21 November 2008

I Love Cash

Not in a "love of money is the route of all evil" way, it's just that the more the government tries to build all encompassing databases of our every movement and interaction, the more I value the anonymity that using cash brings. Lately, my use of credit and debit cards seems to have been reducing and my use of cash increasing and I think that's a subconscious attempt to reclaim my privacy and reduce the information available to prying eyes.

I've been taking the same approach to my online life. I've switched to using free and open source software, so that I know that the code is open to scrutiny and should be free of any nasty hidden features like back-doors. I've ditched Windows and started using Ubuntu, a process which was a lot less painful than I expected and I've find Ubuntu to be a much better system to use. I use Firefox for web browsing and Thunderbird for e-mail for the same reasons.

I've also started taking care to secure my data more thoroughly. I use Truecrypt to encrypt files, especially if I have to store them on somebody else's server and I use Enigmail to encrypt my email whenever I can, although there seem to be few people that use it heavily. That's a shame, because encryption is only truly effective when it's used extensively and for non-sensitive as well as sensitive data. There are a couple of reasons for that:
  • If people only encrypt data which is sensitive, such as their medical data, it flags up which files are sensitive and in the process tells any privacy invader where they should be directing their efforts.
  • If the use of encryption is limited, it allows the government to reverse the "nothing to hide, nothing to fear" argument and claim "if you're encrypting information, you must have something to hide." If everybody were to encrypt data as a matter of routine, that argument (as weak as it already is) would be completely destroyed.
Hopefully, the increasing erosion of privacy will push people to make greater use of encryption and open software, which will create beneficial network effects for everybody who does it.

17 November 2008

The New Falkland Islands Constitution

A new constitution for the Falkland Islands has been agreed and will come into force at the beginning of 2009.

Guthrum at the Libertarian Party has speculated that the document might be a prototype for a UK constitution. Given that possibility, I decided it was worth a look at the wording to see whether it would be a good option.

With this kind of document, I tend to look at the section relating to education first, as it usually gives a good sense of the tone it has been written in. For instance, as I commented previously, the European Convention on Human Rights/Human Rights Act says "No person shall be denied the right to education," which is a negative right, in that it specifies what the government mustn't do. Compare that with the constitution, which says "Every child of the appropriate age, as provided by law, shall be entitled to receive primary education which shall, subject to subsection (3), be free," which is a positive right, in that it specifies what the government must do. That is not ideal in a constitution, which should serve to place a limit on government activity.

Don't get me wrong; I think a primary education is very important and I don't object to some kind of provision being funded through taxation, I just don't think that having an education provided at the taxpayers' expense is something which should be considered a constitutional right. It opens up a whole can of worms, in that it effectively guarantees power for the government, as it gives it a service providing function which the electorate can't take away. If there is need to specify a right to primary education for all children, it would make more sense to place an obligation on parents or guardians to ensure that they receive it.

The wording of the section is also disingenuous. The use of the word "free" implies that education can be provided at no cost, which isn't generally true. It would have been more honest to say "the general public shall be responsible for paying for a primary education for every child of the appropriate age," which makes the chain of responsibility more clear.

In practical terms it would also be very difficult to prove that the specified right has been violated, as it doesn't define what "primary education" or "the appropriate age" are. The government could argue that giving a pop-up book to every five year old constitutes giving them a primary education and without defined standards, it would be problematic to argue otherwise.

The rest of the rights specified in the constitution seem to be based on those in the ECHR, so they have the up side of being mostly negative rights, but the down side of being accompanied by many broad get-out clauses. One big positive, compared to the ECHR, is that the constitution does specify a right to trial by jury, which should be a part of any constitution designed for a common law country.

Overall, at first glance, it doesn't appear to be a terrible basis for a constitution compared to others that have been suggested, but I wouldn't expect it to be used as a blueprint for a UK constitution; the government is less likely to be willing to constrain itself than it is to constrain overseas territories. The way the government has talked about a "Bill of Rights and Responsibilities" I would expect any proposed constitution for the UK to contain many more positive rights (a right to "free" education, a right to "free" healthcare, etc.) to ensure that the government is guaranteed a central role, while at the same time containing many more get-out clauses.

12 November 2008

MPs and Police Join Forces to Miss the Point on Alcohol

The Home Affairs Select Committee has suggested that the availability of cheaper alcohol should be restricted by banning happy hours and setting minimum prices. The proposals have been given enthusiastic support by Peter Fahy, the Chief Constable of Greater Manchester.

Chairman of the Committee, Keith Vaz said:

“We cannot have on one hand a world of alcohol promotions for profit that fuels surges of crime and disorder, and on the other the police diverting all their resources to cope with it.”

Peter Fahy lent his backing by saying:

"The suggestions by the select committee would make a big difference to the burden on the police and allow us to concentrate on other things like drugs, burglary and robbery. It would also make people believe their streets are safer."

and

"If we didn't have these problems in our country, we would be able to concentrate a lot more of our resources into crime and other issues."

Note the use of the word “believe” in the first quote. He’s at least being honest enough not to claim that the proposals would actually make the streets safer, he’s just claiming that they would change some people’s perception.

The comments by Vaz and Fahy completely miss the point that people who consume alcohol pay for the heavy burden on police they supposedly create. Alcohol carries a high level of duty because of the externalities, such as healthcare and policing, which are created by its consumption. I’d prefer it if the duty were lower and the people who cause trouble while drunk, or suffer health problems because of their drinking, were made to pay directly for the costs they create, but alcohol duty is a reasonable way of pricing the externalities.

People like Vaz and Fahy seem to want it both ways. They call for high levels of duty because of the cost of policing drinkers, but once they get the revenue, they object to spending it on policing drinkers. If the current duty is not covering the necessary level of policing, I wouldn’t object to it being increased, but that would require some analysis of the cost of policing drinkers versus the revenue from alcohol duty, which is something I’ve yet to see.

What is really unusual about the Committee’s suggestion is that it would increase the price, but without any of it going into the public purse to fund the policing which is claimed to be over burdened due to alcohol consumption. This price fixing approach is an attack on market forces as much as it is an attack on drunkenness. They seem to be objecting to the fact that supermarkets are able to out-compete local pubs as much as anything. Now, if there were evidence of predatory pricing, I’d be happy for action to be taken against the supermarkets, but in this case, I don’t see it. The idea that supermarkets could drive all pubs out of business doesn’t really make sense; if there are fewer pubs, drinkers will gravitate to the ones that remain, making them more secure and less susceptible to predation.

I get the feeling that the smoking ban is playing a part here. I imagine the committee would ordinarily suggest an increase in alcohol duty, but at a time when many pubs are struggling, with the ban being pointed to as part of the reason, it would probably create an outcry. By going down the price-fixing route, it would enable the government to reduce the availability of cheaper alcohol, while giving pubs a helping hand against the competition.

10 November 2008

Iain Dale on Votes for Prisoners

Iain Dale recently posted some comments about the possibility of the government being forced to give prisoners the vote.

Iain's comments raise two separate questions here, "who should have the power to decide if prisoners can vote?" and "is denying prisoners the vote the right thing to do?" Iain appears to be of the opinion that prisoners should not be able to vote and that Parliament should have the right to decide who gets to vote in UK elections. I disagree with Iain on both points.

On the first question, I think allowing parliament to make the decision is a very bad idea. Allowing the people whose jobs depend on getting the most votes to make the decision about who gets to vote is asking for corruption. The decision should be made on the the basis of asking "is it right that prisoners should be denied the vote?" but there is a real danger of elected representatives asking themselves "are prisoners more like to vote for me or my opponents?" and choosing the option which gives them most job security.

I'm not sure who should be making the decision. If it depends on applying a set of pre-defined rules, then judges possibly are the right people. If not, it may be that the House of Lords should be given the job, as it is one area where its unelected status would be a major advantage, as it would reduce the conflict of interest. Another option is to give the decision to a large randomly chosen jury, who would arguably be even less personally interested in the voting mechanism. Any of these approaches would be preferable to having the House of Commons involved in the decision making process.

On the second question, the major argument made in favour of denying prisoners the vote is that when somebody is imprisoned they lose their normal rights. Clearly, that shouldn't apply to those on remand, but even for convicted prisoners, they don't lose all their rights, they temporarily lose some of their rights. For example, they lose their freedom of movement, but they don't lose their right to own property, otherwise you'd see people serving short sentences for non-payment of fines leaving prison to find that they no longer owned their house, car, clothes, etc.

From my perspective, prison and the associated loss of freedom are meant to serve four key purposes: rehabilitation, protecting the public from dangerous offenders, providing punishment to create a sense of justice and acting as a deterent. I don't see how taking the ability to vote away from prisoners serves any of those purposes in any meaningful way.

Denying prisoners the right to vote opens up more potential for corruption, as it encourages politicians to introduce tougher sentences for people who are less likely to vote for them and more lenient sentences for those who are more likely to vote for them. That is not in the best interests of justice.

If prisoners genuinely are the most dangerous rogue elements within society, they should be few enough in number that their votes should have very little impact. If, on the other hand, the number of prisoners becomes so large that they are able to wield significant influence, it would tend to be a sign that something has gone wrong in a broader sense, such as people being imprisoned for significant amounts of time for minor offences or the government attempting to skew the democratic process by imprisoning people for political reasons. Ensuring that prisoners continue to be able to vote is an important democratic safeguard.

As soon as voting is done on any basis other than everybody over the age of majority having one vote irrespective of circumstances, you get into a dangerous area, where the normal democratic mechanism of the voters choosing the government is reversed, so that the government can choose the voters.

05 November 2008

In Defence of the Human Rights Act

The Human Rights Act is a favourite scapegoat of the low brow tabloids and seems to be the first in line to get the blame for anything that goes wrong. Occasionally the criticism is fair, but more often than not it isn't, mostly, it seems, due to mis-representation of what the act is; I'd be very surprised if most of the people that complain about it have ever read it.

It's probably worth saying at the start that it isn't anything to do with the EU and it isn't anything particularly new. The HRA enshrined in British law the European Convention on Human Rights which was ratified by the UK in 1951 and was drawn up as an attempt to safeguard against a repeat of the horrors of Nazism. Since then, Britons have been able to go to the European Court of Human Rights if they feel there has been an infringement of their rights. Throughout that time, the whole issue of human rights didn't seem to concern the tabloids. The HRA merely made the rights enforceable in British courts, avoiding the need to go to Strasbourg as a first port of call. Functionally, our rights are still the same as they have been for nearly sixty years, but it is only now that it the tabloids have decided to get up in arms.

Taking an overview of the HRA/ECHR, I think it works well in some areas and not so well in others.

Where it works well

• In the main, it works well, because it takes the correct approach for a constitution or a bill of rights in that it focuses on defining negative rights. In other words, it places constraints on the government by saying what it mustn't do rather than saying what it must do. This is a very important distinction. Any bill of rights should draw a line beyond which the government shouldn't be permitted to go (such as imprisonment without trial) and in doing so, define what is the maximum permitted use of its powers. Defining the minimum that the government must do with its powers is the opposite of that.

For example, the HRA says that "no person shall be denied the right to education," not that "the government must provide an education." Of course, the electorate may decide that providing a system of state education is a good idea, but suggesting that it is a right is dangerous, as rather than constraining the government, it would give it greater power, by allowing it to do almost anything necessary to provide that education, as it would be obliged make people teach. That kind of "positive right" would also be a meaningless right, as it wouldn't define a specific standard of education, nor would it ever be possible to.

Similarly, the HRA says that everybody should have the freedom "to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance," not that "the government must provide facilities for religious worship."

• It focuses on most of the key rights, such as the right to life, freedom from slavery, the right to a fair trial, freedom of throught and expression and freedom of assembly and doesn't stray too far into areas which could be construed as contentious matters of political opinion.

Where is doesn't work well

• The fact that the ECHR was written to cover a number of nations with very different customs and legal systems means that on certain issues it is silent or vague. For example, it makes no mention of a right to trial by jury, as juries are not a feature within the civil law systems which are the norm on the continent.

• There are broad and ill-defined get out clauses attached to some of the rights, which allow them to be restricted "in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others." Without a more detailed definition, "public order" and "morals" cover such a broad range of issues that they could be used to justify almost anything.

• In one section, it refers to "Every natural or legal person." Including legal persons (i.e. corporations) in a declaration of human rights is counter-intuitive and dangerous. Corporations only exist because they are created by the government and there is no reason that they should be treated as having the same fundamental rights as humans. The structure of corporations should be defined in company law, not a constitutional document.

So, it isn't perfect, but what are the alternatives?

The HRA and ECHR could be repealed in the UK, but that would solve the problems within the present situation by removing the few constraints on government power that we have, which would be a far worse position to be in.

The other alternative would be to repeal HRA/ECHR, but replace them with a Bill of Rights. I can't see that being anything but considerably worse at this moment in time. The government has already talked about introducing a Bill of Rights and Responsibilities (in addition to of the HRA/ECHR), which hints that they are intending to do away with the concept of fundamental rights and turn them into something the government owns and gives to the people that do its bidding, in the form of the responsibilities it lays out. There is no need for responsibilities to be defined in a Bill of Rights, that is the purpose of criminal and civil law and it does it perfectly well. The proposals also talk about introducing the kind of positive rights that the HRA/ECHR quite rightly leaves out.

So, of all the available options, the status quo appears to be the best by far and until I see a suggestion that improves on it, I'll support the Human Rights Act.

03 November 2008

Totalitarian Democrats

The Libertarian Party recently ran a campaign to get people to send a copy of 1984 to their MP, with the covering note telling them that the book is not an instruction manual. One Labour MP, Tom Harris, received his book and proceeded to voice his disdain at the idea that the country is proceeding along Orwellian lines. Some of his comments were extremely informative, for example:

We live in a democracy, and just because those - including my anonymous benefactor - who get excited about such things are unhappy that Labour is in power, that does not make us anything other than a democracy. And democratically-elected governments govern with the consent of the people. Yes, even this one!

Personally, my concern isn’t that Labour are in power (I don’t have any party political affiliation), I’m concerned that the position they are in allows them to exert so much control over the public and I’d feel that way irrespective of who formed the government.

Harris’s comment illustrates perfectly the problem with a lot of politicians; they can’t see the difference between democracy and totalitarianism. To people like Tom Harris, the fact that a government has been elected should give it carte blanche to do whatever it likes and enable it to rebut any questioning of the legitimacy of its actions by parroting the fact it was elected. Hitler was elected into power; it didn’t justify his actions.

With democracy, you’ve got two basic choices, you either have a liberal democracy, where the government is limited to making decisions in a way that they do not infringe on the basic freedoms of the individual, or you have totalitarian democracy (the tyranny of the majority) where the government is free to do whatever it likes and the individual has no freedom beyond what the government chooses to give him or her. I don’t think people like Tom Harris have actively chosen to be totalitarian democrats, I just think they are unaware that there are other interpretations of what democracy means.

Claiming that governments govern with the consent of the people is a meaningless platitude unless people are free to withdraw their consent, which doesn’t mean just replacing the government with another group wearing different coloured rosettes. That isn’t on the table in the UK, so politicians should acknowledge that they aren’t governing by consent, they are governing by force. As the saying goes, no matter who you vote for, the government always wins.

In attempting to justify the rafts of supposedly anti-terrorist legislation, Tom Harris says:

I genuinely believe - rightly or wrongly - that Islamism (as opposed to Islam) represents the greatest and deadliest threat to our society.

Whatever threat is posed by Islamism, it must pale in to insignificance when compared to the threat presented by governments. Even the briefest examination of a history book shows that the most evil acts throughout history have been carried out by governments. Governments have the advantage of size, but even more than that, they are able to fall back on the idea that they represent “the people” and therefore, whatever they do is morally right. Wars of aggression, genocide and numerous other acts which, if carried out by individuals or independent groups would be considered monstrous, are treated as something justifiable when carried out by governments, as they are representing “the people” and if “the people” are doing it, it must be right. In the eyes of the totalitarian democrat, to say otherwise is undemocratic.

If any group of people needs to have its activities restricted to reduce its threat to society, it is the government.

Perhaps Tom Harris’s most cringe worthy comment through the thread is:

As a Member of Parliament, I feel I should place the safety and security of my constituents and fellow citizens above every other consideration.

Their safety and security should obviously be one of his considerations, but to suggest that in all circumstances it should override everything else is idiotic.

Pursue that line of thought and you’d ban all cars, motorbikes and pedal cycles for a start, because the safety issues would override the benefits of being able to travel. You’d also ban all means of communication to eradicate the risk of the medium being used to plan a hazardous act.

Eventually, that train of thought would lead you to conclude that we should all be blind-folded, gagged, hand-cuffed and locked in padded rooms, to be released to work on chain gangs controlled by MPs, in order to keep the risks we face to the bare minimum.

No rational MP should view safety and security as their overriding concerns. Freedom, independence and the ability to seek out enjoyment have to be considered too, even if they sometimes conflict with the course of action which would maximise safety and security. I think the words of Benjamin Franklin are as relevant here as they were over two hundred years ago:

“Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”