Whereas a conservative writer might warn that humans are just as likely, if not more likely, to bungle things when applying past experience to new plans for society as when trying to fix their own private lives – and an optimistic libertarian writer might note that people are far more rational in planning their own lives than in planning others’ – left-liberals have a tendency to think that humans’ ability to plan collectively is inversely proportional to their ability to plan their lives as individuals.
- Todd Seavey
I, and I am sure many other readers of and writers of Samizdata, have been following the career of Steve Baker MP, ever since he was elected MP for Wycombe in 2010. However, the last posting I did here about Baker elicited understandable scepticism from commenters about whether Baker would stick to his free market principles long enough to make any difference. Yeah, sure, he is now on the Treasury Select Committee. Big deal. Baker, like all the others, said doubters, would soon go native.
Well maybe he will, but he hasn’t yet. Not if this City A.M. report by Peter Spence about Baker’s latest sayings and doings is anything to go by:
In almost every area of economics we’ve accepted that markets do it best, he says. Few could imagine a committee of nine wise men deciding how we produce food, clothes, cars, or mobile phones.
But when it comes to producing money, we’ve accepted just such an arrangement. And for Baker it’s crazy that this has led to an obsession with what men like Carney have to say. That we’re trying to decipher from after dinner comments the trajectory of monetary policy is illustrative of the mess we’re in. “The truth is this is like kremlinology, have we worked out what the politburo thinks? It’s mad.”
We see the same thing across the Atlantic, where former Federal Reserve chairmen Alan Greenspan and Ben Bernanke have both given speeches to investors shortly after leaving the office. What investors think about US monetary policy has knock-on effects around the world, evident after last summer’s “taper tantrum”, as the Fed stumbled towards scaling back QE.
“It’s amazing we tolerate this,” says Baker, as words from both men have had the power to move markets, such is the extent of the “kremlinology” investors are hooked on. “I want the people doing this kreminology, making their living doing it, to question whether this is actually a free market,” he says.
“I think we operate a kind of monetary socialism, and it’s the single biggest institutional problem with our economic system.”
That bit about wanting people to “question whether this is actually a free market” is the bit that really matters here, I think. Clearly, Baker wants all such questioners to realise that the answer is: “No”.
Much of the problem with the world’s financial system these days is the most observers of it don’t even seem to think of it as a nationalised, government dominated system in the same way that tractor production was a nationalised, government dominated system in the old USSR. It is simply inconceivable to them that “money” could, by its very nature, be anything but a nationalised industry, so much so that to think of it as a “nationalised industry” is beyond them, because even to use such a phrase is to allude at least to the possibility – the thinkability – of a non-nationalised, free market version of the same industry. This is not a debate about how the nationalised industry of money should be managed, so much as a debate about the fact that it is a nationalised industry. Or, it would be such a debate, if only people like Steve Baker MP can manage to get such a debate started.
No doubt many Soviet tractor-makers felt similarly about what they did. That too, they were sure, just had to be run by the government, or else tractor making would descend into a black hole of chaos and impossibility and absurdity. The idea of a “free market in tractors” was, for such people, literally unthinkable. And millions in the West mocked all this nonsense. So, why do the descendants of such mockers – literal and intellectual – not mock their own Central Bankers now, just as Central Tractorers were mocked back then?
People may respond to Baker’s challenge by saying: “Yes, it is a nationalised industry, and a good thing too.” But for people even to talk like that would be a huge shift in thinking, because the fact of monetary nationalisation would have been accepted, even as it is being defending.
Until the metacontext (to use a favourite word here) of this debate is changed, free market capitalism will go on getting the blame for all that is wrong about the world’s financial system. And the “solution” will continue to be to restrict free markets in financial matters ever more ferociously.
Keep it up Mr Baker. You have not gone native yet. And you have an admiring fan club out here that continues to notice and continues to applaud.
To people clucking that the First Black President deserves more respect, may I suggest that you should have done a better job of picking the First Black President?
In politics, many debates are polarised for a reason. There are usually profound differences in the ideological priors underlying viewpoints and the interpretation of evidence. We should therefore be suspicious of the arrogance of those who feel they don’t have to formulate arguments from first principles, and instead unilaterally announce themselves and their ideas as above debate.
How often do we hear, for example, “it’s time to take the ideology out of this debate”, or, worse, “I’m only interested in what works”? Often these are rhetorical devices which simply mean “shut up, and accept I’m right”. But in other instances, users of these banal phrases seem genuinely unaware that what they are saying has any sort of ideological assumptions underpinning it.
- Ryan Bourne
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to make too much of this. But here it is anyway.
In a report about successful pop entertainer Frank Turner meeting successful pop entertainer Josh Homme, Turner is quoted saying, about Homme, this:
“One of the other things about him which I really enjoyed was that – without going into too much discussion about it – I’ve obviously copped a fair amount of shit for being a Libertarian in the press, and he was aware of this and said ‘I’m a fucking hardcore Libertarian, stick to your guns and fuck them’. It’s not very often that people say that to me, so that was nice – I enjoyed that.”
Thanks to Turner and Gigwise, and google sending me an email about it, I get to enjoy it too.
The shit in question is referred to in this earlier posting here by me, and I wrote some more about Turner here.
When it comes to “climate science”, I have for quite a few years now, as my sneer quotes make clear, been inhabiting the land of confirmation bias. So, I will not say that this proves me right. It merely confirms me in my state of ever more glacially advancing contempt for the “science” here described:
Several months afterwards, the society’s ‘newsletter’ was published. It contained a special section on the conference at which I had spoken, with a brief description of each talk, the work behind it, and with thanks offered to each speaker. I searched for my name – nothing. My presentation was ignored in its entirety.
“Disheartening” isn’t the term I would use, and I seriously considered giving up on the entire idea of academia, and getting a nice little 9-5 job. But, I am still here, still working on the problem, still uncovering, lets call them ‘anomalies’, in many areas, which the scientists involved have no clue how to explain, but about which they will hear no view other than their own.
Biases being confirmed all round, it would seem.
I strongly agree with Dan Klein and Kevin Frei that “liberal” and “liberalism” are words that should never be relinquished to those who don’t believe in liberty. They have started something called Liberalism Unrelinquished. Good for them.
We the undersigned affirm the original arc of liberalism, and the intention not to relinquish the term liberal to the trends, semantic and institutional, toward the governmentalization of social affairs.
Way back in 2010, I did a posting here entitled They are not liberals and they are not progressives, so I strongly agree about the “liberal” bit of what Klein and Frei are saying.
The Adam Smith Institute’s Sam Bowman recently talked with Klein (Bowman’s posting being how I heard about LU), and Klein also had this to say:
The left gains enormously by getting away with calling itself “liberal,” so getting them to give up the goods is not even a prayer. Partly, I just want to self-declare, like Popeye, “I yam what I yam.” An Adam Smith liberal; a lovely little subculture. Next, I’d love to see the center-left, in the US, the Democratic Party people, be called by others something other than “liberal” simpliciter.
An important distinction. We can’t change how they talk, but we can change how we talk. (Bowman’s italics are emboldened.)
But then comes this:
Progressive, Democratic, social democratic, leftist, or left-liberal – all good.
No, not “all good”. “Progressive”?
Here’s what I said about that in 2010:
… the word “progressive” is just as wrong as the word “liberal”. The statists who argue for the destruction of the dollar and for bank bail-outs (again) and for nationalised derangement of medical care and for green-inspired economic sabotage aren’t “liberals”. They do not believe in liberty; they believe in curtailing liberty. But neither do they believe in anything which it makes sense to anybody except them to call “progress”. Progress is the exact thing these statists are now trying and have always tried to destroy, and just lately have been doing a pretty damn good job of destroying. Progress means things getting better. These self styled “progressives” are only making things worse.
My piece got linked to by Instapundit, and I like to think it may have set some brain cells in motion on the other side of the Atlantic. Perhaps it even contributed in a tiny way to the founding of LU. If so, it’s a pity that Klein didn’t register the Progressive bit of my argument. I hope he registers it now.
Klein’s answer might be that when campaigning, you do one thing at a time. Quite so. Klein and Frei are right to concentrate on “liberalism”. This word deserves all the focus that they will be bestowing upon it.
But, if they succeed in stopping us opponents of these anti-liberal but self-declared “liberals” from calling them Liberals, it won’t be nearly such a victory if instead these anti-progressive self-declared “progressives” are merely described by us, their truly progressive opponents, as Progressives.
This is no mere quibble. If we say that “liberals” aren’t liberals but are “progressives”, we are conceding to these … whatever-we-call-these-people, a horrible falsehood as being a truth, namely the falsehood that human liberty and human progress are antithetical ideas and that the only way to accomplish human progress is to diminish human freedom. This is a disastrously wrong idea. What these people unleash upon the world is not progress. It is sterility, stagnation, and often far, far worse.
I, and Klein and Frei, are all liberals, and we are all progressives by any sane meaning of the word “progress”.
So, to quote Instapundit: What do we call them?
The Klein/Frei Liberalism Unrelinquished project is positive. They want to keep that word for their side, and mine. Good.
This posting of mine is mostly negative, just as my 2010 posting was mostly negative. Both are about how not to use certain words. Don’t call them liberals, and don’t call them progressives. But two positives are implied. We are liberals. And yes, although I am not for one moment suggesting that Liberalism Unrelinquished should be given a more unwieldy and less focussed name, we are progressives.
→ Continue reading: Don’t call them liberals but don’t call them progressives either
We’re in a political campaign, and the candidate is Uber and the opponent is an asshole named Taxi.
- Uber CEO Travis Kalanick
Gratitude to City A.M.’s Lynsey Barber for spotting this quote and supplying the link to it.
Tyrannical regimes don’t collapse because the peasantry are suffering. They collapse when the hitherto supportive inner circle of peasant-minders starts to suffer.
Thus it is that the most politically portentous line in this (thankyou Mick Hartley) about two new buildings in North Korea, one collapsing, the other already collapsed …:
Another apartment building in Pyongyang is reportedly in danger of collapse as fear spreads after a 23-story apartment building collapsed in the North Korean capital early this month, killing hundreds of people.
Both high-risers were built as upmarket homes for the elite.
A government source here on Tuesday cited rumors that an apartment building in Mansudae in downtown Pyongyang has subsided around 10 cm and dozens of cracks have appeared in the walls. “Fearing a collapse, residents are racing to sell their apartments and move out,” the source added.
… is the bit in the middle, about how these collapsing apartments are “homes for the elite”. By the sound of it, no North Korean home that is more than a tiny few stories up in the sky any longer feels safe.
Not so elite now, are they? If peasant houses collapse, screw ‘em. But who is going to screw these people? They are screwers.
Not so long ago there was a somewhat similar report concerning badly built towers in China.
One of these weeks, months, years, decades, a really really big skyscraper is going to come crashing down to the ground. Not because someone flew a plane into it. No, of its own accord. Through its own “internal contradictions”, you might say.
When that happens – and I really do think it’s only a matter of when – what’s the betting that the media coverage will imitate art.
If you are ever puzzled by the phrases “a priori” or “a priorism”, in connection in particular with the writings of Ludwig von Mises, and would appreciate becoming less puzzled, then let me now recommend to you a recent essay by Detlev Schlichter entitled The a priori method in economics – In defence of Ludwig von Mises.
Perry Metzger’s recent demolition job, here at Samizdata, of Thomas Piketty, made me think of Schlichter’s essay. What Perry Metzger was giving us was surely a perfect example of the a priori way of thinking about economic events and economic evidence.
Economic events, even if alluded to with pertinent statistics, can only be said to make sense once you have made sense of the human judgements that gave rise to these events. Future events cannot be predicted merely by looking at numbers and at graphs and then guessing at where these numbers seem to be heading. The economic future is made of human judgements, and to get a handle on what that future will most probably be like, you have to interpret that future in terms of rational human judgements and reactions.
Piketty points towards what Metzger names and shames as an “Investment Event Horizon”, a world in which investment is done far too much, with all other economic activities being curtailed in the service of this one obsession. Piketty says there must be political action to impose rationality on such otherwise irrational events. Metzger says that it is Piketty who is being irrational. Piketty’s interpretation of his supposedly supportive statistics is a perfect example of the kind of thing that Detlev Schlichter is criticising.
In general, says Schichter:
… We can neither verify nor falsify the a priori laws of economics … Even more important (and potentially disappointing to those who derive their expectations as to what science is all about from the natural sciences) we cannot derive the laws of economics from mere observation, and that includes even the most extensive collection of data and the most elaborate and sophisticated analysis of it. The economists who claim to do this are either confused or simply play to the gallery (Piketty?) and are frequently not really proper economists, although some of them may even win Nobel Prizes. This may sound harsh but I believe it is true. The reasons for why we must fail to achieve these two things (test/verify/falsify economic laws and discover economic laws through statistics) are fundamental and I will give them below. Of course, if economics were a natural science, if it were an empirical science, these two things would not only be possible, they would be essential to its modus operandi as a science. Crucially, economics is not an empirical science in the sense that the natural sciences are.
This is in fact the reason why no amount of data mining and statistical analysis will ever settle disputes in the field of economics. Keynesian economists will forever quote historical data from around the Great Depression as evidence of their crisis theories and policy recommendations, just as those who subscribe to monetary explanations of the business cycle (as we “Austrians” do) will forever cite the same or similar data in support of their theories. It is a common complaint that anything can be proven with statistics, and in the field of economic debate this seems to be true to a large degree. (I subscribe to the “Austrian” explanation of economic crises not because it fits the data better but because it fits the principles of economics, the laws of economics that allow us to analyse the cycle in the first place. A detailed analysis of Keynesian theories leads to conflicts and mismatches with some key economic principles. This makes this theory much less convincing.)
I consider that last bit there in particular, the final three sentences in the brackets, to be SQotD-worthy.
In the first of the two paragraphs quoted above, Schlichter actually mentions Piketty, albeit with his name between brackets and with a tentative question mark attached, merely as a possible example of the kind of thinker he is criticising. But if Metzger is right about Piketty (and I would be amazed if anyone is able persuasively to show him not to be) then that question mark can be dispensed with.
The intellectually corrupt Karl Marx, having promised his publisher a proof of impending proletarian revolution caused in the meantime by proletarian immiseration, then felt obliged to fiddle his numbers to prove that things were going from bad to worse for the nineteenth century proletariat rather than from bad to better. (Metzger might describe Marx’s yearned-for revolution as something like a “Discontent Event Horizon”.) The Piketty story has the look to me of a farcical rerun of that intellectually sordid Marx episode. (On the subject of the bad faith of Karl Marx, I recommend the late and much missed Antony Flew’s 1991 Free Inquiry/Libertarian Alliance article entitled (by the LA) KARL MARX WAS NOT A SOCIAL SCIENTIST (the LA likewise subtracted a question mark). Scroll down to where it says “FALSEHOODS OF IMMISERATION”, on page 5.)
But it isn’t just that Piketty’s numbers are wrong, although it would seem certain that they are. It is, as Metzger points out, that even if Piketty’s numbers were correct, Piketty’s understanding of what he believes they must be pointing to is defective.
Which just goes to show that if you come to a big pile of economic statistics with some a priori principles that are wrong, because they don’t make sense, then you cannot hope to make any sense of the statistics.
Piketty would presumably say that he is not doing this, merely letting the statistics speak for themselves. But neither can you make any sense of a pile of economic statistics if you expect those statistics to tell you everything you want to learn.
I met Detlev Schlichter earlier this week, and he told me that he had not then read Perry Metzger’s posting. I recommended to him that he might particularly enjoy it.
Via the Twitter page of Dominique Lazanski, I recently found my way to a fascinating but depressing piece about Russian internet policy, by “Russia’s First Blogger”, Anton Nossik:
As for Putin’s solemn oath to protect the Russian Internet from any undue and arbitrary attempts at government regulation, well, he honored it for the next 13 years. As keen as Putin was to control the federal nationwide TV channels, he seemed absolutely uninterested in regulating the Internet, be it the content, the cables, or the e-commerce. Any attempts by overzealous Russian lawmakers, ministers or law enforcement (the infamous siloviki, or strongmen) to regulate the Net were routinely aborted by Putin’s administration. Anyone who proposed such legislation to please the Kremlin soon found out that the Kremlin was very far from pleased. Internet regulation bills sponsored by everyone from Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov, to government ordinance drafts by ministers, and dozens of other proposals to regulate the Net had been quickly buried and forgotten for lack of presidential support between 2000 and 2012.
As a result, the Internet developed into Russia’s only competitive industry. Companies like Yandex and VKontakte easily outperformed international competition (Google and Facebook, respectively) in Russian-speaking markets. These Russian start-ups did not copy successful American models, but rather the other way round: Almost every Yandex service (maps, payments, webmail, contextual advertising, etc.) was launched several years ahead of its Google-based analog. The VKontakte social network has many services and features that Facebook badly lacks, such as social music and video hosting and an advertising exchange, allowing any popular page or group to monetize its traffic almost automatically.
The Internet also became Russia’s only territory of unlimited free speech. Opposition figures, banned elsewhere in mass media, found easy access to their audiences by going online. Moreover, privately owned online media sources, such as Lenta.Ru, Gazeta.Ru, NewsRu.com and RBC News, used to outperform traditional mass media outlets in terms of audience and pageviews. Alexey Navalny, Russia’s most prominent independent politician and Kremlin-basher, found millions of followers all over the country, despite being banned from all nationwide TV channels and radio stations for almost half a decade.
But then, President Putin decided to shut it all down. What had happened?
We should blame the 2011-2012 Moscow protests for Putin’s unexpected and instant conversion into a paranoid Internet-hater.
He blamed the messenger for the message, in other words.
He made his change of mind public during a speech on April 24. Putin shocked the entire world with his epiphany that the Internet was initially created as a special CIA project, and is still run as such. Putin went on to claim that Yandex, Russia’s biggest and most successful Internet startup – ranked fourth in the world by number of search requests, valued at about $15 billion on NASDAQ in mid-February 2014, earning more revenues and profits in 2013 than any other media company in Russia—is also controlled by foreign intelligence seeking to harm Russia’s interests. Those remarks instantly brought Yandex shares down 5.5 percent. As of this writing, the company is now worth $9.19 billion, nearly $6 billion off its mid-February mark.
And so on. The golden days of the Russian internet would appear to be over:
Under the new laws, any social media platform that wishes to serve a Russian audience will be obliged to retain all user data for at least six months and to surrender this information to Russian security services upon request, without a court ruling or any other form of justification or explanation. Moreover, any foreign social media platform serving Russian users has to physically keep all sensible user data within the boundaries of the Russian Federation. And we’re not talking Russian user data, but rather all personal information of any user who happens to have some readers from Russia – like, say, Barack Obama, who has no less than 3,000 Russian nationals among the 40.5 million subscribers to his Facebook page. Twitter should also prepare to move all of Obama’s personal data to Russia and hand it over to the FSB, since both Putin and Medvedev are his followers on Twitter. Ditto for Google. If any of these companies don’t comply they would be subject to administrative fines, up to 500,000 roubles ($14,000), and Russian ISPs would have to block access to these platforms.
This Orwellian masterpiece of legislation was signed into law by Vladimir Putin on May 5, 2014, and it will be enforced from August 1, 2014. Will that be the last day of Russian Internet? Maybe. Unless a new law kills it even faster.
As you can see, picking out the highlights of this piece was a task that was basically beyond me. This really is one of those Read The Whole Thing things. I am in no position to second guess Anton Nossik, but given that the excellent Dominique Lazanski linked to it, I assume the story he tells to be at the very least roughly right. And if it is roughly right, doesn’t it remind you of another similar tale that unfolded in Russia just under a hundred years ago? From dire economic necessity, Lenin had presided over a similar period of economic liberty and creativity, known as the New Economic Policy. And then he shut that down.
But Lenin shut down his NEP because he never believed in it. He only let it happen in the first place because people were starving and the Soviet State wasn’t yet able to suppress the resulting popular complaints. As soon as Lenin and his new apparatus of tyranny got strong enough to do this, bye bye NEP.
But what is Putin thinking? My first guess at a guess would be that he thinks that shutting down the Russian internet is of no more consequence than had been his initial impulse to leave it alone. Letting a thousand internet flowers bloom didn’t mean anything. And nor does him zapping all the flowers with legislative weedkiller. That’s his attitude.
But what do I know? Not much, but I will soon know rather more about such stories as this one, because Dominique Lazanski will be speaking at my home this coming Friday, on the subject of “The Future and Its Digital Enemies”:
I will talk about International Internet policy issues otherwise known as Internet Governance and how individuals, groups and governments play key roles in this process. Ultimately, it is the work of governments that is the real threat, but many play interesting roles in the political chess game. However, all is not lost, innovation and the market process are helping to undermine these threats.
Whenever that word “governance” is heard, you just know that something very bad is being attempted, so it is good to know that the Governancers are not having it all their own way in these matters.
About a month ago, I was at the Institute of Economic Affairs to hear a talk given by Antoine Clarke to the End of the World Club. The audience was larger than usual, and of a very high quality. It listened, fascinated and engrossed, and with some rueful laughter at the intense relevance of a seemingly rather obscure slice of history to our own times.
The talk was about French investment, private but egged on by French politicians for their own foreign policy reasons, in pre-revolutionary Russia. This investment was huge, and for a while it provided a healthy income to French savers, by French standards. But then, because of events which the French media of the time somehow neglected to inform their readers about, it all started to go wrong, and wronger and wronger, and then of course very wrong indeed. Collusion and corruption on a huge scale among and between politicians, bankers and journalists is not, said Antoine, anything new.
Antoine has now gathered his spoken thoughts from that night into a blog posting at the Cobden Centre.
The first Russian bonds sold in France were in 1867 to finance a railroad. Others followed, notably in 1888. At this point the French government decided on a policy of alliance with Russia and the encouragement of French savers to invest in Russian infrastructure. From 1887 to 1913, 3.5% of the French Gross National Product is invested in Russia alone. This amounted to a quarter of all foreign investment by French private citizens. That’s a savings ratio (14% in external investment alone) we wouldn’t mind seeing in the UK today!
A massive media campaign promoting Russia as a future economic giant (a bit like China in recent years) was pushed by politicians. Meanwhile French banks found they could make enormous amounts of commission from Russian bonds: in this period, the Credit Lyonnais makes 30% of its profits from its commission for selling the bonds.
In 1897, the ruble is linked to gold. The French government guarantees its citizens against any default. The Paris Stock Exchange takes listings for, among others: Banque russo-asiatique, la Banque de commerce de Sibérie, les usines Stoll, les Wagons de Petrograd.
The first signs of trouble come in 1905, with the post-Russo-Japanese War revolution. A provisional government announced a default of foreign bonds, but this isn’t reported in the French mainstream media or the French banks that continue to sell (mis-sell?).
During the First World War, the French government issued zero interest bonds to cover the Russian government’s loan repayment, with an agreement to sort out the problem after the war. However, in December 1917, Lenin announced the repudiation of Tsarist debts.
Boom, bust. And surprise surprise, French governments of the twentieth century were neither willing nor able to provide anything like the kind of compensation for disappointed French savers that had earlier been promised.
Antoine Clarke is fluently English thanks to his English father and fluently French thanks to his French mother, and he has lived and worked in both countries. As long as I have known him I have urged him to make maximum use of this bilingualism, in connecting us Anglo libertarians to French stories and writings, and vice versa. This talk and his subsequent written version of it is a perfect example of the sort of thing I had in mind, and I thank and congratulate him for it. How many non-French libertarians already knew this story? Some, certainly, a bit, but certainly not me.