In the aftermath of the horror yesterday in Paris, I noticed that Mr Obama gave a speech, as many other national leaders did, expressing solidarity with France at this time and supporting free speech. I am sure I am not the only person to note how hollow Mr Obama’s comments sound in the light of how his administration conducted itself around the time of the attack in Benghazi when a film about Islam had been released. This isn’t narrow political point-scoring – Republicans and others are just as capable of getting themselves wrong on this issue. The point, rather, is that Western leaders need to be as ruthlessly consistent as possible. When the Obama administration was tested on this sort of issue, it wobbled. Islamist fanatics notice – it creates incentives among those who calculate that if they create enough hysteria, are sufficiently “offended” by something, that people will cave in. The most powerful country on the planet caved.
Another point worth making, particularly as people across the political spectrum seem to be genuinely shocked and appalled by this attack, is that far too many attacks on free speech these days are justified in the name of banning “hate speech”, and so on. Certain forms of expression may indeed be hateful and unpleasant but the best defence against that is indifference, contempt, or ridicule. And another point, particularly for the more anarchist-minded out there, especially those of a leftist bent, is this: if you want to vent, do so on private property, in a consensual way. The producers of the French magazine did that: no-one was forced to buy their product or forced to read it. It is not as if they sprayed their cartoons in public streets outside a mosque.
Browsing one of those coffee-table sort of magazines you get in the flashier reception rooms in City offices, I flicked through the magazine called Monocle, which has lots of travel articles and advertisements for things I cannot afford, such as IWC watches, Maserati sports cars and holidays to “eco-resorts” in the Indian Ocean, etc. Laced with all this are earnest, remorselessly trendy essays on politics and culture. The undertone is progressive-lefty globalist, with a bit of concession, to be fair, to entrepreneurial vigour and technology. (Some of its items are excellent.) There is a sort of default setting on issues such as Man-made global warming, but the level of preaching is soft. It is a magazine, I imagine, that is pitched at affluent people who want the good things of life but want to feel they are still being “cool”.
I sometimes think that those on the libertarian/classical liberal/conservative end of the spectrum are missing a bit of a trick here by not producing things such as this. Ideas often spread not simply through big books full of Important Ideas (crucial though they are) or from having lots of university professors who espouse such notions (these are crucial of course) but also through aspects of popular and more rarified culture. I mean things such as art galleries, travel magazines and novels. It appears to me – though I have no scientific way of measuring this – that travel mags and books, for example (think National Geographic, Rough Guide books) seem to be edited by people who just trot out the bromides of the progressive, Tranzi mindset without really thinking about their premises. Here is a classic example from the Monocle issue 49 that came out in the end of 2011, on page 43. It is an article about so-called “soft power” and what countries must do to project it. Needless to say, its assumptions are that governments (ie, the taxpayer) should do it:
“The term for soft power may have been coined in America, but Washington has always seemed more focused on demonstrating heavy-handed military power or confrontational commercial tactics than investing in soft power symbols such as an official tourist board.”
America needs a tourist board, otherwise who knows? People might not be aware that the world’s largest economy exists. What an oversight.
Or this nugget:
“Despite the absence of a national tourism board – or a modern, well-run national airline – the US still attracts millions of visitors every year.”
Let’s think about this for a bit. The Monocle author says it is a bit odd that so many people go on vacation to the US despite that country not having a bunch of bureaucrats and marketing folk (paid for by taxes) saying what a terrific place the US is. (Surely states and cities do promote themselves, though. California puts up adverts in the UK.)
People just seem to be able to figure out that visiting the US can be done and is a nice idea without a national cheerleader organisation. Further, it appears to be a surprise to the author of that piece that this can happen when the US does not appear to have a major, national airline that has some sort of official status. Wow.
The author does recognise that given the sheer size of the country in geographic terms, and the size of its economy, that may be it can get by without such things. But does it not cross the mind of the author that the reason why some nations (it mentions a whole cluster of them) have a positive image for travellers has nothing to do with state-financed marketing moves or state-backed broadcasters such as the BBC, but because of the bottom-up, free market nature of activity in some of these places that creates things people want to have and which therefore are good for a country’s image? Ironically, Monocle is stuffed with glossy adverts for all manner of brands that speak of the triumph of capitalism, and an admiration for the people who make it work.
I think that if governments really do want to influence opinions in the wider world about what, say, the UK or US is about, the best way to do this is to get out of the way and let the actions and words of people, uninfluenced by government, do the job. Cultural outreach works best when governments have nothing to do with it, since otherwise it reeks of propaganda. Whether you like or dislie these effusions of the market, I’d say that the manufacturers of Rolex watches, BMW cars or pop music do more for the respective images of their countries than anything likely to come out of a government-backed broadcaster or tourism board.
The Taliban child murderers in Pakistan are beyond the bounds of reason or common humanity just as much as the individual lunatic who flies their flag for a brief moment of glory in a coffee shop. Properly speaking, what Sony did, and what the political leaders who advise talking to the Taliban are suggesting, is not appeasement as we knew it in the 20th century. Terrorism is not international politics – and it is not war in any conventional sense. It is criminal insanity. There can be no pragmatic settlement, no negotiation and no dealing with these enemies. Their power will only be destroyed by mortifying defeat and that means defying their threats and their demands at every point. If that puts us at risk, so be it. No life worth living is without risk.
– Janet Daley
Interestingly, Obama’s rebuke for Sony has led to some pushback. It is worthwhile speculating if such events will sour relations between Obama and many of those in the Hollywood establishment who have been among his most fervent supporters.
Douglas Murray argues that in today’s supposedly anti-politics culture, a distrust of the current crop of folk in power does not translate into genuine liberalism and accountability – such as would happen if Whitehall and Brussells were cut down to size – but something potentially very nasty indeed. And he takes a look at the likes of Owen Jones and Russell Brand as symptoms of a wider problem:
Writing about those rioters who in the summer of 2011 smashed, burned and looted shops across Britain, Brand writes that their actions were no worse than the consumerism which he describes as having been “imposed” upon them. And this, I cannot help thinking, is an especially revealing phrase — entirely at one with a popular world view. That view sees “us” as poor victims of forces and temptations which are not only pushed upon us, but to which, when they are pushed upon us long enough, we will inevitably and necessarily succumb. If you are in a “consumerist” society long enough how could you be expected to just not buy crap you can’t afford when you don’t need it? No — the answer must be that of course you will succumb. And from there any bad behaviour — even looting and burning — will be excused because it will be someone else’s fault.
This is the world view of an addict. And the answer to all our society’s problems of the addict Brand is one answer which some addicts seek for their addiction — which is that everyone is to be blamed for their failings except themselves. Grand conspiracy theories and establishment plots offer great promise and comfort to such people. They suggest that when we fail or when we fall we do so never because of any conceivable failing or inability of our own, but because some bastard — any bastard — made us do it, has been planning to do it and perhaps always intended to do so. Of course the one thing missing in all this — the one thing that doesn’t appear in either of these books or in any of their conspiratorial and confused demagogic world view — is the only thing which has saved anyone in the past and the only thing which will save anybody in the future: not perfect societies, perfectly engineered economies and perfectly equal, flattened-out collective-based societies, but human agency alone.
This analysis is spot-on, and it explains why, even though concepts such as “the ruling class” or “establishment” can have some sort of value in explaining how groups of people act and think, they can become very dangerous without understanding that people respond to incentives, and that we make a mistake in seeing events as being driven by close-knit cabals or groups wielding enormous, but somehow secret, power. In other words, what I have learned from subjects such as “public choice economics” or the insights of writers such as Milton Friedman or a Henry Hazlitt is that seeing dark forces at work to explain things like bank crises or environmental problems is more about what people find emotionally satisfying than what actually happens 99 per cent of the time.
Although I should not have to spell it out, in the past, a lot of the sort of thinking that is being described here took the form of anti-semitism. And it is probably no great accident that this is also on the rise at the moment.
One of the lead stories on the UK national news today is a report that a hacking attack on Sony has led to a satirical film at the expense of the brutal regime about North Korea being pulled from Western cinemas:
Sony is canceling The Interview‘s planned theatrical release in response to all major US theater chains deciding not to show the film after attacks were threatened. “In light of the decision by the majority of our exhibitors not to show the film The Interview, we have decided not to move forward with the planned December 25 theatrical release,” Sony says in a statement, reprinted by Variety. “We respect and understand our partners’ decision and, of course, completely share their paramount interest in the safety of employees and theater-goers.”
“We stand by our filmmakers and their right to free expression.”
The hackers who stole data from Sony threatened attacks on screenings of The Interview yesterday afternoon. In the time since, around half of all movie screens in the US declined to show the film.
Sony’s statement continues: “Sony Pictures has been the victim of an unprecedented criminal assault against our employees, our customers, and our business. Those who attacked us stole our intellectual property, private emails, and sensitive and proprietary material, and sought to destroy our spirit and our morale – all apparently to thwart the release of a movie they did not like. We are deeply saddened at this brazen effort to suppress the distribution of a movie, and in the process do damage to our company, our employees, and the American public. We stand by our filmmakers and their right to free expression and are extremely disappointed by this outcome.”
It is hard not to see the decision by some cinemas to pull screening of the film as anything other than a dangerous capitulation to threats of violence, although one appreciates that the owners of the cinemas think they have a legitimate issue in protecting staff and audiences. But still, this sort of move is bound to encourage other criminals to target any film, of whatever stripe, that they dislike and wish to close down. A few years ago we had the Danish cartoon episode. So what next, one wonders? I wonder what would happen if someone in the West produced a film taking the piss out of the bare-chested leader of Russia?
Meanwhile, in a weird case of life imitating art, the hackers have also allegedly grabbed an early script of the newest James Bond movie. You almost wonder whether this is clever pre-publicity, but it appears this is not.
A few months ago, Nigel Farage, the grinning leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party, in one of his many contributions to the gaiety of nations, said – about the time of the annexation by Russia of Crimea – that he “admired” Vladimir Putin. Farage said that he did not admire the goals of VP, oh no, but he did have a sort of admiration for the ruthless determination of the man. (One wonders whether Farage rather liked the idea of having the power to bump off opponents and over-inquisitive journalists. Politicians who grin as maniacally as he does make me nervous.) Those who must abide by the messiness and compromises of Western liberal democracy can sometimes, no doubt, dream of the sort of ruthless power wielded by a Putin, Stalin or a Mao. (We tend to forget, by the way, that even a supposedly tough politician such as a Reagan or Thatcher were more hemmed in by circumstances and debate than some of their more fervent admirers and detractors care to admit.)
Alas, it appears that the image of Putin as this ruthless, chess-playing genius wrongfooting silly old Cameron, Merkel, and the chap with the funny moonface from France is not quite standing up to scrutiny. Here’s a report by Bloomberg:
“The foundations on which Vladimir Putin built his 15 years in charge of Russia are giving way. The meltdown of the ruble, which has plunged 18 percent against the dollar in the last two days alone, is endangering the mantra of stability around which Putin has based his rule. While his approval rating is near an all-time high on the back of his stance over Ukraine, the currency crisis risks eroding it and undermining his authority, Moscow-based analysts said.
In a surprise move today, the Russian central bank raised interest rates by the most in 16 years, taking its benchmark to 17 percent. That failed to halt the rout in the ruble, which has plummeted to about 70 rubles a dollar from 34 as oil prices dived by almost half to below $60 a barrel. Russia relies on the energy industry for as much as a quarter of economic output, Moody’s Investors Service said in a Dec. 9 report.
Now might also be a good time to remind ourselves of the “curse of natural resources”.
It would be worth wondering what are the odds that Putin can last a lot longer in power. That said, a sobering thought is that when regimes are in deep trouble, they can do desperate, crazy things, as Argentina did in 1982 by invading the Falklands. If I were a planner for NATO right now, I’d be having a nervous Christmas and New Year ahead of me.
“Context matters—everyone agrees about that. And it’s the context that distinguishes the ordinary kinds of communication, protected by the First Amendment, from those kinds of statements, like threats or defamatory comments, that are crimes. The law recognizes that a threat is a kind of injury, over and above the language in which it is communicated. If I were to move my hand swiftly toward your face, and you flinch, that’s an assault because you’ve been made to reasonably fear for your safety. When exactly the same act is carried out through language, the protection that communication normally receives should not cover up the criminality of the underlying assault. Holding Elonis responsible for his actions threatens no serious threat to the First Amendment.”
– Timothy Sandefur, making an argument about how threatening messages issued via social media, etc, should be regarded from the point of view of free speech. I need to reflect a bit more about what I think about the cases he’s cited, but the whole article is worth reading.
“My father used to say, ‘Eternal paranoia is the price of liberty. Vigilance is not enough’.”
– Berlin Game, by Len Deighton, page 57.
This, I think, is my main objection to Band Aid 30: it is all predicated on a belief that the British public are mean-spirited and uncharitable, when in actual fact nothing could be further from the truth. It’s time the likes of Geldof stopped asking us to give money, and like Adele, started donating some themselves. Charity, after all, begins at home.
– Bryony Gordon
The whole article is a magnificent demolition of celebrity “charity culture” and the cant that is associated with it. Given how some people, such as that now-dead monster, Jimmy Savile, used charity as a shield to ward off questions about his behaviour, and given that at a less odious level, people with interesting personal tax affairs like to go on with charity efforts to get good PR, this sort of analysis is overdue. “Sir” Bob Geldof should perhaps tend rather more to his personal family affairs, which appear to be in a bad way, than making sneering remarks about someone who wants to get on with developing her career as a singer. How selfish of her!
It impresses me in a grim sort of way how people who like to think of themselves as free market can justify some pretty big infringements of freedom of contract. Here is an argument I came across the other day (I won’t mention the author, as it was in private conversation): Minimum wage laws where the minimum is set at a high level are economically sensible because people earn enough to live on which means they don’t have to claim welfare and hence this keeps taxes down.
Feel free to debunk.
Now, tax evaders aren’t necessarily a commendable category of people: surely there are a lot of criminals among them (if I don’t obey the law when it prohibits killing people, am I really expected to comply with its fiscal provisions?). But I find rather convincing the idea that all those activities that run the gamut between fiscal arbitrage and outright tax evasion have had somehow the effect of lowering overall fiscal burden. The mere possibility of an ever greater erosion of their tax basis may have slightly slowed down that incredible increase in taxation which we have experienced almost everywhere in the West.
From the Econlog blog.
I have written a fair bit on this site and elsewhere (I work in the financial/media world) about this subject, and there is no doubt in my mind that the idea that tax competition is harmful is almost always held by politicians and collectivist-minded commentators who want to create a sort of global tax cartel. Cartels are, we learn in our textbooks, harmful although they tend to fracture with time. (The OPEC cartel had a problem in the 80s and 90 sustaining high oil prices, which at one stage went below $10 a barrel). However futile the attempt, do not underestimate the harm that is being done in the process of trying to shut down offshore financial centres and the like. The possibility that people can and will take their money elsewhere is one of the few constraints that exist on otherwise rapacious governments. So naturally, governments try to stop this from happening – hence all this talk about shutting down tax “competition”.
When governments claim that tax dodgers are taking food from the mouths of poor babies, treat it with scorn. The money that goes offshore doesn’t disappear down some black hole, never to appear again: that money, if it is to earn a return and outpace inflation, is invested – ie, it is put to work, often far more effectively than would otherwise be the case.
Bank bail-outs have been a cultural catastrophe for those of us who support free markets, low taxes and enterprise. During the 1980s and 1990s, much of the British public came to accept and even embrace capitalism, in return for a simple deal: profits and losses would both have to be privatised. Clever entrepreneurs, savvy traders or brilliant footballers would be encouraged to make money; but companies and investors that placed the wrong bets would be allowed to fail, with no pity. Not only did this trigger an explosion in prosperity, it also helped shift the British mindset towards a much more pro-enterprise position. The rules of the game felt fair: risk and reward went hand in hand. The government would serve as an umpire, not a supporter of vested interests.But the crisis of 2007-09 put an end to this implicit bargain, at least in the eyes of vast swathes of the public.
– Allister Heath.
Bailouts are a disaster for pro-capitalists. It is almost as if it was deliberate. My only slight caveat here with what is a typically incisive article is that I am not sure how deep the greater support for capitalism really ever went. It certainly never penetrated academia, and parts of the policy maker world. But I am an optimist: the continued respect that seems to be shown among ordinary people for genuine entrepreneurs (not crony capitalists) shows that something has taken root.