Archive | June 2019

Why being born in the UK is (almost) like winning the lottery of life

In a campaign event a few days ago, Conservative leadership candidate Jeremy Hunt asserted that being born in the UK is ‘winning the lottery of life’. This comment attracted predictable sneers on social media, critics citing things like austerity, food banks, Windrush etc. I didn’t read one defence of the comment.

As with my last post, logical thought makes the arguments of Hunt’s critics difficult to maintain. There is a relevant thought experiment associated with the political philosopher John Rawls. Rawls advanced a concept known as the veil of ignorance; this requires us to evaluate societies on the basis of the presumption that we would occupy a random place in a given society. We can take this a step further and ask which society, of all those ever created by humans, we would prefer to inhabit were we to be assigned a random position. I forget whether Rawls or one of his aficionados phrased it in precisely these terms; it doesn’t really matter.

I’ve asked this question of colleagues and students over the years. I have yet to meet anyone who wished to chance societies such as ancient Rome or medieval Mongolia. The most adventurous have preferred societies in Western Europe during post-war boom decades (though one may query whether they reflected on conditions for women, LGBT+ etc.). The vast majority of people, including myself, would prefer to be assigned to a contemporary Western society; Scandinavian countries are popular.

The UK may not boast Scandinavian-like wealth and equality, but it is hardly far from these standards; it is much closer than the vast majority of contemporary and historical societies. Given more enlightened attitudes towards some minorities/certain freedoms, it is not inconceivable that some would choose the UK in reply to Rawls’ question. Even if we have problems like poverty and mistreatment of minorities, these are minor in comparison to issues in most contemporary and historical societies. Reflecting on the fact that citizens of developed countries like the UK are a very small fraction of the 100 billion humans that have ever lived, Hunt’s comment is not unreasonable (even if we are not talking about a ‘6-figure’ win).

This is a central paradox of today’s politics; most implicitly think that today’s developed societies are the best which have ever existed, yet many who live in these societies are very unhappy (even in Scandinavia!). The answer lies in relative deprivation, a concept used by social scientists to describe lack of means to live the life which is customary in a given society. Perhaps relative deprivation should be the topic of another post…

Are MPs stupid?

The intelligence and competence of Members of Parliament (MPs) have long been questioned. In recent years, claims that MPs are stupid/useless etc. have intensified however. A recent Banksy work, depicting MPs as chimpanzees, was particularly representative of this thinking. The Financial Times also recently asked a similar question, albeit in more nuanced language. This is an interesting topic to cover on my blog because it can be shown, almost definitively, that the assertion that MPs are unintelligent is untrue.

Because we have specific information about the educational attainment of the 650 MPs, we are able to make accurate deductions about their intelligence. Research shows that the average IQ of a graduate is about 115; the average of the UK population is about 100. Of 650 MPs, 82% (540) are graduates; the figure for the population is 27%.

This allows us to speculate on the average IQ of the 650 MPs. Because many of the 540 graduate MPs went to elite universities, 23% attending Oxbridge, perhaps it is unfair to consider them ‘average’ graduates; let us nonetheless do that. If we do this, the fact that there are 540 graduate MPs means that we can be confident that their average IQ is close to the average for graduates; this would be demonstrated by a Bernoulli trial. Let us assume that the remaining 110 MPs have levels of education which are equivalent to the rest of the population, an assumption likely uncharitable to these MPs. These 110 MPs are nonetheless a minority, not greatly reducing the average of the 650 MPs.

Though these are quick calculations, rigorous analysis requiring more robust analysis, I think that I have shown that it is highly probable that MPs are more intelligent than the average member of the population; MPs are certainly not as stupid as detractors claim. The tone of this post may come across as elitist, but these are unusual times. The vigour of discourse against MPs, related to the disgraceful threats which MPs receive, is a menace to liberal-democracy; arguments like this are therefore needed.

Many also make points about administrative competence of MPs, an issue distinct from intelligence, yet this is more difficult to dispute with statistics. I would nonetheless be interested in learning why British MPs are particularly incompetent; it is here that weaknesses in arguments emerge. If one compares the UK to other countries, a series of factors imply that MPs are likely to be more competent than international counterparts. In other contexts, incompetence of elected representatives is related to factors such as ruptures with existing governing classes (associated with transition from dictatorship), poor quality of public education or high levels of corruption. None of these factors are present in the UK; on these indicators, the country compares well even to Western counterparts. The assertion that MPs are lazy also disintegrates on inspection; the recent Isabel Hardman book is a good source here.

Ironically, there is a contemporary problem with institutions which give influence to those with less elevated cognitive ability. Firstly, there is social media. In recent years, the rise of Facebook and Twitter has implied that average citizens, who by definition have average intelligence, have achieved increased influence on political debate. As many have noted, consequent weakening of representative democratic institutions is related to the rise of illiberal populism. Secondly, there has been increased use of referendums across developed countries; British readers will be well aware of dangers here. It is these developments, rather than red herrings about the intelligence and competence of MPs, which concern me. I also cannot help noticing that those MPs who are associated with incompetence (Boris, others in the ERG) are often associated with direct democratic causes, i.e. Brexit, meaning that their cases indict anti-political populism rather than parliament.

MPs are of course not perfect; I have merely argued that their standard is far better than their detractors claim. As consequences of populist adventures like Brexit become clearer, people may realize that the quality of politicians is not so bad.