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]

James Taranto loses his marbles

Every day – and I can’t remember when or why it started but it did – I get emails featuring James Taranto’s “Best of the Web” writings for the Wall Street Journal. Often I agree, insofar as I know enough to agree. But yesterday’s email was extremely odd. In it, Taranto quotes a certain Simon Moloy, writing at something called MediaMatters, who earlier in the week had accused Taranto of having said something racist, in this. Maloy wrote thus:

The implication of Taranto’s theory is that African-Americans aren’t sophisticated or observant or intelligent enough to know real racism when they see it, and are thus continuously duped en masse into voting for Democrats. It couldn’t be the case that black voters actually care about issues and have real reasons for voting Democratic, they’re just puppets who are motivated by racial sentiments that Democrats prey upon.

Now I don’t know how reasonable this complaint against Taranto is, which Taranto himself quotes in his reply, the one in yesterday’s email. To know about that, I would have to know a lot more about the USA than, having never even been there, I know now. But this I do know. Maloy was not himself saying that black voters are “just puppets”. When Maloy used this phrase, he was saying, rightly or wrongly, that that was what Taranto said. Any observer of this spat, with only Taranto’s reply to this critic to hand, can see that, because Taranto himself included the above quote. Taranto then accuses Maloy of believing this sock puppet thing himself. And Taranto calls him a racist. Says Taranto:

MediaMutters’ suggestion that black voters are “just puppets” is racist and repugnant.

It would be, if the suggestion had actually been suggested. But clearly, it was not.

I can think of nothing polite to say to defend Taranto on this, other than perhaps that the balance of his mind was disturbed by being called a racist himself. He seems to be combining illogicality (a clear misreading of something he actually quotes) and tactical stupidity (supplying all the evidence of his obvious misreading to even the most casual of readers) to a truly amazing degree. What was he thinking?

Don’t misunderstand me. I hate what the current clutch of Democrat politicians appear, from this side of the Atlantic, to be doing to the USA and its economy, and I hate what else they seem to want to do to the USA even more. I too wish that black people in the USA were more reluctant to support such disastrously statist policies, which I think will harm them along with everyone else except the posh people in charge of them. I rejoice when I hear that black people are participating in Tea Parties and arguing that the scope of the US Federal Government should be reduced.

But because of that I want to see arguments against the statist tendency that carry some weight. This latest counter-argument of Taranto’s, if you can call it that, can only expose Taranto to ridicule and contempt. Indeed, I presume that it already has. Were I a Democrat, I would trumpet Taranto’s foolishness as loudly as I could. No wonder Democrats like to call their opponents racists, if this is the kind of thing they can get them to say in reply.

I’m also not impressed that Instapundit (whom I admire greatly) recycles Taranto’s accusation for all the world as if it made perfect sense. I guess that’s the price you pay for Instapundit managing to link to so much, so often. Every so often he gets things wrong too.

Nick Clegg’s nasty remark about AGW skeptics

The leader of the Liberal Democrats, who has surged up the popularity charts in recent days after his supposedly slick performance in the recent TV political debates opposite David Cameron and Gordon Brown, made a remark – which I caught on the TV summaries this morning – that proves that behind all the supposedly “nice”, decent image he wants to present, that he is a man incapable of handling serious disagreement with the conventional wisdom. In his attack on Cameron’s decision to ally Tory MEPs with a certain grouping of right-of-centre European political parties, Clegg damned this grouping for being full of anti-semites and, wait for it, “climate change deniers”. So, let me get this right, as far as Clegg is concerned, someone who is unconvinced, or at least not fully convinced, of the AGW theory, is on a par with someone who hates Jews and wishes them ill. Riiiight.

There are two notable things about Clegg’s remark: that he made it and thought this would play with the audience, and that Cameron, trying still to be so much the “I am above all this grubby stuff” schtick, did not kneecap this insufferable toad for so doing. But then again, as David Cameron has bought into the AGW theory wholesale, he did not have it within him to call out Clegg for such a remark.

As has been noted already, this is a prime example of when political parties embrace the same, suffocating meta-context (as Samizdata’s own editorial El Supremo, Perry, would put it). It means that interesting, even deadly, debating points don’t enter the heads of those who could profit from actually using them. And yet I am sure that many Britons, who are not totally convinced of AGW, would have applauded Cameron had he had the sense to hammer Clegg for his oafish remark.

Samizdata quote of the day

“The trouble is that what the markets demand – a credible plan for getting debt back to sustainable levels – is the opposite of what the voters want to hear. Perhaps regrettably, when markets and politics collide, it is always the markets that end up winning. Today’s fantasy world of still-growing public expenditure can last only as long as markets are willing to lend on reasonable terms. Governments are perfectly happy to rely on bond markets to support their grandiose social ambitions when times are good, but when the going gets tough, they become a growing source of frustration and complaint. George Brown memorably blamed the gnomes of Zurich for the sterling crisis of 1964, never mind that it might have been solidly grounded in economic fundamentals. President Clinton’s campaign manager, James Carville, became so angry about the pressures for deficit reduction that he snapped that if there were such a thing as reincarnation, he would want to come back as the bond market, because it was more important than the Pope.”

Jeremy Warner.

He seems to be taking the line that ultimately, “we get the governments we deserve”. Well maybe, maybe not. The problem with this sort of argument is it begs the question of what “we” is being discussed. It is a disheartening experience to watch as so many of my fellows seem willing to vote for a bunch of statist buffoons. I feel no sense of kinship, no sense of “duty”, to a country inhabited by those who seem to have given up on basic facts of reality. And so I repeat the point I made a few weeks ago here: for a genuine patriot, an obvious option is to get out of this country. My plan B is still very much on the cards.

Stunning development: Cameron and Brown are right!

“A hung parliament risks economic disaster” says Dave Cameron… and El Gordo agrees.

Well count me as in agreement too! A hung parliament does indeed risk economic disaster.

If I was a betting man I would say “80% risk of economic disaster if we get a hung parliament and a 20% chance that political paralysis prevent further ‘helpful’ government action and thereby allows the battered economy some respite, enabling at least a partial recovery… as opposed to a 100% certainty of economic disaster if Labour or LibDems or Tories get a working majority”.

So there you have it: Tory Party, Labour Party and Samizdata in agreement. I fully expect water to start running up hill next.

A seeming contradiction

Over at the Stumbling and Mumbling blog, the author asks this question, after watching an interesting TV programme about the sort of free market activities he sees going on in bits of Africa:

“Why is it that the societies that come closest to the libertarian ideal are poor ones, rather than rich? (It would, I think, be a stretch to argue that libertarianism causes poverty in this case). What is it about wealthier societies that brings with them bigger government?”

I think this can be fairly easily explained: as countries get richer, their voters think – naively – they can afford to have big government, at least until they start to hit those sort of problems that we have encountered in the West in recent decades with government overload. In the US, for example, the country became so rich, relatively, after the Second World War that things like the Great Society reforms, or the Space Program, were easier to contemplate and the risks and costs could be shrugged off, at least for a while. I guess what happens is that after a burst of wealth creation – as in the UK’s Industrial Revolution – part of the population that has made a lot of money wants to ease up, or wants to turn to the easier, and possibly more exciting, realm of politics.

I sometimes notice that some of the noisiest anti-libertarians, such as many academics in the universities, live in the US, the world’s richest nation, and I think the two things are in fact connected. If you have an incredibly wealthy country, it spawns a lot of folk who have the inherited wealth, the time, and the inclination, to make a living outside the immediate commercial system, and hence, will argue for something different. You can see this in certain family businesses: the Alpha Male type sets it up and makes a shedload of money; the son is sent to a posh school and starts to want to be part of the Establishment and is teased by his schoolfriends for being in “trade”. The next son may end up in the professions, and as such, will tend to be drawn towards the State, or at least take a more benign view of state power than granddad. And I think this is partly what happened in the UK in the second half of the 19th Century and into most of the 20th Century. Part of the “business class” that might be expected to form the backbone of a free market order got housetrained by a remarkably conservative, ruralist, anti-commerce establishment. (This book makes such a case, for example).

There is also the issue of “correlation is not causation”. Just because big government can sometimes be seen in wealthy societies in no way proves that the former helps bring about the latter, or vice versa. Stumbling and Mumbling implies that libertarianism, being what it thinks might be a simple-minded creed, cannot work in a sophisticated, wealthy society. In fact, I’d argue quite the reverse: the more complex a society is with a complex division of labour and profusion of individual tastes and demands, the less effectively big government tends to work. In fact, there are plenty of examples of rich societies with a relatively small government – perhaps Hong Kong being one of the best examples.

The CATO Institute’s annual index of freedom report also suggests a pretty close relationship between countries that are rich and where the government focuses on the core, minarchist roles of protecting life and property, enforcing contracts, preventing fraud, etc. That does rather undermine the point made in the comment I link to.

It is, of course, excellent news if it is true that parts of Africa are heading down the pro-market route. But using such examples to make a bit of a dig against the wider application of classical liberal ideas is unfounded.

How we got to our present pass

“I think that one of the narrative themes of the progressive era that spawned our modern state is the deliberate smashing of the poor and, in particular, of the “petty capitalism” that sustained them. One of the things I get from reading through the hugely influential London Labour And The London Poor by the reformist activist Henry Mayhew is a horror of the poor, as he describes the costermongers and hawkers and small underclass production businesses which sustained them. The poor had to be done away with and replaced with something more acceptable to higher class tastes and, by all kinds of social activism and regulation they were, to a large extent, done away with as, their petty capitalism squeezed out by the State, they were dragooned into a compliant workforce for factories run by bewhiskered, interfering philanthropists who voted for Victorian Nick Cleggs. And in the end, they all got their council flats and a better wage, and all they had to give in return was their spirit.”

IanB, who has happily resurfaced over at Counting Cats after a period away from the blogging gig.

I’d add my two cents to this article by arguing that although some people want things like council houses, rent controls and minimum wage laws out of a naive but sincere belief that these are good, it has always struck me that part of the reformist zeal to do away with things like “cheap labour” is a sort of “yuck” factor. I sense a lot of this whenever I watch a programme about the downtrodden, poor workers of distant lands. It never seems to cross the minds of the do-gooders here that such folk face far worse alternatives to working for a relatively low wage to a Western one – not working at all. The poor child labourers of Asia do not have the alternative of spending much of their teens in a school and then off to college. And in any event, their best hope of escaping their plight is to have as much vulgar capitalism as possible.

IanB identifies puritanism – both of the religious and the secularised versions – as a key driver of the reformists’ zeal. I’d also add in a sort of aesthetic dislike, even hatred, for industry and trade. The Fabian movement that has had such a baleful effect on the past 100 years or so was inspired not just by the Evangelical “Great Awakening” of the 19th Century, but by the back-to-the-land movements inspired by the likes of John Ruskin and William Morris.

Read the whole article.

Update: It might be objected (and indeed it was, predictably, by an incredibly rude and now banned commenter) that religious puritanism has anything to do with the nanny statist trends of our time. But while there are some who argue, with Max Weber, that the “Protestant Work Ethic” was in some ways pro-market, the fact is that that ethic was double-sided. Sure, there was a striving, pro-enterprise side of it, but there was also a strong, anti-materialist side and a side that scorned pleasure, which provided some of the intellectual fuel for groups such as the “Christian socialists” of the 19th and early 20th Centuries. The teetotal movement, for example, found ready adherents. And consider the intellectual backgrounds of folk like RH Tawney, Arnold Toynbee, and so on. To deny that they had religious inspiration for their views is obtuse.

It’s lucky for European air travel that the government of Europe is still a muddle

I’m watching the news, in particular the news that the airplanes will be allowed to fly again over Britain. Thank goodness.

Inevitably, a professorial head popped up – Professor Hayward was the name, I think – to argue that what had been revealed was that there were problems with who was in charge. Yes, it must have been the same Professor Hayward as the one quoted in this story. He described the muddle of different jurisdictions – with one Euro-quango governing this, and another that, and France and the UK actually, to quite a large extent – sniff – controlling their own airspace. I don’t know what the Professor really thinks about this, but he or the TV editors made it sound like he thought there ought to be one Euro-authority in charge of everything. There should be, that is to say, a Single European Sky. Recent events, he said, highlighted the fact that there is a muddle of different jurisdictions, when it comes to whether airplanes can fly or not.

And a good thing too. Thanks to that muddle of different European jurisdictions, some planes have been flying over Europe, including one KLM plane which this afternoon flew over London. And the ban is melting away, for all the world as if Europe was still governed by a gaggle of sovereign states, each in charge of its own affairs. No planes have so far dropped out the sky. They didn’t put it like that, but if a plane has fallen out of the sky, they would definitely have said. As more planes have taken to the air, the claim that flying in them is a death sentence becomes harder and harder to accept.

Had European airspace been commanded by a single despot, as will surely be argued by many others besides that Professor in the next few days and weeks, this disaster might have lingered on indefinitely, at a cost (and never let it be forgotten that economic disruption on this scale is, for quite a large number of severely stressed and severely impoverished, severely financially ruined people, a matter of life and death) which would have defied calculation.

Now Paxman is talking about pressure from “vested interests”. Airlines wanting to stay in business, in other words, airlines who have become convinced that this scare has been massively overdone. Airlines who prefer to pay attention to evidence of what is actually happening in the sky, rather than trusting mere computer models. Computer models are getting a rather bad name these day, aren’t they?

If, now that the ban is being lifted, planes do start crashing for mysterious reasons, or if the aircraft maintenance people start to detect the damage that they now say is non-existent in the planes that have already flown, then fine. Ground the planes again. But I’d be amazed if that happened. Airlines know better than anyone that plane crashes must be avoided at almost any cost. It is clear that they think that the risk of crashes now is negligible, for the reasons alluded to in this earlier posting here.

I hope that Simon Jenkins’s phrase, health and safety Armageddon, catches on. My thanks to EU Referendum for the link to that piece, and in general for being all over this story.

But, note that North is today defending the Met Office. North implies that the problem is that muddle of jurisdictions, which has enabled the European commission to evade its responsibility for this mess and heep all the blame on the Met Office. I see what he means, of course I do. But which would you prefer? A muddle of jurisdictions, with all the inevitable buck passing and mutual recrimination, plus pressure from vested interests, and from politicians trying to get re-elected, and derision from bloggers, and by and by from the mainstream media, in short the semblance of a still-free society? Or a pristine tyranny, willing and able to be totally wrong, indefinitely, rather than admit to the embarrassment of being wrong? Widespread panic for a few days? Or, total panic for weeks or months on end, that refuses even to admit that this was what it was? I know which I prefer.

Not enough collapses

I like this article by Tim Cavanagh over at Reason’s Hit & Run blog:

This is the problem with the new declinism. With no compelling vision of the apocalypse that doesn’t involve zombies, cyborgs, or outlaw bikers, we tend to miss something obvious: The problem isn’t that things are collapsing. It’s that not enough things are collapsing. General Motors, AIG, and the government of California have committed enough errors to merit immediate extinction, but there they still are. Yet the political establishment continues to argue that the market needs to be prevented from delivering rough justice to sinners. President Obama, who one year ago gave us a worst-case scenario in which an unstimulated economy might hit 8 percent unemployment by this year, now presides over 10 percent unemployment but tries to bamboozle us with counterfactuals like this doozy from the 2010 State of the Union address: “If we had allowed the meltdown of the financial system, unemployment might be double what it is today.”

He’s making a good point. Much of the current mess has been caused by policymakers, such as Greenspan/Bernanke at the Fed, or our own benighted Gordon Brown, trying to “rescue” a failed system by throwing huge amounts of money into the system to prevent disaster, only to build up even greater woes in the future. Going bankrupt is never nice, but by freeing up resources and more to the point, by making people learn from their mistakes, it is a healthy process. To borrow from Karl Popper, if we don’t allow bad investment theories to be falsified by events, then the market will fall short in one of its most powerful functions, of generating valuable new information.

Samizdata quote of the day

Getting the institutions right matters. Many people simply don’t understand that issue. They don’t understand it because they still believe in magic. Few people believe that the chanting of magic words or incantations exercises power over the world. Most of us believe in cause and effect – in tracing out the effects to their causes. The scientific approach has been triumphant in such fields of enquiry as physics, chemistry, biology and geology. Unfortunately, when it comes to the science of human behaviour, many people – possibly most – still believe in magic, because they believe that a special class of wizards and magicians are called legislators, rulers, governors and presidents, and so most people believe, when they say such words as `It shall be the law that all shall have the right to good health care, or a good education, or a higher living standard,’ that those words carry the power to bring about the intentions behind them.”

Tom G Palmer, Realising Freedom, page 207.

I strongly recommend this gem of a book.

The (would-be) Emperor has no clothes

And so Dave Cameron stands up and says “Only conservatives offer real change” and the media report this more or less at face value.

We have a vast regulatory welfare state under Labour. We will still have a vast regulatory welfare state under Cameron… no? Well how many million state employees will Cameron fire in his first term in office? What number did he put on it? Anyone? Has he said he will have a massacre of the QUANGOs? He has loudly promised more green regulation and sticking it to the financial sector but where exactly will he de-regulate? Yet the media just repeats Cameron’s claim to represent anything other than more of the same as if it is a self evident truth. Yet “Big Society” looks a lot awful like the same old “Big State” we have right now.

Are you unable to resist the urge to vote? Well someone is actually calling for two million less state employees over five years. Dave “I represent change” Cameron? Don’t make me laugh.

I am stranded in the Ukraine

As the crisis goes on, things are getting pretty grim

The state is not your friend… Aviation Edition

So is the closure of Europe and Britain’s airspace really needed to ensure safety?

‘We simply checked every single aircraft very carefully after the landing in Frankfurt to see whether there was any damage that could have been caused by volcanic ash,” Weber said. ”Not the slightest scratch was found on any of the 10 planes.”

German air traffic control said Air Berlin and Condor had carried out similar flights.

[...]

Air Berlin Chief Executive Joachim Hunold declared himself ”amazed” that the results of the German airlines’ flights ”did not have any influence whatsoever on the decisions taken by the aviation safety authorities.”

Quelle surprise!