Stop Think Debate is a blog that aims to offer information, analysis and argument on topical current affairs issues covering politics, ethics and society. Please feel free to comment below.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

What Private Schools have in common with Petrol, Cigarettes and Alcohol

Private schools - like petrol, cigarettes and alcohol - should be taxed for the cost they bring to society. They help keep the rich rich and the poor poor through recruiting the best teachers and headteachers for children who are already at an advantage before even starting school. Parents should be free to send their child to private school, but only if they pay the cost it involves to society: The cost to children in comprehensive schools who are deprived of the best teachers, and the cost to the country at large for creating a more fundamentally unjust and divided society.

In economics, an 'externality' occurs when a transaction is made that has an effect on individuals other than those who take part in or consent to the transaction. For example, if I had flu, I might choose to purchase some medicine to make me better. This transaction not only affects me, making me well again, but also affects others: e.g. when I am better I am able to go back to work, benefiting the company I work for; I am also less likely to spread my flu on to others, benefiting other individuals I have close contact with. The 'externality' of me purchasing some medicine, then, is the effect it has on my friends and the firm I work for. Externalities can be positive (as with the medicine example) or negative. Petrol, cigarettes and alcohol are the most common examples of negative externalities. Purchasing and using petrol contributes towards global warming - which has a negative effect on our planet and everyone on it. Drinking large amount of alcohol can lead to anti-social behavior and also bad health, which can cost tax payers money on the NHS (both of which are negative externalities.) Cigarettes also cost the NHS money as well as producing second-hand smoke which many individuals find unpleasant. I believe that private education also produces a negative externality.

Normally, governments will tax products that produce a negative externality. They do this so that the price individuals pay for their product reflects the higher cost to society that consuming their product involves. For example, governments tax petrol so that the price of petrol goes up, meaning that individuals are likely to purchase less, reducing the impact of car use on global warming. Cigarettes are taxed to discourage individuals from smoking and also to help pay for the extra cost that smokers bring to the NHS when they need to be treated for smoking-related illnesses such as lung cancer. Currently, private schools do not face high levels of tax - as cigarettes, alcohol and petrol do. In fact, many private schools are registered as charities and receive tax breaks from the government.

So what's so bad about private schools? I believe that they produce a negative externality as they lead to higher levels of social immobility - they keep the rich rich, and the poor poor - and also lead to class divides. Private schools should be taxed to reflect this cost that they bring to society. I am not against parental choice when it comes to deciding which school to send their children. I believe people should be free to do whatever they want - smoke, drink, drive or send their children to private school - so long as they don't harm others, or at least pay higher rates of tax in order to negate the harm that they do.

I believe that equality of opportunity is something that we should value in our society. People should not be at a fundamental disadvantage because of the colour of their skin, their sex or their parents (lack of) wealth. What an child deserves should be a product of the choices they make and the effort they put in - it should not be down to arbitrary factors , such as their parents wealth, which are out of the child's control. Under our current education system, parent's wealth is the single best predictor of how well a child will do academically. Currently, even just at age when they are about to start school, children with rich parents will be on average a whole year ahead of children with poor parents (i.e. children who are eligible for Free School Meals because their parents earn under a certain threshold) in terms of their language development. This is thought to be because parents from lower-income backgrounds often (but not always) have lower academic aspirations for their children, and are less likely to push them hard to learn and achieve academically. Instead of this educational gap bettwen the rich and poor narrowing, it in fact grows wider and wider throughout both primary and secondary school. Children from poorer (Free School Meal) families have done nothing to 'deserve' this fate - our educational system is failing them.

The only factor that has been shown to be able to narrow this gap in academic performance is excellent teaching and school leadership. This is why charities such as Teach First try to develop top graduates to teach in under-performing schools: this is the only way to give children from disadvantaged families a fairer start in life. Private schools are something that we should tax not only because it is fundamentally unfair that someone's chance in life should be affected by arbitrary factors such as their parents wealth, and also that they can contribute to social tension and class divides between the rich and poor - private schools do something much worse than that: they actively harm those in the state system by recruiting the best teachers and headteachers.

At the moment, the best teachers tend to flock to private schools - where they are paid more, class sizes are smaller and children are better behaved. This leaves children in the worst comprehensive schools with teachers that tend not (although not always) to be of as high a quality; and also who tend to stay at a school for much less time - so that they don't get a chance to get to know their students properly and also often leave in the middle of a school year. Private schools (and also, to an extent, grammar schools) are actively harming our state education system: They are depriving comprehensive schools of the best teachers and headteachers and stopping the children who most need it of a decent education, allowing the gap between the rich and poor to widen even further, and adding to class divides within society. Yes, parents should have the choice to be able to send their children to private school if they wish - but only if they pay higher rates of tax to reflect the cost that sending their children to private school brings to society: just as smokers pay more tax to reflect the cost on the NHS, and road users pay tax on petrol to reflect the cost to the environment.

Defenders of private schools will claim that they are justified in not paying higher rates of tax because if they didn't send their children to private school, they would be in the state system, costing the state even more money. This is not a good argument. As I mentioned above, research shows the single thing that is most needed to close the educational gap between the rich and the poor is exceptional teachers and headteachers. If fewer students went to private school, more of the best teachers would teach in the state sector. Even if class sizes got bigger as a result of fewer parents opting to send their children to private school this would still be a good thing. Excellent teachers matter far more than smaller class sizes.

Taxing private schools is good for two reasons: Firstly, it would raise money for the government to spend on increasing social mobility (i.e., the ability of individual's from a more disadvantaged background to become successful), and secondly, it would create a disincentive for parents to send their children to private school, creating a more equal society though freeing up more of the best teachers to teach in state schools. Any money raised from taxing private schools should be used as a 'Pupil Premium', as advocated by the Liberal Democrats in the run up to the recent 2010 election. A Pupil Premium would give each school extra money for every pupil it has from a disadvantaged background, e.g. money for each child it has which is eligible for Free School Meals. Schools should be allowed to spend this extra money to recruit the best teachers to teach their (more disadvantaged) pupils. Schools with the pupils which tend to start off school with lower levels of education from more deprived families would have access to the best and most inspirational teachers - this is the only way to begin to narrow the attainment gap between the rich and the poor, and the only way to create a truly mobile society where an individual's chances in life are not (to a large extent) determined by the wealth of their parents. Taxing private schools - like taxing cigarettes, alcohol and petrol - is fair: It allows people the freedom to do what they want, so long as they are willing to pay for the price of their actions.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

The Value of Truth: Nietzsche, Dawkins and Religion

How should Atheists respond to religious belief?

Atheists should judge a religion or religious belief by the amount of good or bad that it brings about, and not the amount of evidence supporting it: The truth is not that valuable. A lack of evidence, by itself, is not that much of a reason to criticize a religion, but only a means by which religions which are causing harm to individuals or society might be critiqued.

I'm an atheist. I believe that there is probably no God. While there might be some kind of 'first cause' out there, I - personally- have yet to find any evidence for a God (or gods) that are active in the world: that perform miracles, prescribe a moral law, or will send us to an afterlife after we die. By extension, I think that all of the major world religions are probably not true, and that the holy scriptures that many religious people follow probably contain no revelation of God.

What does not follow from this, however, is that I think religious people are probably wasting their time, or that I should probably try to help religious people to understand (what I believe to be) the truth. This includes an implicit assumption about the value of truth - that we should aspire to or value the truth at all costs. However, the truth can come at a price.

I want to start by getting it clear that there is a truth out there. It is either true or false that God exists as he is represented in, for instance, the Bible. It cannot be 'true for you, but not for me'. Simply, the statement 'The Christian God exists' is true or false. Truth is a simple matter of fact that is determined by the way the world is. For instance, either the state of the (meta-physical) world is such that Jesus is the son of God and God revealed himself only through the Bible (making Christianity true and Islam false); or that Jesus was not the son of God, but only a prophet, and that Allah revealed himself, via the Prophet Muhammad, through the Qur'an (making Islam true and Christianity false); or neither Christianity or Islam are true. 'Partial truths' or 'truths from a particular position' simply do not make sense.

While I'm not going to get into the arguments here, I personally don't believe in (and am not aware of any substantial evidence for) the existence of a benevolent, omnipotent and omnipresent God (although, as I mentioned earlier, a case could possibly be made for some kind of a 'first cause'.) I personally think that religious people have faith in something that is 'simply false'. It cannot be 'true for them'. [This might be quite a blunt and antagonistic way of putting it, but at least I don't believe (as the scriptures of the three main monotheistic religions teach) that people who do not share my beliefs deserve to be sent to hell to be tortured on account of their non-belief!]

So, then how should atheists, like me, respond to religious believers - to people whom I think have faith in something that is false? Should atheists try to combat (what they believe to be) falsity in the world; should they allow 'each to their own'; or should they promote religion when it is bringing about good in the world? Two interesting, and polar opposite, responses to this question come from Dawkins and Nietzsche. They differ mainly in the value they place on the truth.

Dawkins (left) seems to place a very high value on the truth. His main attack on religion seems to be simply that it isn't true (although he does also attack religion on other grounds, e.g. for offering a twisted and contradictory set of moral rules.) In the Selfish Gene, Dawkins shows that evolution can explain how we got here, without any need to invoke the idea of a creator (or an 'intelligent designer'.) He has repeatedly asserted that we should not believe in anything we have no evidence for, or does not help in explaining observable phenomena (such as our own existence.) He has claimed that - just as with Bertrand Russell's analogy of a teapot which is orbiting the sun between the Earth and Mars - there is no evidence or reason to believe in God, so we ought not to believe. Dawkins makes the implicit assumption that we ought not to believe what is false or lacks evidence.

There is, however, an alternative the view that you ought not believe something if you don't have (enough) evidence for it. Nietzsche(right) challenges the assumption that you should (or ought to) always believe what is true. Nietzsche, like Dawkins, was an atheist. In the Gay Science (a book of poems written by Nietzsche - poetry, according to Nietzsche, was the 'gay science'), he makes his famous claim that 'God is dead'. 'God is dead', according to Nietzsche, because 'we have killed him': 'we', and general scientific progress (such as Darwinism or neuroscience) have killed the idea of God: We have learnt that humans are probably not 'special' (but in fact more closely genetically related to chimpanzees than a horse is to a donkey); that life probably does not continue after death (as it seems that mental functioning - and life - relies on the physical brain); and that God probably does not exist.

According to Nietzsche, then, it is probably false that God exists. However, Nietzsche does not think that we ought not to believe in God. In fact, Nietzsche is deeply troubled by the death of God! The full quote from the Gay Science reads: "God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers?" Nietzsche repeatedly has stressed his concern that a period of 'suicidal nihilism' could follow the death of God - that, upon realising that religion is false, we realise that there is no meaning, purpose or objective value in the world, and become terribly depressed. While, in many ways, Nietzsche deeply hated Christianity - he called those who believed in it 'sick' and 'slaves', he also had a deep respect for it: Christianity gave those who were sick a sense of meaning and hope, and it helped them to positively evaluate their own lives. Nietzsche wrote in the Genealogy of Morality that Christianity "should rule the herd, but not reach out beyond it", i.e. that the 'weak' should believe in Christianity, so long as their values and beliefs do not have a negative impact on the 'strong' (whom Nietzsche considered himself to be.)

While I am in no way trying to consider than religious believers are 'weak' (as Nietzsche did), or that they rely on religion to avoid suicidal nihilism, I do, like Nietzsche, think there can be a positive value in religion irrespective of it's true value, i.e. even if it is false. Religion can be (and often is) a source of good in the world: Religious people will often engage in great acts of charity in the name of religion, for instance, and can turn to God as a source of comfort (e.g. following the loss of a loved one.) Equally, religion can be a source of bad in the world, whether or not God exists: Religion can be used as an excuse for war or terrorism; can lead to sexism or homophobia; and religious tradition and dogma can lead individuals to be close-minded or unquestioning.

Like Nietzsche, then, I am advocating that an atheist's view of religion should be determined by the good or bad that each particular religion or religious view brings about, and not the (lack of) evidence that it has supporting it. Atheists need to realise that religion in some (but by no means all) circumstances can be something that is valuable and good in the world. Non-believers should not mindlessly criticize religion just because they believe it to be false. This can be offensive, and in most circumstances won't have much of an impact in 'converting' religious believers to atheism. Of course, atheists need to ensure that the facts are out there, and need to encourage religious people to look for evidence and question their faith as part of a healthy debate; but this does not mean that they need to explicitly and openly criticize religious believers that are doing 'good' in the world.

Atheists should only openly criticize religion when it is (or they have strong reason to believe it to be) having a negative impact on the lives of it's followers and others. A 'lack of evidence' for God is not really much of a reason for atheists to criticize religion; but should merely be a tool that atheists can use as part of a critique of the religious views that are having a negative impact on our world.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Trade Unions are Bad for the Labour Party Leadership Contest

Trade unions are bad for the Labour party as they could make them unelectable; they are bad for society as they are unfair on the unemployed. Labour should reduce the financial and electoral influence that trade unions have over the party. David Miliband is the man to do this.

Voting for the Labour leadership race began on September 1st. Those eligible to vote include Labour MPs and MEPs, party members and also members of affiliated associations, such as socialist societies and trade unions.

Out of the five contestants, the race seems to be between the two Miliband brothers: David (right), the more centrist and Blairite older brother, and Ed (left), the younger and more leftist brother, who has the support of the trade unions.

All five Labour leadership candidates have faced a difficult decision. In order to win the Labour party leadership contest, they need to advocate relatively leftist policies - given that leftist trade unions not only make up a sizeable proportion of their electorate, but also provide the party with a significant amount of funding. However, in order to win nationally, and defeat the Tories in the next election, they need to be more centerist in order to appeal to 'middle England'.
Ed Miliband, the more leftist of the two brothers, has claimed Labour should "reach out more to trade unions". His appeal to trade unionists is a large factor behind the fact that he seems to have beaten Ed Balls to the position of David Miliband's main contender in the leadership race. The younger Miliband brother's support among some trade unions is so strong that the GMB union - which donated almost £1.5m to the Labour party in the first half of 2010 - have threatened to stop providing the party with financial support if Ed does not win the leadership race. Unison, the Labour party's largest supporter, have also issued a threat to David Miliband: They say they will no longer support the party if David wins and continues a New Labour agenda of privatization and 'union bashing'.

Trade unions - through a combination of their electoral size and because of their campaign financing - are having a definite influence on the Labour leadership elections. I believe, however, that this influence is neither good for the Labour party nor for society. Labour's links with trade unions - as in 1997 under Tony Blair - need to be re-severed.

During the 1980s, trade unions effectively made the Labour party unelectable as they dragged the party to the left. There is a danger that this could happen again. In a first-past-the-post electoral system, as we have in the UK, it tends to be the politicians that moderate themselves towards a more centrist policy position that get elected – see political scientist Anthony’s Downs Median Voter Theorem for a more theoretical discussion of this. If trade unions try to force the Labour party to the left, through advocating nationalization, a larger state and an anti-big-business mentality, then Labour could be permanently in opposition. Important Labour figures such as Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson seem to have offered their implicit support to David over Ed Miliband because of this.

Apart from being dangerous to the Labour party, trade unions are also bad for society at large. Far from being the flag bearers of socialism and fairness that they seem to aspire to be, they in fact pose a great threat to one of the worst-off groups in society: the unemployed. Giving trade unions and workers more power could lead to higher wage prices, an inflexible labour market and a disincentive for firms to hire more staff - in essence: higher unemployment. True fairness requires those who are worst-off - the unemployed - be given the chance to better in life, a chance to escape poverty and a chance to find a job. Trade unions don't do this.

All Labour party supporters - whether centrist, socialist, or liberal - should oppose higher levels of trade union involvement in the economy and in the leadership contest for the sake of both the party's electoral success and also for the sake of fairness. David Miliband is the man to deliver both of these things. David's stated policy priorities include tackling inequality and returning to full employment, which, I believe, should be the true priorities of a centre-left party which wants to build a just and fair society. He intends to bring such a society about through creating thousands of new "green" jobs, being paid for through a mansion tax and a banker's bonus tax; ensuring that women are given equal pay; and ensuring that the education gap is closed between the rich and the poor. These seem like they could be sensible policies for a centre-left party that values social equality. They are moderate enough to encourage economic growth, keep firms happy and get the party elected; radical enough to make a real start in tackling umemployment, inequality and social immobility. This blogger believes David Miliband is the only hope for an electable and fair Labour party which can distance itself from the trade unions.