On The Stupidity Of Bureaucracy

I recently tried to pay my company’s quarterly VAT bill to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC). As I used the compulsory method and logged onto the ‘Government Gateway’ website I discovered that I couldn’t submit a VAT return. In a panic I called the HMRC office that deals with our returns (only 16 minutes negotiating their phone system and on hold before I spoke to a human). There I discovered yet another travesty of bureaucracy.

Some background:

We moved our company offices in March last year. I asked our accountant, who is registered with HMRC as our ‘tax agent’, to change our VAT registration address, but they weren’t allowed to. Although this was stupid I have now discovered that the actual process verges on ridiculous.

As time progressed I continued paying the quarterly VAT via the Government Gateway website without any issues. However, earlier this year I tried to change the VAT registered address online. To do this you have to register separately for the ‘Change Business Address’ service on Government Gateway, even though I’m already registered to pay VAT and PAYE.

When you register for any new Government Gateway service they send you an authorisation key in the post. So guess where that went? Yes … to the old address!

This would have probably been ok but for another bureaucratic organisation: Royal Mail. They cannot setup a redirect on a shared office, as ours was previously, and so this post was never delivered but instead returned to Government Gateway; subsequent VAT post must have been sent back to HMRC too.

So despite the fact that I’ve been paying the VAT as expected on each quarterly date they registered us as a ‘lost business’. This is despite:

  • our address being online on our website
  • our address being correct at Companies House
  • our address being correct at HMRC to pay PAYE
  • them having my mobile telephone contact details

Finally in their completely inadequate ‘tracing’ process they sent me an ‘update contact details’ form to my home address. This lay unopened, like all my HMRC post, for a couple of months.

When I did discover it I completed the form and sent it off, receiving a new VAT registration certificate at our new address last month. However, because we were registered as a lost address we were switched to six-monthly returns, so a VAT payment is not due this quarter (after all the panic). When I explained that I have £90,000 to pay the nice chap on the phone said “well you’ll have to wait” – so that’s about £250 interest we’ll make! Also there are also no penalties as we’ve been paying VAT to date and it’s HMRC who changed our status.

Just how stupid is this system?

  1. You need to change your business address?
  2. No, you can’t do this online even though everything else is without registering for the ‘change address’ service
  3. When you register we’ll send you the key you need to your old address

The chap at HMRC was surprised that I hadn’t registered for this important service already: how often does he think businesses move? This was our first address move in nine years! And who would honestly expect that changing address for VAT would be so difficult? Weirdly HMRC allows you to change the business address for paying PAYE and other taxes online without this convoluted mechanism: the same government department!!!

Now the astute among you will know that HMRC was formed in 2005 by the merger of HM Customs and Excise (who dealt with VAT, customs and excise taxes) and Inland Revenue (who dealt with company and personal taxes). This merger was sold to parliament as a method of making 12,500 job savings by then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown. Obviously little actual integration has occurred in the intervening eight years, even though all payments and returns are made through the Government Gateway.

This is yet another demonstration of the stupidity of bureaucracy, especially in government.

By the way, I’m not suggesting that this process is ‘accidentally’ used as a tax avoidance mechanism!

An Eloquent Brand of Revolution

Russell Brand has caused yet another disturbance in the Twittersphere with his recent appearance on Newsnight. Many question why a mere comedian should be afforded the gravitas of a one-on-one interview by Jeremy Paxman. The obvious answer is his obvious intelligence and eloquence, but he is interesting beyond his showbiz facade.

I know many people dislike Brand, with his airy-fairy bohemian language, over-gesturing, crudeness and simplistic belief in socialism; personally, I like him. I’ve watched his material for years, seeing past the flamboyant performance art of his stand-up comedy to the intelligent foundations beneath. And, importantly, he makes me laugh – a comedian’s raison d’être, after all. Several years ago I arrived in Edinburgh for a few days at the Fringe, walked up those never-ending steps from the dinginess of Waverley station into the majesty of Princes Street, to be greeted immediately by Russell Brand and his entourage walking past. He noticed that I’d recognised him, smiled and said “Wotcha mate!” In that passing second his joie de vivre was contagious.

But Brand is more than just a former addict-turned comedian. Here he was in front of Britain’s toughest political interviewer mocking democracy and promoting revolution; even Paxman looked shocked. Brand rightly pointed out that voting is useless, it changes nothing: “why be complicit in this ridiculous illusion?”. He then railed against the inequity in society and linking this to the self-serving political elite. He boasted of never having voted, to which Paxman used the political-establishment line of ‘if you don’t participate then you have no say’; Brand decried this mantra as the con-trick that it is.

And then on BBC’s Newsnight, its flagship TV news platform, Brand advocated revolution! He didn’t go into detail about how this revolution would happen (thankfully, as advocating violence to enact political change is illegal under the various Terrorism Acts), but was adamant that this was the only way to change society radically. Personally I don’t agree, but I do share his belief that democracy isn’t going to help the state abandon its ways.

At this stage I agree with much of Brand’s enthusiastic critique of society. However, as many other libertarians would agree, it all goes wrong here. As you would expect, if you know anything about him, Brand then espouses as the saviour of humanity “a socialist egalitarian solution based on the massive redistribution of wealth, heavy taxation of corporations and massive responsibility for […] any company exploiting the environment”. His policy to reduce inequality we need to tax corporations hard, ‘catching’ tax avoiders, and all the usual Marxian dialectic and faux-logic (“profit is a filthy word because wherever there is profit there is also deficit”) short of putting evil capitalists up against the wall come the glorious day.

So Brand is intelligent, why socialism? I believe there are a few options on this…

1. He’s taking the piss? His eloquence and political solutions are just his own performance art, and he’s parodying Wolfie Smith.

2. He honestly thinks this is the best solution?

3. He, like many who make their living in the public view, recognises that saying you believe in socialism is the easiest way: you appear caring and cuddly, albeit ignoring the evidence of the vast social, economic and political inequities that socialism brings. (Why anyone thinks that being proud of believing in socialism is any better than believing in fascism is beyond me: they are the same evil ideology separated by relatively few characteristics).

As a libertarian, I share his anger at the political class, the inequality in society, and damage to the environment: he is right to see the existing system as the fault. However, I disagree vehemently with him as to the solution. Only voluntary trade (‘capitalism’ if you will) can improve this. Without the individual’s self-interested actions we would live in a society where the bureaucrat controls our lives, deciding our job, pay and conditions. Why would anyone think that Whitehall can make decisions about my life better than me? This is idealistic nonsense: to decry the status quo and then think that ‘administrators’ could control the economy better than millions of self-interested individuals. The inequalities that Brand so dislikes still exist after 70 years of our glorious welfare state, so why on earth would one think more statism would change that?

Brand is right, a revolution is coming. However it’s not a socialist revolution, despite his support for neo-socialist groups like the anti-capitalist Occupy movement. The rising wealth in China, India and Africa, all due to international trade, is creating a new class of educated young, people whose parents struggled in poverty. Even Bono has come to the realisation that trade not aid is needed to lift Africans out of poverty. This wealth and education, along with the international awareness that social media has brought, will create a desire amongst those not enjoying it to participate. Unfortunately this new-found approach to individual voluntary action isn’t shared by all.

In the UK we have created a society where school leavers expect work to be given to them, or free money if nobody thinks them worth employing. That entrepreneurial spirit required for growth is lacking in many in the UK, despite attempts by the BBC to promote it with such successful pro-business franchised shows as The Apprentice and, more importantly, Dragons’ Den. Sadly many of our youth have been left behind, indoctrinated by state education that society (i.e. government, i.e. the taxpayer, i.e. them and their parents) owes them a living. As Simon Kelner in the Independent says: “His call for revolution may be Spartist nonsense, but Brand definitely articulates a strain of thinking among a growing number of young people who feel disenfranchised, disenchanted, disengaged and, most important, disinterested in the idea that politics can change the world.” While Brand recognises the anger of these left isolated from the productive world around them, he misses the cause.

It is a shame that Brand hasn’t recognised voluntary transactions, free trade, as the greatest route away from the inequality that he rightly despises; that the state that he advocates more of as being the root cause of much of that inequality. Imagine the fireBrand in action, convincing the youth, if he understood and believed in the coherent, egalitarian philosophy of libertarianism.

In the meantime we must just be glad he’s arguing against established politics, politicians and democracy. Come the glorious day…

Nelson Mandela: Saint or Sinner?

With his failing health and impending 95th birthday Nelson Mandela is once again at the forefront of world attention. The world is bracing itself for the inevitable news and the world’s press are jostling for position outside his hospital to report that news. Barack Obama stated this weekend that he wouldn’t visit the ailing Mandela as it would appear just a photo opportunity and would invade the family’s privacy; instead Obama took his photo op at Mandela’s cell on Robben Island, stating he was “deeply humbled” to stand there. Such is the kudos of Mandela that world leaders are keen to touch his sleeve, albeit only metaphorically now. Jonathan Freedland’s article ‘When Nelson Mandela goes, the global village will lose its elder‘ sums up many people’s view on this elder statesman. However, many on the political ‘right’ have always argued that Mandela was a terrorist and so was rightly punished. The facts, for a libertarian, are (ironically) slightly less black and white, with Mandela’s struggle against an evil state taking on three main phases.

Nelson Rolilhalha Mandela was born into a royal family in an already racially-divided South Africa on the 18th July 1918. When young he attended university, training as a lawyer, and became involved in anti-colonial politics co-founding the ANC’s Youth League. By the late 1940s it had gained control of the party in response to the Apartheid laws passed from 1948 onwards by the ruling National Party. The ANC at that time supported a campaign of civil disobedience, including strikes; the government responded violently: in 1950 during one strike 18 black strikers were killed. This was the first phase of Mandela’s struggle against apartheid – the non-violent phase.

However Mandela and the ANC adopted a new approach at the start of the 1960s with the founding of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK: “spear of the nation”); on this dramatic shift in policy Mandela famously said:

“At the beginning of June 1961, after a long and anxious assessment of the South African situation, I, and some colleagues, came to the conclusion that as violence in this country was inevitable, it would be unrealistic and wrong for African leaders to continue preaching peace and non-violence at a time when the government met our peaceful demands with force.

This conclusion was not easily arrived at. It was only when all else had failed, when all channels of peaceful protest had been barred to us, that the decision was made to embark on violent forms of political struggle, and to form Umkhonto we Sizwe. We did so not because we desired such a course, but solely because the government had left us with no other choice.”

After 13 years of increasingly violent response to peaceful protests the ANC had become despondent and desperate for change. They started a guerrilla campaign against government installations and included many other acts of sabotage. This was the second phase: a violent campaign targeting the government alone. Many libertarians would err at the thought of starting a violent campaign against their state due to the non-aggression principle, however in South Africa at the time it can easily be justified as the state had already initiated the violence both mentally with apartheid laws and physically with the violent response to civil disobedience; this wasn’t initiation of aggression, it was defence against it. Some libertarians may disagree but I believe that Mandela’s response at this time was entirely justified. The South African government declared Umkhonto we Sizwe a terrorist organisation and therefore illegal (incidentally the US government also declared MK a terrorist organisation, undoubtedly as it was in fear of similar events there due to the increasing civil rights campaign).

The question of whether the individual is right to take up arms against their state is a difficult one. South Africa was one of, if not the most, democratic country in Africa at that time, even though only a minority of its people were allowed to vote (or even be classed as citizens). This question challenges the very nature of democracy – as I frequently do – is the legally-mandated government ever really morally legitimate?

Whilst many libertarians, including me, would prefer Gandhi’s adherence to non-violence as the preferred route to liberation I can sympathise with Mandela and his colleagues making the choice they did at that time. The one aspect on which most ‘right’-leaning libertarians will agree is that the ANC’s politics were pretty abysmal: as with many of its regional allies, who it relied on for military support of MK (including ZAPU, FRELIMO and SWAPO), it was aligned with various flavours of socialism and many of its contemporaries were funded by the Soviet Union. The ANC was also closely affiliated with the South African Communist Party at that time.

The third phase of action against the apartheid state was a result of the gradual slide into despotism within MK: it was subjecting recruits to extreme punishment and many human rights violations occurred including executions without due process within ANC detention camps. Umkhonto we Sizwe then extended its military campaign to other targets, including mining rural roads leading to farms, and bombing bars, restaurants and shopping centres. The landmine explosions alone resulted in over 123 deaths and the ANC eventually abandoned it due to its high rate of casualties amongst black labourers. One set of statistics record 230 deaths due to the ANC/MK campaign in the period 1976-1986 with only 10% being members of the security forces; as with the ratio in the general population over 70% of the casualties were black.

As a libertarian I cannot support initiation of any act of violence against civilians and therefore this campaign was abhorrent and immoral (incidentally, to hold democratic voters responsible for their government’s worst excesses is the approach Osama Bin Laden used to justify the attacks against the US on September the 11th 2001). This extension of violence from the state to civilian targets didn’t start until 1976 after the Soweto uprising, where at least 176 protestors, many children, were killed by the police. With respect to Soweto the extension of violence can be seen as an understandable, but not justifiable, reaction.

While the ANC and MK is to be rightly condemned for its escalation of violence the involvement of Mandela with this decision has to be questioned: he had been imprisoned since 1962 and during this period was in isolation on Robben Island with only one visit and one (heavily-censored) letter every six months; with this limited communication it is dubious to hold him responsible for MK’s campaign against civilians.

While I would view Martin Luther King and Mohandas Gandhi as better role models for liberation movements, due to their non-violent approaches, there does come a time when state oppression can only be fought with violent means. In my view Nelson Mandela was right to do this in his time, though his movement’s successors were wrong in their subsequent approach. While I vehemently disagree with the socio-economic model that Mandela and his colleagues wished to inflict on their people I do think that he should be recognised by libertarians for his fight to free the persecuted and effectively enslaved people of South Africa.

Defending The Indefensible: Letting “The Poor Die In The Street”

How often have we libertarians heard the line: “You don’t want state healthcare? Then you must want poor people to die in the street?” Thankfully most people that we debate with have now passed this childish stage; however based on a recent experience this is not consistent, so maybe we require a brief explanation of why this isn’t true.

Logical Fallacy Or Misrepresentation?

Let’s start with a fact: no, I don’t want the poor to die in the street. But, more importantly, this does not follow from wanting state healthcare. The logic behind the assertion that ‘if A then B’ is false: this is known as a non-sequitur. Another argument also used is that “if you don’t want the NHS then you must want the US system” where it is therefore assumed that the poor die in the street. This uses the same false logic in an attempt to portray the libertarian as a heartless capitalist, which is then used as an ad hominem to ‘poison the well’ against further debate. As I questioned in my previous post ‘Is The State Needed?‘ how many of 200+ countries in the world have adopted the NHS model? As far as I’m aware there are none, so there are still 200+ other countries with various healthcare systems to choose from – why always compare to the US?

Comparison To US Healthcare

Incidentally, I’m not a fan of the US system, though not because of often-false propaganda about perceived outcomes peddled by NHS-idolisers, but because the system is heavily skewed by government and is run more for the benefit of the insurance companies and healthcare providers. These vested interests lobby government and their costs increase year-on-year. Even US conservatives recognise that their system can learn from other countries, as per this excellent abridged speech given by Avik Roy on Health Care As A Right.

In a recent study of healthcare quality the US system came last in a list of seven major industrialised countries, despite having the highest cost. It is interesting that this report ranked the UK’s system second out of seven, with many high scores for care: it would be interesting to see this report reanalysed with new data following the Mid-Staffordshire scandal.

Comparison of seven countries' healthcare by Commonwealth Fund

Comparison of seven countries’ healthcare systems. © Commonwealth Fund 2010

What is noticeable from this analysis is that the UK is sixth out of seven for providing ‘long, healthy, productive lives’; I would have thought this was the fundamental outcome required of a healthcare system. Having personally experienced potentially life-threatening ‘healthcare’ only 9 months ago I am unsurprised at this finding; if I hadn’t been so adamant that a consultant’s conclusion was wrong then I would have taken the medication that he prescribed, which probably would have killed or maimed me. However, as I always say, you cannot extrapolate from one data point. Sadly in the last year there were over 16,000 clinical negligence claims registered with the Compensation Recovery Unit, which one assumes were mostly against the NHS, so negligence is not that uncommon.

What’s So Special About Healthcare?

For the vast majority of us we do not need attention from a formal healthcare system from day-to-day, but for all of us we do need food every day. We all manage to choose a suitable food supplier each and every day and feed ourselves, yet few but the most dogmatic and terminally stupid call for a nationalised food system. Food suppliers have to arrange for raw ingredients to be grown, then prepared and shipped to stores for sale to customers. Although the supply chains for these products are often long and complex, and despite the occasional scandal, few people die from food purchased from private-sector shops or restaurants.

So why do so many believe that healthcare is more important to life than food, for instance, even though it patently isn’t? And why do the same people believe that only the state can safely provide this healthcare? The first point is obviously fallacious when the simple facts are considered: how long can you survive without food compared to how long can you survive without the state-provided healthcare system? Obviously you may rely on medication every day, but in reality once you are prescribed that by a GP that medication is (mainly) provided by the private sector – dispensing chemists and pharmaceutical companies – so this does not support the case that it’s important for the state to run healthcare.

My own view is that healthcare need not be provided by the state: there are plenty of partially or wholly funded privately provided healthcare systems globally that work better than ours. In fact in both of the two comparative surveys referenced in this article the Dutch healthcare system, most of which is privately provided, is regarded as better than the UK’s and US’s systems. As in most countries the Dutch government does interfere with the market somewhat, but this is mainly beneficial with minimal negative impact: it requires health insurance to be mandatory but it also pools risk requiring one fixed-price insurance for all.

Also, as I’ve argued before, if we must have a socialised healthcare system then the French model (often regarded as providing the best outcomes globally) is better than the UK’s, but even their system has significantly higher private funding and provision than the NHS. Why do doctors, nurses and other medical practitioners need to work for the state; for instance most are private in France? Although the French system provides universal healthcare, it is not a single-payer system and the French themselves do not regard it as socialised healthcare.

So simply comparing the UK to other countries dispenses with the myth that only a fully socialised healthcare model, with all health providers working for the state, can work. that’s simply untrue. So what’s the next reason that we simply must have socialised healthcare in the UK to prevent the poor from dying on the street?

It’s The Cost, Stupid!

As the World Health Organisation (WHO) states in its 2000 reportHealth care expenditures have risen from 3% of world GDP in 1948 to 7.9% in 1997. This dramatic increase in spending worldwide has prompted societies everywhere to look for health financing arrangements which ensure that people are not denied access to care because they cannot afford it.

Advocates of socialised healthcare, such as the NHS model, often argue that we individuals couldn’t afford the high cost of healthcare without the state providing it for free at the point of demand. This is patently wrong, as the Netherlands and many other countries demonstrate. The simple exposure of this ad ignorantiam fallacy is to ask the question “so where does the money currently come from?” From us all, of course! The NHS currently costs the UK economy just over £102Bn per annum, or around £1,600 per capita; whilst this is lower than most other countries it is still affordable when you consider that a full-time employee on National Minimum Wage incurs £1,641 in National Insurances and Income Tax in a year. The average working UK taxpayer pays over £4,000 per year in income tax alone (without employees’ and employers’ national insurances or other consumption-based taxes).

Conclusion

No libertarian that I know wants “the poor to die in the street” through lack of healthcare, but we do believe that there are better systems for healthcare provision for us all. We believe that if the state wasn’t taxing us all more than 44% of our income then the vast majority of us would be able to afford better healthcare than we currently receive. The genuinely poorest in society (as opposed to the majority who are unintentionally poor due to the state’s distortion of the economy) could be provided for by voluntary contributions or a significantly smaller tax burden.

I realise that this article will almost certainly be taken out of context by those with political motive to do so, especially with the provocative title I’ve given it. However, we libertarians must never be afraid to fight for what we believe in. The liars who deliberately obfuscate our position must not be allowed to do so, they must be challenged with facts. These facts are:

  • The NHS is not the best healthcare system in the world, it’s not even close;
  • The US is not the only system to compare it to, there are 200+ countries in the world to choose from;
  • If you want a socialised healthcare system there are much better than the UK’s NHS;
  • Funding of healthcare does not need to come solely from the government’s tax take, there are better models;
  • Libertarians want better healthcare for everyone, especially the poor who suffer disproportionately under our system.

So the next time you are challenged that you “want the poor to die in the street” as you do not support socialised healthcare, point out the facts above, correcting your accuser that it must be what they want, not you.

No Longer The Land Of The Free

Declaration_of_independence_banner

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

– The Declaration of Independence, dated 4th July 1776, signed 2nd August 1776.

Today, July the 4th, is (wrongly) recognised as the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. This is a momentous day for many Americans as it signals the beginning of their ancestors’ fight to free themselves from the tyranny of British rule: it led to the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights, both important for many admirers of the limited state. I think after 237th years it’s worth reviewing just how well this legal governance framework this has worked out for Americans.

Following my recent defence of the European Convention on Human Rights several libertarians rightly criticised the framework as it only forces the signatory state to grant rights to the individual, whereas the US Constitution declares rights that the government cannot abrogate. For a libertarian this is a significant difference: it declares that the individual is fundamental and the state only has limited powers seceded to it, selected powers that the people allow, and no more. I’m no constitutional lawyer but this instinctively sounds like a good approach. In theory this should limit the power and scope of government to the ‘night-watchman’ state that minarchists prefer. But how does that work in practice?

In reality the US Constitution doesn’t protect any individual as it only defines how the government should work, it is the Amendments to the Constitution that provide individual rights. The first ten amendments, proposed together in 1789 and ratified in 1791, are collectively known as The Bill Of Rights. This is the decateuch for US Constitutionalists and many libertarians, these amendments defining the fundamental limits of the state. However they’re not the only amendments, the list below illustrates some that may be of interest to libertarians:

  • The 11th Amendment protects states from being sued by ‘foreigners’. Ratified 1795.
  • The 13th amendment abolishes slavery – so the concept of ‘life, liberty original Constitution and Bill Of Rights did not extend to all people. Ratified 1865.
  • The 15th amendment stops states from denying suffrage due to race, colour or previous inservitude. But not for gender. Ratified 1870.
  • The 16th amendment allows the federal government to collect income tax. Ratified 1913.
  • The 18th amendment prohibits manufacture, distribution or sale of alcohol. Ratified 1919.
  • The 19th amendment extends suffrage to women, finally. Ratified 1920.
  • The 26th amendment extends suffrage to 18-year olds. Ratified 1971.

In 1870 Lysander Spooner wrote a pamphlet The Constitution of no Authority in which he disputed the social contract view of the constitution and argued that it was unable to stop many abuses against liberty or to prevent tyranny. After 237 years it is interesting to see the outcome of this experiment in limiting government.

First, an appropriate anecdote. In 2001 I was in Colorado on business and had been invited to a colleague’s house for dinner with his family. I dropped by the local supermarket, Safeway, to pick up a bottle of wine as a gift to my colleague for his kindness. I searched the aisle that had beer and wine coolers but couldn’t find any wine. I eventually asked the only member of staff in sight, at the pharmacy desk, where the wine was stacked. I was shocked when she said that in their state they cannot sell ‘liquor’ in a supermarket. I asked where I could buy wine, she responded: “the liquor store, next door”. this is just one example of the many weird infringements that Americans accept whilst still believing they live in the ‘land of the free’.

Some other examples of stupidity include:

While these are examples of stupid laws that may concern few people, there are greater evils enacted by the US Government that should worry everyone. Three such examples are Ruby Ridge, Waco and the Kent State shootings.

If you are not aware of these events then here’s a synopsis:

There were many student protests from 1968 onwards, mostly over the Vietnam war. In May 1970 at Kent State University in Ohio the National Guard opened fire on peaceful, unarmed protesters. The guardsmen fired 67 rounds over a period of 13 seconds, killing four students and wounding nine others. Other protests in that period that resulted in fatalities at the hands of police include the Orangeburg massacre and the Jackson State killings. At another University protesting students were bayoneted.

20130703-073739.jpg

John Filo’s iconic Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of 14-year-old Mary Ann Vecchio kneeling in anguish over the body of Jeffrey Miller

In 1992 at Ruby Ridge in Idaho the United States Marshall Service (USMS) attacked a family on their property killing the 14-year son and starting a siege. The next day Randy Weaver attempted to visit his son’s body kept in an outhouse and a sniper attempted to execute him on sight, shooting him in his back. Randy ran back to his house, badly injured, and the sniper shot again, firing through the front door blowing Vicki Weaver’s face off and killing her while she stood holding her 10-month old baby. Although the sniper was charged with manslaughter (!) the case was dismissed.

Surveillance_photograph_of_Vicki_Weaver_21_Aug_1992

Vicki Weaver as seen from a USMS surveillance position on 21 August 1992, the day before her assassination

In 1993 at Waco in Texas the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms attacked the property of a religious sect and were met with armed resistance; four ATF agents were killed. Following a very public 51-day siege the FBI attacked the compound using military type vehicles (including two Abrams tanks) resulting in 76 deaths including 21 children (24 of the Branch Davidians were British).

20130703-073842.jpg

Mount Carmel Center, home of the Branch Davidians, in flames on April 19th 1993 following FBI assault with military weaponry. 76 civilians died in the assault including 21 children.

These are just a few examples of what a Government that has no limits will do to its citizens: sadly the Constitution has failed. While each event described above drew criticism and enquiries, no state official was successfully prosecuted for their actions, though in both Waco and Ruby Ridge some of the citizens targeted were subsequently imprisoned. This is the state in action – protecting its own employees, even when clear wrong-doing has happened, and prosecuting its critics (we see this frequently in the UK with the deaths of Ian Tomlinson and Jean Charles de Menezes as recent examples). One only has to review the list of the White House Horrors during Nixon’s tenure, especially the Huston Plan (including illegal surveillance of, and detention camps for, student protestors), to realise what contempt the state apparatus has for its citizenry.

So on this anniversary let us rightly celebrate the Declaration of Independence, regarded as a great step forward for the people of North America, but let’s not forget it led to the well-intentioned Constitution which has in every measurable way failed to protect the rights of its citizens. The US Government is a ‘democratic’ dictatorship run by authoritarians from one of two ruling parties, who bleat about freedom at the ballot box, but shred individual rights when elected by the feeble-minded and hoodwinked. The US citizen should remember there is “the Right of the People to alter or to abolish” a despotic government; they alone amongst the people of the world have a legal and defined precedent to do this in their Declaration of Independence: it enables them to legally overthrow their shackles. They should peacefully and legally invoke the Declaration’s intent and petition for the winding up of the existing government structure.

I’ll leave you with a thought from Lysander Spooner:

“As long as mankind continue to pay “National Debts,” so-called,—that is, so long as they are such dupes and cowards as to pay for being cheated, plundered, enslaved, and murdered,—so long there will be enough to lend the money for those purposes; and with that money a plenty of tools, called soldiers, can be hired to keep them in subjection.”

PRISM: A Technical Analysis

As a libertarian I am automatically suspicious that government agencies may be spying on us all the time, though the story about PRISM in this week has aroused my technical curiousity.

The article in the Guardian appears to rely on a single Powerpoint file of dubious provenance. It was provided by a chap who hides his head and keyboard under a blanket when logging in so his password cannot be seen, despite him alleging that he’s aware of a program that can read most emails and messages on the planet. He is now ‘in hiding’ in a Hong Kong hotel room.

Whilst the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, has admitted that there is collection of data on non-US citizens under Section 702 of FISA, he said that the reports in the Guardian and Washington Post “contain numerous inaccuracies“. Also, several of the companies whose data is allegedly being accessed have already denied this.

I am not disputing that a collection programme exists, only that the scope of it portrayed in those newspapers is highly unlikely. I am still uncertain whether Clapper or Obama were referring to the Verizon court order, uncovered the previous day, in their limited admissions.

[Please note that many of the included calculations are rough and ready – I’ve a day job and am blogging this in my lunchtime! If someone wants to pay me to undertake a more accurate assessment then I’m happy to elaborate.]

Information On Slides Released So Far

One slide lists the following providers: Microsoft, Google, Yahoo!, Facebook, PalTalk, YouTube, Skype, AOL and Apple.

Courses and Types of data available from PRISM

Slide from Guardian showing sources and types of data available from PRISM

The same slide then asserts “What Will You Receive in Collection (Surveillance and Stored Comms)?” and then lists the following: E-mail, Chat (video, voice), Videos, Photos, Stored Data, VoIP, File transfers, Video Conferencing, Notifications of target activity – logins, etc., Online Social Networking details and Special Requests (sic).

Now firstly, let’s analyse what is meant by both Surveillance and Stored Comms. Surveillance means to watch someone, taking note of their activities, such as when they send a message and to whom. Many online are correctly referring to this as metadata, that is data that refers to other data. Interestingly my reading of the situation is that collection and analysis of this metadata many not need a warrant under US (and other countries’ legislation), whereas looking at what’s in the message definitely does. If the PRISM system was just collecting metadata then the collection requirements would be considerably less, though still enormous based on the providers and services listed above.

Secondly, let’s consider Stored Comms. This means storing the actual communication. With an email this can be as small as a few thousand bytes, instant messaging would be even less. Picture data would be huge, and videos would be even larger. Videoconferencing would be enormous – around 1MB of data per minute at least, increasing up to 11MB per minute for HD quality videoconferencing.

Let’s take a couple of examples. Firstly Facebook.

Facebook users are adding 350 million new picture files a day and Facebook already holds over 240 billion pictures (2012 figures). To support this growth Facebook engineers have to deploy (install) 7 Petabytes of new storage per month. That’s 7,000 Terabytes; or 7,000,000 Gigabytes; or 7,000,000,000 Megabytes. A conservative estimate of cost is around $3m per month for purchasing additional storage alone. If hosted on Amazon’s Glacier storage (the lowest price, slowest recovery storage) it would cost $20m a year just for Facebook photos alone!

A second example is Skype.

Skype: Skype does not record calls so for VoIP calls to be recorded the NSA would need to record every single conversation in real-time. Architecturally this is impossible as many calls do not route through Skype equipment, but are still connected peer-to-peer, despite changes to the Skype architecture listed in the blog above. A quick conservative estimate of Skype voice data is at least 147 Terabytes a month alone (based on June 2012 data from the Skype blog above), without any other transferred files or chat.

Other services to consider briefly:

  • Apple: iCloud storage of all iPhones, iPods and iPads with automatic backups enabled.
  • Microsoft: Hotmail (360 million users in July 2011) plus, one assumes, all cloud hosted email via Office 365 (over a million users).
  • Google: All Google search data (100 Billion per month), plus Gmail (425 million active users a month).
  • Yahoo!: Email and searches.
  • YouTube: Videos – one estimate here is 22.7 Terabytes per day.

The cumulative data requirements could easily be estimated from their press releases and blogs, sadly I don’t have time to do this.

Put The Captured Data In The Cloud?

Using commercial cloud providers has been suggested as to how the NSA can store all this data – because “it’s cheap”. No it isn’t. The storage costs would be phenomenal, plus the processing costs. Any data I/O to remote datacentres is even more costly. If the NSA were to do this they would have to host it in the data source companies’ datacentres or its own military-grade secure facility, connected by dark fibre to each datacentre of each data source.

Technical Flaw – Telecoms

One of the slide graphics released suggests that there is a system called ‘Upstream’ that allows access to telecoms data “from fiber cables and infrastructure as the data flows past“.

Slide from Guardian showing 'Upstream' data collection

Slide from Guardian showing ‘Upstream’ data collection

Whilst gathering data from optical fibre cables is technically possibly, it would be very difficult physically and would be noticeable to the telecoms provider due to drops in signal strength. A fibre contains many channels (or wavelengths) of light, each of which will also have many channels of data multiplexed into it. Therefore this single statement alone damages the technical credibility of the presentation. Also there are too many cables coming in and out of the US for them to tap into all the actual fibres. (I was involved in the project to build just one of the existing transatlantic cables a decade ago, so have experience in this area).

If they were just connecting to telecoms ‘infrastructure’ (switches, multiplexers, etc.) then it would be more believable, although this is still pretty much impossible as the data volumes are enormous and much data is encrypted.

To tap into an interactive conversation, as per the Bourne films, whether over chat, voice or video would not be possible in real-time without knowing a considerable number of parameters, many unknown even to the network provider. Recording the data for later reference (with or without court order) would still require phenomenal amounts of storage. Cisco’s latest Visual Networking Index estimates global IP Internet traffic last year was 43,570 Petabytes per month (43,570,000 Terabytes, 43,500,000,000 Gigabytes): this equates to 16,700 Gigabytes of IP traffic a second. This would require 20 x 900 Terabyte hard drives a second to store this, costing approximately $6,000 a second!

Conclusion

While I don’t think the scope of data collection from servers as envisaged by the Guardian is impossible, I do think it’s highly improbable and would cost many $Billions per annum (just look up the IT storage costs of the companies above for an indication). If PRISM does exist it is likely to only capture metadata, that is data about conversations. This would still be a considerable amount of data and would require costs orders of magnitude above the $20m cited in the other slide below.

Guardian slide on PRISM sources

Guardian slide on PRISM sources

My personal instinct is that this Powerpoint is a fraud, for whatever reason. Whether the PRISM data collection programme exists is another question. If it does I don’t think the above released information would accurately reflect its capabilities nor its effectiveness. At best, it enables the NSA to search many metadata databases, though the legality of this, as either participant could be a US Citizen, is also dubious.

I still don’t trust any government with access to my data, but I’m not convinced any government, especially the US Government, has this capability. Yet.

Footnotes

The copyright of this article remains with the author. It can be used only if attributed to The New Liberty blog.

P.S. To the NSA, if you ever want to build something like PRISM properly then give me a call, I’m sure you know my number and my billing rates!

The Road To Liberty Needs A Strategy

“Life is what happens while you’re making other plans”

John Lennon

Introduction

Sixty-nine years ago Friedrich von Hayek warned of the consequences of following the Road to Serfdom. Three months later Allied forces invaded Nazi-occupied France to start the long slog to retake western Europe from the forces of National Socialism. We now live in a socialist dystopia that our ancestors who fought in that war would struggle to recognise; this is despite the overwhelming volume of philosophical and economic literature supporting the efficacy of libertarian economics and societies. While in many areas we have won the argument we have struggled to make any significant impact towards a truly free society anywhere in the world; various shades of statism occupy every country. So I have been thinking about why we have failed in our endeavour.

Winning The Argument

We libertarians are great at arguing exactly how the minutiae of a perfect libertarian society would work, from policing and courts with contract disputes, health care, welfare, drugs, and even national defence. While we may not agree on the ideal society, whether it would involve minarchy or anarchy, we damn well know how its mechanisms would work in detail!

So how do we get to our ideal free society, or just closer to the free society that we yearn for? Well as the old joke goes “you don’t want to start from here”. That punchline sums up the uphill struggle we have.

If we are ever to achieve our goal of a free society then we libertarians need to define a strategy for how to achieve this fundamental change.

Barriers To A Free Society

Let us start by considering the status quo:

  • Public choice theory suggests that government will be influenced to legislate in favour of minorities who have more to gain from their subsidies, grants or anti-competitive levies than the sums charged in general taxation by the losers.
  • The ‘ratchet effect’ of ever-increasing taxation and/or legislation by the state that needs to justify its increasing budget to meet election promises to its constituents. Few people complain when an additional penny disappears in taxes each month; but the benefit to the state is £700,000, which it will never give up. Reducing taxation requires fighting the many ‘good causes’ that are beneficiaries of this expenditure which can be politically uncomfortable (for example the recent discussions about disability benefits).
  • The power structure unwilling to cede its authority, whether it is the civil service or professional politicians. These vested interests are paid from taxes taken from the populace, so are unlikely to want to reduce or forgo them. This can be seen by increasing salaries, expenses and index-linked pensions for many ‘public servants’.
  • A large bloc of the electorate that is reliant on welfare payments, from unemployment benefits needed as government sucks the productive private-sector economy dry, to ‘tax-credits’, the Milton Friedman-inspired negative income tax, that distorts the market. (‘Tax credits’ enable employers to pay their workforces less directly, with the subsidies coming from the employees’ own taxes and corporation tax.)
  • Democracy supports the status quo, for any who propose radical change cannot get established in the system.
  • Global institutions that require their own funding though cannot levy their own taxes, such as the EU, UN, NATO, WTO, World Bank, etc.
  • The corruption of politics, not only tainting people of principle who have to join in with the tribal political games, but the actual corruption of lobbyists and expenses, as displayed in the last few years.

The state has become its own living, breathing, self-replicating entity. I am surprised that nobody has thought to apply James Lovelock’s Gaia Theory to a theory of the state: it organises; it metabolises; it grows; it adapts; it breeds; and, most importantly, it responds to stimuli – it defends itself.

The humour of Yes Minister, where Sir Humphrey Appleby is happy to discuss reducing the size of the civil service, but wants a huge task force to study the subject, is far from fictional.

So this is the environment that we have to consider when contemplating any strategy for liberty.

How To Remove The State From Our Lives

So how can we make our ideal free society, how can we remove the state from our lives? Before you get your hopes up – I don’t have an answer to this problem, but there are various approaches that can be considered and I discuss some of them below.

  1. Entryism: infiltrating an existing political party with like-minded activists seems a quick win, as it enables the libertarian to leverage the existing democratic system and existing party apparatus. This was tried by the libertarians of FCS into the Conservative Party in the 1980s, with little success. There are also pockets of libertarians within other parties, such as the Liberal Democrats (sic) and UK Independence Party. Sadly it quickly becomes apparent that the existing party power structure will not cede power easily, and often a reaction is provoked that ends any libertarian aspirations.
  2. A libertarian party: The example of the United States is sufficient here. David Nolan who founded the Libertarian Party in 1971 has now given up on this strategy. With only 16% of people holding libertarian beliefs (in the US, probably less in the UK) it is highly unlikely that this approach can ever succeed in isolation. In my personal view even participating in the democratic political system taints the politicians, whether libertarian or not, and no libertarian party will ever succeed (sorry Pro-Liberty Party).
  3. Education: I have for a long time been an advocate of utilising ‘think tanks’ and ‘folk activism’ to educate the general populace of the efficacy of the market and that they state is simply not needed. However after 70 years of post-war state education promoting Bevan’s cradle-to-grave statist strategy, people just don’t realise that they can live without the all-encompassing state. However, I still believe that we need to educate people, weaning them off the narcotic that is the modern state, as no other method of transition will work by itself.
  4. Revolution: Let’s not be silly! Revolution, even with the benevolent dictator model, is more likely to lead to despotism even faster than democracy does. As stated earlier, the state responds to stimuli: in the UK even discussing revolution is effectively illegal – a terrorist act under our legislation. The state defends itself first and foremost, hence the frequent proposal of laws with heavier sentences for cop-killers than for those that would kill us.
  5. Seasteading: Although this is still currently the realm of fiction this method of creating a new stateless society is at least theoretically achievable. The Seasteading Institute was founded by Patri Friedman (David’s son and Milton’s grandson) and has attracted many supporters and investors, including Peter Thiel.
  6. Free States: Jason Sorens proposed the idea of concentrating libertarians in one area to effect political change, thereby inspiring the Free State Project in the US. New Hampshire was nominated as the target state and so far over 1,000 libertarians have moved there; the goal is 20,000 This project is already showing returns, as can be seen in this recent article in Reason ‘The Free State Project Grows Up‘. However it needs an autonomous political entity to succeed, such as a US state that has control over much of its legislation, and it needs to be small enough for the incoming libertarians to win or influence democratic votes. Whilst it is an attractive idea for all UK libertarians to move to a county to establish a libertarian society, it is worthless
  7. Fabianism: The infiltration of the intelligentsia and associated ruling class by the Fabian movement proved successful for promoting socialist ideals. A similar libertarian-minded project given time could sway the body politic, though it is unlikely to be enough by itself.
  8. Do-It-Ourselves: This is my only contribution to the debate. Let’s stop whingeing about the state institutions running our lives badly, let’s create our own institutions and aim for David Friedman’s Market Anarchism. Many businesses already exist that provide the same, or better, services than the state. Let’s publicise these. And where they don’t exist let’s build our own. If we can demonstrate to the populace that private health, transport, social housing, welfare, education, policing and arbitration are more cost-effective than the state’s versions, then how long before consumers vote with their feet?

A Suggested Strategy

I’ve not got any single magic answer to how we get to our objective of a stateless, or near-stateless, society. Personally I think the Folk Activism approach is useful for gaining much-needed support through education, but it alone cannot succeed. Like many other libertarians I don’t think we will ever have sufficient support to use the democratic system in our favour. Whilst the seasteading is the most likely to create small viable libertarian communities at some point in the future I don’t think it’s a viable alternative for most of us. The Free State Project has the most likelihood to succeed to a limited extent, but only within the constraints that the US Federal government will allow it to.

The solution I think is most likely to create a libertarian society is to Do-It-Ourselves. We can only convince the non-libertarians that a society best functions without state interference by demonstrating that to them. We must build the non-state institutions we want to see, and proselytise about those that already exist, here or elsewhere. We must demonstrate each and every aspect of a free society and explain why this is better than the state alternative.

Now this sounds impossible I admit – but we don’t need to eat the elephant whole.

While the state may have a virtual monopoly in many areas, which gives it an inherent cost advantage as it’s funded by mandatory taxes, we can compete with it by innovating, using technology to our advantage by creating new business models. We can be agile and move faster than the cumbersome leviathan state.

Imagine if, for instance, you were to set up a business to offer videoconference access to GPs over the internet using qualified doctors in, say, India? What could you charge for that service on a pay-per-visit basis? I imagine that £10 per visit would cover the costs with a healthy profit margin. What happens when that model becomes successful and increasing numbers of customers prefer that to the NHS? The government would have to either outlaw it, with much public controversy and legal challenges, compete, which is unlikely, or exit the market. A libertarian goal could be achieved peacefully without resorting to democracy or the distorting power of the state. After all if the game is weighted in their favour let’s not play by their rules.

Evolution Not Revolution

The successes of the Free State Project have come at a slow pace. Jason Sorens said in the Reason article that the strategy was “rather than build a new society [Free Staters] opted for incrementalism, making small but noticeable, meaningful changes“. This has proved somewhat successful in that new ideas are proposed and implemented, then can be tested against the objectors’ worries, one step at a time; this incremental approach to liberty is slowly undoing the ratchet effect, educating the people that society can exist without the state’s constant interference. We need to make small incremental changes towards freedom, changes that are testable with demonstrable results. As Patri Friedman says “power has inertia” – we cannot move this leviathan quickly.

Conclusion

We know what we want a free society to look like, but I don’t think that we will get there unless we start planning how to do it. If we just keep proselytising then we may never get to a free society, we need to act.

So this is my challenge to libertarians: go build the new society that you want. If we can outcompete the state, which I believe that we can, then the state must wither and die. We know that the free market is better, in competition with the state we will win: this is natural selection in action.

Postscript

I started writing this article based on a number of ideas I’d had for some time around our strategy for liberty. Whilst writing I came across a pertinent debate on Cato Unbound‘s website. An excellent essay by Patri Friedman called ‘Beyond Folk Activism‘ provoked thoughtful response essays from Jason Sorens, Brian Doherty and Peter Thiel. If you’re interested in this topic then I strongly recommend you read them all.

The EU (again): How ‘Democratic’ Is It?

As you may know I don’t actually think that democracy is a good thing; at best it’s the ‘least worst’ political system as they exist currently. However I was drawn into a debate (again) recently about the European Union. The accusation was that the laws that we receive from the EU were somehow less democratic than those enacted unilaterally by the UK Government, that the EU is unrepresentative and so its laws are forced on us.

As I pointed out all legislation has to be passed by the European Parliament, where elected Members of the European Parliament (MEPs), such as Nigel Farage, sit. These are democratically chosen by the UK electorate, in a Proportional Representation (PR) process, so therefore more democratic than the way that Members of Parliament (MPs) are elected to the UK Parliament. The European Parliament “may approve or reject a legislative proposal, or propose amendments to it.”

The argument against this process being democratic was that the European Commission alone creates the legislation, not the European Parliament, and that the Commission is ‘unelected’.

There is a Commissioner for each of the 27 member countries, elected by its own national government (which in turn is elected by its own electorate), so this is still democratic with respect to each national electorate. The Commission (the cabinet) and the President together comprise the executive of the EU. The European Parliament then has to elect the President and the Commission, so the nationally-elected MEPs vote on whether to accept the President and Commission: still democratic so far.

So the argument that the EU is ‘less representative’ can be seen to be specious: every step of the way in creating EU legislation involves a decision by the MEPs, who are elected nationally by a ‘fairer’ democratic process than our First-Past-The-Post (FPTP). Yes, the Executive aren’t directly elected, but so what? Let’s compare that to the UK system, shall we?

We will ignore the anachronism that is the monarchy, for the Queen is generally regarded as only a figurehead, although constitutionally she is the final arbiter and the government acts in her name.

Within the UK we have two bodies involved in proposing and enacting legislation. The ‘lower’ house is the House of Commons: the ‘upper’ house is the House of Lords.

For the House of Commons in the UK we elect MPs via a FPTP electoral system, which is widely regarded as ‘unfairer’ than the Proportional Representation system that European Parliament elections utilise. The leader of the party that wins the most seats (usually, in a simple majority situation) becomes the Prime Minister (PM). Note that constitutionally they don’t even need to be an MP, though it’s a long time since this last happened (Lord Palmerston was Prime Minister twice between 1855 and 1865 for over 9 years).

Although the winning party leader may be elected as an MP, he is not elected directly as PM by anyone other than his own party, often years previously. So already the European Parliamentary system is more democratic.

This unelected head of government then chooses his own cabinet, which along with the PM forms the executive: this is analogous to the European Commission. They alone decide the legislation that the government introduces in each session of parliament (yes, I know there is a very limited mechanism for lone MPs to introduce their own legislation, but this is often thwarted in each parliament without the majority government support).

The elected MPs within the House of Commons then vote on this legislation proposed by the executive. If they vote for it to become law then it moves on to the unelected House Of Lords (the Lords are a collection of hereditary peers, politicians chosen by their party colleagues and Bishops – none directly chosen by the electorate). Both houses can choose to amend the legislation, although amendments can be rejected at subsequent stages.

Once both houses have ‘read’ the proposed bill three times it passes to the Queen for Royal Assent and then the government chooses when to enact it.

As can be seen very little of this legislative process is ‘democratic’ by any definition, and every single step has an analogous step in the EU legislative process. Comparison shows that the EU legislative process and its actors are, at every stage, at least as democrative and frequently more democratic than the UK process.

Ergo, by voting in European elections, you have more say in the legislation that comes from the EU than you do over that made only in the UK (if you choose to participate in democracy within the UK).

I still don’t like democracy by the way, but let’s at least make sure we’re accurate about the reasons we slate an institution.

Immigration and Repatriation: The British Nationalists’ Solution

Today the English Defence League is featured prominently in the news due to their actions in Woolwich last night. It got me thinking about many of these ‘far-right’ groups and their anti-immigrant policies, especially repatriation. (I acknowledge that EDL don’t profess these views publicly, instead they focus on cultural assimilation and anti-Islamic policies). It also made me think of the Falklands, ownership of which has received much attention again recently with its inhabitants voting overwhelmingly to remain under British rule and protection.

The old battle cry of the anti-immigration lobby is “go home”. This is reflected by the BNP, who states it wants “firm but voluntary incentives for immigrants and their descendants to return home”. Let’s examine that concept shall we.

The 2011 Census shows 7.5 million foreign-born residents in England and Wales (out of 58 million). This excludes Scotland and Northern Ireland and is only immigrants, not those descended from immigrants. So imagine if BNP succeeded in its goal and they all left?

What if other countries did the same? Imagine those across the world, who are descended from British immigrants to their countries, choosing to come ‘home’? Let’s take a guess at percentages in a few countries who would be eligible:

  • USA: population 316m – assume 50% eligible making 158m.
  • Canada: population 35m – assume 50% eligible making 17m.
  • Australia: population 23m – assume 80% eligible making 18m
  • New Zealand: population 4m – assume 76% eligible making 3m

So that’s 196 million people who would be eligible to come here if we followed the BNP’s ridiculous repatriation policy.

And while we’re considering this line of thought – what about the Falklands? Many in Argentina lay claim to the Falklands due to its brief ownership by their country over 200 years ago. They say that the UK is a colonial power who shouldn’t be there, it should stick to Europe where it belongs, not the south Atlantic.

OK then Argentina, let’s do a deal: you can have the Falklands if you go and live there; but you have to vacate Argentina. As 97% of Argentinians are of European ancestry, mainly descended from the Spanish-speaking conquistadors who took the land from the indigenous Amerindians, they should leave too. Either colonialism should be reversed, or not: but be consistent.

The EU: to leave or not?

Yesterday I was widely criticised on Twitter by fellow libertarians for responding to the Times on-line poll that I would vote to stay in the EU (ignoring the fact for a moment that I don’t vote anyway). I’ve had accusations that I’m not a libertarian and I’m for big government, both preposterous extrapolations from one data point with no supporting evidence. Twitter is not a suitable medium to explain my current belief on the topic of EU membership, so I thought I’d write a quick post to explain my view to save me time.

Let’s start at the start: if we were voting today to join the current EU I would not support that. The EU as it stands has much to criticise, not least its ever-burgeoning budget and the evil Common Agricultural Policy that subsidises farmers in Europe at expense of European consumers and farmers in the developing world.

However, even the current manifestation of the EU does have three positive points: firstly it is a free-trade zone; secondly, it is a free-migration zone; thirdly it has been integral in removing the death penalty across Europe. As a libertarian the importance of these three aspects cannot be underestimated.

There is a fourth potential benefit, though this is difficult to prove either way so I don’t base my stance in it: many argue that the EU has prevented war in Europe since its inception. This is a contentious point but with the history of the preceding few hundred years, especially France, Germany and the UK, there is a correlation, causation being impossible to prove.

Trade*

One of the obvious benefits of EU membership is unfettered access to a huge free-trade zone. Advocates of withdrawal claim that we would still have access to the EU from outside, as others such as Norway and Switzerland, within the European Free Trade Area (EFTA). However these countries were never within the EU so had the advantages when negotiating their trade treaties. If we were to withdraw who is to say that the EU would be so generous with the UK, after all what benefit would be in it for them?; many EU countries appear to believe that the UK’s membership brings more trouble than value. Why would they not create a punitive system for us, having lost £7bn in revenue? It should be noted that EFTA states and other countries with trade agreements with EU all have to adhere to EU legislation, with no say in what those laws are. As many of the Daily Mail-brigade wrongly criticise the EU for much of our business regulations how would having less say in the design of EU legislation help us, when we would still have to abide by it?

*For more details on the implications for trade I suggest you read this excellent article in The Economist entitled Making The Break.

Cost

In 2012 the EU cost the UK taxpayer around £7bn after the infamous ‘Thatcher rebate’. The government’s total expenditure was £695bn, so it was around 1.01% of the total. In comparison we paid £48bn in debt interest and £460m to the Arts Council! While it would be nice to save the UK taxpayer £7bn there are in my opinion higher priorities to tackle first within the government’s portfolio.

Non-Representative

There is a frequent argument used against EU-membership that we have ‘foreigners imposing laws on us’. Well there are UK MEPs that are elected to the European Parliament to make these laws, ironically Nigel Farage of UKIP is one. And if you’re into ‘democracy’ they’re elected by a system that’s arguably more democratic than our First Past The Post (FPTP) domestic system.

The UK joined a free-trade zone (the ‘common market’), which was a brilliant post-war reaction to the planned economies and state socialism prevalent in the Axis powers. Although ‘we did not vote for political union’, our democratically-elected government has signed all of the same treaties (e.g. Single European Act, signed by Margaret Thatcher, Maastricht, signed by John Major and Lisbon, signed by Gordon Brown) as the other member countries.

It’s inconsistent to say “we want to be governed by a democratic government here, not a democratic government there”, when it was the democratic government here that voted for all of the powers the democratic government there has! You either back the democratic decision of the UK government or you don’t.

Euro and Cyprus

One argument thrust at me was “the EU has shown it will devastate property rights in Cyprus if it wants”. Yes it has and that’s appalling, but if you’re borrowing from the lender of very last resort then you can’t complain about the terms. Nobody forced Cyprus to join the Euro, they did their own cost-benefit analysis and thought it was advantageous for them; now they want some other countries’ taxpayers to fund their profligacy. While the ‘haircut’ inflicted upon savers in Cypriot banks is devastating for them I don’t see how this contradicts caveat emptor. Many UK investors lost millions in Icelandic banks due to their greed and lack of risk awareness, do the anarcho-capitalist think that’s wrong? I don’t.

Conclusion

So, to be clear, I’m not saying the supra-state EU with its goal of political union is a good thing; it’s not, obviously. In my opinion all states are bad, but I struggle with the arguments that this particular one is any worse than our own (after all it enlisted us to every EU treaty).

What I am saying is that I have yet to be convinced that withdrawing at this stage will bring us more benefits than costs; while that may actually be the case, I’ve yet to see any convincing argument that goes beyond UKIP’s ridiculous knee-jerk colonel-blimp rhetoric.

Mine is a pragmatic stance on the cost and impact on the UK economically (and, less-so, politically); it’s game theory at the state level, if you like.

With a currently unconvincing case for a net advantage to the UK withdrawing I’d rather we were inside this particular tent at the moment.