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

Insight

Given that the papers are full of the most appalling socialist commentators sharpening their knives to butcher Britain’s remaining economic freedoms, when ‘right-wing’ (in their terms, God help us) Tony Blair leaves office, it is nice to be able to point out a ray of sunshine.

I like Nick Cohen. He is often wrong, but he does have the sense to follow his own mind rather than retailing the received wisdom . And he is intellectually honest and self-aware, which is more than can be said for most commentators on the left. This is an impressive example:

Too many on the liberal-left, including me, don’t feel in our bones that it is as wrong for the state to take billions of pounds from taxpayers and waste them on, say, the fatally overambitious National Health Service IT project as it is for the owners of Farepak to take the Christmas savings of thousands of poor families and throw them away.

Leave aside for the moment that no one was compelled to take the appalling bargain offered by Farepak in the first place, and that no one, including the same poor families, has an option about the taxes going to the mad NPfIT or the destruction of their privacy that it entails. Leave aside that, even if one counts as robbery in the same way as the other, the NPfIT is more than 120 times as bad. (Though one couldn’t pass that topic without noting Gordon Brown took out of the nation’s pension funds in one early budget, what it would have taken 300 Robert Maxwells to steal.)

Cohen has recognised (1) that there is something not quite right about the disproportionate outrage lavished by the left on the Farepak disaster, when government spending takes money from people who need it and gives them nothing; and (2) that some other people do not share the reflex. He offers the insight as a matter of electoral strategy for Labour, so insight (1) may be a bit weak. But it looks to me like progress. Cohen can not quite see what is wrong with his viewpoint clearly enough to shift his ingrained value-judgements, but he can see that it might be wrong.

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13 comments to Insight

  • Paul from Florida

    Milton Friedman said,

    “There are four ways in which you can spend money. You can spend your own money on yourself. When you do that, why then you really watch out what you’re doing, and you try to get the most for your money. Then you can spend your own money on somebody else. For example, I buy a birthday present for someone. Well, then I’m not so careful about the content of the present, but I’m very careful about the cost. Then, I can spend somebody else’s money on myself. And if I spend somebody else’s money on myself, then I’m sure going to have a good lunch! Finally, I can spend somebody else’s money on somebody else. And if I spend somebody else’s money on somebody else, I’m not concerned about how much it is, and I’m not concerned about what I get. And that’s government. And that’s close to 40% of our national income.”
    Fox News interview (May 2004)

  • Freeman

    How dare you criticise the brilliant Gordon Brown just for destroying our pension funds. He can do much more than that.

    Why, only a couple of years ago he sold off half our gold reserves during a market low. And in November he sold off the nuclear power design capability of Westinghouse — a month before the company gained a massive $60 million contract with China for 32 nuclear power generators.

    Now he has just refused Home Office funding for the 15 new prisons that are forecast to be required within the next 5 years.

    What a financial genius!

  • Millie Woods

    How true the Milton Friedman quote is.
    It always amused me that my colleagues in the academic milieu who were the most anal retentive with their own money were also the most profligate with OPM – other people’s money.

  • guy herbert

    Freeman,

    You’re confused. The pension funds plundered (strictly, having a tax-break removed in effect retrospectively since the funds were locked-in) belonged quite clearly to others, to talk about state assets as belonging to “us” is a category mistake, I suggest. Property is only property if you can dispose it yourself, or enjoy some definable share of the benefits. Those might be poor decisions, but they don’t touch on any benefit to you or me.

    As far as denying the Home Office funding goes, that seems like a good idea to me, in principle and in the particular case. There aren’t too few prisons; there are too many prisoners. That’s partly because there are too many punishable offences, and partly because the existing prisons reproduce criminal behaviour and culture, rather than reducing it.

  • Freeman

    GH:

    To have a long-standing tax break removed from pension funds has the same financial effect as a tax increase, however one cares to categorise it.

    I agree your comments on the effects of prisons, but I don’t see any government proposals for alternative expenditure on rehabilitation of criminals, or for fewer (non-victim) criminal laws. The likely result will be more contempt for the law and more crime.

  • guy herbert

    Of course. I’m afraid the point has been reached where the law is in the greater part contemptible.

    Do you concede that state assets don’t in any meaningful sense belong to the people?

  • If Gordon Brown were a finacial genius he would be collecting aGoldman-Sachs bonus instead of be Mr Pecksniff in a second rank nation off a dying continent.

  • Making mistakes – and learning from them – are a key part of improving anything. It needs to be made easy to communicate mistakes and possible improvements.

    I think Cohen unknowingly puts his finger on the main problem with the political management of any system i.e. very poor feedback.

    The major impediment to quality feedback in a modern democracy is the bundling of the feedback for hundreds, if not thousands, of government decisions into one single vote. For the American Federal government, I am represented by 1 member of the House, 2 Senators and 1 President. All the feedback I provide for all federal decisions from war to daycare is mixed together into one vote for each office. As a result, politicians have a devilish time trying to figure out which programs are working and which are not.

    By contrast, I provide the private sector with very fine grained feedback every time I purchase an individual product or service. I seldom have to bundle my feedback together. I can tell the market not only whether I prefer widgets to gizmos but which specific widget design I like best. Nothing in government reaches that fine degree of feedback.

    In the real world, all real information comes from experimentation and incremental change. Leftist do not intuitive grasp this truth so they dramatically underestimate the need for fine grained feedback. As a result, organizations designed by Leftist become sluggish bloated and stupid.

  • Whoops, I just realized that the quote in my previous post actually came from one of his posters with the handle of northcroft. Not sure how I made that mistake.

    My point is still valid but Cohen didn’t make the observation that inspired it.

  • Freeman

    Do you concede that state assets don’t in any meaningful sense belong to the people?

    As a general rule, no. However, one needs to distinguish between control and ownership.

    During its period of office, government officials have effective control of state assets and can regulate the access and use which “the people” may enjoy, and the officials may acquire and dispose of such assets. Nevertheless, in the long term, the people own state assets and can ultimately demand by their vote the use or disposal of those assets. If/when the people are unable to exercise such authoity they live in a totalitarian state.

    In practice, even in the best of democracies, governments are unlikely to get voted in/out on the single issue of a minor asset because of the multidimensional factors of voting mentioned by Shannon Love — unless one invokes a referendum.

  • Paul Marks

    A good posting, pointing out some interesting things.

    It shows an advantage of your approach – carefully reading the leftists (for want of better word), over mine (reading them only if I have to for some specific purpose).

  • Gabriel

    Once upon a time there was a lefty named Nick Cohen. Sometime arround the build up to the Iraq war Nick started to realise there was a difference between him and his comrades. He couldn’t, at first, see what it was, but slowly, slowly it dawned on him: he was a decent human being and they were defective scum. For a few years he consoled himself with the thought that he, David Aaronivitch and this guy he met on the train once represented the “real left” wheras every other self-declared leftist was, on point of fact, a closet Tory.
    Poor Nick struggled and struggled to maintain this beautiful fiction for years, but cracks began to show. “Is it right to steal people’s money at waste it in vast quantities?” he began to ask. “Perhaps not,” said the inistent voice in the back of his mind.

    Leading the libertarian hordes in a victorious march on Westiminster, Nick thought “dayum, it seems so obvious now!”.

    Verily a fable for our times.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Cohen is a good writer and his admission that as a leftie, he feels less upset about the NHS monstrosity than Farepak does him a modest amount of credit. One wonders if Cohen keeps thinking such thoughts, that eventual wisdom will break through, as it did for other former leftists like Paul Johnson, the late Bernard Levin, and others. Just to plant the seed of doubt in such minds is an achievement in itself.

    This gets me thinking about how blogs like this one can play a part. As Perry has done with his “meta-context” idea, just getting some of the message into leftists’ and right-wing collectivists’ heads is a start. It is not intellectual victory, but victories in the battle of ideas are rarely won decisively, as in the Battle of Waterloo. It is a messier, more drawn-out process.

    Cohen, like other maverick lefties such as Christopher Hitchens or some of the Spiked crowd, are on the whole, part of the whole post-Englightenment liberal tradition that we need to embrace and encourage.