The radical implications of “no”

It’s only two months until Scotland’s referendum. It’s an emotionally charged issue, and I know that some of my friends plan to vote differently than I would like them to. I still want to be friends afterwards, so most of the time I like to consider the matter calmly, almost as if it were just another everyday policy detail. But sometimes a piece of fiery, passionate rhetoric comes along that it just too powerful to ignore.

This article by Peter Arnott in Bella Caledonia is such a piece. Arnott points out that voting “no” in September has implications that are just as radical as voting “yes”:

Every vile piece of Westminster legislation that has attacked the poor and dismantled the Welfare State, every policy that has ensured that it is only the poor who have paid the price of the recession caused by the greed of the rich, every act of economic and social vandalism – it has been the comfortable posture of the well meaning voters of Scotland that none of these things have been your fault. That you didn’t vote for them.

Well, you won’t be able to say that any more.

Up until September the 18th, we have all been able to hide behind all that being someone else’s fault. Either way the vote goes, Yes or No, that comfortable position has already been shattered. Either we vote to take responsibility for our own economics , our own wealth distribution, our own decisions to make war or peace…or we are voting to mandate away control over all of these matters to Westminster forever.

Either way, we will be responsible.

If a Yes voter has to take on board the moral hazard of whatever happens for good or ill in an independent Scotland, a No voter must equally accept moral responsibility for having given Westminster permanent permission to do whatever it likes forever. No questions asked.

Moral Hazard works both ways.

Whatever austerity measures are coming down the line, all those policies that weren’t your fault before September 18th? After September the 18th, they will be your fault. No. Sorry. Every single one of them. Will be your fault. This is the trap that history has set you. And I understand your discomfort. I understand your wanting to wish all this away. But you can’t. You’re stuck along with the rest of us.

(Emphasis mine.)

This is more than just a policy detail; it’s a generational decision. If you can vote in the referendum, this may be the most important vote you will cast in your lifetime. I still want to be friends afterwards, but if you’re planning to vote “no”, please at least read the article.

(Additional commentary on the article over at Wings Over Scotland.)

Arguments for growth

The Social-Democratic arguments for Scottish independence are plentiful and good. I haven’t spent much time looking at other reasons in favour, though, which is why I found the article “I’ve Decided To Vote Yes” by Ewan Morrison so interesting. He notes that Scotland has low levels of investment risk and venture capital, and suggeste that a “Yes” vote could be a path to a Scotland more welcoming of innovation. (Having visited Codebase the other week, knowing a bunch of people working in startups there, and seeing how quickly it is expanding, makes me think that the potential is both present and eager to grow.)

Where is Scotland’s wealth, and why do adventurous and innovative businesses not benefit from the risk taking of venture capital? The answer is another example of how the clichés about the Scottish mindset are true. Scotland does have wealth but the wealthy in this country secret their wealth away in very conservative forms of investment – pension funds, mortgage funds. These are not really risk-taking forms of investment at all and are cowardly and stingy, offering only a few percentage points more return than the interest rates of any actual bank. The rich in Scotland are mean and they keep their money secret and to themselves, they don’t take risks with it, they are not enterprising with it, and the last thing they spend it on, at the moment, is reinvesting in Scottish business start-ups and innovative ideas.

This is a mindset problem that a new Scotland is going to have to address. I say Scotland and not ‘The New Scottish Government’ because we are already far too dependent on government, far too statist. The new Scotland should be a powerhouse of invention and venture, and should have to be reigned in by Government, not the way we tend to see it at the moment, as utterly dependent upon government and government hand-outs, that are only there to replace the lack of financial trust we have in our own people.

Relevant to this is “The Pitchforks Are Coming…For Us Plutocrats” by Nick Hanauer. (Via Abi on Making Light) Here is a dyed-in-the-wool capitalist making a clear argument for the necessity of increasing minimum wages:

The model for us rich guys here should be Henry Ford, who realized that all his autoworkers in Michigan weren’t only cheap labor to be exploited; they were consumers, too. Ford figured that if he raised their wages, to a then-exorbitant $5 a day, they’d be able to afford his Model Ts.

What a great idea. My suggestion to you is: Let’s do it all over again. We’ve got to try something. These idiotic trickle-down policies are destroying my customer base. And yours too.

It’s when I realized this that I decided I had to leave my insulated world of the super-rich and get involved in politics. Not directly, by running for office or becoming one of the big-money billionaires who back candidates in an election. Instead, I wanted to try to change the conversation with ideas—by advancing what my co-author, Eric Liu, and I call “middle-out” economics. It’s the long-overdue rebuttal to the trickle-down economics worldview that has become economic orthodoxy across party lines—and has so screwed the American middle class and our economy generally. Middle-out economics rejects the old misconception that an economy is a perfectly efficient, mechanistic system and embraces the much more accurate idea of an economy as a complex ecosystem made up of real people who are dependent on one another.

Which is why the fundamental law of capitalism must be: If workers have more money, businesses have more customers. Which makes middle-class consumers, not rich businesspeople like us, the true job creators. Which means a thriving middle class is the source of American prosperity, not a consequence of it. The middle class creates us rich people, not the other way around.

If you can’t afford to pay a living wage, you can’t afford to do business.

Yes, but why?

So Scotland has a referendum coming up in just over three months. I have opinions on this matter. Practically since the date of the referendum was set, I’ve been struggling with two questions:

  1. Because we live in the Netherlands, I’m not eligible to vote in the referendum. What right do I have to express my opinions, or to try to convince others of my point of view? Is this any of my business?
  2. If I were allowed to vote, I would vote “Yes” (for Scotland to be an independent country). Do I have a sound ideological basis for this decision, or are my reasons just post-hoc rationalizations of an emotional impulse?

The first question arises from expat guilt. There is a stereotype of the wealthy expat who moved abroad for tax reasons, but who feels perfectly comfortable holding forth about issues in their home country that no longer affect them.

We didn’t move to the Netherlands for tax reasons; only corporations do that, and gosh do they ever. We did think that living here would offer Alex and Fiona a better childhood, primary, and secondary education than they would receive in Scotland. Not necessarily because of the quality of the Dutch education system (which is good), but because of the fact that they would be growing up bilingual in a country that by virtue of its location, size, and history is very internationally focused. Abi and I both value multilingualism and multiculturalism, and we chose to live in a country that broadly (though far from universally) welcomes those principles. So you could say that we turned our backs on Scotland because it wasn’t good enough for us, and that we no longer have any right to complain about circumstances there.

But I do still have a stake in Scotland’s educational, health, and financial well-being. My family lives there. I work for a company with one its main offices in Edinburgh. My pensions are held by Scottish companies. Whether Scotland languishes or thrives affects me directly. So I feel justified in having an opinion on Scottish independence, making it known, and supporting the campaign for independence. (Disclosure: I’ve donated £100 to the campaign so far.)

The second question is harder to address. I know enough about psychology to know that humans excel at coming up with reasons for justifying choices that were made at an emotional level. Given my social and political beliefs, which are, let’s say, strongly left-leaning, is Scottish independence a rational decision?

The prevailing independence narrative is that Scotland is a more socialist country, favouring more progressive tax structures, and preferring policies that keep more utilities and facilities (such as the NHS) in public hands. Even under Labour governments, the UK as a whole has been lurching politically rightward since the 1980s, concentrating power and money in fewer hands, and in an ever-shrinking region centred on London. Scotland famously has more giant pandas (2) than Conservative MPs in Westminster (1). In this climate, independence could be seen as a rational choice to give Scotland the powers of self-determination it is denied in a union with the rest of Britain.

But a vote for independence isn’t a vote for a happy socialist utopia. If Scotland does become independent, there will be elections for a new parliament. With the unifying effect of the independence issue out of the way, I’d expect the SNP to lose support to a variety of other parties, and a new political spectrum to establish itself. I think it’s likely that a future independent Scotland would be governed by a left-leaning party, but it’s not certain, and it would be naive to think it would stay like that forever.

What if, drunk on the power of victory, a less savoury nationalism takes over in Scotland, when it might have been tempered if Scotland had still been part of the UK? What if the current political situation were reversed: if the UK had a broadly socialist government, but the Scottish independence movement was led by a right-wing party campaigning on a pro-business, foreigners-keep-out platform? Would I still be in favour of independence? Am I in favour of independence in principle, or just because the political forces supporting independence at this time happen to be aligned with my own views?

My rationale here comes down to believing that the will of the people is expressed better in smaller systems than in large ones, because they allow individual voices to be heard more clearly.

However: if that’s a principle I want to see put into practice, where does it end? If the six hundred thousand people of Glasgow decide they wanted to become an independent city-state, would I support them? If the Highland estate of Lord Fitlike of Cannaemind (population: 20) figures it can go it alone, would I stand in its way?

Well…it’s more complicated than that. I don’t think I’d be fundamentally opposed in those cases, but I also realize that there are economies of scale in politics and government just as there are in industry and other human endeavours. Would an independent Glasgow be a viable entity on the European and world stage? Possibly. Would the Highland estate? Probably not. In the case of Scotland, I think the answer is yes.

To state my principle a bit more clearly: I think that political power should be delegated downwards to the lowest level at which it can be effectively exercised. Profit-making businesses operate at the largest possible scale to minimize costs and maximize profit. Democracies should operate at the smallest possible scale to maximize the well-being of its citizens. Note that I said well-being rather than prosperity. Using “the economy” as a proxy for the health of a nation leads governments to act in exactly the wrong direction.

I’m not unaware of how difficult it would be to untangle Scotland’s political machinery from the rest of the UK after three centuries of union. In the short term, it will be hard, painful, and costly. (Think: messy divorce.) But if we let short-term thinking dictate our actions when it comes to monumental decisions like these, we give up on our long-term potential. In that sense, it’s very much like our decision to emigrate.

Further reading:

  1. Yes: Charlie Stross: Schroedinger’s Kingdom: the Scottish Political Singularity Explained
  2. No: Ken MacLeod: Scottish Independence
  3. Yes: Daniel Mittler: Why I say “Ja” to Scottish independence