Violence against Public Servants: Should It be Punished Harder?

ambulance

Should ambulance personnel receive extra protection from the state?

Ambulance personnel, police officers and firemen: people that, day in and day out, prevent our society from turning into a complete chaos. They support us so that we can live our lives without having to worry about our human rights being infringed upon. But what if these servants themselves become infringed upon their basic human rights? What if they are violated, both mentally and physically? There are governments, including the Dutch one, that have made explicit their intention to punish violence against public servants harder than violence against ‘regular’ (non-public servant) citizens. But, is this decision justified? And, more importantly, why would that be so?

Let’s think about it. You could claim that abusing a public servant is more severe than abusing a regular citizen because, by abusing a public servant, the perpetrator not only violates the rights of the servant but also the rights of the other members of society who are entitled to the services of the servant. After all, attacking the staff of an ambulance not only harms the ambulance workers, but indirectly also the patient that is (supposed to be) treated by these men and women. The same goes for police officers: abusing these men and women not only harms them, but also the citizens waiting to be helped by the police officers. Thus the physical or mental abuse of a public servant not only hurts the servants themselves, but also the citizens who are supposed to be served by the servants. And therefore, you could say, should the abuse of a public servant be punished harder than the abuse of a regular citizen.

Also, by abusing a public servant you are infringing upon what might be the controlling or correcting power of the state, which might be a violation in itself. That is, public servants are appointed to guard the laws we have set as a society, including the law condemning violence against other persons. Therefore, by abusing a pubic servant, you are not only attacking a member of our society, but you also resist the authority (ambulance personnel, police etc.) a (democratic) society has decided should safeguard our rights. Hence, abusing public servants is more wrong than abusing a regular citizen, and thus should be punished harder.

One the other hand, a public servant is just as much human as a regular citizen. Therefore, you could say, should the abuse of a public servant be punished equally hard as the abuse of a regular citizen. There is no reason why the live of a public servant would be worth more than the life of a regular citizen, right? Just because he or she fulfils a certain position within our society? Isn’t someone’s profession totally irrelevant when it comes down to our most fundamental rights, including the right not the abused by others? If that would indeed be the case, then there would be no justification for punishing the abuse of a public servant any differently from the abuse of a regular citizen.

Also, you could say, the abuse of a public servant is in no way a more severe violation against the state and its controlling power than is the abuse of a regular citizen. That is to say that the violation of another person’s well-being is just as much a violation of a fundamental right as would be the violation of the state’s controlling power, and thus should be punished equally hard. After all: the state’s integrity is no more important than any citizen’s integrity. Hence, attacking the former should be punished equally as attacking the latter.

Personally, I believe that both positions are well defensible. However, I consider the first position to be more reasonable. By taking away another person’s right to be saved or defended by a public servant, more parties seem to be hurt in abusing a public servant than in the abuse of what is ‘only’ a regular citizen. And surely, it might not only be a servants’ duty to assist other people when they are in need; you and I might be just as capable in doing that. This might cast doubt on the idea of granting them an extra form of protection. But that doesn’t change the fact that a public servant is explicitly appointed to fulfil this duty within our society; and that might have to be taken into account.

But what do you think?

What Is the Value of a Human Life?

People are getting older and older and demand better and better (medical) care. Also, advancements in technology and medical knowledge allow what once seemed to be incurable illnesses to be cured – or at least treated. These trends result in an ever increasing rise in the medical expenditures of countries. This begs the question: how far should we go in saving a patient’s life? What is the value of a human life? Should we be prepared to save someone at all costs? Or should we think about the financial consequences of our decisions? And if so, what is the (financial) limit?

There are several ways in which this question can be answered. One response would be that we should go as far as possible in trying to save a person’s life. That is, as far as possible given the boundaries set by our medical and technological knowledge. And although this might cost us (as a society) a lot of money, the money spent on saving a person’s life is nothing compared to the value gained by prolonging their stay on our planet; the emotional gain experienced by the person – and not to forget his family – is of an extraordinary value: a value that can impossibly be expressed in terms of money. Therefore any means available should be employed in order to let people experience (an extension of) life.

However, given that the value of a human life would be ‘impossible to express in terms of money’, why then should we come to the conclusion that – because of that – we should be prepared to save a person’s life at all costs? Wouldn’t that be a rather arbitrary decision? After all, given that (human) life is of a such value that it is inexpressible in terms of money, why then even bother to make the transition to talk about costs? If a human life would truly be invaluable, it would be just as nonsensical to talk about trying to save a person’s life at all cost as it would be to say that we shouldn’t be prepared to pay any money in order to do so, right? The value of life is after all of an entirely different dimension; irreducible to monetary terms in any sense – no matter whether this value is in millions or pennies.

Well, that seems a little radical, doesn’t it? Another option would be to say that we should go as far as could be considered economically reasonable. In welfare countries where civilians have to pay relatively high taxes, that for a huge part are gobbled by the nation’s medical expenses, it seems fair to not only think in the interests of the patient and his family but to also consider the economic prospects of the relevant patient. After all: would it be reasonable for society to pay a huge sum of money to save someone’s life, while the person being saved might be unable to ‘repay’ (in terms of making an economic contribution to society) the medical expenses in any sense? From a purely utilitarian viewpoint, this seems to be an unwise (and even a wrong) decision. Surely, it might be ‘fair’ to save the person’s life, in the sense that the person probably has paid taxes all his life (taxes that were used for paying the medical treatments of others). But that doesn’t change the fact that, at this point in time, it would be unprofitable/utility-degrading to pay for the patient’s treatment.

A solution to cover this seemingly unfair attitude – although it might sound counter-intuitive – would be to make people decide for themselves how much they are prepared to pay for saving a patient’s life. Subsequently, it would be this amount of money that the person would contribute (in the form of taxes) for covering the country’s medical expenses. However, the other side of this plan would be that, whenever the tax payer himself would have to be treated in hospital, this person’s treatment costs will be compared with the amount of money he contributed to society for covering its medical expenditures/saving a person’s life. Based upon this comparison will be decided whether or not the person should be treated. When the contribution-fee is decided upfront – before the person ‘officially’ enters society (let’s say at the age of 18) – no conflict of interests can occur, and everyone’s wishes are taken into account.

A totally different option would be to shove the full responsibility for covering one’s medical expenditures down to someone’s own wallet: to make people pay for their own medical costs. After all: who would mind a person spending thousands of dollars coming from his own pocket? No-one I suppose. Unless, of course, this person is you. Because what to do if you don’t have the money required to cover your medical expenses? It doesn’t seem fair to let you die just because you haven’t earned as much money as the richest ten percent of the population, right? However, even if you would be the person becoming sick and having to pay for your own medical costs, you might still consider this libertarian attitude towards ‘paying my own costs’ to be the true righteous manner to live your life.

It is in no way an easy question. It is about much more than medical costs/finance: it’s about values/ethics, which implies that there is likely to be no definite answer to this question.

But what do you think?

Why the High Taxation on Cigarettes is Unjustified

According to a survey held by the British Action on Smoking and Health (the ASH, for short), 20 percent of the British adults smoke. Is this a good thing? I don’t know. I believe that the act of smoking isn’t intrinsically good or bad; it is something that each person should decide for himself. However, what I do believe is valuable in its own right is human autonomy. By autonomy I mean ‘the right each person has to decide for himself how to live his life without unjustified intervention from external parties‘. And it is this latter point I want to draw attention to.

According to the ASH, in 2012, 77 percent of the price of a pack of cigarettes consisted of tax. Multiply that by the number of cigarette packs sold, and you get an amount of £10,5 billion raised through tobacco taxation. This is six times as much as the spending by the the National Health Service (the NHS) on tobacco related diseases; these were ‘merely’ £1,7 billion. So the question that comes to mind is: what justifies the £8,8 billion that remains after subtracting the NHS costs from the money raised through tobacco taxation?

The ASH claims that the inequality between the two numbers is no issue, for ‘tobacco tax is not, and never has been, a down payment on the cost of dealing with ill health caused by smoking’. But what then is the purpose of this tax? The ASH claims that the high level of tobacco tax in Britain serves two purposes: (1) to reduce smoking through the price incentive, and (2) to raise taxes from a source that has little impact on the economy. The latter point has been scrutinized extensively by economists, and I don’t think I can add anything to that discussion. So let’s focus on the first point: the aim of reducing smoking through the price incentive.

By making this claim, the ASH implicitly assumes that it is within the government set of rights to reduce smoking among its citizens. But is it? One can justify tobacco taxation on the grounds of the (health care) costs incurred by the non-smoking part of society. But, as we have seen, this amount by no means adds up to the taxes levied on tobacco. I believe this question (‘But is it?’) directs us towards the fundamental question of where the boundaries lie between justified government intervention and morally objectionable behaviour. One could say that, as I believe, it is one thing (and justified) to prevent non-smokers from being financially hurt by the actions of smokers, but that it is a completely different thing (and not justified) to promote non-smoking values among citizens, merely for the sake of – what appear to be – paternalistic motives.

As with any government intervention, the benefits of the intervention should be weighed against its costs. Presumed that there might be an intrinsic value in having a non-smoking society – a point the ASH doesn’t provide any argument for – the costs of violating what might be an intrinsically valuable human right (autonomy, that is) should be included in the calculation as well. And until this has been done, the question of whether the £10,5 billion in tobacco taxation is justified remains open for debate.

But what do you think?

Exams In the Summer Term: The Optimal Option?

Most universities in the United Kingdom apply what is called the “trimester-structure”: the division of the academic year into a Michaelmas, Lent and Summer Term. In general, although this differs per program and per university, it is the case that by far most of the examinations are due in the Summer Term. The question is: is this the optimal educational structure? There are, I think, at least two main problems with the structure as it is currently being applied: one regarding its didactic implications, and one regarding its (in)efficiency.

Let’s start with the didactics. As numerous scientific studies have shown, feedback – and especially immediate feedback – are of great importance in the learning of new material. This is because, when mastering new material, it is important to be made aware in an early stage of errors that – if not resolved – might turn into significant problems. And although immediate feedback is part of most lectures and seminars, there’s one crucial area in which this aspect seems to be ignored: examinations. As mentioned before, an intrinsic part of the trimester-structure is that by far most of the examination takes place in the last term (i.e., the Summer Term). This implies that material studied in the first term (Michaelmas Term) gets tested in the third term (Summer Term). It seems reasonable to assume that, in this case, the feedback period between absorbing the material and the material being tested is very long (a couple of months), and therefore lacks the impact it could have upon correcting students’ knowledge.

Besides a didactic argument, one could employ what might be called an “economical” view on studying. Scientific research – from Psychology Today – shows that students have the tendency to study more when the exams get nearer. One could say that the “marginal knowledge-output of learning” is higher when the examination period gets nearer. For now it is irrelevant whether this is due to procrastination on the side of the students, or due to an intrinsic part of human motivation. The fact of the matter is that, when applied to the trimester-structure, this tendency implies that most of students’ studying will take place in the (short) period before the Summer Term. But isn’t this an inefficient usage of both the Michaelmas and Lent Term?

There seems to be an easy way in which the current system could be improved upon (in the light of the aforementioned two arguments). One way would be by moving away from 100% examinations in the Summer Term to – let’s say – 33% exams per term. Another option might be to keep the 100% examination structure in place, but simply create more courses that take up one term only, and test these after the respective term. Besides being optimal from an economic perspective, since students will be studying “at full capacity” all the time, these options would drastically shorten the feedback-period between the absorption of new material and the testing of it, therefore being beneficial from a didactic point of view as well.

In conclusion, it might be worthwhile to take a look at these, and likewise options, to improve upon the educational structure currently applied by many universities in the United Kingdom.

Why Fear is More Efficient than Love

Machiavelli is the father of pragmatic reign: the father of the ‘I’ll do no matter what it takes to stay in power’ mentality sovereigns should, according to Machiavelli, have. You can say what you want about his thoughts, but they sure as hell have been influential. At least influential enough for us to be still talking about them, five centuries after his dead.

I want to focus at Machiavelli’s idea that – for a sovereign – it is better to be feared than to be loved. Machiavelli claims this because he believes that people are ungrateful and unable to be trusted; at least, not for long periods of time. Not until they get hungry again and breaking promises seems to be a better option than starving to death. But I want to focus on a different reason for why a sovereign should try to be feared instead of loved. And that is the simple fact that being feared costs less money – and effort – than being loved.

Being loved requires a constant level of investment from the sovereign; if the sovereign, for example, want to be seen as a generous man, he needs to keep on being generous at every opportunity to be generous that will arise. Giving a poor man money is generous, but to stop giving the poor man money falsifies the generosity of the sovereign. And the same goes for being friendly: if a sovereign wants to be perceived as a friendly man, he needs to be friendly all the time. One moment of unfriendliness means the end of his friendly appearance. Being good is simply a much more difficult role to play than being bad. Why? Because people have the tendency to remember someone’s unfriendly or betraying actions better than one’s well-intended or friendly actions.

Fear, compared to love, requires much less investment from the sovereign. That is because fear is based on expectations: someone’s anxiety from what might be about to come. And it is this sense of what is about to come that can be relatively easily manipulated by means of threats; by promising that something bad will happen if the citizens aren’t loyal to their sovereign. And the degree in which citizens are susceptible to the sovereign’s threats, depends in turn on the credibility of these threats. If the citizens don’t believe that the sovereign can live up to his evil promises, the threats will vanish without having had any effects. Thus the sovereign has to make sure that his threats are credible.

He can do this by means of military forces. If so, he must make sure that his army is bigger in size than – or at least equal to – the armed forces of the citizens – which is easy to achieve by making sure that the citizens are unable to get armory: by monopolizing the production – or at least distribution – of armory. This requires a one-time investment from the sovereign. An investment that – in the long run – will yield more benefits than the everlasting demand to feed the poor.

So although romantic movies might want us to believe that love conquers hate, hate – in the form of fear – might turn out to be the cheapest way to go.

But what do you think?

The Use of the Panopticon in the Workplace

The Panopticon was a prison designed to “allow a watchmen to observe all inmates of an institution, without them being able to tell whether or not they are being watched.” Think of it as God watching – or not watching – from a cloud at what we’re doing and punishing us if we’ve behaved badly. The trick of the Panopticon is that – no matter whether someone (a watchmen or God) is actually watching – the “non-watchers” always feel like they’re being watched and therefore will try to make sure that they always stick to the rules.

Interesting concept, huh? An interesting question would be: how can we apply this fairly old idea into our modern societies? Well, there are many applications of Panopticon-like structures already in our modern Western civilization. Technologies like camera’s and sound recorders can make citizens – for example – feel like they’re being watched at all times. And it is this feeling – not the act of there being an observer actually watching them – that prevents them from doing bad stuff. Cost-efficient, right?

Now, let’s take a look at the workplace. Social media cost an employer an average of $65.000 dollars per year per employee. That’s some serious money, isn’t it? So you can understand that employers are looking for ways in which to reduce this – and many other – “work-distracting” activity. An option would be to block all “work-irrelevant” websites. But then the question is: what’s relevant and what’s not? Is checking the news relevant? It could be; it depends on what the news is, right? However, this option would have much less effect if an employee’s time-wasting activities would be performed outside of his computer-area.

Now let me ask you the following question: if you were an employee, and you would know that your boss could be watching what you were doing at any point in time, would you then still “check your Facebook-page” or send some “work-related” mails to you friends? Would you still be wasting your valuable working time if you would know that your boss would receive a message if you didn’t touch your keyboard for – let’s say – 10 minutes (except for the breaks, of course)? I doubt it.

So why isn’t it the Panopticon applied in the workplace yet (as far as we – or at least I – know)? Probably because people find it “wrong” for employers to do so. They find it wrong for employees to have the feeling of being watched all the time. But the question is: is this a legitimate reason for not implementing the concept? After all, a production worker is being watched all the time by his employer, right? So why not an employee sitting behind his computer? Is sitting behind a computer a free pass for just doing what you want in your working time? In the time you’re being paid by your employer? Thereby hurting your company’s profits and – indirectly – the security of your job and the job of your peers? I don’t think so.

But what do you think? Can we do this, or not?

Swearing Bankers: Is That Going to Make any Difference?

Bankers want to make money. And that’s okay, right? Everyone wants to make money. But they should do so in an “ethical” way, right? They shouldn’t screw each and every customers just in order to gain some extra profit. No, they should be nice guys. They should respect the interests of their customers and not – for example – gamble with their savings and pensions. However, it is not always easy to respect the customers’ interests and make money at the same time. Sometimes it is just way easier to go straight for it; to take every (doubtful) opportunity to make money. And – as we have seen with the big crises that have occurred (or are still occurring) – “greed” can have negative effects on society. Governments need to step in with “their” tax money to save the day because, as they say, the banks are “too big too fail“. That is, it its much cheaper for the governments to pay “some” money to prevent the banks from collapsing, than to let the bank collapse.

It seems fair to say that banks keep us in an (economic) stranglehold; we can’t do anything but give into their wishes. They are like our big silly brother that holds the family fortune but likes to live the good life; buy drugs, drinks, smokes etc. So if you don’t watch him closely, the money will be gone (“Aaaaand it’s gone“, South Park, anyone?).

So what are we going to do? Just sit back and hope our silly brother won’t make any mistakes again? Or are we – somehow – trying to force him to act “wisely”, without violating the “rules of the free market”? Well, the first option seems kind of risky; so let’s try the second. What can we do? Well, as the Dutch government is trying, we can let the bankers swear to act nicely (link is in Dutch). Let the bankers put their hands on their hearts and say out loud: “we value our customers and we will do anything to prevent them from being hurt”. Well, isn’t that nice?

It it sure is. But will it work? Well, probably not. Because what will happen to the bankers if they don’t stick to “the oath”? Well, then the bank has to decide whether or not the banker is really capable of doing the “banking” job. Really….are we going to put the banks again in charge of what it means to do a good banking job? Then what has changed (again a Dutch link) compared to the situation before the bankers sworn to act nicely? Well, now the government has at least tried to make the bankers act nicely. Now, if they act evil again, it’s not the government fault anymore, right? They have done everything they could, right?

I think we all see that having bankers swear that they will act nicely will not make any difference. At least not without any legal consequences attached to not acting nicely. But the situation might be even worse than this. It might be that the situation after having the bankers sworn to act nicely is more “unethical” than the situation before. But why is that? Well, imagine a bank complying to the “bankers’ oath”. The bank is all acting “ethically” and respecting its customers. But then, suddenly, the bank goes bankrupt. Why is that? Well, the bank was the only bank really complying to the oath; the bigger and “smarter” banks did what they should do: make money no matter what it takes. So, by stimulating banks to act “ethically“, the government itself is acting unethical: they are promoting “unethical banks” (read: banks not complying to the oath) in continuing their greedy actions by weakening the competition of the “sweet” banks. That’s not really nice, is it?

So what’s the lesson we should learn from this state of affairs? Well, two things: first of all, governments that want to promote ethical behavior have to set firm rules – not just oaths without any legal repercussions – if they want to promote ethical banking behavior. And secondly, how can can we ever except companies – and especially banks – in a capitalistic society to act nicely if this acting nicely goes against their profit making interests? There aren’t charity organizations, are they?

But what do you think?

Elections and the Duty to be Genuine

Voting: the only legitimate manner in a democratic society for distributing power. The question is: how do we want to distribute this power? Do we want liberals in charge and hope for the government to back off? Or would we rather see our state becoming more social; helping those that have been unfortunate? In this relatively long article, I want to make claim in favor of being anti-social, or at least not being disingenuously social. But why would that be a good thing? In order to see that, we first have to understand a little about free markets and prices.

Maybe you have heard the name of Friedrich Hayek. He was one of the, if the not the most, prominent economists of the 20th century. Hayek was a leading figure in the battle for free markets. He condemned intervention by the government in the market, and he condemned central planning by the government even more. By “central planning” I am referring to the state deciding where its resources should be allocated to. The reason Hayek objected against central planning was as follows: Hayek believed that the economy was incredibly complex; that there is an infinite amount of interests that have to be dealt with. And, Hayek said, it is impossible for a state to get to know all the interests and all of the individual preferences of its citizens. That is, it is impossible for a state to know that John likes shoes and that he is prepared to pay a lot money in order to buy some, and that Susan absolutely hates shoes and doesn’t want to pay any money in order to buy some.

The only manner, according to Hayek, by which to get a clear insight into the tremendous complexity of people’s preferences is through the market. Or, to be more specific, through the price that comes about in the market. Only by taking a look at the price that comes about through totally unhindered supply and demand, we would be able to come to grips with the (possibly) conflicting preferences of society’s members. And it is not just that the market informs us about the value of goods: it also regulates buyers’ and sellers’ behaviors.

You can see why central planning doesn’t provide this opportunity to extract all the relevant information from its citizens: there is no price mechanism that can take care of the interplay of individual preferences, and make sure that goods (or services) are distributed in a fair manner. Thus, it is only when the state starts messing around, when it takes control of the market process, that the only source of tremendously valuable information get’s ruined.

I want to take a look at Hayek’s explanation of the price as being the most perfect indicator of the individual preferences of the members of society. That, through the market mechanism, each member of society can obtain all the information (s)he needs in order to make a reasonable decision. Thus, and I am sorry if I am repeating myself, if every member of society would act according to his or her set of desires, the market would take care of the rest; the prices will come about in such a manner that everyone’s interests are taken care of. This is the closest we would be capable of getting to know all the relevant information required to allocate resources perfectly.

Now, let’s imagine that we would apply Hayek’s free market idea to the election process in a democratic society. The process in which the citizens of a state decide who they want that represents them in parliament. We could interpret the number of votes a party receives to be equal to the notion of price in a free market, and the parties people vote for to be an expression of their individual preferences. But this is not “just” an expression of their individual preferences; it is the most complete expression attainable. Parliament is, given that all of society’s members act in line with their true beliefs about how society should be, a direct representation of the preferences of society. And it this representation that could have never been attained by even slightly deviating from a fully genuine voting system. The only difference between an economy and politics seems that, instead of the price, the resulting equilibrium is the distribution of seats in parliament.

So, what are the implications of this observation? First of all, a rather obvious implication is that dictatorial regimes can impossibly posses all the relevant information in order to distribute its resources (the seats in parliament and thus, indirectly, the state’s money) in perfect harmony with the complexity of the preferences of the state’s members. Another, less obvious, implication is that each member of society should be completely genuine in expressing his or her individual preferences in the election process. That is, we should not vote according to the preferences of our mother or daughter, or not even because of our “empathy” with the sick, unless this empathy is genuinely meant by the voting person. If not, the ideal of a perfect representation of society has become unattainable.

Thus, the moral of this story is, don’t be disingenuous in expressing your vote. Don’t vote for a party if you don’t genuinely consider this to be the best possible option. Don’t vote for a party because society finds this the “most decent thing to do”. Because it is only by being fully genuine about what you believe to be right or wrong that all individual preferences can be listened to and processed in the market mechanism called election.

But what do you think?