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]

Conservatism is the new counter-culture

So says Paul Joseph Watson.

Growth and laws of thermodynamics

When I was a teenager doing GCSE Science we had a guest speaker come in and talk about what I now know to be The Limits to Growth. We were told about peak oil and how oil production doubles every n years and blah blah blah and it sounded pretty convincing at the time. Fortunately I did not pay it much heed, much as I instinctively did not really care about acid rain or the hole in the ozone layer which were the subject of geography lessons around the same time. It was not until years later I found out about the Club of Rome. I still do not know how, exactly, that guest speaker came to be in that science class, but in retrospect it sounds pretty sinister.

I like the band Muse. Their latest 2012 album is called Thermodynamics The 2nd Law and includes the song “Unsustainable”. It is really annoying when the creator of art you enjoy starts spouting crappy nonsense politics. Anyway, the song contains a recording of someone saying:

The fundamental laws of thermodynamics will place fixed limits on technological innovation and human advancement
In an isolated system the entropy can only increase. A species set on endless growth is
Unsustainable

Of course, as someone at genius.com points out, we have the sun, which should last long enough.

I was reminded of all this in an instant messenger chat with Perry Metzger today. He was talking optimistically about solar power. I did a search to check that I was not just imagining that anyone ever took second law arguments about economics seriously. I found a paper.

…we shall examine some challenges which have been made to the limits to growth (Limitationist) position by those criticizing the scope and application of the second law of thermodynamics and we shall in turn defend Limitationism against these criticisms.

Perry M said, “if all else fails, we can always use the hot air produced by leftists as a power source indefinitely.” I shared that link. He replied, “that paper alone, Rob, could power London for a month.”

Obama in Unsong

Obama is described in the web novel Unsong:

On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton originally looked set to sweep the national vote based on her connections and name recognition. Then things got interesting. People all around the country started talking about “hope” and “change” and “yes we can”. New political phenomenon Barack Obama inspired huge crowds wherever he went. The older, stodgier candidates were swept aside in the wave of enthusiasm at the revolution he promised.

Me, I figured he was probably a demon.

I mean, I’ve read enough folktales to recognize the basic arc. A mysterious tall dark stranger arrives in the capital and quickly gains the ears of the court. There’s no particular reason why anyone should like him, but everyone who listens to him can’t shake the feeling that he’s a trustworthy, intelligent figure. When he’s out of earshot, the nobles of the land plot against him, wondering how such a relative lightweight could dream of usurping their power – but as soon as he speaks to them in his smooth, calming voice, they immediately forget what they were going to do and join in the universal chorus of praise.

And in every one of those folktales, the stranger turns out to be a demon.

This post was necessitated by a conversation at Brian’s Friday.

Not left vs. right but short term vs. long term

Sometimes I observe a public discussion and notice that each side is talking across the other and neither side is understanding. I wonder if a change to the language of the debate might be constructive.

When Donald Trumps talks about making Mexico pay for the wall by imposing a 20% tariff on imports from Mexico, the left rightly point out that this means that Americans will pay for the wall. Similarly, those who want the UK to remain in European Union talk about the importance of trade. Nearly everyone agrees that tariffs are bad and trade is good. But dig a little deeper and soon it becomes clear that people are not talking about free trade at all. They are talking about the kind of trade that involves hugely complicated and interventionist multilateral treaties between governments.

I often try to explain that I am in favour of free trade and that we do not need people in government to make complicated deals: we just need to leave people alone and they will trade with each other. I am met with various objections. Exporters will suffer because foreign governments will increase tariffs and people in foreign countries will find it too expensive to buy British goods. Foreign governments will subsidise production and people in foreign countries will be able to sell things cheaply to British people; so cheaply that British people will stop buying things from British companies until those companies go out of business. At this point the foreign people might put up their prices and if they time it right the prices might never go down again because skills required to restart British companies might be lost.

My answer to these objections is that people are clever and they will find ways to make the most of the new situation. But it will be a situation in which people are, on the whole, richer than they were before. Cheap foreign goods make us richer. Not exporting things frees up labour to do other useful things.

But I can not deny that in the short term people will lose jobs and will struggle to find new things to do. My arguments are all about how people can get richer in the end. People who think the government can help with trade want to help the man who works in the widget factory and wants to be still working in the widget factory tomorrow.

Some Trump supporters and some people in favour of the UK leaving the European Union want to reduce immigration. I am in principle in favour of freedom of movement. I would argue that the ability of people to move to where there is demand for their labour makes production cheaper and everyone richer. But I can not deny that people moving around can make life uncomfortable for people staying still if the people staying still find their wages going down as a result. It is certainly not helpful to make accusations of bigotry in the face of such concerns as people on the left often do.

It might turn out that we all agree about what happens when people are free to move and trade, we just have different time preferences.

Interestingly, some of the same people who object to unilateral free trade are also in favour of freedom of movement, even though it is equivalent to unilateral free trade in labour.

Samizdata moonbat of the day

I would like there to be some kind of high earnings cap, quite honestly

– British opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn, who apparently wants the rich to get poorer more than he wants the poor to get richer.

Yudkowsky on Trump

I am broadly speaking of Perry’s mindset, though should Trump win I would quite enjoy seeing the shock and horror on the faces of most of the people who are shocked and horrified by him. But that is because I think Trump and Hillary are in the same order of magnitude of badness.

Then again, I have found Eliezer Yudkowsky to be right about a lot of things and thought provoking about everything. And he is writing on Facebook.

I do know a few people who think that Trump might shake things up for the better, on account of not being part of the malevolent current power structure. And those people generally also express a thought to the effect that Trump can’t do *that* much damage because the existing bureaucratic structure will restrain him.

What. The hell. Are they smoking? Because it’s not rolled-up pages of history books.

→ Continue reading: Yudkowsky on Trump

NaNoWriMo

I thought I would try to do the National Novel Writing Month thing. It is probably a terrible idea. Announcing it here is probably an even worse idea. I have half a dozen novel ideas I will probably be mashing up together. There will be aliens, strange people who invite strangers into their flats to give and listen to talks, and a not-too-in-your-face libertarian message. Or I might give up half-way through after realising that there is no value in the sleep-deprived ramblings of a man struggling to make an arbitrary word count by an arbitrary deadline.

Use the comments thread for encouragement, to tell me I’m an idiot, give me ideas for scenes (I have some crazy alien technology that means I can do almost anything), announce your own similar efforts, or talk about what a libertarian novel might look like.

Five Brexits

Ben Chu in the Independent describes 5 possible Brexit outcomes. The only interesting ones are 4 and 5.

Brexit 4 is, “Leave the single market and customs union with no free trade deal in place and trade with Europe under World Trade Organisation rules.” Brexit 5 is, “Leave the single market and customs union with no free trade deal – but unilaterally scrap all import tariffs.”

He thinks 4 will make us poor, and 5 is politically impossible because the exporters will make a fuss. I think we will end up with something between 4 and 5, with lots of bluster and threats but ultimately low-ish tariffs because British and EU politicians are not completely self-destructive. But I am a very optimistic person. Of course the tariff structures will be ridiculously complicated and riddled with special interest exceptions.

This is funny, from Brexit 3, which is a comprehensive free trade deal that will somehow require a strong customs border: “There would additionally have to be a customs border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, with potentially serious political consequences.” I think any such border would be for appearances only and eyes would be blind to any goods moving across it. This is because trade deals are not really there to improve anyone’s economic prospects. They are to win favour with voters, so only outward appearances matter. They do not need to be properly enforced. Nobody in charge actually cares about smuggling.

Incidental note: I was thinking of this song when I wrote the title.

Postscript: Further to that, and with apologies to anyone not familiar with the best Megadeth album:

Give me sov’renty, give me liberty,
True autonomy, unilat’rally,
Strong economy, Brexit if you please,
Master all of these, EU on its knees

I master five Brexits, I master five Brexits

I’ll get my coat.

Encryption, terrorism, privacy and security

Ars Technica ran a story about a man in Cardiff charged with using encryption to aid terrorism. A VPN provider wrote about it on their blog. Scotland Yard supplied more details about the charges.

Count 3: Preparation for terrorism. Between 31 December 2015 and 22 September 2016 Samata Ullah, with the intention of assisting another or others to commit acts of terrorism, engaged in conduct in preparation for giving effect to his intention namely, by researching an encryption programme, developing an encrypted version of his blog site and publishing the instructions around the use of programme on his blog site. Contrary to section 5 Terrorism Act 2006.

It appears the charges include that he used encryption (probably HTTPS) to secure his blog, and that he had a USB stick with an operating system on it (probably Tails). This is just silly. Use of encryption is not related to terrorism. We use exactly the same encryption to protect our communication with shopping sites and banks as we do share our family photos with other members of our families. Learning about encryption or teaching others about encryption is not a crime, so why is doing these things in relation to terrorism listed as a separate charge? Terrorists might eat eggs for breakfast but they are not charged with eating an egg in connection with terrorism. If there is evidence he was doing terrorism, charge him with that. There is no need to bring encryption into it at all.

There is a risk in connecting such things with crime in the public psyche. People need to be encouraged to make use of privacy tools, not be afraid of them. They need to use these tools to protect themselves from crime. It is not helpful if encryption becomes to be seen simply as a tool of terrorists and criminals.

It is a short step from there to demands for the state to Do Something About It. The state will inevitably do silly things, like insisting on back doors in encryption systems. As our own Perry Metzger pointed out on Fox Business, it is impossible to weaken encryption used by terrorists to communicate without also putting people at risk from fraudsters attempting to manipulate their bank accounts.

The Statism of Brexit

This New Statesman article argues that while the proponents of Brexit were libertarian, what we are going to end up with is more statism. I happen to think that we would never have reduced the size of the state inside the EU, so leaving it was a necessary first step. But it was never going to be all that was needed. Theresa May does seem to favour some particularly odious policies. On the other hand, there has been talk of reducing corporation tax and VAT. Trade could still end up being free-er on net. We might eventually get rid of May, or new political factions might rise to dominance that offer more hope. Am I right to be at all optimistic?

Stoppit

Enough.

pudding

The poor are getting richer

Tim Worstall wrote, “The economic policies of the last 30, 40, years have led to the greatest reduction in absolute poverty in the history of our species.” This sounds about right, but on its own the assertion will not convince the types of people I might want to persuade towards my way of looking at the world, the people who accept the litany that inequality is increasing and that must mean that the rich are making the poor poorer. A lot of these people are not Marxist true believers, they just imbibe the world-view of the BBC by default. To them, a claim such as “poor people are richer than ever before” sounds like a strong claim that needs strong evidence.

I often point people to Human Progress. Its headline evidence is often a bit specific, though. Today’s headlines are about malaria, seafood consumption, China’s environment, primary school attendance and teenage pregnancy in Africa. These are all good wealth indicators but I could be accused of cherry-picking.

Then I found a graph showing absolute numbers of people living in extreme poverty since 1820. Extreme poverty means living on less than $1.90 per day, adjusted for price differences and inflation. The graph is made by combining a 2002 (peer-reviewed!) study and numbers from the World Bank. It does leave the question of how many people are living on other, similarly low incomes. Another chart has a green line showing “poverty” being $25 per day of income. The trend is in the right direction. There are many more charts along these lines put together by Max Roser.

Mr. Worstall also recommends Branko Milanovic’s blog, and an article by him presenting data about who is getting richer and who is not.

The real surprise is that those in the bottom third of the global income distribution have also made significant gains, with real incomes rising between more than 40% and almost 70% [between 1988 and 2008]. (The only exception is the poorest 5% of the population, whose real incomes have remained about the same.)

Those 5% must live in some truly awful places.

I have ideas for future study. I want to correlate increased economic freedom with poor people getting richer in a way convincing to people with the default BBC world-view. And I heard somewhere that fewer people than ever are less than one failed harvest away from starvation. That is a compelling image; it would be useful to be able to back it up.