The Public Realm
"Free market ideals, conservative prejudices, realistic approaches..."
[See also ""Power" - my pieces on the British Constitution.]
Below are pieces which reflect my concern to marry my free market
idealism, and conservative prejudices, with my experience of the
real world. They are of course conflicted, since theory and practice
seldom meet easily.
For the cases I make in a nutshell (click through for the whole
Farming and the tax-payer (essay length),
An account of how the British countryside could thrive without subsidy.
We should stop thinking about preserving a large number of farms
and farmers. Rather, we should aim as consumers (and even as tax-payers)
at buying those goods and services - food, landscape and butterflies
- from whoever will provide them best.
Sustainable Development: A Concept With
a Future? (8000 words) November, 2005
This is a sceptical but not a hostile account of SD. I argue that
it is an oxymoron which usefully outlines a tension between economics
and ecology, but that it has been hijacked by people who use it
to privilege one or the other. It has also been widened from environmental
concern - which may genuinely be an issue of sustainability - to
social concerns which aren't.
Liberty In the Modern World (7500 words)
More liberties are more available to more Westerners (at least)
than ever in history. And yet many of us feel curiously ungrateful,
harassed even - as though the state were not in general accountable
and careful. This essay is an account of how modern people seem
very willing to emphasise their rights rather than their responsibilities.
Kindly sponsored as an Occasional Paper by the Liberales Institut
Waste: A way out of the mess (6400 words)
24 February, 2004
Rather unexpectedly, EU policy-makers seem almost prepared to see
the future of waste policy going along lines which might please
the British. That's to say, it may be possible to reverse years
of increasingly proscriptive policy and instead aim to use minimum
regulation to get real environmental and economic outcomes rather
than the delivery of green mantras. This piece reviews some of that
hopefulness and reprises the background.
Global Warming, GMOs and economics: the
big picture (4300 words)
A story of grand narratives, models and smoking guns,
12 January, 2004
Grand Narratives have a big effect on how people think about difficult
issues. Here, I take a racing survey of how our prejudices gibe
with the different sorts of evidence available to us as we think
about global warming and genetically-modified foods. I compare the
"green vs progressisve" sorts of prejudice, with the "left
vs right" prejudice which informs economic discussion. And
that's part of an approach which considers how similar are our abillities
to think about environmental and economic "complex systems".
Trust and institutions in age of mass affluence
(5 January, 2004) (c600 words)
I have always enjoyed a rather conservative sense of the value of
institutions, elites and deference which my generation inherited
and largely destroyed. We did so partly as a function of the march
of democracy, and partly because the market unleashed mass affluence.
Here I reflect on that process, and make the challenge (not answered
here): how are we regain trust, in an age of populism (and stroppiness)?
This is the challenge of the Archipelago State.
BBC R4's Today programme and populism (5
January, 2004) (c500 words)
The Today programme has been embarrassed to find its audience picked
a reactionary law as its favourite proposition for a tame MP to
champion. Good: this will help a new generation of journalists to
distrust easy populist dissidence that has misguided the trade for
a while. The Today should be elitist and support what remains of
the Establishment. That's the truly democratic thing to do.
"The Big Conversation" (28 November,
2003) (c700 words)
Politicians have discovered how difficult it is to make policy
in an age when everyone thinks his own opinion is as as good as
the next person's. Centuries of intellectual tradition are going
by the board as we discount the value of expertise, knowledge and
evidence in favour of the
heartfelt or the popular. I chart this process, mostly so that we
can see how ungovernable we would become if this trend is not reversed,
but also to show that consulting the public is not a serious way
forward. The public needs to learn to listen to and respect expertise,
much more than it needs the right to be heard.
Planning (pamphlet length)
It is galling to note that the planning system in Britain is a last
redoubt of the statist thinking of the mid-twentieth century, and
yet I like it. In effect the state controls the development rights
of everyone's property. Note: this is not a case of nationalisation.
After all, the value of the development rights - the value that
flows from them (or is not allowed to flow) - is privately owned.
What is in issue is the right to inflict on the public the effects
of a property owner's wishes about changes in land-use. These seem
to me to be "externalities" which the market cannot capture.
And it seems right that they should be under democratic control.
However, in all sorts of ways things work best - and in the best
optimisation of private and public interests - when the planning
bureaucracy keeps its hands off. So I explore various mechanisms
where the market can be put to work, and the planning system respected
but held in check.
Forbidden Fruit (pamphlet length)
Man has a dark side, and the more interesting people tend to have
readier access to darker sides than most. We should accept that
these desires (drink, tobacco, gambling, pornography, soft drugs)
can largely be met by legitimate commercial organisations which
should not be castigated or punished as they serve the public interest
in making money in these ways. I am interested in taxation as a
means of setting prices for these "amenities" which usefully
limit access to them. I am not sure that we should tax alcohol and
tobacco as much as we do, but granted the levels which exist for
them, I propose that cannabis would need to be under a rather similar
Professions Reborn (about
The Enron Crisis and the problem of regulating privatised firms
have made us see that we need a new self-respect and discipline
amongst people who earn their living making private profits by managing
public risks. This paper makes the case that a revitalisd professionalism
can help here. Professions are the way that the "pro bono"
can be preserved in a world which uses self-interest as its organising