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Should the government 'implement God's Law'

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William Crawley | 11:15 UK time, Friday, 18 July 2008

_41740596_stormontlong_203ap.jpgI've been away for a few days and have returned to find the MP Iris Robinson in the news again. This time, Mrs Robinson phoned into the Stephen Nolan Show to defend a fellow pro-life campaigner, then found herself making comments about the role of the Bible in respect of government. Specifically, she called on 'government to implement God's Law'. This comment soon made the headlines, with some politicians suggesting that Mrs Robinson needs to take a break from phone-in shows for a few months. As someone who sometimes presents phone-in shows, that's not a view I would advance myself.

Let's tease out what Mrs Robinson might mean by her controversial comment. Iris Robinson is a Christian and her faith is not merely a hobby; it shapes her worldview and informs her conscience. She believes that God is interested in every aspect of a person's life and every feature of our society; and she believes the best way to legislate in the best interests of everyone is to implement the law of God. One can read the term 'law of God' in two different ways. Broadly, this phrase might simply mean 'the will of God'. It is, of course, sometimes difficult for Christians to ascertain the will of God on any particular subject, and Christians disagree with each other about God's will in respect of just about every moral and political issue facing us today. They all agree -- as Christians, how could they not? -- that following God's will is vital; but they can't agree on what God's actual will is when it comes to issues. Thus, Christians are divided over the war in iraq, abortion, 42-day detention, gay marriage -- even line-dancing.

Perhaps Mrs Robinson is proposing a narrower definition of 'God's law', meaning that we should simply implement the specific laws laid down in the Old and New Testaments. Some of those laws are clearly sensible, and for that reason they have informed many of the world's functioning legal systems. Many of the Ten Commandments, for example, are upheld, in one way or another, in the legal frameworks of many countries. Who would disagree with a commandment prohibiting murder (i.e., unjustified killing), for example? Nevertheless, other biblical laws and commandments seem, to many, to reflect the values and issues of the ancient world; so much so that they have little or no resonance today. Some Old Testament laws -- about diets and mixing fabrics, for example -- are part of the 'holiness code' which defined tribal identity within the ancient world. The application of laws about sabbath-keeping continue to divide both Christians and Jews, and seem irrelevant to many others. Then there are laws that reflect values that are alien, or reprehensible, to many today -- laws, for example, permitting parents to kill their children if they repeatedly misbehave. It seems clear that the legal codes of the Old Testament represent a work-in-progress: the development, across time, of a systemic response to the issues facing an community in the ancient world. Does Mrs Robinson think we should simply implement all of those laws in our society today?

There are some who argue for the narrow definition of 'God's Law' -- which would mean, for example, re- criminalising adultery and sending the 'guilty partner' to prison (or worse). The movement of 'theonomy' (the term means, literally, 'God's laws') became quite vocal in the 1980s in the United States. Sometimes called 'Christian Reconstructionism', the movement called for the reinstatement of divine law at the centre of the legislative process (with suitable adjustments for the modern world). This approach to law-making was adopted by many newly-Protestant countries and communes during the Reformation. Is Mrs Robinson a theonomist? I would like to explore some of those questions with her at some point. We will be examining the issues in detail on Sunday morning's programme.


  • Comment number 1.

    “Should the government 'implement God's Law'”


  • Comment number 2.

    I wondered when you'd get to this one, Will :-) Glad you're back. Martin McGuinness (not someone I normally cheer for, but hey) made a good point on GMU this morning - whose god?

    We live in a diverse society, and 14% of people in NI claim to have no religion (it's higher in the rest of the UK). That makes us Atheists + Agnostics the 4th largest section of the "religious views" piechart, well ahead of Methodists, for example (yet the Methodists are often represented in the Big 4).

    If we are going to implement (or government is going to uphold) laws that meet the needs of society as a whole, they cannot be the sectarian laws of one particular god, but must be based on a clear separation between church(es) and state. We need a First Amendment.

    Iris is more than welcome to voice her views as a private citizen, but if she is doing so as a part of the apparatus of government, she should be strenuously opposed, and indeed her comments call into question her ability to act as chair of the Health Committee (as if there was another reason needed).


  • Comment number 3.

    Iris Robinson has apparently not noticed that we live in an increasingly multi-faith and multi-cultural society.

    To which God is she therefore referring? The god of a Free Presbyterian cleric who has declared that the pope is the 'anti-Christ'? Or the god of a Pope who has declared that all Protestant sects are 'not proper churches'. Or perhaps she means the god of an imam who declares that the state should uphold Allah's decrees in the Koran.

    Iris Robinson is entitled to her beliefs, but perhaps our First Minister should inform his partner that we live in a liberal pluralist democracy. It upholds the freedom of religious belief and the right of churches to organise and promote their faith without interference from the state. But it also implies that governmental institutions should exist separately from religion, that the state itself should be neutral with regard to religious belief and that it should not give any privilege or subsidies to religious organisations. It should also guarantee the right to be free from such beliefs if that is the individual’s choice.

    Would Iris Robinson wish the NI executive to 'uphold God’s law' by preventing women from travelling to England for abortions, recriminalising divorce and homosexuality or forcing creationism into local schools? In her ideal province would the swings be chained up again on Sundays and no public buildings opened except churches?

    Perhaps in fact she wants NI to return to being a 'Protestant state for a Protestant people'.

  • Comment number 4.

    Perhaps Iris' friendly Psychiatrist could help her deal with her addiction to the Nolan Show?

  • Comment number 5.

    I understand the traditional views of all mainstream religions would generally be opposed to abortion.

    William Wilberforce was a Christian MP who was motivated by his faith to have the slave trade abolished in the British Empire.

    Like many Christian MPs today, his view that he should make his case by persuasion and argument for the common good.

  • Comment number 6.

    In fairness, the fact that Stephen Nolan provides a window into the thinking of this person is a marvellous thing. It means we can keep an eye on her... Sadly, she is almost certain to be re-elected.

  • Comment number 7.

    Let’s imagine for a moment that all Iris' wishes came true:

    Let’s say the government upheld god's law and made it an offence to sin at all. Cameras watched our every move and with the help of psychiatrists we were hypnotised into being incapable of not only having abortions, dirty thoughts, listening to jazz etc.

    Would all NI people go to heaven then? Isn't the woman who chooses not to go through with an abortion 'better' (in her eyes) than the one who is incapable?

    It brings into question what is meant by the phrase that is thrown around too easily of NI being a 'Christian country'. A religion is not just a set of rules that if you abide by you get to heaven; it is a set of beliefs.

    People can be religious, but it is logically impossible for a whole country to be religious. It doesn't even make sense from a religious point of view.

    From my non religious point of view though she is just trying to stop the Free P's all running to the TUV.

    From the psychological stand point she likes so much though I would say she probably isn't getting enough sex.

  • Comment number 8.

    William you have made the point that Iris phoned the Nolan Show of her own volition, maybe you could tell me if Keith Porteous Wood phoned the Nolan Show of his own volition or did the BBC solicit him in opposition to Iris.

  • Comment number 9.

    It is possible that Iris meant God's law as described in Romans 2 - moral truth's, that every human conscience is, or should be, aware of. No-one could object to that, but they may argue that oppostion to abortion cannot be grounded on non-religious propositions. It is also difficult to see how a government could enforce fidelity or promote the good of friendship.

    But I don't think she was really defending a position - just stirring up controversy for some other motive.

    I think there is a lot more to religion than a set of beliefs - just ask Portwyne his views.

    Graham Veale

  • Comment number 10.

    Can we (Catholic, Protetant, dessenter and others) agree that the whole idea of God's law is so vaugue that she did not say this out of religious but out of political belief? Remeber the TUV are eating away at DUP votes...

  • Comment number 11.

    I hear this all the time here in the US where a significant minority of conservatives believe that the country was "founded on God" or some such thing, and that the best way to make laws is to refer to the bible. William does a good job of pointing out how difficult a position that is to interpret, let alone to hold. And other commenters ask the very relevant question of which god's laws should be followed.

    All of that served to reinforce my belief that libertarianism is the best way to structure a system of government. Christians would like Christian law, Muslims would like sharia law, socialists would like socialist law: only libertarians like me advocate a minimalist government which would permit the lifestyles of all.

    Should the government implement God's law? No. The government should protect the rights and freedoms of everyone - equally - so that they are free to follow whatever code of conduct they desire, and so that they are free from coercion in the act of so doing.

  • Comment number 12.

    "They all agree -- as Christians, how could they not? -- that following God's will is vital..."

    Er, no, actually, we don't all agree.

    I count myself a Christian but I do not believe that God even has a 'will' - certainly not in so far as it might relate to human society or conduct.

    I believe an encounter with God transforms the consciousness of the individual but by means of illumination not by revelation of a plan or purpose. God is - it is arguable that to have a will would diminish him...

  • Comment number 13.

    Portwyne- "God is - it is arguable that to have a will would diminish him..."

    Interesting. Human will defines the human (ie. William's will is to do journalism). What defines God, then?

  • Comment number 14.

    Just when I thought it might indeed be possible that we all could agree (post 10), up pops portwyne and says, quite rightly I suppose, that we don't actually agree at all!

    So in the spirit of this blog let me try and foster (maybe that should be fester) some disagreement.

    William suggests that the 'law of God' might broadly be understood as 'the will of God'; but I doubt that Mrs. Robinson was thinking in these terms. At a practical level some christians apply the concept of the 'will of God' as some sort of catch all to mean, 'what does God want me to do with my life in relation to everyday and common-place matters', and they usually do so without thinking of, for example, the Law of Moses.

    The narrower definitions provided seems more likely to concern matters of government. My understanding is that the theonomists (few in number) tend to a view which says that the Old Testament law ought to be applied, to varying degrees, to the civil law. The idea seems to be (and this is a very limited explanation) that the Kingdom of Heaven can be established here and now by 'christian government'. I suppose we could call it the church conquering the world for Jesus!

    This thinking is, of course, not new there having been a number of 'experiments' in christian government through the centuries. However it is my contention that these experiments were a mistake; one of the problems being the temptation to seize power, and as Lord Acton said, 'power tends to corrupt...'

    Christians however are not called to be merely passive. Being changed themselves, they are called to act for the good of others; the gospel is a social gospel as well as a spiritual gospel; but it is not a gospel of law, it is a gospel of grace and forgiveness. Indeed if it were a matter of law alone, because we are all guilty, those who call most loudly for theonomy would, if they truly understood, have to be the first to fall on their own swords.

    It isn't law and it isn't revolution, it's the mustard seed again!

  • Comment number 15.

    This comment has been referred for further consideration. Explain.

  • Comment number 16.

    We have already had a theocracy of sorts in England when it was governed by Oliver Cromwell and pretty horrible it was too.

    As a Christian, Dominionism and Christian reconstructionism scares me. I just hope this isn't what Iris Robinson is advocating.

  • Comment number 17.

    JW #13 "What defines God?"

    I would certainly agree that possession of a will is one of the things that defines each of us as an individual human being. I believe, too, that it is human to seek definition in all that we encounter or imagine but definition sets boundaries or limits. God is completely beyond definition. He can be known but not in any way understood.

    Jesus' attitude to definition is perfectly illustrated in his response to the lawyer's question "Who is my neighbour?".

    In the parable of the Good Samaritan he provides illumination - suggesting unlimited responsibility in the face of suffering, rather than definition - limiting responsibility to some determinable group.

    This is what we can hope to find with God - not a will, not a purpose, not a blueprint for action, but a new way of seeing, a transformation of perspective.

  • Comment number 18.

    Did any one here that raving lunatic Eamonn McCann talk about reason on this programme, his despicable actions in the offices of Raytheon are hardly the actions of a rational individual, someone not to be taken seriously when it comes to thought based on reason which Nolan failed to highlight, the actions of a deluded human being, if it had been a Evangelical Protestant he would have been like a fly on dogs dirt.

    Still waiting for the BBC William to answer my question of post #8 maybe it’s not expedient for them to do so as it may point towards the direction that the Nolan Show and the BBC are coming from and the tactics they use against Evangelical Protestants.

    Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.

  • Comment number 19.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 20.

    Reconstructionism!!?? Heaven help us! Imprisonment for adultery and working on Sunday? How does the Government enforce the worship of God rather than idols? What is binding on Christians is not to have these laws written into the stature book, but to make sure that we "love God with all our hearts souls and minds" and "our neighour a ourselves", which was how Jesus summarised and a-temporalised the Mosaic law. That will give us plenty of work to attend to without having to rewrite the law of the land in the terms of the Sinai covenant. That would be entirely to miss the point of the both that covenant and the New Covenant in which it is both fulfilled and surpassed.

  • Comment number 21.

    Puritan (#18):

    Is it the mark of an evangelical Protestant to launch personal attacks on people with whom you do not agree? Is this the heart of Christianity? Is this the paradigm of Christian respect?

    Eamonn McCann is right on abortion. If he is a 'lunatic', then he is in good company. You happen to disagree with his opinions, but you should be, like Voltaire, defending his right to say them.

    Stick to the issues and leave the insults for the dead. As Voltaire also put it: "To the living we owe respect, but to the dead we owe only the truth".

  • Comment number 22.

    Should the Government implement God's law? They already have...in Iran. Didn't I hear Rowan Williams say that Sharia becoming law of the land in the UK is "unavoidable"?


    Once the Eurabian Union takes control over matters, women wearing headscarves in public in France will become manditory. And everywhere else in Eurabia as well.

    Well see how much Robinson likes it when kids in school are forced to read out of the holy book...the Koran, not the Bible.

  • Comment number 23.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 24.

    Whether the atheist, humanist, rationalist, free thinker, communist or the BBC likes it or not all government power is ordained from God Almighty maker of heaven and earth, the state is not autonomous from God but stands under the Law of God. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities existing are appointed by God, including Stormont.

    When governments legislate for that which is contrary to the Word of God they abrogate their God given authority therefore meaning that the Christian citizens have the God given right of civil disobedience.

    God has ordained governments as his delegated authority on earth; governments are in place to be agents of justice and to restrain evil by punishing the perpetrators of evil so that the fabric of society is protected, if the God ordained office of government fails to carry out their delegated office as instituted by God the fabric of society starts to disintegrate into a state of chaos.

    Early Christians died as martyrs for their faith because they would not obey iniquitous states in civil matters that were contrary to God’s Word. John Knox states that “All life and all actions must have their base in God’s Word, and in the words of Samuel Rutherford, Lex Rex, The Law is King, and in his book of the same name, Rutherford a Presbyterian sets forth the proper Christian response to the non biblical acts carried out wrongly by the state, declaring that the king or state rules as God’s appointed regent and, this being so the King’s word was Law and that civil government must be based on God’s Law as given in the Bible, whether Martin McGuinness and his colleagues in government like it or not they are under the Law and not above it and they are to govern by the principles of God’s Law, anything else is an illegitimate act of tyranny.

    To legislate for pro-abortion is an act of rebellion against God and His Word coming from Satan himself through the agents of unrepentant sinners; they attack the sanctity of God given life and they attack the Word of God through there disobedience to their God ordained office in government.

    Government has a legal position as being under the Law of God to protect the unborn child which is clearly stated in His Word.

    Tiny wonder, little human,
    Lying stilled, your hands outstretched,
    I wonder what you might have been,
    I wonder what you might have done.

    Sixteen weeks-that's all you lived!
    Until they wrenched you out of the womb,
    To lie untended, gasping, stunned,
    A plastic bag to be your tomb.

    They weigh your form, record its length,
    Perfect tissue, soul-less mute,
    Your life, so small was still to much,
    You died without one loving touch.

    Spark of existence, now no more,
    Snuffed out by those who came before,
    I wonder what you might have been,
    I wonder what you might have done.
    David C. Thompson M.D.

    Before I formed you in the womb I knew you

  • Comment number 25.


    At least you have addressed the issue. You obviously believe that we should live in a theocracy but, thankfully we don't, although some vestiges remain in the UK (monarch head of an established church, bishops in the C of E, the BBC -contrary to you supposition - obliged to include religious airtime etc).

    Most western states are liberal democracies, which implies that they compromise between the wishes of individuals (the 'liberal' aspect) and the wishes of the people as a whole (the democratic part).

    This implies that individuals should be allowed the freedom to believe what they want (within the bounds of sane reason) and that the state should not seek to impose any particular view or lifestyle on them.

    The democratic part does tend ultimately to come down on the side of the majority, but the DUP does not represent it. Indeed, the majority view on this issue is probably that expressed by the Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness that, since our society includes people who believe in many different things, it is better if religion is kept out of politics altogether.

    Whether that is possible or not is another matter. Actually, I don't think it is, in that some people believe that their religious views should be government policy (e.g. on abortion). They are entitled to think that, but they should not assume that everyone necessarily agrees with them or is a 'lunatic' if he/she doesn't.

    If they are in a position of making policy, they should take account of the general interest and not just that of their own particular worldview. For 50 years under Stormont rule we had a 'totalitarian' democracy in which unionists ruled and imposed their own ideology on everyone else, much to the detriment of the broader society.

    A liberal democracy implies that the majority rule on some things and minorities and individuals rule on others. It is inevitably a compromise (John: you err too much in my view on the 'libertarian side').

    A theocracy exists when a state tries to implement 'god's law' in terms of the particular god in which those in power believe. Under Stormont rule it was the 'evangelical Protestant God', who believed that park swings should be chained up on Sundays.

  • Comment number 26.

    Puritan # 24

    "For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities existing are appointed by God, including Stormont.

    When governments legislate for that which is contrary to the Word of God they abrogate their God given authority therefore meaning that the Christian citizens have the God given right of civil disobedience."

    I would love to know where your get your biblical authority for the second half of the portion of your post I have quoted above.

    I assume you begin by quoting Romans 1 v 1, but in my Bible it goes on to say "Therefore he that resisteth the power, withstandeth the ordinance of God" - not on face value exactly what you are suggesting is it?

    If we assume Pauline authorship and traditional dating, when Romans was written the "powers that be" was one Nero Claudius Caesar - generally regarded as a persecutor of Christians. It is hard to argue, given those circumstances, that Paul was limiting his instruction to be subject to extant authority solely to government in accordance with the 'Word of God'.

    I, of-course, do not agree with Paul on this point - I am raising the issue as your post appeared to me a prime example of fundamentalist thinking which goes far beyond cherry-picking, overturning indeed the plain sense of scripture when it suits to do so. The irony is that on the issue of abortion I would probably agree with you generally considering it a grave moral wrong.

  • Comment number 27.

    In the last paragraph of post # 26 above I should have said, for clarity, "...overturning indeed the plain sense of the scripture they purport to venerate when it suits to do so.".

  • Comment number 28.

    The Puritan;
    If god ever shows up in America...he'd better have his passport with him. Otherwise, he might wind up picking lettuce at harvest time in Texas and in the Imperial Valley of California.

    You can protest according to your conscience all you want to but if you break man's law in my country you will go to jail. While your spirit may roam free your ass will sit in a cell until the living judge in an American courtroom says your sentence is up. If you kill an abortion doctor, you may find you meet your maker a lot sooner than you thought. We have the death penalty and in some cases we use it. Want to be a martyr for your cause? I didn't think so. Unlike some of today's Moslems and some ancient Christians, just about all Christian "fundimentalists" today are all talk and no action.

  • Comment number 29.

    Guys, very interesting.

    Brian says, "A liberal democracy implies that the majority rule on some things and minorities and individuals rule on others. It is inevitably a compromise (John: you err too much in my view on the 'libertarian side')."

    I'm not sure how much you have striven to understand the libertarian position or its premises (which are reasons of principle from which the libertarian position must follow) and I don't wish to be patronising, so I'd be happy to allow you to tell me why I'm wrong.

  • Comment number 30.

    brianmcclinton, in the last paragraph of post No.25, has encapsulated perfectly the main reason for the unease that many people (atheist in my case) feel as a result of Iris Robinson's unwise statement regarding Government and God's Law.

    Given that Iris is, by her own admission, a Born-again-Christian, and given that she has been forcefully outspoken on previous contentious issues, two things occur to me in relation to this whole affair:
    1. Her remarks were hardly of the "casual throwaway variety", and:
    2. What kind of vision does she have of exactly what sort of society we should all live in once "God's Law" is in full swing? Which God? Which scriptural guidelines?

    Well done brianmcclinton.

  • Comment number 31.

    Scybalous- While I agree these were no 'throwaway' comments, I'm not sure she's thought quite that hard about the conclusions of her statement either. These are the kinds of things that the Christians who talk about them tend not to think through very well.

  • Comment number 32.

    Yet another Sunday Sequence debate about the role of religion in society with all participants believers in bronze age myths about fictional characters.

    This is the 21st century, yet we are continually subjected to this nonsense as if it was legitimate historical president.

    It was myth when it was first written down and it is myth now.

    The infinite numbers of religious sects can debate all they what about the meaning of their holy books, but it has nothing to contribute to modern life.

    The key question; 'Are any of these books the inspired word of a God and does such a being exist?', is at the heart of all these debates. And the answer, obvious to anyone with any degree of rationality, is clearly no.

    When are the producers of Sunday Sequence going to start to include an Atheist contributor in these debates to bring some kind of sanity to this otherwise circular nonsense.

  • Comment number 33.

    Hi John:

    I think I've explained this before. In my view there has to be a compromise between freedom and equality. A minimal state will not help the poor, the ill, the weak, the needy. It will not guarantee equality of opportunity so that those from a poor background may be able to rise above it. It will not prevent the strong or the rich from bullying or oppressing the weak and the poor. 'Freedom' in a strict libertarian sense means the law of the jungle.

    Personally, I favour libertarianism with regard to opinion, culture and lifestyle but not with regard to social and economic matters, where I think a more egalitarian approach is right. Here people's economic and social freedoms need to be curtailed for the 'common good'. For example, I believe the biggest burden of taxation should fall on those who can most afford it.

    in the 1980s societies in the UK and the USA moved away from this mixed system towards a more free market orientated society. I think they went too far in that direction.

    On the matter of religion and politics, amanofreason is right: The Sunday Sequence discussion was pathetically imbalanced.

  • Comment number 34.


    You'd prefer 1970s society than 1990s? That's odd, and it ignores the most basic of economic principles (namely the 'trickle-down' effect by which the poor benefit from the free market). You leftists always suffer from the same delusions, in my opinion, including the fault of being willfully blind to the solutions in the free market and the total inadequacy of solutions involving government. Is life better for the poor in America or for the poor in China? In the former, there is a more free market oriented society, in the latter a society with bigger government.

    There are well-understood reasons that this is the case, of course (most of them ignored by the Left). Economics is not an imprecise science. We know that less government regulation = a more prosperous economy. We know that more people will work harder if they get to keep more of their own money. We know that the harder those people work, the better they will do and the more people they will employ. We know that that will provide jobs to more people who otherwise would not have them. We know that that will put more food into more mouths than otherwise would be the case. We know that those people in turn have more opportunities than they would have had otherwise, and can start the cycle again.

    Socialism, on the other hand, provides no incentive to work whatsoever. It creates no wealth, it creates only government jobs (which create no wealth). Not only that, it takes from those who are in the best position to create wealth - those with capital - and redistributes its already meager amounts to those who have even less, providing less incentive to those it's taken from and providing no incentive to those it's given to. In every society that's tried it, the GDP has vanished.

    And you want to incorporate MORE socialism into our economies 'for the common good'?

    I take it you've never heard of Adam Smith's 'Invisible Hand', whereby he asserts that capitalism does more for the common good than socialism which purports to exist for the common good. Either you haven't heard of it or you disagree with it. I'd be interested to hear why, because it's my contention that you leftists either don't understand economics at all or are somehow victims of some Marxist brainwashing.

  • Comment number 35.

    Hi John: (29 and 34):

    Can we keep the loaded labelling out of it, please. Snide remarks about 'you leftists' is not very mature and don't encourage rational debate. You are also implying a simplistic dichotomy: either you are a libertarian or a 'leftist' or Marxist. This is nonsense. In fact, I implied an in-between position, yet you immediately ignored it and went after the 'leftist' elements. That is a bad reflection on your own position. Is a mixed economy a 'leftist' one? Keynes, often associated with the mixed economy, believed in managed capitalism and supported the liberal Party. Was he 'leftist' or 'Marxist' in your conception?

    I am well aware of Adam Smith's invisible hand and the trickle down theory. I taught Economics for 36 years. I know that both are fallacies. Both are, like young earth creationism, antiquated doigmas. Smith assumes that, unlike other spheres of life, economics is governed by the principle that the pursuit of self-interest leads to a socially beneficial outcome. In other walks of life, selfish tends to lead to ... more selfishness. So why economics should be any different is not at all clear. In fairness to Smith, he did not use the metaphor as an article of faith in market absolutism: he was too wise for that. Others less wise, such as Hayek and Friedman, converted into an article of faith.

    There is a paradox in free markets, certainly. The individual businesman wants to make big profits but he won’t make them in people can’t buy his products (Henry Ford:"If I don't pay them more, who will buy my cars?"). So he wants to pay his workers as little as possible while hoping that other businessmen don’t follow suit. This is especially true if he is producing something for a mass market. It is not nearly so true of luxury products. But I'm afraid this paradox doesn’t automatically lead to a socially beneficial outcome, especially if firms are controlled by shareholders who want a quick buck (William Vanderbilt: "the public be damned, I work for my stockholders") and the market is dominated by oligopolies which collude on prices.

    There are so many instances of market failure, market instability and market inadequacy that it is difficult to know where to begin. Since you live in the USA, let us go there with America, North and South.

    1. The tobacco industry for decades harmed the health of over half the population, with the result that nearly half a million Americans die prematurely every year. The industry successfully thwarted government intervention for years, but it is that intervention, not just in the USA but throughout most of the world, which will save lives.

    2. The chemical industry has done enormous damage to the environment, through pesticides and CFCs. Only through concerted government action on a global scale can this problem be tackled.
    The same socially detrimental situation arises when they sell drugs at high prices to Third World countries.

    3. Coffee agreements protected coffeee producers in Colombia, Brazil, etc for decades. They were removed by Reagan's government at the end of the 1980s. Farmers facing starvation switched to cocaine. That is the way the market 'works' not necessarily to everyone's benefit.

    The market, John, will not solve: recessions, the credit crunch, global warming, international terrorism, crime, HIV-Aids, the Arab-Israeli conflict; the arms race.

    The market will not provide: healthcare, free and universal education, a framework of standards, rights, fair trade, fair laws, better roads, national parks, unemployment benefits, old age pensions.

    As for trickle down, this is another fallacy. In a sense, it argues against the invisible hand, because it implies that the state should intervene to benefit the better off (lower taxes etc). At the least, it assumes that the invisible needs a helping hand from the state but not, as we might to suppose, to reduce market inequalities but to increase them! (for the benefit of all!)

    It assumes that if you want to benefit the economy you pay the rich more and the poor less because the rich will work on the higher incentive (the 'deserving rich') and the poor on the lower one (the 'undeserving poor') and that both will benefit because the rich will invest more, pay their workers more etc.

    This is just propaganda in defence of the rich. If you want to reduce relative poverty, it makes sense to target income tax cuts and benefits at those who need it. Cutting taxes for the rich, in the hope some may trickle down to the poorest is a very inefficient way of working. As Galbraith mockingly put it, it is the horse and the sparrow theory. Feed the horse enough oats and the sparrow will survive on the highway by eating its shit.

    Markets may be an engine of progress, but they do not provide the accelerator, brakes, gearing, lubrication, servicing, emissions control or the rules of the road. Market fiundamentalism, John, is no better than religious fundamentalism. It may be even worse.

  • Comment number 36.

    She really can't help herself can she?


    "There can be no viler act, apart from homosexuality and sodomy, than sexually abusing innocent children. There must be sufficient confidence that the community has the best possible protection against such perverts and it is important that there be a mature public debate on the issues, but the security of our citizens must be our overriding priority.”

  • Comment number 37.

    Yes, the first time she appeared on the Nolan Show and was given 30 minutes to explain herself, some people thought that this was good because she would condemn herself out of her mouth. But last week she appeared again on abortion and there was overwhelming support.

    I think it is scandalous of the local BBC to give such publicity to these backward, primitive and intolerant views without giving alternative views the same publicity. It merely panders top prejudice. It is what i have maintained all along. Throughout the Troubles the local BBC (and indeed the local media generally) failed to challenge the prevailing orthodoxies of Ulster society. They did not lead opinion; they merely reflected majority opinions
    on both sides of the divide.

    We know that on matters of sex, the two tribal ideologies are mirror images of each other. While they differ vehemently on the border, they are united in their stone age negative attitude to matters of the body. Now that we have 'peace', we will hear more and more reactionary sexual morality on air. It's a total disgrace.

  • Comment number 38.


    "Loaded labelling"??? What I'm proposing is a libertarian society; what you're proposing is a 'mixed' economy incorporating capitalism (on the right) and socialism/"Marxism" (on the left) - I don't know what part of that is not "very mature". I know you don't like to feel that you follow a prescribed set of political beliefs - after all, liberals like to believe that they are 'liberal' - but you have never once surprised me, Brian, on any issue. There absolutely IS a dichotomy, and a pendulum that swings right over the political landscape -- the fact that you want to stop it halfway (in exactly the same place as most European liberals, or - don't object now - 'leftists') doesn't remove the dynamic of that landscape, or affect my argument that the further the pendulum swings toward libertarianism, the better.

    You then go on to assert that free market economics is a "fallacy". This made me smile, I have to admit, though I'll certainly point out where you're wrong. You say:

    "Smith assumes that, unlike other spheres of life, economics is governed by the principle that the pursuit of self-interest leads to a socially beneficial outcome."

    He assumes nothing. He asserts it based upon empirical evidence. And economics is not "governed" by that principle; it's an oft-occurring side-effect of a free market. We don't permit a free market BECAUSE it will benefit society in general (we permit it because it is not within the justifiable remit of anyone to prevent anyone else trading freely and peaceably with anyone else). But it's a normal outcome. For example - and I know this example is anathema to you leftists - Ray Kroc had selfish reasons in mind when he started McDonald's, but the company he started now provides nearly half a million jobs that wouldn't otherwise exist.

    "In other walks of life, selfish tends to lead to ... more selfishness. So why economics should be any different is not at all clear."

    Let's assume you're right: selfishness will lead to more selfishness. How does that PRECLUDE selfishness from having a socially beneficial outcome? If your leftist mind simply couldn't process my previous example under the glow of the Golden Arches, let's take the very simplest of examples; a man who is selfish enough to want to make money. He gets a job (or works for himself) for selfish reasons, and no longer needs to sponge off the state. It's AUTOMATICALLY (automatically, Brian) a socially beneficial outcome.

    You then go on to give me examples of the "failures" of the free market, as though it has a stated aim other than existence. Its very existence, Brian, means it has succeeded - people are trading with each other freely and it has accomplished its aim. By "failure" I'm sure you mean that the actions of some within the market have had socially undesirable outcomes. This may be true (insofar as some of us are capable of deciding for the rest of us what things are socially undesirable), but it doesn't constitute a failure of freedom.

    For example, motorcycle racing could be seen as an activity with socially negative repercussions (people die doing it). Infringe on freedom to stop people from dying? Or allow it because the people have volunteered to put themselves at risk for the thrill of the ride? I say it's not our decision; it's theirs. It's no business of government. And smoking, which you raise, is exactly the same:

    "The tobacco industry for decades harmed the health of over half the population, with the result that nearly half a million Americans die prematurely every year."

    See, rather than being an instance of the failure of the free market, this is a perfect instance of a typical, arrogant leftist worldview which regards society as one great heaving, stupid collective, rather than as a multitude of rational, functioning individuals making decisions for themselves. How enlightened you must be, Brian, to see for these people that they were being "harmed" by the "tobacco industry": if you ask most of them, they'd tell you that THEY took up smoking, and made the decision to trade their money for tobacco products with full knowledge of the risks therein. By the "intervention" of the government, I presume you mean the removal of the freedoms and rights of people to do as they want, "for the common good," of course. (That's what I mean by arrogance.)

    As for trickle down, I don't think you've got me right on that. I don't think the government should intervene to help the rich any more than it should intervene to help the poor. You help the poor by honouring the freedoms of people to go about their peaceful activity (like smoking, for example) unimpeded.

    Anyway, it's clear to me, Brian, that you simply don't think rights exist. (Or, if they do, then certain ones can be trodden over when a majority - or a minority didn't you say also? - feels like it.)

    I think on that you're gravely mistaken.

  • Comment number 39.


    First of all, you have missed my point which is the fallacy of assuming that the economic sphere of life is different from the rest of life, where self-interest is a moral problem and has to be weighed against other aims.
    For example, a man wants to pursue his own self-interest by robbing a bank. Presumably, you accept that this is a moral problem and that he should not be allowed to succeed. Indeed, there are laws to prevent him from doing so. Similarly, when driving a car I might want to go as fast as I can, but there are laws to prevent me from doing so. And these laws are necessary. You get my drift. But why, when we come to discuss economic activity, do we forget about morality and talk about 'the laws of the market' and assume that people and organisations should be given freedom to do what they like? Just like Enron? Or Worldcom? Or Halliburton?

    Or the tobacco companies? Indeed, you are so obviously wrong here. I smoked 40 cigarettes a day for about 20 years, until I finally wised up. I started in my teens when I did not have full knowledge of the risks. I wish that when I was a kid there had been the restrictions and campaigning that exist today. I haven’t become a puritanical non-smoker and I don't object to people smoking in my company. As you say, it is their choice, but I would say that the majority of them would want to stop if they could. I found it remarkably easy (I was probably hooked on the habit, not the nicotine), but that is not the normal experience.

    I did NOT say that free market economics is a fallacy. I said that the invisible hand argument as a justification for it is a fallacy. The fact of the matter is that it IS often used as a justification. The invisible hand is really the mechanism of demand and supply, and to assume that this mechanism produces a socially beneficial outcome is quite wrong. It may do, but it may not. Demand and supply are often out of kilter, as they are at present in many markets. To leave affairs to an impersonal mechanism which can produce the wrong results is like allowing a boat to steer itself on a rough sea.

    Markets need to be managed, cointrolled, regulated, in the public interest, just like the rules of the road (or cricket, or football) or any other social activity.

    This is not 'Marxist brainwashing' but common sense.

  • Comment number 40.


    Your logic is so evidently self-serving (or serving of your ideology) that you are blind to its faults. You say that the economic sphere should be regarded the same as the moral sphere, yet you are suggesting that morality be left free (in the libertarian sense) but the economy be regulated! Can't you see the inconsistency, even as you accuse me of the same?

    By the way, your examples don't work. The libertarian position asserts that individual actions should be free up until the point at which they would infringe upon the equal rights of others. A man robbing a bank is infringing on the same rights (of the bank owners) that the government is infringing by taxing more than is necessary for protecting rights. So, yes, my position is absolutely consistent: stop a man robbing a bank for exactly the same reason that we stop Enron and others from ripping people off.

    On smoking, you admit that people do it by choice, yet you still stand by your very serious allegation that tobacco companies "harm" people? I say they sell a product that has an elevated risk level (like a lot of other things people can choose to do) - they make no secret of that - and people buy it from them. Regulation beyond warning people of the risks is an insult to the intelligence of the general public.

    We agree, then, on the invisible hand. It's a side-effect of the free market, not a justification of it, which needs no justification. What needs justification is any action that would seek to curtail it.

  • Comment number 41.


    You seem to be admitting that the economic sphere should indeed be treated the same way as the moral sphere. Actually, it is part of it rather than an 'objective' science.

    Then you say that I suggest that morality should be left free. No, quite wrong. I've never said this. Matters which do not affect others should be left free: much of sexual activity between individuals falls into this category, as do political rights and opinions. But economics is not one of those areas.

    1. If we use up scarce resources, like oil, then we are affecting many other people.
    2. If we manipulate trade to suit our country while penalising other countries, then we are affecting many other people.
    3. If we sell weapons to other countries, then we are affecting many other people.
    4. If we if we pollute the environment, then we are affecting many other people.
    5. If we employ some applicants but not others, then we are affecting other people.
    6. if we obtain employment over all people, then we are affecting those other people.
    7. If we charge high prices for our goods, then we are affecting other people.
    8. if we sell shoddy, inferior or dangerous goods, then we are affecting other people.
    9. In a free market for health care, if we can afford the health care, then we will receive it and others won't.
    10. In a free market for schools, if we can afford to pay for our children's education, then they will receive it but others wont.
    11. Without state provision, some of us may live well in old age, while others will starve or freeze.
    12. Without state provision, if we have no job, then we will starve.

    All of this and more of this has little or nothing to do with exercising one's 'freedom'.
    Tell that to someone living in Somalia. Instead, much of it has to do with power. if as individuals we have economic power then we can have lots of things in this life; if we lack the power/wealth, then we may have nothing.

    Freedom is not the only value of worth in this world; equality and justice are also crucial. To reduce everything to a matter of freedom is insulting to those who have nothing. It is also delusional and self-deceptive. That was my initial point. To pretend that economics is value-free is a nonsense to which some cultures have readily succumbed because it suits people with power.

    America is a classic example. Many of its people are obsessed with a notion of freedom to acquire more and more material goods as if that made you free in a world where millions of others are eking out a bare existence. What use is this notion of freedom to a Somalian who hasn't had rain for 3 years?
    For this kind of situation, an equality of opportunity is what would make you 'free'.

    Personally, I could never feel really 'free', no matter how much
    wealth I had, if millions were living in poverty and squalor.
    If that makes me in some ways a 'socialist', then OK, I'm proud of the label.

  • Comment number 42.

    Your take on the American tobacco industry is tosh. You say that they sell a product with an elevated risk level AND MAKE NO SECRET OF IT.
    This, of course, is historical tosh. We know that their research over decades showed conclusively that smoking tobacco causes cancer, YET THEY KEPT IT SECRET FOR YEARS! They also lied to Congress when a collection of their executives said they did not believe nicotine was addictive!

    You obviously haven't seen 'The Insider'.

  • Comment number 43.

    The four pillars of ethics:
    * Beneficence
    * Non-maleficence
    * Autonomy
    * Justice

    Hard to argue with those. The concept of "Freedom" largely maps to Autonomy, but unbridled autonomy may adversely impact on the other pillars. It's not a question of a balancing act so much as an optimisation, so I find myself largely in agreement with Brian on this.


  • Comment number 44.


    The irony is that most libertarians would agree with most of your thousand points in post #41. Again, libertarians are NOT arguing for zero government in the area of economics; to imply that we are is disingenuous. If an action really is infringing on the rights of someone else then libertarianism makes it illegal.

    Further, to say "tell that to someone in Somalia" is BEYOND disingenuous. I prescribe the same for Somalia as I do for America: libertarianism. Are the equal free rights of Somalians protected by their government? No? Well then, there you have the problem. I'm happy that you're willing to accept the label 'socialist' as I ask an earlier question in another way: were the poor of East Germany better or worse off than the poor of West USA (the former a socialist society, the latter a more capitalist society)? I contend that the freer a people, the more opportunity exists for them to improve their situations and better themselves. That you appear to think redistributing existing wealth is a superior way to deal with poverty than giving people the freedom to create wealth of their own merely conforms to the facts that led me to libertarianism many years ago.

    "if as individuals we have economic power then we can have lots of things in this life; if we lack the power/wealth, then we may have nothing."

    That's absolutely true. But in a free society that isn't a static quantity. In a free society, everyone can act to better themselves (unless they're disabled or elderly without anything). And everyone has opportunity. And when they don't act to better themselves there are a multitude of means to helping them incorporating options OTHER THAN government force. You leftists have come to view as the job of government to intervene in everyone's situations to make life equal for everyone: not only is that grossly unrealistic and highly, highly undesirable in practice, but it involves the most blatant breaches of individual liberty (which involves rupturing incontrovertible individual rights that you don't think exist).

    "Many of [America's] people are obsessed with a notion of freedom to acquire more and more material goods as if that made you free in a world where millions of others are eking out a bare existence."

    This smacks of the 'money pot' fallacy; the idea that there exists a finite bucket of wealth which must be shared around, and that America has unfairly taken most of the wealth in the bucket, leaving an unfairly tiny amount left for everyone else. I'm not sure if that's exactly what you believe, but it's utter bullshit. Wealth must be created. And to create it, one needs the freedom and protection from their government; the very freedom you want to infringe upon. Now isn't that ironic?

    Your positions are counterproductive to your own stated aims!

  • Comment number 45.

    Hi John:

    It's good to see that you concede an important role for the state (earlier you had said 'minimal', but I think that if you look at the myriads of cases when state intervention is necessary, you will see that it is a good deal more than that).

    There is a spectrum here which ranges from extreme free market to extreme state control. Most countries are somewhere along it. Obviously, the USA is near to free market and North Korea is near to state control.

    However, in terms of income per head, the richest countries are generally mixed economies in Europe, such as Luxembourg, Switzerland, Norway, Sweden. Even Ireland is catching up on the USA in GDP per capita (America is ranked about 4th richest by the IMF and 8th by the CIA).

    At any given time, resources are indeed finite (elementary economics, my dear John). The aim is to increase production possibilities through time. If you grab or exploit many of the earth's resources for your own country, as the USA has done over the last 60 odd years or more, then you will indeed rob other countries of their wealth and their production possibilities for the future.

    Indeed, given the amount of plundering of the world's wealth that America has done, it is remarkable that she is not richer than she is. Enslavement to a free market fundamentalism may have something to do with it!

    I have described myself as a socialist. I am also a liberal. As I said before, a compromise between freedom and equality is an ethical imperative.

    You are obviously using the phrase 'you leftists' as a snide term of abuse. Immature, my dear John, immature.

  • Comment number 46.

    brian mcclinton, you think you are a cross between a socialist and a liberal? I think you are a communist. North Korea is near to state control? North Korea is a command economy where nobody pees without the government knowing about it. Its insane views on economy taken verbatum from a European doctrinal religion Marxism-Leninism has resulted in millions of its citizens starving to death, most living in hopeless poverty, and its nation under threat of being wiped off the map in minutes if it make even one wrong threatening move. Does the USA have the highest per capita income right now? Probably not at the moment. As for total wealth that it owns? There is no second place. As for future potential? Unlimited. As for soaking up all of the world's resources...look to China for that one. Europe's economy isn't just mixed, it's all mixed up. Tony Blair said when he was EU president he wanted to make Europe the best place in the world to do business. In fact it is one of the worst. Just try to lay off a redundant worker in France and see what happens. When Russia pulls the plug on oil and gas it ships to Europe guess where it will be diverted to...India and China. Funny how many people want to go to the US to become "enslaved" by its free markets where there are still plenty of jobs to be had.

  • Comment number 47.

    Hi Mark:

    "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel" - Samuel Johnston.

    "The world is my country, all mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion" - Thomas Paine.

    As a man born in Ireland, I say: Vive La France! Vive L'Europe!
    Vive the European Enlightenment! Vive La Renaissance!

  • Comment number 48.

    Brian- Along that spectrum you speak about (which sounds just like the pendulum I mentioned earlier), it's interesting that you point to the nations that rank among the 'freest', that incorporate a lot of capitalism, that would regard themselves as 'free countries'.

    A socialist like you should surely be able to point to an example of a socialist country (where the state is much stronger) as a model. Which state would you like to cite as an example? East Germany? The USSR? Or what about current socialist countries: China?, Cuba?

    By the way, the US may have a stronger history of a freer market, but it's certainly not true today and much of the US is following in Europe's footsteps down the path of a more mixed economy incorporating freedoms and controls.... to its detriment.

  • Comment number 49.


    You don't seem to get the message. You are so hung up on the labels 'socialist', leftist, communist' etc, and have adopted the American phobia of these concepts, that you continue to ignore what I have actually said. Never mind the labels; stick to the arguments.

    I have stressed several times that I am eclectic: that I believe freedom and equality need to be compromised. If you insist on labels, then I am a 'liberal socialist' or 'socialist liberal' or 'left liberal'. Frankly, it doesn't matter to me what you call me or anyone else calls me. What matters to me is the bastardisation and trivialisation of issues by personalising them.

    East Germany and the USSR went too far towards one end of the spectrum and the USA has been too far towards the other. "Under capitalism, man exploits man; under communism, it's just the opposite" (Galbraith).

    Galbraith also wrote:
    "Let's begin with capitalism, a word that has gone largely out of fashion. The approved reference now is to the market system. This shift minimizes-indeed, deletes-the role of wealth in the economic and social system. And it sheds the adverse connotation going back to Marx. Instead of the owners of capital or their attendants in control, we have the admirably impersonal role of market forces. It would be hard to think of a change in terminology more in the interest of those to whom money accords power. They have now a functional anonymity".

    And again:
    "This is what economics now does. It tells the young and susceptible (and also the old and vulnerable) that economic life has no content of power and politics because the firm is safely subordinate to the market and the state and for this reason it is safely at the command of the consumer and citizen. Such an economics is not neutral. It is the influential and invaluable ally of those whose exercise of power depends on an acquiescent public. If the state is the executive committee of the great corporation and the planning system, it is partly because neoclassical economics is its instrument for neutralizing the suspicion that this is so".

    John, you cannot morally approve total economic freedom in a world of scarcity. It ends up as the law of the jungle in which the rich exploit the poor and are therefore more 'free'. If they pass it on to their children, then they have an initial advantage in the 'race of life'. You cannot deny that the average Somali has much less 'freedom' than the average American or European and will continue to do so until the world changes radically.

    Similarly, an exclusive commitment to equality ends up with a stifling of freedom, initiative, enterprise, etc, as happened in the Soviet Union.

    I don't pretend to have all the answers. I don't know what is the 'ideal' mixture of market and state, of freedom and equality. But I do think western European countries have a 'better' mixture than the USA.

  • Comment number 50.


    You must have a lot of trouble taking exams or answering questionaires where the only choices are true and false. On a scale of 0 to 10, you are clearly a 5.

    Here's another quote for you said by Barry Goldwater; "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice."

  • Comment number 51.

    Hi Mark:

    I suppose you mean things like:
    The Watergate Scandal
    The Iran Contra Affair;
    The arming of Saddam Hussein;
    The takeover in 2000;
    Lies about WMD;
    Making the world safe for American business;
    The 70 or so military interventions since 1945.

    "America today is the leader of a world-wide anti-revolutionary movement in the defence of vested interests. She now stands for what Rome stood for. Rome consistently supported the rich against the poor in all foreign communities that fell under her sway; and, since the poor, so far, have always and everywhere been far more numerous than the rich, Rome's policy made for inequality, for injustice, and for the least happiness of the greatest number" - the historian Arnold Toynbee, in 1961.

    "Oh, liberty, what crimes are committed in thy name" -
    a Frenchwoman, Madame Roland, as he put her head on the block in 1793.

  • Comment number 52.

    brianmcclinton, I'm not going to dignify most of your posting with a response. It is too pathetic. But I must point out that America does not defend the rich against the poor, it defends poor nations right to become rich and stay rich. Puerto Rico, Taiwan, and South Korea are three examples that come to mind immediately. Communists take nations that might become rich and make them poor. And they keep them poor forever. Every nation that was in the Soviet sphere had perpetual shortages of nearly everything. Hospitals didn't even have necessary supplies. There were always long lines for every consumer item that became available however briefly. Communists and socialists take away the means for people becoming rich and then if they somehow succeed by their own efforts anyway, they steal what has been earned. The only way to become rich in a communist country is to steal from others including the state. They get to keep what they steal because they are part of a corrupt government apparatus where that is expected. Orwell's depiction in Animal Farm hit a bullseye.

  • Comment number 53.


    "Im not going to dignify most of your posting with a response. It is too pathetic". And I mean it!

    Good to see you mention George Orwell, though. He was a man of the Left and advocated a federal socialist Europe. See his 1947 essay 'Toward European Unity'.

  • Comment number 54.

    How did libertarianism work out when they introduced it to the "New Iraq"?

    Brian, I'm with you on this - economics needs morality. Thatcher, Blair, Reagan however well intentioned have created a more selfish, grasping society.

    Graham Veale

  • Comment number 55.

    Graham- Nothing even remotely resembling libertarianism was introduced in Iraq. Would that that were the case.

    Brian- Do you even believe in rights at all? Or just not the same ones that I believe in? (By the way, rights which can be ignored or compromised 'for the common good' are not rights at all, merely privileges which the state can give or take at its choosing.) I believe that I take my rights into the political process, not that the government gives me them to take out. What do you believe?

  • Comment number 56.

    This is proving to be quite an interesting exchange of views.

    Graham I don't think anyone is suggesting that we should have economics without morality but it does seem that some are suggesting that in order to create a moral economy or even a moral society, (support for the weak, poor etc) that government regulation is essential. But law does not ensure morality? It may provide a necessary restraint on our actions, but law does not generate compassion; and Brian's idea that "a minimal state will not help the poor, the weak..." indicates to me a pretty low view of humanity; in a sense it presumes the worse of human beings, not the best.

    There is another problem too; necessary and beneficial state regulation (which is important) has a tendency to become creeping authoritarianism and one need look no further than recent news events across Europe to see this in action.

    More bureaucracy in public services, GP appraisals for example, which is just another form of enforced professional development, meaning that the state doesn't trust people to keep up to date and leaves some thinking only what they're told to by government. The Early Years Foundation Stage in England and Wales, a toddler curriculum setting targets, yes targets (69 goals and 500 'development milestones'), for the under fives should they attend nursery or a play group, or even a child-minder it seems. Yes I know you're only three but I'm going to tell you how to think and what to do and then measure you to see if you can - it's madness. (it's also control and manipulation, don't use your scissors like that dear, here, let me do it for you; or like the teacher who said, 'Now I want you all to think for yourselves and see if you can find the five things *I'm* looking for!') And does it lead to more efficiency, more creativity, more independence of thought?

    The no vote in Ireland, met by Europe with and smile and a, 'don't worry, we'll let you keep voting until you give us the answer we want.' It's called democracy.

    And Italy's proposed treatment of the Roma, plans to fingerprint all Roma people including children as part of a crackdown on crime.

    Nor does it matter if Governments are deemed right, left, centre, religious or secular, all are capable of denying freedom in the name of the 'common good', and in the end it isn't government for the benefit of the people, in the end all we are left with is the liberty to think and do as we are told.

    I'm with the Americans. (At least until they start telling me what to do!)

  • Comment number 57.

    Robert L. Dabney hit the bull’s eye when he said that the Northern capitalistic system was a form of “slavery” far more ruthless than domestic bondage, how true.

  • Comment number 58.


    Dabney may well have been a good systematic theologian, but was post 57 a defence of slavery?

    Surely not.

  • Comment number 59.


    Rights which I believe in include:

    1. Freedom of the person: the right to go about one's business without being arrested, and if arrested to be charged (no detention without trial; no Guantanamo Bays etc).

    2. Freedom from torture or inhumane treatment (no waterboarding etc).

    3. Freedom of speech and expression: the right to express one's opinions directly and indirectly (through art etc).

    4. Freedom of religion and freedom from religion: the right to make one's own choice without being brainwashed).

    5. Freedom of association: the right to form groups to campaign for causes and common interests.

    6. The right to own property.

    7. The right of privacy.

    8. Freedom of sexual orientation and from discrimination on grounds of it.

    9. The right to abortion.

    10. The right to education.

    11. the right to health care.

    12. The right to unemployment benefit.

    13. The right to a decent pension.

    14. Rights for animals.


    You say it is wrong to suggest that a minimal state will not help the poor, weak etc. No it isn't. You lack a sense of history. A minimal state in the past did fail in most of the above areas. There was no old age pensions or unemployment benefit in the 19th century. There was no free education and no free health care. Result: in the poorest parts of Britain the average life expectancy was about 20.

    Peter, if you think returning to that situation is worthwhile, then your view of society is as misguided as your fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible.

  • Comment number 60.


    My point about the minimal state referred to the idea that I felt it reflected, on your part, a low view of humanity. I didn't actually say anything about old age pensions, education and so on. (These are good things) The point I was making was completely different. There are all sorts of people who, throughout history, have acted in a benevolent way for others without needing to be directed by the state to do so, and there are those who, even when laws are made, seek to avoid their responsibilities.

    I went on to suggest (and it was 'another problem') that too much state interference, and I gave examples which had nothing to do with the economy, could lead to creeping authoritarianism. We can and we should act for the benefit of society without going all the way to the micro-management form of government we're becoming so familiar with. You will note too that I used the phrase 'necessary and beneficial state regulation (which is important)'. But government is not an end in itself, and sometimes it seems like it is.

    And where did I ever say we ought to return to the 19th.

    Furthermore I didn't mention religion except to say (earlier on this thread) that state need not implement god's law so please don't go linking the views you assume I have to fundamentalist christianity. Anyway, you know I am not a fundamentalist and it's not helpful to try to counteract someone's argument by putting words in their mouth and then defeating what they have not said.

  • Comment number 61.


    You left out #15; Rights for vegetables. Are you so insensitive that you don't know vegetables know when they are going to be picked and eaten? Heads of cabbage have feelings too you know. Why I've met many a head of cabbage that had more brains and sense than a lot of people I've met. I think the animal kingdom has discriminated against the plant world long enough. For all you know, god is a turnip.

  • Comment number 62.

    Hi Peter:

    Yes we all have this problem that others put words into our mouths that we didn't say. By 'fundamentalist' view of the Bible, I mean that you do not accept any errors, factual or moral, in it as far as I can see. That is in my view 'fundamentalist'.

    Of course, you didn't anything about old age pensions etc. My point is that historically, when there was a minimal state, these things did not exist and were not adequately provided on a charitable basis. The reasons were not simply a matter of humanity's greed. They were a reflection of a prevailing laissez-faire philosophy and the absence of alternative philosophies. Part of it was indeed religious: "God helps those who help themselves". Capitalism and the 'Protestant ethic' were closely linked.

    The state is not simply there to protect us from our own selfishness, if that is what you THINK I argued (I didn't: you merely presumed that it was based on a low view of humanity). It is there to organise, on a massive scale and with massive financial resources, provisions which could not possibly be implemented on a private basis.

  • Comment number 63.


    There are times when I almost wish I didn't agree with you on religion.
    Your last posting summed it up well: your political philosophy is for vegetables.

  • Comment number 64.


    I really don't wish to be drawn into another debate about the relative merits or demerits of religion, so in passing I shall simply say, work is a good ethic, don't you think?

    As for the 'Protestant (although there are those who have no need of being Protestant to recognize the value of a good day's work) work ethic', a large part of the point was that the Protestant Reformers reestablished the value of so-called secular employment, which had for too long been distinguished from 'spiritual service' and in doing so aimed to restore dignity to all, whatever their employment. Unfortunately in too much of contemporary Christianity the 'sacred/secular' divide is still with us, but there is no reason why daily work should be less holy than prayer. If the Protestant attitude to work was not accompanied by a sufficient degree of compassion that is unfortunate, for it ought to have been, but it doesn't mean that either the 'ethic' or capitalism is bad. Even the best of ideas can be corrupted by people.

    On the point of a minimal state not helping the weak, well it all depends on what the minimal focus is. Surely it's possible to have a form of government which is primarily focused on protecting the people thus enabling them and encouraging them to live free lives, without having to resort to the top heavy form of management we see all around us. My argument is that big government usually means increasing levels of intrusion. Increasingly we are told what to think, what to eat, how to keep fit etc. and just this week more intrusion into our personal lives with the idea that the problem of illegal internet downloads be 'solved' by either monitoring usage or charging, thirty pounds I think it was, for an internet license. (a cynic might call that tapping up the innocent). This is what happens when the state comes to believe that it has the right to determine what our rights are. Furthermore it creates distance between people and the government when we are supposed to be the government, but if the state is going to act nanny then we should not be surprised if we have babies for citizens. But we accept it because we are increasingly reliant on the state.

    Take Northern Ireland for example, we're governed to death, and not very well at that. Layer upon layer of government and management, an over reliance on the public sector, yet without overseas investment (much of it American) what do we produce? Still we have the audacity to complain, after years of blowing our own country apart, that the London exchequer doesn't give us enough money. Distanced from government, yet reliant on it, we have come to believe that it is our right to be bailed out (that's called sponging!) Sometimes it's just embarrassing. (btw I work in the public sector so I include myself in my own criticism)

    I have no problem with the state organizing, "on a massive scale and with massive financial resources, provisions which could not possibly be implemented on a private basis", but without the private sector the state wouldn't have any money. It's not the state helping the poor that I have a problem with, it's developing and accepting an attitude of relying on the state to do what we should be doing ourselves, allowing, in the process, the state to become something other than us and increasingly intrusive to boot.

    What I find strange is that in arguing against the idea of the church taking on the role of moralizing in government in order that it might be free to work for the good of the culture and explain what we mean by the gospel and grace, I find that the authoritarianism often associated with theocracy is no less under secular government. Our children might be able to use the swings on a Sunday now, but try sending a packet of crisps to school for their break - a case of swings and em... roundabouts!

  • Comment number 65.

    John is correct - they never did manage to introduce laissez-faire economics to the New Iraq. Have you rad Rajiv Chandrasekaran's "Imperial Life in the Emerald City"? The solution to all of Iraq's economic problem's was small government and free-markets. Funny enough, it didn't quite work out.

    I don't think that Christianity should be used to back any economic theory - the Scriptures were written in a different era and culture. However Jesus did aim his message at the poor, and criticised their treatment at the hands of the landowners. The OT Law demands that the poor be provided for, quite unique in the ANE.
    I do think that Thatcher/Reagan did appeal to individualism. I think this has become selfish individualism. Family and community have suffered accordingly. Despite the "Sermon on the Mound" (and it's risible theology), I don't think that Anglo-American economic policy coheres with Christian aims.
    "Localism" might be a way forward, but entering a "post-bearucratic" age means taking on Europe and the Multi-Nationals. Also charities and local authorities would need a lot of funding to make it work - but it's being sold as a pathway to lower taxation. But maybe it is something Brian and you could agree on. As in everything else, I'm a complete amateur in this field, and I'd be interested to see what the pair of you think.

    Graham Veale

  • Comment number 66.

    Re. post 61 - what exactly is your point? That rights are merely human conventions, and we can create whatever rights we like? So we should think of rights as "nonsense on stilts"?
    Couldn't we say the same of all morality?

  • Comment number 67.


    You should know by now that Mark only espouses an idea when it coheres with gung-ho American, to hell with the rest of you chees-eating surrender monkeys, we're the masters, don't mess with us, we love war, we kick ass, be afraid, very afraid, look we've got the biggest weapons in the universe, imperialism.

  • Comment number 68.


    I think what we have here is a fundamental difference in opinion on the question of what exactly human beings are, and what their nature is.

    And here's where it gets controversial: I say that Brian's view of humanity is so low that he believes his fellow man needs coerced in his actions, needs to be taken from forcibly, needs to be dictated to morally, otherwise it wouldn't be a fair and just world.

    I don't believe that.

    My view of humanity is high enough that I believe - unreservedly - that people will look after each other VOLUNTARILY, without the threat of government force, without significant portions of their income being taken from them or forcible redistribution of wealth (which I call stealing), without being told what broadcaster they must fund and what rubbish collector they must use and what healthcare they must pay for and what they shouldn't eat and shouldn't buy and shouldn't smoke and shouldn't do.

    My view of humanity is high enough that I respect the rational decisions of my fellow human being; I think if they want to have gay sex or want to be on a diet of fried food or want to smoke cannabis or want to race motorcycles or want to sit around talking about issues like this in humanist organisations, that is their business and nobody else's.

    My view of humanity is high enough that I believe they should be free to do whatever they like, as long as they aren't infringing on the equal capacity of others to do the same. (And that goes for government, too.)

    Brian will respond that people have been shown to be deficient in these areas, confirming his low view of humanity. I answer by saying that, even if that were true, rights are incontrovertible and inviolable; freedom will find a way, no matter what laws you try to sanction.

  • Comment number 69.


    You have latched on to a misconceived idea of Peter's. Historically it has been liberals and conservatives who often argue that at heart human beings are essentially self-seeking and egotistical.

    Socialists, on the other hand, regard selfish and materialistic behaviour as socially conditioned rather than natural. Such characteristics are seen as the product of a society which encourages and rewards selfish and acquisitive behaviour.

    At its heart, socialism posseses a unifying vision of human beings as social creatures, tied to each other by the bonds of a common humanity and as capable of overcoming social and economic problems by drawing on the power of the community rather than simply individual effort.

    Socialists believe that the natural relationship between human beings is one of co-operation rather than competition. The latter pits one individual against another, encouraging each of them to deny or ignore their social nature rather than embrace it. Competition fosters only a limited range of social attributes, whereas co-operation makes moral and economic sense.

    Individuals who work together rather than against each other will develop the bonds of sympathy, caring and affection. Indeed, the principal reason why the human species has survived and prospered is because of its capacity for mutual aid.

    Socialists believe that human beings can be motivated by moral incentives and not merely by material incentives. The main one is the desire to contribute to the common good, which develops out of a sympathy or sense if responsibility for our fellow human beings.

    As with religion and its obsession with silly dogma, so many ideologies actually work against our better nature. They distort our natural desire to help and care for one another. The nonsense about gods and paradises and the rituals and beliefs necessary to enter there obscure and distort our desire to help one another here on earth.

    I accept that the state often gets things wrong, but exists to represent a collective will and to help us help one another. It need not be the big bogeyman of right-wing propaganda. People need governing. They need certainty. They need harnessing and directing.

    The market is inherently unstable, as we have recently seen. It frequently 'fails' and needs to be regulated. These measures will certainly involve the restricting of economic 'freedoms', but they are in the interest of the greater freedom of the greater number.

    It is curious, John, that the usual justification for a free market is to say that it is more in tune with our self-seeking self-interested nature. You are arguing the opposite, namely that it gives us the opportunity freely to display our love and care without the need for state action. But this is unhistorical. It just did not happen that way.

  • Comment number 70.

    Hi Brian

    Here's the contradiction:

    "Socialists believe that the natural relationship between human beings is one of co-operation rather than competition"


    "People need governing. They need certainty. They need harnessing and directing."

    And how might you propose to govern people without this 'dogma' which you are so against? You simply seem to refuse to accept that your brand of dogma is dogma at all; then again everyone believes that their dogma is freedom. In the end we're all as religious as one another, whether we recognise it or not!

    Interestingly had you said that we can and should work together (Christians would say under God) to solve our common problems and for the benefit of each other I would have agreed with you, but you said, "people need governing." There's a world of difference.

  • Comment number 71.


    "People need governing" is axiomatic, unless you are a total anarchist. There is no contradiction here. You are reading too much into a phrase again. It doesn't mean that they should be ordered what to think and do.

    Of course, people will naturally co-operate but they need to be guided about how and in what ways to do it. I taught young people for 36 years and saw this for myself. But if you don't think people need governing, Peter, then what's the point of politics and government at all?

    I have no idea what you mean by 'dogma' in this context. What dogma?

    Again, you are making a misconceived meal of a phrase I used. Earlier, you assumed I had a low opinion of human nature simply because I stated that a minimal state will not adequately help the poor and needy. Now, you read into a phrase 'people need governing' all sorts of dogmatic totalitarian implications. What nonsense! I am tempted to say that even Jesus saw the need for a state: "render unto Caesar...

    People need governing in the same way that they need health care and education. If they are all evidence of 'big brother', then bring him on!

  • Comment number 72.

    gveale #66

    My point? That #59 was ad nauseum ad absurdum. (I don't know what that means, I just made it up.) Tree huggers and animal rights people, I don't have time for them and I'm an animal lover and choose to live in a rural area myself.

    Do people need governing? I suppose so. One difference between Americans and Europeans IMO is that Americans hate government, are endlessly suspicious of it, regared it as a necessary evil to be watched at all times and kept under control, allowed to exist only to the most minimal degree necessary, and turn to it for help as a last resort only. Ameriaca's first national government after Independence failed under the Articles of Confederation because it was too weak. The Constitution almost didn't pass because it was too strong and only the Bill of Rights restricting its powers saved it from oblivion too.

    Europeans on the other hand look to government to solve all their problems, the more government the better. They see government as planning and controlling as much of life as possible. Americans usually want litte or nothing to do with it, at least no more than is necessary. Government jobs are often looked down upon in the US with some contempt and disdain as in, "you can't get a real job?" Usually government jobs pay considerably less than comparable jobs in private industry. Government employment is often seen as a refuge for losers.

    so brian mcclinton, you indoctrinated young minds into Communism for 36 years. I'll bet there are a lot of priests and ministers who envy that record. Reminds me of the great Ameican baseball player Lou Gherig who played in 2130 consecutive games without interruption, a record that stood from 1939 to 1995. Perhaps one day some of your pupils will make you proud by overthrowing a government. Did you teach Hugo Chavez?

  • Comment number 73.


    I give you examples of some important freedoms, and I am a tree-hugging liberal. I give you some examples of what the state can do and you accuse me of communism.

    Your contrast between Americans and Europeans is much too exaggerated. I don't see much suspicion on your part about the US state's foreign policy, for example. On the contrary, it's a constant love affair.

    Whether we like the state or not probably depends on what it's doing. I am arguing that in many countries it targets the wrong things, like people's sexuality, women's right to abortion (influenced in these areas by the churches), military power, when it should be targeting poverty, inequality, access to health care (a scandal in the USA), support for the arts etc.

    Excessive dislike of the state can lead to a dislike of politics in general. This is dangerous for any representative democracy and often leads to fascism. Fascists leaders often claim an 'authenticity' than 'normal politicians lack.

    As for jobs (Keynes the LIBERAL) argued that in a recession giving people jobs, even if it was digging a hole in the road and filling it up again, was good for the economy because it generated spending power. This multiplier effect of government spending is just as relevant today (after all, in a world full of Hollywood illusions, what is a 'real' job?).

  • Comment number 74.


    I'm probing your views, that's all. You said people need governing, they need certainty, they need harnessing and directing. Well they need to be trusted too, and governments ought to be acting to ensure as much freedom as possible, because governments *are* the people.

    Do people need governing, it all depends what you mean by governing. My point is that too often government becomes too big, (European governments are too big) too often it becomes something other than the people who elected it, too often government is about staying in power, with one leader after another (isn't politics more and more about charismatic leader type figures who can catch the mood of the moment) promising that this time, under them, it will be different. That's not democracy, it's governance by 'dogma', the latest fashionable ideology intended to pull in the votes, but is not called dogma of course it's called vision, and we're all supposed to buy in to it.

    If government actually was about your list of suggestions, targeting poverty, inequality, health care and so on then I'd be with you, but 'democracy' is increasingly about making sure the people record the result the government wants, it's a form of social engineering.

    Are our nurses really allowed to nurse, are teachers really allowed to teach? How many times to health and education professionals need to be told how to organize themselves? Interestingly I notice that you have queried very few if any of my examples of big government interference, whether this means that you agree or not I don't know, but for me, government is acting in-spite of the people and often against the people, and it is this which creates the 'democratic deficit'.

    You say, "People need governing in the same way that they need health care and education". Brian here's my point, government isn't really anything more than providing care, education and protection and it's when it becomes something other than this that all sorts of problems begin to rise. It's your distinction here that worries me and only serves to reinforce for me my earlier concerns about, contradiction and a low view of humanity.

    As for Jesus there are some of us who happen to think that Caesar really doesn't own all that much!

  • Comment number 75.


    Para 1. Fair enough. Agreed. This is a point about particular governments, not about about the need for government as such.

    Para 2. Same point. Remember that people elect the government. People in NI elected Sinn Fein and the DUP. This is the fault of the people as much as the government. In other words, it's not just governments that do silly things. The 'people' have a lot to answer for as well.

    Para 3. Again, yes. We need to refocus governments on tackling real problems. I've already said this.

    Para 4: It is still about these things. After all, it spends an enormous amount on them. We could argue that it is still not enough in the UK compared to some countries in Europe (too much spend on pointless defence in the UK).

    Para 5. It is ironic that you are so suspicious of governments, which at least are made up of real people, but are prepared to put all your faith and trust on an elusive character of 2,000 years ago, who allegedly asked to give up all other tiers, abandon real concerns about poverty, justice, freedom and all the rest, and follow him to the end of the earth. At least, in a democracy we can throw out a government at the next election if we feel it has let us done.

    It seems to me that people who are so suspicious of governments are the people with a low opinion of humanity, because governments are after all made up of human beings. To be mistrustful of them is to be mistrustful of the human race of which they are a part.

  • Comment number 76.

    Para 4 should be 4 and 5.
    Para 5 should be 6.
    'Tiers' in second last para should be 'ties'.

  • Comment number 77.


    The only thing I demand of my government when it comes to matters beyond US borders is that it protect my safety and interests from foreigners and foreign govenments. I don't care what means it uses to do that, as long as it does it effectively. Do I critcize my government's policies in this regard? You bet I do. Why have threats from North Korea and Iran been allowed to go on this long? Why hasn't my government acted far more forcefully? Ineffective. Talking is not the answer. Europeans talked to Iran for years and to what effect? There is only one thing America should have to say to Iran and you know exactly what I am talking about.

    Support for the arts? Are you nuts? New York City paid lots of money to support the arts with money that should have been spent to maintain its now crumbling infrastructure. It paid for people to paint pictures instead of painting bridges and now bridges like the Williamsburg Bridge which had a life expectancy of 500 years had it been maintaind have rusted to the point it had to be completely rebuilt...or would have had to have been replaced at a cost of 8 billion dollars.

    If government guarantees that nobody will be poor, it assures that no one can get rich. Europe's Robin Hood mentality is a prescription for mediocrity and that is exactly what it is about. America is about opportunity, not guarantees.

    Are you suggesting that because Americans are instinctively suspicious of the state, America is a fascist country? Lots of socialists and communists have made that ludicrous slander. Yet the war against fascism would not have been won without America. Russia is a fascist nation. Maybe China is too. Not America by a long shot.

    Government is responsible for public works projects but they are best handled through private contractors. Government by its very nature is inefficient and often corrupt. That's why we limit its power and keep a close watch on those who hold the reigns of government power. BTW, what's it like in the EU where auditors won't certify its books going back over a decade? Now why do you suppose they won't?

  • Comment number 78.

    Brian says-

    "I accept that the state often gets things wrong, but exists to represent a collective will and to help us help one another."

    There is no such thing as a 'collective will'. Yes, individuals tend to follow each other, but in doing so they are exercising their individual will, not some 'collective' will. The ways in which you advocate government represent a "collective will" are actually examples of the majority aggressing against the minority (and even occasionally vice-versa despite the insistence that the manner by which "collective will" is ascertained is democracy, or 'rule by the people'). And in case you don't think 'aggressing' is the right word for it, consider the manner in which the BBC is funded (for a mere example)-- if I choose not to pay my licence fee, they'll write me threatening letters, and if I still don't pay they'll take me to court, and if I don't show up in court they'll send a cop to my door to take me to jail for contempt. And every single one of the ways you leftists like to express your "collective will" is enforced in exactly the same way: forcibly, lest the 'common good' not be fulfilled.

    "People need governing. They need certainty. They need harnessing and directing."

    That is the most arrogant statement in contemporary political discourse. I, for one, am perfectly capable of harnessing and directing myself, Brian. Shouldn't I be allowed to?

    "The market is inherently unstable, as we have recently seen. It frequently 'fails' and needs to be regulated."

    In what ways does it "fail"? The market is merely the way in which human beings trade their skills and talents and products: if it does that, it succeeds. What you're doing, Brian, is ascribing to the free market certain values that you hold and want to see enforced. Noble values, yes, but the market does not "fail" because it doesn't always see to it that they're realised. That's not what the market is for. And it's not what government is for, either. Values are enacted on an individual level, and your own charitable giving is a testament to how seriously you take them. Taking from people to give to others - like some modern Robin Hood - is not in the remit of government no matter what language you use to describe it, "collective will", "looking after each other" or anything else.

    "It is curious, John, that the usual justification for a free market is to say that it is more in tune with our self-seeking self-interested nature. You are arguing the opposite, namely that it gives us the opportunity freely to display our love and care without the need for state action. But this is unhistorical. It just did not happen that way."

    I'm not arguing the opposite at all; I'm arguing both. And the free market does not require justification beyond the fact that man is born an individual with innate rights. Yes, the free market is in tune with our self-interest (would you work a fulltime job for somebody else?), and the free market is completely compatible with charitable giving (in fact, it enables it, since when people get to keep more of their own money, they have more to give away, and there's ample evidence to support that effect).

    Brian, I have a simple message for you: respect your fellow human enough to concede that they have values of their own and they're theirs, only, to execute, not yours or those of the "collective".

  • Comment number 79.


    I ask this purely as a matter of interest, my own politics being those of the 'peregrinus pro amore dei', was the British Government right to nationalise Northern Rock and the US Federal Reserve to bail-out Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac?

  • Comment number 80.

    Portwyne- Both governments were wrong in both cases. Not because we wouldn't want to help, but because it isn't right to force taxpayers to bail out companies who get into trouble against their will. (One may reply, 'Well, lots people would want to bail them out.' Well, then, let them reach into their own pockets to do so.)

  • Comment number 81.


    Saying that there is no such thing as a collective will is rather like Margaret Thatcher saying that there is no such thing as society, a remark for which she has even been scolded by the current Conservative leaders. we are not atomised individuals living in a social vacuum: we are social animals who have relationships with one another. At the very least, there is a collective will as expressed in the ballot box.

    2. Mark would certainly not agree with you about the absence of a 'collective will'. He believes strongly in a 'collectivity' called America which must be defended against all real or imaginary threats, even to the extent that others lives are readily expendable for the 'collective will' of the American people. If you go along with him, then you too subscribe to this 'collective will' which, of course, often seems unattractive to others who aren't American.

    3. I have already said that the majority should not always get their way. That is the compromise inherent in the idea of a liberal democracy. I have outlined some freedoms which I think are valuable (more than you or Mark have, supposedly great believers in 'freedom') and been scoffed at by Mark for excessive enthusiasm for them, while at the same time I am being attacked for my 'communism'. Try to read all my posts and not just the latest one, please.

    4. The BBC is an excellent example of an organisation which caters for both majorities AND minorities and as such is the envy of the world. Long may it continue, safe from Murdoch-style destroyers of quality broadcasting.

    5. You accuse me of arrogance and say that you are perfectly capable of harnessing and directing yourself. Well, that surely is the height of arrogance.
    You must be totally unique. You mean that at the age of 5 you knew how to educate yourself? Or that you now know how to cure yourself if you become ill? Or that you can build roads and bridges and underpasses for your own needs? Or that you know how to defend yourself from attack by a foreign power (maybe the US state should distribute the money it spends on defence and ask the people to defend themselves)? Or that you don't even need ADVICE on subjects such as smoking or excessive drinking? You, John, are yourself alone. You need nothing but what you can provide for yourself. No 'harnessing', no 'directing'. Congratulations.

    5. Market failure is a perfectly acceptable concept, even for avid supporters of a free market. In orthodox economics a market fails when the mechanisms of demand and supply fail to allocate resources in the most efficient way. The reason is that there are market imperfections. Some are inherent, for example, the market cannot adequately provide public goods because they would be unprofitable (defence is an obvious example, the police is another). The market also underprovides merit goods (health, education) and overprovides demerit goods (drugs, pornography). Sometimes the market also fails to clear, as when large numbers are unemployed or it may clear, but in a way that has been distorted, e.g, where large organisations have some degree of monopoly power. Markets also fail when externalities such as water and air pollution are not costed, so that firms make private profits at the cost of social welfare (or, if you like, against the interest of the 'collective' will). in all these cases governments have a role to play. This is acknowledged even by orthodox 'market' economists.

    6. The market throws up great disparities in income and wealth. One of the suggested functions of a state in a mixed economy is to reduce these inequalities by indeed acting like a Robin Hood, taking from the rich because they can bear the biggest burden and giving to the poor through benefits in cash and kind. Voluntary giving is never nearly enough. It is only a drop in the ocean. Most people will not willingly give. You can say that this is selfishness if you wish, but I think it is as much thoughtlessness as anything else, and again it is a clear case where our undoubtedly kind instincts need to be 'harnessed' and 'directed' for the common good.

  • Comment number 82.


    I guess you didn't get a chance to look at the "localism" debate, or think it's too vague to consider.
    It does occur to me that Thatcher, and especially Reagan, were elected on the message - "move the state out of the way, and let the individual achieve all they can." I think the message "move the state into a supporting role, adn let communities achieve all that they can" might have more resonance today. It might quell Peter's concern over Big Government, and meet Brian's claim that society has a duty of care.
    I don't like what the Tories are doing with the idea. Too vague, and too populist. But there may be alternatives.

    Graham Veale

  • Comment number 83.

    I would not use the term collective will. In a democracy there is rule of the majority but it is important that there is also protection of the rights of the minority. Each individual is a minority of one. The tyranny of the majority cannot be allowed to take freedoms away from minorities. There may be rare exceptions in cases of wars or other national crises, like in WWII and right now.

    Was the US government right to bail out banks who got into trouble. The answer is an unqualified yes. Those who do not learn the lessons of history are condemned to repeat them. One lesson that was learned by the Federal Reserve and the Treasury from the great depression is that by punishing lending instutitions for their stupidity in handling money, you only add insult to injury. To punish banks and stock borkerage houses for foolishly lending large sums of money to stock investors, up to 90% on some margin accounts where the only collateral was the stocks themselves, after the market crashed the Federal reserve drained liquidity to teach those fools a lesson. The lesson it taught itself was that it participated in creating the worst economic hardship the United States ever faced. Modern economists know that was exactly the wrong thing to do even if Bush and McCain don't know that (Senators Clinton and Obama don't seem to have much more in the way of economic smarts either.) What the Federal reserve has done in such cases has been to ease credit and add liquidity. When that doesn't work in severe cases as we have now, the Treasury steps in and prints massive amounts of money. That has started already. It has done this in several ways but principly it has traded bad mortgages for iron clad Treasury obligations, bonds. To pay for them when the loans default, the Treasury will merely print what it needs deflating the value of the currency, raising interest rates, triggering inflation, and devaluing the US dollar even further than it already is. This is the only way to mitigate or stave off a deep recession or depression, trade it for inflation. Between Freddy Mac and Ginny Mae, they hold 5.6 trillion dollars in mortgages, roughly one half of all US mortgages. If they go under the US economy will go into shock mode. In the last thee months, 3/4 of a million Americans have had their mortgages go into default. Horrible as those unsecured loans are, the government must find a way to keep the banks from going broke because of them and keep millions of Americans from suddenly becoming homeless. The way is clear, by putting a lot of cheap easy to acquire dollars in lots of hands quickly. The banks will take a loss in real dollar value terms, homeowners will not get away scott free, they will still have to pay much of their income out on housing and forgo luxuries they've been accostomed to, and anyone who holds US Treasury obligations such as China will get paid with far cheaper dollars than they loaned out. In inflation there are losers but there are also winners. One loser will be everyone outside the US who depends directly or indirectly on exports to the the world's biggest importing nation the US. And of course, the price of food will go up too. It is tied directly to the cost of energy and the US also happens to be the world's largest exporter of food. There is about to be a complete upsetting of the whole economic applecart worldwide. Who will come out on top in the end? What do you think my guess is?

  • Comment number 84.

    Let me guess....

    Northern Ireland???

  • Comment number 85.

    Brian- I look forward to replying tomorrow.

  • Comment number 86.

    Hi Graham

    post 82

    Apologies, I didn't get round to looking up the localism suggestion.

    It's not a term I'm particularly familiar with but I'll check it out. Maybe it is a solution, but your concerns about the Tories ring a few alarm bells - maybe I'm just sound-bited (should that be bit) out. That and 'Fundamentalist Christians in government looking after their own constituencied out.' (It's clumsy, I know!)

  • Comment number 87.


    I'll deal with each of your points in turn.

    1) On "collective will." You say "At the very least, there is a collective will as expressed in the ballot box." That's true. But that process is intentionally limited in scope due to the concept of rights. If 'the people' voted in favour of torture, you wouldn't want policy to honour that vote, would you? Why not? Because you believe that human beings have certain rights that torture would violate. So we all believe the government should be limited by some rights; we differ only on the rights we think it should be limited by. On those human actions I believe should be free (the vast majority), there is no "collective will", only my own. And what you CALL "collective will" is merely individual will expressed millions of times over.

    2. On Mark's belief in an American "collectivity". If you've represented his opinion accurately, then I disagree with him fundamentally. America = 300 million individuals, all with their own lives to live by their own values. The only value necessary to bind Americans is a commitment to liberty.

    3. "The majority should not always get their way." Wonderful. How do you establish when they should and when they shouldn't? I believe the minority should get their way by default, governed by the principle that if their action does not infringe upon someone else then their action should be free. How does your convoluted method of micromanagement and social engineering work, again?

    4. On the BBC. You say it "...is an excellent example of an organisation which caters for both majorities AND minorities and as such is the envy of the world. Long may it continue, safe from Murdoch-style destroyers of quality broadcasting." Wow, Brian, you don't like Murdoch? Never saw that one coming. This is tired, tired stuff. People don't want to be told that they HAVE to pay for content, whether they'll watch it or not. The irony of your position, of course, is that if enough people agree with you to justify it, then it could be funded voluntarily by subscription (since advertising is such anathema to you enlightened, liberal people). But it can't survive that way in its current form, because not enough people DO agree with you. So you have to steal from those people who are watching Sky One instead to get funding for your style of cultured, sophisticated programming. Did I get anything right? (Did I punch any sacred cows?)

    5. "You accuse me of arrogance and say that you are perfectly capable of harnessing and directing yourself." You're damned right.

    "You must be totally unique. You mean that at the age of 5 you knew how to educate yourself?" Uh, don't be silly now, Brian.

    "Or that you now know how to cure yourself if you become ill?" No, didn't say that either.

    "Or that you can build roads and bridges and underpasses for your own needs?" No....

    "Or that you know how to defend yourself from attack by a foreign power?" ..........

    "Or that you don't even need ADVICE on subjects such as smoking or excessive drinking?"

    You've singularly, patently, (and dubiously) failed to understand what I said when I told you I didn't need you to be "directed and harnessed." You mention education, healthcare, roads, defense and smoking/drinking. The only one of those which is in the role of government is defense: government exists to protect the very liberty I've been referring to (since many of my rights would be violated by the invasion of a foreign power). On education and healthcare, I do not need harnessed and directed: I am perfectly capable of choosing my educators, healthcare providers and roads operators (let me know if your imagination needs some stimulus on that last point). And there are plenty of charities preaching to me about smoking and drinking without my being stolen from to that effect (for the record I don't smoke, and only drink very lightly, neither of which decisions are because the government gave me "advice"). You are into social engineering, Brian. You're a control freak who couldn't handle a truly free society and need nannied: I understand, but please do it in some kind of voluntary program rather than by using the force of government to assume everyone is as incapable of self-government as yourself. :-)

    5. On market failure. "The market also underprovides merit goods (health, education) and overprovides demerit goods (drugs, pornography)." Brian, that is utter garbage. First, am I to understand that you've decided for the rest of us which goods are merit and demerit? How nice of you. Again, I want to scream "laissez faire" (or, preferably, something much ruder). I will decide, for me, what is a 'valuable' good and what is not. The good part: you get to decide FOR YOU also. Don't like pornography? Don't buy it. Don't like drugs? Strange, since some of them are very useful, but feel free to go it without them. Just don't tell ME what to do. Do you see this picture yet? Only from the perspective of someone who doesn't believe other people are their peers (ie. rational people) - ie. who believe they're MORE rational or MORE enlightened than someone else - could you intend to tell them what things they must value and what they must not. Again, it isn't by collective will but by individual will that these decisions are made.

    "...where large organisations have some degree of monopoly power..."

    The biggest monopoly is government, Brian. You remove monopolies by removing protectionism, corporate welfare and government meddling. And if a company has a monopoly then in a truly free market that company will soon have some serious competition.

    "Markets also fail when externalities such as water and air pollution are not costed..."

    Well once we get past this nonsense we can talk about the harder issues like water and air pollution, etc. -- these are some of the things that occupy libertarians and on which libertarians disagree. But you and I aren't there yet.

    6. "The market throws up great disparities in income and wealth."

    LIFE throws up these disparities; the market reflects life. What do you propose to do once you've redistributed everyone's wealth (and removed most of the incentive for them to work in the first place, making everyone poorer in the process)? Move on to plastic surgery for those born with less of a chance in life due to being fugly? The way to reduce disparity, Brian - which will always exist - is to create a world in which the economy thrives and opportunity has never been greater: a free world where people act voluntarily and are rewarded by being allowed to keep the fruit of their own labour.

    "Voluntary giving is never nearly enough. It is only a drop in the ocean. Most people will not willingly give."

    It's a drop in the ocean of an unfree economy and an unfree world. But not only would giving increase if people were allowed to keep their own money, but the amount that people could afford would increase, and the amount the people would need would be so much less. You mention Somalia. You really want to help them? Give them the greatest thing we have and they don't: capitalism.

  • Comment number 88.

    Hi John:

    Just as I thought: you are a rabid free marketeer, a position which is just as ridiculous in its own way as religious fundamentalism. It is clear that you think markets NEVER fail, a stance which not even the most renowned exponent would in their right mind suggest. It's cloud cuckoo land.

    You concede that there is a collective will, but it turns out that all it exists for is apparently its own defence. Is that correct? Can you offer other examples where this collective will expresses itself? What do people vote for in the great democracy that is the US?

    You dismiss the concept of merit and demerit goods as garbage, even though most free market economists accept it. I didn't decide the examples. It is the 'collective will' or public opinion which decides. The examples of health and education (merit) and drugs and pornography (demerit) are the standard examples given in Economics textbooks.

    Of course, neither you nor I HAVE to agree with them. I agree with health and education but I'm pretty easy about pornography (the erotic variety is fine by me; it's the violent stuff I object to - much of it emanating from the peace-loving US of A). But in a democracy I accept the will of the majority on these matters. It seems to me that either you don't actually know the meaning of democracy or you don't agree with it at all because it interferes with your 'freedom'.

    The greatest monopoly of all is indeed the state, but governments can be removed at the ballot box. Big corporations are not so easily challenged. BTW: again you are revealing your ignorance of Economics here. Many markets are dominated by oligopolies, which do not compete on price but often collude to charge high prices. The oil companies are an obvious example. Many 'liberal' economists will argue the need for the state to interfere and regulate in order to ensure that they do not exploit consumers.
    The tobacco companies are Enron are obvious examples. But because you adopt an extreme position, you cannot concede that any of it is justified - a ridiculous corner into which you have boxed yourself.

    What is your role as an individual in a free society, Mark? Is it just to do your own thing? Do you have any obligations to others beyond your immediate kith and kin? I am not merely referring to charitable works here. I am referring to acceptance of majority decisions.

    Let me give you an example. The majority of people in NI because in the union with Britain. I don't, but I accept their wishes while trying to persuade them that they are mistaken. This implies that I accept their RIGHT to decide something different from me. Do you accept the right of the majority on anything other than defence?

    One other point. You say that life throws up disparities and the market reflects that. Life also throws up murderers and rapists, but we don't readily tolerate them. We are talking morality here, not 'whatever is, is right'. In most European countries there is redistribution through the tax system. It's a great idea, though some countries including the UK have recently reduced the amount of redistribution to the detriment of all.

  • Comment number 89.

    'Because' second line second last para should be 'believe'.

  • Comment number 90.

    Brian- I'm wondering if you don't read very well, or if you are simply being willfully ignorant of what I've been saying. Or, I suppose, I may not have explained myself very well.

    "Just as I thought: you are a rabid free marketeer ... [blah blah] ... It is clear that you think markets NEVER fail, a stance which not even the most renowned exponent would in their right mind suggest. It's cloud cuckoo land."

    Let's summarise: I challenged the term 'market failure' by saying that the market does what it's meant to do when people trade, and that you can assert that it's failed only by giving it extra responsibilities (like relieving poverty and building equity). If you extrapolate your values onto the market by giving it these extra expectations, you can certainly say that it's failed if it doesn't live up to them. "It is clear that you think markets NEVER fail..." is therefore incorrect, in the sense that you mean. The market fails if it's expected to eradicate poverty in the sense that rock and roll music fails if it's expected to make you coffee.

    "You concede that there is a collective will, but it turns out that all it exists for is apparently its own defence. Is that correct?"

    No. Again you either aren't paying close enough attention to the nuances of my reply or you're ignoring them on purpose. If what you mean by "collective will" is simply the democratic process, then that certainly exists. But then it is not a collective value system or a collective belief system: it's merely the least awful way to 'do' government, by establishing what the majority of individuals 'will'. But 'will' is an individual thing (ie. mine is different to yours). That's why a high level of individual freedom is required morally, and that's why the protection of that freedom is in the remit of government (which includes defense, police, justice system, etc.).

    "You dismiss the concept of merit and demerit goods as garbage, even though most free market economists accept it."

    Delightful for them. Again, it only relates to any extra expectations of the market. What's "garbage" is the idea that we should try to collectively enshrine merit and demerit in the market into law.

    "I didn't decide the examples. It is the 'collective will' or public opinion which decides."

    That's precisely the problem I've been referring to.

    "Of course, neither you nor I HAVE to agree with them. I agree with health and education but I'm pretty easy about pornography (the erotic variety is fine by me; it's the violent stuff I object to - much of it emanating from the peace-loving US of A)."

    Your constant potshots at America are indicative of a serious ideological disease that you should really deal with eventually. Needless to say there are violent people in America as elsewhere, and people use freedom in a wide variety of ways, not all of which (or even most of which) we need to like in order to support.

    "But in a democracy I accept the will of the majority on these matters. It seems to me that either you don't actually know the meaning of democracy or you don't agree with it at all because it interferes with your 'freedom'."

    I've already explained this too: democracy is limited by the concept of rights. If I have a right to own pornography then no act of democracy can violate it, just as rights are violated by torture and no act of democracy can violate those either, even if the 'collective' willed it. I do hope I'm explaining myself better, because thus far I don't think you've got it, and I certainly don't want to keep repeating my points. The same innate, inviolable rights protecting the individual from being tortured also protect the individual's right to own porn. Governments cannot violate the inviolable any more than individuals.

    (By the way, I appreciate the discussion; it's been illuminating. I think very often political lines are drawn in such a way that people can never interact to understand the other position, only to fire shots at it. Although I think you're wrong on a fundamental level, I'm at least benefitting from a greater understanding of what you believe.)

  • Comment number 91.


    It is easy to tell when you are cornered because the immature insults pile up. Instead of meaningless waffle, give me examples, please of the work done by the state that is worthwhile in your view. Otherwise, the exchange is pointless. Your closing statement doesn't alter these facts one little bit, I'm afraid. You may understand my position because I have tried to outline it. All you can think of are petty shots at me. Take your own advice.

    Come on, examples please, of the state carrying out the collective will of the people ("We the people...).

  • Comment number 92.


    I don't know what you were thinking when you read my comment but it did not contain "immature insults", and nobody in their right mind could sincerely call it "meaningless waffle". You may disagree with what I said, but "meaningless waffle" it OBVIOUSLY is not. If my honesty offends you then you're far too sensitive (which, I admit, doesn't come as a complete surprise given your political persuasion).

    You quite simply didn't appear to be 'getting' my position, and I merely conveyed that to you by pointing it out, something which I feel the need to do again since you've chosen to ignore everything I just said. Is this your way of avoiding engaging with the point, or do you honestly not see what I'm saying? I'm a little confused on that point.

    You asked me to give you examples of ways the state carries out the collective will of the people. As far as I know, my entire last reply to you was dealing with that very question. I'll repost a section of it in response to your question:

    "If what you mean by "collective will" is simply the democratic process, then that certainly exists. But then it is not a collective value system or a collective belief system: it's merely the least awful way to 'do' government, by establishing what the majority of individuals 'will'. But 'will' is an individual thing (ie. mine is different to yours). That's why a high level of individual freedom is required morally, and that's why the protection of that freedom is in the remit of government (which includes defense, police, justice system, etc.)."

    There are 3 examples at the end of that paragraph of things the state is responsible for carrying out on behalf of the millions of individuals whose liberty its job is to protect.

    Over to you.

  • Comment number 93.


    "Governments cannot violate the inviolable any more than individuals."

    A request for clarification. In the paragraph from which I have quoted can I assume you are speaking at the level of morality rather than fact?

    The rate at which Government violates the inviolable is one of the most alarming aspects of life in the UK today. Our basic, most precious freedoms and rights continue to be eroded almost without comment and without serious and active opposition.

    We live in a so-called democracy but the apparatus is being put in place which would give some future totalitarian regime (and who can say honestly that such a thing is not possible) historically unprecedented information about every aspect of its citizens' lives with a terrifying potential for their ultimate control.

  • Comment number 94.


    It is, as I have said, a very restrictive notion. It reduces democracy to a system of safeguarding individual political liberties. It removes 'democracy' from 'liberal democracy'.

    Why, in your perspective, is a state necessary at all? According to you, it is only exists to protect individual 'freedoms'. Why can't this be accomplished without a state. After all, without laws everyone is 'free' in your sense, are they not? Surely a state only gets in the way of 'freedom'?

    Suppose that the majority wished to remove these safeguards. Would they be allowed to do so in your system? If not, why not? Suppose the majority wanted a comprehensive state-provided health care. Would they be allowed to do so in your system? If not, why not? Suppose the majority wanted a stated-provided educational service? Would they be allowed to do so in your system? Suppose the majority wanted the state to build roads or run airlines. Would it be allowed to do so in your system?

    In other words, if the majority ('collective will') want something with which you disagree, where do you stand? Should they have their way? Or should your individual right to oppose such things be respected and upheld?

  • Comment number 95.

    Has it occurred to you that some folk are as Atomistic about society as Dawkins is about humanity? In other words, a belief in Selfish Genes (even if taken in exactly the way Dawkins wants us to take it) coheres neatly with the belief in Selfish Capitalism?
    Just reduce everything down to the bare "objective" facts - taking care to restrict the meaning of objective before the discussion begins. Then we'll clearly see the way forward?

    Graham Veale

  • Comment number 96.

    Portwyne- Yes, and I agree with everything you said. Government violates the rights of citizens in almost every waking moment, and it all stems from the ideas espoused by Brian McClinton.

    Brian- You ask why a state is necessary at all in my view. I'm a minarchist, not an anarchist, because a final arbiter must exist to establish objectivity and equality of rights and freedoms. The use of force (which is the sole role of government) is not a good or service like any other: protecting justice and rights is the key to safeguarding the freedoms of citizens. The non-aggression principle thus demands that a government be established to do so, and that no-one but the government be allowed to.

    I'm well aware that no government at all would equal chaos. That's not what I'm arguing for.

    "Suppose that the majority wished to remove these safeguards. Would they be allowed to do so in your system?"

    No. For the same reason they couldn't enact torture.

    "Suppose the majority wanted a comprehensive state-provided health care. Would they be allowed to do so in your system?"

    No. For the same reason they couldn't enact torture. A state-provided healthcare system forcibly removes from citizens the fruit of their own labour to pay for healthcare they didn't necessarily choose for themselves or even want. Healthcare is an individual choice.

    "In other words, if the majority ('collective will') want something with which you disagree, where do you stand? Should they have their way? Or should your individual right to oppose such things be respected and upheld?"

    The majority can't aggress against the minority just because they're the majority. After all, the smallest minority is the individual. Forcing the funding of lots of things which should be choices at the individual level is initiating aggression, because it's using threat of jail, and the point of a gun, to establish the value systems of someone else. To paraphrase Ayn Rand, I refuse to live for the sake of another man, and I ask no other man to live for mine.

    Bottom line?... this goes to the heart of what and who human beings are. Yes, we're social animals, but we are so at an individual level with individual will. Honour that in law, and you honour humanity. As a humanist I'm sure you could see some logic in that. My fellow human beings make some decisions that are ridiculous and crazy, in my view, but I refuse to aggress against their right to make them as the rational, full human beings that they are. That includes their rights to choose their healthcare providers, educators, broadcasters etc. for themselves.


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