Thursday, 9 July 2020

The Moral Maze, gambling and The Rediscovery of Tobacco

I was on The Moral Maze last night talking about gambling. It wasn't a bad discussion. I was on at round 24 minutes in.

I've also written a review of Jacob Grier's book The Rediscovery of Tobacco for Spiked.

Jacob Grier doesn’t like cigarettes. He doesn’t smoke cigarettes. He advises people against smoking cigarettes. And yet he believes that adults should be allowed to smoke cigarettes without being harassed, demonised, over-taxed and thrown out of every building in America, including, in some cases, their own home. This view, which was once so uncontroversial as to go without saying, makes him virtually a libertarian provocateur today. In The Rediscovery of Tobacco, Grier explains how this cultural revolution happened.

Check it out. And buy the book.

Tuesday, 7 July 2020

The NHS is not the envy of the world

Brits were encouraged to clap for the NHS on Sunday in what the government hopes will become an annual show of devotion to a below-par health system. I hope it doesn't become a Thing. It would be embarrassing if foreigners found out about it, as I explain in The Critic today...

As the years roll on, it is possible that somebody might notice that the British are paying more than average for a below-average health service, but it is more likely that new excuses and scapegoats will be found. The public are already being primed to blame themselves for the NHS’s failings. If only we weren’t so fat and lazy, goes the message, the system would work. This is the logical conclusion to the thinking – made explicit during lockdown – that it is the public’s duty to protect the NHS rather than the other way round.

In the meantime, we will continue to applaud the idea of the NHS, worshipping a caterpillar that, for some reason, never quite became a butterfly. We will continue to view basic healthcare as a miracle of this island race, as if being born in a hospital or having one’s life saved by medicine could only happen when the state owns the infrastructure. We will continue to accept waiting four hours for emergency treatment and six months for an operation as if it would be unreasonable to expect anything better. After all, it’s free!

To the rest of the world, Britain’s infatuation with its own healthcare system is a baffling eccentricity, like those Pacific Islanders who worship the Duke of Edinburgh. But we don’t care. When it comes to healthcare, we are used to ignoring the rest of the world (except the USA). The NHS makes self-described internationalists become peculiarly parochial and narrow-minded, almost jingoistic. Insofar as we give other countries’ health systems a thought, we assume that they have either copied the NHS (may peace be upon It) or have no healthcare at all.

Do read it all. No paywall.

24 hour liberty people


The Australian Taxpayers’ Alliance & Australian Libertarian Society have put together a wonderfully ambitious 24 hour digital liberty conference which will be held this weekend.

I'll be on a panel at 11 am (UK time) and there are plenty of other speakers you will have heard of. They include Dave Rubin, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Bryan Caplan, Dan Hannan, Eric Crampton, Kate Andrews, Nick Gillespie, Eamonn Butler and Brendan O'Neill.

Check out the schedule and sign up here. For twenty Australian dollars, it's a bargain.


UPDATE

There's an access code that gives you the conference for free! Use FRIEDMANFREE





Saturday, 4 July 2020

Who is John Stuart Mill?

As you might have guessed if you've read Killjoys, one of my heroes is John Stuart Mill. In the IEA's School of Thought series, I talked to Syed Kamal about why his philosophy is important and urgently needs to be revived.






Friday, 3 July 2020

Boris, obesity and the nanny state

I've written about Boris Johnson's alleged death bed conversion to nanny statism for Spiked, with some background about the 'anti-obesity' policies that have been hanging around Whitehall for five years.

According to the Telegraph, Johnson has a range of measures in mind, including ‘wider use of bariatric surgery’ and ‘increasing access to exercise and healthy eating schemes’. More worryingly, there is talk of ‘banning price promotions such as “buy one, get one free” offers’. Advertising could be restricted and there is talk of a new law to ‘force restaurants, cafés and takeaways to label the calorie content of their food’.

If some of these ideas seem familiar, it’s because they have been hanging around Whitehall like a bad smell for years. In his efforts to tackle the non-existent childhood obesity epidemic, David Cameron approved a raft of nanny-state measures in 2016, including a ban on so-called ‘junk food’ advertising on television before 9pm, but he left office before a public consultation could be launched.

Most of his proposals were ditched under Theresa May, reputedly at the insistence of her adviser Fiona Hill. When a slimmed down ‘Childhood Obesity Plan’ was published in the summer of 2016, the likes of Action on Sugar screamed blue murder about the lack of bans, taxes and regulations. Cameron’s original draft was soon leaked to Channel 4, whose Dispatches programme described it as ‘the secret plan to save fat Britain’.

In the wake of the disastrous General Election campaign of 2017, Fiona Hill left government and Theresa May capitulated to the ‘public health’ lobby by resurrecting the Cameron policies in Chapter Two of the Childhood Obesity Plan, published in June 2018. A long public consultation was announced and the whole thing was forgotten about while the government grappled with Brexit. It became Boris Johnson’s problem when he replaced Theresa May in July 2019 and it has been lingering in the in-tray ever since, like the Ghost of Christmas Past.

There is a good reason why these policies have been passed from pillar to post for five years. They are terrible. It is not so much that they will annoy the Tory party’s negligible libertarian wing, but that they are ill-conceived, costly, largely unworkable and will almost certainly be ineffective. Chapter Two of the Childhood Obesity Plan is a wish-list of bone-headed ideas devised by ‘public health’ mid-wits who know nothing about business and next-to-nothing about food. They see added costs and inconvenience to consumers as a feature rather than a bug, and regard disruption to the food supply as a sign of success.

Do read the rest.

Thursday, 2 July 2020

The truth about tobacco taxes from a surprising source

Thanks to exorbitant taxes, a pack of twenty cigarettes costs around $35 (£18) in New Zealand. Not quite as ludicrously expensive as in Australia, but enough to have caused an epidemic of robberies from shops.

A PhD student at New Zealand's University of Canterbury, Ben Wamamili, has proposed hiking the price to $50. I assume he has his heart set on getting into the 'public health' racket and thought this would be a good way of making his mark. 

Student smokers would be more likely to quit the habit if the price for a pack topped $50, a study has shown.

His research, such as it is, involved asking students whether they would give up smoking if cigarettes cost a certain amount. Stated preferences of this sort as worthless (my grandmother insisted that she would quit when cigarettes cost £1 a pack but never did). Apparently, 39 per cent of them said they would stop smoking if the price was hiked by another $15.

Nothing surprising about any of this. Demanding higher taxes is what anti-smoking campaigners do. The surprising thing is that New Zealand's premier anti-smoking group is against it.

Deborah Hart, director of smoke-free action group ASH NZ, said she welcomed the research but New Zealand already has the world’s highest priced cigarettes, in relation to income. 

“The people we are most interested in getting to be smoke-free are people who have the highest rates of smoking, and they tend to be in a low-socioeconomic group," she said.

"Putting up the price any further for people who are already in poverty and have a real dependence on smoking is counterproductive.

"If price was going to be the only thing that worked for that group of people, it would have worked already.”

All true, of course, but this has to be a first, no?

Wednesday, 1 July 2020

Let's get back to something approaching normal

By the time the pubs reopen on July 4th, Britain will have been under various forms of lockdown for fifteen weeks. In his address to the nation on March 23rd - now more than three months ago - Boris Johnson’s sole justification for locking down was to ‘protect the NHS’. There can be no doubt that this has been achieved, albeit at enormous cost to our economy, children and sanity.


Covid-related deaths in English hospitals have fallen from a peak of over 800 a day on 8th April to less than sixty a day in recent weeks. A third of English hospitals reported no Covid-related deaths last week. The number of ‘excess deaths’ in England and Wales is now below average for this time of year.

The rest of the UK is doing even better. On Sunday, there were no deaths from COVID-19 in Northern Ireland for the first time in months. Scotland went six days without a death from COVID-19 recently, and its Covid-related hospital admissions are now in the single figures.

The documents from the SAGE meetings make it clear that the idea of a full lockdown came very late in the day. One of SAGE’s objections to banning mass gatherings was that people would simply congregate in pubs instead. It seems obvious now that this would only be a problem if the pubs were open, but the idea of the government shutting them was unthinkable, even to SAGE, until the eleventh hour.

We have done more than was reasonably expected of us for longer than we could have imagined. The original objective of the lockdown was achieved many moons ago. The NHS was never overwhelmed. The five tests that were introduced in April to justify the extension of the lockdown have now been met, including the worryingly subjective requirement that the government be ‘confident that any adjustments will not risk a second peak that would overwhelm the NHS’. Social distancing has become normalised. Scientists have discovered that Dexamethasone significantly reduces mortality. Parts of the country have achieved a measure of herd immunity. Diagnostic testing has been successfully ramped up. Fewer patients require ventilators than was originally thought. Medics have the necessary PPE. At the risk of leaving a massive hostage to fortune, there is no reason to expect a second wave to overwhelm the health service.

But that does not mean a second wave will not occur. From the outset, scientists warned that a second wave was bound to take place in the autumn and winter. Moreover, they always said that the more that is done to suppress the first wave, the greater the second wave will be. Neil Ferguson, the darling of lockdown aficionados, made this clear in his infamous report for Imperial College in mid-March, saying:

‘Introducing such interventions too early risks allowing transmission to return once they are lifted (if insufficient herd immunity has developed); it is therefore necessary to balance the timing of introduction with the scale of disruption imposed and the likely period over which the interventions can be maintained. In this scenario, interventions can limit transmission to the extent that little herd immunity is acquired – leading to the possibility that a second wave of infection is seen once interventions are lifted.’    

In light of Ferguson’s subsequent reputation as a maverick scientist speaking truth to power, it is worth noting how similar this message is to curve-flattening, sombrero-squashing rhetoric of the government at the time. Six months after COVID-19 reached our shores, we appear to be a long way from achieving herd immunity. The chances of a vaccine being developed this year are extremely remote. If the scientists are correct, we must learn to live with COVID-19. We must expect a second wave.

But we must also return to some kind of normality. Staying at home until a vaccine is developed - which may never happen - is not an option. The lockdown has already done catastrophic damage. We are likely to see four or five million people unemployed once the furlough scheme is lifted. Countless businesses will never recover. Children are having their education interrupted for six months, with those from low income households most vulnerable to being left behind.

Flattening the curve to allow the NHS to give every COVID-19 patient the care they need if one thing. Suppressing the curve indefinitely in a futile attempt to prevent anyone dying from a disease that kills people, on average, at the age of 85, is quite another.

Those who predict that the July 4th relaxations will lead to a second wave are unlikely to see their reputations tarnished. If they are right, they will look like (independent) sages. If they are wrong, nobody will remember. The people who wrongly prophesied that a second wave would result from the VE Day celebrations, or the Dominic Cummings affair, or the Black Lives Matter protests, or people going to the beach, or the partial reopening of primary schools, have not been held accountable by the media. Insofar as we remember these predictions at all, we are simply relieved, and rather encouraged, that they were wrong.

Independent SAGE, Sir David King’s assortment of political malcontents, seem to oppose every relaxation of lockdown on principle. Like Groucho Marx, whatever it is, they’re against it. They were against the full reopening of primary schools and got their way. Many health professionals, not to mention parents, now recognise that keeping schools closed until September, when almost every other country has reopened theirs, was an historic error.

Independent SAGE now opposes relaxing the two metre rule, despite most countries - and the World Health Organisation - endorsing a shorter and more practical distance. We must be thankful that the government has not capitulated on this occasion. The cultural life of the nation depends on it being dropped.

The latest excuse for putting our lives on hold is that that the UK’s system of tracking and tracing has not been perfected. It is true that the mobile phone app has been a classic government IT fiasco, but we have 25,000 people by the phone ready to do contact tracing (many of them are stood idle because there are, thankfully, not enough infections to track).

Local public health directors have repeatedly claimed that contact tracing is the job they were born to do. You may lack faith in Public Health England and their local representatives, and I can hardly blame you, but they have had years to get their pandemic planning in place and have had months to calibrate them for this disease. If they are not ready now, they never will be. If we’re going to stay locked down while we wait for these people to attain a minimum level of competence, we’ll be waiting a very long time. Frankly, we might as well wait for a vaccine.

And, to repeat, waiting for a vaccine is not an option. Doing nothing is not a plan. Being cautious with the virus is being reckless with our education, jobs and mental health. Our existence since mid-March has not been life. COVID-19 is not going away. Wash your hands, keep your distance and don’t do anything stupid. Life is returning.

[This article appeared on the Telegraph website last week]