is the relevant difference between the cruel sport of hunting foxes with hounds and the cruel sports of shooting and fishing? Why should the former be outlawed and the latter protected at all political cost?
In his article Mr Blair hinted at an answer. He pointed out that hunting with hounds is a ‘minority interest’. He could not have been suggesting a whole new principal of jurisprudence, that all minority interests should be illegal. That would rule out stamp collecting and running for political office, among other harmless activities. Rather, he must have been suggesting a qualification to the cruelty principle. He thinks that cruel minority sports should be illegal; popular forms of cruelty are just fine.
[p84] Since his intellectual conversion, Mr Blair has claimed that free markets, competition and the profit motive are the best way to ensure an efficient allocation of resources. Why then does he not try to privatise the NHS and state schools? The answer cannot be that these services are too important to ‘be left to the free market’. What could be more important than the production and distribution of food? Yet the Labour Party never suggests nationalising farms and supermarkets. Perhaps Mr Blair has some complex set of principles that explains why schools should be nationalised but not supermarkets. But if he does, he doesn’t tell us what it is. In the meantime, he appears to have an incoherent set of policies.
Many think it is childishly pedantic to demand consistency from politicians. It shows a failure to understand the messy reality of politics. Politicians need to be masters of ‘the art of the possible’, not intellectual purists. Those of us who worry about consistency should grow up.
But consistency is not a matter of purely academic concern. If statements are inconsistent, then at least one of them is false. A politician who advocates policies that violate principles he uses to defend other policies isn’t just intellectually corrupt; he has some wrong policies - at least, he does if his principles are true. If smoking and drinking should be allowed because they cause little harm to anyone but the smokers and drinkers, then snorting cocaine should be allowed too. The law preventing it is wrong. Improperly denying citizens their liberties is a serious mistake. It is not something that only pedants should worry about.
[p86] No one likes changing his mind, for a simple reason: if your new opinion is true then your old opinion must have been false. To change your mind is to admit error.
People really shouldn’t worry about it so much. There need be nothing shameful in changing your opinion. Intelligent, well-informed people get things wrong. And, when they disCOver they have, revising their opinions is the only sensible thing to do. Changing your mind occasionally should be taken as a virtue. It shows that you are still thinking about things. If you have held exactly the same opinions for the past ten years, then you know when your brain shut down.
Why then are politicians so reluctant to admit that they have changed their position on an issue? The obvious answer is that doing so creates a kerfuffle in the media. The politician will immediately be accused of making a U-turn. It is a strange accusation. Making a U-turn is, of Course, prohibited on some busy streets, but usually it is a sensible thing to do when you discover you are travelling in the wrong direction.
[p94] What, after all, is anti-social justice? But if social justice is simply justice, then who could ever have thought it inconsistent with economic efficiency? The economic efficiency of developed nations is founded upon the rule of law and enforceable contracts provided by their judicial systems. This has been well understood for centuries. To suggest that, prior to the advent of New Labour, conventional wisdom had considered justice and economic efficiency to be at odds is outrageously stupid.
Of course, by ‘social justice’ Mr Blair might not mean justice. He might mean what many on the Left mean by it: namely, redistribution of wealth. But if this is what he means then social justice and economic efficiency really are at odds, even now that we have New Labour.
Taxation creates what economists call deadweight losses. These are losses that are not offset by any corresponding gain. Deadweight loss is economic inefficiency. The greater the deadweight loss, the greater the inefficiency. Taxes create this economic inefficiency because they discourage people from engaging in the taxed activity, such as earning income or purchasing goods. Head or ‘poll’ taxes are an exception because they cannot be avoided by changing your economic behaviour. Only killing yourself will suffice, and that defeats the purpose of avoiding tax, which is normally better to enjoy your money, not just to thwart the government.
Mr Blair has not found a way of redistributing wealth that does not require taxation. Nor has he discovered a way to avoid the deadweight losses of taxation. So he has not found a way of avoiding the trade-off between economic efficiency and the redistribution of wealth.
[p97] Remove prices, however, and the optimal supply cannot be determined. When everything costs consumers the same - in this case, nothing - consumers will always choose the best available. If Chateau Petrus and Jacob’s Creek were both free, everyone would want lots of the former and none of the latter. Petrus would have to be rationed, and Jacob’s Creek forced on disgruntled drinkers.
Where consumers pay nothing, state rationing is unavoidable. As consumers, people want rations increased; as taxpayers, they want them decreased. The state ration imposes a [p98] trade-off between these conflicting desires. Where there are prices, however, consumers ration themselves. The advantage of prices over tax-funded free consumption is that individuals know their preferred trade-offs better than the state can. That is why consumers are typically more satisfied with goods and services they receive via the private sector than those they receive from the state.
Perhaps Mr Blair has an answer for this apparent problem, a breakthrough idea that eliminates the need for prices in efficiently allocating resources. If he has, he should share it with us, if only because it would be worth a Nobel prize in economics. Until he does, however, it can only seem that Mr Blair is attempting the impossible.
Many will be impressed to hear that Mr Blair is attempting to do the impossible. Because nothing is really impossible. ‘Impossible’ is just a word for people who aren’t willing to put in 110% effort.
[p99] In 1997 Mr Blair promised that:
“Together you and I will begin to build the new society, a society in which each of us has the chance to grow, to achieve, to contribute, to create dignity for ourselves, and not for ourselves alone, but for others also; a society in which each of us has a stake, a share and we will give back to our children what they deserve - a heritage of hope.”
New societies do not arrive just like that, of course. It takes more than a few months to establish a heritage of hope. So this kind of rhetoric can be enjoyed for quite some time. But not forever. People have limited patience. Even Jesus told his followers that he would return to establish paradise on earth while they still lived. And modern men are not nearly as patient or as gullible as first century Christians. It takes only a few years before they get tired of hearing about the promised New Jerusalem and start asking what the government has actually achieved.
That is why Mr Blair’s speeches now typically include several paragraphs on the achievements of his government. Perhaps they do not amount to a whole new society - who could ever have expected that? - but Mr Blair believes they are impressive. In June 2004, for example, he claimed that:
“In seven years, we have delivered a stable economy, rising employment, and big reductions in unemployment and poverty.40 A politician may be forgiven such open self-congratulation; the opposition is unlikely to advertise his achievements.”
But even a politician should stick to the basic rules of boasting. He should not take credit for others’ achievements, he should not pretend that failures are successes and he should not exaggerate his achievements.
The following three chapters concern the ways Mr Blair breaks these rules.
[p112] Where spending is outsourced it is unlikely to deliver a net-benefit. So Mr Blair ought to go to unusual lengths to show that, in the case of his public services policy, the benefits of this spending really do exceed the costs. Instead, he simply asks us to rejoice at the very scale of the spending, as if there were not the least risk of its being wasteful.
[p113] Presbyterians may like working but most people do not. \ That is why they need to be paid to do it. Your job gives you \ a salary, friends and eight hours a day away from the family. \ These are the benefits that offset the cost of the actual toil. If you made a breakthrough in your productivity, so that you – ~-~ could generate the same income with half the effort, you would have an interesting decision to make. Should you work just as hard for twice the money, or work half as hard for the same money, or something in between? Those who value money higher than leisure will keep their heads down; those who value their free time higher will put their feet up.
The same goes for an entire economy. As productivity improves, the population can press on and deliver a larger Gross Domestic product (GDP). Or the nation could make do with its current GDP and people could take it a little easier. Those of us who favour the second option will be accused of promoting an ethos of sloth. Perhaps. But as far as I know the seven deadly sins are not ranked: sloth is no worse than greed.
[p116] All must proceed on a mere hunch that the services [taxes] would provide are worth the cost.
In reality, the hunch on which they proceed is probably rather different. It is not that the benefits of their spending exceed the cost in tax. It is that the policy will gain more votes than it loses. And, when it comes to government spending, this calculation tends to favour increasing it, for two reasons.
The first is that the benefits of increased spending are typically enjoyed by many voters while the costs are borne by a few. Improving the quality of state education, for example, benefits 90 percent of families with school aged children. But the increased tax burden falls disproportionately on the rich: 50 percent of income tax is contributed by 10 percent of taxpayers. The policy has more winners than losers, even if the total cost exceeds the total benefit. Given our one-man onevote system, any policy that has many small winners and a few big losers is likely to be a vote winner.
The second reason is that many voters now seem to believe that taxation is intrinsically good. They favour it even when they believe it will fund wasteful spending. In November 2002, an ICM poll asked voters if they were willing to pay more tax to fund increased spending on public services. 62 percent said yes. It also asked respondents if they believed this extra spending would improve standards in health and education. Only 51 percent said yes. At least eleven percent of voters favour pointless increases in taxation.
With such people in the electorate it is little wonder that Mr Blair promotes his policies on the ground that they are expensive. But that doesn’t make the argument any better. Even in a democracy, pandering to fools is not the path to enlightenment.