Thursday, 15 March 2018

The ‘Public Money Protection’ Act

Unethical draining of public funds should not go unpunished. We pool our resources for the common good, and if anyone – through greed, malice, or sheer thoughtlessness – deplete those resources, then the law should take action.

However, no government to date has thought through how this ought to be done. Individuals who claim, say £100 more benefits than they should, are portrayed as public enemy number one, and an over-zealous system is instituted to root out such behaviour, even when that means many others end up being wrongfully deprived of desperately needed payments. On the other hand, generous deals and concessions are ever ready to be offered to those who evade taxes to the tune of millions, or pocket even larger sums from the public purse to cover their mismanagement of everything from banks to railways.

One suggestion the government should consider is to put in place a Public Money Protection Act, the purpose of which would be to empower the public to take action against people who have unjustifiably added to public financial burden without any corresponding public gains. Individuals who defraud on benefits or expenses claims would be covered, and so would those who cheat on their taxes, misspend public funds, make illegitimate claims for public subsidies, take irresponsible actions that require public bailouts to prevent wider calamities, order unlawful evictions that fuel homelessness-related public expenditure, pay under the minimum wage and add to the burden of public benefit payment, and anyone else whose behaviour leaves the government with a higher than necessary bill to pay (including irresponsible ministers in government).

A dedicated arm of the public prosecution service would be set up to bring cases to trial with a jury that will not only decide if the accused is guilty, but also in cases of conviction, determine what punishment is to be handed down, subject to judicial advice.

The punishment will have three components. First of all, it covers what must be paid back as direct compensation for the loss of public funds, and what additional fines should be levied as a deterrent. For offenders who are below the poverty line, pushing them further into unpayable debt would be counter-productive. But for people who cheat or misspend millions of public money, and think they can go on living the high life with their off shore savings, a substantial fine would be very relevant indeed.

Secondly, there should be various options for jail time. In some cases, weekend imprisonment over two or three years may be more effective than a six-month sentence. The jury should be able to take into account the pain and disruption the individual in question has caused others in society, and what may be needed to deter any repeat offence. The duration of any incarceration put forward would have to be proportional to the amount of public money involved, plus any knock-on damages caused.

Thirdly, we have what may be a supplement (or in some cases, an alternative) to a prison term, namely, the restorative process. The jury would consider what would be a fitting activity for the convicted individuals to carry out. For some, it could be that they should spend time helping those they have hurt through their financial misdeeds. For others, it could be having to carry out menial tasks in public. There may be options to take on specific assignments in the community where being remorseful and conscientious in repairing the damages caused are integral criteria for measuring completion of the rehabilitation programme.

The fines imposed will help fund this prosecution service, and it would be apposite if this arrangement incentivises it to prioritise cases where the financial damages are most serious. At the same time, for those who think even a hefty fine would be proportionately small change out of their holdings, having to perform duties they may consider beneath them in public on a regular and prolonged basis, and to have to make real efforts to connect with those affected by their thoughtless acts, may just get through to them that they need to change their ways in the future.

Thursday, 1 March 2018

Democracy on Life Support

For many people, the votes for Brexit and Trump, cast in spite of, or rather because of, the lies and misdirection at the heart of those campaigns, suggested that when democracy could no longer draw a clear distinction between well-informed and ill-judged voting, its time is up.

But will the demise of democracy pave the way for an era of happy government-less anarchy? Alas, history has shown us that it is politics’ nature to abhor a power vacuum. Without an open and peaceful system to set policies in the absence of unanimous agreement on every issue, tensions will escalate into conflicts, and the devious and the ruthless will push their way to the top, until one or another is established as the unaccountable ruler of the realm.

Imagine Trump with no democratic safeguards, and he and his family are able to rule arbitrarily so long as no rival manages to usurp the throne. But can democracy be revived? The answer depends on whether concerns with its decline can be directed to fuel the necessary action. It is one thing to know that with a third or more eligible voters routinely not bothering to vote (in the UK or the US), it is easy for those with concentrated wealth to buy large-scale manipulation to trick enough people to vote for their preferred outcome. It is quite another to know what should be done about it.

Getting more people to register and to turnout to vote is a laudable aim. But the people saturated with mass deception may just end up voting for politicians who view them as mere fodder for their own gains at the expense of the public. Changing electoral systems may make more votes count, but who is to say those won’t be votes tilted to go in the direction of those supported by the best manipulators money can buy?

Enemies of democracy are ever ready to hide behind the facile claim that people should be left to judge for themselves, as though the law should have nothing to say about people putting out words and images that can mislead, deceive, incite, or divert others into doing what they should not. These are often the same people who demand tough actions to stop people spreading extremist messages, releasing confidential information, or exchanging vile pictures to feed perversion. They are right that the law should take a firm stand against unacceptable communication, but they are wrong to suppose that nothing can be unacceptable when is put forward in the name of politics.

In fact, to save democracy, we must not only institute better regulatory arrangements to deal with irresponsible communication, we need to put much tighter restrictions in place to stop political con merchants and extremist leaders organise activities to target scapegoats, exploit cultural misunderstanding, and stir up distrust and animosity. In parallel, community relations should also be strengthened with the help of inclusionary events, neighbourhood meet-and-greet, and where appropriate, restorative reconciliations.

Finally, the elephant in the room must no longer be ignored. The relentless rise in wealth and power inequalities since the 1980s has eroded the foundation of democracy. Democracy cannot survive if the few can go on amassing vastly more money and hence control over the lives of others. Through a combination of curtailing tax avoidance and evasion, guaranteed levels of public service and basic income, redistribution to even out purchasing powers, and pre-distribution through the development of worker cooperatives to attain more equitable pay differentials, democracy’s revival will be achieved in so far as the power gap between citizens is substantially reduced.

Henry Tam’s new book, Time to Save Democracy: how to govern ourselves in the age of anti-politics is available from Policy Press:

Thursday, 15 February 2018

The Cooperators’ Dilemma

An unequivocal lesson from the Prisoners’ Dilemma is that in order to attain the optimal result for all concerned, those involved need to possess sufficient mutual trust to enable them to be fully committed to doing what will best help each other [Note 1]. This in turn requires relationship-building over time, the development of a code of conduct, support for the exploration of collective solutions, and the establishment of enforceable rules.

Instead of suspicion, alienation, or exploitation, cooperators engage others in a reciprocally supportive manner so that their local institutions, organisations they work in, and government bodies under whose jurisdiction they live, will all develop for their common wellbeing.

However, not everyone subscribes to this approach. For example, there are people who because of their warped upbringing, indoctrination, or mental pathology, find it virtually impossible to empathise with anyone they have routinely perceived to be ‘beneath’ their social level, ‘outside’ their tribe-like group, or simply ‘alien’ to them. Others, consumed by greed and ambition, cannot help but ignore the concerns of others.

Then there are those, whose reasoning capability and susceptibility to misdirection, render them liable to be conned by charlatans in commerce, religion and politics. Having bought into incredible deals that are clearly too good to be true, no amount of evidence or explanation can persuade them that there are actually better ways to secure a more rewarding life, if only they would be prepared to cooperate with others who can see through the deception that has entrapped them.

Cooperators thus face a dilemma. On the one hand, they can try to cut off interactions with those who won’t cooperate with them. For example, they may retreat and set up a commune or some form of self-contained commons, where cooperation can thrive, and the antics of the ant-cooperators can be kept at bay. But in this ever more inter-connected world, that is unlikely to be sustainable. Moreover, the laws and policies of society cannot be suspended wherever cooperators would like them to be set aside. Disengaging from local, national, or transnational government jurisdiction is not a realistic option.

On the other hand, they can continue to live and work alongside the anti-cooperators. While they know the latter are ready to undermine cooperative working at every turn, they hope they constitute too small a minority to undermine the overall cooperative arrangements in society. Unfortunately, this all too often falls down when the disruptors turn out to have a majority – e.g., when there are enough of them to overturn collective arrangements for the common good, with their vote in a critical referendum or an electoral college process that decides who will be president.

In truth, cooperators cannot withdraw into their own enclaves shielded from outside turbulence, or keep putting up with the activities of the anti-cooperators in the hope that they would not have too much impact. Anti-cooperators will not hesitate to use the political powers they gain to take unfair advantage over others; and attempts to hold them to account will be met by aggressive derision of the judiciary, attacks on those who back parliamentary or congressional oversight, and persistent undermining of independent investigators.

Cooperators cannot work on the assumption that everyone is disposed to cooperate, or that the damages done by the anti-cooperators will always be manageable. The only way forward is to defend and strengthen the rule of law, work with politicians who are genuine in their support for cooperation, and promote education at all levels to counter ignorance and the tricks of demagogues. It is the only way out of an otherwise impossible dilemma.

[Note 1] Successive studies of the Prisoners’ Dilemma have found that individuals are more liable to choose options which do not serve them well if they are not aware and convinced that there is a reliable way to secure a better outcome. Left to themselves, each may betray the other thinking that would save their own skin, and both end up going to jail on the testimony of the other. By contrast, if both are confident that the other won’t talk, and thus stay silent themselves, neither will be convicted on any incriminating evidence submitted by their partner.

Thursday, 1 February 2018

Four Deities & a Humanist

Suppose a conference is held for those who place their faith in a deity. They will at the outset unite in closing the door on the humanist who asks if it would not be better if everyone can come together to discuss how people should treat one another.

Once the humanist is shut out, however, those present will soon segregate themselves because they quickly discover there are too many substantial differences dividing them. Before long, the conference is split into four sections that are barely on speaking terms with each other.

The first section is exclusive to the ‘Our Deity is Best’ group. They are united by their unwavering faith that their Deity is the mightiest, most incomparably omnipotent being in the whole of existence. But as soon as the talk turns to the identity of this supreme deity, furious arguments break out. Some say the Deity has a son who is also a god. Others say the Deity is One, not Three-in-One. Others dispute who the Deity has chosen to be the select few. And no one can agree if the almighty Deity wants them to kill people who carry out abortions, execute people who are probably wrongfully convicted, or never take up arms even against murderers.

The second section has a sign on its door: ‘Our Deity is the Ultimate Mystery’. They all worship their Deity, about whom they know nothing. They draw inspiration from this Deity in everything they do. Every moment of their lives, every space they occupy, they find it to be filled by the ineffable beauty, strength and majesty of the one they embrace with all their heart. But no one is to speak on behalf of this Deity, because it is beyond human comprehension. So its followers feel ecstatic in its presence, and decline all requests to explain what it is they are actually worshiping.

In the third section of the conference we find those who admire the ancient practice of deifying powerful emperors. For them, it makes far more sense to worship someone who has shown the world what it is to be powerful and intimidating. They adore the fact that they can place their total trust in someone; never doubt the righteousness of anything done by that deified person; and always accept whatever they are told from on high irrespective of contrary evidence. But rows inevitably break out over who should be treated as an unquestionable deity. Should blind faith be placed in Il Duce or Der Führer? Should Stalin or Mao be worshiped as godly heroes who could do no wrong? Would the devoted followers of a Marcos or a Trump not want their ‘faultless’ leaders to be elevated beyond all reproach too? The mindless dedication aroused in one faction is matched by the disgust and loathing stirred up in another. Punch-ups escalate into mass shootings.

Those in the final section begin to wonder if they are at the right conference. They have started by trying to look beyond the differences that on the surface have divided them – the texts they refer to, the customs they follow, the stories they like to tell; and gradually, as they work towards what their love of god as the embodiment of the moral ideal have in common, they come to the conclusion that what matters above all is that they should follow the one true divine injunction – to love their neighbour as themselves. They come to realise that they should care, reason with, and support others as they would want others to care, reason with, and support them. Respectful reciprocity and an abiding sense of cooperation and compassion are revealed to be the essence of their faith. Upon that discovery, they leave the conference hall to seek out the humanists gathering in a nearby field, and join them in pursuit of their common goals in life.

Monday, 15 January 2018

What Voters Want

To equate voting with democracy is a bit like conflating mere movement with life. The former may be a possible sign that the latter is still present, but it is no guarantee that it is in fact functioning. The reflexive switches of a dead frog do not herald its resurrection. And when people’s votes are largely based on false assumptions and misleading information, democracy is basically moribund.

Rhetorically, it is easy to declare that voters should get what the voters want. But it does not take a genius to recognise that what voters want above all is a system whereby they and their fellow citizens can consider the real options, and without intimidation, bribery or deception, select what they have good reasons to believe would be the best choice.

History is full of examples of people being pressurised or tricked into voting for what is far from being in their best interest. The people of Sicily and Naples were once tricked into voting for their previously independent domains to be annexed to the Kingdom of Piedmont on the promise of the creation of an ‘Italy’ that the vast majority of them knew nothing about. The citizens of France were misled into casting their votes to give Louis-Napoleon the power to become their democratic president, which enabled him to establish himself as a very undemocratic Emperor of France for life. The Third Reich rose on the back of popular votes cast by Germans who thought they would secure long term security and prosperity, rather than oppression and a totally ruinous war. More recently, lies and prejudices so dominated the 2016 votes for Brexit in the UK and Trump in the US, that ‘post-truth’ was declared the word of the year (by Oxford Dictionaries).

If voters are to get what they, based on the available evidence, and the clearest understanding untainted by devious misdirection, would actually want for their country, then three guarantees need to be put in place. First, the status of shared and equal citizenship must be enforced. Everyone must be able to influence democratic outcomes in the same manner. There must be similar thresholds for a ‘majority’ vote to be validated. In the UK, for example, trade unions are not allowed to call for strike action unless at least 40% of their eligible-to-vote members are behind a majority vote to strike; but no such threshold is set for the far more disruptive action of pulling the UK out of the EU when only 37% of those eligible to vote backed ‘leave’. Other discriminatory practices vary from making it more difficult for certain demographics to vote, or requiring in effect many more votes to get one party elected compared with its rival (e.g., in many US congressional districts, Democrats have been thus disadvantaged by boundary changes ordered by Republican-controlled states).

Secondly, the pretence that there is no objective basis for truth, and that anyone can say absolutely anything must be swept aside. Every country that takes the rule of law seriously has a judicial system founded on the impartial pursuit of truth. While the likes of Trump and Brexiters may insist that only they speak the truth and everyone else is a liar, they cannot be allowed to undermine the rule of law by getting away with their dismissal of independent scrutiny and reporting of claims made in the public domain. Even the US, where the Constitution suggests that no law shall infringe on the freedom of speech, that has from the founding of the republic been interpreted by Congress and the Supreme Court as fully compatible with the setting and enforcing of legal limits on irresponsible communication that may incite lawless behaviour; is unacceptable in itself (e.g., exchange of paedophilic words/images); makes use of information that belongs to someone else; contains false or misleading details; or threatens national security. Not applying these restrictions rigorously to politicians and their backers is not to protect democracy, but gravely endanger it.

Finally, the challenge to maintain power equilibrium must be taken up. It is abundantly clear that many of those with concentrated wealth and power buy themselves far greater influence over public policies by hiring leading lawyers, accountants, propagandists, lobbyists, etc to push forward what they seek at the expense of ordinary citizens. In parallel, plutocrats are determined to enhance their relative strength even further by pressing for the relentless cutting back of public services and societal safety-nets. The poorer and more vulnerable people are, the easier it is to distract them with campaigns against scapegoats, or scare them with unfounded ‘there is no alternative’ proclamations. The drive to curtail power inequalities is, therefore, not merely a social policy option, but the very essence of democratic development. And to ensure those with more equitable power will exercise it in an informed manner, deliberative participation techniques should be embedded in state-citizen interactions so that people can exert their influence in line with a sound understanding of different options and their implications.

There is no alternative to democracy but ‘might is right’. It will either come in the guise of an authoritarian ruler, or it will appear with the façade of an anarchic paradise, before the greediest and most ruthless take advantage of the absence of collective constraints, and elbow their way to take control. If we want to keep democracy alive and, hopefully, vibrant as well, we need to put the aforementioned guarantees in place. Without them, voters will seldom, if ever, get what they truly want.

A detailed exposition of what is to be done to rescue democracy is set out in Henry Tam’s Time to Save Democracy; how to govern ourselves in the age of anti-politics, which can now be ordered from Policy Press:

Monday, 1 January 2018

Paradigm Lost

Students of political theory or people sampling rival media commentaries may well get the impression that there are countless incompatible ways to organise how we live in society, and there is no end to arguing which may serve us better than any other.

But actually since the 17th century there has been a growing recognition that communities structured for maximum cooperation amongst their members provide a preferable model of social and political planning. The Royal Society advanced it for scientific investigation; the Levellers pushed the idea of universal suffrage to reflect the fact every citizen has an equal right to take part in deciding the fate of the commonwealth; and the Quakers demonstrated that petty religious disputes could be put aside for the sake of caring for one another.

From 1700 to 1900, through the Enlightenment and the Age of Reform, what may be termed the Cooperative Community paradigm came to the fore as the guiding approach to social and organisational development at every level. By early 20th century, there was a clear consensus that political and educational support for facilitating cooperation within and across communities is superior to the anti-cooperative stance of colonial expansionists, aggressive fascists, racist ideologues, plutocratic exploiters, financial manipulators, Bolshevik totalitarians, or oppressive theocrats. The post-war consensus embraces this paradigm in favouring welfare standards for all citizens, a regulated market to provide a level-playing field, the democratic rule of law against blind hatred and corrupt behaviour, and sustained investment in independent research and universal education.

Unfortunately, since the 1980s, the New Right has, with backing from the most irresponsible businesses (gambling, smoking, polluting, arms manufacturing, financially disruptive speculation, etc.), bought more propaganda powers to win political control to help those businesses, and deflect public dissatisfaction towards scapegoats such as immigrants, benefit claimants, and any politician prepared to take a stance against businesses that pursue their short-term profit at the expense of everyone else. A by-product of the New Right’s penchant for muddying the water is that an increasing number of people buy into arbitrary beliefs or a misguided acceptance of anything-goes relativism.

By now, the Cooperative Community paradigm has become obscured from view. Instead of learning from its historical impact, and applying it to current challenges, social reformists and democratic activists find they don’t even have a common language to rally public support for an end to New Right hegemony. There is an urgent need to recover the paradigm that has been an invaluable guide for us.

By drawing on the ideas of thinkers and leaders such as Tom Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, Thomas Jefferson, the Owenites, J.S. Mill, Abraham Lincoln, John Dewey, F.D. Roosevelt, Clement Attlee, Karl Polanyi, Hannah Arendt, and many others, we can reconfigure the paradigmatic model for displacing prejudiced and exploitative interactions by informed and inclusive cooperation. We should not be deflected by divisions over small differences, intellectually or organisationally, but should focus on our shared need to join forces in protecting and enhancing cooperative arrangements in the face of the relentless onslaught from the enemies of mutuality.

Friday, 15 December 2017

Snakes on Power Ladders

From sexual abuse to financial transgression, we know that higher up people get on the power ladder, the more susceptible they are to acting unethically – for the simple reason that their positions mean they can probably get away with it.

Numerous politicians, celebrities, top executives, the superrich, have regularly featured in reports of wrongdoing that reveal their lack of decency and responsibility. However, not everyone with power abuses it. Many use the power they have to fight injustice, help the vulnerable, and make improvements for others. Indeed without structuring power so that fairness and wellbeing can be defended against unscrupulous individuals, more innocent people would suffer.

How can we minimise the abuse of power in that case? One thing we must do is to build in accountability. This means allowing some to acquire more power (in the form of resources or any other means) only on condition that it serves a morally acceptable purpose, and the exercise of that power must be subject to adequate constraint so those in possession of the power can be held to account. But this should be further supplemented by the critical evaluation of individuals’ fitness for any rise up the power ladder.

It is often forgotten that before the devious and callous snake their way to the top, there are usually opportunities to stop their climb. But unless they are spotted and stopped early enough, these characters will keep gaining support, securing promotions, or winning elections, until they are in a strong enough position to abuse their power and treat others with utter disdain.

So what are the tell-tale signs that should trigger alarm bells? Here are a few tendencies every assessor, interviewer, selector, elector ought to look out for:

• Take all the credit for any success they manage to associate themselves with, but ever ready to shift the blame for their own failure to others, especially those who work for them.
• Claim they are very important people because they have so many vital responsibilities but deny they can be held responsible because they cannot possibly keep an eye on so many different things.
• Ask other people for help routinely but refuse nonchalantly to help others when requests are made to them.
• Make forceful demands on subordinates to do what the latter may have strong reservations about doing, but always present themselves as sincerely oblivious to any objections raised.
• Exaggerate the value of what they do, particularly when it is in fact of little benefit to anyone but themselves, but hide the contributions made by others.
• Insist that they must have more power, pay and privileges to carry on with their work, but maintain others should learn to do much more with less.
• Turn on the charm to impress targeted groups on selected occasions, but treat those they consider insignificant with neither concern nor respect.

The above characteristics are not hard to detect. Most of us have come across people with them in abundance, and while they may conceal them at various public functions, they rarely, if ever, keep up their masks for long. Once their insidious tendencies have been noted, they should be made widely known so that those who will be involved in considering if more power should be given to them can factor in the information, and hopefully, avoid the mistake of letting these snakes go any further up the power ladder.