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]

If the President does it, it isn’t treason

This morning the New York Times, NPR and the BBC have all been discussing details of communications between senior Al Qaeda leaders which form the basis for closing numerous US, UK and other embassies worldwide. A New York Times article on the subject is typical:

The Obama administration’s decision last week to close nearly two dozen diplomatic missions and issue a worldwide travel alert came after the United States intercepted electronic communications in which the head of Al Qaeda ordered the leader of the group’s affiliate in Yemen to carry out an attack as early as this past Sunday, according to American officials.

Additional detail is given later in that article and in dozens of others from numerous news organizations. They know these details only because they were leaked said details by sources inside the Obama administration.

These details are clearly useful to Al Qaeda. They inform the leadership of that organization in no uncertain terms of US intercept capabilities, alerting them to the need to change their communications methods.

Had an Edward Snowden or a Bradley Manning revealed such information, it would be called “treason” by many commentators. Charges would be pressed in court of “aiding the enemy”.

When the leak is official and far more damaging, no one mentions treason. Instead, this is simply business as usual.

News headlines do not focus on questions about the identity of the suspected leaker. The leaker or leakers will not have to flee to foreign countries to evade prosecution, even though the Obama administration has prosecuted more whistleblowers than all previous administrations combined. That is because the leak is clearly authorized at the highest levels, never mind that it may have just “burned” a vital intelligence source in the process.

One may wonder why the Obama administration has chosen to leak such information to the press. That is an open secret. The New York Times first article on the subject some days ago has, buried within it, the following paragraph, a paragraph that should by all rights be the lead:

Some analysts and Congressional officials suggested Friday that emphasizing a terrorist threat now was a good way to divert attention from the uproar over the N.S.A.’s data-collection programs, and that if it showed the intercepts had uncovered a possible plot, even better.

In other words, aiding the enemy is fine provided it is in the service of fighting the actual joint enemy of Al Qaeda and the Obama administration, to wit, the general public.

Samizdata quote of the day

What happened here was the gradual habituation of the people, little by little, to being governed by surprise; to receiving decisions deliberated in secret; to believing that the situation was so complicated that the government had to act on information which the people could not understand, or so dangerous that, even if the people could not understand it, it could not be released because of national security… Each step was so small, so inconsequential, so well explained or, on occasion, ‘regretted,’ that, unless one were detached from the whole process from the beginning, unless one understood what the whole thing was in principle, what all these ‘little measures’ that no ‘patriotic German’ could resent must some day lead to, one no more saw it developing from day to day than a farmer in his field sees the corn growing. One day it is over his head.

- An excerpt from: They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45 by Milton Mayer, published by the University of Chicago Press. 1955

Too many scandals to track

In the latest attempt by the Obama White House to recapture the glory days of the Nixon administration, it has been revealed that the US Department of Justice went on a fishing expedition into the telephone records of the Associated Press. They learned who everyone that any AP reporter using one of the telephones in question spoke to for months.

Government obtains wide AP phone records in probe.

As it happens, this is against the law. According to 28 CFR 50.10: “”No subpoena may be issued to any member of the news media or for the telephone toll records of any member of the news media without the express authorization of the Attorney General.”

What are the odds anyone will even be mildly disciplined for this? Zero, I’d say.

Not the quote of the day…

Not the official QOTD, but pretty great anyway:

“If prices are information, then subsidies are censorship.”

- Russ Nelson

David Stockman’s “Sundown in America”

David Stockman has written a controversial Op Ed piece entitled Sundown in America that was published last Sunday in the New York Times.

I’ll quote the opening paragraphs to give a taste of the content:

The Dow Jones and Standard & Poor’s 500 indexes reached record highs on Thursday, having completely erased the losses since the stock market’s last peak, in 2007. But instead of cheering, we should be very afraid.

Over the last 13 years, the stock market has twice crashed and touched off a recession: American households lost $5 trillion in the 2000 dot-com bust and more than $7 trillion in the 2007 housing crash. Sooner or later — within a few years, I predict — this latest Wall Street bubble, inflated by an egregious flood of phony money from the Federal Reserve rather than real economic gains, will explode, too.

I’m not certain I agree with all of it — his political prescriptions towards the end seem especially suspect — but it is absolutely worth a read.

Update: Stockman addresses critics, including Paul Krugman (who in typical fashion fired off a torrent of mocking ad hominems instead of a response), in this interview with Marketwatch.

Fire burn and housing bubble redux

It appears that it isn’t merely the U.K.’s “Conservative” party that has difficulty recalling 2008, a year now so distant as to be beyond the memory of living politicians:

Obama administration pushes banks to make home loans to people with weaker credit

I’ll give the devil his due — Marx said it best in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon when he noted that history repeats itself, “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”

Doubly-illegal acts

I have to confess, as an ignorant inhabitant of North America, that I don’t really understand the current press scandal in the U.K., and I was hoping that perhaps someone could enlighten me.

As I understand it, a number of members of the press committed crimes in the course of gathering material for stories — that is, they committed acts that were already illegal, and which already carried substantial penalties.

It would therefore seem that preventing such acts in the future would require nothing more than diligently enforcing existing law.

I’m therefore curious as to what purpose is articulated for ending freedom of expression in the U.K.

Is it claimed that the laws were not being enforced before on the powerful? Then surely the new restrictions on freedom will be selectively enforced as well, with only the weak being stifled. (That is, of course, universal — the powerful never need permission to do anything. Freedom is a protection for the weak, the strong need no protection.)

Is it claimed that performing criminal acts was somehow insufficiently illegal? Is it claimed that the existing laws against criminal conspiracies are not already broad, vague and all-encompassing?

All too frequently, when it is discovered that merely making acts illegal is insufficient to prevent them from happening, rather than trying to see to it that existing law is enforced, the craven panderers to the outraged (by which I mean our supposedly elected masters) simply propose to make a crime doubly illegal, triply illegal, or quadruply illegal, as though multiplying the number of ways in which some act is forbidden is a magically all-potent and riskless remedy.

Anyway, to return to my original question: as someone who (for once) lives in a sane country, that is to say a place where there is a near-absolute protection for freedom of speech and the press which is beyond being destroyed for the political expediency of the moment, and who is not immersed in the discussion of the bout of temporary insanity now gripping your island in the Atlantic, might I ask what the point claimed here is? What is the putative purpose of making things that were illegal before even more illegal? Is there one, or is this just an exercise in appeasing a bunch of outspoken members of the professionally offended classes?

Fire burn and housing bubble

In other news, it would appear that the “Conservative” party believes that the housing market in the U.K. is insufficiently distorted and in danger of reverting to market principles. To prevent that, the new budget contains provisions to assure that there will be malinvestment, bank bailouts, and direct state losses from mortgage defaults for years to come.

I confess to being impressed. It is normal for politicians to fail to learn from history, but here they’ve managed to forget even 2008. Well done, gentlemen, well done!

Chancellor extends home-buying schemes

Putting the Gini back in the bottle.

“The Gini coefficient in my office is close to 1.0. How I yearn for the assembly line.” — An anonymous finance professional of arid wit.

I often see postings by friends on social media sites trumpeting the fact that the “gap between rich and poor” (whatever that might mean) is terrible in the United States and we must do something about it.

When confronted with such statements, I usually note that the Gini coefficient (which seems to be what they are referring to) is far lower in India, and yet most poor people in the United States would strongly resist trading places with someone in India at the same decile of income, while strangely most poor people in India probably would trade places with their counterpart in the United States.

The reply I generally get in return is either silence, or sometimes a pointer to some sort of document or video purporting to explain how damaging to society a big “gap between rich and poor” is. (Such materials are generally rather unconvincing, at least to me.)

I continue to hold that it is better to be eating well but to know that others are doing even better than you than it is to know that even though you are starving most other people are too. The former will keep you fed, while the latter should reasonably appeal only to those so encumbered by jealousy that they prefer universal misery to the success of others.

I suppose, however, that it is a question of personal values. To me, envy is not a rational basis for public policy, but others appear to feel it is the only one that counts.

Huemer’s “The Problem of Political Authority”

Michael Huemer, a professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado at Boulder, recently released a book called “The Problem of Political Authority: An Examination of the Right to Coerce and the Duty to Obey” that has made quite a splash in some libertarian circles.

As just one example, Bryan Caplan recently implied in a blog posting that he believes it to be the best book of libertarian political philosophy ever written.

I have not quite completed reading it, but I have already come to the conclusion that Bryan is absolutely correct. The book is a gem, destined to become a classic, and any serious libertarian should have it on their shelf near their copies of the works of Hayek, Rand, the Friedmans, and the rest of the pantheon. They should even, dare I say, read it.

(And with that understated endorsement, on to my review.)

One of the divides within the libertarian community is the debate between minarchists and anarchists — that is, between those that believe a night watchman state is a good idea, and those who are skeptical of the notion of any state at all. Outside of libertarian circles, of course, the question gets scarcely any attention at all, and it is generally assumed that the state is both a practical necessity and morally justified.

The topic that Humer’s astonishing tour de force concerns itself with is the moral and ethical underpinnings of state power, an area known in political philosophy as the problem of political authority.

In considering the justification for the state, a nagging question naturally arises. Most people would claim it is morally impermissible for your neighbor to force you to give money to a charity of his choice at gunpoint. However, in stark contrast, most people would claim it is permissible for the state to do essentially the same thing, that is, to extort taxes from you using the threat of force in order to spend those funds on projects other than your own.

Most people appear to claim there is an important difference between these cases — otherwise, they would not believe in the legitimacy of the state.

The eponymous problem of political authority is the question of what the distinction between these cases might be — on what basis, if any, might we justify this difference in treatment between the behavior we consider ethically justified from individual actors versus the power we accord to the state.

Huemer systematically addresses the justifications that have been articulated for political authority over the centuries, from hypothetical social contract theory to consequentialism and everything in between. I will give away the punchline by noting that his arguments would appear to fatally damage all of them.

Political philosophers generally start by attempting to construct a complete moral framework within which they justify their positions. Huemer takes an entirely different approach. He does not assume that we all agree on a single universal moral framework. He only assumes that most of us generally share similar moral intuitions about certain sorts of situations in the average case. (The strongest sort of assumption he demands is that his reader agree that beating people up without provocation is usually bad.)

Because he demands that the reader agree with him on so few things and so weakly, Huemer’s argument gains enormous strength, since there is no need to accept an all-encompassing ethical theory to believe the rest of his arguments.

On the basis of very pedestrian ethical assumptions, Huemer manages to build a case against any moral justification for political authority whatsoever. He engages, attacks and destroys arguments of all sorts with panache. Even John Rawls famous “A Theory of Justice” (perhaps the most cited work written in philosophy in the last century) is mercilessly examined under bright lights and staked through the heart.

One of the book’s greatest strengths is the simplicity and lucidity of his prose. Unlike many of his academic peers, Huemer’s writing is crystal clear and (nearly) jargon free. A bright ten year old would have no difficulty with the language. He does not seek to conceal weakness beneath an avalanche of polysyllabic words and mile long sentences. Instead, he makes his arguments so straightforward to understand that there is little or no room to disagree with him.

I am uncertain as to whether Huemer will persuade many people. As Swift once observed, “it is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into.” Most people hold their political positions not as a result of rational contemplation but because they were exposed to a set of ideas at an early age and have an emotional attachment to them that is not easily altered. The fact that Huemer is arguing for unfamiliar idea that goes against most conventional wisdom is probably more important to the average reader than the razor sharp edge to which he has honed his arguments.

Never the less, in a hypothetical world in which all chose their views on the basis of rational consideration, Huemer would be changing hearts and minds by the trainload.

The Unauthorized Autobiography of Kim Jong Il

For fans of Juche (and who reading this blog wouldn’t be a fan of Juche), Michael Malice‎, a libertarian who is a professional ghostwriter, has a new kickstarter project: “Kim Jong Il: The Unauthorized Autobiography”, as taken almost entirely from North Korean propaganda pamphlets.

“Kim Jong Il: The Unauthorized Autobiography” Kickstarter Page

A triple stimulus

Many developed nations are currently in the midst of the worst recession they have experienced in decades. I would like to call for an economic stimulus to aid in their recovery.

I am referring not to the useless Keynesian orgy of wealth destruction that is often meant by this word, but an obvious strategy for improving economic growth that (mysteriously) most politicians rarely consider.

My proposed means of stimulus is the mass firing of government employees.

Every government employee fired aids the economy in three distinct ways.

First, there is the direct cost of the salary, benefits and retirement of those employees, which must be sucked out of the rest of the economy through coercive taxation, weakening it. Each dollar we leave in the hands of ordinary people is a dollar they can then proceed to spend on things they really want, which is always better for the economy than a coerced expenditure. (To be technical, the Pareto optimality of free exchanges and non-optimality of coerced ones lead us to the conclusion that a dollar spent freely is always of more value than a dollar extracted by force.)

Second, there is the cost to the economy of the negative work most government employees do. Although a small fraction of government employees are engaged in jobs that would exist even in a free society, such as designing bridges and the like, most employees in a modern government spend their time interfering in the productivity of others, reducing their output. Every time we dismiss someone whose job is to produce new rules governing the licensing of hair stylists or who spends their time investigating the conduct of pedicab drivers, we increase the productivity of those who will no longer be harmed by the efforts of those government employees. (Indeed, some individual government employees doubtless reduce the productivity of hundreds or thousands of private workers.)

Third, there is the cost to the economy of having someone essentially idle. Most government employees do nothing of actual use, and there is an opportunity cost to that. Such people could instead be doing something of value with their labor — from making chairs to writing computer software to running private enterprises. Every additional chair that gets produced (provided there is market demand for it) increases the wealth of the world. Instead of being a net drain on society, each government employee, once dismissed from their job and allowed to find useful work instead, could be a net gain to society. (Even those government employees engaged in work that might exist even in a free society, such as delivering packages or teaching children, could do so more efficiently if employed in organizations that were disciplined by market mechanisms.)

I would go so far as to say that this triple effect of every government employee dismissal implies a multiplier effect. (The uninformed might naively consider only the direct cost savings and not the other added benefits.)

I will also argue that the more we fire, the greater the stimulus, without any obvious limit short of running out of people to dismiss. There isn’t even any need to wait for a recession to enjoy the salutary effects of such a stimulus — a nation experiencing high growth can still increase it by this mechanism. Unlike other forms of stimulus, it is also possible for even the most impoverished of nations to undertake such a program without the least fiscal risk.

I therefore implore elected officials to adopt such programs as soon as practical. Every day of delay costs.