Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Lotteries Improve Access

A study, involving academics from the Universities of Bristol and Cambridge, has concluded that lotteries for school admissions can improve access to elite universities. This is, as long-time readers may remember, a topic that I've previously published on.

The news coverage linked to above is only from a student newspaper, but I couldn't help thinking it interesting that, by way of balance, they include the opinion of a 2nd year undergraduate. While I'm sure there are some good arguments against lotteries, these weren't really explored - rather, the coverage seemed to exhibit false balance.

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Monday, September 15, 2014

Democracy and Referenda

Here's a selection of popular pieces on democracy and referenda... Martin Gilbert applauds the Scottish independence referendum for bringing about greater engagement and participation. George Schöpflin cautions that referenda are unaccountable and may be instruments of populism, rather than democracy. Chris Prosser points out that agenda-setters are often able to manipulate referendum outcomes. Alex Hern argues that the government's use of referenda is opportunistic, rather than principled.

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Thursday, August 28, 2014


I've been quiet of late. Partly due to on-going technical issues, but mostly because I've been gearing up to move to the other end of the country (again). From next week, I officially take up a new position at the University of Southampton. My new department has an active group blog, Politics Upside Down, so maybe I'll be blogging there as well as here (and occasionally elsewhere) in future.

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Thursday, July 31, 2014

EUDO Debate on Secession

Hot on the heels of my last bit of guest-blogging, I was recently invited to contribute to a EUDO debate on secession. You can read my contribution here and the whole debate here.

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Thursday, June 19, 2014

Ask the Experts: Scottish Constitution

I'm one of the experts sharing my thoughts on the draft Scottish Constitution over at the Democratic Audit today.

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Thursday, June 12, 2014

Attitudes to Alcohol Pricing

A new survey reveals that Scottish attitudes to minimum pricing legislation are split, with slightly more in favour than against the measure. Interestingly, "People educated to degree level were much more likely to approve of minimum pricing than those who were not". So much for the liberalising effect of higher education! (I've written on this here [subscription required].)

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Monday, June 09, 2014

Love Locks and Public Nuisance Legislation

According to Mill's harm principle, the state or society may only interfere with an individual's actions in order to prevent harm to others. This is generally taken to restrict paternalistic or moralistic legislation, which raises questions about many generally-accepted laws (including those on drugs, incest, seat belts, etc).

I wasn't previously aware of the trend for couples of signify their love by attaching a lock to a bridge and throwing away the key, but apparently this has been a 'thing' since at least 2009. Moreover, enough of these 'love locks' can actually damage bridges. As reported (see article in link before last), some places, including Rome, have banned these love locks.

Is this ban consistent with the harm principle? On first sight, perhaps not: it would seem to be stretching the notion of 'harm' to suppose that they are. Admittedly, Mill does suggest that 'public decency' might provide grounds for certain restrictions, which seems to be allowing a limited place for something other than harm to justify interference. However, on further consideration, such a ban might be upheld as a protection of property rights. I wouldn't want someone attaching a lock to my fence, even if the lock didn't in any way damage the fence. Presumably, there's little reason to object to a bridge-owner saying that locks should only be attached to her bridge with her consent.

Matters are slightly more complicated when it comes to public bridges, where there is no particular owner as such. Why shouldn't members of the public attach love locks to a bridge that is (in part) theirs? I suppose, however, there is an answer to be found based on the fact that the bridge does not belong to that couple exclusively but to all members of the public. One cannot, for instance, freely block a public road, because that interferes with others using it for their own purposes. While love locks don't prevent others from crossing a bridge, they do amount to one individual (or one couple) assuming rights over public property as if it belonged to them alone.

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