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Wednesday, September 28, 2005


Logical disconnection; the Littlejohn pathology

This morning on BBC News 24 Sylvia Hardy, the jailed and now released Council Tax protestor, was asked about her time in jail. She says that she was treated well, cites the support of the inmates, but then laments that the prison was under-funded. While Council Tax does not directly support the upkeep of prison, it is part of the collective public revenue. If Council Tax were abolished, as Sylvia Hardy is demanding, where would the extra public money come from? Not a single reporter has asked her this question, or the related question; what public spending would you cut.

No doubt some of my regular readers would be happy to see public spending cut, but they should at least be honest enough to admit that if Sylvia Hardy were campaigning to cut spending, not just tax, she would receive a great deal less public support.

This seems to be a mild case of the Littlejohn pathology. Richard Littlejohn hates speed cameras. He argues that they are a means for the police to gather revenue. He also argues that they allow the police to abdicate their responsibility to police the roads in person, where human judgement could be applied. But, and he never grapples with this problem, his call to do away with speed cameras would reduce the resources available to the police, while, if the roads are to be properly policed and his diagnosis is correct, increasing the cost of policing. Would he raise taxes? Would he cut services? He never argues either way. Why? Well, if we were being generous, we would say that his logical disconnect is a result of his simple-mindedness. This would be a just description, as Littlejohn’s views on speed cameras are not casual observations where inconsistency is acceptable and expectable. But if he is not a simple-mind, a more realistic understanding of the pathology would be that Littlejohn is engaging in the malicious exploitation of his readers, hoping that they will not be bright enough, not skilled in the task of critical reading, to cut through his illusion of argument and see the bad faith at the heart. Littlejohn hates Sun readers, else he would do them a better service.

Council Tax may be unfair. But the person who has been adopted as the figurehead of a movement to abolish a tax is forced to realise and reflect on the under-funding of a tax-funded service and does not address this apparent inconsistency. We must, therefore, conclude that she is either a simple-minded fool or that this logical disconnection is more or less knowing front for an attack on the financial basis for public services. She is no hero. At best she is an exploited stooge.

I'm not sure: I assumed Sylvia Hardy was in favour of moving the council tax burden from the elderly onto working people. However, now that I've written that, I can't really justify it: perhaps she is simply calling for a reduction in council tax for the elderly with no increase elsewhere. Spot-on analysis in that case.

On speed cameras: it always annoys me that anti-camera campaginers always effectively call for an increase in the speed limits. They dress it up in arguments like: "We should employ more traffic police to catch people who are driving dangerously". However, we either immediately conclude that if breaking the speed limit equals driving dangerously, then the same people will be caught, but at greater expense to the police. I don't think the campaigners believe this; they seem to think that driving over the limit is not, in and of itself, dangerous, but that some people do drive dangerously (never them, of course). I suspect this argument isn't made because a lot of people wouldn't support it (it's pretty hard to complain about many speed limits, especially in built-up areas).
mr bartlett, I disagree with your analysis of the case of the soon to be late ms hardy. Sure certain elements have presented her case in a littlejohnesque 'big govt taxgrabs ailing granny's pension'. However, there is a profound injustice that elderly people who have, by chance, come to sit on an asset that has appreciated over time be taxed on that capital asset (it should be remembered that this is a capital asset and yields them no income). Such a system has resulted in old people being forced to move away from areas and communities that they have helped to build since they are often unable to pay the taxes on their property. The govt. should introduce a system whereby there is a form of exemption directly proportional to years spent in a property. If the person moves then they lose that exemption or if they pass away and bequeath this asset to their children then the exemption is lost (and I would argue that the backdated payments should then be made by those inheriting this capital asset- they can either sell or remortgage to pay this). So I not only agree with her cause but I commend her, in era of timidity and servility, for making a principled stand against the state; when's the last time the new generation of socially pathetic, politically apathetic students took direct action against the state's taxation of them?
As Matt pointed out, my argument with Sylvia Hardy (the media object) has nothing to do with whether council tax is just or not. I was objecting to her being the icon of an anti-tax movement, not a campaign to redistribute the tax burden. This is done at the same time as observations are made of the underfunding of public services. I called this the 'Littlejohn pathology' because it is characteristic of Richard Littlejohn's arguments regarding speed cameras and road policing.

The problem both Sylvia Hardy and Richard Littlejohn have is that if they made their case properly they would have to say; [1] I do not think that the burden of supporting the public purse should fall on me, and [2] the public purse requires at least as much money, so this burden must be shifted onto other (identified) people.

But [2] is missing. This means that plenty of unreflective people rally to their campaign to reduce the 'tax' demands they face. This cause may be more of less just. In the case of Council Tax I think that there is a point to be made for radically reorganising local taxation (for me involving high taxation of second, and subsequent, homes). But without [2] there is more than a little suspicion that media objects like Sylvia Hardy are a publicly acceptable wedge by which to push [2a] reduce public spending.

As Sylvia Hardy herself identifies the underfunding of prisons - not the most popular of public spending causes, especially as she was talking about facilities FOR the prisoners - I have to suggest that she is being used as a dupe. Her campaign will not improve the lives of pensioners, as while it might lead to the end of council tax it will also lead to a reduction in the public services they (and their communities) rely on. It will benefit those people with large properties who already have the means to firstly pay for private services and secondly seal themselves away from the newly deprived.
mr bartlett,

because someone's image and campaign is appropriated by elements within the media for purposes other than they intended does not make them a dupe (if jesus is an icon for gun slinging rascists is he, too, a dupe?)

You are correct, however, in pointing out that the link between taxes and public services has been lost- part of the rampant individualism within neo-liberalism. Again I agree with you that ms Hardy has been used to forward this agenda; but, as I stated, this is beyond her control.

From the tenor of your previous pieces I get the impression that on the surface you have a healthy disregard for the state but yet dismiss someone who actually protests against the state as a 'dupe'. Added to this you suggest, though using a clever rhetorical distancing mechanism, that the readers of the Sun are not 'bright enough' to see through these arguments. Both these positions reek of the leftwing, supercilious, armchair radical.

As a matter of interest do students who want to scrap tuition fees suffer from the 'Littlejohn' pathology as well? If one were (God forbid) brave enough to go to court for his/her beliefs and if supported by anti tax campaigners would s/he be a dupe?
“because someone's image and campaign is appropriated by elements within the media for purposes other than they intended does not make them a dupe”

Er, as that is a pretty good summation of one of the definitions of a ‘dupe’ I am afraid that I must disagree.

Your Jesus analogy is not appropriate; for someone to be a dupe they must take an active part in a campaign that serves the hidden agendas of the ‘dupers’. If Jesus were a living guru who lent spiritual legitimacy to racist politicians then yes, he would be, by definition, a dupe.

So yes, I did think that some of the student fees protestors were used as dupes. I felt that they were being used to push a free education (for a small middle-class minority) line. This is not to say that I agree with student fees or the government’s arguments for them. What I did think is that those tasked with making the students’ case were either unwilling to confront the financial demands of free education for all and make the case for this, or to openly consider the social and democratic consequences of free education with a restricted intake.

You seem to attach a great moral weight to the term ‘dupe’. I would argue that it is a description of circumstance that emphatically distances the ‘dupe’ from the (im)moral actions and agendas of the ‘duper’. It leaves the other virtues of the dupe unaffected; they are still brave, committed, compassionate, whatever. Indeed, a good dupe displays a wide range of virtues, which are then exploited by people lacking in this regard.
mr. bartlett,

I guess we differ in our interpretation of the word 'dupe'. While being a dupe doesn't render one immoral (far from it) it does have connotations of naivety and indeed stupidity, and for the user condescension. What really bothers me, however, is it tends to deny the 'dupe' agency in his/her actions. For me the 'duper' would need to have agency in compelling the dupe/dupee?? into their course of action. So, for example, if Jesus were to make a speech at the behest on pro-lifers on the cuteness of babies and this was used as justification for attacking abortion clinics then Jesus would be a dupe. If, however, he made this speech because one of the apsotles had a little baby boy that he found cute and his words were appropriated (he must be getting used to that) then he would not be a dupe. Anyway, lets not split hairs (they're too precious nowadays) cause I actually agree with the thrust of your argument. I must also commend you on the consistency of your argument towards tuition fees and the lack of theoretical/political engagement amongst those who opposed them.

How would you differentiate between a martyr and a dupe? Who do you think was the greatest dupe in history? (no nominations for Papa Bouba from punny Fulham fans!)
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