Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Bonhoff’S Law

A curious paradox, first noted and subsequently develop by mathematician Umlaut Bonhoff, which states that no matter how prosperous a capitalist society becomes, the amount of wealth generated will never be sufficient to meet the demands placed upon it. Bonhoff observed, moreover, that in free market economies growth tends to widen inequalities, allowing the “winners” to claim an ever larger share of resources without the “losers” being willing to accept a smaller share for themselves. Governments of countries that shun redistributive policies (taxing the rich to serve the poor) find, therefore, that increases in national prosperity reduce their ability to fund basic public services (public transport, health and education, sports facilities etc.) at the level of their ambitions or their promises. In the midst of wealth, they plead poverty. Some fairly sophisticated mathematics underpin Bonhoff’s Law, which may be why, although not universally accepted, it has yet to be disproved. On the other hand, daily experience of life in the “free world” seems to bear out its fundamental accuracy.

Saturday, October 25, 2008


A coinage of the early second millennium, Blairism may be defined as the policy-making equivalent of deductive thinking, whereby reason, knowledge and facts are marshalled after an event to justify whimsical statements, decisions, or judgements made before it. The derivative “Blairite” denotes a (generally slavish) exponent of the practice.
Based on the surname of British Prime Minister Anthony J. Blair, the word originally referred to the prime minister’s habit of generating policy on the hoof - usually in the form of an off-the-cuff response to a journalist’s question or, occasionally, an aside from an American president. Colleagues were then obliged to incorporate the new policy in their departmental budgets, to defend it to the country and in parliament, and to proclaim it as the outcome of deep reflection, exhaustive research, extensive debate, and wide consensus.
During his years in office, Blair’s cerebral eruptions produced such loopy initiatives as the 2003 war against Iraq, the indefinite detention without trial of people the government didn’t like, the suspension of habeas corpus, intemperate promises to rescue Africa from penury and Europe from lunacy, the despatch of tanks to Heathrow Airport, and countless other grotesqueries large and small that events later showed to be misguided. Since Blairism appeared in the language, it has acquired additional pejorative resonances and its adjectival form - Blairite - is often used to describe someone who, lacking opinions of their own, passionately defends someone else’s.
Blairism has survived its progenitor along with the practice to which it refers and for the foreseeable future seems set to remain a grim feature of the political landscape.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Government and Terror

A characteristic irony of western democracies is that elected leaders often end up despising democracy and fearing public opinion. Having stepped over the threshold of the White House or Number Ten or the Elysée Palace, they find their ability to act circumscribed by the same forces that enabled them to achieve power in the first place: the checks and balances and safeguards - congress, parliament, the separation of powers - developed over time to prevent any of them from running off with the rule book. And they respond, invariably it seems, with efforts to undermine the system they are in office to defend.

Terrorizing the population with stark warnings about - well, terrorism - has emerged as a tactic of choice. Hence, the UK government's fascination with the idea of detaining people without charge for lengthy periods - a common recourse of dictatorial regimes but not one expected of what we like to think of as a "mature" democracy. Voted down more than once, it will doubtless be re-introduced at the first available opportunity, perhaps in the wake of a starkly-worded warning from a favored government soothsayer.

Omnibus legislation - the parceling up of vast amounts of legislation into one bundle in which repressive clauses lie buried in a thicket of innocuous ones - has also become a useful anti-democratic weapon. It should come as no surprise that the government found it could use the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Bill not only to forbid public demonstrations - aka "criticism of the government" - within a mile of parliament or anywhere else that took their fancy, but also to freeze Icelandic assets in the UK. Neither of these initiatives has anything to do with terrorism, but that is not, fundamentally, why the legislation exists. Its purpose - its sole purpose - is to provide legal cover for the government to seize, suppress, prevent, restrict, coerce, and subdue; in other words to do whatever it wants whenever it wants.

That includes invading our privacy. Walk through the centre of any significant UK city and you will be followed by a succession of cameras charting your progress. Car journeys are scrutinized no less assiduously. If the government gets its way, your details (how many details we don't yet know) will be etched onto an ID card so that they are available to whatever callow bureaucrat demands them.

The reason for all this surveillance? To make sure we aren't terrorists - the one piece of information that won't, of course, show up on camera or find its way into the card's electronic coding.

One of the shibboleths of democracy is that those in power work for the people. It's time we stopped believing in this nonsense. Politicians - most of them at any rate - work primarily for themselves; and they don't much like interference from the rest of us. Nor do they want our opinions. Once we have exercised our quinquennial vote (quadrennial in the US, sexennial in Mexico etc.), our role is to put up and shut up. They are the bosses; and we work for them - or rather we do their bidding. We have become - to abuse a wonderful phrase of Wittgenstein's - flies in the fly-bottle.

If we are ever to take back our democracy, we will have to reacquire our right not to be scrutinized at the whim of ministers. And we will have to reverse our relationship with those who govern in our name. It is they who should be in the bottle while we, the public, remain on the outside looking in at them and making sure they never again get a chance to run off with our freedoms.