Monday, December 26, 2022

Lightning doesn't strike twice... or does it?

An unusual story from Massachusetts, where Raymond Roberts didn't simply win the lottery once, but rather bought SIX winning tickets. The odds of winning are apparently 1 in 1.8 million. I guess that, if you buy six tickets with the same numbers, then the odds of winning six times aren't actually any higher. An interesting case for probability exercises too.

Friday, December 23, 2022

Publication: How mandatory can we make vaccination? (Public Health Ethics)

Another paper has just been published. This makes two papers published in one month, after this previously announced one, although this newer one is only online so far. I'm not sure when it will be in print. It looks like the journal haven't actually published their November 2022 issue yet, so I suppose it's possible that it will get an official print date of this year - though probably more likely next year.

Here's the abstract:

"The novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) pandemic has refocused attention on the issue of mandatory vaccination. Some have suggested that vaccines ought to be mandatory, while others propose more moderate alternatives, such as incentives. This piece surveys a range of possible interventions, ranging from mandates through to education. All may have their place, depending on circumstances. However, it is worth clarifying the options available to policymakers, since there is sometimes confusion over whether a particular policy constitutes a mandate or not. Further, I illustrate a different kind of alternative to mandatory vaccination. Rather than seeking less coercive alternatives to a mandate, we might instead employ an alternative mandate, which requires people to do something less than get vaccinated. For instance, we might merely require people to attend an appointment at a vaccine clinic. Whether this mandatory attendance policy is justified will depend on specific circumstances, but it represents another way to promote vaccination, without mandating it. In some cases, this may represent an appropriate balance between promoting public health goals and respecting individual liberty."

And, as usual, a word cloud illustrating the content:

(I believe this was made by FreeWordCloudGenerator.)

Thursday, December 08, 2022

Publication: Why Strike Ballots are Undemocratic (The Political Quarterly)

My latest paper has just been published, with open access, in The Political Quarterly. It's about strike ballots, so rather topical at the moment.

Here's the abstract:

"Since 2016, new legislation governing strike ballots has made it more difficult for trade unions to achieve a mandate for industrial action. Such a mandate now requires that a majority of members vote in the ballot. This article argues that these balloting processes are undemocratic. The turnout requirement means that a mandate for industrial action does not simply depend on its level of popular support amongst union members. This has surprising consequences. Sometimes opponents of action would be better advised to abstain, rather than to vote against it. Thus, it is not always clear how they should vote. Whatever they do, their actions may be counterproductive. Further, even when they do know how best to promote their desired outcome, there may be a conflict between voting strategically and clearly expressing their true preferences. Consequently, there is no guarantee that the outcome of the ballot accurately reflects what people really want."

And here's a word cloud (produced by this handy site):

If you want to know a bit more, without reading the full paper, then it's based on issues that I blogged about earlier in the year, so that post is a kind of summary or preview of the paper.

Tuesday, September 06, 2022

Truss on freedom

Yesterday, Liz Truss was officially declared the new Conservative leader and, in consequence, Prime Minister. I don't have much comment to pass on this, yet at least, but I noticed an interesting bit in her victory speech, here, where she focuses on freedom. 

Since freedom is the main theme of our 1st year political theory module, I might even use a snippet of this in lectures - though ideally I'd want a shorter edit of the speech.

Thursday, August 18, 2022

Should under-18s get to pick the Prime Minister?

One subject that I'll be covering in my Democratic Theory module in the coming semester is the voting age. There's been a long-running debate over votes at 16 and some political theorists have gone even further, suggesting that the voting age should be lowered to 12, to 6, or even abolished altogether. Of course, there are others who think that it should stay where it is, or perhaps even be raised higher.

In this context, I was quite interested to learn that children as young as 15 can vote in the current Conservative Party leadership contest. There's no need to be eligible to vote in general elections in order to participate. (Similarly, one need not be a British citizen either.)

The BBC article, linked to above (first one in the previous paragraph), includes interviews with several young Conservative Party members, most of whom seem to oppose a general lowering of the voting age. One is reported as saying that the fate of the country should not be in the hands of those who don't pay taxes, have mortgages, or support families. However, this ignores at least two things.

First, lowering the voting age to 16 wouldn't put the fate of the country in the hands of 16- and 17-year-olds, since they would still only be a small portion of the electorate. Those over 18 would continue to have a major say. Indeed, the electorate is currently dominated by the relatively elderly (because there are a lot of them and because they are more likely to vote).

Second, many over-18s don't do these things either. If one were to apply this principle consistently, then it would seem that these groups also ought to be excluded. I take it that this would be obviously undemocratic. Perhaps, then, the exclusion of 16-year-olds is also undemocratic.

Saturday, August 13, 2022

Politics without ideas?

The 1st year politics module that I regularly teach is about political ideas. I have, in the past, received feedback from students saying that they don't think it's really political. This comment isn't usually developed sufficiently for me to be clear what exactly is meant by this or what might make it seem more political to them. Nonetheless, I have responded by making politics one of the ideas covered. Determining what is and is not political presupposes having some idea of what politics is, which means doing some political theory.

There's an interesting piece in today's Guardian, however, about the decline of ideas in politics. 'Big ideas' from the likes of J. M. Keynes, Milton Friedman, or F. A. Hayek were partly responsible for significant changes in society. Yet, the author claims, today's politicians seem to lack any similar ideas. Perhaps this goes some way to explaining why my current students don't always recognise the relevance of ideas to politics. 

In any case, the author goes on to suggest that this lack of ideas is partly responsible for the rise of identity politics as an alternative, before ending with the snappy remark that "politics without ideas is possible, but not necessarily desirable". Maybe I'll have students discuss this remark, to see what they make of it.

Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Should we tolerate Big Bang denial?

Catriona McKinnon has a couple of interesting papers on free speech and denial of the Holocaust and climate change. In both cases, the essence of the argument is that denialists are not really historians or scientists, even if they claim to be. (This is not simply saying that they are bad historians or scientists, but rather that they are not even doing proper history or science.) Therefore, there is no need to include their views in academic conferences, journals, etc.

I just came across a possibly parallel case, concerning apparent 'censorship' of papers questioning the Big Bang on arXiv. I say 'possibly' because I simply don't know enough about this case to judge. There's no obviously non-scientific reason, that I'm aware of, for anyone to deny the Big Bang.

I wonder whether this is a case where these papers ought to be allowed - even if they are mistaken (i.e. bad science) - or whether they ought to be excluded on the grounds that they are not really scientific (as, McKinnon argues, climate change denial ought to be).

Sunday, August 07, 2022

A hostage to fortune

I've not said much about the current Conservative leadership contest (which is also, of course, a race to be the UK's next prime minister). However, I thought it worth commenting on recent remarks by Liz Truss, as reported here.

She says that the UK is currently heading for recession (something that I assume isn't news to anyone following the economy) but, crucially, claims "that is not inevitable" and can still be avoided.

This strikes me as rather unwise. If she wins the contest, becoming PM, and we end up going in to recession then she's effectively admitted responsibility for that. At the very least, she'd have to backtrack and admit that these remarks were wrong and the recession was inevitable. But perhaps she'd have been better off taking that line now, while the recession can definitely be blamed on others.

Friday, August 05, 2022

Why punctuation matters

Punctuation can make a crucial difference to the meaning of a sentence. There are well-known examples out there, but I just came across a possible example 'in the wild' as it were.

Football commentator Martin Tyler has recently apologised for remarks he made about the Hillsborough disaster in a 1992 interview. He's quoted by the BBC as referring to "Hillsborough and other hooligan-related issues". The problem with this, of course, is that the reference to other hooligan-related issues implies that Hillsborough was also hooligan-related.

However, without having heard the original interview, it's not clear to me whether this is a fair - or charitable - way to interpret his remarks. The spoken word lacks explicit punctuation, but he might have meant "Hillsborough and other, hooligan-related, issues". In this case, he would be saying that there were other issues, besides Hillsborough, and these other issues were hooligan-related, but not being implying that Hillsborough itself was hooligan-related.

An apology may be warranted anyway, since even saying something that could be misconstrued may be insensitive to families of the victims. I don't want to get drawn into the specifics of the case. I just thought this a good example of how commas can change the meaning of a sentence.

Sunday, July 31, 2022

Pictures of barriers

When I'm out and about with my camera, I'm often looking for things that might be useful to illustrate lecture slides. I have a number of pictures of fences, fallen trees, and other obstacles that might be useful for lectures on freedom. (I've shared some of these before.)

Unfortunately, I didn't notice that the BBC were inviting pictures with the theme of barriers until I saw a selection of entries published here. I wouldn't use these, if only for copyright reasons. (If I want other people's photos, I tend to go to Pixabay.) There are some nice ones though.

Sunday, July 10, 2022

Raising the age of criminal responsibility

It seems that I've had a little series lately concerning cases where the minimum age at which one can engage in certain activities is being raised (or where it has been proposed that it be raised). Just last month, there were examples involving competitive figure skating and smoking. I've just come across another, more significant, example.

The age of criminal responsibility in Australia is currently ten, but it seems that there are moves afoot to raise this to 14. (I discovered this via this piece on The Conversation, which is particularly concerned with First Nations issue, but the age thing seems to be universal.)

This is particularly relevant to my teaching, since one of the articles that I use when teaching child enfranchisement is this piece by Joanne Lau. She argues that the age of political responsibility (and thus voting) should be in line with the age of criminal responsibility, mentioning that this is ten in Australia. This doesn't mean that she supports voting rights for ten-year-olds (though some would go even further than that) - the appeal to symmetry could be met either by lowering the voting age or by raising the age of criminal responsibility (or a bit of both).

It seems that Australia is going for the latter, though there is still some asymmetry, assuming that they're not lowering the voting age to 14. (Even lowering it to 16 is controversial.) But this still means that those aged 14-18 are liable to criminal punishment, while having no say over the laws in question.

UPDATE: There's another Conversation article on this topic here.

Tuesday, June 14, 2022

Street parties and benefit theory

I guess I'm not the only one who regularly teaches Nozick's argument against the fair play theory of political obligation. His classic example concerns a public address system, which is a bit dated these days. However, I noticed this recent case that can be used to make a similar point.

Someone organised a street party for the platinum jubilee. From the sounds of it, most neighbours chipped in by providing food. Then, after the event, one of the neighbours presented the organiser with a bill for the cakes that she'd baked.

The cakes were a benefit, but presumably she'd provided this benefit without indication that she expected payment in return. Nozick would agree with 'Moral Money' that she has no right to be paid. In fact, 'Moral Money' goes further and suggests that the neighbour herself cannot seriously expect this.

This example illustrates Nozick's point nicely, but doesn't necessarily vindicate his objection to the theory of political obligation. As George Klosko points out, the benefits that the state provides are quite different in kind from those in these examples.

Saturday, June 11, 2022

Raising the age of smoking?

I was just talking about one case of raising age limits, and along comes another - at least, a proposal for one. As reported here, the government's Khan review into eradicating smoking has proposed further raising of the age at which one can buy cigarettes.

The proposal is in fact that the age should rise by one year every year, copying an existing policy in New Zealand (which I posted about last year). I've discussed such a possibility with my students before, but only as a theoretical proposal, so it's interesting to see it taken seriously as an actual policy. Such a policy would mean that those currently old enough to buy cigarettes will continue to be able to do so, while those who are too young will forever remain so.

This proposal may seem somewhat unfair, but it could be justifiable if we think it worse to take freedom away from someone who has it than it is merely to continue withholding it from someone who has never had it. This seems plausible in the smoker case, since many smokers are addicted, and so would face particular burdens if their access to cigarettes were to be withdrawn.

However, it's worth noting that this reasoning doesn't so much focus on those who are currently old enough to smoke, but rather on those who do currently smoke. I see little reason, besides perhaps practicality, why someone who is currently 30 and a non-smoker should retain the freedom to start smoking in future that a current 15 year-old will never have.

There may also be a parallel issue with under-age smokers. Someone might have acquired an addiction, though slightly under the current age. Under current policy, they would soon be old enough to purchase cigarettes legally but, if this proposal is implemented, then they may never be able to satisfy their addiction legally, because they will always be just under the necessary age threshold.

Wednesday, June 08, 2022

Things that you can no longer do at age 16...

 I've posted a few times over the last year or two about the voting age (e.g. here and here). It's an interesting topic, which I regularly discuss with students.

A common argument that comes up in these debates is an analogy between voting and other activities. The argument goes something like this: if you are (not) old enough to do X, then you are (not) old enough to vote. The X can be filled in with various things, such as get a job, pay taxes, have children, etc.

In light of these arguments, it's worth keeping an eye out for changes in various other activities that may fill the place of X. I commented last year on moves to stop 16- and 17-year-olds from marrying. This is one respect in which many other age thresholds are being raised, rather than lowered.

Yesterday, I saw that the minimum age for competing in figure skating is being raised, from 15 to 17. Admittedly, this is not a commonly cited value of X in debates over voting, but it is another example of something that 16-year-olds are no longer permitted to do.

Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Zouma update

I posted on the Kurt Zouma 'cat-gate' story a few months back. I've just seen news reports that he has admitted two offences under the Animal Welfare Act.

Tuesday, April 19, 2022


There's been a lot in the news lately about the rising cost of living. You can really see how bad things are when 'gifts under £10' cost £13.95...

Still, if anyone wants to contribute towards my living costs, this can be purchased through my Amazon affiliate link.

Monday, March 14, 2022

Publication: Making Non-Voters Pay

I have an article forthcoming in the Journal of Politics - due out in next month's issue. They just published a post summarising/previewing the article on their blog here

If you want a pictorial illustration, here's a word cloud (courtesy of that should give some idea of the content.

Sunday, March 06, 2022

Stalin Road

 Back in September, I was in Colchester visiting relatives when this picture was taken:

There's a post-war estate that contains Churchill Way, Roosevelt Way, and - more controversially - Stalin Road.

This was featured in the local newspaper back in 2009, when it reported that only four out of thirty households responding to a poll wanted the name to change. It was back in the newspaper the other day though, in a more recent article that partly repeats the older one. This article was also reprinted further afield. However, this also gives more detail of the debate at the time.

First, it reports a tweet from the council (which I haven't located) according to which changing the road name would require consent from 75% of the residents. (It's not clear whether that's 75% of those who vote, or 75% of all residents - making abstention an effective no vote.) That's interesting, given that I've been teaching majority rule lately. Here we have an example of bias towards the status quo, as often used in cases of constitutional entrenchment.

Second, it reports disagreement over who should have standing here. One resident is quoted as saying, "it should be our decision" because it is the residents who would be inconvenienced by a change of address. On the other hand, another letter argued that the name is an embarrassment to Colchester (and even Britain) and that residents don't have the right to choose the name of their road. (For the record though, I think the latter point is something of a non-sequitur. The residents here didn't choose Stalin Road. Their objection is to having the existing name changed.)

This is also interesting, given that I've recently been discussing the so-called 'boundary problem' with students on my democratic theory module. This is a case where it's not clear what the relevant 'demos' is. If not the residents of the road in question, then who should it be? Everyone in Colchester? Everyone in Britain? What about residents of the former USSR?

Sunday, February 27, 2022

On voting in UCU strike ballots

 Strikes are currently taking place at many UK universities, with staff protesting over workloads, casualization, and (in pre-1992 institutions) further cuts to the USS pension scheme. These grievances are not new and have been discussed elsewhere before, for instance here and here. But there’s been less discussion of the ballot (voting) system that’s led to the strikes, which is pretty interesting in its own right.


A legal mandate for industrial action requires that more members vote in favour of action than against it, but also that at least 50% of members participate (vote) in the ballot. This is intended to ensure that there is wide support for action. Without some provision like this, a small number of workers might claim a mandate for action simply because of low turnout. But this requirement also produces some rather surprising consequences.


In ballots last year, a number of universities narrowly missed this turnout threshold, meaning no mandate for industrial action even though a significant majority of votes cast were in favour of it. For instance, at the University of Southampton, 491 out of 998 members voted – only eight short of the required turnout. This means there was no legal mandate, even though 348 of those votes (71.5% of valid votes) were in favour of strike action. (These figures all focus on votes for strike action, rather than action short of striking, and on the USS dispute in particular. Further, all figures are from November 2021, though a number of universities that narrowly missed the threshold subsequently held a second round of ballots.)


Matters were even closer in some other cases. The Newcastle University was just six votes short (619 out of 1,250). At the University of Manchester, the threshold was missed by a single vote (1,094 out of 2,094). This despite, respectively, 80.1% and 77.7% of those votes cast supporting strike action.


These figures reveal that some media coverage has been misleading. For instance, the BBC reported that staff at 58 universities voted in favour of strike action. While it is true that only 58 secured the necessary turnout, this overlooks the fact that a majority of votes cast at every university were for strike action. (The lowest level of support for strikes was 61.6% at the University of Reading.)


This isn’t simply a case of ‘near misses’ though. These figures also reveal some surprising consequences of the 50% turnout requirement. For instance, Reading did secure a legal mandate because 50.6% voted, albeit with only 61.6% of those (31.2% of eligible voters [228 out of 731]) favouring a strike. In contrast, Newcastle did not secure a legal mandate, because only 49.5% voted, even though 80.1% of these (39.7% of eligible voters [496 out of 1,250]) favoured a strike. This seems strange, to say the least.


The oddity of these rules is even more apparent if we consider some possible ‘what if’ scenarios. As noted above, Manchester was only one vote short of the turnout threshold. Had just one more person voted, then they would have the necessary mandate. But this would be the case regardless of how that person voted. Even had they voted against the strike, their single vote would not have stopped yes from winning, but would have met the turnout threshold.


In fact, support for strike action was so strong that it would still have won even had an extra 576 of those who did not vote instead voted against strike action. Again, it’s puzzling that a vote of 807-to-231 in favour of strikes fails to achieve a mandate, but 807-to-806 would do so. Why should more people voting against something give it a mandate it otherwise lacked?


This isn’t the end of the strangeness though. As we’ve just seen, one more person voting against a strike would have resulted in a legal mandate (807-to-232). But this mandate would have been lost had one of those 232 opposed to strike action abstained, rather than voting against it. So, not only can voting against a strike give it a mandate, but not voting at all might serve to block strike action!


Ordinarily, we expect abstention to be a ‘neutral’ option, between yes and no. In this case though, it was abstentions – rather than no votes – that blocked strike action where ballots failed. It might well be that some members realised that not voting was their best chance to avoid a strike and acted accordingly. (And, perhaps, some others voted no – making a strike more likely – because they didn’t want to block a strike in this manner.) However, if this was the case, then this strategic abstention might have backfired.


As it happens, the strike ballots that failed to secure a legal mandate did so because of low turnout, rather than low support from those that did vote. But things might have been otherwise. It could have been that turnout thresholds were met, but that the vote was a close one. In that case, there might have been a narrow victory for strike action that would have been overturned had strategic abstainers voted against it.


This means that some union members are faced with difficult choices, even if they know what they want. It’s clear what those in favour of strikes should do – they should vote yes to strike action. But opponents of strike action are faced with a dilemma. It isn’t obvious whether they best promote their cause by voting no or by abstaining. Either option might unwittingly create the strike mandate that they sought to avoid.


While the working conditions that have led so many academic staff to vote for strikes are the main issue, the success or failure of strike ballots is often the result of voting rules, rather than whether workers support strike action. The turnout requirement makes strike ballots harder to pass, but also has some rather surprising results.


Monday, February 21, 2022

Post-storm fallen tree

I was forced to cancel a lecture last Friday due to Storm Eunice

It's not the first time I've known campus to be closed due to inclement weather. I had assumed that, in these post-pandemic days, classes would generally be moved online rather than cancelled. That is what many people did, but unfortunately my personal laptop chose the day before to die. (I think/hope it's a charger issue rather than the laptop itself, but don't have a spare to test it.)

Local damage is not as dramatic as some of the pictures that I've seen online, but there are a few broken/fallen trees around, including this one that blocked my route to the local shops on Saturday:

As I said, not the most dramatic, but this picture might be useful for lecture slides when discussing freedom and obstacles. If someone were to put a barrier across the path, then this would be a restriction on my negative freedom. A fallen tree, however, may leave me unable - but not unfree - to walk down to the shops.

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Novax Djokovic

Still on the subject of celebrity role models, but back to vaccination again, tennis star Novak Djokovic has confirmed not only that he is unvaccinated against Covid but also that he would rather miss future tournaments instead of getting jabbed. While he claims not to be anti-vaxx, and to be open to the possibility of vaccination at a later date, it’s unclear what might change his mind at this time.

Monday, February 14, 2022

The Zouma-cat affair

I've blogged recently about footballers as role models. I was talking about vaccination, but this kind of thing has been in the news over the last week or so, since the story broke about West Ham's Kurt Zouma mistreating his cat. In this case, the PFA has acknowledged the responsibility of players for influencing society

Despite being fined and condemned by his club, Zouma still played for West Ham against Watford, though he was then absent against Leicester - apparently due to unrelated illness. His brother, Yoan, has however been suspended by Dagenham for his part. (I haven't seen the footage, but I gather Yoan filmed it.)

Controversy around the issue no doubt reflects the widespread (self) perception of Britain as a 'nation of animal lovers' though - as Julian Baggini points out - there's an element of hypocrisy in this, given many people's indifference to animal suffering in other cases.

Still, this serves as another example of the responsibilities of footballers in the public eye.

Monday, February 07, 2022

Ugly freedoms

A colleague recently shared this guest essay from NY Times on the ways in which freedom is appealed to in order to block things such as the teaching of critical race theory. It argues that freedom can be used to exclude and harm minorities, rather than being a right for all. 

It's a shame that this is too late for this year's iteration of PAIR1004, but it's something that might well be useful in future.

Disappointing though that the NY Times refer to the author as 'Ms. Anker' even while describing her as a professor. (I don't know her, but she seems to be an associate professor.)

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

A striking question

Once again, academics - or, at least, some of those who are UCU members - are voting over strike action. I'm not going to go over the grounds for this, nor the bizarre (but legally mandated) voting system - though I may blog on that another time. Right now, my attention is on the ballot paper:

There's perhaps some ambiguity over what 'prepared' means here. I suppose someone may be prepared to strike over one issue but not another, based on (what they see as) the justice of the cause or chances of success or whatever. 


However, one might have no particular desire to go on strike, yet be prepared to do so in solidarity with others (assuming they want to). In that case, one might reasonably answer yes, one is prepared to take action. If everyone were to do that though, then they would all end up engaged in strike action that none of them actually wanted, simply because they were all prepared to do it.

(For the record, the photo is of my ballot paper, but I've already returned it now.)