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Reflections on ∈

June 5, 2016

The following was prompted by Tim Gowers’ thought-provoking blog post, “\in“, on the EU referendum. While I think Gowers makes some very nice theoretical points, there are several important issues that undermine the conclusion, in my opinion. (I speak as a former advocate of Remain who has somewhat reluctantly changed his mind.)

I think the biggest problems with the EU are democratic / consitutional ones, and depending on how much weight one places on issues of democracy versus other issues (e.g. economic ones), it is perfectly possible for a thoroughgoing utilitarian to favour Brexit, as Gowers’ last paragraph tacitly acknowledges.

1. The democratic problems

A major problem with the EU is its so-called ‘democratic deficit’. This has two sources: firstly, the EU Commission, which functions as the EU’s executive and proposes legislation on which the European Parliament votes, is unelected. (Instead, Commissioners are nominated by the governments of member states.) By contrast, in the UK, the legislation on which Parliament votes is proposed by the government, which is made up of elected MPs. For many years there has been widespread concern throughout the EU (not just in the UK) that the EU Commission is insufficiently accountable to the EU’s citizens; yet this state of affairs has continued ever since the EU Commission’s creation in the 1950s. How likely is it to be reformed any time soon?

The second problem is with the European Parliament: though it is elected, voters throughout the EU are very much disengaged with the process. In 2014, voter turnout for the European Parliament elections was only 43% across the whole of the EU, and only 36% in the UK, compared with 66% in the UK’s 2015 general election. A related problem is the lack of scrutiny of and engagement with the activities of the European Parliament: in a recent survey, only 11% of UK citizens were confident of being able to name at least one of their MEPs, compared to the 52% who could name their Westminster MP. Partly because of this lack of scrutiny and engagement, national governments are sometimes able to use the EU Parliament to bypass national democracy and push through unpopular, illiberal measures at the European level, as was revealed recently in the Independent:

While I agree with Gowers that it would be disastrous if Boris Johnson were granted unfettered power, Westminster politicians are (with all their faults) subject to a high degree of public and media scrutiny, and must win general elections, which typically have a rather high voter turnout. The same cannot be said for Jean Claude Juncker or even for many MEPs. (I would point to Michael Gove as a more principled Leave campaigner, one who moreover genuinely believes in the cause; Boris Johnson on the other hand was rumoured to have written two speeches, one in favour of ‘Remain’.)

But perhaps the most serious constitutional problem with the EU is the ‘tyranny of the majority’, and this would remain a problem even if the ‘democratic deficit’ problem was solved.

The general problem of the ‘tyranny of the majority’ is ancient and well-known: it is possible even in a smoothly-functioning democracy, for a majority to consistently oppress a minority. This is a particular risk when there is a lack of empathy and shared identity between voters in the same polity, and this is unfortunately the case in the EU, and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.

A particularly egregious example of ‘tyranny of the majority’ within the EU is the incredibly harsh austerity package imposed last year on Greece (in defiance of the result of the June 2015 referendum there, of course). According to many (perhaps most) academic economists, this degree of austerity is likely to cripple Greece’s economic recovery in the long-term. Paul Krugman even speculated that the deal imposed on the Greek government by the Troika (the IMF, the EU Commission and the European Central Bank) was designed to topple the Syriza government – see e.g.

Austerity was imposed on Greece largely at the behest of the German government, in an effort to recoup as much of their taxpayers’ money as possible, in the short term. (Though it remains to be seen whether they will actually be able to recoup less in the long term as a result of the austerity!) The imposition of austerity was strongly supported by German voters. And bear in mind Germany has hitherto been one of the more altruistic EU member states.

How is the UK at risk from the ‘tyranny of the majority’ within the EU? Well, since the Treaty of Lisbon, decisions in the EU in over 30 important policy areas are now taken by QMV (qualified majority voting) within the European Council, and this allows groups of nations in a minority to be consistently outvoted. This is a particular problem for the UK in the long run, because the UK (a majority of both its voters and its politicians) has a fundamentally different vision for the future of the EU, than many mainland Europeans, who want a much greater degree of political integration. Some even envisage (eventually) a federation of states along the lines of the US. This raises the possibility that the UK government will be gradually pressured (by a majority of other member states) to accept more and more political integration, against the wishes of a majority of its citizens. And many UK citizens are wary of this, not just paranoid UKIP types, but e.g. Cambridge-educated lawyers of my acquaintance! If it seems implausible, bear in mind that the Treaty of Lisbon was drawn up partly in order to adopt measures in the proposed European Constitution, which had been rejected by referenda in France and Holland. (The French and Dutch constitutions did not mandate referenda on treaties, only on a constitution!) See for example

To give an example of one prominent ‘federalist’, Matteo Renzi, who is regarded as a pretty mainstream politician in Italy, repeated in 2014 the call for a ‘United States of Europe’ –

I cannot imagine many UK citizens being supportive of such a vision. Some of my German and Italian colleagues declare themselves quite willing to see the end of the nation-state in Europe. This ‘hard-core federalist’ agenda may or may not have noble motivations, but there is an undeniable danger in going too far with it: a world with many nation-states may well be safer on average (averaging over both time and ‘space’, i.e. people) than a world with very few. If a government ‘goes wrong’ in one county, one can move to another; this is less easy if there are too few independent nation-states.

I admit that the creation of a federal European state along the lines of the US is very unlikely to happen in the short-term or the medium-term, if only because of the current impasse between Germany and France on how to achieve further fiscal and political integration (with Germany demanding joint fiscal rules to guarantee restraint before the issuing of joint Eurozone debt, and France demanding the latter before the former, in the name of ‘solidarity’). But further political integration in the short term is very much on the agenda, as illustrated by the following quotes from leading EU politicians:

Jean Claude Juncker (President of the EU Commission): ‘The Five Presidents’ Report includes a full agenda of work for the years to come, and I want us to move swiftly on all fronts – economic, financial, fiscal and political Union.’ (September 2015)

Jose Manuel Barroso (President of the EU Commission, 2004-14): ‘A political union needs to be our political horizon.’ (September 2013)

Guy Verhofstadt MEP (leader of the ALDE Group): ‘We must dare to take an even more radical leap: a leap towards a fully-fledged European nationality.’ (October 2012)

Angela Merkel: ‘We need more Europe, we need not only a monetary union, but we also need a so-called fiscal union, in other words more joint budget policy, And we need most of all a political union – that means we need to gradually give competencies to Europe and give Europe control.’ (June 2012)

Hitherto, the UK has often acted as a break on political integration within the EU, to the frustration of many EU politicians (and voters). This was eloquently articulated by the French politician Dominique Riquet, who argued on this basis that the UK should leave:

In this respect, both the UK and the rest of the EU might be better off in the long run, after a Brexit; it would leave the other EU states free and unshackled to pursue their more federalist vision, and it would leave the UK free from the risk of being pressured into further political integration.

Needless to say, democratic issues are an extremely important utilitarian consideration: citizens who feel their views are being ignored or overridden, are typically not very happy about this!

2. The principle of subsidiarity – its limited applicability

The democratic / constitutional problems outlined above would be less serious, if the ‘principle of subsidiarity’ Gowers describes, was widely applicable. But the EU’s principle of free movement of people, goods, services and capital (between member states), means that the ‘principle of subsidiarity’ does not apply, or is not applied, in many of the most important areas of civil life, both technically and in practice. For example, employment law (there is a huge amount of important EU legislation on this), immigration and asylum, human rights, justice, crime prevention, privacy, consumer rights, and of course external trade and foreign and security policy. It should be noted that the UK has an opt-out/opt-in agreement in some of these areas (e.g. immigration, asylum, justice and crime prevention), under which it can withdraw from the decision-making process, but if it does participate, it has to abide by the outcome of a ‘qualified majority vote’. See

for more details.

The ‘principle of subsidiarity’ did not protect Greece from crippling austerity (the issue was indeed a supranational one, though the main country affected was Greece, from a utilitarian perspective.) Also, some recent high-profile EU legislation highlights the very limited definition of ‘subsidiarity’ the EU works with. The cap on bankers’ bonuses, which mainly just affects the City of London, seems at first sight to be a particularly flagrant violation of subsidiarity: in simple terms, it interferes directly with the amount of money employers/shareholders are permitted to pay their employees as a reward for their performance. It was of course defended by the European Court of Justice, on the grounds that banks pose a particular risk to the financial stability of the EU, but on these kinds of legal grounds, almost anything could be said to fall outside the scope of ‘subsidiarity’, in today’s highly interconnected world. Though I don’t necessarily want to go into the rights and wrongs of the bonus cap, the Bank of England argued that the bonus cap actually drove up bankers’ basic salaries, and this may undermine the post-crisis efforts of financial institutions to tie renumeration to long-term performance.

3. The ‘prisoner’s dilemma’, the ‘iterated prisoner’s dilemma’, and international treaties

One is left with the question of how to achieve the desired degree of international cooperation, in the aftermath of a Brexit. The ‘prisoner’s dilemma’ situations Gowers describes, do indeed demonstrate the desirability of international agreements/treaties, but these can and have been made (and adhered to), without the participants belonging to EU-style organisations. Further, if they are to be of much use, they must often involve nations from outside the EU, such as the US and China, especially in the given cases of climate change, corporation tax and overfishing in the North Sea.

Of course, for these to work, there needs to be a ‘penalty for reneging’ on the treaty. Such a penalty, however, is not contingent on belonging to an EU-style organisation. It can involve agreed sanctions (financial and otherwise) from other participants in the treaty, but even this is unnecessary. Because in fact, there is an extremely potent ‘natural’ penalty for reneging: namely, the unwillingness of other nation states to trust you in the future if you renege! And indeed, experiments simulating the ‘iterated prisoner’s dilemma’ in human populations have consistently found that ‘cooperative’ strategies are adopted by a majority of participants, and that these consistently outperform ‘greedy’ ones. (Axelrod famously tested a range of strategies against one another in computer simulations, and found the same thing.) This has been used to explain the evolution of cooperative behavior in both animal and human populations, see e.g. Axelrod’s ‘The Evolution of Cooperation’. Mathematically, in the ‘infinitely repeated prisoner’s dilemma’ where future payoffs are not discounted too much, cooperative strategies are ‘stable’. Of course, the ‘iterated prisoner’s dilemma’ is much closer to the situation in international relations, than the one-round version.

International cooperation is surely not contingent on ‘pooling sovereignty’ to the extent of having shared governmental structures with the powers of the European Parliament or the European Commission, with all the attendant democratic and constitutional problems this has (and which I discussed above). It can be achieved via other supranational organizations structures such as the UN or the OAS. Do we think the nation-states of South America or North America should have a common parliament and executive with similar powers to the EU’s, in order to achieve the desired level of cooperation? Should the US and Canada have such shared structures, for example? I humbly submit that this would be deeply unpopular on both sides of the border!

4. Utilitarian problems with EU policies

It should be mentioned that some EU policies have caused a major reduction in (worldwide) ‘utility’. In the Balkan crisis, perhaps the most serious foreign policy test the EU has faced, it failed miserably to prevent war and genocide, and in fact was instrumental in arguing for a UN arms embargo which prevented Bosnians from properly defending themselves against Karadzic’s marauding Bosnian Serb forces. Ultimately, the US and NATO were required to bring about an end to the conflict. Having said that, the EU’s post-conflict intervention has been a (mixed) success. See for example

Another example is the Common Agricultural Policy, which accounts for about 40% of the EU’s annual budget. Major effects of the CAP have been to subsidize farming in areas of the EU where it would otherwise be unprofitable, to keep food prices in the EU artificially high, to subsidize exports to outside the EU, and to impose high tariffs on imports from outside the EU. This has led to a net loss for EU citizens (for an indication of this, the OECD estimated in 2004 that state support for farming in OECD countries costs the average family of four $1000 per year), and the CAP has long been criticized for harming producers in the developing world (through tariffs and ‘export dumping’), and hence stalling development there.

EU incentives for farmers to protect the environment have been welcome. But surely it is also in the UK’s (‘selfish’) national interest to protect our environment? I fail to see George Eustice’s problem with the protection of birds and wildlife habitats! Our agriculture cannot be ‘genuinely’ competitive (without subsidies) anyway. Were we to exit the EU, a sensible UK government would continue to subsidize farmers but to a lesser extent, prioritizing environmental protection over production to a much greater extent that the EU currently does.

5. The economy, and freedom of movement

I began by saying I thought it was perfectly possible for a thoroughgoing utilitarian to come down on either side of the debate, depending mainly on how heavily they weight the democratic problems of staying, versus the costs of leaving. To my mind, two of the most important costs of a Brexit would be the economic cost (both to the UK and to the rest of the EU), and the restriction on freedom of movement (again, for both parties).

Almost certainly, in the event of a Brexit, there would be a short-term economic cost to the UK (and probably a smaller cost per capita to the rest of the EU), though I would hope and expect that a trade and immigration deal fairly advantageous to both sides, could be worked out before too long, and that a desire to ‘punish’ the UK for leaving, and to disincentivize other exits, would not trump the common interests of both sides. There would also be a cost to those who (like myself) support freedom of movement for EU and UK citizens throughout the EU and the UK; in the short term, this freedom would certainly be reduced, though I don’t completely despair of winning the democratic argument within the UK for a high degree of openness to skilled workers from the EU. On the other hand, after a Brexit, the UK government would find it far politically easier to lift our extremely harsh restrictions on skilled workers from outside the EU. While I am personally in favour of a very high degree of openness to immigration from the rest of the EU, it does raise problems for our democracy (and cause widespread disenchantment therewith) when 77% of UK citizens view immigration as ‘too high’ (according to Oxford’s Migration Observatory) and yet the UK government cannot legally do anything to limit immigration from the EU.

To conclude, I plan to vote for Brexit, mainly due to the EU’s democratic and constitutional problems, but with a heavy heart, mainly due to the likely impact on the economy and freedom of movement.


A letter to Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond on the refugee crisis

August 29, 2015

The text below is a first draft of a letter I plan to address to Philip Hammond (as foreign secretary), on the migration crisis. Comments are very welcome.

Dear Mr Hammond,

I am writing to express my deep concern at the UK’s response to the current migrant crisis in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, and particularly regarding refugees from Syria.

The civil war in Syria has caused over 3 million Syrian civilians to flee the country, and 6.5 million more are internally displaced inside Syria. Many have attempted to reach Western Europe by crossing the Mediterranean from Libya or Egypt, or by travelling overland through Turkey and the Balkans. Either journey is fraught with peril; yesterday the UN estimated that so far this year, 2,500 migrants have drowned while attempting to cross the Mediterranean. On Thursday morning this week, the bodies of 71 refugees, including three children (together with a Syrian document), were found inside an abandoned lorry in Austria.

Most refugees from Syria cannot safely return to Syria, and not all of them can remain in countries bordering Syria. Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan already have (respectively) about 1.8 million, 1.2 million and 600,000 Syrian refugees living there, most in temporary refugee camps, and they do not have the resources to accommodate such large numbers in the long term. These are refugees from a brutal, bloody and sectarian armed conflict (sometimes refugees from the guns and knives of IS), rather than economic migrants purely seeking a higher standard of living. Western European countries such as the UK have a moral duty to offer asylum to more of these refugees.

The UK has so far agreed to resettle only about 500 Syrian refugees. By contrast, Germany has agreed to resettle 35,000, and Sweden, with its population of only 9.6 million, has already taken around 40,000. With its population of 64 million, the UK certainly has the capability to offer asylum to at least tens of thousands of Syrian refugees, without significant changes to UK life or society. Most of them would be an asset to UK national life, as forcefully argued in a recent article in The Economist:

The UK’s ‘vulnerable persons relocation scheme’, while better than nothing, is clearly helping too small a number of the vulnerable. We can, and should, do more.

It is true that some in the UK are concerned about the possibility of militants posing as asylum seekers and thus being able to infiltrate the UK and launch attacks inside the UK. However, a careful evaluation of asylum claims will reduce this risk, and priority can be given to low-risk groups (who are also typically the most vulnerable: families with young children, and those from religious groups under attack from IS, for example). Moreover, the risk is small, and must be balanced against the large number of lives we could save by admitting more refugees, and the benefits this would bring, both economically, and also in terms of international diplomacy and goodwill. The UK’s own Muslim community might well be less vulnerable to radicalization, as a result of a policy that would alleviate the plight of many of their co-religionists.

It is therefore my firm opinion that the UK government should, firstly, increase the number of Syrian refugees it is willing to resettle, and secondly, devote more resources to receiving, evaluating and processing applications for asylum. As of 20th September 2011, the UK does not consider asylum applications made from outside the UK: this means that in order to have a chance of gaining asylum in the UK, Syrian refugees must attempt a hazardous and illegal voyage across the Mediterranean, or overland through the Balkans. To avoid further and unnecessary loss of life, I believe that the UK should consider asylum applications made from abroad, in particular from countries neighboring Syria.

In conjunction with other EU countries (or alone if necessary), the UK should establish secure ‘processing camps’ in countries near Syria from which refugees most commonly embark (principally Turkey, Libya, Lebanon and Egypt), to enable refugees to apply for asylum legally, without first having to risk their lives in the boats and trucks of people-smugglers. (In June, Matteo Renzi called for the EU to set up such processing camps, in Libya.) We should then provide a safe and legal passage to the UK, for those applicants who have been granted asylum but who cannot finance their own voyage.

If the UK pledges to re-settle at least tens of thousands of Syrian refugees, leading by example along with Sweden and Germany, other countries may well follow suit; even if they do not, it is the right thing to do.

Yours sincerely,

Dr David Ellis

The UK and overseas students – time for a U-turn, before we drive off a cliff

December 9, 2012

The US mathematician Joel Spencer describes overseas students coming to the US as ‘the reverse of foreign aid.’ The US gives billions of dollars in aid to the developing world; on the other hand, countries such as China and India send many of their brightest and best to US universities, both for undergraduate and doctoral studies. As well as bringing in large fees for the universities, these students bring diverse skills and perspectives which enhance the learning of others, and spur the progress of research at the postgraduate and postdoctoral level. The most talented are often recruited by US firms, whose productivity they greatly enhance, contributing to the US economy and creating more jobs for others.

Strange as it may seem to some in the UK, Australia has recently made it easier for highly qualified overseas students to seek work in Australia after their graduation, believing that this make Australian universities more attractive in the highly competitive global market for overseas students.

The contrast with UK government policy could not be more striking.

‘Our tough new rules are now making a real difference, with a record 62% drop in student visas in the first quarter of 2012, and overall falls in work visas, family numbers and people settling,’

Damien Green declared triumphantly in late May. Between March and April, the government had also comprehensively tightened visa restrictions for overseas students graduating in the UK. Most importantly, it abolished the post-study work visa, which allowed highly qualified international students to seek work in the UK for 2 years after graduating from a UK university. In August, the Home Office revoked the license of London Metropolitan University, after more than a quarter of the students it sampled were found not to have been granted leave to be in the UK. This left more than 2000 students (most of them legitimate) facing deportation.

The effect will be to significantly reduce the attractiveness of the UK to overseas students, unless something is done quickly. Why should we be worried about a drop in the number of high-calibre overseas students? First of all, up until now, overseas students have massively subsidized the education of UK students, often paying as much as £25,000 in tuition fees at Russell Group universities, and contributing an estimated £5 billion to the UK economy. Almost all of our universities rely on the income from overseas students to sustain their internationally high level of teaching and research, in the face of reduced government funding, and fewer private donations than in the US, for example. Moreover, overseas students greatly enrich the learning of students at UK universities, bringing a greater diversity of knowledge, skills and perspectives to the lecture room and laboratory. At the doctoral level and higher, the most talented are often at the forefront of breakthroughs in research, in health, sciences and other areas, providing long term technological benefits for the UK. Finally, a significant few return to their home countries to become key figures in politics and business, and their continued links with their counterparts in the UK continue to provide political and economic benefits, both for the UK and their home country.

It seems that, belatedly, the UK government has realized that it needs to convince the high-achieving overseas students that they are, after all, welcome. In the latest cabinet reshuffle, Damien Green was replaced by Mark Harper as Immigration Minister. The universities minister, David Willetts, is set to launch a global drive to ‘protect Britain’s reputation’ and spread the message that it remains open to students from overseas. He has also joined Nick Clegg in urging the government to remove overseas students from the total immigration figures they have promised to cut (‘to the tens of thousands’). However, the new Minister for Immigration, Mark Harper, advocates the continued inclusion of overseas students in the immigration total. This is a crucial issue: overseas students currently number more than 400,000, and if this is included in the government’s target of reducing net immigration to the tens of thousands, a drastic reduction in overseas student recruitment must occur. The effect on our universities would be crippling, and the longer-term effect on business and innovation in the UK would be grave. The UK university sector represents one of the last truly competitive aspects of the UK economy; it is worth more than £40 billion per year. More, it provides UK businesses with the steady stream of high-calibre graduates which is truly vital for the UK’s economic recovery and success. The government must do all it can to maintain the UK’s ability to attract the brightest foreign students, necessary as they are to the success of our universities, and to the success of the economy as a whole.

In defence of philanthropy

February 15, 2012

Three weeks ago, an article by Robert Newman appeared on the Guardian website, entitled ‘Philanthropy is the enemy of justice’. In this post, I want to explain what I think is wrong with his view. As the article is short-ish, I take the liberty of reproducing most of it below.

‘It’s strange that at this week’s World Economic Forum, the designated voice of the world’s poor has been Bill Gates, who has pledged £478m to the Global Fund to fight aids, tuberculosis and malaria, telling Davos that the world economic crisis was no excuse for cutting aid.

Gates does not speak with the voice of the world’s poor, of course, but with the voice of its rich. It’s a loud voice, but the model of development it proclaims is the wrong one because philanthropy is the enemy of justice.

Am I saying that philanthropy has never done good? No, it has achieved many wonderful things. Would I rather people didn’t have polio vaccines than get them from a plutocrat? No, give them the vaccines. But beware the havoc that power without oversight and democratic control can wreak.

[The] Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation [is] keen to get deeper into agriculture, especially in Africa. But top-down nostrums for the rural poor don’t end well. The list of autocratic hubris in pseudo-scientific farming is long and spectacularly calamitous. It runs from Tsar Alexander I’s model village colonies in 1820s Novgorod to 1920s Hollywood film producer Hickman Price, who, as Simon Schama brilliantly describes in The American Future, “bought 54 square miles of land to show the little people how it was really done, [and] used 25 combines all painted glittery silver”. His fleet of tractors were kept working day and night, and the upshot of such sod-busting was the Great Plains dustbowl. But there’s no stopping a plutocratic philanthropist in a hurry.

And then there is the vexed question of whether these billions are really the billionaires’ to give away in the first place. When Microsoft was on its board, the American Electronics Association, the AeA, challenged European Union proposals for a ban on toxic components and for the use of a minimum 5% recycled plastic in the manufacture of electronic goods.

AeA took the EU to the World Trade Organisation on a charge of erecting artificial trade barriers. (And according to the American NGO Public Citizen, “made the astounding claim that there is no evidence that heavy metals, like lead, pose a threat to human health or the environment”.)

Now, the EU is big enough and ugly enough to have fought and won the case. But many an African country lacks the war chest for such a fight, and so will end up paying for the healthcare of those exposed to leaky old PCs’ cadmium, chromium or mercury, instead of embarking on, let’s say, a nationwide anti-malaria strategy. Bill Gates himself may not indeed have known about what the AeA was doing on Microsoft’s behalf, but the fact remains that if a philanthropist’s money comes from externalising corporate costs to taxpayers, and that if Microsoft is listed for its own tax purposes as a partly Puerto Rican and Singaporean company, then the real philanthropists behind these glittering foundations might be a sight more ragged-trousered than Bill and Melinda.

Free marketeers will spring to the defence of billionaire philanthropists with a remark like: “Oh, so you’d rather they spent all their money selfishly on golf courses and mansions, would you?” To which I reply: “Oh, you mean that trickle-down doesn’t work, after all?” But the point is that the poor are not begging us for charity, they are demanding justice. And when, on the occasion of his birthday, a sultan or emperor reprieved one thousand prisoners sentenced to death, no one ever called those pardons justice. Nor is it justice when a plutocrat decides to reprieve untold thousands from malaria. Human beings should not have to depend upon a rich man’s whim for the right to life.’

*       *       *

First of all, the ‘facts’ quoted in the article are hugely misleading. It is ludicrous to suggest that most, or even much, of Bill Gates’ fortune came from ‘externalizing costs to taxpayers’. At most 5% of Microsoft’s profits ever came from hardware sales; the rest is software, which carries no such pollution risk as Newman refers to. Does he think that Microsoft manufactured the ‘leaky old PCs’? In the words of another blogger, ‘Microsoft didn’t run over your dog!’

Of course, claims that other companies and individuals made their money by ‘externalizing costs to taxpayers’ have to be assessed on a case-by-case basis, but many of America’s richest made most of their money entirely legitimately. Warren Buffett of Berkshire Hathaway and Larry Ellison of Oracle (the second and third richest Americans in 2011) are two good examples; likewise the founders of Google and Facebook. The nature of their businesses must mean that only a small proportion of their fortunes could come from ‘unethical’ business practices. Some ideas just inevitably generate a lot of money!

Should they pay more tax? Perhaps – and Bill Gates admitted as much, in a TV interview with the BBC:

“And I certainly agree that [taxes] should go up more on the rich than everyone else. That’s just justice.”

But the rich should certainly not be taxed so heavily as to discourage philanthropy. Voluntary giving is a great thing: within a country, it produces a social cohesion which is hard to achieve through state welfare. The recipient has more of a sense of obligation to make good use of their opportunity than they would have after receiving, say, a state benefit, because someone has chosen freely to help them. The giver in turn sees the positive impact of their philanthropy, and is inspired to give more. It is much better that the rich give voluntarily, than that they be forced to surrender a large part of their income by others. Compulsory income redistribution via taxation should be viewed as necessary, only because voluntary giving on its own is not sufficient to alleviate poverty. But it is an unfortunate necessity. (Indeed, one could argue that in an ideal world, taxation would not be necessary, because there would be enough voluntary giving.)

What about the ‘havoc that power without oversight and democratic control can wreak?’ Newman seems to be claiming that governments know better how to spend money abroad than the ‘billionaire philanthropists’. There is certainly a risk that a philanthropist will spend their money unwisely, but there is also a risk that governments will spend their tax revenue unwisely – giving billions of dollars of military aid to countries guilty of war crimes, and waging wars which the voter may not support. The latter is, in a sense, forcing a citizen to fund positively unethical action.

At the moment, I trust the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation much more than either the US or the UK governments, to spend money abroad in the most effective possible way. A philanthropist such as Bill Gates, nearing the end of their career, and deciding how best to spend money on philanthropy, has generally only one objective: to do the maximum amount of good. (A cynic might raise the Kantian possibility that they are really doing it to gain accolades, but this is irrelevant to the actual impact of their giving.) A politician, on the other hand, may wish to achieve other things: to bolster or curry favour with a foreign ruler, to win support from a (partly selfish) electorate, or to advance their political career. Even if they have good intentions, these might be frustrated by an act of Congress. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has access to the foremost health experts in the world, and can make a decision based on the best available evidence. The UK government, on the other hand, repeatedly ignores the advice of its own experts (for example, those who resigned from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs) out of fear of a populist backlash. It is a running joke in the Department for Education that Michael Gove and his team want ‘policy-based evidence’, rather than evidence-based-policy, to justify their rash decisions retrospectively and save face. Of course, in an ideal world, governments would not have such problems, but we have to be realistic. Who is more likely at the moment to make a good decision on how to spend money abroad: a billionaire philanthropist or the US Congress? At the moment, my money is on the philanthropist.

(Of course, we should still try to make government aid more effective, and Gates himself is calling for that very thing!)

When it comes to domestic spending, the government may be in a better position: it has a clear incentive to spend money well, or it will not be re-elected, and the electorate, while sometimes prone to supporting an unethical foreign policy, often know what will make them happy in terms of domestic policy. But voluntary giving is still to be valued, because of its additional positive impact on both the receiver and the giver, and the consequent strengthening of social cohesion. (An aside: perhaps people could be encouraged to pay voluntarily into a national ‘Poverty Alleviation Fund’, which would then be spent with ‘oversight and democratic control’?) And there is no substitute for personal acts of charity: as a member of a community, a philanthropist will often know far better than a bureaucrat, who needs help most, and who will make best use of it.

Finally, a word about justice. I could scarcely believe the article’s closing paragraph. Aside from the fact that condemning someone to death and then reprieving them is clearly different to organizing a global effort to save people from malaria, the statement ‘human beings should not have to depend upon a rich man’s whim for the right to life’, is particularly insidious. In reality, the proper working of international aid is just philanthropy on a more spread-out scale. If the UK government decides to spend some of its revenue on eradicating malaria, it does so with at least some support from the electorate, and hopefully after some public discussion on why it’s a good thing to do.  Effectively, millions of taxpayers are giving about £10 each, as opposed to a few people, each giving millions each. Why is the first one ‘justice’, and the second ‘a rich man’s whim?’ The first can be viewed as lots of moderately rich people’s ‘whims’ – or ‘decisions’, as they are more usually called. There is only a real difference between the two when many of the taxpayers are unwilling to help, but are forced to do so against their will. Effectively, this is one group of people being ‘philanthropic’ with the money of another group! It is actually a less sustainable and less desirable state of affairs than genuine philanthropy: it will create resentment, and the resentful rich will move elsewhere, to a country where they have more say in how their money is spent.

How can anyone in their right mind prefer enforced ‘giving’ to voluntary giving? For as long as there is inequality in health and wealth, there will be a need for those with more to help those with less. How much better that this help be largely voluntary, rather than forced?

Philanthropy literally means ‘love of humanity’; love means nothing unless it is translated into voluntary action. Philanthropy is the enemy of justice? One might as well say that love is the enemy of justice.