The Economist is berated by right-wing libertarians on Twitter

An editorial in The Economist has expressed some concerns about the irresponsible pledges being made by the contenders for the leadership of the Conservative Party.

These proposals range from unwise to extraordinarily bad.  Mr Johnson’s tax cuts would be both a waste of scarce resources and grossly unfair.  He would reduce their cost by raising national-insurance contributions, a payroll tax.  As a result the biggest beneficiaries would be well-off pensioners, because payroll taxes fall only on those in work.  The policy is a shameless bribe to the elderly and prosperous Tory party members who choose the leader.

That critique has been rebuffed by neo-liberals on Twitter.  An argument from @_JamieWhyte runs as follows:

What do they mean? How are scarce resources wasted when the government collects less income tax? Does @TheEconomist  believe that private spending is more wasteful than govt spending? I cannot think of any other interpretation of this claim (help, anyone?)

That’s an intriguing argument, because it has implications its supporters may not have recognised.   If tax is a means of financing government, this would leave a deficit (which the Conservative right has consistently claimed it’s concerned about), and the money has to come from somewhere.  To govern is to choose, and this is a distributive decision.  If on the other hand tax reliefs are basically transfer payments – altering the balance of spending power between private citizens – then the same argument made here, that money held in private hands can’t be wasteful, also applies to social security payments, which are another way of doing the same. That can’t waste resources, either.

For most of the last sixty years, however, it’s largely been accepted that tax reliefs are simply a cost to government (the argument was made by Titmuss).  If they’re a cost, they must be justified; and a cost to benefit the rich, imposed at the expense of lower-paid workers, is hard to defend.

The libertarian right usually sees tax relief as allowing people to keep ‘their own’ money. The basic objection to that position is that incomes and tax rates are entirely conventional.  (Note that the defenders of the proposed tax cuts have been commenting that senior policemen and nurses – whose pay is determined entirely by public policy  – should not be subject to higher rates of tax. ) The reason why Nordic countries can sustain higher tax is that the structure of their incomes is different, and conversely the low taxes in Mexico are not compensated for by higher incomes.  No-one should imagine that, if the structure of tax rates was to be fundamentally reformed, their income will ultimately look the same as it does now.  We have to counter the illusion that tax is capturing people’s private incomes.  The distribution of income is not a private matter.

The public mood is swinging against Brexit

Views in the UK are polarised.  It is difficult to draw any clear message from the pattern of voting in the European elections, but the graph – prepared by the BBC, seems to mark a strong shift against Brexit.  You wouldn’t know it from the BBC’s Brexit coverage; I am listening now to a Radio Scotland item which is telling me that the Brexit Party romped home in the election.  Clearly, they didn’t.

The denial of votes to EU citizens on election day is another national disgrace; it will be the subject of legal action.  The assault on the rights of EU citizens goes rather beyond the 3.6 million people from the rest of Europe resident in the UK – or even them plus the 1.2 million UK residents in other European countries.  UK citizens are European citizens, too.  The formal census figures are out of date, as usual, but the population of the UK in 2017 was  roughly 66 million, and 90% are British nationals.  A further 5.6 million currently live abroad, of whom 1.2 million live in other EU countries.  We should perhaps discount 1.9 million people from Northern Ireland, because their rights are guaranteed if they so wish it by the Irish government, but that still leaves us with 57.7 million British nationals in the UK, and 5.6 million outside the UK, whose rights to European citizenship are being withdrawn.  In the 2016 referendum, 17.4 million people voted to leave the EU.  If we assume that all of them can be said to have consented to the loss of their rights, that still leaves 46.9 million other British citizens who are being denied their fundamental rights on the basis of that vote, and more than 50 million people when we consider European citizens from other countries living in Britain.


Can we revive capitalism?

Yesterday I went to an interesting event organised by Reform Scotland on ‘The Future of Capitalism’, addressed by Adrian Wooldridge (‘Bagehot’ of the Economist) and Lord Wood.  Most of their recommendations focused on fixing the vices of large companies and restoring the ‘dynamism’ of capitalism through small businesses and worker participation.  I think there are more fundamental issues to address.

The first is: is this still capitalism? It’s a question raised by Tony Crosland in the 1950s, and it’s highly pertinent to the debate.  Our economy doesn’t fit the conventional models of market capitalism in several ways.  Crosland pointed, for example, to the divorce of ownership and control, and the role of the state.  There’s a lot to add to that – for example, the role of voluntary, non-profit and mutual organisations.  (We also have some less appealing non-capitalist elements, such as the survival of pre-capitalist landholding in much of Scotland’s territory – at least 30% is still held by the landed gentry).  We have a complex, diverse, mixed economy, rather than an ideally ‘capitalist’ one.  Measures which aimed to revitalise the economy through a purer form of ‘capitalism’ may well just miss the point.

The second question: is ‘capitalism’ the source of our prosperity?  Many advocates of the market system, and capitalism’s ‘creative destruction’, believe it is; the story is not straightforward.  If we look, for example, at the housing system, people in the UK were able to live in decent housing in most cases through one of two mechanisms: the building societies, which were mutual, non-profit organisations devoted to making home ownership possible, and social housing, mainly developed through local authorities.  Many of our  current problems in that field relate to the ideological destruction of those systems.

Third: is ‘capitalism’ really the source of dynamism in our current  economy?   Successive British governments have been convinced that it must be, and that the key is independent, small business that will grow into larger businesses.  Most other countries are much more likely to have developed large industries through state aid – Mariana Mazzucato’s work on The Entrepreneurial State makes the case strongly.   And in the UK we’re apparently convinced it’s not cricket to do the same.  Our economy may be sinking, but at least we’re playing the game by the rules.

I’m generally suspicious of most analyses of ‘capitalism’.  Like Santa Claus, it’s used as a catch-all expression to explain why some of us get presents and some don’t.  Let’s talk about the  world as it is instead.

Scotland doesn’t have to have one currency. It could use four.

I was puzzled when Alex Salmond, during the referendum on Scottish independence, opted to push a particular model for currency in an independent Scotland; it simply wasn’t necessary.  As Iain McWhirter recently argued in the Herald, it’s the sort of decision that can be put off till later, and it’s perfectly possible to change the model if something isn’t working.    In the current debates, I think we’re seeing a reiteration of many of the same arguments.  All of them seem to me to be based on a false premise: that Scotland must choose its currency.  Why?

The Growth Commission, which fell victim to the same elephant trap, starts off its discussion by identifying  three purposes of money:  as a medium of exchange, as a unit of account, and as a store of value.  They could quite reasonably have added a fourth, because it’s most of what their discussion is about: money as an instrument of economic policy.  The histrionic criticisms made by some of the pro-independence commentators have suggested that it is not possible to be independent without an independent currency.  This quotation from Wynne Godley, objecting to the Euro, is going the rounds on Twitter:

the power to issue its own money, to make drafts on its own central bank, is the main thing which defines national independence. If a country gives up or loses this power, it acquires the status of a local authority or colony.

Have at you, France!  Italy, you are a local authority!  I blow my nose in your direction!

Let’s take some of the heat out of this. Money of all kinds can be used as a unit of exchange.  There are lots of places where currencies of different sorts will be accepted, regardless of what the official currency might be.  I’ve been places where they wouldn’t accept local currency, but asked to be paid in dollars.  As someone told me in Croatia, asking for payment in  pounds:  “Money is money.”  And money can be a unit of account in one currency while it is being exchanged in another.  When I was in Poland, my formal contract was paid in zloty, as the government requires, and tax was deducted in zloty, but the job offer and the pay were in Euros.

Scotland could survive while using the British pound.  Despite some of the nonsense that people come out with – such as George Osborne’s preposterous claim that Britain would “stop” Scotland using the pound  and that there’d have to be trucks crossing the border carrying notes and coins – whether or not Scottish people use the pound, or any other currency, is down to them.  But things don’t have to stop with the pound.  The Scottish economy, for those who haven’t noticed, already uses two currencies.  Most people use the pound sterling in ordinary life, but the oil industry conducts its transactions in US dollars.

In the past, it’s been difficult for buyers and traders working in multiple currencies.  The main issue has been the practice of the banks.  A combination of technology and competitive innovation has already largely overcome that.  Most retail payments in the UK are now made by card, not cash.  I use a bank which offers me parallel currency accounts and transfers without holding or transaction fees.  As transactions are cashless, there’s absolutely no reason why people shouldn’t hold accounts in Euros, pounds, dollars and other currencies at the same time; traders could make their own choices.  Scotland could reasonably have four currencies: a Scottish currency, the dollar, the pound and the Euro.  The main reason for having a separate Scottish currency would be as a unit of account and a tool of economic policy.  Whatever the choice is, we don’t need to get hung up about it.

This blog entry is suspiciously green

Richard Murphy has written several blog entries on the possibility of environmental taxes, including a tax on the consumption of products from cows, sheep and goats, because of the environmental damage done by the livestock industry.  He hopes that this will promote a shift towards consuming vegetables instead.

The objection I have to this kind of scheme is much the same as the objection I raised to the Green proposal for workplace car parking levies.  I replied to Richard in these terms:

There are two key problems with attempts to direct behaviour through ‘repricing goods and services’, and your proposal to tax foods derived from animals suffers from both of them. The first problem is that repricing is a blunt instrument. Changing the relative price of goods also changes the relative price of possible substitutes, and the substitutes may be as bad or worse than the options that are being controlled. What would you do, for example, if it emerged that the high relative price of dairy products prompted an increase in the consumption of environmentally destructive palm oil? Now I’ve pointed to the problem, you can probably say that it ought to be restricted too – but for any policy which takes in such a broad sweep of behaviour, there’s a limit to how many outcomes you can anticipate and provide for. There are nearly always more, unexpected consequences that aren’t visible until the damage has been done.

The second, and more important, objection is that repricing can (and often does) have unacceptable distributive consequences. Many environmental taxes have the effect that they allow richer people to carry on as they were, while poorer people suffer the restrictions and bear the cost – congestion charging is a clear example. And the thought of increasing the price of staple dairy products at a time when people on low incomes are going without food and having to seek help from food banks is frankly alarming.

The central flaw in the argument lies in one of the standard assumptions made in economic textbooks, which is that supply and demand can be controlled most effectively through the price mechanism. I’ve argued in my own blog that rationing by price is rather inadequate as an instrument of public policy. It offers nothing to protect us from inappropriate inclusion or exclusion from access to resources, and while some people think it’s a fair procedure (which is debatable), it is unlikely to be fair in its effects.

Richard took it that I must be arguing for a free market, when in fact I’m arguing the opposite; some things are not well left to the market, and attempts to tweak the price mechanism have unpredictable and undesirable affects.  Traditional markets don’t work.  But something else might.

Those of us who have been around for a long time might remember the Marketing Boards:  Eggs, Milk, Meat and Wool.  Despite the name, these schemes did something far beyond ‘marketing’: they took over the bulk of the markets, guaranteeing returns to producers, subsidising prices for consumers, and avoiding the problems of instability for which agricultural markets are notorious.  Here is a description of the egg marketing scheme from Hansard in 1956, as proposed by the Conservative government of the day.

Changes in supply and demand do not have to be very large before biggish changes occur in the price, which may have a disrupting effect and leave room for harmful speculation, with all that that entails….The board will have power to require that by far the great majority of eggs produced for the wholesale market will be sold by producers only to the board. … Every day the board will fix its selling price for eggs, and the distributive trades will be able to purchase those eggs from it at the prices settled. Any unsold eggs will be retained by the board and will be either moved to other markets or stored, for sale later.

In other words, the Board took over major aspects of production and distribution, protecting producers to an agreed level and ensuring consumers had access to a quality product at a stable price.

Britain eventually abandoned these policies, for two reasons: first, because food production was no longer seen as essential for national defence, and second because the UK joined the Common Agricultural Policy instead (it’s a markedly inferior system – unlike the Boards, the CAP rewards both excess production and acquisitive land ownership).  Only the Wool Marketing Board still exists, a collective, non-profit organisation that manages a centralised distributive market for fleece wool.

If we want to have general, secure access to vegetables at a subsidised price, taxing the alternatives to vegetables is not the best route.  And if we want to promote the consumption of vegetables, it may make sense to focus on that rather than developing policy relating to meat and dairy products.  Should we perhaps be thinking about a Vegetable Marketing Board?


The shape of inequality is not what Piketty thinks it is

Half of England, a Guardian report tells us, is owned by less than 1% of the population.  That sounds, on the face of the matter, like a justification of the Marxist view of the concentration of capital – and, for that matter, of Thomas Piketty’s argument, in Capital in the 21st Century, that inequalities are increasingly likely to  be concentrated in the hands of wealthy individuals.  But the figures for land ownership in England don’t quite show that.  The largest group of landowners are still the aristocracy and gentry, fundamentally a pre-capitalist source of inequality still accounting for 30% of the land.  17% of the land is owned by ‘new’ money, oligarchs and capitalists.  But 29% is owned by corporates, institutions, public authorities and organisations.  The central weakness of Piketty’s analysis is its  failure to engage with ownership that isn’t in the hands of private individuals.  Organisations and other non-human entities have an advantage over human beings; once their wealth is concentrated, it will either remain or it will pass to other non-human owners.  In the long term, this, rather than the hands of private individuals, is where wealth will be concentrated.

The ‘will of the majority’ is not a democratic principle

I can’t believe I’m having to say this, but the storm of protest when I posted on Twitter a couple of days ago tells me that some people really can’t tell the difference between democracy and dictatorship.  Twitter doesn’t lend itself to extended arguments, and it’s difficult even to reply sensibly; once a tweet has cropped up in four or five postings, there are too many threads to take account of.  The (admittedly truncated) comment that sparked people off was this:

Democracy is not a system that “implements the majority’s will”. It’s a system that respects and protects the rights of minorities. 

This attracted withering scorn.  One critic – a politics lecturer! – wrote:

Some confusion here about the meaning of democracy, from an emeritus professor of politics.

I tried to explain in these terms. 

The main models of democracy are institutional (eg elections, protected opposition), prescriptive (eg rule of law, deliberation) and normative (eg participation, rights). Majorities are only a device for resolving disagreements. The reason why we have oppositions is that majority views are never enough. Madisonian democracy treats majorities as a coalition of minority interests. In no democratic country does the winner take all.

Majority rule is a convention – a method for arriving at decisions, rather than a principle in itself.  It’s been used (like some other methods) in a variety of circumstances, and in many cases those circumstances are not democratic. I tried to explain that ” majority rule is not intrinsically democratic – it’s also used in dictatorships. Without contest, respect for rights or the ability to vote again, it’s undemocratic.”

It is absurd to suggest that “majority rule is used in dictatorships”. Elections in dictatorships are never used to express the majority will; if they were, they would not be dictatorships.

That’s an astonishing reply. Most of the dictators in the world have been elected.  What makes them dictators is the suppression of opposition and civil rights.

Bizarre. You actually think elections in dictatorships are free and fair, such that they actually represent the majority’s will?

You think that a majority can’t ever truly be oppressive, racist or fascist? Dictators often seek majority votes: eg Mussolini 1934, Hitler 1936, Franco 1947, Marcos 1973. “Autocratic regimes consult voters even if the outcome is a foregone conclusion.” (from

That is exactly my point. Majority voting is only democratic when elections are free and fair. Therefore, you cannot delegitimise majority voting by pointing to the existence of elections in authoritarian regimes, where elections are not free and fair.

An election where winner takes all on a majority vote cannot be democratic, regardless of whether the process is fair. That’s what gives you Mussolini or Mugabe. Democracy must protect the rights of minorities and of opposition, or it isn’t democracy.

And here we circle back again to your smuggling-in of liberal principles of minority protection into the definition of democracy. Opposition is essential for democracy but winner-takes-all is entirely compatible with it as well. Stop conflating important concepts.

The key point here is that majority rule is never, in itself, sufficient to guarantee democracy.  Beyond that, the translation of the conventions of majority rule into claims about ‘the will of the people’  is itself questionable – a device of demagogues and dictators.

Six million people have signed the petition to revoke

The petition to revoke Article 50 has now passed six million signatures.   It is by some margin the largest petition in the UK’s history.  A petition is not proof that the ‘will of the people’ has changed, but it does prove that the ‘will of the people’ was not  represented by the result of the referendum; all that referendum could do was to represent the decision of a majority.

Majority rule is not democracy.  In what circumstances do the rights of 17.4 million voters override the rights of six million? Think about that question, because it comes with its own answer.


The fuss about ‘cultural marxism’

I was nonplussed when a Conservative MP was accused of using an “antisemitic trope” because she said that the Conservatives were “engaged in a battle against Cultural Marxism.”  The accusation is given more force because it was subscribed to by the Board of Deputies of British Jews: this is the report from the Jewish Chronicle.   I’ve been on the receiving end of antisemitism sufficiently often to be sensitive about it, but this one I don’t see.

The idea of “cultural marxism” has been around for the best part of forty years, as a way of distinguishing the work of Gramsci or Lukacs from the traditional marxist emphasis on historical materialism.  This is from a 1983 article, Theses on Cultural Marxism:

Cultural Marxism is the theoretical and interpretive project that approaches culture in its dialectic relation to the social totality. … critical Marxism has had to evolve from the realization that the proletariat and the intellectuals attached to its historic role had lost the capacity for self-organization which could unite the social, moral, and aesthetic aspects of collective experience into a revolutionary project. … It is in this context that cultural Marxism undertakes its theoretical project: to revamp the social, psychoanalytic, and aesthetic elements of theory.

(from J Brenkman, 1983, Theses on cultural marxism, Social Text 7 Spring-Summer 19-33: obtained at

Cultural marxism was identified, in its day, with critical perspectives on class, race and gender – but it made that analysis subordinate to the marxist framework.  The term itself became the subject of criticism, because it was not pure enough for some marxists.  Ioan Davies wrote, in 1991:

throughout the late 1960s and the seventies, British Cultural studies was  firmly anchored in a strategy of political struggle, that its priorities were those of an elaboration of the cultural problems facing the Left at the time. By the 1980s, however, British Cultural Marxism became more culturist and less Marxist, carried along by its own academic institutionalization, shadow-boxing with itself and only indirectly contributing to political practice, so that in the end, notably in the pages of Marxism Today and the
cultural journals that came into being in the last few years of the decade, it became caught up in the process which it had set out to criticize.

(From I Davies, 1991, British Cultural Marxism, International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society 4(3) pp. 323-344, obtained at

Cultural Marxism, by that account, was past its sell-by date thirty years ago, and a  ‘battle’ against cultural marxism is hardly the most pressing issue in contemporary politics.

So, what’s the problem?  Apparently, the objection to the term ‘cultural marxism’ is that the term has been picked up by the extreme right; according to the New Statesman, Anders Breivik used the term 650 times in the course of a 1000-page document.  I’ve not read that document, and don’t propose to, but I understand that he also banged on about “multiculturalism” and “elites”.  Do we have to stop using those words, as well?

Additional note, 31st march:  Jonathan Portes has objected to this piece in these terms:  “Misses the point. No-one is suggesting you can’t use the phrase “cultural Marxism any more than “Zionism” or (your eg) multiculturalism. But”battle against CM” is very clearly alt-right/white nationalist [no responsible pol would say “battle against multiculturalism” IMO]. ” I think he is right to read the comments in that context, and it follows that I am wrong.


The clock has run down. Revocation is the best option left.

Time’s up.  Our MPs may be tempted to think that the two-week extension from the EU leaves it open to them to negotiate further about Britain’s future with the EU; it doesn’t.   There are only three options left.  One of them expires next Friday, another expires two weeks after that.

The three options that are available are

  • May’s deal – the Withdrawal Agreement negotiated with the EU, which the EU still hopes to be agreed;
  • no deal, which despite the MPs’ rejection in principle is the legal default, and
  • revocation of the article 50 notice.  The legal option to do this expires at the end of next Friday.  (The latest communique from the EU suggests that they would be open to revocation for two weeks after that – but they have not said either that revocation would be on the same terms as Britain’s existing membership, or that there will be no cost.)

The options that are no longer eligible available include

  • a second referendum, because there is no time to hold it;
  • Norway plus, Canada Plus, or any other trade-plus-cooperation type of deal – any of them will take months to negotiate;
  • Labour’s plan for a renegotiated settlement – no renegotiation is actually on offer, and we are out of time.

It’s time to get real.  Given that there are only three options, parliamentarians have to make a choice.  Two of those three options have already been rejected by the House of Commons.  Agreeing the Withdrawal Agreement is still possible, but it has been rejected twice by a huge majority, it is unbalanced, and it is incomplete: and it leaves unresolved  problems that will take years to negotiate.

The truth is that there is only one eligible option left: revocation.  Yesterday, I drew attention to a parliamentary petition which has put revocation back on the political agenda. It has, as they say, “gone viral”.  By this morning there were well over 2.5 million signatures on it, despite the site’s continual crashing and the lack of any pointers to it.   Andrew Adonis has said he will move revocation in the Lords on Monday.  It is our best, and possibly our only, hope.