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Monday, April 29, 2019

Big Ideas #2 - neo-liberalism vs social democracy

'Money, money, money ... always money ..' sang Abba. Debates aren’t always about money, but they very often are, at least in the widest sense of how we distribute resources in the fairest and most effective way. The study of the distribution of resources is called Economics, but in the UK it is not studied until A-Level, (which begins at age 16) and then only as an optional subject. I’ve never understood why it isn’t studied earlier and more widely, as so much of our life is determined by economic decisions, and because those decisions are often based on the most fundamental values.

One of the most central points of clash in Economics, and one which comes up again and again in debates, is that between neo-liberalism and social democracy

What are neo-liberalism and social democracy? What do neo-liberals and social democrats believe?

I said that Economics is based on values, so let’s start with the values. 

For neo-liberals, the individual is more important than the community, and liberty is a higher good than equality. For social democrats, the community is more important than the individual, and equality is a higher good than liberty. In the Freedom vs Security clash we discussed in an earlier post, neo-liberals would most often come down on the side of freedom, and social democrats on the side of security. Both sides think their approach is both fairer and more effective.

Now let’s see how those values are applied, in terms of economic principles, and of practical measures.



  • Everyone is responsible for themselves. 

  • The less government, the better.

  • People have the right to keep whatever they have earned by their work.

  • People work hardest and most productively when they are left alone to make their own decisions.

  • People should accept the consequences of their decisions and not expect the government to look after them.

  • Competition between businesses is the best guarantee of efficiency and good customer service.

  • Inequality is a good thing, as it motivates people to work harder.

Practical measures

  • Low taxes (see the earlier post on taxation).

  • Low government spending.

  • Minimum regulation.

  • Introduce competition wherever possible.

Social democracy


  • We are all responsible for each other; the strong have a moral duty to help the weak.

  • People work best and most productively when they work with support from outside.

  • Government can be a force for good, protecting the weak against the strong.

  • Government intervention can make the economy work better, because the government acts in the interests of all the people.

  • Inequality is a bad thing, as it breeds division and resentment.

  • Collaboration is better than competition.

Practical measures

  • High taxes, with the wealthiest paying the most.

  • High government spending.

  • Social benefits, such as health, education, pensions etc. funded by taxation and provided to all free at the point of use.

  • Some parts of the economy run by the government in the interests of the whole of society.

  • High levels of regulation, to ensure that businesses look after their employees and customers.

Now you’ve got an understanding of the two different sides, let’s look at how they might clash in some common debates.

1. This house would abolish university tuition fees.

Social democratic arguments for the proposition:

  • University education should be available to everyone who has qualified for it academically; no one should be excluded because they cannot afford it.

  • Children of rich parents sometimes have all their fees paid by their parents and never have to worry about repaying them, while other equally able students are saddled with debt for years afterwards.

  • A well educated workforce is a benefit to the whole of society, so it is in all our interests for the government to invest in education.

  • Making distinctions between those who can afford university education and those who can’t is divisive and undermines social solidarity.

Neo-liberal arguments for the opposition:

  • People only value what they pay for. Subsidising education makes people value it less.

  • Having a university education is a benefit; graduates earn far more than non-graduates, so it is only fair that people should pay for a university education.

  • It is a basic human right to be able to bring up your children in the way you choose. Parents who choose to pay their children’s tuition fees are only exercising this right.

  • Measures such as this can only be funded by higher taxes. Higher taxes damage the economy and cost jobs, to everyone’s detriment.

2. This house would introduce a maximum wage

Social démocratie arguments for the proposition

  • It is fair that some people should earn more than others, but incomes at the very top level are beyond what anyone deserves or needs.

  • Unlimited incomes promote extreme inequality, which breeds division and resentment.

  • Extreme wealth gives some individuals disproportionate political power (e.g by donating to political parties, threatening to take their businesses out of the country if they do not get their way etc.) and this is undemocratic.

  • In a more equal society, everyone feels more valued and more connected to each other.

Neo-liberal arguments for the opposition

  • The government has no right to tell people what they can earn.

  • Introducing a maximum wage disincentives hard work.

  • Talented individuals will be driven out of the country.

  • The very rich benefit society by paying lots of taxes and by investing in businesses which provide thousands of jobs.

3. This house would bring the railways into public ownership

Social democratic arguments for the proposition:

  • Competition may work well in some sectors, but not in the railways. There is not sufficient capacity for competing offers. E.g. there is only one track from London to Edinburgh, so there can only be one company running that line.

  • Governments are more incentivised and able to take the long term view, investing in maintaining and updating tracks and stations; businesses are only interested in short term profit.

  • Removing the need for profit and introducing subsidies could bring down fare prices, to everyone’s benefit. Cheaper fares would also incentivise people to use public transport more, to the benefit of the environment.

  • Having an efficient, cheap, reliable railway service to carry goods and people around is good for the economy, so it is worth having the government invest in it.

Neo-liberal arguments for the opposition:

  • Without competition, the people running the railways will become lazy and complacent.

  • Competition will motivate companies to provide the best service and lowest prices.

  • Higher public investment in the railways will mean higher taxes, which will discourage businesses and individuals from working harder.

  • Being able to travel is a benefit, and people should expect to pay for it.

Here are some more motions which could easily break on neoliberal vs social democratic lines:

  • This house would privatise the NHS.
  • This house would introduce a flat tax (see the taxation post for an explanation of what a flat tax is).
  • This house would cut benefits.
  • This house would abolish private schools
  • This house would introduce a universal basic income

Try drawing up arguments for and against those motions, using neo-liberal and social democratic ideas.

Knowing about neo-liberalism and social democracy is also very useful when following current affairs (as all debaters should). Often there are arguments about economic measures. Both sides present their proposals as being simply common sense. Seeing what economic assumptions (and ultimately what value systems) people are using helps you to evaluate their arguments better.

Let’s give the last word to two characters in a very well known play: An Inspector Calls by J.B. Priestley. You may well have studied, or be studying, this play; it is very often taught in UK schools. In many ways it’s a debate between neo-liberal and social democratic ideas. Mr Birling, a wealthy industrialist, represents neo-liberal ideas when he says:

… a man has to mind his own business and look after himself and his own …

while the Inspector, whose job it is to reveal uncomfortable truths about the Birling family, puts the social democratic case when he says:

We are members of one body. We are responsible for one another.

Priestley was firmly on the side of social democracy, and makes sure that the Inspector wins the debate in the play. But you have to make your own mind up.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

How to debate #8 - squirrels and badgers

One of my most vivid memories of childhood is of my father - normally the most gentle and peaceable of men - going red in the face, shouting and banging on the window. This wasn’t because my Mum had chucked him out and changed the locks. It was because, once again, a squirrel was raiding the bird feeder in the back garden.

Squirrels can be pesky beasts in the back garden. They can also be pesky beasts in debating, when someone ‘squirrels’ the motion.

What is ‘squirrelling’? 

Squirrelling happens when the motion is defined in a way that is either absurdly narrow, or goes quite against the obvious sense of it.

So, if the motion is ‘This house would ban cars from Central London’, a squirreller might choose to define ‘Central London’ simply as Oxford Street (the main shopping street). If the motion is ‘This house believes Britain is a racist society’, a squirreller might choose to define ‘a racist society’ as one where neither the head of state nor the head of government is black. In the first case, they set up a mechanism which has so little impact that it can barely be criticised (hardly anyone would notice if cars were banned from Oxford Street). In the second, they set the bar for the counter-measure from the opposition impossibly high (a huge number of people would have to die before we got a black monarch; getting a black Prime Minister is more plausible, but is not going to happen before the end of the debate).

Squirrelling is, like stealing the bird feed from the birds, a sneaky, rather petty thing to do. It gives the proposition an unfair advantage. It is not strictly against the rules of debating, but it is not well regarded either. It gives the impression that you’re not good enough to win the debate on fair and equal terms. I would not let my teams do it as a coach, and it would not impress me as a judge. 

What should you do if you face squirrelling? 

You have to accept the proposition’s definition of the motion, no matter how absurd; that’s one of the fundamental principles of debating (see defining the motion). So, tackle the definition full on, on its own terms. If they call for banning cars from Oxford Street, talk about the congestion this would cause in the surrounding area. If they say not having a black Queen makes Britain racist, talk about Meghan Markle. The judge will respect you for having the courage not to flinch from the challenge presented by the distinctly uncourageous act of squirrelling.

On to our second pesky animal. Quite why the peaceful, hard working badger has been associated with the habit of aggressive questioning, I don’t know. Still, to ‘badger’ someone is part of the English language, and also of the language of debating. Badgering happens when one side makes points of information over and over again and / or in an aggressive tone. Some particularly ruthless teams will seek out whoever they perceive to be the weakest speaker on the other side and deliberately target them for badgering. Like squirrelling, it isn’t strictly against the rules, but, like squirrelling, it doesn’t go down well with judges and it certainly isn’t something I would let my debaters do. Points of information work best on a ‘quality, not quantity’ basis.

What should you do if you’re badgered? Don’t let them get to you. Keep going with your speech. Don’t forget you are in control and they can only speak when you let them. Accept one or two points of information, but no more. The judge will respect you for keeping calm under pressure.

Good debaters don’t need to squirrel or badger. The quality of their arguments speaks for itself. Make yourself that sort of debater.

By the way, I still haven’t worked out how to stop the squirrels attacking the bird feeder. Any suggestions welcome.

Monday, April 1, 2019

Bad Arguments #3 - democratic majority

Democracy. Rule of the people, by the people, for the people.

We all love democracy. We all believe in it. It’s a good thing, isn’t it? What’s more, it’s compulsory. It’s one of the British Values which all schools are obliged by law to teach. Democracy is like God used to be four hundred years ago; we can argue forever about what it means, but no one is allowed not to believe in it.

Democracy is a good thing, and debating is at the heart of it. Debating helps democracy to work better, because it provides a safe, respectful, balanced way for people to manage their differences, and this is what democracy should be doing.

However, while democracy is a good way to run a country, it is not a good way to prove anything. This leads us to our third Bad Argument - the argument by democratic majority.

I hear it all the time in debates. ’57% of people think we should legalise marijuana …77% of people want to keep the monarchy … a survey was done and most people thought this was a bad idea.’ One issue with these kinds of statements is the unreliability of opinion polls; their complete failure to foresee the results of the UK General Elections in 2015 and 2017, and the Brexit referendum and the US presidential election in 2016, does not inspire confidence. However, even if they were 100% accurate, they would not make for proof. 

What elections, opinion polls and surveys give you is evidence about what people think about something. They do not prove that something is a good idea. Does the fact that 52% of British people voted in a referendum to leave the EU prove that leaving the EU is a good idea? No; it proves that, on June 23rd 2016, leaving the EU was slightly more popular with British voters than remaining in the EU. If you want to prove that leaving the EU is a good idea, you must show, in much more detail than that, how the benefits of doing so outweigh the costs.

What most people believe, or want to do, may or may not be the right thing to believe or the best thing to do. The debater’s job is to prove that it is the right or best thing, and simply citing popularity through the medium of elections, referenda, surveys or opinion polls is not proof. When, in 1922, the Irish parliament voted in favour of a treaty of separation from Britain which involved several compromises, Eammon De Valera, who did not approve of the compromises, said, ‘The people do not have the right to choose wrong.’ Well, actually, they do. But that doesn’t stop them being wrong.

So, no more entering opinion polls into the search bar when you’re preparing for a debate. Rely instead on  arguments about costs and benefits. If the opposition use the argument from democratic majority, swiftly dismiss it by saying something like, ‘It may be the case that x has majority support, however, it remains a bad idea because …’ and get back to the main arguments.

Democracy is a great way to run a country, but a terrible way to find out the truth.