Monday 1 July 2024

What Have the Privatisers Ever Done for Us?

For decades now the Thatcherite mantra has kept going: “If you bring in the private sector, things will get so much better”. Some people still believe that. And there are politicians who, finding themselves constrained by the state of public finances, think the private sector may give them a way out. 


So for the benefit of all who pine for private sector salvation, let us recap on just what handing public money and control over to private companies has done for us.


Once the national assets we used to own have been sold off cheaply to private firms, those firms gain from the rising value of the assets in years to come, and the country is left with much depleted capital resources.


With vital services they can charge for, private firms will focus on making a profit out of us and pay billions in dividends to their shareholders; and whenever it proves difficult to make enough money, they call for support and demand billions more in subsidies from the public purse. 


When things go wrong, we can’t hold the government to account because they say it’s not a matter for them, but for the private company in charge; and the private company refuses to disclose anything on the grounds that their business activities are protected by commercial confidentiality. If we nonetheless press for public action against them, they hold us to ransom by saying that if they were not left to get on with things as they see fit, they could step away and leave us with no service at all.


For any of us who can’t pay the escalating prices they ask for, they threaten to cut off the service in question, regardless of how essential it is.


Let them … 

·      take charge of water, and they leak sewage into rivers and beaches; and where disease causing parasites are found in the water they are supposed to make safe to drink, they blame it on rising temperature.

·      take charge of our country’s information technology infrastructure, and the rolling out of a reliable fibre optic network for broadband communications is repeatedly delayed, especially in our rural (not-so-profitable for them) areas.

·      take charge of trains and buses, and services routinely run late and many routes get cut altogether.

·      take charge of energy, and they will take no notice of what people can actually afford, and leave it to the government to use public money to bail out any cost-of-living problems, while keeping them in profit.

·      take charge of schools, and they remove requirements for teaching qualifications so they can pay staff less, while they push up their own exorbitant salaries.


With PFI (private finance initiative), they build facilities which they own and we pay ever-rising rent and assorted fees to them on their terms, as we cannot afford not to have access to those facilities on which crucial public services rely.


With competitive tendering, they bid to deliver public services at a cheaper rate by reducing service quality, making people redundant, and cutting the pay of many of the remaining workers; and next time round they bid at a higher rate when the public sector team has been disbanded.


Of course, some private sector firms have helped to improve the provision of public services. But there are many cases of improvement which have not required any private sector input at all. The key to improvement is to combine effective public accountability, stakeholder challenge, and citizen involvement in quality control. The height of folly is to assume private companies will put public wellbeing above their own financial interests.

Sunday 16 June 2024

Being Unreasonable About Reason

The cult of irrationality is growing in politics and more widely across society. Many people are ready to subscribe to groundless claims and harmful policies regardless of the evidence. When contradictions and lies are pointed out to them, they shrug and persist with their views.


Why is this happening? One key factor is the erosion of a shared understanding of the role of reason in resolving arguments. At the most basic level, we recognise discussions about what are to be believed should be free and open – with the critical proviso that what is said is relevant, coherent, objectively checkable, and not abusive or intimidatory. Overlooking the need for this proviso has led to some very confused reactions. Let’s look at some of these.


First we have the ‘Anything Goes’ mantra. Everyone is ‘entitled’ to have their own views, and they are free to express those views any time, anywhere. It does not matter that they are groundless and dangerous – declaring a life-saving vaccine a deadly potion; calling an innocent man a serial killer; describing a shelter for vulnerable people as a home for nasty criminals. Any attempt to restrict the propagation of such views is then attacked as ‘censorship’ or ‘cancel culture’.


Next we have the ‘better tough than reasonable’ outlook. We don’t want understanding, we are told, just action to sort things out. Overlooking the fact that without understanding a problem, you can’t solve it, those impatient (and in some cases, incompetent) with working out what a reasoned approach should be, fall for ‘strongman’ politicians, cult leaders, charlatans who claim to speak for God, and go with whatever thoughtless actions they call for.


Then there are those who, without any sense of irony, cloak their arbitrary dogmas by invoking their own twisted brand of ‘Reason’. From the Robespierre-led extremists in the French Revolution to those who believe that their grasp of dialectical history justifies Stalinist oppression, there are people who insist that they know what Reason declares to be unquestionably true. Alas, anyone who rejects critical analysis and rebuffs objective scrutiny can hardly be considered reasonable at all.


Finally, we have the random sceptics who are convinced that there is no distinction between what is in line with or what goes against reason. Reason for them is a mirage, and no one can tell them what is or what is not reasonable. They can believe or disbelieve whatever they want, and anyone trying to point out flaws in their views would simply be dismissed as lacking any coherent basis to do so.


The antidote to all this is to remind ourselves how we get through the most basic everyday decisions – understanding options, learning from experience, seeing what happens when different choices are made, reviewing assumptions in the light of new evidence or cogent arguments put forward by others, etc. We only get by if we work through ideas in an objective and non-contradictory manner. We all implicitly reason about what we are to believe and what to do. Anyone seriously making their choices without reasonable deliberations would find themselves in all kinds of trouble – with their home, their job, their health.


We need to apply our grasp of reasonableness consistently to wider societal issues and recognise that there is an important difference between reasonable ideas that merit consideration and unreasonable claims that should be exposed as unwarranted. To learn more, here are a few suggestions: Stephen Toulmin’s Return to Reason, P. F. Strawson’s Skepticism and Naturalism, Henry Tam’s What Should Citizens Believe, and Thomas A. Spragens Jnr’s Reason and Democracy.

Saturday 1 June 2024

Morality, Education & Public Policy

The teaching of moral issues is a contentious matter. Some people think that if education neglects the development of a common moral understanding, society is in peril. Others feel strongly that morality should be left to individuals, and any collective steer would inevitably be authoritarian and unacceptable. 


On the surface, this deadlock seems unbreakable if there is no such thing as a universal moral outlook that can be legitimately imparted.  If we take a deeper look, however, we will see that explicitly or implicitly we all recognise the golden rule of reciprocity. We take it as correct to treat others as we would want to be treated ourselves. We reject as wrong the behaviour of anyone who act on others in a manner they would not wish upon themselves.


This moral alignment with the ethos of reciprocity has been confirmed in research into the behaviour of young children, in anthropological studies of diverse groups of people, in game theory experiments testing the propensity towards mutual cooperation, and in everyday observations of how we all tend to welcome those who reciprocate civility and helpfulness, and think badly of those who repay courtesy and kindness with inconsiderate and selfish acts. None of this is surprising given the centrality of the golden rule in the moral teachings recorded in the most revered texts in all ancient civilisations.


Based on a concern with upholding the morality of reciprocity, it makes sense to have public policies that support its practical adoption and guard against its erosion by false notions and harmful deception. For example, consider the following types of policy:


[A] Public policy that requires and supports the teaching in all schools of moral understanding of issues such as:

·      Acting with civility and mutual respect towards one another.

·      Resolving disagreement non-violently with the help of objective evidence and coherent arguments.

·      Learning to cooperate in the exploration and pursuit of common goals.

·      Discovering how some people can suffer from circumstances beyond their control and why they would need help as we would in similar circumstances. 


[B] Public policy that disallows and sanctions against the teaching by schools or parents which inculcates beliefs, attitudes and behaviour such as:

·      Disparaging, hating, or intimidating others on the grounds of their race, religion, customs, gender, disability, poverty, appearance or any other prejudice-based factor.

·      Being supportive of those who advocate the use of force to terrorise target groups or undermine democratically elected government institutions.

·      Embracing assumptions that one can impose sexual acts on others without their consent, and blame them for objecting to such action.

·      Accepting false claims about why one should consume certain dangerous substance or refuse to receive essential medical treatment.


[C] Public policy that rules out the teaching of unfounded doctrines and dangerously misleading ideas such as:

·      White people should be treated favourably and encouraged to live here while non-white should be frowned upon and made to feel unwelcome.”

·      “One religious denomination is correct about everything and all other denominations, sects, religions, and non-believers are unforgivably mistaken whenever they disagree with the one true faith.”

·      “Women should stay at home to look after their family, comply with their husband, and not seek equal opportunities as men.”

·      “Scientific expertise and widely peer-assessed research findings are to be dismissed whenever these run counter to what certain ideological groups with wealthy backers want to assert.”


Why would anyone object to the above types of public policy? Is type A policy not promoting the reciprocity that is needed to sustain a civil and mutually supportive society? Is type B policy not necessary to protect children and the wider community from serious harm? Is type C policy not essential to keep at bay the vilest indoctrination that would otherwise fuel arbitrary oppression?  Only those who reject reciprocity, who want to treat others in repugnant ways they would never put up with themselves, would push against these types of policy. Rather than conceding to their objections, society should confidently and resolutely develop such policies for the common good.

Thursday 16 May 2024

Curb Their Lobbying Enthusiasm

How does political lobbying work? In theory, anyone can speak to their elected representative to present their views in the hope that they will be taken into account. In practice, access to elected representatives (especially those holding key government positions) is very limited, and politicians pay far more attention to the small number of people who possess a vast amount of influence.  Of these influential people, the most powerful are those with substantial wealth that enables them to offer campaign donations, prospects of future directorships, generous perks, valuable connections with others in their circles, and countless other benefits that money can always buy.


These plutocrats consider lobbying as their prerogative to press their preferences on people in public office.  They know that there are quite a few who will be receptive to their approach because they have gone into politics to advance their own material interests.  Even when they come across politicians whose priority is to serve the public, they may still be able to intimidate them by threatening to give more money to their opponents in electoral contests unless they trim their policies.


Lobbying enables plutocrats to subvert democracy by getting politicians to do their bidding at the expense of what the wider population require. Legislation to reduce preventable deaths have been blocked or delayed by tobacco companies, fossil fuel producers, and makers of sugary food and drinks. Measures to cut air pollution and environmental damages are constantly halted or substantially watered down by those who profit from acts that ruin the health of others. Regulation to stop irresponsible gambling on the financial markets that has repeatedly caused economic crises and wrecked innumerable lives, is pushed back by corporate interests that thrive on chaos for ordinary people.


What can be done about it?


We propose two restrictions:


[1] Any member of the legislature in receipt of something of tangible value (financial or in kind; on-going or one-off; directly or via their spouse/civil partner) from any individual or organisation must register it, and not be allowed to vote on any proposed legislation that can significantly affect the individual or organisation which has provided the benefit in question. Any member who voted and subsequently found to have not disclosed their prior pecuniary connection with relevant individual(s) or organisation(s) shall be prosecuted for committing the crime of subverting democratic proceedings (with expulsion from the legislature as a penalty for serious cases).


[2] Once a bill has been introduced, any contact with any member of the legislature to discuss elements of the bill must be made through a formal process that is open and supervised. Arguments for and against parts or all of the bill will be presented at one of the sessions organised by an independent administrative body. Written submissions can be sent directly to politicians, but face-to-face (or via video link) presentations will only be allowed in one of the official, public sessions. Any personal contact to set up or take part in a private meeting will constitute a criminal offence in subverting democratic proceedings. Any member of the legislature agreeing to or participating in such private meetings will also be prosecuted (with expulsion from the legislature as a penalty for serious cases).


In case anyone tries to bring out the old ‘this is restricting our freedom’ slogan, let us not forget that there has never been freedom granted to bribe politicians. Using one’s wealth to bend legislators to one’s will is not acceptable.  It’s time we close the gaping loopholes.

Wednesday 1 May 2024

Communitarianism: don’t let it be misunderstood

Since the 1990s, the terms ‘communitarian’ and ‘communitarianism’ have found their way into media commentary as well as academics texts. This is not surprising as it was around that time that ‘communitarianism’ came to be applied to the ideas of a number of philosophers who criticised certain individualistic conceptions of morality and justice [Note 1], and ‘communitarian’ was used by a range of social and political theorists in the UK and the US to describe the approaches they were putting forward [Note 2]. On the basis of these writings, a distinct outlook can be discerned and indeed traced back to precursors in the 19th and early 20th century [Note 3].


One would suppose that commentators and academics using the term ‘communitarian’ in their writings would base it on the actual ideas expressed by the thinkers we alluded to above [Note 4]. Unfortunately, many of them seem to connect it simply to anything that is about community. If someone has written a reactionary book lamenting the loss of traditional communities, they refer to the book as ‘communitarian’. If a politician gives a speech about communities, rather than the state, must deal with their own problems, they say that is a ‘communitarian’ speech. But to use a word so casually, cut off from its intellectual roots, is irresponsibly misleading.


Based on the works of the thinkers who can legitimately be regarded as exponents of distinct communitarian ideas (and not just anyone who has written about communities), the following misunderstanding ought to be cleared up once and for all.


Traditions

While there are commentators who associate communitarianism with nostalgic attachment to old traditions, even though these may be oppressive, the fact is that none of the communitarians identified above can be accused of having such sentiments. On the contrary, their emphasis is on the evolving experiences of communities and how traditions should be preserved and celebrated in so far as they enhance people’s sense of their wellbeing, but should be revised or even ended if they are found to cause harm and instability for community members. As for the much-quoted dichotomy of Gemeinschaft (tightly knit traditional community) or Gesellschaft (loose association of self-centred individuals), communitarians reject both and call for strong cooperative communities based on mutual respect and shared intelligence [Note 5].


Responsibilities & Rights

Communitarians are often alleged to have focused on the need for people to take responsibility for their own lives and neglected the importance of their rights. Based on their actual writings, it would be more accurate to say that they are concerned that people should take their social responsibilities seriously, especially those with considerable wealth and power as they accordingly ought to do more for their communities. At the same time, communities should ensure that appropriate rights to mutual respect and support are established for their members, and that these are honoured to avoid fragmentation and marginalisation. 


Community Autonomy 

Some conservative-minded writers have written about leaving communities to sort out their own problems regardless of whether or not they lack the financial resources to do so, or if those problems are rooted in local prejudices and oppressive arrangements. But for communitarian thinkers, no individual or community should be cut off from the outside world as though their fate is no one else’s business. Diverse individuals and communities form social connections, and it their shared experiences – not some ideology about what governments should or should not do – that reveal what level of cooperation and wider support are appropriate to deal with the difficulties they face. In practice, cosmopolitan engagement is more dependable than parochial seclusion.


Reactionary or Progressive 

Although some may still insist on calling any conservative writer who champions ‘traditional values’ or ‘small government’ a communitarian, the fact remains that the paradigmatic thinkers who used the ‘communitarian’ term to describe what they put forward, and those who have influenced their ideas, are all on the progressive side of the political spectrum. Jonathan Boswell and Robert Bellah opposed ‘free market’ ideology and referred to their own position as ‘democratic communitarianism’. Philip Selznick, Amitai Etzioni, and Robert Putnam summed up their stance as ‘liberal communitarianism’. David Miller and Charles Derber stressed that what they advocated was best understood as a form of ‘left communitarianism’. David Marquand wrote of his “vision of a communitarian ethical socialism”. And Henry Tam has used the label, ‘progressive communitarianism’ [Note 6].


Communitarianism offers important insights and approaches for dealing with a wide range of social and political challenges.  But the misunderstanding of it as some form of conservative thinking has become a barrier to more people exploring it.  Perhaps we can help to change that.


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Henry Tam is the author of:

·      Communitarianism: a new agenda for politics and citizenship (Palgrave Macmillan, 1998).

·      'Communitarianism', in the Encyclopedia of Action Research (Sage Publications, 2014).

·      ‘Communitarianism, sociology of’, in International Encyclopedia of Social and Behavioral Sciences, 2nd edition, James D. Wright (editor-in-chief), (Elsevier, 2015). 

·      ‘Communitarianism’ in The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Relativism, ed. by Martin Kusch (Routledge, 2020).

·      The Evolution of Communitarian Ideas (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019).

·      Communitarianism: philosophy, politics & public policy (Bloomsbury, forthcoming 2025).


He is also the editor of the following books on communitarian arguments and policies:

·      Punishment, Excuses and Moral Development (Avebury Press, 1996).

·      Progressive Politics in the Global Age (Polity, 2001).

·      Tomorrow’s Communities: lessons in community-based transformation in the age of global crises(Policy Press, 2021). 


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NOTES


Note 1: These include Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor, Michael Walzer, and Michael Sandel, whose critiques of certain forms of individualism came under the general heading of ‘communitarianism’ in academic circles in the 1990s. None of them adopted the label themselves.


Note 2: These thinkers were from the UK (e.g., David Miller, Jonathan Boswell, David Marquand, Henry Tam) and the US (e.g., Philip Selznick, Amitai Etzioni, Robert Bellah, Robert Putnam, Charles Derber). Unlike those mentioned in Note 1, they all used ‘communitarian’ and ‘communitarianism’ to designate the ideas they were putting forward.


Note 3: Thinkers who have been recognised as precursors to the modern development of communitarianism include Emile Durkheim, John Dewey, L.T. Hobhouse, Jane Addams, and Mary Parker Follett. The intellectual lineage can be traced further back to the cooperative movement initiated by Robert Owen and his followers – indeed the term ‘communitarian’ was coined in association with Owenite ideas and practices in the 19th century.


Note 4: For more details of these thinkers and their writings, see Tam, H., The Evolution of Communitarian Ideas (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019).


Note 5: See the work of Durkheim, Dewey, and Hobhouse on ideas relating to the development of organic solidarity (as distinct from the mechanical solidarity integral to any form of Gemeinschaft).


Note 6: These are the paradigmatic writers who in the 1990s defined communitarian thinking with key texts in which they set out ideas they would explicitly associate with the terms ‘communitarian’/‘communitarianism’. There were of course conservative writers who put forward quite different views on community life, but they did not adopt the label ‘communitarian’, and there is no reason why they should be taken to be representative of communitarianism which is quite clearly non-conservative. Calling them ‘communitarians’ would be akin to coming across people who argue that one’s own utility/happiness is all that matters, and calling them ‘utilitarians’.  

Tuesday 16 April 2024

Reinventing Community Hubs

Is it inevitable that unsuspecting sheep will always flock to wool-draped wolves?

In recent decades, there has been a notable upsurge of support for ‘populist’ leaders across the world. Their mix of vicious rhetoric, illiberal policies, and plutocratic devotion masked as the championing of freedom, attract votes from people whose quality of life is only made worse by ‘populist’ actions such as reckless tax cuts; devastation of public services; termination of vital trade relations; fuelling of environmental damages; diversion of resources to target scapegoats; and depleting protection for the vulnerable.


One oft-cited explanation of this phenomenon is that in times of social and economic uncertainty, more people will look for leaders who exude authority and give them a sense that they have a place in a ‘system’ where they will be respected. The ‘system’ tends to be a projected culture wherein people are urged to blame designated scapegoats for all ills, feel proud of their own ‘righteousness’, and condemn calls for social, economic, or environmental improvements as ‘nasty’, ‘woke’, ‘establishment’, ‘socialist’ (or any term that’s handy).


However, while there is a small minority who may be susceptible to the lure of hate and faux superiority, most people are not likely to be taken in by some mythical ‘good old days’ culture (where everyone knows their ‘place’) – unless they are left cut off by growing uncertainties, and feel that nobody gives a damn about their predicament.


This is the critical point where either ‘populist’ charlatans get to greet them with their grand deception, or others step in to offer them real hope and understanding.


The second option is where we need a new form of community hub that can give people a positive sense of connection and better awareness of what should be done for their common wellbeing. This type of community hub will have four key features:


[1] Services to meet needs

They will meet local needs with affordable goods in a manner akin to the cooperative services set up by the Rochdale Pioneers. Any surplus will be passed back to the community in the form of user dividends and support for free services such as the provision of advice on a wide range of personal and financial issues; food (including communal growing and cooking support) and other basics for those short of money; leisure activities designed and led by local people; and time banking to facilitate the giving and receiving of help for each other in the community. 


[2] Community development to exert influence 

They will act as a focal point for the exploration and development of community action. Ongoing engagement with those who visit the hub for its services, and outreach work to involve those who do not, are to provide a basis for pressing public and private sector bodies to respond to the concerns of the community. Consensus-building and conflict-resolution techniques will be applied to deal with classic ‘divide and ignore’ attempts by external agencies. Support is to be available for the development of community-based schemes for energy, credit, housing, etc.


[3] Social events to build relationships 

They will organise events to bring people together and enrich their mutual understanding. Just as intergenerational activities will be designed to help people of different ages to appreciate each other better, cultural and other types of events will also be arranged to inclusively enable different groups and individuals to discover more about what they have not been previously familiar with. People with contrasting identities – whatever these may be – can bond over food, music, personal history, and conversation; and set up interest groups (drama, gardening, art, etc.) that welcome all identities.


[4] Learning to enhance understanding

They will serve as a centre for lifelong learning, with a particular emphasis on current affairs and public policies. Sessions will include both input from experts and examination by deliberative group discussions. Key topics to address will cover: assessing the reliability of images and reports; differentiating sources of information based on their credentials and track record; unpacking lies, misrepresentation and empty promises in political rhetoric; reconciling conflicting views in a civil manner; understanding what is offensive and threatening as opposed to what is contrived as ‘unacceptable’.


The cooperative movement – with its experience in service provision for communities, engagement with local people, support for socially constructive activities, involvement in education, and commitment to shaping democratic political change – is well placed to develop this new kind of Civic Community Hubs. To give people real hope and understanding so they turn away from scoundrels and false prophets, and join with others who genuinely care about building a better future together, let the development of these hubs commence.

 


Monday 1 April 2024

No More Babies?

Politicians riding the anti-migration bandwagon are prone to say, “Our country can’t take any more people”. Do they really mean to say that there are too many people already, and we must bring our population down?


Given that people can generate as well as consume resources, it cannot be assumed that simply reducing the population is a good thing. Some might try to argue that there is an optimum level where the population size is just right and any increase would have terrible effects. But what is this level, and are we anywhere near it?


Take the UK for example. On all the evidence, we need more, not fewer people to keep the country going. We have an ageing population that requires more people than we have at the moment to support them. We have labour shortages in many areas causing problems in service, production, and distribution in a range of sectors. The birth rate is in decline which means young recruits will be increasingly difficult to find in the coming years.


Do the ‘Our Country is Full’ brigade want us nonetheless to stop any addition to the population? Are they going to campaign for total birth control? Is ‘No More Babies’ going to be their next electoral slogan?


The UK birth rate has already dropped in 2022 to 11.322 per 1,000 (the lowest level since 2002), giving an overall level of new births of 764,325 (based on population estimate of 67.508 million – Office for National Statistics). While the ONS estimated that net migration to the UK was 745,000 in 2022, its projections point to that figure falling to just 245,000 per year [Note 1]. 


With fewer and fewer people to fill critical job vacancies, to drive economic growth, to care for the frail and ageing, to produce innovations, to make purchases that keep shops and factories open, to pay taxes – the future is bleak rather than rosy. 


Against this backdrop, with all the relentless talk of ‘we have too many mouths to feed as it is’, it won’t be surprising if the birth rate goes down even further. The only salvation left is people coming to this country, migrants who want to make a better life by working hard and contributing more. While the native new born will need to be nurtured for 16-18 more years before they can play their part in serving society, new arrivals are predominantly adults with ready skills and determination to prove themselves socially and economically worthy.


Far from trying to devise all kinds of deterrent to put people off from joining us, we should be encouraging them to make their home here and enrich our country in financial and cultural terms. People who work in food production give us more nourishment than they consume. People who work in IT development help to advance our technology rather than set it back. To suggest that migrants coming to work are depleting what we have is to flip truth on its head.


But what about the ‘warning’ that we are too over-crowded to accommodate any more people? It conjures up the image of a land with no space left. Yet nothing could be more misleading. Barely 12% of land in the UK is developed with homes, other buildings, roads, and urban green space. That leaves 88% for everything else (agriculture, forests, lakes and rivers, etc) [Note 2], much of which is owned by a tiny minority of people – indeed, half of all the land in the UK is controlled by just 25,000 very rich landowners [Note 3] – that’s about 0.03% of our population. If only some of these landowners would allow a fraction of their holdings to be used for housing that people can afford, everyone in the country could have a spacious home.


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Note 1: The Migration Observatory (University of Oxford): https://migrationobservatory.ox.ac.uk/resources/reports/why-are-the-latest-net-migration-figures-not-a-reliable-guide-to-future-trends/


Note 2: Office for National Statistics: https://www.ons.gov.uk/economy/environmentalaccounts/bulletins/ukenvironmentalaccounts/2014-07-02#land-use-experimental


Note 3: The Guardianhttps://www.theguardian.com/money/2019/apr/17/who-owns-england-thousand-secret-landowners-author