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A closer examination of Daniel Hannan’s favourite think-tank

2:14 pm - April 10th 2009

by Sunder Katwala    

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It is worth looking more closely at the work of ‘Progressive Vision‘, the “campaigning liberal think-tank” to which Daniel Hannan sources his questionable expertise on the NHS.

It has a great deal to advocate and likes to be heard. But it is very difficult to find the basis on which it is advocated.

Occasionally, particularly if media coverage focuses heavily on one tangential aspect of a report or project, think-tankers wonder if it made any difference to have done the work beyond the press release. As far as I can see from its own website, Progressive Vision may be routinely putting this principle into practice. (I have sent an email to ask whether it has produced any research or publications in its 18 month existence beyond the media releases and short opinions it publishes online).

This apparently research-free advocacy is despite the claim that “the founders have a strong history in party politics, but believe that a more objective approach is required to develop policies that will make a real difference”.

What does a more objective approach mean in practice?

On broadcasting, it is in favour of as much deregulation as possible. The BBC “provides a great service” but must be abolished so the market can decide.

On postal services, it is in favour of as much deregulation as possible. Only the market should decide whether local services exist.

On gambling, it is in favour of as much deregulation as possible, including a rather novel argument which appears to suggest that banning children from gambling is holding back the education system.

There is limited research material into the positive personal effects of gambling … Whilst media reports often focus on problems associated with gambling amongst Britain’s children, little attention appears yet to have been given to how calculating pot odds or the percentage chances of a flush draw in Texas Hold ’Em can hone one’s mathematical abilities. Gambling is an enjoyable and fulfilling pursuit. Its contribution to the British economy is considerable, and with real liberalisation, could be substantially enhanced … It’s time that the gambling industry – and tens of millions of British gamblers – were set free.

It believes that “Climate change is being used to justify unwarranted regulation, while ignoring common sense solution”. In practice, its climate change advocacy focuses almost entirely on the proposition that “proposals to set maximum fuel economy levels should be abandoned”.

Plans by EU Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas to introduce legislation that would require new cars to have average CO2 emissions of 130 grams per kilometre is a classic case of using over prescriptive legislation to address a public policy measure.

To be fair, it must be difficult for a “think-tank” to work out what “common sense solutions” might be when the think-tank has no view on whether the problem of climate change even exists, stating that “Progressive Vision is not taking stance on the validity of the science of anthropogenic climate change”. (This pretty slipshod grammar seems to be a consistent feature of its advocacy).

Come on guys, if you don’t believe it, come out and say so. Saying you aren’t sure where we are on climate change isn’t “neutral”; its a position in the debate, and one for which it might be worth providing some evidence.

Anyway, whether you agree or disagree with their views, the good news is that all of this liberalising advocacy is coming from the gut. Progressive Vision welcomes support from corporations who share its views, but they are quite clear that they can not be influenced in what they advocate by such support.

(One is reminded somewhat of Humbert Wolfe’s famous epigram on the British journalist).

But here is the good news:

Q. How are you funded?

A. We are funded solely by the generous contributions of individuals and companies who support our aims. We do not accept any funding from the public purse. You can donate to PROGRESSIVE vision from the donations page.

Q. Do your donors influence your policies?

A. No. We are always looking to work with individuals, organisations and companies who share our aims and values. But we retain complete editorial independence in all the work we do.

Established think-tanks across the political spectrum such as the Fabian Society, ippr, Demos, Policy Exchange, the Social Market Foundation, Civitas and so on will make a point of stating who the funder of any piece of work or any event is. Such transparency is rightly seen as one important way to substantiate claims of editorial independence.

So I hope that Progressive Vision will do likewise. (I have written to them to ask whether they have made public a list of corporate sponsors or have any plans to do so).

At present, I just can’t see any way of finding out whether, for example, the makers of large cars are helping to fund advocacy against greater regulation (or not, as the case may be). There may be nothing wrong with their choosing to support a think-tank which happily shares their objectives, but I think it would be reasonable to expect such support to be routinely declared.

* For the record, the Fabian Society does not receive party political or government funding for its work: a full list of funders is made public in our annual report, as well as any financial support being acknowledged on individual research projects, publications and events at the time. Any funders sign a partnership agreement including the Society’s code of conduct, which includes full editorial control, and defines other boundaries, such as preventing the Society taking on any lobbying work on behalf of financial supporters. Copies of the annual report and code of conduct are available on request from the Fabian office. I think most of our peers would take broadly similar approaches: of course, any think-tank which fails to do so is likely to undermine its own public reputation.

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About the author
Sunder Katwala is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He is the director of British Future, a think-tank addressing identity and integration, migration and opportunity. He was formerly secretary-general of the Fabian Society.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Our democracy ,Think-tanks ,Westminster

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Reader comments

You are right. There research does look rather thin on the ground at the moment. I still have hopes for them as they represent a chance to advocate a mainstream for economic liberty without the usual socially conservative trappings among right wing think-tanks. But for now, their views seem rather parasitic off research done by other think-tanks (Reform especially). Hannan should reference sources with a bit more content than a simple list of cancer survival rates.

Encouraging children to gamble to improve their maths skills is the silliest right-wing idea since Policy Exchange’s report suggesting everyone should move to London.

I suppose it gets round having to pay Maths teachers more to attract more of them.

It works in series 4 of the Wire!

4. Mike Killingworth

I think they sell themselves short on the question of gambling and children.

In the first place, if we wish to encourage entrepreneurship we need to encourage people to take risks. People who are risk-averse don’t create the wealth for the rest of us to sponge off.

In the second place, luck is a more important factor than ability in determining success in business, whether in terms of being “in the right place at the right time” or having the right contacts etc – or indeed being able to commit fraud etc undetected.

Therefore, identifying lucky children would enable state expenditure on education to be better focussed. There is no point in wasting resources on facilities, grants and/or loans to unlucky risk-averse kids who will only go into non-productive sectors like public administration or the Church.

I just thought I’d say all that to save our tame libertarians the bother.

Mike, you missed out the part where stopping children gambling distorts the market, stopping bookies making the necessary odds adjustments that would result in the most efficient pricing.

What? Daniel Hannan cited bogus facts and bad research to construct an argument? And you say he was a leader writer for the Telegraph?

I’m shocked!!

7. Mike Killingworth

[5] Quite right. Mea culpa I do however hear that PV’s next report will call for the decriminialisation of murder as State intervention in private killings both distorts the market for commerical security services and discourages people from being enterprisingly retributive.

Is it worth mentioning that we already had an argument about the NHS a week ago, and that we discovered that there is indeed rather a lot wrong with it, and that market outcomes (drawn from the European experience) turn out rather better?

I believe Progressive Visions’ Singapore claim might be based partly on this incidentally:

The page on tax is amazing. It says that Britain needs to have a low-tax economy like the United States. But the OECD statistics from 2005 put the UK tax wedge for single people earning the average wage at 33.5%, and the US at 29.5%.

Call me a dirty, rotten socialist freedom-hater, but for 4% higher taxes, we get the NHS, subsidised university tuition fees, student loans pegged to the retail price index (rather than at quite extortionate commercial rates), a reasonably good public transport system and free museums.

An acquaintance of mine puts it this way: you pay the same amount of tax whether you live in the US or the UK, but in the UK, you don’t have to worry about hospital bills.

#8 “We discovered” is a bit different from “You said”, which is nearer reality. Quite a few other people pointed out reasons why that isn’t the case.

Well, Tim, I and a few others said, and started showing some of the evidence that the NHS is neither effective, nor especially equitable compared to alternative systems. At that point, everyone else stopped commenting apart from Sunny at the end doing his usual ad hominem criticism (if you can’t play the ball, play the man!). Perhaps there is loads more evidence about the greater comparative effectiveness of the NHS, but if it is, it is not exactly being displayed prominently by the Fabians or IPPR.

Speaking of ad hominem, it seems a bit of a shame for you guys to concentrate so much on Dan Hannan, the villain, when you may have yourself a potential ally on many other fronts. He wrote “The Plan” which included a great repeal bill similar to what the LibDems are now suggesting. If you want to empower the liberal elements in the Tory party, then Dan Hannan is someone to deal with.

12. Chris Baldwin

Surely it’s a waste of time for think tanks to come up with “common sense solutions”, since presumably anyone could do so?

Was it Descartes who identified common-sense as the sole commodity which everyone thinks they have exactly the right amount of but others are lacking in?

When Hannan and his ilk say low taxes for everyone they mean zero taxes for business and wealthy (uber-rich, normally) people – the rest can go hang.

“More objective approach” or more objectivist approach?

“Regardless of the debate about the fact or attribution of climate change” is a classic too.

16. Shatterface

Common sense is often neither common nor sensible; I thought the purpose of think-tanks was to challenge popular preconceptions?

Good work Sunder. I’ve been suspicious of “Progressive Vision” ever since I first heard of it. It now seems that it’s just two blokes calling themselves a think tank to broadcast their (un-progressive) views into the media.

Where does the fabian society publish its annual report? I could not find it on the website. Most thinktanks and independent orgs make them availabe to download.

They have a partizan offshoot “campaigning” within the Lib Dems. Produced a “report” with some “research” about the likely effect of “the Cameron Effect” on Lib Dem held seats.

They took the current opinion polls, applied it as i it was a uniform national swing, and looked specifically at current Lib Dem seats only. A basic, amateur psephologist with half a days reading could tell you what’s wrong with that. Completely ignores pretty much everything political science understand regarding third party squeeze, ratchet effects, etc.

It’s a shame, on a personal level I kinda like Mark Littlewood, but the stuff he’s putting out is, well, interesting. Still, if it pays the bills…

Yes, I remember Liberal Vision too. We’ve not by any means seen the last of them, as quiet as theyseem to be these days.

tim f @ 2:

Encouraging children to gamble to improve their maths skills is the silliest right-wing idea since Policy Exchange’s report suggesting everyone should move to London.

Now, I’m not going to defend any of the rest of PV’s ideas, but this one is actually interesting. I’d be really interested to know what your objections are to this idea.

First of all, calculating gambling outcomes is basically just applying simple statistical techniques, calculating probabilities and so forth. Teaching kids these techniques is a perfectly valid and positive aim of maths courses. Given how much of our lives these days involves interpreting statistics – disease risks, financial risks, risk of crime (and terrorism!) and so forth, I think giving kids the means of understanding and interpreting probabilities would be very good for them. Or, to put it another way, I think that Bayes’ theorem should be a central part of education. It just so happens that gambling – games based on probability – are a very good way of examining probabilities in action.

Secondly, I basically subscribe to the idea that “the truth shall set you free”, in the sense that we can’t actively suppress people’s understanding of how gambling works if we’re then going on to allow them to gamble. That’s just setting them up for exploitation. Why not teach children exactly how it works and exactly how unlikely it is that gambling will ever make them rich? Surely that would give them greater power over their own decisions and their own lives, as it would give them a set of rational reasons for avoiding gambling that, without some basic education in the application of probability theories, they would lack.

22. the a&e charge nurse

Depends what you mean by ‘research’.

Hannon & Co have an obvious political agenda and simply throw in a few factoids to bolster their arguments (as do other politicos of course).

Bad Science (by Ben Goldacre) is as good as anything I’ve read to illustrate why the phrase ‘pinch of salt’ often comes to mind whenever the term ‘research’ is bandied about.
The nutrition industry (for example) is particularly adept making claims for various products based on non-existent evidence.

Hannon’s cancer stats are irrelevant – to begin with cancer encompasses over a hundred different diseases, what are we meant to be comparing ?
And if even if American men do live for 12 months longer with prostate cancer (say) some might argue that a years extra suffering constitutes an equivocal improvement at best ?

Comparing Singapore with the UK is risable – I assume Hannon’s acolytes have seized on it because of low GDP spent on health allied to good health outcomes.
In fact this comparison may do no more than demonstrate that health outcomes have never been dependent on the health system alone.

Incidentally, anybody interested in some of the challenges faced by the NHS could do worse than spend time in the company of ‘The Hospital’

Mike Killingworth’s contributions, with tim f, have amused me (at 4, 5, 7). It would be good to create a spoof think-tank Libertarian Vision to pursue these ideas, and then to really take them to their natural conclusions once on the radio. Perhaps the main problem with the idea may be is just how little space Progressive Vision seem to be leaving for stand-up comedy think-tankery of that nature, particularly on climate change. (To my knowledge, it is not a front created by Fabians, progressives, social democrats or LibDems with the intention of discrediting libertarian thinking, though I appreciate why some might now have suspicions about that when they read the website).

18 – as stated, it is available on request, beyond the 7000 printed copies which go out to all members and stakeholder audiences engaged with us each September. It is produced in a 32 page magazine format. We don’t currently put any full publications which are not online only on the website (only a couple of years ago we had a website which didn’t even take PDFs). We may well change that in general. I appreciate we may be somewhat behind the curve, though perhaps partly the lack of priority on online dissemination may well be in part because we have a larger hard copy reach and circulation than any of the other Westminster think-tanks through our membership. In the last year we’ve tried to begin to get to grips with what we should be doing online. There is also a full archive, covering the entire history of the Society, at the LSE.

I disagree with Nick at 8 and 11. I think we have been evidence-based. My initial challenge to Hannan showed his “sixty year mistake” warning to the Americans was nonsense. And it also acknowledged there is good evidence (from some parts of the US – eg the preventive/integration model of Kaiser Permanente – and from elsewhere) which should inform reform agendas within the NHS (though of a different kind to the PV reform agenda which sees the consumer/patient and ability to pay as the key).

Dr Howard Stoate’s Autumn 2007 Fabian pamphlet ‘Challenging the Citadel’ was evidence-based in making the case for deepening a shift away from the acute sector and secondary care to deepen prevention. The direction of travel of the Darzi review is often similar, though Stoate (who is MP for Dartford and on the health select committee) goes considerably further and challenges other parts of government policy, particularly in looking at the problem of power relations within an NHS (if there are powerful autonomous foundation hospitals) which could prove a brake on increasing the primary and preventive focus. Here is a v.brief summary of some of the argument and evidence cited

I gave this Chris Ham paper as a good overview of the evidence which Stoate and others have drawn on

IPPR have also done work on this, as have Kings Fund and others.

What I don’t accept is that it is the core principle or model of a taxpayer-funded system that must change. That seems to me ideologically driven. I also quoted and linked Ezra Klein’s 2007 piece The Health of Nations noting that (as Ham does) it drew on the evidence from the publicly run and socialised Veterans Health Administration in the US.

Ironically, it seems to be the Conservatives who combine a hankering for Hannan’s fundamental critique of the principles and the idea of the NHS (and the frequent complaint of futile over-funding, which remains v.questionable in comparative perspective) with campaigns against any reconfiguration, particularly at local level (under slogans like “stop Brown’s NHS cuts”), and campaigns for more resources on popular services (like maternity services). This is incoherent opportunism, and is not evidence based on either side of this Jekyll and Hyde position on NHS policy, where they are both ‘agin in principle and for the status quo

It would be good to create a spoof think-tank Libertarian Vision to pursue these ideas

I don’t know if you know this Sunder – but there is indeed an off-shoot called Liberal Vision that does pretty much what you satirised above. Heh.

Sunder – I am not the one to pin down a Conservative position on the NHS (I would be satisfied with knowing Hannan’s individual position). But I believe the argument about over-funding might be valid. Ezra Klein in your link noted that the NHS’s only comparative advantage was its relative cheapness, and New Labour seems to have been removing that advantage over the last few years as inputs have risen without significant improvements in outputs:

Now if it is cheap, and it is a single-payer health system, doesn’t that imply some pretty objectionable power structures are in place? Obviously, it is nice to be able to bid doctors’ salaries down a bit, but it means that healthcare is rationed according to government priorities. And that seems to be happening in rather more aggressive ways than Klein’s overview might be picking up:

This seems especially objectionable when there doesn’t seem to be any benefit to rationing by government officials compared with rationing controlled by patients:

I am not sure what your point is about integrated healthcare in this context. It is clearly beneficial, but it is clearly something that works in the private sector as well as in the public sector. Judging by the fact that Kaiser Permanente and the Dutch system seem to be leaders in this respect might indicate that the private sector can deliver the incentives for co-operation between primary and secondary care rather more successfully anyway. If what you are saying is that, for now, these are the sort of reforms that could benefit our healthcare, then you have a point (I am not claiming that a complete overhaul of our system is going to be easy). But that doesn’t seem to respond to the overall criticism that the NHS could have been much better off (and have a less controlling power structure) with a market similar to what we have in Europe.

Sunder @ 23:

It would be good to create a spoof think-tank Libertarian Vision to pursue these ideas, and then to really take them to their natural conclusions once on the radio

Isn’t the Revolutionary Communist Party a step ahead of you here?

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    How credible are Progressive Vision, behind the #no2NHS campaign? The tank that doesn’t think #welovethenhs

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    Background ProgVision, behind #no2NHS campaign

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