Posts by Jock

Scottish Secession and Liberalism

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I haven’t got much involved in discussion about the Scottish independence referendum. My opinion doesn’t fit, as usual, with either “side” in this battle to see which group of elite farm overseers get to control the human livestock that is Scotland’s huddled masses. Instinctively I want to side with those who want to secede from their government. Any government. 

On the one hand, I’m with Ludwig von Mises when he writes, in Liberalism, that…

“The right of self-determination in regard to the question of membership in a state thus means: whenever the inhabitants of a particular territory, whether it be a single village, a whole district, or a series of adjacent districts, make it known, by a freely conducted plebiscite, that they no longer wish to remain united to the state to which they belong at the time, but wish either to form an independent state or to attach themselves to some other state, their wishes are to be respected and complied with. This is the only feasible and effective way of preventing revolutions and civil and international wars.”

But I’m also with him when he says a few pages later that…

“The situation of having to belong to a state to which one does not wish to belong is no less onerous if it is the result of an election than if one must endure it as the consequence of a military conquest.”

If the result on Thursday is close, then whichever way the result goes, nearly half of Scotland will be living in a state they neither chose nor want. There’s lots of talk about “healing” divisions afterwards going on now, but, short of emigration (if they’re not in favour of iScot), what are those on the losing side to do about it (especially if they are pro-iScot). Grin and bear it? In a polity they don’t agree with? That is the result of “democracy” folks - like it or lump it.

But what also gets me is that this is not some Misesian reach for real independence and freedom. It is a tussle between two groups of people who have made it their lives’ business to interfere with other peoples’ lives over who gets to do the most interfering. One clue is in who is doing the work behind the scenes. I laid my eyes on a document purporting to be a “draft constitution” for an independent Scotland. It begins by saying that sovereignty in Scotland rests with the people, then continues, apparently without “the people” being so much as involved, to write up how they think a new Scotland should be governed.

And, as Albert Jay Nock said of the protestant Reformation and the British Civil Wars, what appears to be on offer is as close to the existing arrangements as possible under a different territorial banner. At best a rearranging of institutions, but still, whatever the draft constitution says of popular sovereignty, still a Westphalian style nation state maintaining the barbaric fiction that the territorial monopoly of violence is necessary for social co-operation. All they are doing is seeking to transfer that monopoly of force from one elite group to another. The mere fact that they want to be within the same structures of supra-national power, such as the EU, will ensure that of course.

We are told, apparently, that so many details will be worked out after the referendum. It seems unclear just what Scots are voting for - more of the same with different figureheads, or some genuine revolutionary change in the nature of state and citizen. Let’s put it this way, if there are politicians in charge, it’ll most likely be the former. Such vulgar nationalism is no way to found a unified community, if that’s what they mean to achieve.

The BBC helpfully a few weeks ago showed a documentary series about the Stewart dynasty - presumably timed as a history lesson in how the United Kingdom came about. One thing struck me particularly, however: I’ve always said that Scotland should have its say because its people didn’t have a say 300 odd years ago when we “merged”. Apparently that’s not strictly true. Through the Covenanters after the civil wars, apparently ninety per cent of Scots did have a say and signed the covenant, which called more firmly for a restoration of the joint Scottish-English monarchy under Charles II than any English movement other than the elite royalist cabal. 

That, of course, is no reason why one can’t change one’s mind after a few hundred years. But I see no inspirational revolutionary tracts, as in the American colonies in the 18th century or even the work of the 17th century Covenanters, discussing the basis on which governments should be formed, or dissolved, or seceded from. There seems little, to me, on which to base a new Scotland, and I for one couldn’t vote for such uncertainty, even if I want, desperately, to see smaller states, self-determination and liberty for as many as possible.

If there were a solid set of proposals for some pretty fundamental issues, like governance and economic/monetary arrangements, and they genuinely did place the sovereignty of the people first in a bottom up structure, that would be a different issue. But for now, for all I want to see the break up of large states, they have not made their case, as far as I am concerned. Which is okay really - since even though I'm an ethnic Scot living in another part of the same country that they want to cut in two I don't have a say.

First rule of customer service – it’s only when you need it most we’ll cut you off!

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I'm having one of those moments when "customer service" takes on a whole new and sinister meaning. A service I have been signed up to since, in internet terms at least, "time immemorial", been paying for regularly for at least six years, though admittedly have used little, has frozen me out of my account just as I started to need to use it more.

Skype has gone through, I think, three owners, since I signed up with them. As best I can fathom from what emails I have managed to find, I had an account at least before 2008, started paying for a SkypeIn number (useful for people, like me, who can't have their own landline number) in 2008 also, and have had it ever since, paying month-in-month-out ever since and using it very little it has to be said. The occasional OCLT board meeting type of thing. But heck, I even had one of those ridiculous "3 SkypePhone" things for a while, and invested in a home phone that was supposed to let me use the Skype account right alongside my landline.

But now, moving flat into what is quite an effective Faraday Cage, I've had occasion more to use it - the WiFi signal is far better than my cell signal, and I don't yet have a landlline installed. So I've actually started using it. Actually consuming some of the SkypeCredit I've been paying for and wasting for so many years. And wham! On Saturday evening, I get a message about "Unauthorized activity on your Skype Account" that has resulted in the account being frozen and could I go through a form filling exercise to verify who I am to unblock it.

Fair enough thought I, I'm all for stopping scams and maintaining internet security, so I happily start completing what seems like a very long form, only to discover that my long term loyalty is now a hindrance. They want to know what email address I used when I signed up, for instance. Not what's attached to the account now, and has been for many years. They need the month and year the account was created - I was an early adopter. I Can't. Remember. Ditto which credit card, if any, I used, or whether, as I do now, use a payment processor to collect payments.

Then I have to name five of my "Skype Contacts". Well I can't say I remember any of their usernames. I don't use Skype much that way - Skype-to-Skype. But no, it appears perhaps that if I am sad enough to have fewer than 5 memorable Skype buddies, I can't get back in. Or something.

Things change. We sometimes even forget when. I'm kind of surprised to see in my emails from Skype I must have signed up as "Jonathan". That alone tells me it was a really long time ago. It's a very long time since I would have signed up for anything using my, still technically legal, full first name. Unless perhaps there was some kind of link to a legal or financial database needed - you know, your name has to match what's on the electoral roll or the credit scoring system or whatever. I know I've gone through at least three different email providers in that time too. It's something of a miracle I've still got emails going back to 2008. My domain name was snaffled in about 2010 so yes, the email I use now on my Skype account isn't the same as when I created the account, but I can show them receipts to both addresses. Yes, I may have used a credit card for something before I started direct debit style payments, but if so, no, I can't give them the card number: it's two card renewals later! 

I try to explain my predicament in the form and the little message box at the bottom. I get an email explaining that they "understand your Skype Account is important to you" and could I go and complete another form. Well it's actually the same form, but this time they seem to think I have requested an email change. This could of course be the cause of their concern about "Unauthorized activity" and, though they'll never confirm or deny it, fair play to them if so, because the one thing I can say is that I didn't request any such change any time recently that I can recall. I try to send them a PDF of various significant emails in my time as a Skype subscriber, going back six years, but their email server rebuffs my attempt in every known file format.

Well, I could do what they say - I haven't really used the account much. Setting up a new account is easy enough. But I also have this nifty SkypeIn number. This gives me an Oxford based number of my own, independent of my university land line provider for instance. Again, easy to replace, you would think, but it was chosen, for a reason, a connection that makes it easier for me to remember the number and quote it to people. And it's been in my email signature and on business cards and the like for all these years. I've been paying for it for many years, so I would want it transferred to any new account. But the same problem applies: they can't transfer something from my existing account if they can't verify me as owner of that account.

I do, I really do, appreciate their concern for my online security. But it seems an odd coincidence that just as people start to use my SkypeIn number and just as I start making calls out from Skype, "unusual activity" causes my account to be suspended. That is when you want "Customer Service" to swing into action. To help find a way of reconnecting you to your account. To enable a human behind an internet form make a decision based on what must appear common sense if not algorithmically accurate. And if not, at least a route to some kind of appeal mechanism. But no, every correspondence begins "I know that your account is important for you. Do not worry, let me help you with your concern" and goes on to exmplain why they cannot help me with my concern.

So, having been happy with what I have used of Skype over these many years I've never looked at any alternatives. But maybe now's a good time to do so if I'm having to create a whole new account and so on. Are there any? Specifically it would help if they had a facility like the SkypeIn number, and that calling out to real life landline or mobile phones is possible and not overly expensive.

Georgist/Anarchist PhD Advice Bleg

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Some of you will know that I recently (aged 47) completed my first degree - I decided when I left school that if Oxford wouldn't have me I'd not bother with university and went into the city so only just got round to it after 15 years working here at my university!

Anyway, I got a first class honours (and, though comparisons are not exact, about a 3.8 GPA according to the way we are calculating it here), and I'm thinking of trying to enrol for a PhD - possibly in January with an aim to register a thesis title next September.

My undergraduate dissertation was about finding a more mutual, social investment mechanism for financing postgraduate studies (which is here if you're interested - http://jockcoats.me/financing-postgraduate-education-mutual-approach). But in reality, since I think it's much the bigger problem, I want to do something about land, housing finance and community governance.

So, I wondered if anyone had any thoughts about what was *missing* from the Georgist, geo-mutualist, geo-anarchist type scholarly literature that might be a useful area to focus on for something PhD length. It's most likely to be on the "politics" side of "political economy" (my degree was Economics and Politics) but if something comes up for which economic statistical analyses would be needed I can always take the stats modules I didn't do at undergrad level, but could likely cope anyway.

Anything spring to mind that a PhD might be able to fill a gap in?

The ultimate aim is really to get into full time academe, teaching and researching in some aspect of political-economy. But if there's a glaring gap in the literature which filling might help make change more likely, that would really fire me up I think!

Creative Incentives Without Intellectual Property Protection

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[It's been a while since I've written anything, which is not for the want of subjects to write about - Israel, Ukraine, Surveillance Laws, and I've been thinking about my community land trust project a lot too. Anyway, tonight I got into a discussion about intellectual property, and more specifically about copyright and patents. I do not support either, but my interlocutor was someone connected with the creative arts and so copyright of artistic works was the focus, and specifically how I must be an evil philistine because I thought creatives should not have special protection for their work. So what follows started off as an attempt to explain my position better...and turned out somewhat longer, so here it is as a blog post]:

Look, I get it. I really do. Artistes want to be able to make a living from what they do, and so they should. And nor do I support or encourage fraud, or theft (both breaches of any type of property rights I can conceive of), nor plagiarism and passing off (which are also ethically wrong and already professional suicide with or without copyright).

But I have problems with the idea of “intellectual property” rights, meaning here particularly copyright, but similar arguments apply to patents (though to a much lesser extent Trademarks). 

For a start, in order to protect one alleged property right, say the particular order of words that makes something “your” novel, intellectual property rights infringe another right, my right to do what I want with my property, specifically my copy of “your” novel (but by extension other items of my property - perhaps the tools I might use to copy some of your work were I so inclined). And the contract that may easily be argued to have been entered into by seller and buyer the first time round seems to lose a little weight if, for example, I simply find a copy of the book someone left on a park bench. Even less so if the cover and any mention of your name is missing from it.

Then there’s the issue of time - if something were “real” property, the right would be perpetual at least whilst there was a rights holder (or heirs and assigns) to claim the rights and property over which they wanted to claim their rights. But both patents and copyrights have time limits, and those time limits change (almost always upward, which if you think about it is a little odd, especially in the case of patents - where actually the salience of new knowledge is always falling, so you would expect the trade off between development time and protected time to be falling). This artificial time-limit alone proves the previous paragraph’s argument - since it is a politically conferred set of rights if at all, it *must* by definition serve to alter the balance between competing rights claims.

There are also difficulties about what is not included amongst copyrightable or patentable “creations”, many people create (or discover) things that obviously or by quirk of the law cannot be protected, or whose output is not ultimately monetised by them - people drawing a salary for producing artistic or technological works that are then protected by and for the employer’s interests, academics, salaried screenwriters etc.

So much for (some of) the philosophical/legal arguments against IP, but I would also argue that the actual effect of them is to stifle creativity, rather than incentivise it. Yes, a small number of artists can become relatively wealthy (and an even smaller number eye-wateringly so), but with the way in which IP favours ever larger rights holders, I argue it concentrates our spending on arts on the relatively few such artists who get picked up and promoted by the biggest media conglomerates, leaving relatively less discretionary arts spending available for discovering new artists. 

All the while this process has been destructive of culture, diluting, homogenising it through mass production and promotion (this is not meant to be snobby - it’s just saying “there are thousands of brilliant bands out there but because of the way IP works all the effort is focussed on One Direction and these thousands of poor buggers never get out of the Saturday night pub circuit as a result”). Whilst under the Statute of Anne it was motivated by concern that authors were not being paid by printers, publishers and distributers, often IP law has become the way in which rights are traded away from the creators in favour of the middle men (I think here of this heartbreaking telephone call between Buddy Holly and his agent)

So my case against IP is the same as that of classical liberals, and, generally, the working class, such as existed, throughout the 18th and 19th centuries - that it is artificial, impinges on others’ rights, and actually works against creators in favour of middle-men/rent-seekers. I’m on the side of the vast bulk of creatives who are not earning enough from their efforts to support themselves, because of the system, not despite it!

Are there alternatives? I think there are. You just need to be equally “creative” about how you finance and conduct a creative project. In ways that other businesses have to. 

I don’t know why people scoff at the idea of patronage funded arts: academics’ research output is funded by patronage (they have a job); fine artists often work on commission; jobbing musicians are privately hired; public works of art funded by tax. Let’s face it, even the highest rewarded of the minstrelati seem to love the opportunity to play privately for the great and the gilded. 

Similarly there’s nothing to scoff about crowd-funding. It’s been done, successfully. It’s a disruptive technology. I have contributed to two books, a film and a website, and in other creative output I contribute regularly to three think tanks along with hundreds of other small donors enabling them to pay contributors, not to mention a couple of off-line music recordings by local artists. A crowd-funded novel even made it onto the Booker prize long list this year. Same applies to self- or co-operative publishing, and other disruptive publishing mechanisms. Hasn’t Stephen King even done something crowd-funded? New technology makes it easier to develop networks of followers prepared to pay or otherwise collaborate for exclusivity or other benefits - from the consumer perspective, we can all be more direct patrons of the arts.

If such exclusivity or financial and technical innovation is not your bag or for whatever reason you may be dependent on mass distributed culture, on copying and distributing your work to a wide audience, introduces the risk that it will be distributed by others in such a way that you get no benefit from it. Economically this may get precious close to being a “public good” - one where me owning or using something (a copy) does not diminish the ability of others to own the same thing (another copy) and where it’s difficult to make people pay for it (because it can be endlessly copied). This makes it difficult for a would be producer to recoup the costs of production and therefore reduces his incentive to produce it.  And a public good is often argued to be a justification for government action, to “correct” a “market failure". In this case, the government action is copyright and patent law to prevent a public good situation by preventing endless copying - non-scarce goods have no value.

As any other business, one that doesn’t rely on rent, will tell you, there are other competitive advantages you can exploit to minimise the risk that someone else will nab your product before you make enough to cover its production (which is all we’re doing here - incentivising production, not making billionaires). If your chief worry is about copying, then being first to market with something is a huge advantage. As is being able to demonstrate your connection with the creator - you gain a reputation for publishing the originals, with the author, staging the first, directed/performed/read by the playwright/choreographer/composer/author herself and people will pay for that. 

To guard against passing off, well we already have large scale plagiarism detectors, so protecting your property by subscribing to a database that can instantly identify you as the author/performer of something no matter who tried to pass it off as them might become the norm. It would already be a career killer now to be caught passing off someone else’s work, such a mechanism could make it much easier to detect and expose.

But actually this isn’t about how to protect the interests of the super-star creative artist, but about increasing diversity in art and innovation by spreading the reward better, by examining whether there is economic rent being accrued somewhere that doesn’t really deserve it and either getting them out of the system entirely, as with, say, disruptive self-publishing mechanisms, or making their return better reflect the value they add if any. Technology has its place here too - the switch toward electronic mechanisms of publishing and printing helps to reveal just who is adding what and whose services might be dispensed with, for example.

Even if the middle-men managed to survive this upheaval, they would likely have to work harder for their money. First to market is an advantage you get once with each product. It might last a long time, and you can eek it out with different editions, performances and so on. At some point without copyright you risk losing the “long tail” business as people care less about whether they are buying the “original” or someone else’s reprint/reproduction. So your business tends more toward discovering constant streams of new talent, with whom you can be first to market, rather than milking copyright for a few well rewarded chosen creatives.

These suggestions are of course not exhaustive. Others have suggested that copyright could be effectively replicated anyway by carefully worded contracts, so why have it enforced by specific legislation rather than just breach of contract, for instance? These are just a few suggested means of making money out of creativity without impinging on the property rights of others. 

If the intellectual property system worked as people think it does, to ensure there is incentive for artists to create and innovators to invent and to see to it that the market efficiently and equitably allocates the returns to the various parties bringing something to market, there might be some point in it. But not only, I suggest, does it do neither, it contributes to the homogenisation of culture on the one hand, stifles technological innovation on the other, and creates an enormous distortion between carefully nurtured super-stars and their various hangers on at the one end and struggling creatives at the other. A situation that in my experience more usually reflects brand marketability than it reflects artistic merit!

Oxford Green Belt and Land Use Planning: Inefficient, Inequitable, Indefensible.

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From the point of view of hypertension prevention I ought not to have, but for some crazy reason that currently eludes me, I found myself last evening at an event, a “panel discussion”, about the case for a “Green Belt Review” for Oxford. The panel was one councillor from beleaguered, hemmed in city council, one from the only one of the rural districts to have asked for some relaxation of the Green Belt, one senior planning consultant with a firm whose clients include some significant landowners around the city, the director of the local land preservation trust, and to set the scene a city council officer with some facts and figures on slides.

The audience was largely what you would broadly call land use professionals - many planning consultants and planning officers (it was organised by a group called the Thames Valley Young Planners’ Network), a smattering of land agents, a few developers, a few councillors, maybe a couple of civic groups and for some reason, me. I had gone along ostensibly down as Oxfordshire Community Land Trust, but obviously with wider interest from the perspective of land values, and being generally opposed to “Stalinist land use planning” as a councillor colleague used to describe it. 

The council statistician chappy kicked off with some background data showing that Oxford has the worst affordability crisis in the UK, ahead of London, Brighton and Cambridge. Rents account for well over 50% of median household incomes. And with house prices nearly 15 times those same median earnings very few people will be able to afford something with last night’s 4.5 times earnings Bankster of England imposed sledgehammer.  But most telling of all is that given this is a meeting about how planning might solve our problems, it was remarkable that nobody really addressed the fact that “planning” had failed to plan for a recent increase in population and is still trying to catch up from, effectively, the Morris Motors boom years from 1930 to 1970! 

It was also notable that much of the increase in the last two decades has been down to the success of the universities in a globally expanding market. This is a market the Centre for Cities reported a number of years ago ought to mean Oxford should grow to about a million households to take greatest advantage from its global knowledge economy reach. This is also a demographic less likely to be able to settle for the “country towns” strategy of trying to force large scale development in the county out to beyond the outer Green Belt boundary.

The failure of planning to date was highlighted also by the recently completed Strategic Housing Market Assessment which had doubled the amount of housing plots that had to be planned from now till 2031 compared with the Regional Spatial Strategy only completed a few years previously. How could planning have got things so wrong, or perhaps just so different, in four years? They, like many others enamoured of state planning, don’t seem to understand the knowledge problem highlighted so effectively by Hayek in “The Use of Knowledge in Society”.

This ineffectiveness is coupled with inefficiency and is readily apparent when you see how much effort goes into rent-seeking in the planning process. As mentioned, the speaker from the large international planning consultancy firm represents landowners that are set to gain tens of millions of pounds, just for succeeding in persuading the planning authorities to change their land from agricultural to residential use like those in the Vale of White Horse area a couple of months back.

But none of the speakers, not even the Labour councillor speaking up in favour of more building, put their finger on the inequity of it all. Yes, housing “affordability” was mentioned many times, usually with the “solution” that more subsidised housing needs to get built - subsidised by us as taxpayers, not landowners as landowners, who are the main beneficiaries of this protectionism. But even if that does happen it will barely scratch the surface of housing costs for people who fall outside the range of household incomes such subsidy is established to help. Do they not see the fundamental injustice of this? That a planner can with a stroke of a pen make a landowner immensely wealthy, and still turn round and demand you and I subsidise housing for the poorest even as we cannot afford housing for ourselves.

What they have presided over in Oxford for decades now is the shoveling of vast amounts of wealth from the poorest and least well connected to the wealthiest. This itself should be reason enough to abolish the entire edifice, councils and all, for abject failure to prevent this happening to the poorest of who they “represent”. I don’t want these mealy mouthed councillors “trying” any more. Their failure is stark, undemocratic and has exacerbated a near feudal structure to Oxford’s population - of ever more tenants dependent on the wealthy for their housing.

The system is indefensible. Not one person in the room mentioned, in all the talk of the history of Green Belts, that the idea emerged in the same political process as the Attlee government’s imposition of the Planning System which was intended to be accompanied by a Development Land Tax, to capture the increase in land values when permissions are granted for public benefit. Right now we have the antithesis of this - a system that restricts development, starving the multitude, whilst privatising the gains from rent-seeking. When the head of the preservation trust says "we need to preserve...." she seems to have no clue how difficult her sort of preservation makes it for many people just to preserve a decent quality of life and housing. Who is this "we" such people "represent"? Certainly not me. Not the thousands priced out of this part of the country.

Overall, I was left disappointed that nobody there seemed to appreciate these concerns, or at least to voice them.  There was little appetite for open discussion from the floor in any case, so it's difficult to know whether dissenting voices, like mine, were there, but silent, but I’d bet my house (hah!) that if there were much debate, it would have been more of the same - this is the system "we" have and "we" must play the game for the greatest benefit of our clients, none of whom are the dispossessed and overcharged, but the landowners of dubious title, and their desire to profit from this human suffering.

Land use planning, it seems to me, breaches at least two articles of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights: article 17 for property owners, prevented from doing what they want with their own property, and article 25 for the landless, unable to afford adequate housing even, in many cases, where they make a positive economic contribution that makes this city and its surroundings desirable, internationally. Last night took no steps toward mending those breaches. As Fred Harrison said recently at the ALTER conference here in Oxford, it is a primary example of how our entire political system is built on and perpetuates, for all the pro-people rhetoric from some, a culture of "cheating" from the wholesale looting of our country in feudal times to a neo-feudalism that is an affront to democracy.

A First in What?

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So the results are in, and I just managed to haul my average over 70% to get a First Class Honours classification in my degree. And many people have been asking me “what next?” Well I’d kind of like to work out just what I now have a degree in. Not least because the research for my soon-to-be-published dissertation made me think more about what a degree is about in contemporary higher education.

Ostensibly, of course, my subject was “Economics, Politics and International Relations” and there were a number of reasons for studying it when I did. First, it did seem a little odd to me, having been a governor of the university, not to hold one of its products, a degree. At the time, a former Pro-Vice-Chancellor was retiring, and her story, of having only started her academic career with her first degree, aged fifty, and now retiring at the top of the institution just fifteen years later, inspired me that it was not too late in life. The university was advertising for the first time a course intended from the start to meld economics and politics (as opposed to previously simply taking two separate self-contained fields of economics and politics) and I wanted to support that, having been interested, but never educated, in both economics and politics for a long time.

But most of all, I had come to the conclusion that, in the longer term at least, I wanted out of IT. I’m not a technology whizz-kid, so my only way to progress in IT would be into management, a thought that leaves me cold: with apologies to line managers everywhere! I want to write, about anarchism, freed markets and private law, and a credential looks good on a book jacket. I want to research, and teach, political economy, convinced that nobody should go through a course in politics without understanding some of the economic consequences of their policy recommendations.

So today, I graduate, but in what, I wonder? It’s only in the last few weeks of my studies, as I was researching my dissertation, that it dawned on me that we are generally speaking not being taught specific skills in the subject we chose, as if such a degree prepares us directly for a specific job (and civilization would probably not survive if all 200 or so politics and related students in every university became, er, politicians!). Even less so, perhaps in subjects in which there is much, and rapid, technological change. The so called “relevance half life” of what can be taught in a three year degree is often now too short to make teaching specific skills or ideas that might change before you put them into practice viable.

Enter the concept of “graduate attributes” - generic attributes that it is judged set a graduate apart from poor folk, like me three years ago, who had never been to university. Yes, you demonstrate your aptitude in those attributes through studying, researching and writing about your chosen subject, but it is the graduate attributes, rather than the subject, that many people now regard as the primary output - and conveniently, they allow comparison to be made across academic disciplines and subjects. The previous “learning outcomes” of each programme and module are mapped onto five, in Brookes’ case, core graduate attributes:

a) Academic literacy

Disciplinary and professional knowledge and skills, understanding the epistemology and ‘landscape’ of the discipline, and what it means to think and behave as a member of that disciplinary and/or professional community of practice.

b) Research literacy

Ability to be a critical consumer of research, and also, where possible, to design and undertake at least a small-scale research project in the discipline, using appropriate methodology.

c) Critical self-awareness and personal literacy

Understanding how one learns, the ability to assess the work of oneself and others, and to identify one’s strengths and weaknesses. The ability to organise oneself and perform as an autonomous, effective and independent learner. The ability to relate to other people and function collaboratively in diverse groups, including the development of appropriate interpersonal skills, emotional intelligence and adaptive expertise.

d) Digital and information literacy

The functional access, skills and practices necessary to become a confident, agile adopter of a range of technologies for personal, academic and professional use. To be able to use appropriate technology to search for high-quality information; critically to evaluate and engage with the information obtained; reflect on and record learning, and professional and personal development; and engage productively in relevant online communities.

e) Global citizenship

Knowledge and skills, showing cross-cultural awareness, and valuing human diversity. The ability to work effectively, and responsibly, in a global context. Knowledge of global perspectives on how disciplinary knowledge is represented and understood within other cultures; cross-cultural capability beginning with an awareness of our own culture and perspectives and the development of the confidence to question one’s own values and those of others responsibly and ethically; and responsible citizenship, actively engaging with issues of equity and social justice, sustainability and the reduction of prejudice, stereotyping and discrimination.

If you are assiduous and carefully read all the module and programme documents, and all the expected learning outcomes of each piece of coursework or exam, the mappings become clearer. And whilst I would not hesitate to tell an undecided potential student to go and do a degree - it really has been the best thing I’ve done I think - I’m not entirely sure that I wasn’t already in possession of most or all of these attributes already, just by virtue of a nearly thirty year career. I can see that for traditional route undergraduates, moving from school to university and then into the world of work, they provide a useful mechanism for “filtering” by employers and others evaluating those graduates, and of course, it provides a piece of paper for me too that confirms I have them, whether or not I had them previously. But how often I am going to be called on to prove it, I’m not entirely sure!

All the same, it’s been a great three years - though I can barely believe it has been three years! I have enjoyed (nearly) every minute of it, and am very grateful for Brookes as an employer giving me the time to do it alongside my day (and night) jobs. I hope everyone enjoys the graduation!

And if you are really keen, and near internet access at 12:30 today, you can even watch it (a link will appear by the 12:30 19th June ceremony in the table shortly before it starts)

An Uncompromising Liberal

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[NB - for my US based readers, "liberal/-ism" should be understood in the European historical sense, rather than the rather general pejorative US term for "left"!]

Liberalism is failing. But all is not lost: it can be resurrected by looking to its 300 year old roots, in the Enlightenment, in England at least, around the time of the “Glorious Revolution”. From the outset, powerful interests frustrated the core idea of equality for all before the law, cementing instead what Fred Harrison calls the “culture of cheating” initiated by the mass expropriation of our country initiated by the Norman Bastard nearly a thousand years ago.

The slow but mostly steady advance through civil, to political and latterly social citizenship for all, as described by liberal sociologist T H Marshall in 1950 (pdf) has, it seems to me, been conducted sufficiently slowly to allow the elite to maintain a vice-like grip on the power that matters, of rent and privilege. Rather than revolutionise society in favour of the mass of its citizens, liberalism so slowly and deferentially implemented has permitted a few to gain access to the same old levers of power once held by the monarchs and their aristocratic chums.  

They may have tried to do a few things differently from their predecessors, but essentially, they have changed very little about the fundamental structures of power. Even if they claim now to wield those levers in the interest of the many, we must see that they remain the levers of privilege and oppression so deeply embedded by our elite masters of old oriented toward their entrenchment not the freedom of the many.

If you think this all a little far fetched, consider, for example, that just 0.3% of the population still owns more than two thirds of all the land in the UK, and a new elite are monopolising the best of the remainder. Many of these trace their roots back to the Bastard's acts of expropriation or to more modern expropriation in other countries, so often facilitated by our example.

Yet even as the landowning aristocracy went into decline in terms of political power, they weren't replaced by some champions of the people, but by Thomas Cromwell's great-great-nephew and his landed gentry. Such dynasties make poor disinterested democrats. They continued to oppress the weakest through enclosures for another nearly two hundred years, creating a dispossessed class that had little choice but to take what they could get in newly emerging industrial cities, sometimes effectively sold into the mills through the parish pauper system, controlled by, yes, those who had thrown them off their means of survival. That's not to say people weren't materially better off because of industrial growth - they clearly were, agrarian society was desperately poor and vulnerable. But they were no more sharing in the benefits of equal citizenship in the mills than their serf forebears, and if they were motivated by desperation arising from illegitimate expropriation it was not a choice.

Nearly 8% of even today's House of Commons are related either to each other or to close preceding generations of parliamentarians (and this applies almost as much to Labour as to Conservative). If there were a "Family Party" of MPs they would be Britain's third largest political party in terms of MPs, ever. And that doesn't even take into consideration remoter relations, such a Penny Mordaunt’s relation to Philip Snowden, or Clegg’s relationship with Russian aristocracy. Nor does it account for the House of Lords, even without the majority of the hereditary peers, mostly superannuated members of the system many of them have monopolised for years between them. This is no real democracy, but a club we plebs are permitted to elect some of the membership of.

In the financial realm today's banks represent a continuous lineage of firms from the time when a bunch of royal favourites decided to force the new King Billy to give some of them a monopoly on dubiously ethical financing of the country's, or rather the monarch's and the mercantilists' wars. Today, playing with money backed by our debt-slavery, they gamble this illegitimate "hot money", as often destructively as beneficially, around the world terrorising weaker nations and their people. 

The commercial regulatory system inherently favours the financial and commercial elites: there are just 6,000 companies in Britain which employ fifty per cent of all private sector workers. Ten CEOs per MP, each with more resources than even many of the wealthiest of our politicians with which to have a concerted effort at influencing them, power and privilege they exercise regularly in their own narrow interests. And between them and the central bank (founded by those seventeenth century royal favourites who helped make Billy the King to extract debt repayments from "his" country) currency inflation continues to ravage the least well connected and least wealthy -c4ss almost as much is recklessly looted from the poorest by even modest inflation as we spend in benefits to keep them barely alive.

One response of liberals, a hundred or so years ago now, to the emergence of the new serfdom in industrial cities was to begin creating a welfare system, both in regulation and in benefits, that even now only just keeps peoples' nostrils above the sewage level, maintains a level of unemployment that ensures wages are kept down, and ensures that getting on by one's own effort is so often a regulatory nightmare. Regulation favours the biggest - it is estimated that the burden of regulation and tax compliance is, proportionate to revenue, sixteen times for a small firm what it costs one of those 6,000 large employers. An important reason there are any efficiencies of scale in the corporate world is the burden of regulation to deal with which larger firms can spread the cost of bloated bureaucracies that contribute little toward the goods or services that firm and the economy as a whole produces. 

Much of that regulation harms the poorest directly in many other ways. Many know about the work of Charles Booth, documenting squalid conditions in working class Victorian London. Yet Herbert Spencer explained how much of this was actually caused by the introduction of building regulations in the mid-century. You guessed in - many of these were excuses to line the pockets of influential materials suppliers, by rules such as outlawing perfectly good, lower cost, Scandinavian timber in favour of well-connected forestry owners who had set up in the more distant and more expensive British colonies. People could no longer afford to build or maintain housing that the working poor could afford. Today, failure to release the pressure-cooker of land values, maintained by the erudite and well connected for their benefit, leads to some of the meanest housing in the developed world, at some of the highest prices.

Today, we see one after another economist and political theorist wailing about the new "precariat", "winner takes all politics" or the "price of inequality", a generation likely to be priced out of housing, or housing costing far too high a proportion of an ordinary family income to be able to provide for their own futures, leaving them again in the new serf class, in hock to those bankers for life and dependent often on handouts and politically driven assistance, paid for by expropriating the meagre resources of the same struggling masses. And for all the complaining that this is because "unregulated markets" are proving to be inefficient and unfair at distributing the benefits of development and growth they seem to willfully ignore the role of that regulation in maintaining inequity before the law by skewing markets in favour of the connected few and frustrating opportunity for the many.

None of this would be conceivable under a stricter Lockean liberalism, if attempts were made genuinely to respect individual freedoms, to make all equal before the law, and to protect justly acquired (and only justly acquired) property - not property derived from the rent seeking of the powerful and connected or the legacy of expropriation by the powerful.

This is why I am an anarchist, or in the words of French 19th century educationalist Emile Faguet, an "uncompromising liberal". I want to have my, and for you to have your, natural birthright back - those freedoms the US and French revolutionaries championed but so often failed to deliver because they established close replicas of the ancien regime in all but name. I reject this contemporary feudalism with its minor tweaks that has continued to create artificial elites by patronage and privilege. As should all liberals.

This institutionalised looting by one group of another will not stop until we can claim back our entire culture from the kleptocratic system created to make status, rather than work and honest contracts, the determinants of success. Traditional, Rigorous Liberalism holds the answer, but it is stifled beneath the well-meaning attempts to fix its own failures over recent centuries. 

This should be a manifesto that any liberal could get behind. But to do so, many will need to shed their faith in a system designed from the start to oppress them, to create inequity that has changed remarkably little. One really only need watch the extraordinary, quasi-religious, worship of the symbols of that ancien regime still present in our society, such as Wednesday's monarchical condescension to allow our "representatives" to start a new year's work, to see how at its core, the Bastard's conquest is still at the heart of our system. It is no liberalism that I recognise.

Now, more than ever, we need a more Rigorous Liberalism

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Whilst this was never intended to be a post-mortem on the European and local elections, the decline in vote share of liberal parties across Europe seems to emphasise the need for liberals to do something different. 

The UK Labour party keeps popping up with what seem like populist, on the hoof, policy announcements about the “cost of living” but so far it has not been apparent that they understand the reasons behind the worst of the problem, let alone found solutions that will do anything other than hamfistedly make it worse.  The Tories (sadly in some cases with the support of Liberal Democrats in coalition) have focussed on a sort of austerity that makes the poorest weaker because they’re doing nothing to address these costs of living, and are presiding, on the contrary, over increasing costs as they pump up property bubbles in what are already the most expensive places in the country and much of the benefit of “economic recovery” appears to go to the have mores rather than the have nots.

Only by going back to distinctively radical liberal roots, principles and values can we reconcile these problems, of cost of living, and a need to trim the size of the state under constant pressure from global forces. Step forward what I have been calling for a number of years now “Rigorous Liberalism”. The core idea of Rigorous Liberalism is that by embracing “austerity” in those areas in which the state’s actions actually increase the cost of living we can have both a smaller state with a freer and fairer society, on a more level playing field and with lower costs of living for all.

Think of it this way: a person or household may be unable to afford a decent standard of living, either because prices for essential needs are about right and their incomes are artificially low so they aren’t able to afford them, or their incomes are about right but prices are artificially inflated so, once again, they cannot afford them. But we don’t even know who, in an ideal world, would still need some help to afford a decent standard of living while either of these conditions exist - artificially depressed incomes or artificially elevated prices. In fact, throughout much of our system, people are hit with a double whammy - both artificially depressed incomes AND artificially elevated prices.

The aim of Rigorous Liberalism is to eradicate these artificial distortions on both sides, reducing costs and increasing incomes. Contrast this, for example, with Labour’s ideas, drawn from the work of academics such as Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, which seek to force up wages through regulations such as minimum and living wages, whilst more or less accepting that market prices are about right. This creates even more artificial distortions, even if, at the outset, the intention is to “fix” one of the possible problems, of depressed wages. And if they think that market prices are too high, they don’t look to the causes, but reach for the sledgehammer to try and force them down, as with their recent proposed tenancy charges caps.

In the UK for instance, a thousand years of state interventions have piled on top of each other to cause immense distortions in what should be a much more equitable natural distribution of resources. From the Bastard Norman and the sex mad Henry doling out vast tracts of lands to favourites who largely still hold them today, to intervention in the monetary system that makes so much of what we spend more expensive through embedded interest. 80% of households (link to PDF) will be net interest payers all of their lives, whilst the 9th decile will just about break even and the top decile are the only ones who will be net interest recipients.

Protecting professions has created an economic rent in law, in medicine, teaching, and public administration that today still see almost dynastic monopolies in some of these areas, increasing the costs of obtaining justice when something does go wrong. I saws recently that a depression era Federal law in the United States allows the Department of Agriculture seize sometimes up to half of a raisin crop with no compensation in order to maintain high prices - supposedly to benefit the farmers, but they’re the ones whose crops get stolen, whilst at the same time maintaining a floor on the price paid by consumers.

Now I hear you all moan that this is me just going on an anti-state rant, and it is true, I do believe we can live more prosperously and equitably without a state, but that’s because of the vast privilege that state power doles out, not because I want the poorest to starve (as they still do even though we pay 5/12 of our incomes in the UK to stop that happening through taxes). I will always say that a genuinely free market, offering choice, mutual benefit in transactions, and the dignity of being able to pay one’s own way whenever possible, is deontologically superior to coercive state intervention. 

There’s nothing illiberal about that, and the Liberal Democrats even enshrine that in their constitution, though sometimes you wouldn't know it from our policies. Indeed it should be a liberal policy making style first to investigate why existing markets are distorted, and in very many cases we will find that it is some prior intervention, meant to solve an earlier problem, that has caused a contemporary problem that rather than piling on more coercive measures to fix, should be eradicated at source. And that is what “Rigorous Liberalism” aims to do. Government are elected, if at all, by the people, as citizens, individual citizens, to work in their interests. But far too often they act in the interests of producers, propping up prices, favouring some with vast state contracts, maintaining a pool of unemployed labour with the result of keeping wages artificially low and so on.

There needs to be a framework for analysing any apparent social/welfare need, or situation where seemingly the market is not efficient, to work out whether the state is involved in creating that inefficiency in the first place. If so policy makers should be ruthless about eradicating that effect, not merely adding to it with new welfare programs. Over the next few weeks I shall be writing more about this, and launching a new site to collect aspects of “Rigorous Liberalism” together.

This should be the real “new politics of welfare capitalism”, and it should not shrink from slaying some sacred cows whenever they are part of the problem - big cows too: the land monopoly, the money monopoly, protectionism and intellectual property were identified over a century ago by the likes of Henry George and US Mutualists as the biggest distortions that keep the poor poor. It is only when we have cleared out these distortions as much as possible that we can really tell just how much we need to support the poorest in society and how. Because ignoring them and letting both distortions and interventions get ever bigger is unsustainable and fundamentally illiberal, involving as it does ever more coercion and collectivisation, monopolisation and loss of choice, especially on the part of the weakest in society more reliant on those state interventions just to keep their heads above water.

In fact, our basic rights, liberal rights, to equality of treatment before the law, protection of justly acquired property and so on, are being trampled on every day these state created distortions exist. It must be a significant plank of policy for anyone who claims to put the individual welfare ahead of the state and corporations to unwind these distortions as far as possible. Rigorous Liberalism is the true "predistribution" that some of us in land and monetary reform circles have been talking about since long before Pierson and Miliband co-opted the term in recent debate, making sure that a just distribution of welfare is produced as far as possible before even the redistributive interventions of the state.

As one of my inspirations in free market anarchism puts it:

...coercive state policies are not necessary to remedy the evils of present-day capitalism. All these evils--exploitation of labor, monopoly and concentration, the energy crisis, pollution, waste--result from government intervention in the market on behalf of capitalists. The solution is not more government intervention, but to eliminate the existing government intervention from which the problems derive. A genuine free market society, in which all transactions are voluntary and all costs are internalized in price, would be a decentralized society of human-scale production, in which all of labor's product went to labor, instead of to capitalists, landlords and government bureaucrats.

 

Don’t blame me for refusing to participate in institutionalised violence!

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In the aftermath of these recent elections I hear many people blaming those of us who didn't vote for letting nasty people get elected. Burke's famous, but misattributed, quote about good people doing nothing and so on is being trotted out.

How very dare you! Blaming people like me who refuse to participate in what we see as an act of aggression against our fellow human beings. For the record, I did traipse along to my desultory designated polling place, intending fully to do my usual of writing some pithy version of "I do not consent" - though with a ballot paper that long, there would have been plenty of space for an essay rather than a pithy phrase! As it happens, I had been disenfranchised, probably by a colleague warden picking up the annual canvas letter and thinking it was only for them registereing only themselves meaning the ERO thought I had gone. But I went, and though my spoiled ballot would have made absolutely no difference, I would have registered my protest.

But stop and think about it for a while. Voting is an act of violence. If I were to come round to your house and demand that if you don't give me some money for my pet cause I will let myself in anyway and take some, and if you resist I will kidnap you and keep you in a cage for a while until you've learned your lesson, it would be an outrage, a criminal act. Yet that is what "democracy" asks us to do in institutionalised form. Hiding behind a secret ballot, you side with a big gang that not all of us agree with, and if you get just a nose ahead of everyone else, your gang wins and somehow we think what they then do, to everyone, regardless of whether they supported them or not, has some legitimacy.

As an anarchist, I believe in what we usually call the "Non-Aggression Principle". Voting, it seems to me, even "defensive" voting - trying to keep the gang you most dislike out of power - breaches that principle. What this means in policy terms, for example, is that if I perceive some need, social, welfare, economic or whatever, that looks like it needs some fixing, I may not assume that I have a right to demand you have to contribute to that solution against your will, and especially not by ganging up against you and your opinions.

Franz Oppenheimer, a German sociologist of the early twentieth century, and a "classical liberal" who nevertheless was a supporter of some aspects of the then relatively new social liberalism, wrote (pdf):

There are two fundamentally opposed means whereby man, requiring sustenance, is impelled to obtain the necessary means for satisfying his desires. These are work and robbery, one's own labour and the forcible appropriate of the labour of others...I call one's own labour and the equivalent exchange of one's own labour for the labour of others, the "economic means" for the satisfaction of needs, while the unrequited appropriation of the labour of others will be called the "political means."...The state is an organization of the political means.

So, you participate in institutionalised violence and robbery if you wish. I can no longer justify it, seeing it for what it is. But don't blame me if that violence works against you every so often. 

One Right to Rule Them All?

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