The Samovar

Should left wingers not send their kids to private schools?

The UK Labour party is currently having a leadership contest. The most left-wing candidate, Diane Abbott, has been criticised for sending her children to a fee-paying school. In the eyes of many socialists, this should be an instant disqualification for any left-wing political career. But is this a reasonable point of view?

I can see two reasons why you might want to rule out any candidate that sent their children to private school.

  1. It’s hypocritical to be against private schools but send your kids to one. This hypocrisy suggests that you don’t really believe what you say, and therefore if you got into power you wouldn’t necessarily act socialist.
  2. Sending your children to private school gives them an unfair advantage, and by doing so you are promoting inequality – not good for a left-winger.

The first criticism says that sending your kids to private school signals that you don’t really believe in socialism. There are two responses to this: first of all, it’s not clear that this is a correct inference. There is a difference between what someone believes they should do, and what they believe government policy should be. It is entirely logically coherent to believe both that we should live in a society with no private schools, and that given that we do live in a society with private schools, it is better to send ones kids to them than not. The two statements are simply not comparable, they live in different moral worlds: on the one hand choices about the nature of society itself, and on the other hand choices about what to do when the nature of society is fixed. So there is no reason to think that someone who sends their kids to private school would oppose the ending of the system of private schools, or indeed any other socialist policy.

The second response is that we also have to consider the signal sent by doing the opposite. If someone believes that sending their kids to private school would give them an advantage, and they’re financially able to do so, what does it mean if they choose not to do this? One possibility is that it means they value their political career more than the future of their children. If this were the case, then it’s not only a disturbing feature of their personality, but it suggests the sort of thing they would do if they got into power: anything that was necessary to further their career. That wouldn’t bode well for socialism.

However there are other reasons why they might not send their children to private school even if they thought it would be advantageous to them. They might, for example, think along the lines of statement (2) above – that someone else is being hurt by their sending their children to private school, and that this is not an acceptable price to pay. Alternatively, they might believe in the importance of symbolic commitments: that by performing certain actions you assert your commitment to ideals. An example of this is voting: any individual is wasting their time by voting, as their single vote almost certainly won’t change anything, but by doing so they assert their commitment to the ideal of democracy. The value of this sort of belief is debatable, but one wouldn’t want to assign any bad motives to someone who had such a belief. One final reason for not sending your children to private school even if you had the means to do so would be that you believe that state schools give a better education.

Given that there are many good reasons for not sending your children to private school even if you can – we certainly don’t want to deduce that people who choose not to have put their career first, but it is a possibility and it’s therefore not clear that someone who chooses not to send their kids to private school is likely to be better than someone who does.

The second criticism is that sending children to private school is in itself a sort of act of violence – by giving your children an advantage you must, almost by definition, put someone else at a disadvantage. This is a reasonable point of view, and to a certain extent must be true. There is another way of looking at it that makes it less clear though. It may be the case that sending someone to private school only makes them more likely to succeed – it doesn’t actually change the distribution of success or failure in society. In other words, the individual act of sending someone to private school may only improve their chances of success without changing the overall levels of inequality at all. Suppose you could choose between two possibilities: either your child is successful and consequently someone else’s child is unsuccessful; or someone else’s child is successful and consequently yours is unsuccessful. All other things being equal, we would have to be dubious about someone who chose that someone else’s child should be successful instead of theirs.

Let’s take this one step further: if we believe that we shouldn’t give our children an unfair advantage by sending them to private school – doesn’t this also mean that we shouldn’t give them an unfair advantage by doing other things that we know improve a child’s chances in life? Like talking to them and playing with them? Like taking an interest in them and helping them to understand the world? In other words, by being good parents? And what on earth would we make of people who thought like that? One response might be to say that there’s a difference: that sending children to private school and being a good parenting, that the former increases inequality whereas the latter does not. But what evidence is there for that? We know that ‘cultural capital’ promotes inequality in much the same way as financial capital does, and isn’t it precisely this cultural capital that is increased by good parenting? Rather than argue that parents ought not to work to give their children any advantages, which is I think absurd, I would argue that parents should work both to make their children’s lives as successful and happy as possible, whilst at the same time working for an equal society, a society in which everyone can have a fulfilling life, where fulfillment is not necessarily gained by doing better than others.

In conclusion: I am not arguing that parents ought to send their children to private school if they can afford to. There are, as I outlined above, many good reasons for not doing so. Instead, I’m simply arguing that the arguments of many critics against people who choose to are poorly grounded, and that following through on the type of reasoning they have followed to reach their conclusion would lead to some weird conclusions. Beyond this, I think that there is a danger that by insisting our politicians uphold certain standards that we haven’t through very carefully, we actually provide perverse incentives that work against our interests. By insisting that socialist politicians cannot send their children to private school, do we not thereby increase the chances of getting politicians who are more interested in their own careers than in their children? And if we’ve learned anything from Tony Blair, isn’t it that government by those who are more interested in their careers and the exercise of power itself than in the ideals they claim to believe in is an enormous wasted opportunity for the left?

I’ll finish with a suggestion: left-wing parents who want to send their children to private schools could make donations equal to the school fees they pay to a charitable trust devoted to giving grants to send children to private schools from families that could not afford them. I’m not sure if this is a good idea or not, there are some questions to be asked about it: perhaps there are better uses of that money? What about parents who could afford to send their children to private school, but could not afford to double that cost?

Disclosure: I was sent to private school by my parents. Make of this what you will.

Nobody believes in God redux
March 14, 2010, 3:28 pm
Filed under: Religion | Tags: , , ,

A while ago I wrote an entry Nobody believes in God. I don’t think I argued the case particularly well there, but the conclusion was basically correct. I’ve just come across some interesting quotes from Hume and Mill saying more or less the same things.

David Hume, The Natural History of Religion:

We may observe, that, notwithstanding the dogmatical, imperious style of all superstition, the conviction of the religionists, in all ages, is more affected than real, and scarcely ever approaches, in any degree, to that solid belief and persuasion, which governs us in the common affairs of life. Men dare not avow, even to their own hearts, the doubts which they entertain on such subjects: They make a merit of implicit faith; and disguise to themselves their real infidelity, by the strongest asseverations and most positive bigotry. But nature is too hard for all their endeavours, and suffers not the obscure, glimmering light, afforded in those shadowy regions, to equal the strong impressions, made by common sense and by experience. The usual course of men’s conduct belies their words, and shows, that their assent in these matters is some unaccountable operation of the mind between disbelief and conviction, but approaching much nearer to the former than to the latter.

Mill, On Liberty, chapter 2:

To what an extent doctrines intrinsically fitted to make the deepest impression upon the mind may remain in it as dead beliefs, without being ever realized in the imagination, the feelings, or the understanding, is exemplified by the manner in which the majority of believers hold the doctrines of Christianity. By Christianity I here mean what is accounted such by all churches and sects — the maxims and precepts contained in the New Testament. These are considered sacred, and accepted as laws, by all professing Christians. Yet it is scarcely too much to say that not one Christian in a thousand guides or tests his individual conduct by reference to those laws. The standard to which he does refer it, is the custom of his nation, his class, or his religious profession. … All Christians
believe that the blessed are the poor and humble, and those who are ill-used by the world; that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven; that they should judge not, lest they be judged; that they should swear not at all; that they should love their neighbor as themselves; … that if they would be perfect, they should sell all that they have and give it to the poor. They are not insincere when they say that they believe these things. They do believe them, as people believe what they have always heard lauded and never discussed. But in the sense of that living belief which regulates conduct, they believe these doctrines just up to the point to which it is usual to act upon them. The doctrines in their integrity are serviceable to pelt adversaries with; and it is understood that they are to be put forward (when possible) as the reasons for whatever people do that they think laudable. But any one who reminded them that the maxims require an infinity of things which they never even think of doing would gain nothing but to be classed among those very unpopular characters who affect to be better than other people. The doctrines have no hold on ordinary believers — are not a power in their minds.

Thanks to this post for the Hume quote, this essay for the latter quote and this blog entry for the link to the essay.

Expert advice

The recent sacking of David Nutt – formerly head of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) – for giving scientific advice that showed the stupidity of the government’s drugs policy, suggests taking a look at the role of expert advice in policy.

The problem is that the government can have an unstated policy of accepting expert advice when it suits them and rejecting it when it doesn’t. Such a policy is ideal for the government, because if the advice fits what they wanted to do anyway, they can claim that they are supported by evidence, and if it contradicts them they can in most cases easily shrug it off by claiming (correctly) that the point of expert advice is not that it should define policy, but that it should be taken into account as part of wider considerations, and that in this case, blah blah… The policy is equivalent in outcome to having no expert advice, but in some cases looks better. Alan Johnson’s statement in his letter to Nutt was extraordinary in tacitly recognising this:

I cannot have public confusion between scientific advice and policy and have therefore lost confidence in your ability to advise me as chair of the ACMD.

It is understandable then that other members of the ACMD are resigning, although it is not entirely clear how principled this stance is when everyone on that council must have known beforehand that they were helping to legitimate highly irrational policies. (I don’t want to be too critical though, maybe the strategy of working within a faulty system can do some good.)

So where does this leave the issue of expert advice? Can it play a useful role and if so, how? One possible way out of the problem above would be for the government to create advisory groups and commit itself to following their advice whatever it might be. There are various problems with this though. Firstly, it is subject to manipulation by selection of the members of the group. Secondly, it’s not clear that it would even work – Tony Blair stated the reason to go to war with Iraq “must be according to the United Nations mandate on Weapons of Mass Destruction”, but changed his mind when that mandate disappeared.

But a third and deeper problem with this and any other similar scheme is that it conceals the true nature of politics, and supports the false idea that government can be a purely technical exercise in doing whatever works. Politics is actually about conflicts of interests of different groups and classes. Portraying political issues as technical ones works to hide these truly political aspects. Governments and opposition parties are very happy to do this because they are both largely supporting the interests of the same classes/groups – typically the wealthier ones. This shouldn’t be surprising because the decision making part of the government and state largely consists of, is staffed by and supported by people in these classes.

I don’t want to suggest that there are not technical considerations in policy making, nor that expertise is irrelevant. In the case of drugs policy, for example, the evidence is overwhelming that tobacco and alcohol are more dangerous than cannabis and many other illegal drugs, making a mockery of government policy. However, I do doubt that an institutional arrangement can be devised which allows for a useful and non-political injection of expert advice into decision making. I would suggest instead that experts should be entirely independent of government. A well informed and scientifically literate press – something that is very far from what we have today – would be hugely preferable to any number of advisory councils selected by and working for the government. This would allow an injection of expertise into an explicitly political process, rather than supporting a fictional non-political one.

Authority and Competence

The view that the people in charge know what they’re doing is implicitly prevalent. Although many people would say that the people in charge were incompetent, in fact there seems to be a widespread implicit assumption that they either do know what they’re doing or that someone else would know what they’re doing better. Underlying this is the assumption that it’s possible to know what you’re doing. In politics and economics, none of these are true – there is very little understanding of what is happening, what the effects of various actions will be, or what we should do. Understanding this is important, because at the moment there is a lack of critical thinking in politics. Although there is much criticism, of course, it usually fails to get at the root causes of problems and so the mass of critical feeling fails to achieve anything, and is wasted in irrelevancies.

As an example of this, the debate that was had a few years ago about extending the period that the police can hold people without charging them beyond 28 days in terrorism cases. Assumptions of competence pervaded this debate in many ways. For some, it was enough to note that the politicians thought that an extension was necessary to protect us. For others, that wasn’t enough, but the fact that the police thought that an extension was necessary for them to be able to protect us was enough. This was also the basis for a substantial amount of the debate in parliament. It was assumed that the fact that the police said they needed the extra time counted for something. Not everyone agreed that just because the police thought they needed it meant that they should get it, but it was universally agreed that their opinion counted purely on the basis that it was their opinion. Their perceived authority and presumed competence gave their opinion weight in and of itself.

However, very few people questioned why the police had come to their opinion, and what the evidence for it was. It turns out that one of the major claims was that in previous terrorist cases they had used more and more time, up to 26 days I think it was. The argument was that since they had used this much, it was probably the case that if the limit had been higher they could have profitably used more, and that future cases were likely to need even more. They were already at the limit, and this was holding them back.

This argument is terribly weak in many, many ways, but came under hardly any criticism at all (indeed, very few people even knew that this was the argument). But there’s no reason why it had to be like this – the weaknesses of this argument, and the counter-arguments against it, are not so complicated that most people wouldn’t be able to understand them. Rather, it was that the whole process of questioning the argument was made unnecessary by the fact that most people were willing to go along with the opinions of those in positions of authority based on their presumed competence. A more critically engaged society would be better able to protect itself against manipulation by those in power. We have all the necessary democratic mechanisms, but they count for nothing if we hand over our critical thinking to those in positions of authority (and that includes journalists).

In order to achieve a more critically engaged society, we need to understand competence better – where does it come from? What sort of things are we able to be competent about? How can we recognise it? We also need to dispel myths and misunderstandings about competence, which are widespread.

If we describe competence as being about having knowledge, then we can split it down into an explicit and tacit component. Explicit knowledge is something you can write down and tell others about, things like 2+2=4, the capital of France is Paris, etc. Tacit knowledge is everything that can’t be put into words, but that is still valuable. I can’t put into words what it is I’m doing when I solve a mathematical problem, but there’s definitely something I know that most other people don’t that makes me able to do them and them not. Tacit knowledge is built up from experience, thousands of particular cases, attempted and failed solutions of problems, etc.

The existence of tacit knowledge is very significant and certainly shouldn’t be underestimated. Indeed, this is a good argument that sometimes we do need to rely on the authoritative judgments of others (experts). But we shouldn’t make the mistake of just presuming that people do indeed have tacit knowledge about their area of work. First of all, you don’t get tacit knowledge about something just by doing it often, and secondly it is often easy to think that tacit knowledge is more general than it really is.

In the example of the debate above, the police may well have sincerely believed that they had the requisite experience and knowledge to make their judgment that they needed the extension to protect us from terrorism. But they didn’t. For a start, they haven’t dealt with nearly enough cases to get tacit knowledge that is worth much. Since the end of the IRA bombing campaigns, which were rather different to modern terrorism, there has only been one successful terrorist incident and a handful of failures. The police have had no great successes or failures in these matters – they have caught some people, but these have largely been fantasists who had no real ability to do the things they wanted to do. The fact that terrorism has been as little a problem as it has been is a consequence of the fact that there have been very few competent attempts at it, few individuals involved, and little will to carry it through. All the police know, then, is what they’ve done in the past, and what happened in consequence. Even on that basis alone, there’s very little to go on as chance and circumstance probably have as much to do with that as anything else. But further than that, there’s no basis for them to be able to know what would happen if they had got the extension they were looking for. They have no model, explicit or tacit, of the world that would allow them to make such a prediction, and no experience to go on. Almost certainly, what they actually had was the conviction that it couldn’t make it worse, and that it would make their lives easier.

It is vital, if we take someone’s judgment as an expert or authority, that we analyse what basis they might have for making the claims that they do, whether or not they could be in possession of explicit or tacit knowledge that would justify it, and where that knowledge could have come from. This is far from being a complete recipe for dealing with issues of authority, expertise and tacit knowledge, but even a better recognition of the importance of these issues would be a big step forwards.

One thing that needs to be addressed if we’re to achieve a more realistic understanding of these sorts of issues is cultural representations of expertise and competence – the myths that are portrayed in books, films, TV shows, newspapers and everyday discourse that support them. Films and TV shows typically portray hyper-competent individuals bursting with impeccable tacit knowledge. The reason for this on the one hand is obvious – a story about heroic, talented individuals is more interesting. Sometimes it’s obvious that people in these things act beyond human abilities, such as the hacker who can break into any computer system in the world in only 5 minutes. But other times the portrayal is more subtle and insidious, such as in The West Wing, a notionally realistic show about the US presidential staff in the White House. The technical competence of the heroes is constantly portrayed as a virtue in and of itself, and the show suggests implicitly that they have the right to rule by virtue alone of their greater ability to do so. Very few TV shows portray anything like reality in this regard, with the most notable exception being The Wire, one of the best things ever to be shown on TV, proving that it certainly is possible to do it (and be reasonably popular).

On a final note, these considerations apply very much to areas of life outside politics and economics. For example, some people might be shocked about the standards of evidence that count in science. But that’s another story.

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Change in comments policy
September 3, 2009, 10:17 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

I’ve made a minor change to my comments policy for this blog in the light of the growing number of spam comments making it past the spam filters which I have to delete by hand.

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Fairness and equality

There has been a lot of discussion of a new report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation on attitudes towards tackling economic inequality (at Directionless Bones, Left Luggage, Sunder Katwala on CiF, Don Paskini at Liberal Conspiracy, and David Osler). Quoting Alderson at Directionless Bones, one of the key findings of the report is:

People didn’t seem to endorse the idea of ‘equality’ as a general principle as much as they endorsed ‘fairness’.

This is a point that several of the posts linked to above considered, and there has been a feeling that the left needs to find a new way to promote their view of the world to people (which traditionally is based on equality).

I find this interesting because for the last few years I’ve been coming to the view that the case for a left-wing politics should be based rather on the principles of fairness and freedom than on equality. Equality is important and essential, but I think it’s a consequence of fairness and freedom. I’ve argued this in much more detail in an earlier entry on capitalism. Essentially, a very unequal society will, in practice, also be necessarily an unfair one.

The report has caused quite a lot of distress because it showed that people are not against what they term ‘fair inequality’ – but I don’t think the left should be dispairing over this. The report also clearly showed that people think there are substantial levels of unfair inequality, and that this is a bad thing. This suggests to me that most people basically get and agree with the final point of the previous paragraph – high levels of inequality lead to an unfair society.

I suggest then that what the left needs to do is to push this analysis further and address the misconceptions that the JRF report showed that people have. Most people substantially underestimate the level of inequality that actually exists and overestimate the level of social mobility. Changing perceptions of these is difficult, but could make a significant difference.

As a final point, the report appears to be more of a blow to a state-centric form of socialism where equality is considered more important than fairness and freedom, and much less of a blow to an anarchist form of socialism which takes freedom and fairness to be fundamental. This is important and suggests the left should be considering a change of direction towards anarchist conceptions – and thankfully much of the left does, slowly, seem to be doing this (even if they don’t call it anarchism). In particular, the point about support for ‘fair inequality’ is very interesting with respect to the remuneration mechanism of parecon (which I written a few things about on this blog). Parecon allows for a certain amount of precisely ‘fair inequality’ – that is, inequality that comes from a choice to work harder or at more onerous labour. It is fair because anyone can make that choice (whereas not everyone can choose to be a doctor, banker, etc.). On the other hand, it absolutely rejects unfair inequality. As such, it seems that many people’s fundamental views of what society should be like resonate more with a pareconish or anarchist conception than a state-centric socialist one.

Good article on capitalism and the crisis
April 3, 2009, 12:21 pm
Filed under: Capitalism, Economics, Politics | Tags:

Shame about the title though. I think the words “Yes we can” should probably be banned. Anyway, here’s Robin Hahnel on “Change how the world works? Yes we can“:

Until capitalism is replaced, we want the tail to stop wagging the dog. Finance should serve the real economy instead of the other way around. If the financial sector improves the efficiency of the real economy, it is helpful. But if it misdirects investment resources to where they are less productive, it reduces production in the real economy by obstructing the flow of credit altogether. Then it is failing to accomplish its only social purpose. Jobs producing useful goods and services, and investments which help us to produce what we need with less human toil and less strain on the environment, are what count. Increases in the profit rates and stock prices of financial corporations count for nothing when they fail to correspond to real increases in productivity, as has too often been the case.

We have offered several positive alternatives to capital liberalization and to the governing structures and policies of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, such as capital controls and a Tobin tax to protect smaller economies from volatile speculative flows. We have made suggestions on how national governments can restore competent regulation of their traditional financial sectors, and stressed the urgency of extending regulation to cover new financial institutions which were allowed to grow outside existing regulatory structures.

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