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.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Samizdata quote of the day

In a land where Mormons, Muslims, and masochists walk side by side, and none is specially positioned to certify the correct concept of value, the role of government is not to pick a philosophy and shove it down our throats. It is to provide a reasonably neutral framework that allows each of us to pursue our ends peacefully in the light of our own convictions about the good. There’s a reason liberal democracies get top marks in happiness

– The always highly readable Will Wilkinson, of the CATO thinktank and blogger, dissecting UK economist Richard Layard’s argument in favour of more state intervention and higher taxes to make us all happier (yes, really).

A quick arts roundup

Very nice writeup here of a vast retrospective of the paintings of the Frenchman Ingres, who worked around the time of Napoleon Bonaparte. Even as I put aside my distaste for Bonaparte, I cannot but admire the man who painted so much of life in Napoleon’s era so cleverly. A good excuse to take that long weekend to Paris and check out some art (not that I usually need many excuses). And meanwhile it is the 400th anniversary of the birth of Rembrandt. A nice appreciation here by Robert Hughes.

Oh, and I can seriously recommend this to China art fans.

The case of the recycled tripe

This is a fascinating mystery story. As someone who loves books and has worked in publishing, I have long been perplexed by the massive sales of leaden conspiracy ‘thrillers’ (as I have to write it, being really very ungripped) and of pseudo-histories.

These are strange alien artefacts in the literary world. They appear to be books, having the same physical manifestation. Yet the words in them have no rhythm, and make no sense, the world they portray is all surface, all banality: all invented, but paradoxically without imagination.

The familiar book, grounded in fact or rich in fiction, sells (mostly slowly) to an audience that comes back for more books. These… I need another wordname… reads are bought in vast numbers by people who do not otherwise read. You see them swarming on the tube, at bus-stops, in advertisements as book-club special offers, everywhere. And then they are gone. Where?

Few have the life-span of a book, it seems. But where do they go to die? They are seldom seen in second-hand shops. And why are they so successful when they are plainly so inbred?

The genus is so narrow that there’s always been some doubt in my mind whether it is two species or one. Now a strange court-case may inform us on that matter (if not why the infernal things are so popular). It appears that two of the authors of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, a “non-fiction” work of non-history, are suing in the High Court the writer of a fictional read called The Da Vinci Code for copyright infringement.

If the author of a history book were to sue an historical novelist, then we would expect it to be on the ground that passages of text were quoted without permission. For use of expression, not content. There is no copyright in facts.

But weirdly that’s not what is going on here. Jonathan Rayner-James QC for the plaintiffs said:

HBHG is a book of historical conjecture setting out the authors’ hypothesis. The authors’ historical conjecture has spawned many other books that developed aspects of this conjecture in a variety of directions. But none has lifted the central theme of the book

Which is what Dan Brown is accused of.

What could make “historical conjecture” original work capable of copyright protection? Only that it bears no relation to history, it seems to me. Can it really be the plaintiffs’ case that the novel is not novel enough, because their read – sold all over the world labeled ‘non-fiction’ – is in fact a fantasy?

If that is their case, and that case prevails prevails, then I am interested to know what the publishers of HBHG, HarperCollins who also published The Da Vinci Code and are joint defendants, might do. Did their contract with the plaintiffs contain that standard apotropaic against libel, a warranty from the author that “all statements purporting to be facts are true”? The consequence for the pseudo-historical read as a genre could be interesting.

Extinction of the species would be too much to hope for, I suppose. But for once a thriller has me gripped.

Samizdata quote of the day

This is a country in which dogs can get a hip replacement in under a week and in which humans can wait two to three years.

– Dr Brian Day, of Vancouver, explaining what happens if you make private health care illegal, but leave private veterinary clinics alone. (It’s a shame about the picture of Dr Day and Fidel Castro though).

The ‘Abolition of Parliament Bill’

I have not seen anything written here on what is being called the Abolition of Parliament Bill – the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill that was going through Parliament last week (whilst ‘Dave’ Cameron was off on paternity leave).

I have heard it finally finishes off the delegated legislation process (the process by which ministers and civil servants pass regulations with power given them under enabling Acts of Parliament) – a process that A.V. Dicey observed before the First World War and Chief Justice Hewitt was the last major establishment figure to oppose (“The New Despotism” 1929). It has taken a very long time to finish the process, but it seems Mr Blair will complete it.

Of course in a modern big government Welfare State having every regulation examined by Parliament is not possible (one extra reason to oppose a modern big government Welfare State).

Still a Statute that allows ministers to alter any regulation (apart from in the field of tax) without coming back to Parliament, and set up to two years in prison as a punishment for failing to obey their arbitrary regulations – well it does seem to a bit much even for Britain.

Have I just dreamed it all then?

Also nothing on our dear friends the Local Government Standards Board – people have noticed them now they have suspended Red Ken from his position as Mayor of London for a month (for nasty things he said to a Jewish journalist).

However, the Board has been doing this sort of thing (and far worse) for years. For example, if a councillor writes to try and expose the “wind farm” con (it is a con because it does not greatly reduce CO2 production – as the wind turbines do not produce much power and have to be “backed up” by coal and gas fired stations which run all the time as a safeguard) they might not (if the Board feels like it) be allowed to speak (or vote) against “wind farms” in council debates.

Ditto saying that Council ‘Chief Executives’ are paid too much or are useless (‘Chief Executives’ are the highly paid useless trash who have replaced what used to be called Town Clerks) – if a councillor says that he is in big trouble.

There is no automatic right for an elected councillor to oppose government policy (or ‘best practice’) in modern Britain and has not been since Mr Blair set up the Board. If the Board will let you speak and vote fine – but they may choose not to.

I am not a fanatical supporter of democracy, but I thought that many people were supposed to be. I have heard very little about what is going on in Britain – most people seem either to not know or not care

Big

This is a poster I saw the other day, outside St James the Less, which is a church very near to where I live. And no, I am afraid I do not know what “the Less” means, although perhaps a commenter will.

What I found bizarre was how they describe God. They do not come over as monotheists. They make it seem like there are lots of gods (with a small g) to choose between, and they chose a big one. Or maybe they have a big god of their own stashed away somewhere.

StJamestheLessS.jpg

Interested? Here is the website. Although “equipping through ministry for mission” does not sound like much of a slogan to me.

The Irish ‘bogosphere’ covers the ‘festivities’ in Dublin

Slugger O’Toole has a picture and a round up of links of what the ‘bogosphere’ is saying if you are interesting in what happened in Dublin.

Another change of mood

The Guardian’s Jenni Russell points out that the attitude of British officialdom is changing subtly.

I find this change truly frightening because I spent the first few years of my life in apartheid South Africa. My parents were political activists, and we lived in an atmosphere of fear. My mother’s relations distanced themselves from her, fearing that they too would be targeted if they associated with us. My earliest memories are of police raiding the house at night, emptying out dolls’ cots and sweeping books off shelves. People would simply disappear. A black friend left our house to travel to his family in Zululand, and vanished.

After a month of inquiries, someone found a witness who had seen him being picked up by the police. He was being held without charge under the 90-days legislation – the same policy that the government is trying to introduce here. The relief when we came to England was incalculable. This country, these policemen and this government were benign, reasonable and trustworthy. As my father never ceased to point out, a Britain that had fought fascism had a deep-rooted commitment to protecting the individual from the state.

That is no longer true. ID cards are one danger, but there are other measures which are already a reality. [...]

I fear that many of us are failing to see the danger we are now in, precisely because we have grown up in a largely benign state. We still trust in the good sense and reasonableness of its agents, and the rest of officialdom.

However, I think she is wrong about the cause:

This change in the relationship between people and officials can only be explained as a result of the new illiberal atmosphere in which we are living.

That’s back to front. An illiberal attitude is insufficient for oppression or we would be living under the dictatorship of the Free Church of Scotland. It is actually about power. Unchecked power will be abused. Not may, will.

You cannot change the culture of the law – Blair minor – without affecting the culture of the land. British police were once famous for courtesy. But then as little as twenty years ago they had few powers not available to the ordinary citizen. They relied on voluntary cooperation for much of their authority, and the reasonable exercise of that authority yielded general cooperation.

Before the merger of the agencies, the Inland Revenue was proverbially gentlemanly and reasonable compared to HM Customs and Excise, though the taxation functions were very similar. The difference in culture wasn’t accidental. Customs had vastly greater powers and found it easier to rely on fear to do the job.

ASBO-land is a different place from England. And this is why: as they gain more capacity to order us about, those in office will order us about more. What else?

The PM implies he wishes us to ‘respect’ one another and social norms. He claims he has given powers to officials to make it so. But respec’ on the streets will mean something else. It will mean respec’ (in the sense of fawning obedience) towards the same officials who have the powers to make it so. And as we have ever fewer rights – perhaps not even existence – without their say-so, truculence, swagger and oppression by officials will become the norm.

Pommygranate lays it out succinctly

This pretty much explains the political situation in a nutshell. Serial commenter Pommygranate is writing about Britain but the same could probably be said about almost any western country to varying degrees: the state simply bribes people to vote for a bigger state by making them dependents.

His solution is an interesting notion.

But turkeys will still not vote for Xmas. Some on the right of the blogosphere are calling for voting restrictions for those who depend on the state for a living. Draconian indeed, but it may be the only way round this particular Catch 22.

Things would have to get very bad for that to be politically possible but is is a good idea. I quite like the idea “you can either work for the state and live of other people’s money or you can vote, but not both”. Not a chance that would happen any time soon but it is a damn fine idea nevertheless. In truth I suspect many people would be happy to make that choice as voting is hardly some blessed sacrament. If so many people do not really care about liberty, are they really so attached to voting? I wonder.

The Apprentice

I watched a bit of The Apprentice on the BBC last night, the show featuring UK tycoon Sir Alan Sugar, who among other things owns a large stake in Tottenham Hotspur FC. The programme, like the American version, is engrossing and it nicely builds up the tension as Sugar confronts his teams of wanna-be businessfolk with their performance and fires one of them.

I have mixed views overall about the show. As pure entertainment, it succeeds in drawing the viewer in, although I am not sure in fact how well it really explains the qualities needed to be a good entrepreneur. The message seems to be that business is a dog-eat-dog, zero-sum game in which if some people win, others must lose. Which is wrong since everyone benefits from trade, otherwise why else trade in the first place? If a person who is smarter than me gets a job I covet, then the overall economic pie gets bigger than it otherwise would, so we all benefit, even though I might feel disappointed.

The Apprentice also seems to celebrate aggression to a considerable degree, and yet businessmen and women in my experience come a cropper if they stop listening to what their customers want and refuse to learn from experience. A degree of humility is actually smart. A quality I do not see much of in the show is that of sheer courage in taking business risks, something that is not sufficiently appreciated except by writers such as George Gilder.

I wonder whether Sugar (what an ill-suited surname he has!) is really a great advocate of business, at least as far as this show goes. Yes, I can admire how he rose from nothing in London’s East End to become one of Britain’s richest men (he has a net personal worth of 800 million pounds, according to the TV commenter), but he comes across as a bit of a braggart, the sort of bore one might encounter in a pub bragging to his mates about how ‘ard he is and how ruthless he can be. Yawn. I suspect that many of the greatest businessmen, while undoubtedly workaholics, ruthless and driven people, have to be able to rub along with other people. Maybe in Britain’s anti-business culture someone like Sugar stands out and he feels the need to put himself about.

Or perhaps Sugar is just hamming it up for the cameras and is a delightful fellow. You can never tell with these sort of ‘Reality TV’ shows. I would certainly watch some of the other shows in the series.

Saving St Brigids

A friend of mine in Manhattan has joined an effort to save St Brigid’s Church in the Lower East side and I find myself sufficiently drawn to the cause to support them in print.


Photo: Copyright Dale Amon, all rights reserved.

St Brigids was built on the old waterfront of New York at the time of the Irish famine. It was perhaps the first stop for those who escaped the horror which starved one and a half million of their fellow citizens to death in Ireland and then survived the unspeakable conditions of the Atlantic crossing. The trip alone killed perhaps one of every five who attempted it. As one British Captain put it at the time, the difference between carrying slaves and Irish to the new world was that you did not get paid for a slave unless you delivered him alive.

The church was built in a time when the majority religion in Ireland was outlawed; those landing on New York’s quays built their own place of worship on the shore to celebrate the freedom of religion they found in their new home. The ceiling was built by boatbuilders and carried some of the characteristics of that trade. You can read more about the history here.

The Catholic Diocese of New York has decided to tear it down and has thus far turned a deaf ear to the sometimes strident cries from parishioners. I agree the Diocese is legally the owner and does have the legal right to do with the property as they choose. I do not agree they are doing the right thing. Quite the contrary, I feel they are going down a path that runs counter to the long term interests of their religion, their members, the community the church has served for over a century and a half; and those who wish to see a bit of the historical roots of their own families kept alive.

This is not a problem unique to this small parish; due to costly recent legal problems the Catholic church in America has been destroying small congregations in the same way a national store would cut costs and sell assets to raise capital in hard times: by chopping off all marginal operations. The problem is, a church is not a business, or at least that is not why it exists. A small congregation is not a cost center; it is the very reason the religion exists. If religion is to have any meaning at all in the 21st Century it has to be as the last bastion of community. We used to have small community schools in America. The State destroyed education and communities to gain ‘economies of scale’ and to ‘pay teachers more’. I would hate to see Big Religion join Big Government as yet another destructive force in our society.

If you find this argument compelling; if you want to save a bit of 19th century American architecture or have strong feelings about the immigrant history of the Irish, Italians and Hispanics, contact these people and see what you can do to help.

It is a given in libertarian circles that property rights are an absolute right. You will find no one at Samizdata who will stray from that view. This does not mean libertarians like myself turn a blind eye to what their neighbors do or what happens in the community around them. The actions of others can affect my quality of life, and I feel it my duty to use strong but peaceful persuasion when I feel someone is harming others. Many find it confusing that libertarians will at the same time defend someone’s right to do something while saying they are a bloody immoral fool if they actually do it.

I have recently come across two cases which have impacts in areas which I care about. I have dealt with one of them above; the other is a far more complex issue of regulatory distortions which may soon cause disastrous and irreversible secondary harm and are perhaps only answerable in the time available by a devil’s deal. I have yet to figure that one out, so I decided, for the moment, to stick with this far simpler and clearer issue of property rights in an unfree world.

Disenchanted with Dubya on pretty much everything

It has been said that the best political arrangement when it comes to protecting liberty and constraining the size of government is when no party controls all branches of government. Gridlock is liberty-friendly, on this view. Well, the idea that it is bad for a single party to run the entire shebang does seem to be borne out by the skyrocketing spending going on in the United States under George W. Bush. Bruce Bartlett, a Reaganite Republican of long standing, has written a blistering indictment of Bush’s record on spending.

Bush ran back in 2000 (it already seems a long time ago) as a “compassionate conservative”, and only the most gullible must have ignored the fact that this was codespeak for spending lots of other people’s money. I fear very much that we could get the same outcome if David Cameron ever leads the Tories back to power by promising the same menu as his Labour opponent.

I get the impression – and that is all that it is – that some conservative writers are getting a bit fed up with Bush, and I am not just talking about the cack-handed post-invasion phase in Iraq. On a whole list of bedrock issues for conservatives, such as federalism, free markets, respect for liberty and privacy, this administration has fallen way short. It has not even delivered on Social Security reform in any meaningful way, and the tax code is as hideously complex and full of distortions as ever.