What if we have reached a point where the scale and scope of government have become absurdly large? What you would observe is a growing gap between the theories used to justify government expansion and its practical impact. You would observe the cost of education and health care rising, without commensurate benefits. You would observe stimulus programs that increase employment according to computer models but not in reality. You would observe crony capitalism. You would observe budgets distorted by public-sector unions. You would observe fraudulent accounting that shifts costs for pensions onto future generations.
– Arnold Kling
A few days ago I stuck up a couple of postings here pertaining to the forthcoming US Presidential election, one specifically about Paul Ryan, and the other about, more generally, whether it makes sense to worry about which particular lizard is elected Lizard King. Does the fact that the wrong lizard might get in really signify?
My own opinion is that it all depends on the Tea Party, people who I want to believe to be good people with good ideas.
I would like the Tea Party to make a big and visibly decisive difference to America electing the least worst lizard to be Lizard King. That would mean that they would then really count for something. But what I would really like would be for the Tea Party then to use the clout they thus amass to subject the new Lizard King to political pressures such that, whatever his personal inclinations or past habits, the new Lizard King finds himself obliged to do Tea Party things. By which I mean run the US government less like a sting-the-suckers-for-all-they-have crime syndicate.
To put all that another way, I really want to believe that this (by David Kirby and Emily Ekins for the Cato Institute) is true:
Many people on the left still dismiss the tea party as the same old religious right, but the evidence says they are wrong. The tea party has strong libertarian roots and is a functionally libertarian influence on the Republican Party.
Compiling data from local and national polls, as well as dozens of original interviews with tea party members and leaders, we find that the tea party is united on economic issues, but split on the social issues it tends to avoid. Roughly half the tea party is socially conservative, half libertarian – or, fiscally conservative, but socially moderate to liberal.
Libertarians led the way for the tea party. Starting in early 2008 through early 2009, we find that libertarians were more than twice as “angry” with the Republican Party, more pessimistic about the economy and deficit since 2001, and more frustrated that people like them cannot affect government than were conservatives. Libertarians, including young people who supported Ron Paul’s 2008 presidential campaign, provided much of the early energy for the tea party and spread the word through social media.
Understanding the tea party’s strong libertarian roots helps explain how the tea party movement has become a functionally libertarian influence on the Republican Party. Most tea partiers have focused on fiscal, not social, issues – cutting spending, ending bailouts, reducing debt, and reforming taxes and entitlements – rather than discussing abortion or gay marriage. Even social conservatives and evangelicals within the tea party act like libertarians.
That’s as far as I’ve so far read. There’s another fifty or more pages.
Meanwhile … I wish.
“Perhaps the most annoying thing about Julian Assange (yes, I know it’s a long list) is that he is in danger of giving the European Arrest Warrant (EAW) a good name. Maybe my memory is failing, but I don’t recall any of his supporters being critical of the EU’s fast-track extradition system when it was being debated 10 years ago.”
Philip Johnston, in today’s Daily Telegraph. It is an interesting point to make. Leaving aside Assange for a minute (there’s no need to hurry), the power of extradition creates an interesting point for those concerned about liberty and the importance of due process of law. Some extradition agreements between states might be acceptable if, for example, an offence for which a person is to be extradited to country B from A is recognised as a criminal offence in both nations. However, with the EU Arrest Warrant, you can be extradited into a country from another where the offence in question is not recognised in the place where the person happens to be staying at a particular point in time.
As we have seen with recent controversy about the UK’s extradition agreement with the United States, a person can be moved to the US – and vice versa – without a prima facie establishment of guilt having to be shown in the country where the person is being transferred from. Given the plea-bargaining lottery that the US adopts in certain cases, for example, this seems to involve serious abuse of due process.
These points need to be aired because, amid all the other issues kicked up by the Assange affair (the alleged sex crimes, the activities of Wikileaks, potential damage to military forces in the field, etc) the specifics of extradition principles can be obscured. Unlike some more isolationist types, I don’t have a problem with treaties between states to shift suspected criminals around to see that justice is done, provided there is a reciprocal recognition of the rules of procedure. For instance, there is simply no way that a country such as the UK should have such an arrangement with a state enforcing shariah law, say, or with a country such as Russia, which is a police state, or for that matter, Ecuador.
I understand some poor individual in Northern Africa recently posted a slur on Allah and did not delete it quickly enough… and for this a Saudi Mullah declared a death sentence upon him, a Fatwah. This got me to thinking… perhaps we have our own ways of laying curses upon the heads of such 10th Century fanatics. In fact, it might even be great fun and a marvellous creative exercise. So here is mine:
Oh ye purveyor of hatred, listen well as I lay a Western Curse upon you and your descendents unto the end of time: May your daughters abandon you. May they reject you and your foul beliefs and leave for the free world. May they make billions of dollars as free women citizens and marry whomever they wish and live in happiness the rest of their lives. May your sons run away and join the army and become great warriors who earn the highest honours and medals that Israel can bestow upon them. May your wife or wives found chapters of NOW and withhold sex from you until you treat them as equals. If you attempt to beat them, may they take out their Glock’s and shoot your worthless balls off. May you live to see all in the lands of the Middle East and Northern Africa living together in equality, peace and freedom.
Thus do I curse you and all who are like you.
There is something grimly amusing at reading Matt Yglesias, purveyor of conventional (ie, wrong) thinking on matters economic, getting a bit sniffy about the way in which certain commentators, such as Bryan Caplan, cite the great insights of the 19th Century French thinker, Frederic Bastiat (well known to this blog, of course):
“Bastiat’s alleged broken windows fallacy involves simply assuming that there’s no such thing as genuinely idle resources or an “output gap.” In that context, yes, it’s a vibrant intuitive depiction of crowding out. But this doesn’t counter any Keynesian or monetarist points about the viability of stimulus during a recession induced by nominal shocks, it involves assuming that no such recessions can occur even though they plainly do. In defense of Bastiat, at the time he was writing the modern industrial business cycle was a very new thing and the vast majority of economic ups and downs were caused by things like bad weather which—as you can see in the corn futures market today—is indeed a decisive consideration in an agricultural economy. But that’s no excuse for people sitting around in 2012 to be pounding the table with an old book that’s non-responsive to modern issues professing to be baffled why people don’t find it more persuasive.”
The point is that the issue of “idle resources” or an “output gap” only makes sense if you start from the position of assuming that there is an optimum amount of economic activity to be had, and that supposedly clever central bankers (try not to laugh please) know what this “gap” is and have the skills to fill it. Given the manifest failings of Keynesianism – and arguably also some of the cruder forms of monetarism – it seems those who want to push this approach are under an onus of proof.
Yglesias also writes about one of Bastiat’s most famous satires of businesses, the one where he mocks firms that ask for protection against competition: the “candlemaker’s petition”:
“The best example of this is probably “The Candlemaker’s Petition” which is a pretty hilarious satire of rent-seeking. And obviously rent-seeking is a real thing, worthy of being satirized. But there are no political controversies for or against pure rent-seeking. The candlemakers’ petition is a devastating satire of pharmaceutical companies’ endless lust for patent rents, unless you happen to think that pharmaceutical patents and the monopoly rents they generate are a crucial engine of R&D funding and life-saving research. Are the pharmaceutical companies right? I think it’s questionable, but I also don’t think you’ll find the answer in Bastiat.”
That is quite cute and he has a decent point – not all requests for protection of a business are, ipso facto, wrong, but this does not really work as a smackdown.
The argument for patents (and as we know, classical liberals have sharp disagreements about intellectual property rights, as shown by the likes of Greg Perkins, say, or Tim Sandefur, or this guy), is that they are incentives to capture the commercial use of an idea for a specified period of time on the basis that creating such property rights in commercial inventions increases the likely existence of said in total, which is different from tariffs, where there seems to be clear evidence that such things reduce the overall economic pie. (Critics of IP sometimes argue that it stifles overall innovation, but I have seen no conclusive evidence either way.) Thinking of Bastiat’s satire, it does not really, in my view, mean that I would scorn a firm or individual for seeking to protect an original idea from being copied by someone else without payment. In any respect, the presumed “rent seeking” failings of IP (and there are problems) can be seriously reduced by reforms, such as granting patents to independent inventors of a gadget, greater disclosure of invention processes in patent filings, an efficient secondary market in IP, shorter IP durations, and so on.
It is good that those of us who venerate Bastiat are forced to think through how his ideas apply to such matters, even to the point of working out if he has any weak spots. But I don’t see that Yglesias has landed the killer blow that he thinks he has. And he cannot just write Bastiat off as a witty Frenchman whose insights are out of date. They are screamingly relevant, just as Adam Smith and others of that vintage are.
I suppose it is good that Mr Bastiat is getting up the noses of some folk. That counts as progress. There’s plenty more where that came from.
(I realise that this is the second time in a row I have written something with a French angle. A pity that French president Francois Hollande does not share the wisdom of Bastiat.)
Update: Caplan responds with some more observations on how policy wonks live in the sort of bubbles that need to be pricked.
“What irritates me about France today is how the taste for work, for effort, has been completely lost.”
– Bertrand Meunier, who recently agreed to move to London from France to take a job at private equity firm CVC Capital Partners. He is one of many such people who are leaving that country to come to the UK in the wake of new, heavy taxes imposed by the recently elected socialist government in Paris. In the relative sense, London is marginally less ghastly than Paris, tax-wise. If you are a French person looking to work at a school for Gallic expats’ children in London, that looks like a growing business to be in.
Wise words from Zed A. Shaw:
To me indoctrination is the enemy of education because it creates people who can’t think for themselves and can only function in the culture they’ve been raised. It makes them into little mental slaves that can’t question what’s going on and see the world for what it really is.
Instead I want people who will question the way things are, try to find out how things are really built, explore the world and build new stuff without worrying about whether they’ll anger some community. They can’t do this if their thinking is constrained by these arbitrary social norms that only exist to keep them in line with what the community wants, or worse what the leaders of the community want.
When you teach people social norms as if they are universal truths you are actually indoctrinating them not educating them.
Then again, this is probably the reason these social mores are enforced and taught. Teaching social mores as universal truths keeps people dependent on […] use of them.
Keep in mind though I’m not saying teaching these social mores is wrong and should be avoided. I’m saying teaching them as if they are the universal truths is bad. I teach them too, but I teach them as if they are just arbitrary bullshit you need…
I am probably being unfair by quoting him so out of context. Shaw is writing about programming. But still.
And no, this is not an attack on Microsoft.
Via the Architect’s Journal, news of a new kind of glass, which looks just like regular glass to us humans (i.e. we see right through it), but which looks entirely different to birds …:
… and stops them flying into it.
They tried things like stickers on the glass, but although irritating to humans, the birds paid no attention to them. Just flew into the glass “around” them, presumably.
Makes a nice change from wind farms. But, this Guardian piece on the subject is very odd. The headline above it goes “Wind myths: Turbines kill birds and bats”. The piece itself describes how wind turbines kill birds and bats. Can a “myth” also be true?
But it does also say this:
According to the CSE, for every bird killed by a turbine, 5,820, on average, are killed striking buildings, typically glass windows.
So glass windows have been slaughtering birds on a far grander scale than wind turbines, and for far longer of course, and will mostly continue to do so. However, glass windows are very useful.
I’m at least a week late with this picture (illness blah blah), but it remains one of my favourite Olympics images, snapped by one of my favourite bloggers, Mick Hartley:
Suddenly I heard myself asking: Yes, why couldn’t those damn rioters have waited until the Olympics? Not really, but I did think it. (What I really think is that rioters shouldn’t. And before anyone says, it’s different if all you do is call yourselves a Riot and play noisy tunes.)
But to take my question seriously, I suppose rioters can tell when they’ll be allowed to run riot for a little while, and when they absolutely will not. Had they tried anything seriously wicked during the Olympics, they would have been crushed without mercy, the crushing egged on by the very people who, during and after the actual riots, were most sympathetic towards the rioters.
Interestingly, a little two-part BBC2 TV show about the riots was billed in the Radio Times to be shown just before the Olympics. But then it was postponed.
“People who do otherwise commendable work are capable of rape and other crimes. If presented with rape allegations, they must face them like anybody else, however otherwise worthy their past contributions. Now, these statements should be so self-evidently obvious, it is ludicrous that they need to be said. But the furore over WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange sadly makes it necessary. Although now granted political asylum by Ecuador, Assange is a rape suspect who skipped bail. Yet some of his supporters have ended up making arguments that they would never dream of making about anybody else.”
– Owen Jones, writing in the Independent. He is, by the way, a big fan of Wikileaks. I am not so keen, as I have explained here before at Samizdata, such as when Wikileaks affected private bank details.
Here is also a good article on the impact of Wikileaks’ activity on investigative journalism, by Nick Cohen.
Update: George Galloway has, er, tried to defend Assange. With friends like Galloway, Assange doesn’t need enemies.
Photoed by me in Vauxhall Bridge Road, earlier this week:
I liked this enough when I first set eyes on it to snap it up, and that was two days before I even noticed the “we’ve got one ‘ere” bit. Like I always say, my camera regularly sees more than I do.
I was surprised to discover today (unless I have been more than usually let down by my internet searching “skills”) that this, by Douglas Adams, has never been mentioned here at Samizdata before:
“On its world, the people are people. The leaders are lizards. The people hate the lizards and the lizards rule the people.”
“Odd,” said Arthur, “I thought you said it was a democracy.”
“I did,” said Ford. “It is.”
“So,” said Arthur, hoping he wasn’t sounding ridiculously obtuse, “why don’t the people get rid of the lizards?”
“It honestly doesn’t occur to them,” said Ford. “They’ve all got the vote, so they all pretty much assume that the government they’ve voted in more or less approximates to the government they want.”
“You mean they actually vote for the lizards?”
“Oh yes,” said Ford with a shrug, “of course.”
“But,” said Arthur, going for the big one again, “why?”
“Because if they didn’t vote for a lizard,” said Ford, “the wrong lizard might get in.”
That’s from So Long And Thanks For All The Fish. In the place I found it on the www (see the link above), it does not say on what page.
I was reminded about this snatch of dialogue by a recent episode of the BBC Radio 4 show Quote Unquote. A lady participant said she thought Douglas Adams very wise and very funny, this quote in particular. I post it here as a corrective to today’s SQotD, below, in which Paul Ryan says something good, thereby proving himself to be a more likeable lizard than nasty lizard Obama and his lizard gang.
But, alert readers will note that this is a classic example of a piece of writing that will have everyone nodding, but each thinking his own thing. It’s like if you say you favour “common sense”, “principled government”, or “democracy“. Each person listening to you agrees. Each has his own distinct idea about what each phrase means, in ways that often wildly contradict the ideas in the heads of his nodding neighbours. All agree, that these are fine things. Far fewer actually do agree about anything of substance.
For some, reading the Adams quote above, the lizards in charge of us are too capitalist inclined, for others they are insufficiently capitalist inclined. Some want the lizards to be keener on policy X, others curse the lizards for being insufficiently opposed to policy X. All agree only in being unsatisfied with the rule of the lizards, and that the lizards are indeed lizards.
Which is one reason why the lizards usually survive and thrive. We, their victims, can so very rarely agree amongst ourselves about what species, or indeed if any species, ought to replace them.