26 November 2008

Penalising foresight and determination

The state pension is to rise by the (unrealistically low) official rate of inflation. ‘Pension credit’ is also to increase, and the Chancellor said the increase in it was above inflation. However, not every pensioner is eligible for pension credit, which is means-tested.

So this year the percentage difference due to means-testing would appear to increase as between those judged to be poor enough and those who have built up some capital by saving to reduce their dependence on retirement.

In the Daily Mail of 25 November 2008, a retired car worker, Bill Jupp, is quoted as saying that pensioners had got ‘next to nothing’ in the Pre-Budget Report.

Bill Jupp added: ‘I’m also very suspicious of the £60 Christmas bonus. I’m sure they’ll be a cut in pensioner’s fuel allowance or something else to pay for it.

‘We are on fixed incomes but our council tax is going up, our food bills are going up and our energy bills are going up. It’s one long nightmare.’

Joe Harris, of lobby group National Pensioners’ Convention, says: ‘Pensioner inflation is double the official figures because older people spend a higher proportion of their income on those items with the fastest rising prices.’

We have heard suggestions that fuel allowances should be targeted towards ‘the poorest’ pensioners who are on ‘pension credit’, and this may well be another way of increasing the percentage difference due to means-testing.

‘The Premier [promised] to hit the middle classes and target the rich if he wins another term’ (Daily Mail 25 November 2008, front page)

When I was thrown out at the end of my ruined ‘education’ with no usable qualification, I was unable to draw income support, and realised that I always would be, unless and until I was able to get back into a proper university career. If I could be recognised as eligible for salaried appointments which it would be possible for me to take up, then I would have been able to draw income support during any hiatus in my career.

But the state pension was supposed to depend on making enough annual payments, even if you were unemployed, so I always paid the annual voluntary contributions for myself and anyone else associated with me, however little income we had.

This, I reckoned, would at least be reducing the disadvantage at which I should be on retirement relative to someone who had been having a proper career as a Professor in physics, philosophy or any other subject.

Soon after reaching normal retirement age I started to hear rumours of pensions ‘withering on the vine’ and a substantial proportion of the annual increases became means-tested, that is, it was allocated to the ‘poorest’ who had spent all their incomes throughout their working lives, which might well have included some who had lived as university professors with full salaries.

In an egalitarian society, it certainly would not do if a person who had shown exceptional foresight and determination in making annual payments, however poor they were, should be able to pat themselves on the back when they reached normal retirement age (although without actually having been able to get started on a salaried career) about an annual inflation-adjusted stipend, however inadequate, rolling in as a reward for all their effort and frugality.

14 November 2008

The Oxford media

Copy of a letter sent several weeks ago by my colleague Dr Charles McCreery to a presenter on Radio Oxford, to which he has had no reply.

I understand that you have invited Celia Green and Christine Fulcher to put their names forward for inclusion on the guest list for a launch party for a book you have written.

We invited you to a launching party which we had in Cuddesdon about two years ago for Celia Green’s latest book, Letters From Exile: Observations on a Culture in Decline. To the best of my recollection, we did not receive an acknowledgement of this invitation.

Altogether dozens of invitations were sent out for this function, to which in the end only one guest turned up. A high proportion of all the invitations were to people in the Oxford area, as opposed to London , so that any difficulty in travelling here could not have been an explanation.

Over the last forty years Celia has published nine books, none of which has been reviewed by the Oxford Times.

The last time Celia was invited to be interviewed on Radio Oxford was in connection with a lecture she gave which happened to have the phrase ‘Da Vinci Code’ in the title, so that the station apparently thought it could be assimilated to the then popular interest in a non-scholarly book.

08 November 2008

Children and Mill’s Principle of Liberty

As quite a young child I was under the impression that it was a basic principle of accepted morality and legislation that an individual's freedom of action should not be restricted except in so far as his actions might impinge upon the freedom of others.

A century ago this principle was to a large extent respected. Provided you kept the law you could make your own decisions, subject to the resources and opportunities you had, and could try to enlarge your resources and opportunities. The law, it is true, violated the principle by including some moral elements, such as a prohibition of homosexuality, which could scarcely be justified as restraining the infringement of the liberty of others, as between consenting adults. A law of this kind was evidently based on psychological grounds, that people doing things of this kind might generate disapproval in others, and persons should be protected from having to feel such things.

Although the modern world has repealed the penalties for homosexuality between consenting adults, this is scarcely likely to have been out of concern for individual liberty; more likely the repeal was made because sex is the modern opium of the people, it being supposed that if they are encouraged to fill their lives with such harmless distractions they will not notice more serious oppressions.

Nowadays legislation is frequently justified on statistical grounds: that we must bring about a state of affairs in which society as a whole is the way we (that is, the legislators) would like it to be. I first noticed this when a law was brought in prohibiting the taking of what are now called GCSEs before a person's sixteenth birthday. Even at the time, and before I realised how serious the effects of this would be on my own educational prospects, I thought this surprisingly immoral legislation. Surely a person was not doing anyone else any harm by taking an exam younger than the average? The only harm you could be said to be doing was psychological: it might make other people jealous. But then the acquisition of any benefit in life might make other people jealous. If you started to take psychological considerations such as this into account you could plainly justify practically any restriction of individual freedom of action. What other people would like best would be to see you living a dull, unambitious life, enlivened only by such diversions as they permitted themselves, such as the aforementioned opium of the people.

Another way this sort of legislation is justified is by reference to protecting people from themselves. Thus in this case, it may have been represented that children were being preserved from being made to work hard, or to 'cram', as previous legislation had preserved them from being made to climb up inside sooty chimneys in order to sweep them. This, however, leaves out of account all manner of individual differences, and does not allow the child or its parents the freedom to make a decision on the basis of his own abilities and temperament. The amount of effort that goes into preparing for exams is vastly different depending on aptitude and motivation.

Similarly people are supposed to be preserved from choosing the wrong pharmaceuticals for themselves, by being allowed to have only those which the doctor prescribes for them. They are not protected from the mistakes of the doctor, who cannot be supposed to have nearly the same interest in their wellbeing that they have themselves. Nor is the recipient allowed to use his own judgement to assess the likelihood that the doctor's prescription is more harmful than he would choose under his own steam, in the light of the doctor's stupidity, incompetence, sadism, lack of interest, love of power, etc.

The principle that an individual should be free to make his own decisions, subject only to their infringement in obvious ways of the freedom of others has, clearly, always been most vulnerable to abuse in situations of incapacity. There is an age before which an infant cannot make informed decisions for itself and must inevitably depend on its parents to make decisions on its behalf. In a similar way, a person suffering from physical illness may be really incapable of making decisions for himself; in an extreme case, he may be unconscious. There may be no friends or relatives around. The fact that education and medicine deal, in their most limiting cases, with individuals who are not in any realistic sense able to decide things for themselves has, of course, led to extreme abuse. In both state education and medicine (even, though to a marginally lesser extent, in private medicine) there is supposed to be a complete transfer of concern for the 'interests' of the individual to a social authority.