The Price of Freedom

First of all, apologies for missing my post on Wednesday, and apologies in advance for missing one on Wednesday; I’ve had a lot of stuff to do over the past week and will be away during the next one. Ah well, on with the post…

We in the west set a lot of store by democracy; in America especially you will hardly be hard-pressed to find someone willing to defend their ‘rights’ and freedom to the hilt, regardless of how dumb you think that particular right is. Every time a government attempts to ban or restrict some substance or activity, vast waves of protesters will take to the streets/TV/internet that their right or ability to do X or Y is being restricted in direct contradiction to every document from the Magna Carta to the UN Declaration of Human Rights.

However, if we were permitted to be totally free (the ‘Altair’ end of the Order of Assassins/Knights Templar spectrum), with no laws restricting our activity, then we would quickly descend into an anarchic society. Murder, rape and theft would go unpunished as the minority of the evil-minded quickly became the majority by simple need. Various models of a system of anarchy, including mine predict an eventual return to an ordered society of laws and structure, and we can all agree that serious crimes are Bad Things that probably are worth restricting, even if it requires us to restrict our ‘freedom’ to a certain degree. Clearly, freedom is not worth such crimes, and thus we have laws.

In fact, most of our legal system can be counted as a direct result of the law-setter in question asking ‘what is freedom worth?’. If the law is in place to restrict an activity, then freedom is counted as not being worth this activity for either moral, financial or practical reasons (or a combination of the three), whilst other, more unrestricted, activities, freedom is considered worth allowing. And, perhaps more interestingly, a vast majority of political debate can be essentially boiled down to two people’s different opinions concerning what price we are prepared to pay for freedom.

Take, as a simple example, the British government’s recent ‘pastie tax’, levied on hot baked goods. This was partly an attempt to bring in some much-needed cash for the government in their efforts to cut the deficit, but also has some  degree of a health motivation. Such food is frequently sold cheaply from fast food retailers and the like, meaning it is an easy source of hot, tasty food for the poorer or lazier sections of society; but their fat content is not kind to the waistline and an overconsumption of such foods has been linked to ‘the national obesity epidemic’ that everyone gets so worked up about. This obesity problem is a major source of concern to the NHS, and thus the government who pay for it, since in the long term it causes a dramatic upsurge in the number of diabetes cases. This is an expensive problem to combat and presents a major health hazard for the country as a whole, and the government (or at least George Osborne, whose annual statement the tax first appeared in) decided that this dual cost is not worth the freedom to enjoy such a snack so cheaply. This, as with all vaguely new and interesting decisions in a rather dull report concerning how poor the country is, was debated aggressively in the media, with the healthy eating people and economists broadly speaking backing the idea (or complaining that there was not enough done/government is stifling growth/insert predictable complaint about economy here) whilst others criticised the plan as just another example of the Tories targeting the lower rungs of society who most frequently enjoy a cheap meal from these sources. To these people, today’s world is an expensive and difficult one to live in, and the ability to have a hot, greasy, tasty meal for a price that they could easily budget for in the long run is a freedom well worth whatever obesity problems it is causing. Such fundamental differences of opinion, particularly concerning taxation policy, are the irreconcilable forces that mean two political opponents will frequently find it impossible to back down.

In some other cases, the two participants of an argument will agree that freedom isn’t worth cost X, but will disagree on the mechanism for restricting said cost. The debate concerning the legalisation of drugs is one such example, for whilst part of the debate centres around a difference of opinion as to whether the freedom to get stoned is worth the cost of a country full of stoners and the consequences thereof (don’t believe anyone who tells you marijuana is a harmless drug; it isn’t, although the degree of harm it causes is generally the cause behind such debate), another cause of disagreement concerns the problems of the drugs war. Opium is the biggest source of income for the Taliban (and a very large one for Afghanistan as a whole), whilst the gangs and cartels who operate the Latin American drugs trade have been directly linked to human trafficking, prostitution and other atrocities during the ongoing drugs wars with their local government. This is a particular problem in Mexico, where since the government’s announcement of the ‘war on drugs’ there have been over 47,000 drugs-related murders. Everyone agrees that this is a Bad Thing, but a difference of opinion arises when considering which course of action would prove the most successful at combating the problem; the ‘legalise’ faction say that to legalise drugs would be to force the small-time criminals out of business as the well-policed official channels of trade took over, where sourcing and supply is performed by businessmen held accountable for their actions. At the very least, they suggest, it could do us good to lessen the sentencing of drug offenders and try to encourage quitters rather than just clamp people in jail, as this allows us to discourage people more easily and get to know more about the problem. This approach is implemented to an extent in Europe (especially the Netherlands), whilst the more stringent laws of the United States (states such as Colorado excepted) take the opposite line; they say that to relax drug restrictions simply encourages use, gives more trade to the cartels and only increases their power. Whether they are right or not is very much up for debate since the alternative hasn’t really been tried on a large scale, particularly in America; but the growing movement to look for an alternative solution to the problem, combined with the statement from former presidents of Guatemala, Mexico and Colombia that ‘the war on drugs has failed’ means that we may soon see how the other approach ends up. For the record, I remain undecided on the issue- the stats from the Netherlands tell me that drug use will increase with decriminalisation, which I don’t especially like the prospect of (that stuff’s not for me, and I’m not entirely sure why it should be for anyone else either), but it strikes me that this approach may reap dividends when it comes to combating the secondary problems caused by the drug wars. A friend who is kind of into this business (and, incidentally, comes firmly down on the ‘legalise’ side) recommends the YouTube film ‘Breaking The Taboo’, which you may want to watch if this kind of thing interests you.

…OK, that one slightly got away from me, but the discussion got kind of interesting. The key message here, really, is one of self-examination. Take a look at your political views, your outlook on life in general, and then ask yourself: to me, what is freedom worth?

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Poverty Changes

£14,000 is quite a large amount of money. Enough for 70,000 Freddos, a decade’s worth of holidays, two new Nissan Pixo’s, several thousand potatoes or a gold standard racing pigeon. However, if you’re trying to live off just that amount in modern Britain, it quickly seems quite a lot smaller. Half of that could easily disappear on rent, whilst the average British family will spend a further £4,000 on food (significantly greater than the European average, for one reason or another). Then we must factor in tax, work-related expenses, various repair bills, a TV license, utility & heating bills, petrol money and other transport expenses, and it quickly becomes apparent that trying to live on this amount will require some careful budgeting. Still, not to worry too much though; it’s certainly possible to keep the body and soul of a medium sized family together on £14k a year, if not absolutely comfortably, and in any case 70% of British families have an annual income in excess of this amount. It might not be a vast amount to live on, but it should be about enough.

However, there’s a reason I quoted £14,000 specifically in the figure above, because I recently saw another statistic saying that if one’s income is above 14 grand a year, you are one of the top 4% richest people on planet Earth. Or, to put it another way, if you were on that income, and were then to select somebody totally at random from our species, then 24 times out of 25 you would be richer than them.

Now, this slightly shocking fact, as well as being a timely reminder as to the prevalence of poverty amongst fellow members of our species, to me raises an interesting question; if £14,000 is only just about enough to let one’s life operate properly in modern Britain, how on earth does the vast majority of the world manage to survive at all on significantly less than this? More than 70% of the Chinese population (in 2008, admittedly; the rate of Chinese poverty is decreasing at a staggering rate thanks to its booming economy) live on less than $5 a day, and 35 years ago more than 80% were considered to be in absolute poverty. How does this work? How does most of the rest of the world physically survive?

The obvious starting point is the one stating that much of it barely does. Despite the last few decades of massive improvement in the living standards and poverty levels in the world in general,  the World Bank estimates that some 20% of the world’s populace is living below the absolute poverty line of surviving on less than $1.50 per person per day, or £365 a year (down from around 45% in the early 1980s- Bob Geldof’s message has packed a powerful punch). This is the generally accepted marker for being less than what a person can physically keep body and soul together on, and having such a huge proportion of people living below this marker tends to drag down the global average. Poverty is something that the last quarter of the century has seen a definitive effort on the part of humanity to reduce, but it’s still a truly vast issue across the globe.

However, the main contributing factor to me behind how a seemingly meagre amount of money in the first world would be considered bountiful wealth in the third is simply down to how economics works. We in the west are currently enjoying the fruits of two centuries of free-market capitalism, which has fundamentally changed the way our civilisation functions. When we as a race first came up with the concept of civilisation, of pooling and exchanging skills and resources for the betterment of the collective, this was largely confined to the local community, or at least to the small-scale. Farmers provided for those living in the surrounding twenty miles or so, as did brewers, hunters, and all other such ‘small businessmen’, as they would be called today. The concept of a country provided security from invasion and legal support on a larger scale, but that was about it; any international trade was generally conducted between kings and noblemen, and was very much small scale.

However, since the days of the British Empire and the Industrial Revolution, business has got steadily bigger and bigger. It started out with international trade between the colonies, and the rich untapped resources the European imperial powers found there, moved on to the industrial scale manufacture of goods, and then the high-intensity sale of consumer products to the general population. Now we have vast multinational companies organising long, exhaustive chains of supply, manufacture and retail, and our society has become firmly rooted in this intense selling international economy. Without constantly selling vast quantities of stuff to one another, the western world as we know it simply would not exist.

This process causes many side effects, but one is of particular interest; everything becomes more expensive. To summarise very simply, the basic principle of capitalism involves workers putting in work and skill to increase the value of something; that something then gets sold, and the worker then gets some of the difference between cost of materials and cost of sale as a reward for their effort. For this to work, then one’s reward for putting in your effort must be enough to purchase the stuff needed to keep you alive; capitalism rests on the principle of our bodies being X% efficient at turning the food we eat into the energy we can use to work. If business is successful, then the workers of a company (here the term ‘workers’ covers everyone from factory floor to management) will gain money in the long term, enabling them to spend more money. This means that the market increases in size, and people can either sell more goods or start selling them for a higher price, so goods become worth more, so the people making those goods start getting more money, and so on.

The net result of this is that in an ‘expensive’ economy, everyone has a relatively high income and high expenditure, because all goods, taxes, land, utilities etc. cost quite a lot; but, for all practical purposes, this results in a remarkably similar situation to a ‘cheap’ economy, where the full force of western capitalism hasn’t quite taken hold yet- for, whilst the people residing there have less money, the stuff that is there costs less having not been through the corporation wringer. So, why would we find it tricky to live on less money than the top 4% of the world’s population? Blame the Industrial Revolution.