Speech and Liberty

Twitter produced an intriguing argument last night as Glenn Greenwald and Jacob Williamson exchanged handbags over the issue of freedom of speech. Williamson proceeds to set out a position of sorts here (though note it’s rather more targeted at Greenwald) and in converse Greenwald sets out some form of position here (though his position is more implied than set out – a skim through his Twitter feed in the last few days makes it clear that an easier exposition of his view on ‘free speech’ is probably something like, ‘anyone can say anything they want, to anyone they want, in any manner they desire, and has the absolute and unalienable right to do so unhindered by anyone’.)

Something that caught my eye is Greenwald’s claim that anyone who doesn’t support his position doesn’t actually believe in free speech. That’s quite a drastic claim, and I object to it, because I’d like to believe I’m a firm believer in free speech despite not sharing his hardline position.

Freedom to do something doesn’t necessarily have to mean absolute freedom to do that thing, whatever, full stop. It means freedom to do it within reason, within morally acceptable boundaries, and within the spirit of the law. Crucially, it means freedom to do it with respect to other people’s freedom to their human rights. My freedom of movement doesn’t give me the freedom to move anywhere I want – to roam into the homes of strangers on a walk through the countryside, or to take a quick stroll through GCHQ if I’m bored.

Pull out Mill and his harm principle. Mill is well known as an ardent defender of freedom of speech, especially with respect to the value of heterodox positions. Less commonly regarded, I find, is Mill’s commentary on the importance of balancing off people’s right to speak freely against the right of others to be unharmed. As he was aware, the huge difficulty here is adjudicating on what constitutes ‘harm’.

As I’m sure Greenwald would delight in quickly pointing out, people might argue that a plethora of widely expressed opinions cause ‘harm’. It is on that basis that I find this subject so difficult – what do I say to the man who tells me that my socialist economic views cause them harm?

But there’s more to it than that, and it simplifies this debate to rule out restrictions on the basis that some nut could insist that any form of speech causes them harm and should be restricted. We are capable of differentiating between harm which the state needs to act against and that which it doesn’t – we do this all the time in the judicial system. Where the lines are is indeed a difficult and complex position, but intuition suggests that there is a line there somewhere, and it falls far before the likes of antisemitic protest at a holocaust memorial.

I think it’s also worth considering why we think free speech is so valuable. For me, it’s because I believe that it’s important, for various reasons, that we need to allow everyone’s perspective on issues to be aired in public and have the potential to gather support. I don’t think it’s got much to do with some intrinsic value to the individual of being able to say whatever we want in public. This is an important distinction, because it means that we can satisfy people’s right to free expression by giving them some reasonable access to public discourse, but doesn’t necessitate giving them all and any access that they might desire – for example aggressive public demonstrations by racist groups.

Free speech is a balancing act, much like any right. By and large, I’m with Mill in believing that very, very few acts ever fall on the wrong side of that balance – it is really hard to cause so much harm with a speech act that it can be deemed illegally violent – but I’m not with Greenwald in so far as I believe it is possible.

Edit: With a hat-tip to Williamson (above) for bringing this to my attention, I now realise I was writing very similar stuff back earlier this year with regard to Boris Johnson banning those homophobic bus adverts in London. The consistency of the basic position I’ve put out in both posts accurately reflects what’s becoming quite a firm conviction for me – that there are forms of speech which the government absolutely is justified in intervening in, and this isn’t a threat to what we can still reasonably call free speech. I am hardly any closer, however, to a definitive answer on how we decide where to draw the line. Some would draw that line much further into the realms of state control than most of us are probably comfortable with, and the very compelling arguments they might advance throw up some really interesting questions. More to come.

Ed Miliband meeting Mitt Romney is like Luke Skywalker having coffee with Emperor Palpatine

News hit today that during Republican POTUS hopeful and erstwhile dog abuser Mitt Romney’s visit to the UK this week, he will be meeting not only our Prime Minister, but Ed Miliband in his capacity as leader of the opposition.


For me this begs the obvious question of what on earth they’re going to talk about. Ideologically, the two men have virtually nothing in common – Ed the socialist, progressive Europhile versus Mitt the ultra-conservative, marketist Eurosceptic (or maybe ‘xenosceptic’ would be more apt). At the very least, let’s hope the awkward topic of Ed’s parentage doesn’t come up. It’s much clearer what Romney and George Osborne, also set to meet, will discuss – they share a commitment to free markets, state minimalism and a gleeful passion for welfare cuts.

More seriously, though, I do wonder why Miliband is agreeing to this meeting at all. Next week, Ed will meet Francois Hollande for a cosy chat about youth unemployment – a symbolic meeting of the two strongest critics of what Miliband terms ‘Camerkozy’ economics. This is the kind of international meeting which will embellish Miliband’s position, and beyond party politics, the kind of international meeting which from a left-wing perspective it’s very important he has. Mitt Romney may well be the greatest enemy right now in what could be a global left-wing resurgence. His election over Obama – leading proponent of quasi-Keynesian economics and charismatic champion of progressive politics – in a country which still (bizarrely) seems to often act as a benchmark for UK policy would be a huge obstacle for Miliband to overcome.

The Independent believes that Cameron’s agreement to meet Romney is a diplomatic barrier to relations with Obama. Obviously, the same pressures and significance aren’t present with Miliband; the single biggest gripe Obama will have with Cameron and Romney meeting is the potential for a photo worth a thousand words – the two men shaking hands outside the black door of Number 10. No such worries with such small fry as the Labour party leader. Nonetheless, I’m sure this won’t endear him.

The only valid reason I can see for the meeting is that a snub could seem churlish, and that this is an opportunity for Miliband to look statesmanlike and to appear to engage in serious debate about future global affairs. Politically (by which I mean psephologically) that’s probably the right call – only a very small sect of lefty hacks to which I belong will have any objections to the meeting, whilst conversely a ‘snub’ might receive a lot of negative press. In terms of politics qua doing the right thing, however, Ed Miliband should be keeping far away from Mitt Romney.

Beyond Tribalism

David Edmonds blogs about the Murray/Federer match in the Wimbledon 2012 final, and his decision to support Murray;

Why would one back ordinariness against genius?  Why would one root for efficiency over grace? Because Murray’s a Brit.

Murray and Federer

Murray and Federer; Wimbledon 2012 final

Edmonds’ is skeptical about the value of nationalism but goes on to justify it as a harmless tool for generating thrills;

That we both pay taxes to the same exchequer? That we’re both subject to the same laws and have the same citizenship duties and rights? That seems a weird basis on which to base any emotional attachment. That we share the same values? I doubt it.

But for most sports fans, backing one individual or side against another is integral to the enjoyment (and the pain). One can be impressed by the skills on display and from an aloof standpoint still appreciate the aesthetics, but partiality is what gives watching sport its passionate heft.

It’s energizing and enlivening to be swept along in a nation’s irrational exuberance. If nationalism is not the most logical criterion on which to select an athlete or team, well, that hardly matters – at least so long as democratic institutions are robust enough to prevent such feelings spewing out into more deadly arenas of contest.

[Sections removed from quote but no content altered.]

I agree that it can be energizing, fun and captivating to allow yourself to get swept away in the nationalist throes of a crowd. Watching the England vs Italy game during Euro 2012 in a Birmingham pub, I found myself sat in front of a group of roaring, fervent nationalists, chanting the praises of their great nation. Allowing oneself to join in instantly immerses the self into a lively collective, which is a great feeling. I got quite carried away, until the descent of the jingoists into the xenophobic and the indecent brought me crashing back to earth.

I’m not convinced by Edmonds’ justification of his nation-based choice to plump for Murray in the Wimbledon final. The bulk of it isn’t even a justification for nationalism at all – it’s a justification for taking a side. I can think of a host of other (some of them better?) reasons to pick one of those players over the other, if you feel the need to do so. Federer is a true master of tennis, and a joy to watch – support him on that basis. Murray is the underdog – support him on that basis. Murray has a sexy Scottish accent – support him on that basis. If Federer won, he’d go back to number 1 and match the all-time record for the most time spent in that position, and it’d be a privilege to see that happen – support him for that reason. Of course, one could also do as I did, and choose neither player to “support”, and just enjoy the spectacle and the skill.

The only part of Edmonds’ article which is a justification for taking a side based on nationality specifiter is that it’s fun to join in with what the crowd are doing. The problem is that this doesn’t really balance out the negative elements of nationalism. It’s not hard to imagine the kind of jingoist fervour I described earlier spilling over into something much more serious – see the worst elements of Euro 2012. Justifying nationalism on the grounds that it’s fun to be a part of the crowd is worrying because nationalism – seemingly harmless when you’re sat at home alone – rears its darker head precisely when it’s found in crowds.

(More on whether it’s actually harmless or not in isolation at a later point…)

Housing Benefits (again) – surveying the bloody obvious

Latest instalment on Cameron’s wet dream of removing housing benefits from under-25s: a survey suggests that the public believe that removing housing benefits from under-25s will “inevitably lead to more homelessness”.

Cameron at the Tory Homelessness Foundation

Cameron at the Tory Homelessness Foundation

The only thing I want to know is what on earth is wrong with the 35% who said that they don’t think it will lead to more homelessness. Nearly half of those polled who define as Conservative Party supporters said that they don’t believe it would lead to more homelessness. I can only imagine that the justification is that they firmly believe Cameron’s mantra that all under 25 can just easily move in with their parents if they find themselves in trouble. It seems David Cameron isn’t the only one frighteningly out of touch with reality.

More of my thoughts on HB cuts here and here.

Assisted Dying and the BMA

BBC article here on the decision taken at the recent Bournemouth BMA conference to retain the Association’s “against” stance on assisted death.* I might write more about this soon, but for now I want to pick up on one comment made at the conference;

Prof Baroness Ilora Finlay, a cross-bench peer and professor of palliative care, said it was essential that doctors “never walk away from patients”.

I’m uncertain about the phrasing of “walk away from patients”. It’s an emotive phrase, which implies that physicians complicit in assisted death are abandoning patients, and by corollary, not acceding to something which is good for the patient. This is where I suspect the problem is: Prof Finlay seems to equate the “thing-which-is-good” with some external idea of “best interest” (i.e. life), even if this is entirely at odds with the patient’s own wishes.

That’s a viable position which people might choose to hold. I don’t – I’d prefer to see patients’ wishes being the focal point – but more on that another time. For now, I just feel that vague phraseology should be avoided, such that those who oppose assisted death are clear about their reasons and don’t (falsely) invoke imagery of physicians walking away from patients who are calling after them for help.

*Which I think is probably a better term than “assisted suicide”.

A thought on UKIP.

Nigel Farage

Nigel Farage. Image: Telegraph Online.

Bagehot at the Economist argues that UKIP are a rising threat to the UK political mainstream, citing party leader Nigel Farage’s personal appeal and political/oratory skill as the reason;

At a recent public meeting outside Bristol, in south-west England, Mr Farage played the packed room (Tory-faithful types, ranging from pensioners in blazers to brawny small businessmen) like a virtuoso. Tiny model Spitfire fighters flashing at his shirt-cuffs, Mr Farage told the crowd what it wanted to hear. Britain is run by “college kids”. The dead of two world wars are being betrayed by Westminster politicians “impotent” to defend democracy. Britain has turned its back on its “kith and kin” in the Commonwealth. It is an “outrage” that eastern Europeans can come and claim benefits. “Charity begins at home,” shouted Mr Farage, and the 250-strong crowd roared.

Mr Farage is indeed good at what he does. Like most on the fringe right, his is a very straightforward and easy position to defend. The extreme unlikelihood of UKIP ever standing in an election with the ambition of actually winning means he can be gratuitous with the invective and the populism, with no concern for responsibility or realism. Come the 2015 election I think he will be a popular and important figure, dictating where a lot of votes go and shaping areas of debate.

But am I really scared that UKIP might take a chunk of seats, and start to exercise any real control? No. The reason is that, shiny-suited, smooth and silky Farage aside, the grassroots of the party is a dirty secret which will not impress the electorate.

I had the pleasure of witnessing a debate before the 2010 election at the University of Birmingham with the local candidates. The red-faced, wiry old fellow representing UKIP prefaced his opening speech with “I joined UKIP because I’m a very angry man”. He then went on to suggest that the solution to most social problems is to (a) leave the EU, and (b) reintroduce hanging, to roars of laughter from the crowd. (These are even, apparently, the solutions to problems with very little to do with European politics and nothing at all to do with crime and punishment.)

Victor Meldrew

Standard UKIP candidate role model

This is where I think UKIP are still a fringe pressure group who don’t pose serious challenges. Underneath the well groomed face is a shaggy, unkept mass of bigotry which just wants to shout and shake fists. Arena politics is not suited to self-confessed corybantic grumblers, nor are we likely to be indoctrinated by bizarre non-sequiturs.

As an afterthought, this is what you get when you Google ‘UKIP’;

Google search result for UKIP


I think it might be a pretty damning sign when you feel compelled to identify in a summary of your party that you’re “non-racist”. If you’re cutting it so fine that you need to provide clarification then there’s something very wrong…

How linked are available benefits and unemployment levels?

“We have been encouraging working-age people to have children and not work, when we should be enabling working-age people to work and have children. So it’s time we asked some serious questions about the signals we send out through the benefits system.” (David Cameron)

“The problem then is that many men [sic] with families find themselves as well off, or in some instances better off ‘on the dole’ than they would be if they were working. The surprising thing is that, in spite of this, many of them actually prefer to work…” (Pilgrim Trust)

“it is a far cry from recognising the influence of these factors to Benjamin and Kochin’s sweeping claim” (Ormerod and Worswick, 1982)

So here we have David Cameron launching a full-on attack on the benefits system. This is significant for a number of reasons – firstly, the age-related housing benefit cap is an awful policy; secondly, as Jackie Ashley and Patrick Wintour ruminate over, this seems like a marked deviation from the coalition line; thirdly, some of the language I’m seeing is the clearest statement yet from Cameron that he is as wedded to a highly specific political theory about unemployment as suspected. I want to pick up on this last point for now. An article was written in 1979 which apparently had some considerable traction with the Tory group. I want to revisit this now because I think they’ve never grasped, even though it took mere months for academia to rubbish that article, that it’s fatally flawed.

David Cameron

Carl Court/PA via Guardian Online

Conservative thinkers have long been highly fond of an article by D. Benjamin and L. Kochin, entitled “Searching for an explanation of unemployment in interwar Britain”. This highly influential and widely debated article sets out the clearest articulation of a common conservative position – that unemployment originates from, or is at least exacerbated by, the existence of a generous welfare system. More specifically, Benjamin and Kochin’s claim is that there is a demonstrable correlation between unemployment data and wage:benefit ratios – such that an effective way to reduce unemployment would be to reduce available benefits. They believe thus that in that period, “the army of the unemployed… was largely a volunteer army.” This is still hugely popular as a theory. Whether that’s right or wrong is a debate that’s still going on to this day, but what we can say with some certainty is that the original paper by Benjamin and Kochin has big holes in it. I think this is an important point to make because people still casually cite their conclusion as if it’s an encyclopaedic fact, when it’s far from so.

In brief, then, I want to list some of the key points which arise from the expanse of available literature on why Benjamin and Kochin’s theory just doesn’t stand up. Note that the paper refers to the “interwar period”, taking data from the 20s and 30s.

Firstly, the thesis is grounded in what’s actually an unlikely assumption – that the decision to find employment or live off benefits is a relatively discretionary choice based on a kind of cost-benefit analysis. As Cross demonstrates, “genuinely seeking work” and means-based tests were increasingly influential throughout the period. Unemployment has also been shown to be a terrifying prospect which can induce and exacerbate depression and anxiety.  We should not assume that benefit-dependence is a simple, rational choice. Even if it were, this would itself still be problematic for Benjamin and Kochin, as only 2% of adult men could receive benefits greater than 80% of their last working income. (In other words, if “should I get a job or not?” was actually analysed, free choice they describe, the likely answer would be “yes, I should”.)

Secondly, the fact that unemployment benefits were at similar levels throughout the post-war period, marked by radically low unemployment, should cast great doubt on Benjamin and Kochin’s theory.

Third, and crucially, the evidence employed by Benjamin and Kochin invites scepticism. They base their theory on three claims;

(1)     that female unemployment declined when benefit entitlement for women was reduced,

(2)     that juveniles (for whom low benefits were available) showed above-average employment,

(3)     a regression-based analysis which they claim demonstrates a clear correlation between benefit-to-wage ratios and unemployment levels.

The first two can be easily dismissed – that the number of people in any group claiming unemployment benefits declines when regulations become stricter is evidence of nothing except the immediate impact of those regulations: we can draw no conclusions about the actual impact on female employment (those people may have just consequently starved). Further, it has been demonstrated that juvenile employment was a special case, characterised by short-term employment exploiting lax juvenile employment regulations.

Queue outside Jobcentre

The red flag to Mr Cameron’s bull

With regard to their regression design, their use of a benefit-to-wage ratio is unconvincing, as a clear correlation is only evident using the highly selective and seemingly arbitrary values which they employ. When real values are substituted, the statistical relationship becomes much less clear. Furthermore, the use of a logarithm of net national product balanced against the trend value of the logarithm for the period is not convincing as a means of discounting such a broadly important factor as aggregate demand; they give no explanation which guarantees the effectiveness of this model, and it might be open to questions about delays between changes in demand and effects on unemployment.

Finally, Benjamin and Kochin’s use of regression data to explain what they claim is an individual phenomenon at a collective level is questionable and may lead to misinterpretation. Hatton demonstrates that unskilled workers were more likely to see unemployment due to structural reasons. Incidentally, this same group are also subject to lower wages and thus a higher benefit to wage ratio. At a collective level, this effect would deceptively appear to link the benefit-to-wage ratio to unemployment.

It doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue, but next time you hear Mr Cameron saying things which just assume that the unemployed are voluntarily so, you know what to say.

It’s worth adding that there are a lot of other things wrong with Cameron saying things like the quote at the top of this post. It’s offensive and propagates divisive myths about the unemployed. Much could be written about that, but I really wanted to focus here on the claim itself that unemployment is a consequence of high benefit provisions. Of course, the methodological flaws in Benjamin and Kochin’s thesis do not mean that it is definitely untrue that benefits affect unemployment. Doubtless, in some cases, it is very true that they do. The significance is that their article is some of the most important work done to try to prove something rather more doubtable – that it’s a big, widespread, highly influential factor. Given it’s flaws, that proof is still very much missing. Someone let the Prime Minister know?


If you’re interested and have the time, then I really recommend a look at some of the material I’ve listed below. There’s plenty more available, but this is a summary. The best place to go if you want more on the Benjamin and Kochin thesis is the symposium in volume 90 (number 2) of the Journal of Political Economy.

Benjamin, D. and Kochin, L. “Searching for an explanation of unemployment in Interwar Britain”, Journal of Political Economy: 87(3) (1979), pp 441-478

Broadberry, S. “The Emergence of Mass Unemployment: Explaining Macroeconomic Trends in Britain during the Trans-World War I Period”, Economic History Review 43(2) (1990), pp 271-282

Collins, M. “Unemployment in Interwar Britain”, The Journal of Political Economy 90(2) (1982), pp 369-379

Cross, R. “How much voluntary unemployment in Interwar Britain?”, The Journal of Political Economy 90(2) (1982), pp 380-385

Daunton, M. Wealth and Welfare (OUP: Oxford, 2007)

Eichengreen, B. “Unemployment in Interwar Britain”, in Digby et al, New Directions in Economic and Social History vol II (Macmillan: Basingstoke, 1992)

——. “The British Economy Between the Wars” in Floud and Johnson (eds.), The Cambridge Economic History of Modern Britain: Vol II (CUP: Cambridge, 2004)

Glynn, S. and Booth, A. “The Emergence of Mass Unemployment: Some Questions of Precision”, Economic History Review 45(4) (1992), pp 731-738

Hatton, T. “Institutional Change and Wage Rigidity in the UK”, Oxford Review of Economic Policy 4(1) (1988), pp 74-86

­——. “Unemployment and the Labour Market, 1870-1939” in Floud and Johnson (eds.), The Cambridge Economic History of Modern Britain: Vol II (CUP: Cambridge, 2004)

Metcalf, D., Nickell, S. and Floros, N. “Still searching for an explanation of unemployment in interwar Britain”, The Journal of Political Economy 90(2), pp 386-399

Ormerod, P. and Worswick, G. “Unemployment in Interwar Britain”, The Journal of Political Economy 90(2) (1982), pp 400-409

Shamir, B. “Self-Esteem and the Psychological Impact of Unemployment”, Social Psychology Quarterly 49(1) (1986), pp 61-72

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