We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

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Hernando de Soto speaks

On June 18th I attended an IEA lecture addressed by the Peruvian property rights advocate and analyst Hernando de Soto, author of The Other Path and more recently The Mystery of Capital, and I promised a report. I apologise that this is a belated report, but this has also given me time to think. (I also said I hoped to get a picture of the great man, but he rushed away as soon as he’d given his talk and I didn’t manage this.)

De Soto understands that property is a social fact. Property rights are triggered by ownership documents and written records and de Soto makes much of these triggers, often to the point of saying that they are the property. No, the property is the property. But the bits of paper make it clear to the world that this is what it is and who owns it.

De Soto’s key insight is that poor countries are poor not because they don’t contain enough potential property, but because the abundance of informal property that they do contain has mostly not yet been nailed down in writing. It therefore can’t be traded, or used as collateral. There can’t be a modern economy. De Soto’s life’s work is to try to set in motion the political and legal processes necessary to correct this. He lobbies politicians, he speechifies, he writes books. He gives lectures like the one I attended.

Most of what de Soto said at the lecture echoed things I’d already read in The Mystery of Capital. But the question and answer session contained what for me were novelties.

He said that the reason so many of the world’s poor like growing “drugs” is that drugs offer a quick return, in a world of insecure property rights. Contrive more secure property rights, and the poor of, e.g., Columbia would have an incentive to go into more respectable businesses which take longer to yield a profit. Interesting.

How, someone asked do you persuade the existing powers-that-be that clearer property rights are good? How about the police? You have to look at things from their point of view, he said. It is easier to catch criminals if you have a property rights paper trail to follow. Property in other words, doesn’t just attach my home to me, it attaches me to my home. It tells the police where to go if they want to talk to me. Interesting, and somewhat creepy.

He said that that if he wants to get the right things done, he has to let the politicians take the credit. Accordingly he no longer boasts about what “he” has been doing, which is why the website of his Institute for Liberty and Democracy has gone so quiet lately. (I’d wondered about why that was.) So, how much notice are governments actually taking of this man? That he was in a great rush after giving his IEA lecture suggested that he has vital business constantly on the go, but who knows? Not me.

I hope that powerful people are paying attention to this man, because what he says still sounds convincing. Indeed it is the best big idea about ending world poverty that I know of. But although I still think de Soto is a great man, under his influence I find myself seeing property – indeed the entire modern world – in a different and rather gloomier light, almost as a pact with the devil. We must have it, but we all know where “paper trails” can lead.

Extradition Bill is a legal obscenity

The Labour’s government’s Extradition Bill is a legal obscenity and a dire threat to the liberty of everyone, says the Libertarian Alliance, the radical free market and civil liberties think tank and pressure group.

Libertarian Alliance spokesman Dr. Sean Gabb and Libertarian Alliance Director Dr. Chris R. Tame, say:

“This bill formally applies the EU wide arrest warrant proposals to the UK. What it means, simply and crudely, is that British citizens can be carted off to other European countries on the say so of a foreign judge without the slightest benefit of any legal due process in this country. Moreover, they could be arrested for an array of so-called offences that are not – and never should be – crimes in this country.

In addition to such vague nonsense as “environmental crime” and “computer related” crime the Bill explicitly
allows for the extradition of UK citizens for PC-thought-crimes of “racism and xenophobia”. It is clear that the EU, and this government, is using this phrase in an obscene attempt to smear critics of the EU as “racist” and any advocacy of the virtues of hard-won British liberties as “xenophobia”. Other “crimes” for which British citizens could be deported to Europe include advocating “holocaust denial”, selling Nazi memorabilia and advocating a wide range of unpopular (and sometimes silly, offensive or nasty) opinions – and, of course, plane-spotting. The legal system of Britain, whilst far from perfect, seems a paradise in comparison to the politically corrupt and ruthlessly illiberal Code Napoleon systems of Europe – where you are deemed guilty until proven innocent and can be incarcerated without trial for absurd periods of time.”

Drs. Gabb and Tame conclude:

“If the British government succeeds in passing this tyrannical and obscene legislation it is clear that the social contract has been abrogated in an unprecedented act of treason by our own government. Nothing less than mass civil disobedience and physical resistance by any means necessary is justified by this attempt to allow the abduction and incarceration of British citizens by foreign powers.”

What is it about some libertarians?

…that make many of them so damn credulous? As we have mentioned in many previous articles on Samizdata, just because a person is deeply distrustful about modern states (as we are here on this blog), that should not make us regularly fall prey to the sort of garbage being peddled as ‘fact’ by pretty much anyone with an anti-US/anti-UK axe to grind.

We constantly warn about the growing Panopticon surveillance state rapidly developing in Britain and marvel at how Americans tolerate the state not just ignoring their own precious constitution on a massive scale with its forfeiture laws and victim disarmament laws, plus its egregious ‘citizenship’ laws… yet just because we do not regard the US and British states as ‘the good guys’ that does not make us fall prey to apologists for mass murderers like Saddam Hussain and Slobodan Milosevic on the theory that as the states in which we live are demonstrably anti-liberty in so many ways, then if those states says terrible things about Hussain or Milosevic then those guys, and their apologists/revisionists, must therefore be okay. Q.E.D…

And so when I read the ‘those poor old Serbian cetnics may have been a bit naughty but they were not really so terrible compared to the Bosnians and Americans’ remarks over on Strike the root, I can only sympathize with the hapless Jews who have had to endure this sort of ‘big lie’ crap that transcends ‘mere fact’ for generations. If only people had just trusted Slobodan it would have worked out okay eh? Yeah, right. The notion that Milosevic seriously wanted to just break Bosnia Herzegovina into cantons ‘to ‘protect the Serbs’, after they had violently ethnically cleansed the parts of Croatia they had occupied, is hilarious.

Sorry guys, but the atrocities in Bosnia were not publicity stunts by the Bosnian government. The depopulated villages are proof enough of that, as were the eye witnesses to horror after horror. Most of the murder happened well and truly off-camera and away from the media spotlight in Sarajevo. To blame the Americans for how bad things got in Bosnia, whose foreign policy in the Balkans was largely incoherent for the first three years of the war, is rather like blaming America for how nasty things got in Poland for the Jews after 1942.

Why otherwise rational commentators buy into these ludicrous revisionist conspiracy theories and sundry ‘black helicopter’ shite, making common cause with mass murdering tyrants in countries whose names they can barely spell, is just one of the great marvels of our time.

Storm in a teacup or too many references to book pages

Last week when I posted my response to an objectivist’s objections to altruism, I knew that I was opening a can of worms. How did I know that? Because, like Brian, I am also put off by the vicious religiosity of so many Randian responses to any criticisms of their sacred texts (a few more mentions and this will be a runner-up for the most quoted phrases competition). Sacred texts may be important when it comes to discussing the underlying issues, but neither Brian nor me were doing that in our postings (see related articles below). Brian was objecting to two ‘behavioural problems’ often exhibited by the objectivists and I was responding to a general point about altruism. Therefore, Antoine, no amount of referencing to pages of the sacred texts is going to do justice to the issues raised.

I think it was perfectly legitimate for Brian to mention the fixed-sum economics in connection with the Randians. He acknowledges that they may not believe it explicitly and self-consciously any more than most other people do, but observes that ‘everything else they say is said as if they believe in fixed sum economics’. I see the fallacy sneaking in through a backdoor in their belief system – their views on altruism and its moral inferiority to selfishness.

Unearthing the ‘original’ definition of altruism that sent Rand and the objectivists spitting mad just confirms Brian’s point about ‘definition hopping’. I defined altruism as concern for other people, or unselfish or helpful actions. Randians may base theirs on Comte’s definition of altruism, which is very extreme, treating ‘devotion to other people’s interests as the ideal rule of morality’. It spells out an ethical system that goes directly against the fundamental trait of human nature – the survival instinct. (This is not to say that I do not consider ethical systems based on the conflict between our natural propensities and ethical requirements legitimate and I intend to deal with this in my sequel on Kant.) What I find unpalatable is the conclusion that altruism is immoral, disregarding a) other meanings of altruism and b) common sensical observations that selfless acts are beneficial both in themselves (make the altruist a better person) and in their consequences (the recipient of a selfless act is better off).

This brings me to my original point – perhaps Randians, in their advocacy of capitalism and the virtues of individualism and self-interest, feel that anything that undermines their ‘campaign’ must be purged. I join the campaign whole-heartedly and fervently. As Antoine points out, there still exist the sort of people who believe that profit is a dirty word, but I don’t see why, in trying to defeat them, I should leave them a monopoly on altruism, compassion and generosity.

So, Antoine and Perry, I am not denying the contribution objectivists have made to the discourse about freedom, individualism and ethics of entrepreneurship. I am merely reserving the right to disagree and object to dogmatism, inconsistency and irrational conclusions whatever direction they are coming from.

Corporate America in the dock

Is the American brand of capitalism sick? Socialists and other opponents of the free market order are bound to assume so following revelations that American communications giant WorldCom hid nearly $4.0 billion of costs, a fact which now threatens the firm with bankruptcy. The story comes hard on the heels of the demise of Enron, GlobalCrossing, Tyco, and accountancy firm Arthur Anderson.The situation is a mess.

First off, what has happened in nearly all the cases mentioned above is fraud, albeit fraud on a scale to make one’s eyes water. In a capitalist system run by fallible, gullible and weak human beings, such fraud is going to happen occasionally, human nature being what it is. The law must take its course and the malefactors in these cases must be punished severely, and seen to be punished severely. Already the chill winds of the market are exerting their effect. Investors increasingly demand a premium for holding U.S. stocks and especially those in the technology sector, which has been at the centre of these recent shenanigans. The shakeout will be brutal for some, while those of us with stock portfolios are bound to suffer as well.

Such sagas tend to follow a pattern: rampant gains in a market, followed by a sharp drop; gradual revelations of corporate wrong-doing; shock among the public over the scandal, and then calls for a new set of rules or new watchdog to prevent things going wrong again. Except that they do go wrong again and the cycle is repeated. Similar scandals have happened before and will recur. The system is not fail-safe, which is why ordinary investors must never assume that just because there are rules or watchdogs, they therefore don’t need to be careful about their investments.

More generally, opponents of the market who cite present-day cases as proof of capitalism’s weakness overlook a key point. Namely, fraud is not peculiar to capitalism or indeed business as a whole. Finance ministers perpetrate precisely the kind of accounting chicanery of which a number of these U.S. firms stand accused. Think, for example, about the financial fiddling in which European governments engaged prior to the launch of the euro. If politicians were subject to the same rules on accounting honesty as businessmen, a good number of our political masters would be behind bars.

Finally, as Rand Simberg pointed out, the bulk of these offences happened during the 1990s, when a certain Bill Clinton was President, or so I recall. Makes it kind of hard for the left to taint George W. Bush with this, though that won’t stop them trying.

Brian: Ranting against Rand

I don’t know what Brian Micklethwait has been reading lately, but I looked up some Brian’s claims:

1) fixed-quantity of wealth merchant:

Rand explicitly points out that an entrepreneur creates value. See Francisco D’Anconia speech about the morality of making money, (published by Ayn Rand Foundation as a pamphlet), also in Atlas Shrugged pp 387-391 Signet paperback edition especially the passage:

“If you ask me to name the proudest distinction of Americans, I would choose – because it contains all the others – the fact that they were the people who created the phrase ‘to make money’. No other language or nation had ever used these words before; men had always thought of wealth as a static quantity – to be seized, begged, inherited, shared, looted or obtained as a favour. Americans were the first to understand that wealth has to be created.The words ‘to make money’ hold the essence of human morality.”

Brian declares “My problem is that I so utterly despise Randian philosophy that I cannot make myself take it seriously. I am also put off by the vicious religiosity of so many Randian responses to any criticisms of their sacred texts.”

I don’t think the Randian objection to Brian is his “criticism of their sacred texts”: he doesn’t quote any!

Perhaps their criticism is that Brian probably hasn’t read the “sacred texts” for some twenty years or so.

2) “Altruism”: Brian complains that Randians get all uppity when a libertarian claims to act altruistically. To the extent that this is true, he is right to object to objectively bad manners

However, my recollection was that there was a distinction between Howard Roark (the take-it-or-leave-it architect in the Fountainhead) and Hank Rearden (the brilliant industrialist in Atlas Shrugged).

When D’Anconia questions Rearden about his motives for creating and putting Rearden Metal on the market see (pp 426-427). No one can read this passage and credibly conclude that Rand thinks entrepreneurs are wrong to think about the general benefit of their actions.

What Rand attacks as “altruism” is the ethical proposition that an action cannot be moral and self-serving at the same time. Rand claims that “altruism” was coined by Auguste Comte. This is confirmed by my French dictionary which also dates the word from 1830. In philosophy, “altruism is defined as the doctrine which considers the devotion to other people’s interests as the ideal rule of morality”. [My translation]

Note that “ideal” in philosophy is not the same as “utopian”: “precise” is a better approximation.

So Rand’s philosophical attack on “altruism” is based on the actual writngs of Auguste Comte, Immanuel Kant and others. (See “For the New Intellectual” p36 New American Library paperback ed.) She attacks among other applications of altruism, the claim that an action is moral if the intentions are good REGARDLESS of outcomes (Kant) [I cheated: I looked at C D Broad's "Five types of Ethical Theory" p116-139 (ch. on Kant)].

The most delightful description of an altruist comes in the form of Eugene Lawson who at one point claims with pride:

“I can honestly say that I have never made a profit in my life!”

What Rand worshippers do is take the criticism of a system of thought which claims that only selfless actions can be moral, and apply it to every instance of individuals choosing to show compassion, or material generosity, for others.

However, Brian doesn’t frequent the sort of people who actually believe that because a company made a profit, its owners committed a crime against humanity. There is a type of socialist who wishes to replace the word “banker!” as an insult for another word which rhymes with it.

When Rand wrote, these views were more widely held than they are today. Many of those of us who campaigned against such evil nonsense gained the moral confidence to do so from Rand.

So there.

Samizdata slogan of the day

It is a fair summary of history to say that the safeguards of liberty have frequently been forged in cases involving not very nice people.
-Felix Frankfurter

Evil connivance between the Bolsheviks and Jewish bankers…

Ah, no… sorry, wrong century. Cast your mind back to the 20th Century: many times we heard Nazi propaganda describing how Jewish bankers (who being bankers were presumably capitalists unlikely to prosper under communism) and Bolsheviks (who, being Bolsheviks, were presumably communists unlikely to be well disposed towards bankers) were nefariously working together against the interests of the German Volk.

Well, according to the utterly enthralling and dependably surreal Justin Raymondo, those rascally Jews are at it again in the 21st Century, this time allying themselves with radical Islam for reasons which rather elude me, against the interests of the United States… i.e. the people who sell Israel a large chunk of the weapons they use to do various things Justin disapproves of (like survive).

Go figure.

Libertarian for war… well kinda

At last, someone who understand the full range of libertarian thought on war… well, kinda

US Conservatives for kidnapping

Although I am not an uncritical fan of Lew Rockwell‘s flavour of libertarianism, he has written an excellent article about that most inconsistent of the many conservative intellectual inconsistencies… conscription.

His article about acceptable face of state slavery is on the Lew Rockwell.com site.

It is interesting that some of the same people who claim the United States is the ‘freest country in the world’ seem to have no problem with supporting so many American ways of denying the very concept of self-ownership and replacing it with state ‘social’ ownership rather than ‘several’ property… and even extending to a person’s actual body.

Ought ain’t must

A person who derives quasi-sexual gratification from inflicting enormous pain upon helpless female victims has evil intentions, assuming we consider each human being to have certain natural rights. However, ‘natural rights’ are fiendishly difficult to derive from reason without swallowing unproven assumptions. John Locke had it simple: God made Adam, He gave Adam sovereignty over the world and all its contents. He said that Man shouldn’t kill another man. End of story. If He exists and if belief in His Judeo-Christian form were universal, we could literally announce that the sociopath pervert was evil because God said so. We could also say that property rights exist as a natural right because ‘Vox Dei’.

I regret that this sort of argument is not sustainable for all humans at this time. To announce that the depraved person is irrational, is both practically pointless (he wouldn’t care) and not based on reason at all. The only basis for condemning a criminal other than natural rights is utility – which is close to arguing for a ‘public good’. As I reject the notion of public goods, I can hardly claim that a public good justifies condemnation of someone’s gratification of their admittedly unpleasant (to me) hobby. After all if twelve monsters agree to inflict pain on one victim in secret (so the rest of the public is unaware of the act), it can’t be condemned by utilitarian principles: at some point the aggregate pleasure outweighs the aggregate pain.

It’s no good recoiling in horror at the activities of sadistic monsters (an emotional response), striking out at them, and then trying to justify the action by reason, when the rationale is unsubstantiated. I happen to think that Rand’s account of the identification of objective morality is as good as it gets from a libertarian natural rights point of view. N.B. Brian, who despises Randians, tries to derive morality from utilitarian principles. What he comes up with is decency, not rules for discovering ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. Without a theory of natural rights I think libertarians are kidding themselves on the subject of ‘crime’, ‘deviancy’ and ‘justice’.

What a pity Mahathir Mohamad is going to retire

Reports that Malaysian leader Mahathir Mohamad is going to resign next year might seem like good news, given that the man remained in power by corrupting the judiciary, stuffing ballot boxes and even assassination when required. But the fact he will not leave office hanging from a lamp post or with his back against a wall next to his kleptocratic cronies is a measure of his success in tyrannising the subjects over which he still rules. He will just be allowed to step down in his own time leaving the jails filled with his political opponents.

One can only hope that his successor, who will no doubt be the finest successor money can buy, will be pressured into acknowledging the true the ‘Mahathir Legacy’ in a suitable manner in order to preserve his own skin from Mahathir’s Malaysian victims. The fact such people as the unbane Mahathir, the feral Mugabe and their ilk are treated as honoured guests at Commonwealth function in Britain, wined and dinned at the expense of the hapless British taxpayer is bad enough but to see him actually get away with it and ‘live happily ever after’ would be intolerable.