The Apollo Project
Liberal Ideas for the 21st Century
Monday, August 08, 2005
‘AXE THE TAX’, OR ‘WHY THE LICENCE FEE IS THE BIGGEST SINGLE THREAT TO PUBLIC SERVICE BROADCASTING’
by Stephen Tall

You get home from a hard day’s work, switch on the television, and settle back for an evening’s perfect viewing. What would your ideal schedule look like? Here’s a few shows I’d choose: Brideshead Revisited, Inspector Morse, GBH, The World At War, Dispatches, 7Up, Jeeves & Wooster and Brass Eye.

The sharp-eyed will have observed a unifying theme: all those programmes were the product of commercial television. They were not chosen for the purposes of engaging in sterile debate about which channel is best (of course I could have found paragons from the BBC’s back catalogue) but to highlight the danger in equating public service broadcasting with ‘Auntie’. They are not the same thing at all, just as socialism is not, [i]pace[/i] Herbert Morrison, what a Labour Government does.

It was all so much simpler back in television’s ‘Golden Age’. Scarce analogue broadcasting frequencies restricted viewer choice to a handful of channels. These were funded by the BBC’s private poll tax, the licence fee, and by “the viewers’ free lunch”, as the strictly regulated advertising funding that underpins the commercial terrestrial channels has been termed.

Those days are dead. Satellite, cable and digital technologies have transformed the broadcasting landscape, introducing a growing band of subscribers to an expanded range of wheat and chaff viewing. The consumer demand is clearly there. Around half of British households are currently equipped to receive multi-channel television; this will rise to some 80 per cent in 2010. In 2001, almost £3 billion was spent on subscription-television, and a further £1.3 billion on renting and buying DVDs and videos. We are quite evidently prepared as a nation to use our disposable income to pay for our television entertainment, over and above the licence fee. This advance of broadcasting towards a free market, with viewers exercising real control over their individual preferences, should be embraced by liberals.

Expanding consumer choice may be a worthwhile aim in itself, but it does not guarantee that public service broadcasting will survive and thrive. What threatens it most is the inability of political parties to respond to the implications of the new digital age, and their nostalgic reliance on the BBC to act as a monopolistic provider of public service broadcasting.

Two prevailing assumptions, as relevant as ever, have guided successive governments’ approaches to public service broadcasting for the last 50 years. The first is that public funding is essential to correct market failure given the importance of broadcasting to our society’s political and cultural climate. The second is that standards in public service broadcasting can be improved by governments helping to frame the market conditions in which rival channels compete on a level playing field to provide high quality programming. This vital tenet is too often forgotten by liberals, and should be championed with greater vigour and focus.

For half a century, public service broadcasting flourished thanks to the rivalry of its two great institutions, the BBC and ITV. The genesis of the advertising-funded ITV in the 1950s jolted the public-funded BBC into belated recognition that it could best foster its reputation as the voice of the nation by making quality programmes with popular appeal. By the same token, ITV’s public service remit – to provide news, religious, educational, arts, children’s and regional programming – forced it to think afresh how these genres could be made accessible to a mass audience, so safeguarding its advertising revenues. The BBC licence fee was increased in line with ITV’s advertising revenues to ensure reasonable parity between the rivals’ programming budgets.

This compact between the BBC and ITV was the basis for Britain’s public service broadcasting for half a century. The longevity of this cosy duopoly perhaps explains the reluctance of politicians to believe that it could have been so abruptly shattered.

So what’s changed, and why’s there a problem?

The BBC’s problem is the most obvious. Its privileged position as sole licence fee beneficiary obligates it to demonstrate its national appeal: if everybody’s paying for it, we must all feel we are getting our money’s worth. That used to be a slam-dunk. As recently as 1995, the Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board put the BBC’s ‘reach’ (the proportion of those who watch a channel for at least 15 minutes a week) at 94%. However, by the first quarter of 2004, it was down to 89%.

The fact that one in 10 of the television population do not tune into the BBC in any given week is not due to any lack of effort on the corporation’s behalf. The BBC set out its stall quite explicitly during Greg Dyke’s tenure as Director General: to become the nation’s most popular broadcaster. The result is that if, on any given night, the peak-time output of BBC1 and ITV1 were submitted to a ‘blind taste test’ they would be virtually indistinguishable. The BBC’s public service remit has become sublimated to its ratings obsession, and yet this is a perfectly understandable response to the political imperative to preserve its universal voice in the digital age. This is the BBC’s dilemma: if it chases ratings to retain its universal appeal it is accused of ‘dumbing down’; if it focuses on its public service remit it risks losing viewers and growing licence fee resentment.

ITV’s problems are, if anything, more acute, since its survival is dependent on the commercial viability of its output. Its privileged position as principal beneficiary of lucrative advertising revenues has for decades enabled it to invest in low-profit (or loss-making) programmes. There is no inevitability, though, that advertisers will continue to choose ITV in the multi-channel age, or, if they do, that ITV will be able to charge what they could in the past. The trends are clear. In 1997, ITV commanded a 33 per cent audience share, and 65 per cent of TV advertising revenues. By 2003, just six years later, this had slipped to a 24 per cent audience share, and 54 per cent of advertising revenues. If it is to provide its shareholders with good value, ITV will increasingly be forced to maximise revenues from every available programme slot. Each morning, at 10 am, channel controllers drop everything to examine the overnight ratings: already ITV gives short shrift to those shows which cannot guarantee the audiences their advertisers demand.

ITV is not, of course, the BBC’s sole competitor, but, as a network which is a publicly-quoted company, it is the most exposed to such commercial pressures. State-owned Channel Four remains protected from the extremities of the new digital climate; while Five’s business planning was predicated on an initial audience share of just five per cent. However, it is reasonable to assume that the vicissitudes of multi-channel Britain will have an inescapably negative impact on the commitment of all the commercial terrestrial channels to public service broadcasting.

In other words, we are on the verge of turning the broadcasting clock back to its pre-ITV existence, in which the BBC is de facto the sole purveyor of public service broadcasting.

So what fate awaits public service broadcasting in the digital age? The utterances of the political parties suggest they believe no fundamental changes are necessary. The Liberal Democrats’ view is clear: “There should be a strong public service ethos underpinning broadcasting … this is best achieved through the BBC in its current form, along with public service remits carried by other broadcasters.” The BBC, the party maintains, should continue to be funded by the licence fee.

Such a strategy is fatally flawed by its refusal to appreciate broadcasting’s shifted sands. Progressive liberals should not espouse regressive economic policies: enshrining a poll tax-funded BBC as the monopolistic supplier of public service broadcasting will erode standards, and restrict the choice of the television consumer. Instead we should try to harness the new technologies to make available to the maximum number of people the benefits of the new multi-channel digital age. At the same time, we must endeavour to ensure the market conditions exist in which these channels compete to create the highest quality programmes.

But how do we achieve this?

A prerequisite is the axing of the licence fee, that anachronistic hangover from the analogue era. It is not just that the licence fee perpetuates the myth that the BBC and public service broadcasting are one and the same. More importantly, it is insupportable to make the growing numbers of those who do not wish to watch the BBC pay for it regardless. Regressive taxation militates against social justice, and should be used sparingly; for example, to tackle environmental externalities. As David Elstein has noted, “Half of the population, many of the poorest, don’t have digital television, yet they fork out up to £400m a year for it. At the moment, it’s not a market; it’s compulsory purchase.” It is no surprise that, in 2001, of the 121,124 people prosecuted for television licence evasion, a disproportionate number were poor, unemployed, single parents. Bluntly, those who can least afford it are helping to subsidise the cultural pleasure of those who can.

The BBC could, of course, survive the removal of its licence fee income by becoming a subscription-funded broadcaster, paid for by those who actively choose to watch its programmes. Some people would, inevitably, stop watching the BBC, but at least the corporation would not need to waste its creative juices devising ever more populist ways of reaching out to those who are just not interested. Instead, it could concentrate on making dramas as darkly compelling as Six Feet Under, and comedies as daringly zeitgeist as Sex And The City, both of which are the products of the American pay-television channel HBO.

With the licence fee dispatched, a sensible discussion can commence on the best way to enhance public service broadcasting. So let us return to our earlier assumptions: that public funding remains a necessary corrective to market failure; and that governments should frame market conditions to ensure rival channels compete on a level playing field.

The most obvious present market failure is that half the population currently does not have access to digital, cable or satellite television, whether by personal choice or economic necessity. That gap will, however, be bridged within the next decade, as digital adapters become more affordable, and as households update their television sets to digital-compatible models. Within the next decade, we can safely assume there will be near-universal access to the digital age.

It is the cultural failings of the market, therefore, which should most exercise us if, as predicted, the commercial terrestrial channels increasingly withdraw from their public service remit, leaving a void which the BBC alone is fit to fill. Our agreed aim must surely be to promote a plurality of channels whose healthy rivalries ratchet up the quality of their respective programmes. What mechanism is available, then, that will assist all post-licence fee public service broadcasters to continue making ‘merit good programmes’, shows which contribute more to society than their economic value?

The obvious solution is to create a public service fund to which all broadcasters would be able to bid. Two variations on this model have recently been proposed. One version, put forward by David Elstein, and which also argues for the ending of the licence fee, would establish a new Public Broadcasting Authority, answerable to Ofcom, to run its “contestable funding” of up to £1 billion (and out of which BBC radio would continue to be funded). It would be paid for from the VAT levied on pay-television subscription services, or by new spectrum taxes imposed on all commercial broadcasters.

An alternative, propounded by Barry Cox, Tim Gardam and Adam Singer, (and which consciously eschews the controversy of licence fee abolition), would establish a public service fund to which any commercial broadcaster could bid for matched funding. Alert to the danger that such a fund could become some kind of “hideous quango trying to force ‘good for you’ programmes down reluctant throats”, they advocate careful safeguards. For example, the fund would provide between 20 and 50 per cent of the programme’s budget: the floor to prevent the fund being used as top-up money for a programme which the broadcaster would have made anyway, the ceiling to ensure the broadcaster’s commitment to its own idea.

There are two alternate visions of the future of public service broadcasting. The first, to which the three main political parties are currently wedded, accepts the realities of the digital age, but refuses to engage in its implications, believing the BBC-ITV compact will continue in the future to provide the same kind of quality public service broadcasting we have enjoyed in the past. The second vision embraces the benefits that the digital age will bring consumers, but recognises that new funding arrangements are essential to ensure a new ‘Golden Age’ of public service broadcasting.

The Liberal Democrats have the opportunity to carve out a distinctive policy stance. By abolishing that regressive poll tax, the licence fee, which disproportionately hits the poor hardest, we can advance the cause of social justice; and by creating fairer market conditions in which all channels can compete equally for funding to make high quality programmes, we can advance the cause of public service broadcasting.
posted by Apollo Project @ 9:44 am  
15 Comments:
  • At 08 August, 2005 23:32, Blogger Simon said…

    I disagree completely. Stephen Tall and I have had this debate before; rather than repeat all the arguments, take a look at my posting and the ensuing comments here.

     
  • At 08 August, 2005 23:33, Blogger Simon said…

    Sorry, the link in my previous comment doesn't work. It is here:
    http://liberaldissenter.blogspot.com/2005/04/free-market-in-easy-listening.html

     
  • At 09 August, 2005 17:08, Blogger Apollo Project said…

    Simon - the Fry and Laurie sketch is a good one, indeed I used it myself on pb.com (have a look at the link, too):

    Your “choice” remark reminded me of Fry & Laurie sketch where Laurie is a diner (and minister) who has his silver cutlery forcibly removed by Fry (the waiter) in a restaurant, and has a bag load of plastic cutlery dumped on him with the words “There’s choice for you Minister!”

    I tried to find the script - didn’t, but found this highly partisan piece instead. Ah, the early ’90s …

    http://www.geocities.com/mmemym/bits4/fal0175.htm

    Comment by Tabman Steve — 31/1/2005 @ 5:05 pm

     
  • At 09 August, 2005 22:34, Blogger Bishop Hill said…

    Simon

    Your comments on your own blog are interesting. I wonder if you are using a different definition of the word "liberty" to the one that I do.

    You say that policy should be judged against a yardstick of liberating people, but then go on to say that you are happy with the licence fee. Do you accept that taxation is coercion and is therefore the opposite of liberty? Sure, taxation is necessary in certain areas, but surely a liberal cannot be happy that people are being coerced to pay for entertainment, no matter how worthy.

    You go on to say:

    "I feel no more liberated if I have access to a hundred shopping channels as opposed to fifty. I do feel more liberated if I know that there are at least a few channels that can be relied upon to supply quality."

    I can't see how this has anything to do with liberty. Liberty is not a feeling (IMO). The number of shopping channels is a matter of choice. If I am forced to pay for, or buy from one of them (including the situation where there is only one of them), only then is it a question of liberty.

    So my question to you is: do you accept the dictionary definition of liberty meaning "absence of coercion" (or words to that effect) or does liberty mean something else to you?

     
  • At 10 August, 2005 22:42, Blogger Simon said…

    Bishop Hill - This is the basic philosophical point that separates Liberals (or at least social liberals) from conservatives. We do not define 'liberty' simply in terms of an absence of government or taxation.

    Liberalism is about minimum oppression, not minimum government.

    We reject the idea of the human being as an atomised individual, and see liberty in terms of individuality rather than individualism.

    We see freedom as both 'freedom from' and 'freedom to'. The provision of what economists call 'public goods' can enable people to lead more liberated lives, by enabling them to fulfil their potential.

    Taxation is not a form of 'coercion' provided it is levied by democratically elected and accountable governments. To see taxation automatically as coercion strikes me as an essentially anti-social standpoint.

     
  • At 11 August, 2005 09:41, Blogger Stephen said…

    Dear Bish,

    Tho Simon and I disagree utterly about the licence fee, I agree with his definition of liberty. It comes back to the Popper dichotomy of 'positive' and 'negative' liberty. You've (partly) defined negative liberty - freedom from - but the positive side - freedom to - is at least as important to we liberals.

    cheers, stephen

     
  • At 11 August, 2005 19:16, Blogger Bishop Hill said…

    Stephen, Simon

    Thanks for the lessons! Need to think about that a bit.

    Cheers

     
  • At 11 August, 2005 21:39, Blogger Bishop Hill said…

    Simon

    My dictionary defines to coerce as "to compel". We are compelled to pay tax and therefore it is coercion whether it is supported by a democratic mandate or not. Put another way, it doesn't matter how many friends you have; if you force me to do something you are still coercing me. Is saying that anti-social? I don’t think it is. I think it is important that we recognise taxation for what it is – a necessary evil – and use this knowledge as a guide to help us assess what is the proper role of government. What is important enough to force people to pay for whether they want to or not, whether they benefit or not?

    You equate my dislike of government with a dislike of society. You are quite wrong to do so. Government and society are not the same thing. Society is, in my opinion, people (individuals!) working together freely to resolve their problems. Government is one way in which they achieve this but it is only the best way when it is the only way. This is because it cannot function except by using force. When government becomes involved ordinary people are taken out of the equation at least as far as resolving the problem at hand is concerned. Government gives you less civil society and more, well, government. I suppose what I am saying is that in some ways government is the opposite of civil society.

    Incidentally the Wikipedia entry on positive liberty ascribes its popularity particularly to those on the left but also, in certain areas, to conservatives, so your initial comments appear incorrect.(And when you share a bed with the conservatives, you know you’re wrong ;-) Negative liberty is popular among libertarians of whom I count myself one.

     
  • At 11 August, 2005 21:44, Blogger Bishop Hill said…

    Stephen

    So what you are saying is that in this situation your freedom to watch subsidised television (do you really have such a freedom?) trumps my freedom from having the product of my labour taken away.

    I wonder which of my other negative freedoms are at risk from your democratically-supported positive freedoms. I also wonder how trivial one of your alleged positive freedoms has to be before you would say that it should not trump my negative freedom, with or without a democratic mandate.

    Your description of positive liberties is, by the dictionary definition, a metaphorical usage only. (I recognise that this usage is very common though).Your “freedom” to watch subsidised television has nothing to do with an absence of coercion. In a world where there were only commercial stations showing reality shows, you would not be forced to watch. You are free to watch any or none.

    When you say that people will, with the benefit of all these public goods, lead liberated lives, you are not referring to liberty at all. You mean (IMHO) enjoyable or fulfilled lives perhaps, but these are not synonymous with freedom. This usage is a corruption of the language which destroys meaning. I would suggest that you think you are proposing taxation to give us liberty when really you mean taxation to give us more fulfilling lives. These are quite different and demand a different answer when society decides whether taxation is justified.

    Can we agree at least that the argument is best served by being able to distinguish meaning clearly?

    As footnote, the Wikipedia entry on positive liberty ascribes the dichotomy particularly to Isaiah Berlin rather than Popper. Berlin was apparently very suspicious of it. “He argued that the pursuit of positive liberty could lead to a situation where the state forced upon people a certain way of life, because the state judged that it was the most rational course of action, and therefore, was what a person should desire, whether or not people actually did desire it.”

    Quite.

     
  • At 12 August, 2005 12:37, Blogger Simon said…

    Bishop -

    Taxation is a form of 'compulsion' only in the sense of any other form of the law. I don't see a moral difference between one type of law and another.

    Taxation, like all other laws, is part of the social contract between individuals and the society they inhabit. Of course, there will remain arguments about how much tax should be levied, which tier of government is most appropriate to levy it, how it is levied, who should pay it, and where it should be spent - that's politics. But I have no problem with the general principle of taxation, provided it is levied by governments that are democratically elected, accountable and removable. I certainly don't regard taxation as an 'evil', necessary or otherwise.

    Regarding government, it is odd that you should regard all its actions as 'force'. Again, the question for me is not whether the government has any power, but the legitimacy of that power. Generally, Liberals regard all concentrations of power (public or private) as undesirable and want to see power dispersed as widely as possible. But, in so far as government should have some power, it is legitimate provided it is genuinely democratic. Government at its best is an expression of civil society, not in opposition to it.

    At the heart of Liberal philosophy is recognition of the innate human need for 'agency', which means the ability of each and every citizen to influence and change the world in which one lives. Liberty is threatened when powerful people monopolise agency for their own benefit and force less powerful people to fit in with their selfish purposes and arrangements.

    Liberalism is about more power for the individual and that means less power for all bullies, wherever they come from – the state, powerful individuals or business. Governments don't have a monopoly on bullying.

    The question for Liberals is not whether power resides in the public or private sector; rather, how any excessive concentration of power should be broken up and made accountable.

    My issue with libertarian conservatives is that they rightly oppose government when it attacks civil liberties, but seem to have no qualms about business interests disempowering individuals. Odd when, of the 100 largest economies in the world, more than half are business corporations rather than geographic sovereign states.

    In short, your definition of 'liberty' seems to be about each person doing what the hell they like without regard for the consequences for other people.

     
  • At 12 August, 2005 16:19, Blogger Bishop Hill said…

    Simon

    We agree! Taxation is not morally different to other laws. However, like all laws, taxation should be judged against a yardstick of what is the proper role of government. Television is not part of this role.

    You say you are in favour of dispersing power as far as possible but you seem also to favour retention of power in the hands of democratically elected governments. There appears to me to be a contradiction here. As you rightly point out power should be in the hands of individuals, ("Liberalism is about more power for the individual"). In the case of TV licences we are faced with dispersing power as far as it can go - to individuals, or keeping it in the hands of government. There is no choice for a liberal I would say.

    I agree with you that government is not the only bully. I would put it to you that government is the bully that you need to worry about because government is the bully which can force you to do as it tells you. You are not forced to work for any business, you are rarely forced to purchase from a particular business. You get to have an input into who governs once every four years. You vote on businesses every time you get your wallet out. Business is pretty powerless because you are not forced to deal with it, your comments on sizes of economies notwithstanding. (IIRC the meme that many of the largest economies are businesses is wrong because they are measuring sales for companies against GDP (which is a measure of value added) for countries - Tim Worstall wrote something about this here)

    If a business tramples on the rights of an individual then I would condemn it. I don't think it happens very often because it's not generally good business practice to treat customers, suppliers or employees badly. Democratically elected governments don't have to worry about these kinds of thing though do they?

    I'm not quite sure what to make of your last paragraph as it seems to bear no relation either to the rest of your comment or to my previous one. Where do I say anything which could be construed as meaning I think a person could treat another as they see fit? I have stated arguments for placing limits on government and against alleged positive liberties. I state clearly that I think that taxation (and by inference, government) is necessary. How is this an argument for anarchy?

    Another footnote:
    I was reminded by the previous posts of something I had read in David Hackett Fisher's "Liberty & Freedom", which is a history of the changes in meaning of the two words through American history. Apparently, the early American colonists in the south saw themselves as having a liberty to keep slaves. This is presumably not a feather in the cap of those who speak in favour of positive liberties.

     
  • At 13 August, 2005 13:01, Blogger Martin Young said…

    Please excuse me interjecting in this fascinating discussion with a slight change of subject.

    In the article, the given examples of good programmes are almost exclusively uncontentious dramas and comedies. As you correctly observe it makes little difference who produces them. Indeed, it makes little difference whether they're made at home or abroad, even whether they're broadcast or rented on DVD. At some level, one could read a novel as a direct substitute.

    However, this ignores a number of areas of the BBC's output. Disingeniously, one might say.

    One of the strengths of public service broadcasting is that it is, or should be, free of undesireable commercial and government influence. It can produce programmes that are overtly critical of the government, of future governments, of companies, corperations and influential individuals.

    By splitting the pot of public service money between commercial operators this strength is utterly undermined. A company cannot produce a program that harms its advertisers and then expect those same advertisers to support it. A company cannot operate in a way which jepodises its very existance so such programs will be changed. At best, they will become toothless. At worst they will become covert advertising and propaganda.

    One could argue that ITV currently produces programs which are critical, as described above. This is true. The reason this is possible is the BBC/ITV duopoly. If an advertiser was to take umbridge with ITV, to where would they move they advertisment? ITV has an effective monopoly on TV advertising which insulates it from undesireable commercial influence. With the explosion of channels we're seeing, this insulation is being stripped away. Advertisers can move to C5, Sky, Bravo, etc, even to the Internet. The pressure on ITV to please its advertisers will only increase, and its ability to critque them will decrease.

    Another thing that the BBC does well is programmes for young children - the CeeBeeBees channel on digital.

    It's so good because it is free to make programmes in the absence of merchandise (or at least in advance of it). The independent alternative is much, much poorer, being largely very cheaply produced cartoons.

    The absence of advertising is important to me as a parent. I don't want my children, who are too young or understand the difference between programmes and adverts, subjected to them. I don't believe that a commercial producer can afford to miss the opportunity to advertise, even if the programme itself is partly publically funded.


    So, two questions: how would the 'shared pot' address the issue of commercial influence on public service broadcasting. How can ground who are especially vulnerable to advertising (as designated by their parents, in this case) continue to avoid it?

    Should be give up on television are a tool for such criticism? Perhaps that job should be left to the independent newpapers who certainly aren't constrained and influenced by their commercial masters.

    As a liberal I'm in a quandry. I agree with your general philosphy but I don't see how your solution will work without loss of valuable service.

     
  • At 13 August, 2005 21:03, Blogger Simon said…

    Martin - You raise some good points - take a look at the post and subsequent comments in my blog (referred to in the second comment above).

    Regarding your quandary, the problem is the philosophy. Or, to be more precise, the problem is taking a notion of 'liberty' to a purist extreme and pursuing it regardless of the practical consequences. I prefer to see Liberalism and liberty in terms of practical outcomes. The BBC may offend some theoretical notion of 'liberty' but, in practice, no-one's liberty is taken away - far from it. In practice, the BBC provides the British people with various benefits in terms of actual choice and service that the commercial sector, for various reasons, won't or can't do. Personally, I wouldn't feel more 'liberated' by losing, for example, Radio 4, the BBC website or the global ambassador role of the BBC.

    Which brings us to...

    Bishop - Our argument is a fundamental clash of values. You see all government, no matter how democratic or devolved, as intrinsically bad. I don't. Government can threaten our liberties but can also protect and enhance them.

    And so indeed can the private sector. I don't share your equanimity about business. Business isn't "powerless" and corporate power is growing. Malpractice is not as rare as you suggest. Nor can people take their custom or labour elsewhere as easily as you suggest. Even when they can, that is not a substitute for democratic power.

    The experience of pure "laissez faire" policies in practice is that, despite the theoretical liberty, there is a tendency for power to concentrate in the hands of a few people, and for large numbers of people to be disempowered and thus impoverished.

    For the majority of people, who do not run large businesses, their only hope of exercising some control over their world is by combining with others and acting politically. I see nothing wrong with that - it's part of a healthy democracy.

     
  • At 13 August, 2005 22:21, Blogger Bishop Hill said…

    Simon

    You are right, we have a fundamental disagreement. You think liberty is a feeling. I think it is self-ownership. You seem to place few limits on what democratic governments can do. I would restrict government to truly public goods.

    Can you explain the power that you say businesses have over us. You say it is not easy for people to remove their labour from a business. This seems to me to fly in the face of reality. Thousands of people leave their jobs every day because they are unhappy with the way they are treated. Where are the slaves who cannot leave? I find your sentence on free choice not being a substitute for democratic power surprising from a liberal. This would seem to be an exemplar of the concern of Isaiah Berlin that the majority enforce what they believe to be desirable behaviour on a minority. I call this oppression. You call it democracy. It worries me that a liberal seems to believe that almost any action of a state is legitimate provided its government is democratically elected. I don't suppose you really believe that any action by a democratic state is legitimate (think criminalisation of homosexuality), but I don't understand how you make the judgement of where that line is drawn.

    Can you also give examples to support your paragraph on concentration of power in pure laissez faire societies. I know of no such society. To my mind power of companies is chiefly a problem when big business is able to cosy up to government to restrict competition. If a government that is limited in scope is unable to to this for them then citizens remain free.

     
  • At 13 August, 2005 23:52, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Interesting debate. On the semantics, I award points to Bishop Hill (taxation is coercion, and a democratic mandate is not in itself enough to justify any government action). On prioritising outputs, I tend to go with Simon.

    My own take on the negative/positive liberty view is that Berlin is probably right to ask for positive liberties to be described as something else. But this argument does not lead to the conclusion that the positive liberties are undesirable.

    I am still not quite clear why Stephen's solution is better than the licence fee (I would be happy to have the BBC outsource more programme production).

    Peter

     
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"What is Liberalism?: I should say it means the acknowledgment in practical life of the truth that men are best governed who govern themselves; that the general sense of mankind, if left alone, will make for righteousness; that artificial privileges and restraints upon freedom, so far as they are not required in the interests of the community, are hurtful; and that the laws, while, of course, they cannot equalise conditions, can at least avoid aggravating inequalities, and ought to have for their object the securing to every man the best chance he can have of a good and useful life." C-B.

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