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]

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.

Dual Universe

Dual Universe is a computer game being worked on by some developers in France who are currently looking for extra funding on Kickstarter. It is a multiplayer game set in space that is attempting to have a player-driven economy, much like Eve Online, with resources in the game being bought and sold between players on markets. It goes further than Eve, though, with players able to design new items from scratch and even script them with Lua, which should allow for invention of new in-game technology, which should allow for player-driven economic growth within the game.

Another feature which caught my attention is their approach to the dilemma of enabling player versus player combat while allowing for players to enjoy playing the game without being attacked at random. There is the concept of a safe zone in which an anti-violence bubble is generated by expending energy. What is more, the player who owns the machine that generates the safe zone can give out mining rights within it, and exclude other players who do not pay him a tax.

I think they should rename this game Libertarian Utopia Simulator.

Farming Ivory

Between watching other things last night my television briefly showed me Ross Kemp in Africa talking to a park ranger about elephant poachers armed with AK-47s. In voiceover he said that in the last 10 years 1000 park rangers have been killed. I looked it up. The Game Rangers Association of Africa are quoting the same figure. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature are saying the same thing, adding that the numbers are as reported by co-operating countries to the International Ranger Federation.

My first thought was to wonder how the nature conservationists think it is worth that much human life to protect some animals.

But as David Moore succinctly puts it in response to a Tim Worstall post about “waste [disposal] crime”, this is really another case of “government regulations creating massive incentives to bypass government regulations”.

Now there are objections. A one-off legal ivory sale intended to reduce the price of ivory apparently increased demand for poached ivory because researchers Prof Solomon Hsiang at the University of California Berkeley and Nitin Sekar at Princeton University, “think the legal sale reduced the stigma of ivory, boosting demand, and provided cover for the smuggling of illegal ivory, boosting supply”. This strikes me as a problem with one-off sales specifically, which are distinct from the long-term balance of supply and demand seen in a free market.

A couple of years ago Simon Jenkins argued in favour of ivory farming, and Will Travers responded with some impertinent arguments and some teenage emotional outpourings echoed by the commentariat that seem to amount to little more than “why can’t we all just get along?” Case in point:

I think Simon Jenkin’s proposal is wrong & morally offensive. Surely we need to banish forever the premise that animals on this planet are for here for the purpose of human beings’ exploitation & use – that their body parts are commodities to be farmed & harvested!

It does sound awfully easy when typed by a middle-class Guardian reader coddled in his air-conditioned public-sector office or a newly-vegetarian thirteen-year-old girl.

Here is how this middle-class libertarian blogger would solve it from his air-conditioned office: Abolish Cites, legalise the trade, and privatise the reservations so that the owners have an incentive to keep producing ivory, therefore preserving the species. There will still be poachers, but at least the profits could fund some proper security.

Addendums: Ivory is in the news very recently and I commented there; we do seem to talk about ivory a lot here; this is a small problem compared to, say, mosquito borne illness (which I am planning to write about soon).