Sunday, 29 September 2013

Institutionalised Truth

I believe that Democracy has some form of intrinsic value. The concept that each individual within a country has an input into the systems that govern their lives has a powerful allure. However in order to maximise this value, a democratic state must ensure that the information required to make informed decisions is readily available to its members.

By casting my vote I am making a choice which I believe will most likely bring about the state of affairs that I wish to see in the world. This requires a degree of information which allows me to predict, of the choices available to me, which will most likely result in the sorts of outcomes I wish to see occur. As our information becomes poorer, there is a substantial risk that our choices become less related to the outcomes we wish to see – as this disparity grows, the value that democracy provides to us diminishes.

Information within our society is currently too expensive, in terms of both time and resources, and consequently damages our democracy. It is expensive because, while it is easy to obtain thanks to the internet and 24/7 news channels, it has become increasingly difficult to verify. The sheer number of news sources available means that for all but the most basic questions, you will be able to find at least a semi credible source to support most sides of an argument. In the face of information overload, with limited realistic ability to discern what is true and what isn’t, it is hard to believe that one’s ability to vote according to their outcome preferences are not harmed.

My proposal is that the state set up a series of independent, highly specialised institutions, each of which have a narrow remit of either producing, or assessing the veracity of, certain information. The value of these institutions would lie in creating a clear authority on certain questions, allowing the media and general public to be better informed.

The institutions must be specialised, otherwise they risk losing the knowledge which makes them an authority on the issues they talk about. They must also be funded by the state, firstly to ensure they receive sufficient funding, but more importantly so that their neutrality is ensured and they are seen as a credible source of information (compared to say news channels and think tanks). The state has a successful track record in creating respected neutral institutions (for example central banks).

I admit at this stage my argument sounds a bit like a naïve rant by a liberal (semi) intellectual who is frustrated at the state of political decision making in the west. However, while this may all be perfectly true (it is), it should not remove from the important point that this would produce clear value to society.

What I am proposing has already successfully been done in some countries to a limited extent. Fiscal councils around the world, such as the OBR in the UK, provide independent projections of government budgets. In the US and the Netherlands, fiscal councils also evaluate the proposed spending plans of opposition parties so that voters may know whether they are credible options. Politifact in the US assess the degree of veracity in the statements of politicians (however as it is a non-public institution it comes under attack for lack of neutrality – ironically by both sides of the political spectrum).

My area of knowledge is primarily economic – hence the examples given above, but I could easily see room for institutions in the areas of environmental science, medicine and law among others.

There are some obvious drawbacks of this proposal. Firstly there must be a limit of some kind imposed to the number of institutions and to their scope. What kind of questions are appropriately addressed by such institutions? How much information must the state provide the public with before it has absolved its duty? We clearly couldn’t have a thousand government owned and operated think tanks.

On a more fundamental level, I worry about the impact of having a state line on “the truth”. Many of the questions I would hope are assessed by such entities, are difficult and complex. A state line might stifle discussion on these areas and be a way to control debate in a country. It goes strongly against the Millian ideal of discovering truth through extensive public argument. However while this risk exists in the extreme, I do not feel it undermines a cautious move in the direction I advocate.

So in summary, my argument:

1) Democracy has intrinsic value.

2) This value is linked to the information citizens have access to.

3) Currently information is too expensive in our society and the state has an obligation to  lower this cost.
This cost is due to the difficulty in verifying the validity of arguments.

4) The state should set up focused independent institutions which seek to provide clear  guidance on issues of import to the public.

5) Institutions of this kind do exist to a limited extent currently, do work and are a positive  impact on society. We should expand on these.


Open questions:

1) How much information does the state need to provide to absolve its obligation to its  citizens?

2) What is the limit to the kind of questions we are comfortable providing a state researched  view on?

3) Why does publicly funded media fail to provide the information the public requires? / Does  it fail?

4) What are the precise questions we would ask these institutions to answer?



I’m sure there are many more beyond this initial list.

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Is Luck in Labour Markets an Issue of Justice?


Labour markets can be just and unjust in many ways that go beyond the distribution of income. One is luck and predictability. Their distribution is highly unequally, and I think that this raises issues of justice.

First, take individual predictability. In order to plan your life (where you want to live, with whom, whether/when to have children etc.) it is helpful to know what kind of job you can expect to have over the next few years. If job markets are to a high degree based on luck, rather than other criteria such as merit or age, they are less predictable. Now, whether or not labour markets could or should be structured around merit (and in what sense of merit) is a controversial question. But one advantage is that you can have a reasonable guess, based on your prior achievements, of what your job prospects for the next few years will be. Psychological tendencies such as over-optimism or cognitive dissonance can of course kick in, but even more so if there is less predictability.

Second, collective predictability. There are factors in the legal and social set-up of labour markets that determine, for societies as a whole, how predictable labour markets are. For example, a government can take anti-cyclical measures in a depression that keep people in jobs. Or, as Albena Azmanova has recently pointed out, the welfare state can be designed in ways that increase or decrease individuals’ flexibility, maybe offering “universal minimal employment” as a fallback option.

My impression is that much goes wrong in these respects today, and that this raises issues of justice (in addition to many other forms of injustice in labour markets).

First, unpredictability gives greater power to employers, because employees will reasonably be more risk averse, and will try to keep jobs they have, even if the conditions are such that they would otherwise want to quit. This looks like an issue of justice as such, and it can have harmful consequences if it prevents people from standing up to injustices within their job, blow the whistle, etc. Secondly, and more importantly, issues of unpredictability hit different groups in society with differential force. Depending on whether you have inherited wealth or not, marketable or less marketable human capital, a family rooted in one place or full geographic flexibility, etc., unpredictable labour markets make your life more or less difficult to live.

Nonetheless, it would not be worth raising these issues as issues of justice if they could not be changed, or only at the cost of violating other values. In designing policy instruments that make job markets more predictable, one would have to be careful – otherwise one might end up, for example, with an in-group with 100% predictability and an out-group with 0% predictability. Or one might, in the long run, stifle markets so much that the economic wellbeing of the worst off is endangered. But it seems worth experimenting with different models, and learning from the experiences in other countries, in order to see what can be done (maybe we can discuss examples below). And I think there can also be cases micro-injustices about predictability, for example if a boss tells three people that they have “good chances” to be promoted, while only one can really be promoted.

One thing, however, can and should change, in my view. The role of luck in the job market should be acknowledged, and professional success (or the lack of it) should not be seen as a sign of personal worthiness (or the lack of it). We are equal as human beings and as citizens, and while some may work harder than others, or be more talented than others, these things do not determine our value. So while there might be arguments in favour of de facto trying to tie job market structures more to achievement, for the sake of predictability (although I think that collective measures are far more important), we should stop fetishizing professional success. The role of luck is always going to be there, and acknowledging it might lead to a bit more solidarity among co-citizens and fellow human beings. 

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Should the UK be granted a referendum on membership in the European Union?

My answer to the question posed in the thread title is a tentative ‘no’.  My answer is tentative partly because I usually bestow considerable value on democratic choice and partly because I remain worried that my natural negative reaction to all Tory policy might cloud my judgement.  But, to the best I can exempt myself from this partiality, I do think that the ‘no’ answer is correct.  Here is my reasoning.

In the literature on secession, there are two broad positions.  On the one hand, some think there is a direct or primary right to secede.  That is, groups always have a right to choose to leave an existing state provided that they, as a group, meet some criteria.  The usual criteria are (a) being a ‘people’ with a shared set of cultural traditions or heritage distinct from those of the wider nation of which they are presently a part or (b) democratic election (e.g., by majority vote).  On the other hand, some think that there is ‘only’ a default or secondary right to secede.  Groups have this right only if their present government mistreats them in certain ways.  Here, the right to secede is like the right to revolution.  It is ‘activated’ if governments abuse citizens’ most basic rights, by, for example, torturing them or imprisoning them for their political beliefs.

My view is that secession cannot be a primary right.  It seems to me too permissive to allow groups such broad discretion on leaving an existing state.  In certain cases, this would permit patently unjust possibilities, such as the white South Africans responding to the end of Apartheid by voting to form an independent nation.  More generally, we surely think that there are limits on what a people can choose.  People do not have a right to disenfranchise part of the existing population of a nation on matters that concern them all, so why should they have a right to vote for border changes that would have the same effect?

Thus, my sense is that any right to secede from a political association must exist only on the condition that the political association surpasses a certain threshold of injustice.  If this line of reasoning is applied to the case of the EU, the UK clearly does not have a right to vote on its membership.

I guess that there are two possible objections to this view.  First, it might be argued that the EU is beyond a threshold of injustice.  I find it difficult to see how such a position could be substantiated.  Indeed, given some of its decisions, such as voting rights for prisoners, I am inclined to think it propagates less injustice than the UK.  But, at any rate, it clearly does not fall foul of grave human rights abuse or anything that would permit rebellion.  Second, it might be argued that there is a difference between seceding from a state and seceding from a supranational organisation.  I cannot say that I disagree with this thought, but I do not think that the difference will be sufficient to challenge my central claim.  Whatever the differences, the EU is a political association with binding rules of membership subject to demands of justice.  The parallels are not so far from much decentralised federal structures like Switzerland.  So, just as I believe the people of Zug do not have a right to choose independence from the Confœderatio, I do not think the UK should be granted a referendum on European Union membership.