Thursday, January 31, 2008

Liberal left manifesto

For many people on the right, the phrase "liberal left" is a contradiction in terms. That's because of the way people on the Marxist left describe themselves as "liberals". But properly, it is a tautology; liberals always sat, historically and metaphorically, on the left of every national assembly. That remains the case, with the possible exception of the Australian Liberal Party which many feel is more accurately identified as a conservative party (this is a possible exception because the Australian Labour Party represents vested interests possibly more completely then the Liberals).

So why are there people who feel the need to emphasise the fact that they are liberal and left? And why do they feel a need to issue a manifesto? In the answers to these questions lies something that is almost an acknowledgement of the contradictions of their position.

Chris Dillow picked up on this discussion and suggested five areas for advocacy. They are a good place to start:

1. Reclaim the concept of freedom. There's more to freedom than low taxes and a formal, legalistic absence of state intevention, important as these can be. Real freedom means the ability to control one's own life. And this sometimes requires state intervention, as Gracchi points out.
Chris has immediately invoked the critical issue: is "positive freedom" - being able to do things, as well as free to do them, a valid concept? Yes it is, but the fact that you understood my use of the word "free" in the preceding sentence demonstrates that the word "freedom" should not be used for this, and nor should any of its synonyms. It was this inappropriate use of language that lead Chris to argue, as I would paraphrase it:
On the one hand low taxes and an absence of state intervention are good, on the other hand high taxes and state intervention are good.
Chris doesn't want to reclaim the concept of freedom, he wants to claim it for state intervention, albeit state intervention he approves of, preferably structured in a way he'd also approve of.

Gracchi's post quotes someone who wants lower taxes and less state intervention, caricatures this as a view that might disallow travel assistance from a specific elderly woman, states that he, Gracchi, would not snatch crusts from the lips of elderly women, and in concluding summarises its central philosophy as follows:
I want that old lady to be independent and look after her husband and I want the state to make that possible.
Perhaps the oddest thing about this post is that the person being quoted disapprovingly had actually been posting in support of the woman's right to travel tokens.

"Independent", in the context of this old woman, has two quite distinct meanings. She is independent, or more so, in her private life if she can travel affordably, as she needs. In addition, she is independent of the state if she is not subjected to excessive demands or intrusions from the state. Gracchi conflates these, saying in effect "this conservative writer argues for freedom [from the state] but if he gets his way a little old lady might have less freedom [of movement]".

What is happening here is interesting. Both Dillow and Gracchi are, I think, doing the same thing for the same reason. Their case is: the freedom of the underclass, of the poorest, pensioners and the vulnerable, in a society without state intervention, isn't worth much. They might be free to do things, but they aren't able to do them, and this can include the absolute basics of life. Such freedom isn't a desirable goal, and there's a moral aspect to that fact. State intervention must at least be adequate for those people. And, even now, even with present levels of taxation, the state is coming up short. That means there's a moral case for higher taxes.

That's a perfectly serious case, whether you agree with it or not. So why aren't they just making it, straight? Why all this wibble about how "important" freedom from state intervention is, even though we need more intervention from the state? Why try to occlude one meaning of the word "freedom" with its opposite, and conflate two different meanings of the word "independent"? In the latter case, why not actually highlight these meanings to the writer's advantage, saying that independence from the state can lead to a horribly curtailed life for the most vulnerable?

In fact, why don't they just plain come out with it and argue that the right is wrong to advocate greater freedom?

I'll leave that hanging, because I think Chris Dillow will answer it for me later, and move to the next of his points:
2. Argue intelligently for equality. One of the most damning indictments of New Labour is its failure to do just this. We can and should do better. We can point out that greater economic equality might actually be better for the economy than low taxes on the rich, and that there's a moral case for equality, partly as a form of pooling risk.
Insurance as morality? No, there might be a practical case for pooling risk, but it isn't a moral question. And don't give me anything about the most vulnerable - exceptions don't make the rule and pooling risk is general. If the vulnerable need help that can just as well be humanitarian as redistributative.

Also note the use of the word "might"; what if it doesn't? We'll also come back to this, but he is conceding that "equality" might have adverse effects. In fact, Chris's most solid argument in this paragraph, the only one he doesn't admit might be wrong, is that there is a moral case for equality. The problem is that this isn't so much an argument as a concession of defeat, coupled with an attempt to place the subject beyond discussion. Nobody who has won an argument has ever had to fall back on the morality of their position.

We are still waiting for the intelligent argument in favour of equality of outcome, indeed for one that even dares speak its name, and not abbreviate it to the single word "equality".

Chris's third point:
3. Exploit the economic slowdown sensibly. This doesn't mean calling for protectionism, immigration controls or old-style Keynesianism. It means pointing out that the big lesson of the sub-prime crisis is that the vulgar free market cheerleaders were wrong. Unfettered markets don't pool risks anything like as well as theory predicts they should. Financial innovation has taken a wrong turning. It's been a way for egomaniacs to gamble, not a way for real people to insure themselves against economic crises. There's perhaps a case for state intervention to encourage the development of insurance markets against recession or industrial or occupational shocks, as Robert Shiller has shown.
Financial markets perform a number of roles, it has been decided. The markets existed before the decisions about what roles they played - markets are what people do when they're not being interfered with, or when they're trying to get round the interference. Markets don't follow rules, but we do analyse them and, as with any very complex system, we try to make decisions about how they seem to behave. The roles we have assigned to them, after such analysis, include pooling risk, and they do perform this role to some extent, but they haven't been designed to do this, and any way in which they haven't done so isn't a failing. They also permit plurality to exist, which is why not every bank is in the same position as Northern Rock. State intervention works against plurality. One of the arguments in favour of markets is that they minimise the extent of failure. To understand why this matters, compare Northern Rock with, say, Black Wednesday.

It is true that markets are justified by their advocates in various terms that include the pooling of risk, but there are other justification, such as plurality - but also including freedom. It's good if people can do as they please. American readers can skip the next sentence. Doing as you please means going to the cinema with your partner to see whatever takes your fancy, including the "Life of Brian", it doesn't mean crapping on your neighbour's lawn.

The mention of the financial turndown is, I think, a device here. The importance of issues like immigration tracks the rate of immigration, as well as the financial cycle. In some ways the mention of this turndown is odd in this list of much more general principles, but it's really very shrewd. It allows objections to immigration to be blamed on the worsening financial conditions, and then displaced onto "egomaniacs" - including the big bonus earners we've all learned to hate instead of seek to emulate. Now objections to immigration are really objections to egomaniacs, and what could be fairer than that? Trebles all round, problem solved: there are no other problems for the most vulnerable, for the stick-in-the-muds, for the ordinary people of Britain, and especially England, that stem from immigration. It's all those bastards in the City.

Let's move on to point 4:
4. Challenge authority. The really big fraud uncovered this week at SocGen wasn't Jerome Kerviel's trading. It's the pretence of every boss everywhere that they are in control of their organization. They're not. Managerial effectiveness is a fiction. What looks like good management is either an illusion or the goodwill and competence of workers.
Good stuff, but what about it is inapplicable to big government? And from that unanswered question follows another: why advocate systems that require bosses if you're dead set against bosses? Points one, two and three above require the intervention of bosses, according to Chris's line. Then he points out a problem with top-down leadership. It's almost as though this leftist has hit his head against reality and become a liberal.

And he agrees:
5. Lose faith in big government. A lot of the right's objections to the welfare state are based not so much upon hostility to redistribution as upon the belief that the state is too big, unwieldy and incompetent. They're right. The liberal-left should think how state services can be provided with less red tape. This doesn't mean blind privatization, not least because this can crowd out the altruistic motiviations of workers that keep schools and hospitals going. It just means thinking about organizational design.
Chris is good enough to point out where the right is correct but draws the wrong, or at least an incomplete, conclusion. Schools and hospitals keep going in countries where they aren't run by the state, and Chris is wrong to fail to point this out. It is not a given that the state must run these facilities, but it is a given, as he points out, that large, hierarchical organisations are inefficient. There's an obvious conclusion to be drawn there, but it isn't drawn. Why not?

Perhaps it's partly because of one particular Big Lie: the idea that it matters to health workers, or teachers, whether they're employed by the state. Does it really? Is the ownership of their employer more important, or even remotely on the same playing field, as the needs of their patients or students? I hope not. I hope altruistic nurses don't think to themselves "I'm working for the state, and that's all that matters" rather than "here's a patient, what does this person need?" But perhaps that is what they think. Perhaps the "liberal" left has it right.

No, I don't think so. And nor do they. That's why they mention "freedom" so often. It's why they want to call themselves "liberal". Both usages are false, and I think they know it. They are in the position of a devout Christian faced with the evidence for evolution by selection. They know it's right. They don't like it. But the mainstream characters will try to incorporate it, saying that God created the conditions for evolution to occur.

Marxism is fundamentally centralising. It always has been and, at least if these posts are anything to go by, it always will be. The inability to deal honestly - and it is ultimately a matter of intellectual honesty - with ideas like freedom and independence prove that. If the state helps someone, they are not independent. Let's just revisit Gracchi's money quote:
I want that old lady to be independent and look after her husband and I want the state to make that possible.
I want x to be independent, and so I want x to be dependent on the state. This is risible, but only because of the way it is phrased. This would work better: "I want x to be independent, but she isn't. So I advocate state aid to help her get around". Someone on the right might say: "I want x to be independent as well, and if she wasn't taxed so heavily she could be. So let's stop making her dependent".

Then we could have a reasonable, even decent, conversation. But in the meantime we have to deal with what we have. I left a question hanging: why don't they just come out with it and say the right is wrong to advocate freedom? The answer is, as points 4 and 5 show, that they know the right isn't wrong on this point. But they are married to a particular doctrine - Marxism - that makes this admission impossible. That's why they try to distort language. They're saying: "x is right, so y = x". I'm sorry, but Marxism does not equal freedom. It never has, and it never will. And as the preoccupation with the words liberal - deriving as it does from the root of the word "liberty" - and freedom demonstrate, even Marxists know freedom matters. They also know - the second of my hanging points - that equality of outcome has no reasonable or moral justification. They just can't admit it, yet.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Doris steps up her rate of vibration

Worth watching just for her accent.

You don't like it? Tough.

Feynman again, from his QED lectures, on one kind of difficulty for the non-physicist understanding quantum electrodynamics. There are parallels in politics and, especially, economics:

May I suggest you consider watching the Douglas Robb Memorial Lectures before you die? You'd regret it if you didn't.

Quote of the Day

So we never are right; we only can be sure that we're wrong.
Richard Feynman.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Make mine a treble

I've been too busy to blog much, but this news report did catch my eye:

The figures also suggest that alcohol consumption is higher among the middle classes.

Men and women in "managerial and professional" households drank an average of 15.1 units a week.

In households classified as "routine and manual" the average consumption was 11.6 units a week.
Most commentators have suggested that this means middle class stress leads to heavier boozing. I think it means booze leads to riches. I'm off down the pub.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Inoffensive technology

BECTA is the government's "educational technology agency", and it sounds like an exciting place:

Becta leads the national drive to inspire and lead the effective and innovative use of technology throughout learning. It's our ambition to create a more exciting, rewarding and successful experience for learners of all ages and abilities enabling them to achieve their potential.
Provided, that is, the learning experience doesn't involve pigs:
A story based on the Three Little Pigs has been turned down from a government agency's annual awards because the subject matter could offend Muslims.

The digital book, re-telling the classic fairy tale, was rejected by judges who warned that "the use of pigs raises cultural issues".

Ezra Levant update

Iowahawk has obtained a copy of the interviewing officer's notes...

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Egyptian army officers in Israel attack plot

This is disturbing:

Two Egyptian army officers are among 14 alleged Islamists arrested on charges of planning attacks in Israel, one of their lawyers said on Saturday.
A link to Al Qaeda has been alleged.


American Conservative Party

It seems a lot of people are disillusioned with mainstream parties.

Save XP

Infoworld doesn't like Windows Vista, and has launched a campaign to keep XP available until Vista is itself replaced. It makes a comparison with Windows Millennium, which was so unpopular Microsoft kept Windows 98 going until XP became available.

I'm not suggesting Microsoft are going to collapse, but a comparison with the IBM of the 1980s might be reasonable. They have become sclerotic, unable to keep up with the rest of the computing world, let alone innovate. It took years for them to produce a browser that could even display png graphics properly. Longhorn, the development name for Vista, had feature after feature dropped as they tried to get a release date - any release date, and what they have produced is an operating system that is mildly inconvenient for many users, but brings no real benefits.


Iran warns Netherlands

Fox reports that:

A senior Iranian lawmaker warned the Netherlands on Monday not to allow the screening of what it called an anti-Islamic film produced by a Dutch politician, claiming it "reflects insulting views about the Holy Koran."

Alaeddin Boroujerdi, head of the Majlis National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, promised widespread protests and a review of Iran's relationship with the Netherlands if Dutch lawmaker Geert Wilders' work is shown.

"If Holland will allow the broadcast of this movie, the Iranian parliament will request to reconsider our relationship with it," Boroujerdi said, according to IRNA, the official Iranian news agency. "In Iran, insulting Islam is a very sensitive matter and if the movie is broadcasted it will arouse a wave of popular hate that will be directed towards any government that insults Islam.

Wilders calls his 10-minute film "a call to shake off the creeping tyranny of Islamicization, " and said it could air as early as this week on Dutch television.

Jesus and Mo


Which one should have been shot?

I'm with Snoopy on this.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Uncovering Iran

The BBC has devoted considerable attention to Iran but somehow hasn't managed to find space for the story of Ebrahim Lotfollahi:

On January 15, nine days after Ebrahim Lotfollahi was detained in front of Payame Nur University in the provincial capital, Sanandaj, officials told his family that he had committed suicide while in prison and died of "suffocation."

It is unclear why Lotfollahi was detained in the first place.

Witnesses say he had just finished taking an exam when security officials took him away. Officials were reported as saying they wanted to give him some "explanations," but no more details were offered.

His family says the aspiring lawyer had no reason to take his own life. Ebrahim, they say, was full of "hope in life" -- an avid reader who served part-time as a social worker.

His brother, Ismail, told Radio Farda that Ebrahim was "well" when he last saw him, two days after his arrest. "He said he would be released," Ismail said. "He said he needed a few razors and some other things."

Officials said Lotfollahi has already been buried at the city's Beheshte Mohammadi Cemetery.

But Ismail Lotfollahi says family members, who were not allowed to see the body, are calling for an autopsy. "Nobody has seen the body, [but] they said he's there," Ismail said. "A few days after they buried him there, they covered the grave with concrete."

"We don't know what to do. We haven't seen his body; we don't know whether he was suffocated," he said. "They had taken him there and done everything -- we were informed about nothing."

Saman Rasulpour, a Sanandaj-based journalist and member of the Human Rights Organization of Kurdistan, said Lotfollahi's death and the conditions surrounding it are unprecedented in the region.

But he added that this case appears similar to that of another student: Zahra Bani Yaghoub, a 27-year-old who died in prison in the western city of Hamedan in October shortly after she was detained by the morality police while out for a stroll with her boyfriend.

In Yaghoub's case, officials also said that she committed suicide, but her family accused the police of murdering her. They said her body was bruised and that there was blood in her ears.
The BBC couldn't find room for any report about the death of Zahra Bani Yaghoub either.

Via Winston.

Remind you of anything?

Ars Technica reviews a buggy release of KDE 4.0. It has some promising features, but the design style is very imitative of Mac OS X. One innovation: it will be able to run on Macs and Windows machines as well as *nix.

Coca Chavez

Michelle Mankin has pointed out a report from the Miami Herald that quotes from a recent speech by Hugo Chavez:

''I chew coca every day in the morning . . . and look how I am,'' he is seen saying on a video of the speech, as he shows his biceps to the audience.

Chávez, who does not drink alcohol, added that just as Fidel Castro ''sends me Coppelia ice cream and a lot of other things that regularly reach me from Havana,'' Bolivian President Evo Morales ``sends me coca paste . . . I recommend it to you.''

Card security

I think this has some consequences for Britain's ID card proposals, among other things:

The Dutch RFID public transit card, which has already cost the government $2B -- no, that's not a typo -- has been hacked even before it has been deployed
Click through and read the comments. It seems London's Oyster card uses the same technology.

But the more general point is that cards of any kind are risks to, and not protection of, data.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Same site scripting security issue

Here's an interesting exploit, brought to light by Tavis Ormandy, based on a minor misconfiguration in named.conf on multi-user systems:

It's a common and sensible practice to install records of the form "localhost. IN A" into nameserver configurations, bizarrely however, administrators often mistakenly drop the trailing dot,
introducing an interesting variation of Cross-Site Scripting (XSS) I call Same-Site Scripting. The missing dot indicates that the record is not fully qualified, and thus queries of the form "" are resolved. While superficially this may appear to be harmless, it does in fact allow an attacker to cheat the RFC2109 (HTTP State Management Mechanism) same origin restrictions, and therefore hijack state management data.

Walking with dinosaurs

Tonight in Texas, the fate of a creationist museum hangs in the balance:

A Texas museum that teaches creationism is counting on the auction of a prehistoric mastodon skull to stave off extinction. The founder and curator of the Mt. Blanco Fossil Museum, which rejects evolution and claims that man and dinosaurs coexisted, said it will close unless the Volkswagen-sized skull finds a generous bidder.
The internet auction site that offered the fossil for early bidding (no bids received) takes a cautious approach to the age of the skull:
Distinct also from its European cousin, the Mammut borsoni, the American mastodon lived throughout North America, from Alaska to Central Mexico, in the Pleistocene epoch, and is generally believed to have become extinct about 10,000 years ago.
Its vendor dissents:
The Mt. Blanco Fossil Museum is a scientific and educational institution dedicated to a correct interpretation of Earth history and fossil remains. We believe that the fossil record speaks of catastrophic events happening several thousand years ago rather than slow processes taking place over millions or billions of years as is held by the popular establishment.
And they have proof!

Footprints of a giant man walking with dinosaurs. OK, the footprints are a bit indistinct. But they did pass the authoritative "muddy water" test:
Baugh and Patton recently attempted to show that the "new" human prints (in the same dinosaur tracks) are each 11 1/2 inches long. This they did by partially filling each track with muddy water until a puddle about 11 1/2 inches long was achieved
Then they stopped pouring.

But most striking of all are the ICA burial stones, engraved by "the ancient people of ICA, Peru long before the modern discovery of dinosaur fossils. The ICA Stones provide demonstrable evidence, an eye witness account, that men and dinosaurs did indeed walk together and dinosaurs did not die out millions of years ago." I think the museum proprietors are reasonable to ignore the investigation that suggested:
the stones are a hoax. Among the proofs presented by this investigator were microphotographs of the stones that showed traces of modern paints and sandpaper. The strongest evidence of fraud as claimed is the crispness of the shallow engravings. Stones of great age should have substantial erosion of the surfaces.

So what?

According to a Fox News report, a Californian newspaper, the Orange County Register, has conducted an investigation into the display of photographs of water polo players on gay websites:

... some of the pictures, of boys as young as 14, were displayed next to photos of nude young men and graphic sexual content.

An international water polo official and a spokeswoman for a group of Orange County water polo parents says it's "just horrible" for someone to "take what these kids are doing and take it out of context and exploit these images."
We haven't really come to terms yet with the fact that some people are attracted to their own sex.

Gay men are going to enjoy the sight of young water polo players, and there doesn't have to be anything directly sexual about this. A gay man is just as likely to find a boy beautiful as is Germaine Greer, but only in one of those cases is there a social reaction of horror.

Homosexual people are no more likely, so far as I am aware, to be paedophiles than are heterosexual people. But there is a deep prejudice that says the opposite. There's also a deep distaste for homosexuality that becomes overt in cases like this - even where the polo players are over 18 there's a sense of horror at the idea that gay men might find them attractive.

Well, they're going to. Get over it.

Do evil

Google (the corporation that hosts this blog) has the motto "Do no evil".

How does that square with hiding the website of the Egyptian democratic reform movement? The Sandmonkey reports:

It's not bad enough that they had disabled Wael Abbas' youtube account with all the egyptian police human rights abuses and torture videos (only to have it restored again when the outrage became too big), now they have made the website for Kefaya (the egyptian movement for change), which has been around for 3 years and very active, disappear completely off of their search engine.
Click through and read all about it.

Genuine grievances

It is often suggested, by dinner party jihadists, that terrorism is rooted in genuine grievances. The West's foreign policies, especially in the Middle East and most particularly in Iraq, have cause resentment among Muslims, and this has spurred extremists to violence. This was the view that sent Spain's most recent election to a surprise socialist victory after a bombing shortly before polling began. Since then, Spain has pursued a more jihadi-friendly agenda.

So how do they explain this?

Fourteen suspected Islamic militants arrested in Spain on Saturday may have been planning a terrorist action in Barcelona, the interior minister said.

Via ¡No Pasarán!.

PJ O'Rourke isn't funny any more

I have just finished reading PJ's commentary on Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations which came out, by a happy chance, shortly before I decided that as a great admirer of Smith I ought to actually, you know, read something he wrote.

I haven't finished Wealth of Nations yet but, if the way Smith spent the last years of his life revising his earlier book Theory of Moral Sentiments is anything to go by, that is no shame because, it can be inferred, nor did Smith.

PJ's book is, especially in its earlier stages, full of wisecracks that don't really work. These fade out as the book progresses, and the only jokes become the sort of silly examples and anachronistic comparisons that make any subject more tolerable. For example:

Smith attended a little village school in Kirkaldy that seems to have been somewhat different than the little village school my children attend. Smith began studying Latin at ten. But I doubt he knew how to play "Kumbayah" on the recorder or to scold his mother for not recycling.
I can one-up Smith there, having started studying Latin at the age of nine. Or, to be more precise, having started not studying Latin at that tender age. I continued not to study it until I was twelve, with one brief interlude when a teacher's habit of making us translate sentences like "The green cow sat in the ditch" woke me up for long enough to memorise one declension.

And that's the point. Silly examples make economics more tolerable, as they do Latin. But the wisecracks about his wife's mother make PJ seem like a sort of American Les Dawson, only without the genius of the piano playing.

Because the truth of it is something that would make O'Rourke whoop with laughter if it were ever suggested to him, in the same way that Wodehouse would have whooped if it had ever been suggested to him that he wrote about real life, as Douglas Adams put it. But then, Wodehouse did write about real life. It's just that he did it in a very particular way. To take Oswald Moseley, drop him into Bertie Wooster's world as Sir Roderick Spode and make him the leader of the Black Shorts, and a secret lingerie designer, was probably the most complete exposure of the absurdity of the man ever accomplished.

Moseley's reincarnation, George Galloway, demands to be ridiculed. He even ridicules himself, but that isn't as effective. The only person who came close to this way of writing was Auberon Waugh (who could even posthumously expose Polly Toynbee for the cowardly and spiteful harridan she is). But Waugh is no longer with us and Wodehouse has also gone, leaving behind nothing except a hundred books that have kept me sane, and will continue to do the same for generations to come.

Because the awful truth of it is that, having spent the majority of his life as a humourist, and having started with pieces with titles like "How to drive fast on drugs while getting your wing wang squeezed without spilling your drink", PJ has become a serious commentator. And what's worse, he has become a writer. Only a real writer could come up with a paragraph as poignant and understated as this, on Smith's death. It reminds me of John Mortimer's description of the death of his father, when Mortimer kept an oxygen mask against his father's face "until he had no further need of it".

Nature made its last call on July 17, 1790. Smith's health had worsened. In his last revisions to Moral Sentiments he added two dozen paragraphs, mostly approving, on the Stoic attitude toward death: "Walk forth without repining; without murmuring or complaining. Walk forth calm, contented, rejoicing, returning thanks to the Gods, who, from their infinite bounty, have opened the safe and quiet harbour of death, at all times ready to receive us from the stormy ocean of human life." Smith had grown thin and weak, but on the Sunday before he died he hosted the customary weekly supper for his friends. His last recorded words were, "I believe we must adjourn this meeting to some other place."

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Canada's shame

Mark Steyn on Canada's abandonment of civilised values.

Ezra Levant describes how a Canadian government body became an instrument of clerical fascism:

The first time I met the complainant, the radical Muslim imam Syed Soharwardy, was when I debated him on CBC radio, nearly two years ago. The subject was the Danish cartoons.

As a part-time pundit, I do debates like that every week, but Soharwardy doesn't, and he wasn't used to being challenged so vigorously. I went about the rest of my day as usual; Soharwardy went to the police to ask them to arrest me.

They laughed him out of the police station, but the human rights commission welcomed him, and has chased me for two years now, using tax dollars and government bureaucrats. How much do you think that has cost Alberta taxpayers? $100,000? And we haven't even had the full hearing yet.

Click through for another video from Levant's magnificent performance.

Open wireless networks

Bruce Schneier talking sense:

... I run an open wireless network at home. There's no password. There's no encryption. Anyone with wireless capability who can see my network can use it to access the internet.

To me, it's basic politeness. Providing internet access to guests is kind of like providing heat and electricity, or a hot cup of tea. But to some observers, it's both wrong and dangerous.

Rational analysis

The Guardian:

Now even if you don't buy the idea that Facebook is some kind of extension of the American imperialist programme crossed with a massive information-gathering tool...
You mean.... some people wouldn't buy that idea?

London's disgrace

Raedwald offers his thoughts on Ken Livingstone.

Friday, January 18, 2008

The morality of markets

Perhaps I ought to apologise to Walter Williams for pasting such a lengthy quotation from the speech (.doc) he gave recently at Hillsdale College, but in fact my real problem was deciding where to stop. The whole thing is superb.

Let us begin with a discussion of a working definition of markets. Markets are simply millions upon millions, internationally billions upon billions, of individual decision-makers, engaged in the pursuit of what they determine to be their best interests. We say that the market is free if it is characterized by peaceable, voluntary exchange, private property rights, rule of law and limited government intervention and control. Liberals often denounce free markets as immoral. The reality is exactly the opposite. Free markets are more moral than any other system of resource allocation. Let us examine the moral superiority of free markets.

Say that you hire me to mow your lawn and afterwards you pay me $30. What I have earned might be thought of as certificates of performance, i.e. proof that I served you. With these certificates of performance in hand, I visit my grocer and demand 3 pounds of steak and a six-pack of beer that my fellow man produced. In effect, the grocer asks, "Williams, you're demanding that your fellow man, as ranchers and brewers, serve you; what did you do in turn to serve your fellow man?" I say, "I mowed my fellow man’s lawn." The grocer says, "Prove it!" That's when I hand over my certificates of performance -- the $30.

A resource allocation method that requires that I serve my fellow man in order to have a claim on what he produces is far more moral than government resource allocation. The government can offer, justifying it with one reason or another, "Williams, you don't have to serve your fellow man in order to have a claim on what he produces. Through the tax code, we'll take what he produces and give it to you." Of course, if I were to privately take what my fellow man produced, we'd call it theft. The only difference is when the government does it, that theft is legal but nonetheless theft -- the taking of one person's rightful property to give to another.

The essence of free markets is good-good exchanges. Exchanges of this sort are featured by the proposition: "I'll do something good for you if you do something good for me." Game theorists recognize this as a positive-sum game -- a transaction where both parties, in their own estimation, are better off as a result. An example of this is where I go to my grocer and offer the following proposition: If you do something good for me, give me that gallon of milk, I’ll do something good for you, give you three dollars. I am better off because I valued the milk more than I valued the three dollars and he is better off because he valued the three dollars more than he valued the gallon of milk.

Of course there's another type of exchange not typically, voluntarily entered into, namely good-bad exchanges. An example of that kind of exchange would be where I approached my grocer with a pistol telling him that if he didn't do something good for me, give me that gallon of milk, I'd do something bad to him, blow his brains out. Clearly, I would be better off, but he would be worse off. Game theorists call that a zero-sum game -- a transaction where in order for one person to be better off, of necessity the other must be worse off. Zero-sum games are transactions mostly initiated by thieves and governments, both are involved in what is euphemistically called income redistribution.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Lamp/Wamp threat?

The Lamp/Wamp stack - Linux or Windows, the Apache webserver, MySQL and PHP, the structure behind most internet software, including most blogging platforms, is in a sudden state of flux. MySQL has been acquired by Sun.

Sun has its own rival web development platform - OpenSolaris, Apache, MySQL, and Java. Until now, MySQL has been issued under a dual licence, and the majority of installations have used the 'Community', or Open Source license. It's free. Now Sun might try to steer people to Solaris instead of Linux, and Java instead of PHP.

I can see several flies in the ointment. People use whichever platform they damn well please, so Sun will have to be diplomatic and add value. Most importantly, the LAMP stack has an alternative configuration - LAPP. Linux, Apache, PostgreSQL and PHP.Porting an application to PostgreSQL might be a lot of work, or it might be straightforward. It depends how the scripts are constructed. But porting to Java would be a bigger deal.

I think Sun will wind up accepting they're not going to take over the LAMP market share. The danger would then be that MySQL starts stagnating. Until now it has been a dynamic business, but it hasn't been a no longer necessary part of the portfolio of a larger company.

I hope that doesn't happen, but I'm glad PostgreSQL might start being more widely used. It's a better database.

Bargain of the day

Levi jeans, just £35 each, or three pairs for £120.

Save the children

The Vatican's official newsletter has:

... condemned JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books for posing a danger to children by promoting witchcraft and the occult.
That's terrible - indoctrinating children into superstition and false knowledge! Something must be done.

One last tournament

For two of the all time great back row forwards, Serge Betsen, who has announced he will retire after the forthcoming Six Nations Tournament, and Martyn Williams, who will return to international rugby for the same.

While watching Betsen demolish Jonny Wilkinson a few years ago was not an unalloyed delight for an England fan, anyone who has played in the back row, as have I, and tried to introduce thenselves memorably to the opposition half backs had to have at least a corner of their brain whooping with admiration. And Williams... there are so many moments. For me, the tap penalty against France in Paris a couple of years back stands out.

Great players, fine men. It has been a privilege to watch them, and I'm very glad that will be possible again this year.

Uxbridge definition of the day

Fish - quite like the letter 'F'.

Water vapour drives carbon cycle

That's according to this peer reviewed paper published in the Journal of Geophysical Research:

... the carbon cycle is essentially driven by solar energy via the water cycle intermediary.
Just to be clear - I'm not saying this is the last word, just that the science of climate is not settled.


Best error message

From WTF:

Microsoft? Evil?


Microsoft is developing Big Brother-style software capable of remotely monitoring a worker's productivity, physical well-being and competence.

The Times has seen a patent application filed by the company for a computer system that links workers to their computers via wireless sensors that measure their metabolisms.

The system would allow managers to monitor employees' performance by measuring their heart rates, body temperatures, movements, facial expressions and blood pressure.
I have an alternative suggestion. Microsoft could take their intrusive technology and monitor in real-time how deeply it can be rammed into the fundament of whoever thought this up, and in the meantime employers could assess their staff based on the results of their work.

Death penalty

Sometimes my opposition wavers:

A teenage boy has been charged after a schoolgirl was allegedly raped and doused in acid in an apparent attempt to destroy DNA evidence.
This use of corrosive materials to try to destroy DNA evidence after rape is a growing trend. I'm not even going to elaborate, examples are too disturbing and disgusting.

For once, there is a case for immediate legislation. Such aggravating circumstances should carry an immediate life sentence. The animal who did this should never be released.

Fraudulently Christian

As the Sandmonkey says, this is too stupid to explain. Quoting is less painful:

CAIRO: A Christian woman who was sentenced to three years imprisonment for allegedly fraudulently stating that she is Christian on her marriage certificate, was released Monday, her lawyer told Daily News Egypt.

Shadia Nagui Ibrahim, 47, was unaware that legally she was a Muslim as a result of her father's conversion from Christianity to Islam when she was two years old.
And so on.

The problem we face is that we can't threaten to impose restrictions on freedom of conscience here as a lever to try to get Islamic countries to end this oppressive and supremacist behaviour.

We could withhold aid, though.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Complainant complaint

Ezra Levant has picked up a funny development in the "terror advocates have feelings, too!" saga of Canada's "human rights" commissions. Oh, I know quotation marks are old hat, but they don't give you much choice.

Well, in the case of Soharwardy, it appears that he himself is the subject of a human rights complaint -- for discrimination against women. There's a shocker. It was filed with the Edmonton and Ottawa offices of the Canadian Human Rights Commission. Some women in his mosque allege that:

We were discriminated as women and were treated poorly, differently, negatively and adversely by the Directors and Officers of Al-Madinah Calgary Islamic Centre, Islam Supreme Council of Canada (ISCC), Muslim Against Terrorism (MAT), Al-Madinah Dar-Ul-Aloom Ltd and Al-Madinah Calgary Islamic Assembly. In this meeting we were treated diferently from men in the following manner:
Read on...


The argument in favour of free trade says that in any voluntary exchange we part with our money or goods for goods or money we value more. Otherwise we wouldn't do it. Of course, when we think something is worth more than what we have, we could be wrong, assuming there's such a thing as absolute value, which there might not be. Simple enough.

Jeff Randall is worried that China

has more than $1,000 billion in its vaults. In other words, Beijing could fund the UK's entire 2008 budget in cash.
But it presumably follows that America has Chinese-made goods it values more than the $1,000 billion of cash it parted with to get them. Randall doesn't mention that.

Perhaps that's because those goods will wear out and become valueless, whereas that's not going to happen to the dollars in its banks. No, they'll become valueless, or at least less valuable, because the dollar has been falling on the currency exchanges, not least because if it wants some more (fiat) money, the US Fed will just print some more, thereby devaluing every dollar the Chinese hold.

It's a neat trick, in a way. I pay you £100 for something, but if I feel like it I can print money so that, compared to a baseline value of a basket of fruit, or vegetables, or even one of gibbering economists, you now only have £80. Or £50. Depends how much I print.

That seems to be the theory. So why is Randall worrying? It's not like he doesn't know all this. And it's not as though I do. I'm just parroting stuff I've been reading, which has all been refreshingly light on figures.

I'd be obliged for any pointers to some kind of empirical evaluation of the competing cases of free trade and mercantilism.

UPDATE: I do understand that mercantilism is normally a way of protecting the interests of the rich, and damaging those of the poorer. Thus, when Peter Mandelson imposed quotas on Chinese shoes entering Europe, he was benefiting a small number of shoe manufacturers and their employees in Europe and damaging their (no doubt poorer) Chinese equivalents as well as every European who wears shoes and now has to pay more for them.

What I don't understand is the cumulative, longer term effect of China accumulating all that gelt, and America or Europe accumulating vast mountains of cheap shiny grey shoes.

Britney Spears to marry a Muslim

One who wears a crucifix... *sigh*

I shan't link to any of the reports... Bigotry meets supremacism. Ech.

Binding beyond the grave

There's a squabble going on at the moment over the rights and wrongs of the UK government's proposal to "presume consent" when it comes to the removal of organs from dead bodies for transplants. The Prime Minister betrayed his usual illiberal bent when discussing it (emphasis added):

A system of this kind seems to have the potential to close the aching gap between the potential benefits of transplant surgery in the UK and the limits imposed by our current system of consent.
It is a revealing thing that a person can mention, without qualification and with disparagement, a "system of consent".

Writers on the libertarian right are opposed to this idea, writers from the left seem to be less worried. In the words of the Libertarian Alliance (emphasis added):
When the law allows organs to be harvested from the bodies of the dead without the explicit prior consent of the dead, or the explicit consent of the next of kin, the State becomes effectively a cannibal.
Can the dead give consent? Are the living bound by the wishes of the dead, even if those wishes were made plain before death? If not, then it ain't your liver any more and is at the disposal of the living to use as they see fit.

I'm putting it like this because these are echoes of a much older debate. In Book One of The Rights of Man, Thomas Paine wrote:
The vanity and presumption of governing beyond the grave is the most ridiculous and insolent of all tyrannies. Man has no property in man; neither has any generation a property in the generations which are to follow... It is the living, and not the dead, that are to be accommodated. When man ceases to be, his power and his wants cease with him; and having no longer any participation in the concerns of this world, he has no longer any authority...
I have deleted a passage from that quote, and I will reinsert it in a moment. It provide the context for the debate. But this removal does not distort Paine's words, and makes clearer the principle he was enunciating. It is a principle which few today apply consistently. People who feel we should not bind future generations, or be bound by those of the past, can be found on all sides of debate, but with wild variations in the way they apply these principles. Are we responsible for slavery? Are we entitled to inheritance? Should we leave nuclear waste? It is hard to find a consistent principle being applied.

Paine was writing in response to an argument advanced by Edmund Burke against the French, and by extension any prospective British, revolution. Burke was a free marketer, hated by Karl Marx and admired by Adam Smith and, much later, Winston Churchill. Unlike Smith, who detested the hereditary principle and the aristocracy, in constitutional terms Burke was very much a Tory. He was a strong partisan for the legacy of the Glorious Revolution, which established limited (by Parliament) constitutional monarchy in Britain. We still have this system of government, but without the checks and balances provided by a more powerful monarchy it has now become the exercise of unlimited, absolute power by Parliament - a very bad thing indeed in my view, but not something to be remedied by the restoration of powers to the Crown. As I've argued before, we now need government limited by constitution - a republic.

In any event, let me provide a fuller version of Paine's quote without the excisions (emphasis added):
The English Parliament of 1688 did a certain thing, which, for themselves and their constituents, they had a right to do, and which it appeared right should be done. But, in addition to this right, which they possessed by delegation, they set up another right by assumption, that of binding and controlling posterity to the end of time. The case, therefore, divides itself into two parts; the right which they possessed by delegation, and the right which they set up by assumption. The first is admitted; but with respect to the second, I reply-

There never did, there never will, and there never can, exist a Parliament, or any description of men, or any generation of men, in any country, possessed of the right or the power of binding and controlling posterity to the "end of time," or of commanding for ever how the world shall be governed, or who shall govern it; and therefore all such clauses, acts or declarations by which the makers of them attempt to do what they have neither the right nor the power to do, nor the power to execute, are in themselves null and void. Every age and generation must be as free to act for itself in all cases as the age and generations which preceded it. The vanity and presumption of governing beyond the grave is the most ridiculous and insolent of all tyrannies. Man has no property in man; neither has any generation a property in the generations which are to follow. The Parliament or the people of 1688, or of any other period, had no more right to dispose of the people of the present day, or to bind or to control them in any shape whatever, than the parliament or the people of the present day have to dispose of, bind or control those who are to live a hundred or a thousand years hence. Every generation is, and must be, competent to all the purposes which its occasions require. It is the living, and not the dead, that are to be accommodated. When man ceases to be, his power and his wants cease with him; and having no longer any participation in the concerns of this world, he has no longer any authority in directing who shall be its governors, or how its government shall be organised, or how administered.

I am not contending for nor against any form of government, nor for nor against any party, here or elsewhere. That which a whole nation chooses to do it has a right to do. Mr. Burke says, No. Where, then, does the right exist? I am contending for the rights of the living, and against their being willed away and controlled and contracted for by the manuscript assumed authority of the dead, and Mr. Burke is contending for the authority of the dead over the rights and freedom of the living. There was a time when kings disposed of their crowns by will upon their death-beds, and consigned the people, like beasts of the field, to whatever successor they appointed. This is now so exploded as scarcely to be remembered, and so monstrous as hardly to be believed. But the Parliamentary clauses upon which Mr. Burke builds his political church are of the same nature.

The laws of every country must be analogous to some common principle. In England no parent or master, nor all the authority of Parliament, omnipotent as it has called itself, can bind or control the personal freedom even of an individual beyond the age of twenty-one years.[1] On what ground of right, then, could the Parliament of 1688, or any other Parliament, bind all posterity for ever?
The emphasised passage marked [1] is about as pure a description of the modern Libertarian principle as you could ask for. It asserts the primacy of the rights of the individual above those of the government to command. This notion is intrinsic to the very idea of freedom, and its breach a necessary condition for tyranny.

But it is possible here to see the difficulty of trying to transcribe old political allegiances into contemporary terms. Those asserting today, as did Burke, the right of the dead to bind the living, consider themselves to be Liberals, or Libertarians. Yet it was Paine who best enunciated the principle of individual liberty.

There are some consistencies in Britain; many who call themselves Libertarian, like Sean Gabb of the Libertarian Alliance, have argued for monarchy - in effect for Burke's idea of a permanent settlement based on the Glorious Revolution. They are indeed Tories in the old sense of the word, and Gabb even writes of the "quisling right" who have abandoned conservative principles.

But the American Libertarian Party is directly in line of descent from Paine and Jefferson (Madison disagreed on this point, and felt there was a thread of something like a contract that ran through the generations).

So to pick up on an earlier debate, while Marxists have no business calling themselves Liberals, neither does the Libertarian Right in the UK, though it does in the USA. In the UK, they are in the main pre-1900 Tories. Of course, another way to put that is to say that the Libertarian Right in the UK has every right to call themselves Liberals, because of their emphasis on free trade and economic freedom in general, and their advocacy of the rights of the individual, and so does the Marxist left because of their emphasis on the imperative to moderate the wrongdoings of corporations and to look after the poor. I said it was hard to draw lines from old political positions to those of the present day.

But to stand in line of descent from the Tories of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is no bad thing, provided you can restrain yourself from forming an angry mob and burning Joseph Priestly's house and laboratory, or enacting protectionist legislation that starves hundreds of thousands to death, leads to mass emigration and then back it up by leading cavalry charges into crowds of protesters. The Marxist left, by way of contrast, needs to restrain itself from murdering millions and enslaving entire continents.

The nineteenth century was a freer time than our own, with many characteristics that would appeal to a classical Liberal with a sense of the importance of individual autonomy and responsibility, as anyone who has read the opening page of A.J.P. Taylor's English History, 1914-1945 in the Oxford History of England can attest:
Until August 1914 a sensible, law-abiding Englishman could pass through life and hardly notice the existence of the state, beyond the post office and the policeman. He could live where he liked and as he liked. He had no official number or identity card. He could travel abroad or leave his country for ever without a passport or any sort of official permission. He could exchange his money for any other currency without restriction or limit. He could buy goods from any country in the world on the same terms as he bought goods at home. For that matter, a foreigner could spend his life in this country without permit and without informing the police. Unlike the countries of the European continent, the state did not require its citizens to perform military service. An Englishman could enlist, if he chose, in the regular army, the navy, or the territorials. He could also ignore, if he chose, the demands of national defence. Substantial householders were occasionally called on for jury service. Otherwise, only those helped the state who wished to do so. The Englishman paid taxes on a modest scale: nearly £200 million in 1913-14, or rather less than 8 per cent. of the national income. The state intervened to prevent the citizen from eating adulterated food or contracting certain infectious diseases. It imposed safety rules in factories, and prevented women, and adult males in some industries, from working excessive hours. The state saw to it that children received education up to the age of 13. Since 1 January 1909, it provided a meagre pension for the needy over the age of 70. Since 1911, it helped to insure certain classes of workers against sickness and unemployment. This tendency towards more state action was increasing. Expenditure on the social services had roughly doubled since the Liberals took office in 1905. Still, broadly speaking, the state acted only to help those who could not help themselves. It left the adult citizen alone.

That's pretty much a contemporary European Libertarian manifesto. That the opening three words are "Until August 1914..." shows something else as well. We are living under emergency wartime legislation, to a very great degree. It should be repealed. We are, more than any earlier generation, "bound beyond the grave" by the actions of legislators of the past, and not even they expected their legislation to be permanent.

UPDATED but I'm not going to say where... heh. Just a bit of embellishment I'll probably regret tomorrow.

Centralised knowledge

Fascinating insight:

The BBC is massively and systematically biased. I'm not referring to its position on left vs right, or on Israel vs Palestine, but to another question - that of the merits of dispersed vs centralized knowledge.
Do read it.

Ezra Levant, final remarks

Now go give the man some money...

Monday, January 14, 2008

Nerd score

Life A Get says I'm an Uber Cool Nerd God.  What are you?  Click here!

How to fight dictators

With cartoons.

Saudi ban on Sarkozy girlfriend

I missed this last week, but:

A senior Saudi official urged French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Monday to respect Saudi Arabia's conservative Islamic culture by visiting the country without his girlfriend, former supermodel Carla Bruni.
This is a welcome precedent. The next time there's a Saudi state visit to a Western country, the visitors should be told to respect Western culture by bringing no polygamously married women or men, and by bringing nobody who treats half the human race as second class citizens.

The multiculturalist left

Has made a hell for the most vulnerable women.

Discriminating against minorities

Has become a signature of this Labour government. Replica gun collectors are the latest target, and this attack on a harmless minority is supported by the Liberal Democrats.

How big a problem is the use of reactivated guns?

... the most recent Home Office firearms figures from 2005/6 show that reactivated or deactivated firearms were recorded as being used in just eight offences, out of a total of 11,084.
In other words entirely insignificant.

The reason for this is simple. It isn't worth bothering. Illegal weapons are just too easy to buy. It is, after all, simple to make even a machine gun from scratch in a small workshop. But there's no need when you can buy a gun down the pub.

Attacks against harmless minorities intended to disguise the ineffectiveness of your broader civil policies are contemptible. But to call a Labour cabinet minister contemptible has become tautological.

Disabled advantage


Oscar Pistorius, the double amputee athlete, has been ruled ineligible to compete at the Olympic Games by the International Association of Athletics Federations. The findings of a two-day independent investigation into whether Pistorius's prosthetic running limbs constituted an unfair advantage over other athletes were announced this morning.
They found the prosthetics do give Pistorius an advantage over able-bodied runners.

Inevitable, in hindsight. Does this mean prosthetics developed to help the disabled, and which have helped them to exceed the maximum natural performance levels in hearing, sight, strength, balance and speed will start to be used by the able-bodied in the future?

I think that's got to be a "yes".

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Reasons to be cheerful

You're not a Marxist or a relativist. You don't find yourself sitting through meetings like this one.

You may start your interrogation

Ezra Levant published the MoToons in his paper the Western Standard. Here he is defending the rights of freeborn people to free expression, and in passing refusing to accept the jurisdiction of the government agency, the absurdly named Alberta human rights commission.

I think this will stand the test of time, and will still be watched a century from now.

Opening statement (also on his blog:

What was your intent?

The real violence in Edmonton:

I don't answer to the state:

Entitled to my opinion?

Attributes of free speech:

Big numbers in PHP

If you're manipulating large numbers, you probably shouldn't be using PHP. Here's an example why this is so, posted here because I know a few coders read this and these inconsistencies across platforms could waste a LOT of time.

Beast of burden

Bette Midler... Mick Jagger...

What's not to like?

Well, I've heard of turkeys, but...

is France a country?

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Iz was, and is

Of pins and pencils

The oddest thing about the common, indeed almost ubiquitous, tendency for people on the right to conflate the ideas of free markets and capitalism is that there is absolutely no need to do so. It's really easy to defend capitalism, on two grounds.

The first is a simple matter of freedom and practicality. If I manage to make a bit of money beyond what I need for survival, what on earth is wrong with my investing it in a business, maybe a startup managed by a young entrepreneur with a good idea? If they make a go of it they'll provide employment and give me dividends to live on when I retire. If nobody invests in them, they'll have to start serving burgers. How anyone could object to that is beyond me.

But the theoretical justification is a simple one of division of labour. This idea was stated by Adam Smith and later by Milton Friedman. We'll leave it to Uncle Milt to explain it at the end of this post, but the basic idea is that people who have good ideas get to be inventive, people who are good at managing get to manage and because of those things people who are good at wiblicating widgets get to do that too, working for them. We have relative economic freedom and the fact that most businesses are capitalist is just a reflection of the fact that the system works really, really well. If coops worked better, there'd be more coops.

Over to Milt:

ASIDE: In the early 1980s I worked for a whole food supplier (I have many dark secrets). The successful "radical workers' cooperative" Suma foods was a customer, and every week a large truck would roll up with Suma people on board, ready to buy stuff.

[I am not making this up] The Suma people invariably had to be accompanied round the warehouse by someone from our firm. They weren't talking to each other, and so needed an intermediary to act as a go-between.

Stolen graphics

You know, sometimes they're so damned good you just have to steal them yourself.

Original, plus post here. (It hasn't loaded yet for me, but I'm linking in the hope it wakes up).

Distorted capitalism

In which I'm arrogant enough to correct a proper economist:

Capitalism, with its free markets and free choices has, for all its warts, proved more successful, more efficient and more humane. It delivers the goods far better than do socialist economies, and it manages to do so while allowing a far greater range of freedoms. It goes with political freedoms, free media and freedom of association, employment and travel, all of which are denied in socialist countries.
Nope. Capitalism and freedom do NOT necessarily go together. Nazi Germany (the second of those two links) was not noted for its "political freedoms, free media and freedom of association, employment and travel" yet it was a mainly capitalist society in which some capitalist businesses prospered mightily.

I'm sorry. There is absolutely no excuse for this sort of distortion, especially in a series entitled "Common Errors".

Economic freedom

I don't think anyone should be able to earn £500,000 or more a year, not in any job. There's something wrong with a society in which they can do so while there are children living in poverty.
Well, OK. I don't think that Norman Geras should be able to set people's incomes.

Having matched one unsupported assertion with another, I will now try to set a precedent and say why (mentioning poor children is not an argument, but rather an appeal to emotion, and a tawdry one at that if the consequence of your intervention is poorer children, in absolute terms).

When people talk about economic freedom, using whatever terminology their political orientation makes convenient, they generally concentrate on the economics, and forget about the freedom.

But the case for economic freedom is exactly the same as the case for any other kind of freedom. Take freedom of speech and expression as an example.

A society in which people's freedom of [speech | economic activity] is assured is one in which the greatest possible range of [ideas | economic activity] is assured. We have absolutely no way of knowing in advance which [ideas | businesses] will be successful; perfect hindsight is not available in advance.

Moreover, many of what have proved to be the greatest [ideas | technologies] would have been strangled at birth without this freedom. Arguments based on [theology | the precautionary principle] would have prevented the development of [the theory of evolution | the railways], and these were arguments we now know to have been wrong.

And the equation is a simple one. If we have freedom and someone [says | makes] something you dislike, it is open to you to [ignore | refuse to buy] it, or you can [argue against it | compete with it]. But if we do not, human society simply fails to develop at all, as we can see from the centuries of [ignorance | stagnation] in the past.

Arguments that such freedom is oppressive, because some people's [ideas | businesses] will [offend | oppress] others are invariably self-serving and deceitful attempts at special pleading. But all freedoms need to be carefully and jealously preserved, because attempts to monopolise [ideas | industries] will always be made by those who wrap themselves in the flag of [truth | free enterprise].

UPDATE: A phone call led me to post before completion. Economic freedom requires that people's incomes be what we are willing to pay them: the fruits of their success, or the ashes of their failure. This is also true of ideas, as Norman Geras ought to know. I could easily write that I think it is wrong anyone should be able to make a living from writing books, or get the sort of blog traffic Geras does, while other people are shouting from a darkened stage into an empty auditorium. Freedom of any kind will lead some to extremes both of success and failure, and without this, you do not have freedom.

Distorted prices

This is another post in my extraordinarily arrogant series about the misuse of economics terminology by economists.

What is price?

In a market with more than one supplier of a commodity or service, and more than one customer for it, it is what people are prepared to pay. More precisely, it is a ratio, something like demand divided by supply, multiplied by at least one constant, the cost of production (while it is easy to sell below the cost of production, that isn't sustainable).

The consequences of the artificial setting of price are well known - too low and there will be a shortage of supply, too high and there will be a shortage of demand. The latter case provides a mechanism for rationing a scarce commodity or service. There is no longer a free market in that commodity, but demand will be reduced.

Every single advocate of road pricing I have read has referred at some point to this being a "market" solution. But it plainly isn't. What's more, this is the case by design. The imposition of a price that will throttle demand is intended to prevent the use of roads from being regulated naturally by anything resembling a market. If you wanted to establish a market solution to road congestion, you would allow people to build roads privately and to charge for them, in competition with one another where possible.

That might not be practical, and it might be that road pricing is the only possible solution. But it is a misuse of the term to suggest it is a market solution. Prices exist within markets. Prices also exist outwith them. To forget this is to forget the elementary logical principle that although all oranges are fruit, not all fruit are oranges.

Oblivious to Darwin

The odd thing about Norman Geras's careful discussion of the relationship between religion and goodness is that he seems unaware of the explanations offered by evolutionary biology.

UPDATE: Second link fixed

Gerrymandering, hypocrisy and lies

In an interview in today's Telegraph, Harriet Harman has again suggested that children of 16 should be given the vote. Here's the reason she gave:

"My concern is that there's a generation of young people who are never going to get into the voting habit," she said. "We've got citizenship classes going on in schools... If people come straight out of the citizenship class into the polling station then there's continuity and that might be an opportunity for them to get the habit of voting."

Miss Harman, who is one of the Cabinet ministers responsible for constitutional reform, gives the clearest sign yet that the Government is seriously considering allowing 16-year-olds to vote.

"There's a democratic imperative to increase turnout because democracy lacks legitimacy if there's a dwindling number of people participating in it," she said.
This is dishonest. It would also create the absurd situation wherein children of 16 and 17 years of age would be deemed capable of voting, but not of deciding whether or not they should continue at school.

In fact, Labour is considering this change because they calculate that younger voters would be more likely to vote for them than for any other party. This is gerrymandering. Enthusiasm among voters is low because they have no enthusiasm for contemporary politics. Voting for the least bad is not an invigorating prospect if all seem equally and irredeemably bad. Granting the vote to children will not help this.

Gerrymandering is perhaps the most serious offence anyone could commit in a democracy. But there is a place for such people.

Distorted words

In physics, certain words that have everyday meanings also have specialised ones in that discipline. So it is that occasionally terms like "work", "energy" and "force" can be misused, invariably by non-specialists like the people who write school text books, and there is at least the excuse of dual meaning when that happens.

But in economics, words with quite specific single meanings are routinely distorted and conflated with one another for polemical ends, and such is the pervasive nature of the distortion that it seems that even trained economists do not impose on themselves the discipline of maintaining rigour of definition. This is inexcusable. The meanings of words like "capitalism" and "free market" are very clear and specific.

This is not a partisan point, and to demonstrate this I'm going to start what will be a regular series of posts highlighting examples of this pernicious tendency with two examples from writers with whom I would ordinarily agree.

Take this, from Peter Saunders (emphasis added):

Capitalism lacks romantic appeal. It does not set the pulse racing in the way that opposing ideologies like socialism, fascism, or environmentalism can. It does not stir the blood, for it identifies no dragons to slay. It offers no grand vision for the future, for in an open market system the future is shaped not by the imposition of utopian blueprints, but by billions of individuals pursuing their own preferences. Capitalism can justifiably boast that it is excellent at delivering the goods, but this fails to impress in countries like Australia that have come to take affluence for granted.
It's quite clear that the writer is conflating the terms "capitalism" and "open market system". In fact, capitalism can exist in a country without an open market (I think by this the writer meant free market), with significant trade restrictions and a high degree of central planning. Conversely, economies with a higher (though still woefully inadequate) degree of economic freedom, like our own, can see the operation of successful enterprises that are not capitalist.

Secondly, from the normally more fastidious P. J. O'Rourke, in his commentary on Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations (p. 109, hardback edition):
Economic success depends on freedom. "No regulation of commerce," Smith wrote, "can increase the quantity of industry in any society... It can only divert a part of it into a direction into which it might not otherwise have gone." Trust to capitalism that industry would have gone in that direction already, if more economic success was to be found there.
O'Rourke here is also conflating economic freedom with capitalism. In a free economy, a successful cooperative is as capable as a public company of moving in directions in which economic success can be found. Were that not so, there would be no successful cooperatives, something that is plainly not the case.

This is a particularly gross error in a book about Adam Smith, who was a critic of capitalism. He did not want it to end, but he did explain how special interest groups include capitalists, and how they seek to undermine economic freedom. Two centuries later, Friedman made the same point repeatedly. It still hasn't sunk in.


One of the funniest things about David Cameron's "brand detoxification" of the Conservative Party has been the way it has made the disgusting Simon Heffer squeal like a stuck pig. But there may be better ways to deal with him. Perhaps he should be:

taken out and shot in the back of the head.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Campaign for real speling

From the troll-infested comments at Harry's Place:

Could people please spell Gandhi's name Gandhi?

Ghandi is just embarressing.

Thursday, January 10, 2008


It takes some very special dishonesty from the liberal media to unite Oliver Kamm and Little Green Footballs in condemnation. Quoting both would be redundant, so here's Oliver:

It is extraordinary that the report makes no mention of the fact that George Bush Snr's description of Agee was a simple statement of the literal truth. Agee was no mere political dissenter from CIA misdeeds.
How many Western agents died as a result of Agee's treachery is, so far as I'm aware, not public knowledge.

Where extremes meet

It is sometimes said that political extremes come full circle and meet in the form of the extreme left and the extreme right. This is invariably a symptom of the refusal of those who see themselves as belonging to the left to admit that the fascist right is left wing, and so is bogus.

But the extremes do meet. It is just that the opposite extreme to the Marxist left is actually monarchical feudalism. Under both systems, individuals have neither power nor property. In the former case, the State owns everything, in the latter the crown does. In both cases, the property-owning institution has absolute power over individuals, whether or not it chooses to exercise it.

Quote of the day

From the comments at Poor Bastard Marvin:

The Iraqi "resistance" must be the only resistance in history who have forced the occupying power to remain longer than they would like.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

WWI blog

What a wonderful idea. The letters of a soldier from World War One, published on the ninetieth anniversaries of their writing.

Via Steve (yet again)

A doctor writes


You know, if I were suddenly taken ill, I would be terrified to be admitted to a British NHS Hospital.

Deadeye dogs

Via J F Beck, I read that:

It is not uncommon for hunters to be shot by their dogs.
Um... I don't think you can blame the dogs:
He leaned over the bed of the truck and lay his shotgun down inside as he unhooked the tailgate, his hunting companion told investigators.

"When the dog got to jumping around it went off," deputy Nacheal Bonin of the Chambers County Sheriff's Department said.
A pack of hunting dogs shot an Iowa man in the leg as he went to retrieve a fallen pheasant in October.

He had put his gun on the ground to climb a fence and retrieve the fallen bird. But the dogs followed him too closely, stepping on the gun's trigger before he managed to get over the fence.
Here's an idea: don't lay your loaded gun, safety catch off, on the ground where animals are jumping around.

Religion and politics

Whether or not I agree with Obama's politics, I do feel the first black President of the US would be an important milestone in that country's history. But is Obama really the right man to confirm a new age of racial equality?

Barack Obama belongs to the Trinity United Church in Chicago whose pastor is Rev Dr Jeremiah A Wright Jnr. Here is the church’s website. From it you will see that the church is committed to what looks suspiciously like black supremacism.

Pasquill acquitted

Excellent news:

A civil servant at the Foreign Office has been cleared of breaching the Official Secrets Act.

Derek Pasquill, 48, from west London, was accused at the Old Bailey of leaking confidential documents to the New Statesman and the Observer.

The papers were said to refer to secret CIA flights and the UK's contact with Muslim groups.
New Statesman editor John Kampfner described Mr Pasquill's prosecution as a "misguided and malicious move".

He said a number of government ministers had "privately acknowledged" that the information provided by Mr Pasquill had been "in the public interest and was responsible in large part for changing government policy for the good".

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Attitudinal change

Does happen:

Our conclusion is over the last 10 years that changing attitudes towards incentives and changing attitudes towards the rich (fewer people now believe there is one law for the poor and one for the rich or that big business benefits owners at the expense of workers) can explain almost two-thirds of the decline in the demand for redistribution in the UK.
So a solution predicated on it can be viable.



At the risk of giving the impression I'm argumentative, I am thinking of starting a regular series of posts in which I disagree with people I agree with.

An example of this phenomenon is the Citizen's Basic Income, something that saner, wiser and far more reputable commentators than I advocate strongly.

The idea of the CBI is that:

This would replace the tax allowance for those in work, and IB [Incapacity Benefit] or JSA [Job Seekers' Allowance] for those out of work.
One virtue of this scheme is that it recognizes that the state just cannot know enough about every individual to judge whether they should be on IB or JSA or neither.
Also, because it's paid to all, it not only gives everyone an incentive to work but also makes it impossible for politicians to look tough by bullying the vulnerable.
There is, then, a policy that's economically rational and humane. And which, therefore, has zero chance of being implemented.
For one thing, it would give everyone an equal incentive not to work; if it were at a level where those out of work could subsist, then those in work could also subsist on it if they chose, unlike tax allowances.

But there's no denying we have a problem. Chris is right about everything he says in the quote above. It's the omissions I'm worried about.

Because the CBI is essentially a sort of watered-down form of communism: from each according to their ability if they happen to feel like working, to each a basic income sufficient for survival. Given the propensity of governments to project-creep, I can't see things staying at that level for very long. Indeed, I have seen arguments that things like the cost of a child's education should be added to the CBI. That way, people would be able to choose how to spend this educational budget, on the school of their choice or on home schooling. That's a similar idea to education vouchers, but in the form of cash. If people didn't spend the cash on their children's education, then I guess it would suck for the children involved. But it's not a bad idea in principle.

There is a possible different approach, and just like the CBI it stands absolutely no chance of being implemented. That is to leave people's money with the people themselves, to a far greater extent than now (the abolition of income tax would simply be fulfilling the promise of an earlier government that introduced said tax as a temporary wartime measure) and remove barriers to economic entry. People don't deal drugs in deprived areas because it's more profitable than legal trade - for most of them it isn't. Selling small amounts of drugs does not lead to opulence. If someone handling ounces of grass, or quarter ounces of cocaine, stood on the street selling fruit and veg instead they'd make more money. And most of them would be happy to, even prefer it. The problem is, they can't.

What I know, having lived in some of the worst parts of Britain with the highest unemployment rates, is that while they'll take a pound if it's on offer, most ordinary people want to be able to stand on their own damned feet. Entrepreneurial spirit is highest among just the sorts of people often considered to be the biggest problem in society. People are on the dole often not because they don't want to work legally, but because they are being prevented from doing so.

Case 1 - selling drugs. You gain the confidence of a bigger dealer. He lays on an ounce of grass. You sell it, give the cost to the bigger dealer, get another ounce. Maybe after a while you've built up enough cash to buy an ounce outright or to take a larger quantity. To build up this capital, maybe £120, could take months. Yet people do just that. Their Victorian grandparents would have been proud: thrift, independence and long hours for little pay.

Case 2 - selling fruit and veg
. You have no money, so you're screwed. OK, say you can borrow £120 and buy some stock. Where are you going to sell it? Do you have a licence to sell on the street? Nope. You'll get arrested and it won't help if you get some kids under the age of criminal responsibility to hold the fruit. OK, in a market. Ah... the most closed of all closed shops. How are you going to get a stall? Maybe if you apply to the council you can go on a waiting list. But markets are controlled by invisible, or semi-visible, mafia. It's almost like the Trade Guilds of the Middle Ages: everything is organised to create a closed, semi-hereditary shop.

But say you can get a pitch on the street or in a market. You've bought £120 worth of stock and you need to get it to the pitch. You have a van? Ah... maybe not. And anyway you would need, as a young adult, to get a driving licence. That's about to cost £3,000.

OK, so you get a lift from someone who has a van. Let's hope they're not going to get bored with ferrying you, or change their supplier or sales outlet. But we're OK for the moment. You get to the pitch and... now you need scales that have been stamped by the local weights and measures people. OK, you manage to borrow some. You sell your fruit (and make more cash than you would have if it had been £120 worth of grass). Brilliant. Now all you need to do is keep proper books of record, complete your year's accounts, fill in a tax return, store your records for six years, maybe pay an accountant, maybe get audited by the Inland Revenue (who sent someone marching up the driveway of a man I know to check he was accounting properly for the dozen eggs he sold every week from his doorstep).

Sometimes drugs are the answer. But we have made that so. We could try to unmake it, or we could introduce communism-lite. But if we choose the latter course, it will still make more sense to sell drugs than fruit and veg, if you're living in Easterhouse.