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The crazy years

The idea that we are living in a period that in retrospect we might call “The Crazy Years” gets an airing in this long, essay by John C. Wright. He takes the term from Robert A Heinlein’s “Future History” series of stories, written decades ago when the Grand Master of Science Fiction was not yet fully famous. (Thanks to Charles N Steele’s excellent blog for the pointer).

Steele, in his own ruminations on this, says:

Robert A. Heinlein explored a possible future history for homo sapiens.  One of things he foresaw was a period at the end of the 20th Century and beginning of the 21st that he called “the Crazy Years,” in which cultural fragmentation and decay in advanced countries generates political and economic decline and social disruption.  He was prescient in recognizing what happens when commonly accepted principles such as an individual’s responsibility for self are forgotten and political correctness and multiculturalism run amok.  As advancing technology places increasing power in human hands, human ethics fail to keep pace.  In Heinlein’s world, humans do manage to navigate these shoals without destroying themselves and eventually do settle on a MYOB sort of libertarian ethic…but only narrowly averting nuclear self-destruction and environmental self-destruction, and not without going through periods of dictatorship as well as societal chaos.

Steele then lays out a number of areas where signs of our descent into the Crazy Years might be evident:

  • Iranian or Al Qaeda religious fanatics obtaining nuclear weapons…

  • An American federal government — especially the executive branch — working to acquire unlimited power, and already apparently having the power to spy on essentially all communications, everywhere…

  • A growing segment of the population — some poor and some very rich (think Goldman Sachs) — who live as parasites on the productivity of others while creating nothing of values themselves…

  • An intelligentsia that cannot bring itself to condemn Islamism for fear of being seen as insensitive or racist or ethnocentric, but which regularly denounces, in the most hateful terms, anyone who opposes the continued expansion of state power…

  • An intelligentsia that praises socialism, hunter-gatherer economies, massive interventionism, anything but the one system that actually works, free market capitalism, a system they bitterly condemn…

  • A “press,” our mainstream media, that sees its job as promoting political positions and readily lies when lies serve this goal better than truth, and spouts nonsense the remainder of the time, apparently because reasoned analysis is too hard.

He then goes on to argue – and I hope he is right – that reasons for pessimism are perhaps overdone. For instance, who would have predicted that, after 1945, the continent of Europe (albeit apart from the Balkans in the early 90s) was free of any serious armed conflict of the sort that has routinely ravaged the region for centuries, and that the Cold War came to an end without the Soviets or NATO firing hardly a shot at one another on the continent?

I would add that in the confines of the UK, signs of craziness are evident, for example, from the political classes. Take the recent UK Labour Party conference. Labour leader Ed Milliband wants to impose a freeze on the prices that electricity companies charge their customers, while simultaneously demanding that they invest more in things such as renewable energy; his reversion to the idea of draconian price controls is pure demagoguery. Remember, dear Samizdata readers, that the Millibands of this world are quite popular with large chunks of the electorate. Labour is leading – just – the other main party – the Tories – in the opinion polls. This is what happens when, in such a crazy period as ours, that people are encouraged to think blatantly contradictory things: electricity firms must charge less but do more and invest more; banks must hold more capital in reserve but lend more; we must intervene in foreign lands but only with “surgical strikes” and nothing else; that everyone must be given access to health insurance but that the cost mustn’t rise; that we must ban opinions and notions because someone might be offended, and so on and so on.

Of course, thinking nonsense such as this is hardly new. Big business, for example, has been demonised as long as big business has existed, and political targeting of this has been almost the norm, rather than the exception. But what makes me want to think of this issue within the broader “crazy years” context is that I doubt that Milliband and his fellow socialists would be so confident of pushing these notions were it not for the rather batty political climate in which we now operate. Part of the cause for this may be a temporary reaction to the credit crunch, and the false narrative that quickly took root. But then the willingness of people to believe this narrative (which leaves out the role of central banks and government and blames it on “bankers”) is itself a sign that something is very wrong and cannot be quickly put right.

Robert Heinlein’s “future history” stories certainly do pay a re-visit. Come to that, so do pretty much all of his writings right now.

(Addendum: in case anyone brings this up, Steele could have mentioned any of the big banks as “parasites” in his list of examples. He chose Goldman Sachs, but he’s not picking on it specifically.)

22 comments to The crazy years

  • RickC

    I’m convinced that the root of the current evil we are now enveloped in is stated clearly by Dr. Steele in this line: “[So long as men think of it proper or acceptable to sacrifice other men, so long as our ethics teaches us that it can be acceptable to treat others as means to our ends, without their consent, human societies will be plagued with inherent conflict. Only with the development and general acceptance of an ethic based on strict respect for individual rights will we emerge from the Crazy Years into a Type I global civilization.”

    I would wager that eight or nine out of ten people I know aren’t even aware how much their socio-political views are shaped by collectivist ideology. With that in mind, I’ve been mulling over asking my Facebook family and friends what basic principles, if any, they followed to arrived at the political views they now hold. Don’t even want to know what political affiliation or views they hold, just how they got there.

  • […] by calling the era from the late-sixties onwards “The Crazy Years”. Samizdata‘s Johnathan Pearce linked to this post by Charles Steele which makes the case quite […]

  • Tedd

    I would wager that eight or nine out of ten people I know aren’t even aware how much their socio-political views are shaped by collectivist ideology.

    I’m sure you’re right. I also predict you’ll find that the principles of most will include either a Rousseau-like interpretation of social contract theory that gives pretty wide latitude to collective action, or simple pragmatism that amounts to the same thing.

  • veryretired

    We are entering a period of enormously complex transformations across a global culture that is in its birth spasms as various insular cultures are exposed to the world at large, and the power of western technological culture in particular.

    None of this movement will happen suddenly, or painlessly, or without the time-honored complaint from the participants that things are going crazy and are impossible to comprehend.

    Two centuries ago, the intellectual ferment in the west delegitimized divine right, and after a century of ferment ended the aristocratic and feudal structures that had ruled it for millennia.

    For the last century, the human family has thrashed about, attempting to find an organizing principle to replace stratified classes or tribalism. Some of the experiments were bloody and grotesque in the extreme, and we saw, and helped with, the downfall of the thousand year reich, watched as the wave of the future crashed on reality’s rocks, and the red star set in the east.

    Maybe there actually were some who thought that all our troubles were over, and the bogeymen had finally been slain, and we could all sleep again without a care in the world.

    But the bogeyman doesn’t live in the closet, he hides within the hearts of men and women who desire nothing more than the power to direct their neighbors’ lives in all respects, and will never be satisfied with anything less.

    So, yes, we live in a crazy time, turbulent and challenging, confusing and difficult.

    We are human beings, and we live on this earth.

    Our future, as all futures, must be built on the ruins of the past, and god knows we have plenty of ruins to work with.

    If we can build a future that is free and vital, based on the rights of man and the liberty of the individual, then we can reach for the stars, as our ancestors have dreamed of doing for thousands upon thousands of years.

    But if we are faint of heart, and poor in spirit, if we lose hope, and allow the collective to direct our path, then we will sink back into the ruins instead of building upwards, and, like the inhabitants of an ancient, collapsed civilization, we will stare at the bones of our society’s Coliseum, and marvel that men were once able to build such wonders.

    We stand at the crossroads. Choose.

  • Pardone

    The reason energy companies, who operate as an anti-free market statist (they are almost all state-owned) cartel, none of whom are British charge so much is to subsidize cheaper prices in their native countries. We have seen this with the German Deutsche Bahn using British taxpayers money and rail fares to facilitate their far cheaper, and vastly superior rail service, effectively making Britons slaves of foreigners.

    EDF is owned by the FRENCH GOVERNMENT, and thus it serves the interests of the French state, it is not in any shape or form a private company. So, if you are dumb enough to use their service, you are, in effect, paying TAX to the French government and are officially a stupid, gullible mug.

    Privatization has led to Foreign Governments owning British infrastructure and thus using the British people as servile, captive slaves. Nearly one in four operators are owned wholly or in part by Deutsche Bahn, the German state railway, effectively meaning many British rail users are being taxed by the German government.

    Why are we allowing foreign governments to control our energy and transport? What sort of pathetic, flaccid nation allows foreign governments such power over it? What kind of weak, feeble-willed people defend such perfidy?

  • Privatization has led to Foreign Governments owning British infrastructure and thus using the British people as servile, captive slaves.

    So entirely British state run utilities would be better? Somehow I doubt that.

  • Paul Marks

    The specific point about whether overseas governments (such as Sovereign Wealth Funds) should be allow to buy private companies (buy then with STOLEN money – for that is the only money such funds have) is a question I will not deal with.

    I am more interested in J.P.s post – which is very good.

    It does not deny that some rich people (the Financial Industry types who get welfare-for-the-rich from Central Banks) profit from the present system – but it does not exaggerate this either (too often we just hear about Goldman Sachs and co – as if the “entitlement state” could happily carry on “if only” these evil “banksters” were destroyed, it COULD NOT).

    The entitlement states – and the “intellectuals” (such as academics and media types) who support the entitlement states, are the real problem.

    Indeed it is desperation that gets governments turning to the financial industry – to finance unfinancable spending. And insupportable regulations.

    Places like Greece (or California or Illinois or….) could not carry on happily if the “banksters” did not exist – their “crazy years” policies would actually destroy them MORE QUICKELY if it were not for the financial industry.

    Credit bubble finance does not create the basic problem – it actually puts off the evil day when the collapse comes (although it does make the collapse even worse when it does come).

    “My income is X but I want to spend X plus…..” is “Crazy Years” policy, and if one goes to a Witchdoctor (say in the offices of Goldman Sachs or J.P. Morgan Chase) to put off the day of reality, the Witchdoctor is not really to blame when the day of reality finally comes (although, yes, he will have taken his fees and run away by then).

    Just as with regulations.

    Someone who seriously believes that (for example) one can hold down prices by passing an edict (without any terrible consequences) is mad – as mad as the mist and snow.

    And anyone who votes for such things is as “Crazy Years” as the person who proposes such things.

  • Someone who seriously believes that (for example) one can hold down prices by passing an edict (without any terrible consequences) is mad – as mad as the mist and snow.

    Not only mad but seriously deficient in history, from the ancient to the modern, price controls have not worked, they have simply passed control from open to black markets.

    From Diocletian’s Edict on Maximum Prices of 301 AD, through the US Food Administrations WW1 idiocy and the UK policies of the 1970’s Labour era.

    All these attempts at controlling prices were made ineffective by producers and more often consumers finding mechanisms to bypass these controls.

    St. Margaret of Thatcher got it right when she said “You can’t buck the market”.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    Labour leader Ed Milliband wants to impose a freeze on the prices that electricity companies charge their customers, while simultaneously demanding that they invest more in things such as renewable energy

    The only quarrel I’d have with this comment is that word “invest”. That is unfair to Mr Miliband*. He does not demand actual investment in the serious hope of a return. He would be just as happy with mere spending. Or more happy, since profit is nasty and greedy.

    *BTW, factual point, “Miliband” has only one “l”. I know because I constantly have to correct myself in the same way.

  • Paul Marks

    John Galt – you mean that Woodrow Wilson’s statism had bad economic consequences?

    I bet you are one of those black hearted reactionaries who are disturbed by his “three minute hate” men as well (four minute hate is for wimps).

    What is wrong with people popping up (at the shops, and the movie theatre, anywhere) and giving impassioned three minute speeches about why one should hate everyone Woodrow Wilson tells them to hate.

    Why are you looking at me like that – surely there is nothing wrong with such a practice…..

  • Rich Rostrom

    RAH himself made a similar claim circa 1980, in his commentaries in the collection Expanded Universe.

    However I don’t see it. The “Crazy Years” of his Future History were marked by large-scale public displays of substantive behavior that would be considered “crazy” before or since. The only description of the period is a set of
    nine headlines from 1969 cited in Methuselah’s Children.

    IOWA RAISES VOTING AGE TO 41

    and

    US BIRTH RATE “TOP SECRET” – DEFENSE SEC

    are the only ones that fit IMO. The others seem to be throwaways.

    What we have seen in the last 50 years is a lot of historicslly commonplace folly, and a great rise in conscious superficial eccentricity, much of it for entertainment. (Look at all the Web aggregators of weird-funny stuff.)

    Miliband may be grossly mistaken, but he’s not delusional. There are people out there advocating obviously delusional policies and ideas (David Icke, various celebs) but they aren’t in power.

    The fools in power are bad enough without being crazy, and the people have enough sense left not to elect anyone who is obviously crazy.

  • Edward MJ

    Very poetic @veryretired. Think that might be one of the best comments I’ve yet read on here – high praise given their generally high standard! Here’s hoping we head along the path to the stars.

  • veryretired

    EMJ—Kind words, and much appreciated, although I imagine there are any number of true poets spinning pretty rapidly in their graves at the idea of that term being directed anywhere near me.

  • Pardone

    “So entirely British state run utilities would be better? Somehow I doubt that.”

    The anti-Britishness in that statement is really quite extraordinary. Do you really trust the French and German governments to run Britain as they now do, and do you approve of them taxing the British populace without representation (its common knowledge that Germany’s cheaper and vastly superior rail network is subsidized by the bloated rail fares paid for by Britons. Indeed, a great deal of British taxpayers money is funneled into these “companies” which are in fact state entities, which means we are being taxed by foreign governments. Do you really believe EDF is a company? It is owned by the French government and it therefore puts French people first, just as Deutche Bahn puts German people first.

    Why do you hate Britain and like seeing its people forced to pay taxes to foreign governments, Perry? I thought you were against that sort of thing?

    Utility services in the UK should be run for the benefit of Britain and its people, not a bunch of foreign governments. Why should Britons pay for German railways, for example, especially given how fifth rate and useless our rail notwork is?

    Britons are now slaves of foreign governments.

  • The anti-Britishness in that statement is really quite extraordinary. Do you really trust the French and German governments to run Britain as they now do

    I trust them to run a utility about as much I trust any government to run a utility, which is to say, not a lot. A state run utility is a terrible idea… which state does not actually excite me quite as much. The British government is as unlikely to run a utility for the benefit of me as the French government, or any government, would.

  • Pardone

    The facts prove you wrong, Perry:

    French-owned EDF Energy has whacked-up gas prices by a hefty 22.9% and electricity by 12.3% in the UK since the start of the year.

    But in France, gas prices went up 15% and electricity by just 3%. At npower, electricity bills are up by 12.7% and gas by 21.6% since January. Yet customers of the firm’s German owners, RWE, have had to cope with just one increase of 11% for gas on January 1.

    To make matters worse, RWE promised not to increase prices again in Germany for the rest of 2011, while allowing its UK arm to squeeze customers here.

    Rival German company E.ON has also done its best to raise bills by as little as possible at home, with electricity up by an average of 6.7% and gas by around 9.1%.

    This compares with a combined jump of 21.4% in electricity for E.ON UK customers and a 21.6% hike for gas.

    The final energy firm in foreign ownership is Scottish Power, which has raised electricity bills by 10% and gas by 19% since January. In Spain, customers of its owner Iberdrola are only paying extra for electricity, up 12%.

    “You won’t have me!” Cries the Eurosceptic.
    “We already do”, replies Deutsche Bahn, E.ON, RWE, and EDF.

    I sure hope you like paying for cheaper energy for the French, and funding Belgian and German railways with your fares and taxes (without representation, at that), Perry.

  • […] To be honest we’ve got the point where I’m just going to blame the dragons and if you disagree, well. Shut up! Because Science! Hopefully we’ll all still be here when the crazy years […]

  • The facts prove you wrong, Perry:

    Oh really? And what exactly is cross subsidising what? So if the UK state owned the power utilities, you think the utilities would be run better eh? And your evidence that the UK state has a less that appauling record at running that kind of thing is what exactly?

  • Mr Ed

    Should an aspirant-to-be-free society prohibit States from owning property within its jurisdiction?

  • Pardone

    Perry, it would certainly be cheaper than the rip-off merchants, foreign states, corporate welfare spongers, and cartels (what a coincidence they all put their prices up simultaneously!) we have now.
    A stonking 200% rise in fares, Perry? Dear God, you think that’s a success? Oh, and then there’s the fact the taxpayer is being gouged 3 times more than under BR. What an amazing success!

    Seeing as the taxpayer funds our dreadful rail and bus services, we are effectively being taxed without representation.

    I’ve got no problem with rail and electricity being privately owned, but that should mean absolutely no taxpayer funding of anything. Crossrail, HS2, or any other of the parasitic corp welfare scams should all be funded without any help from the government. If they have to be funded by the taxpayer, its because they have no merit in the free market. You do realize how much money could be saved by culling all these pointless infrastructure projects? Given the amount the energy cartel are charging, why should the taxpayer pay even a penny towards energy infrastructure?

  • I’ve got no problem with rail and electricity being privately owned, but that should mean absolutely no taxpayer funding of anything.

    Now there arose a new commenter on Samizdata, who knew not Perry.