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]

A shoddy book criticising free markets

Whatever your views on free market principles, it is clearly dishonest to imply that those who support tax cuts, lower government spending and greater economic freedom do so in the belief that some wealth will belatedly “trickle down” to the poorest in society or because they view entrenching wealth amongst the privileged as an end in itself. Free marketeers would instead argue that allowing people to pursue all the opportunities they can through free exchange, with the minimal amount of government interference, will lead to generalised wealth creation. The virtue of cutting taxes is not that it benefits the rich, but that it benefits everyone.

Madeline Grant

The author is commenting on what appears to be a shoddy misrepresentation of the ideas of persons such as the late FA Hayek. Interestingly, one of the writers of the book in question, Angela Eagle, had attempted to run against current hard left Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. But it appears Eagle’s understanding of the classical position is terrible and her opposition to such freedoms as we enjoy seems clear. So the question I ask is that if Eagle and her allies are the “moderates”, then in what ways can they possibly be any better than Corbyn, apart from perhaps being less indulgent to anti-semites and certain other thugs?

Samizdata quote of the day

“Often people who do not wish to bear risks feel entitled to rewards from those who do and win; yet these same people do not feel obligated to help out by sharing the losses of those who bear risks and lose. For example, croupiers at gambling casinos expect to be well-tipped by big winners, but they do not expect to be asked to help bear some of the losses of the losers. The case for such asymmetrical sharing is even weaker for businesses where success not a random matter. Why do some feel they may stand back to see whose ventures turn out well (by hindsight determine who has survived the risks and run profitably) and then claim a share of the success; though they do not feel they must bear the losses if things turn out poorly, or feel that if they wish to share in the profits or the control of the enterprise, they should invest and run the risks also?”

Robert Nozick: Anarchy, State, and Utopia, page 256. I suppose one answer to the question the late Prof. Nozick poses is that some people are parasites, and desire the unearned, and that socialist doctrines give their parasitism a gloss of intellectual credibility.

I have been re-reading this early 1970s book, seen at the time as a classic and which still holds up well.

The assumption of equality of outcome

The legitimacy of altering social institutions to achieve greater equality of material condition is, though often assumed, rarely argued for. Writers note that in a given country the wealthiest n percent of the population holds more than that percentage of the wealth, and the poorest n percent holds less; that to get to the wealth of the top n percent from the poorest, one must look at the bottom p per cent (where p is vastly greater than n), and so forth. They then proceed immediately to discuss how this might be altered.

Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (page 232).

By coincidence, a classic example of “the rich are gobbling up all the wealth and something must be done about it” mind-set was in perfect view in this Guardian article yesterday.

While I browsed for a few minutes in Hatchards, the bookshop, yesterday, I came across this book by Daniel Halliday, which attacks the right of people to bequeath their property to heirs, friends, etc. So in other words, the author thinks your wealth isn’t yours to give away. It is rare for such attacks on the right to transfer property to be stated so baldly. I might see if I can grab a review copy and read it, and maybe Fisk it later. (The book has already been reviewed from a fairly benign point of view in the Financial Times, here.)

Facebook isn’t a monopoly and doesn’t need an anti-trust hit or regulation

I have been a user of Facebook for about a decade now and, to some degree, have grown weary of it. To some extent I have become worn down by the constant flow of outrage and venting on its pages from friends and acquaintances, and have started to see more signs of this sort of behaviour myself. I think Facebook is starting to become toxic, so I decided yesterday to go on a Facebook sabbatical, and do old fashioned stuff like read books, tend to my terrace garden and get out and about a lot more instead. And I suspect I’m not unique.

These thoughts of mine come up because there is mounting pressure, it seems, for lawmakers in Washington DC or other places to “do something” about Facebook following revelations about the use/misuse of users’ private data. My brief take on this is that anyone using Facebook should assume as a starting point that they are on a public forum, and exercise due care and attention. (I don’t use its messenger function and prefer Whatsapp instead, or indeed, good old email.) And no-one is forcing me to use Facebook. It may be inconvenient in some ways to give it the cold shoulder, but no more.

With that in mind I reject this sort of argument, in the Wall Street Journal, which ought to know better:

Facebook Inc.’s climb to the pinnacle of business success was nurtured by a grand policy experiment: that a light regulatory touch would turbocharge innovation and make consumers wealthier and happier. Companies who mistreated their customers would succumb to competitors, or be punished with rules already on the books.

The events of the last few months suggest the experiment may have run its course. It has left Facebook effectively an unregulated monopoly and despite founder Mark Zuckerberg’s latest apologies, the company has little economic incentive to change its ways. Its business is to sell its users’ attention to advertisers and thus it must keep pushing the boundaries on privacy, while the paucity of competition limits the consequences if it goes too far. If policy makers want to change that calculus—a big if—they will either have to enact tougher regulation, or use antitrust authority to nurture more competition.

There is no need to re-run the mistaken anti-trust wars against the Standard Oils or Microsofts of the past (both largely unjustified). Facebook will, unless it changes significantly in my view, be threatened most effectively by competition, as has been the case down the decades. The cycle is always the same: we are told that a firm is “too big” or a monopolist and that something must be done about it; and about the same time, new competitors and business models are taking form so that by the time the government action occurs, the new business models are already pushing into the field. This is the classic “creative destruction” of the free market and I don’t expect the situation with Facebook to be any different from earlier business episodes.

One final thought: the complaints about Facebook, a social media platform that was born in US higher education dorm-rooms, has all the trappings of a classic “First World” problem. In Syria, North Korea or Venezuela, I doubt very much that the locals’ main concerns are about people saying mean things on Facebook.

Here is a good take on the issue by Robert Tracinski.

Gender gaps

Julian Jessop, at the Institute of Economic Affairs’ blog:

Few can have failed to notice that UK companies with 250 or more employees are now obliged to report specific figures about their ‘gender pay gap’. Supporters argue that the data are helping to expose the disadvantages that many women face in the workplace. In my view, though, the system is failing.

For a start, the data are frequently misunderstood and misrepresented. Variations in hourly wages or bonuses between men and women are often interpreted – wrongly – as evidence of different pay for the same work. This sort of discrimination would, of course, be illegal. It would presumably be uneconomic too; if women were indeed willing to do the same work for less money, they would surely be over-represented in the highest paying jobs.

Readers in the UK will also have noted an increase in volume of news stories about the so-called gender gap in pay and overall remuneration as it affects women. I am not dismissing concerns about this as fabricated or an example of Leftist mischief-making against the market economy, although I am sure such criticisms would be valid. But as Jessop says, there is a basic problem with the approach that many critics take in assuming that the State should “do something” about it, or that the simple fact of group A earning, on average, less/more than B is ipso facto proof of some wrong being committed. (I urge people to read the whole article; one of the most silly sleights of hands of those trying to make out that there is a major issue is to lump part-time and full-time jobs together.)

The great Thomas Sowell, debunker of many woolly ideas, has dealt with the gender gap issue, as the linked Youtube clip shows.

The US-based economist Tyler Cowen has argued that the gender gap will eventually close and it seems, largely for reasons unconnected to interference by the State.

It seems the Atlantic Monthly doesn’t want diversity after all

I’ve spent my entire adult life in an academic and media environment that put a premium on shocking the conservative conscience. Advocate for the most barbaric abortion practices? Fine. Celebrate an artist who dips a crucifix in urine? Cool. Decry 9/11 first responders as “not human” because of white supremacy? Intriguing. But the marketplace of ideas isn’t for the faint of heart, and good conservatives learn to simultaneously defend the culture of free speech while also fighting hard to build a culture of virtue and respect.

David French, writing about former National Review writer Kevin D Williamson, who committed the heinous crime several years ago in a podcast (Mad Dogs and Englishmen) of saying something nasty about abortions. (Whether he was right on this issue is not the issue here; the point is that the Atlantic Monthly hired a guy on the conservative side of the political spectrum, including one who has attacked the alt-right, the excesses of Trump, etc, but to no avail.) And this is the rub: no matter how subtle, nuanced or intelligent you are, if you offend against the prevailing social justice agenda, or offend someone, that’s it. Kaput, goodbye, exit followed by a large bear. The AM has now fired Williamson. That was quick.

I should add straight away that the Atlantic Monthly is entitled, as a private firm, to hire and fire whom it wants, for whatever reason, though of course that magazine, given its left-liberal ethos, presumably supports state interference with property rights and voluntary contracts (such as support for affirmative action, etc). And people are equally free to ignore its output and read something else. But something about this affair, which may only interest the media in-crowd, tells us that there are now very severe limits to the breadth and tolerance of “liberals” in the West (and it remains a tragedy that that word has been so distorted as to mean the opposite of what it may have meant in the past). Also, it is useful to have media outlets where people of very different outlooks can gain access to ideas they might not otherwise encounter, if only to train their intellectual muscles in much the same way that I try and keep strong by lifting barbells in the gym. The Balkanisation of opinion gets worse.

Some readers will remember the case of John Derbyshire who wrote what in my view was a blatantly racist comment for a magazine and, as he was a columnist for National Review (ironically, as this was where Williamson used to work), was sacked by editor Rich Lowry. The Derbyshire piece was awful; Lowry was entitled to fire a columnist if he wanted to do so, but then again, it is important for some arguments to be aired, even if they are terrible, so that people get the practice of refuting them. (John Stuart Mill, the 19th Century liberal, argued that this is why censorship is so bad because people lose the habit of making good arguments.)

It is not even as if Williamson has been blocked or banned like an internet troll for the offence of filling comment threads with abusive remarks, threats, or hi-jacking discussions to promote some very different agenda. (The editors of this blog, and others, have had to kick out some nutters and abusive people over the years, just as I have blocked people from my social media feeds, in the same way that I would kick out a party guest who urinates on the floor.)

It is necessary to state that Williamson ultimately hasn’t had his freedom violated and he can and no doubt will get work somewhere else. In this age of blogs and new media outlets, it is harder than before to silence views, although some of the recent developments at Facebook etc suggest a worry that social media is becoming an intolerant echo chamber.

The editor of the Atlantic Monthly isn’t a tyrant, but speaking as a media person myself, I think he has made a serious mistake by losing a fine writer, even if I don’t always like what he writes (if Williamson has a fault he can come across as a bit of a snob). Also, in explaining the decision, I get the impression that the Atlantic Monthly has reinforced the notion I have that many so-called “feminists” today aren’t the doughty fighters for equality of old, but actually playing to the idea that women quiver with fear at the very mention of ideas they don’t like. Apparently, the very notion that Williamson was a columnist was traumatic to some women.

Samizdata quote of the day

If you’re a Labour MP, if you take Corbyn’s whip, if you sit behind him in the House of Commons, then you can roll your eyes when he speaks or tell us how distraught you are on Twitter all you like; it counts for nothing. Your arithmetical function is to combine with other Labour MPs in order to give Jeremy Corbyn a majority in Parliament. No amount of election leaflet drivel or chuntering on about “fighting Tory cuts to save my community/the NHS/insert name of local school here” can wash away the permanent stain of your complicity with wickedness. How such people sleep at night or meet their reflection’s eye is their own affair and not my problem, thank God. But as the repellent psychodrama of their monstrous party staggers on to its terrifying conclusion, I’d ask them, in the meantime, to shut up about how good they are, how nasty the Conservatives are, how kindness entails a vote for Labour. Tories don’t succour anti-Semitism, comrade. In my book, that makes them better than you.

Graeme Archer

Samizdata quote of the day

In Britain, the EU is often thought about as a single entity — and one that in the end will do whatever Germany says. But Angela Merkel is struggling to exert control over her own government, let alone the continent. Juncker and Barnier see an EU that does not take its orders from member states, but draws (or claims to draw) its own democratic legitimacy from the European Parliament. The EU member states have an interest in a good deal with Britain. But the European Commission — the apparatus in Brussels — has an interest in Britain being seen to be worse off after leaving the EU. The Commission would also receive 80 per cent of the tariff revenue from UK exports to the EU, making ‘no deal’ more appealing to Brussels than to member states.

– Editorial in the UK’s Spectator magazine (£).

Russia has been horrible for a long time

Amidst some of the commentary about the recent murders – attributed by the UK government to Russian operatives – in the UK, much has been written and said about the less-than-stellar response, in the eyes of many (including those on the political left) of Jeremy Corbyn. Now, my take on Corbyn is rather like that of George Orwell on leftist intellectuals (he was one of them, mind), which is that they’d sooner be caught stealing from a church charity plate than admitting they loved their country.

Even so, it is worth asking the question of quite why certain folk on the left are so beguiled by Russia. After all, in certain respects Putin is not their kind of hero. For a start, he is quite a “man’s man”, strutting about bare-chested, holding guns and riding horses; his regime isn’t nice to homosexuals, seems to extract a lot of CO2-producing gasses, and so on. There are no “safe spaces” in Russian schools and universities, I would guess.

However, it is worth noting that there was never really a time when the situation, particularly post-1917 and up to the fall of the Berlin Wall, was better. And this Daily Mirror writer comes up with a comment so flawed that for a second I thought it was some sort of parody. For the writer (adopting a sort of pen-name) suggests that poor old Corbyn is besotted with the shining image of a glorious Soviet Union that once – in the writer’s opinion – existed in its early years before certain things, inexplicably, went wrong. It had “free” healthcare, employment “rights” and a nifty big public sector. And it was egalitarian! The writer appears to buy this rosy view of Soviet Russia (the fact that opponents of Communism were murdered from day one appears not to register). The writer does not note the most important divide of all: the split between those who have power, and those who don’t, over others. The inequality in wealth of early 21st Century America or Europe is nothing compared to the inequality between the party bosses in, say, 1950 and that which exists in wealth terms in a Western liberal democracy. Wealth and coercive power are entirely different things.

The things that went wrong in the Soviet Empire were integral the very nature of collectivism itself; failure to understand that wealth inequality is entirely different from differences in coercive power is at the root of why leftists, and collectivists of all hues, get things like the Soviet Union wrong. The project was doomed because its underlying rationale was built on sand. (Here is a new and acclaimed biography of Lenin, making the point that what was set up in Russia was evil and mad from the start.)

So far from being an incisive takedown of Corbyn, the Daily Mirror article sort of affirms his infatuation with communism and says the main problem now is that Russia is run by thugs, as if what happened from 1917 onwards was ever going to be any different. When power is centralised, what does this writer expect will happen? And perhaps it is fitting to conclude that anyone who wonders “where did the dream of Soviet Russia go wrong?” should sit down with this 1944 masterpiece by a certain FA Hayek.

On the enduring stupidity of tariffs

Virginia Postrel:

Aluminum foil wraps burritos, physics equipment and the highlighted tresses of hair-salon customers. It forms flexible ducts and lasagna pans, lines cigarette packs and fast-food sandwich wrappers. It hides between layers of film in flexible packaging. It protects aspirin bottles from tampering, petri dishes from light and tractor engines from overheating. It tops yogurt cups and peanut cans. It backs blister packs of antihistamines, antacids and birth-control pills. It goes into automotive parts and air-conditioning systems.

U.S. manufacturers rely on aluminum foil. So do nail salons, building contractors and bakeries.To the Trump administration, however, none of these businesses—or their employees—matter as much as a couple of domestic aluminum makers. Disregarding the ripple effects, the Commerce Department has said it will impose preliminary duties of 97 percent to 162 percent on the Chinese imports that supply much of the U.S. market with thin aluminum foil. That’s likely to have much more far-reaching effects on U.S. companies than the minor deals President Donald Trump announced on his trip to China.

As the Wall Street Journal (paywall) editors said:

Mr. Trump seems not to understand that steel-using industries in the U.S. employ some 6.5 million Americans, while steel makers employ about 140,000. Transportation industries, including aircraft and autos, account for about 40% of domestic steel consumption, followed by packaging with 20% and building construction with 15%. All will have to pay higher prices, making them less competitive globally and in the U.S.

And the national security argument trotted out to support such tariffs is given suitably short shrift by the WSJ:

The national security threat from foreign steel is preposterous because China supplies only 2.2% of U.S. imports and Russia 8.7%. But the tariffs will whack that menace to world peace known as Canada, which supplies 16%. South Korea, which Mr. Trump needs for his strategy against North Korea, supplies 10%, Brazil 13% and Mexico 9%.

On just about all conceivable grounds, the tariffs are stupid.

Last year, reflecting on a few of Trump’s acts, such as deregulation moves, the tax cuts, Supreme Court picks, crushing of the Paris AGW accord and the Jerusalem embassy decision, I felt that, while Trump had said a lot of foolish things, maybe he was turning out to be a pretty good POTUS after all. The protectionism, however, remains a major blot on his record.

Ross Clark at the UK’s Spectator, meanwhile, makes an interesting observation of how all this plays to the case for Brexit.

South Africa decides Zimbabwe is an instruction manual, not a warning

Grim news from South Africa. Just in case anyone thought that the departure of President Zuma, a corrupt man who has stripped his country (South Africa faces severe water shortages brought on by neglect of infrastructure) might lead to better things will be disappointed. The new regime has signed off on a land-grab policy of confiscating white-owned land without compensation. (About 70 per cent of South African farmland is owned by whites.) The claim made is that any white person who owns land in the country must, by definition, have stolen it. (The idea that such ownership might have come into being without theft just does not cross certain persons’ minds. That fact is simply undiscussible.)

As we have found in the seizure/collectivisation of farms in the former Soviet Union, in China, and in Zimbabwe more recently, such moves herald mass poverty and violence. South Africa has ironically seen an influx of poor Zimbabweans since the vile Mugabe regime started to attack white farmers and seize land; the country has suffered a catastrophic decline in its farmland output, which may never recover. South Africa seems keen to follow suit; it has a range of largely self-inflicted woes: the current government is deeply corrupt. The country needs inward investment – seizing white-owned property hardly encourages any investor, of any racial background. As a matter of simple common sense, taking land by brute force, without compensation, from owners and giving it to those who are political cronies and hangers-on will inevitably reduce output and wealth, not the other way round.

The unfolding of South Africa’s history is a tragedy, and it is easy to see why there is an element of “score-settling” at work here. Apartheid, let it not be forgotten, was introduced in the late 1940s at the behest to some degree of the white trade union movement, keen to bolster its bargaining power. Even if you were a private entrepreneur who wanted to hire non-whites for certain jobs, for example, you couldn’t. (Minimum wage laws operated in ways that hurt, not helped, non-whites.) The system was as absurd and vile as the Jim Crow laws of the US, or other examples of serfdom and oppression down the ages. It had to go; for anyone who supports a free market economy, apartheid and its cousins are absurd as well as wrong.

But the solution of seizing white-owned land, regardless of the honesty or provenance of it, and giving it to people via a political carve-up, turns the injustices inherited from the old regime on their head, creating a new form of racism. Two wrongs do not make a right. And further, one suspects that the land seizures are an attempt to deflect attention from the failings of the existing regime. Compare and contrast how, for example, the “Asian tigers” threw off their old colonial masters and focused on getting seriously rich, not least by respecting property rights. And wherever one looks, there does seem a pretty tight correlation between respect for property rights – indeed their very existence – with prosperity and happiness more broadly. Hernando de Soto has made something of a career pushing the point that the world needs more property rights, spread among more people. (Check out this recent lecture by Niall Ferguson on the same sort of issue.) As an aside, it also seems to be a pretty solid marker of respect for property rights to have a large and growing middle class. I suspect that one of the underlying problems in South Africa is that among the non-white population, persons who can be so described aren’t a big portion of the total.

Lest anyone pounces on the notion that what has happened proves that certain racial groups are incapable of building a civilized political order, bear in mind that here in the UK, the oh-so-white Caucasian leadership of Her Majesty’s Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, and his colleagues, want to do to the owners of privately-owned industries such as electricity, gas, and the rest what the new leadership in South Africa wants to do to white farmers. The defence of settled property rights remains a vital cause for anyone interested not just in prosperity, but liberty. As of this week, that cause took a turn for the worse in South Africa.

The strange lack of any media or political noise about the Las Vegas shooting

Like Matt Walsh, I remain baffled at why the slaughter of concert-goers in Las Vegas a few months ago, and the almost total lack of evidence or data on the killer’s motives and actions, haven’t caused much in the way of a media/political firestorm, contrasting with events of recent days:

If you recall, dozens upon dozens of people were gunned down in Las Vegas on October 1. There were 58 fatalities in total. Another 422 injuries. That’s 480 casualties — 480 casualties — and I’m not even counting the hundreds more injured by trampling or shrapnel. It was the worst mass shooting in modern American history by a mile. It had more casualties than Orlando, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, and Parkland combined — times two. And it was carried out in the middle of a major American city.

Yet that terrible massacre seemed to fade from the headlines rapidly and inexplicably. The country had almost entirely moved on by the beginning of the following week. It seemed to me that we had forgotten about it within three or four days, but I’ll say a week just to be safe. The media is so obsessed with Parkland that several of its survivors are now practically household names. Does anyone remember the names of a single one of the Las Vegas survivors? Did any of them do media tours? Did CNN hold a “town hall” about Las Vegas? Was there an extensive conversation about potential law enforcement failures in Las Vegas, as there has been about their failures in Florida? We’ve all had quite a bit to say about the police officer who waited outside while kids were gunned down, but what about the police officers and armed security who made it to the shooter’s hotel room while he was still raining shots down on the crowd, but stood outside the door for an hour before entering?

From my vantage point, it seems that fairly early on, the media seemed to give up a hunt for explanations and for holding various people to account. Consider this point: Vegas hotels are famously packed with CCTV to foil thieves and crooks of various descriptions. And yet a man was able to get a large cache of weapons into a room and do what he did.

The trouble with even writing about this topic now is that I feel that I sound like a conspiracy nut, which I am emphatically not.

All very odd.