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]

Beethoven’s Ninth – before and after

I have already quoted from and commented on The Ninth: Beethoven and the World in 1824 a couple of times here. Now I’ve read it. Unless I’m being paid to read a book, I only read it to the end if I’m enjoying it, so point one to make about this book is that I wasn’t paid to read it. Samizdata writers and readers are not brought together by a shared fascination for classical music and the world in which it was created and had its first impact, so I don’t know if you would also enjoy reading this book. But I can say a bit about why I did.

I know Beethoven’s music, and the Ninth Symphony in particular, quite well, possessing as I do a large classical CD collection containing lots of Beethoven and more than a few recordings of the Ninth. A painlessly entertaining way to learn more about classical music in general, and Beethoven and his Ninth Symphony in particular, is, for me, always welcome. This book was painless partly because it is all written in a language I can easily follow, English. Many books about classical music use lots of musical notation. I can just about decipher such symbols, but seldom with the fluency that is necessary immediately to get the points an author is trying to make with them. Sachs could easily have peppered his text with such hieroglyphics, having himself been a conductor before he became a writer. He did not. He relied on words. He also avoids using Italian words, saying very loud rather than fortissimo, and so on.

This book is also painless in being quite short. 225 pages, including all the extras. I’m a slow reader, so that, for me, was another plus. → Continue reading: Beethoven’s Ninth – before and after

A look at Robert Heinlein

This caught my attention, at a site called “The Smart Set”.

“If the zeitgeist has a face, it supposedly belongs to Ayn Rand and her capitalist philosophy of Objectivism. Talk radio hosts adore the author’s demands for limited government; Congressman Paul Ryan insists that his staffers read her overstuffed opus Atlas Shrugged; picket signs at Tea Party rallies suggest that we all “READ AYN RAND.” And yet, some pieces are missing. Ayn Rand was anti-war, but spending for hundreds of military bases and two-and-a-half wars remains sacrosanct even as Congress made the debt ceiling a major issue. She found homosexuality “immoral” and “disgusting,” and yet gay marriage has regained the initiative in the public square. And Randian heroes are explicitly — nay, objectively — elitist. They are genius millionaire square-jawed heroes who walked right off the screen at the movie matinee. The average Tea Party rallier, not so much.”

A bit of a jumble. Rand was anti-war, certainly, but she certainly was no pacifist, either about the Nazis or any other totalitarian regimes. She had a problem about homosexuality, but I doubt she favoured the state using its violence-backed powers to suppress it; indeed, from my reading of her journals and other material, I don’t know if she had developed views on this subject at all. As for the line about her support for “elitism”, it does rather depend on what you mean. For Rand, and most who broadly support her views (as I do), the idea was that people are entitled to develop their lives and talents to the greatest extent possible in free trade with their fellows. There is plenty of room for upward mobility, striving and competition. This has nothing to do with privilege, which is often what can be meant by an “elite”, for example. (Elitism is, of course, a boo word for the egalitarian left, and I suspect the author of the piece tilts in that direction).

“There is another writer whose political and philosophical influence is finally being felt in the public sphere. You may have read one of his books as a child. His name is Robert A. Heinlein, and he wrote science fiction. He was a libertarian enamored of military might, a conservative who championed free love. His heroes are certainly competent. They’re also folks who hack the systems in which they live, not elitists who abandon a corrupt world full of moochers and looters to worship the dollar as an end unto itself. And unlike Rand, most of Heinlein’s work is actually readable.”

Some of this is true, though I don’t think Heinlein was “enamoured” of military might; he understood that values need to be defended, of course, so to that extent he understood the warrior ethic and code, but he also understood the trader ethic, too. He was able to see how military codes develop and why they exist (his book, Starship Troopers, is about this very issue).

The idea that the characters in Rand’s Atlas Shrugged “worship the dollar as an end unto itself” proves that the author of this article clearly has not thought straight. The point for Rand is that the dollar, preferably a gold-backed dollar, is a symbol of liberty, not something that you worship as a totem.

It is sometimes instructive when a writer from outside the usual field opines about something about which you know quite a lot, as I do about Rand and Heinlein, having read pretty much everything they wrote. The author of this article hits on some good points, so don’t be put off by my nit-picking.

A review of Detlev Schlichter’s Paper Money Collapse on Amazon.com

I have just posted the following review on Amazon.com of Paper Money Collapse. I only learned last night that the review embargo date had now arrived and that the time to be talking this book up is now, so this review was somewhat hastily written, although it is the result of quite a lot of thought. This was my very first review of any book on Amazon, and it shows, I’m afraid, particularly in my blundering attempts to italicise, which work here by those methods, but not there. Also, although I said I liked it, I didn’t tick the box saying that I liked it. Can I do anything about any of that? Probably not. (LATER: actually, I now learn that you can edit these reviews. The italics thing now makes no sense!) Oh well, blog and learn, review on Amazon and learn. I will be amazed if I don’t find myself wanting to say lots more about this book, but what follows is my first best shot.

An effort but definitely worth the effort – could be huge

I agree with the bit on the cover of this book where it says that this is not an easy read. For me, it has not been, and not just because the truths Schlichter spells out and explains are so not-easy to take. I am a huge fan of his, and have been ever since I first heard him talk about the analysis in this book in London about a year ago, but he makes me work hard. This book is heavy on logical exposition, much lighter on diverting anecdote. For the latter sort of Schlichter stuff, you must read his blog.  

One way to describe Paper Money Collapse might be to say that it is the sort of book that the great Austrian School economist and economic historian Murray Rothbard might have written, had he lived a bit longer. Last year I read Rothbard’s Man, Economy and State. While doing this, I kept hoping that I would read a theoretical analysis of our current financial woes, as opposed merely to Rothbard’s general take on Austrian Economics as a whole. I realise that this was a lot to ask of a book published several decades ago, and not surprisingly I was, although in general much educated, largely disappointed on that particular count. Well, what I was only hoping to read in that Rothbard book was what I did read in Detlev Schlichter’s much shorter book, which I heartily recommend to anyone willing to really get stuck into it. Here is a conceptual analysis, in very much the painstaking Rothbard manner, of how non-commodity-backed currencies behave when they collapse, and why they do collapse, always, inevitably. In other words it is about the times we now live in.  

I learned a lot from reading Paper Money Collapse. In particular, Schlichter has convinced me of the wrongness of the argument that since we want economic activity in the world to increase indefinitely, but gold is, barring a few trivial further discoveries, fixed in quantity, gold won’t work as the basis of currency. But non-elasticity is exactly why gold is such a good basis for currency. Totally elastic money, on the other hand, inevitably collapses, always and everywhere. Why should our elastic money be any different?  

Schlichter is not pointing the finger at individuals. This is not a detective story, where in the final chapter all the suspects are rounded up and Herr Schlichter points the finger at the guilty man. President Nixon’s decision to break the final link between the dollar and gold is deplored, and Ben Bernanke’s recent pronouncements are likewise disapproved of, but many of the decisions that lead to our current mess were made many, many decades ago, and by their nature they are the kind of decisions which are far easier to make than they are to reverse and clean up after.  

Nor does Schlichter believe that hyper-inflation now threatens us all because central bankers are unaware of the badness of hyper-inflation. They know that hyper-inflation is bad. Unfortunately, they also know that if the collapse that Schlichter describes occurs while they are in office, then that, for them, will be even worse than a bit more inflation or even quite a lot more inflation. So, they carry on printing money and postponing the resolution of the problem, which means that when nemesis does finally arrive, it will be all the worse. But, says Schlichter, they know what they are doing; they just don’t know how to stop. Schlichter telling them to stop will accomplish nothing.  

I suspect that Schlichter may be being rather kind about just how plain stupid some even quite high ranking central bankers now are, but clever or stupid, these people are now thoroughly boxed in by their previous decisions and by the decisions of their predecessors of earlier years and decades.  

I have been using the phrase “paper money”, as Schlichter himself does in his title. But as we all know, when central bankers now create yet more money, they are mostly putting numbers in electronically managed bank accounts. It is not the printing of bank notes that is the problem; it is the lack of a commodity base to control the process. By the same token, paper bank notes that refer to a currency that is solidly based on something like gold would be fine. But I am sure that Schlichter has thought long and hard about this phrase, and I gladly defer to his decision to call it “paper currency” in his title. I certainly don’t know a better way of putting it. “Fiat” money? “Elastic” money? (That’s the phrase that Schlichter switches to in the subtitle, also prominently displayed on the front cover.) Both are a bit more accurate than “paper” money, but are also a bit less attention-grabbing for the kind of intelligent and educated everyman whom Schlichter is trying to reach. “Paper” gets over the gist of the problem pretty well, I think. And you start learning what that means as soon as you read the sub-title.  

When it comes to Schlichter’s pessimism about him personally having any influence on the conduct of public policy, I agree with him, in the short run. But I think he may be proved wrong, in the longer run. I agree with him that there is nothing much he can say to the people now in charge of financial policy that will persuade them to do the right thing now, which basically means getting the collapse over and done with as soon as possible. But when this collapse starts seriously happening anyway, in just the manner and for precisely the reasons that Schlichter says, he could then become a very Big Cheese, as we say in my native England. In fact, if this book does half as well as I suspect it may, Schlichter will probably be accused, by various paper (fiat, elastic) money idiots who know only the title of this book but nothing of what it says, of having precipitated the catastrophe he describes. But other people, including politicians and central bankers, could also then be asking him: So, Schlichter, what the hell do we do now? I urge Schlichter to be ready for this moment. Suggested title for his next book: Now What? (Presumed answer: Let non-state controlled and non-state backed bankers supply currency, which they will back with gold. Get out of their way and let them get on with it.)  

Meanwhile, I urge anyone who thinks that he might find this book enlightening, and helpful for personally navigating through the mess, to go ahead and be enlightened. I think this book may become very big. It certainly deserves to.

The age of steam powered transport

A Brief History of the Age of Steam: The Power That Drove The Industrial Revolution
Thomas Crump
Carroll & Graff, 2007, 370pp., paperback, $15.95 (but now much less – I got my copy for £3.99 in a remainder shop)

The best thing about this book from my British point of view is that it does not focus only on British events and circumstances. It surveys the entire world, as best it can in the space it allows itself. In most other stuff I can recall reading about the history of the steam engine, Newcomen, Watt and Trevithick, the British pioneers of steam engines during the eighteenth century (Trevithick being the first to build a steam engine that propelled itself along a track – in other words the maker of the first locomotive), are followed immediately by the heroic deeds of George Stephenson and IK Brunel, the mighty British railway pioneers of the Victorian age. Foreign places get mentioned because Stephenson’s son did railways in them. Steamships are mentioned because Brunel also did them. But before you know it, you are being told about streamlined steam locos breaking speed records by hurtling from London to Scotland in the nineteen twenties and thirties, which was all good stuff but hardly central to the history of steam technology. By then, steam locomotives were a mature technology and soon to be an obsolete one.

In this book, by contrast, the steam engine arrives at its early nineteenth century state, but then the scene switches from Britain to North America. Steam engines, being still very heavy, made sense as the engines of big river boats on big American rivers well before they made sense as small locomotives on railway lines less than five feet apart. The USA, unlike Britain, has an abundance of huge rivers, in exactly the parts of the USA that were then developing most rapidly. The next chapter then concerns itself with rivers and canals (the two often being rather hard to distinguish) elsewhere in the world, most notably in central Europe, in particular in the form of the Rhine and its many reconstructions and appendages.

But already, I am getting ahead of the story. The first big job performed by steam engines was pumping water out of coal mines, the market that Newcomen catered to (1712 being the date of Newcomen’s first installation), and then the one in which James Watt and his partner Matthew Boulton also got their start. Until Newcomen made his engine, many a British coal mine would have to cease operating, not because the coal had run out but because the coal that remained, often in large quantities, was under water. Any kind of mechanically powered pump, however expensive and inefficient, could make itself useful in circumstances like that, a classic niche market of just the kind that a cumbersome but clearly important new technology needs to get started.

Thomas Crump (and yes, that is a rather Victorian sounding name, isn’t it?) does not make anything of the comparison, but the similarity between the early steam engines and the computers of our own time will strike anyone who reads this book. Steam engines started big and cumbersome. Then they got smaller and more powerful, thanks to a succession of technical innovations, and thanks to a general rise in engineering savvy and all-round craftsmanship. Not that this steam engine/computer parallel won’t have occurred to Crump. It’s merely that this book is published as one of a series called “A Brief History of …”, and you often sense, sometimes because Crump comes right out and says it, that lots of interesting stuff is being left out. → Continue reading: The age of steam powered transport

Thoughts about a WW2 classic book about southern Italy

Travel books, or adventure books chronicling experiences of living abroad, can be highly variable in literary or other qualities. I have my favourites: I loved that PJ O’Rourke classic, “Holidays in Hell”; I enjoyed the travel and memoirs of the great Patrick Leigh-Fermor, and another favourite of mine was Eric Newby’s The Last Grain Race (describing his experience of sailing aboard a four-masted clipper-type ship). Being a bit of a yachtie, I also enjoyed the Robin Knox-Johnson account of his single-handed sailing trip around the world. And of course there are military memoirs where adventure and travel are co-mingled with armed expeditions. And a case in point is the writing of Norman Lewis.

I have not read much by Lewis, who died at the grand age of 95 after having spent a rich and varied career in places ranging from Brazil, Indonesia to Western Europe. And perhaps his most celebrated book is “Naples ’44”, describing his year in the southern Italian city in the immediate aftermath of the Allied landings in Italy. It is a superbly written account – Lewis has a wonderful eye for detail – and conveys the sheer bloody awfulness of life for ordinary Italians recovering from both the invasion and the Fascist regime that had been dislodged. For example, his descriptions of how little food the populace had, and what they had to eat, is sobering indeed to anyone reading moral-panic journalism about our supposed obesity crisis.

Of course, any account of southern Italy will include tales of the Mafia, and banditry, and the relentless amounts of corruption. What is particularly striking – and this is where the libertarian in me gets interested – is how the black market for stolen Allied goods, such as penicillin – thrived. Naturally, with so many goods suppressed or in short supply, criminal gangs and bent military personnel sought to make a market. This highlights how when markets are suppressed and where the fabric of civil society has been smashed by war, thugs can often fill the gap. In some cases, theft of supplies from the Allied forces got so bad that Lewis and his colleagues had to do something about it. Ordinary Italians who got caught pilfering supplies often received long jail sentences; well-connected businessmen (ie, Mafia guys), were acquitted when witnesses suddenly failed to show up.

Lewis became something of an expert on the Mafia and this region of Italy. He does not romanticise what he saw – he was too lacking in fake sentimentality for that. I have sometimes heard fellow free marketeers liken government to a sort of Mafia – tax is a kind of legalised thievery – but I am not sure it is an analogy I would push too far. I wonder how many of us would have wanted to live in Mafia-run Sicily or the neighbouring mainland, even with the tasty wine, olives and sunshine.

I intend to read a lot more of Lewis’s output. His writing is wonderful.

Samizdata quote of the day

“Oakeshott was an enchanting elfin figure, rather slight with a rather light but seductive voice. Men sometimes found him a little creepy, women never. He was married three times and was said to have various girlfriends scattered in boltholes in London and around the country. He was sceptical in his views, and not at all religious, thus conforming to my general theory that, as soon as British philosophers stopped believing in God, they started believing in sex. There is no more startling contrast between the celibacy, and indeed chastity, of Pascal and Locke and the insatiable appetites of Bertrand Russell and AJ Ayer and PH Nowell-Smith, the author of Ethics, who was said to have regarded it as a positive duty to sleep with other men’s wives.”

Ferdinand Mount, Cold Cream, page 273. Quirky, self-effacing and brilliant about its portrayal of Mount’s life as a journalist and Downing Street policy wonk and conservative intellectual, this is one of the finest autobiographies I have read in years. Among the details that startled me was Mount’s battle with a terrible asthma problem; I also loved his portrayal of his father and vignettes featuring the likes of Malcolm Muggeridge and Siegfried Sassoon.

I can also recommend Mount’s recent book about how we are becoming rather like the ancient Romans.

Something I bought at Heathrow Airport

I sometimes pick up quick-to-read paperbacks, either fiction or non-fiction, at airports to help pass the time during my flight. So, on a recent short break to Malta, I bought Dambisa Moyo’s How the West Was Lost, published a short while ago, which seeks to argue that for various reasons, good and bad, the West (essentially, Western Europe and North America) is in danger of losing out to the East. I was intrigued enough to pay a few quid for the book, but in the end I should have known better.

Moyo has a lot of things to say with which free marketeers might approve of: she denounces the way in which the banking system has encouraged over-use of debt financing, creating all manner of problems, culminating in the sub-prime mortgage disaster and associated asset price bubble; she also understands that modern Welfare States have created many problems. However, for all that she tries to accept that the rise of the former Third World nations from poverty is a Good Thing and to be applauded, I cannot help but feel that she does not really mean it very much. She’s a mercantilist who sees economics as a titanic fight between states and is hostile, or at least sceptical, about the capacity of people operating in markets under the rule of law. And she repeats the canard that the panic of 2008 demonstrated the dangers of unfettered capitalism, oblivious to the fact that the monetary policies of the Fed, etc, were policies of state institutions, as was the interference in the US and other housing markets by governments (Freddie Mac, etc).

In fact, she seems wedded to a sort of neo-Malthusian argument that says that the desire for prosperity and higher living standards in places such as China is unmitigated bad news for the West as there are finite resources in energy, etc, and that Eastern prosperity comes at the expense of the West’s. In other words, she is arguing that economics is, in some ways, a case of winners and losers. Indeed, she talks repeatedly about the idea of there being a race, often using the very word… “race”… to make her points.

Here is one typical paragraph in which she says the West is suffering from all that terrible selfish individualism and we should benefit from a bit more of that no-nonsense collectivism as seen in China (page 172):

“Frankly speaking, the constitutional framework that has defined the US for the past three centuries is not likely to be amended in order to hand over more power to the state. Yet arguably more power, more flexibility and fewer committees are exactly what is needed. What sense does it make in the depths of the financial crisis – a state of economic emergency by most accounts, which brought the country and the world to its knees – for the President of the United States to have to build consensus around a desperately needed fiscal stimulus package before he and his advisors can act?”

She seems curiously unaware of to what extent the powers of the Federal government in the US have already gone way beyond what was envisaged by the Founders – and that’s a bad thing – and that in other Western nations, such as the UK, the government of the day has considerable powers, or has yielded great powers to the European Union and its legions of unelected officials. And yet for Ms Moyo the problem is that is far too much of this pesky liberalism, checks and balances, and so forth. I hate to say it, but she’s coming close to flirting with a form of fascism.

There are other, equally poor, arguments. For instance, she argues that the vast majority of citizens in Western nations have only reaped a small share of the benefits of greater trade and so on because many of the profits earned are paid to shareholders. For instance: (page 178) “The only thing companies were interested in was the company’s profitability and therefore the shareholders’ return on capital.”

Wow, the owners of firms want to make a profit (as opposed to making a whacking great loss, presumably). But even this line ignores the fact that by “shareholder”, we do not just mean a few isolated fat, capitalist bastards in suits; no, we also mean all the millions of people – including people a bit like Ms Moyo – who have savings plans, 401K plans, mutual funds, pension pots, etc. This line of hers also does rather beg the question of what should happen to these profits – should they be taxed in “reinvested” by governments? In several instances, she praises the behaviour of governments, such as oil-rich states, and their massive “sovereign wealth funds”, arguing that these are used to benefit domestic populations. Well they may be in some cases, but even a cursory awareness of public choice economics should alert Ms Moyo to the dangers of corruption, mis-allocation of capital, political favouritism and faddism that often comes when government agencies disburse vast sums. The flashy public spending projects of the past have often brought dubious rewards.

And I just knew I had wasted my aircraft reading time when she scorned Ricardo’s Law of Comparative Advantage, arguing that unless all countries play “fair” (which never happens), then the argument for free trade that the LCA underpins is chucked away.

This argument – that free trade is only beneficial if everyone plays nice – has been demolished time and again. A good example comes from Deepak Lal, in his book, Reviving the Invisible Hand.

Here is a passage:

“a country will benefit from removing its own tariffs and import restrictions even if all its trading partners maintain theirs. For as long as the domestic prices of goods in our country under autarky differ from those at which they can be imported and exported under free trade, the country will be able to obtain the gains from trade both by obtaining imported goods at a lower cost than they are produced at home (the consumption gain) and by specialising in producing and exporting those goods in which it has a comparative advantage and importing the others (the production gain), irrespective of the tariff applied by their trading partners. For these trade restrictions only damage the protectionist country’s welfare, and it would be senseless not to improve one’s own welfare just because someone else is damaging theirs. There is no point throwing rocks into one’s harbour just because others are throwing rocks into theirs. Hence, there is an incontrovertible case for every country to unilaterally adopt free trade, irrespective of the protectionist policies of other countries – with one exception. Suppose that a country is the only producer of some good – say, oil.”

He goes on to explain this case but says that in fact, retaliatory trade practices and other issues take the edge off this argument also.

It is all such a pity. She started well, but I really wish I had read that new Lee Child thriller instead.

A nice late present for Christmas

If you have friends with a fondness for great, acerbic wit and writing, then get them this collection by H.L. Mencken, the “Sage of Baltimore”. Here is a good article in the Times (of London) about a nicely bound double volume of his writings.

I’d love to have seen him get to work on Obama, iDave, and for that matter, Silvio Berlusconi.

Getting real about environmental issues

Tim Worstall has a new book out, Chasing Rainbows, which sets out what he regards as the economic fallacies of much of the Green movement. Such fallacies, he argues, actually get in the way of solving or at least trying to handle the genuine problems that may exist.

What is good about Tim’s book is that he is not some sort of cliched “denier”; he does not base his argument on the idea that AGW is some sort of evil collectivist con-trick or piece of doomsterish nonsense (although I am sure some commenters will want to raise that point). Rather, he says if there are problems caused by a buildup of CO2 in the atmosphere, and there are costs of such problems, then let’s use the tools of economics. For instance, he talks about carbon taxes. I am not a fan of taxes, but I can see a certain logic. They are far better than carbon credits and carbon trading, in my view.

Like Nigel Lawson, I see the idea of a market in carbon credits not as a solution to AGW but as something with great potential for fraud. The question I have about carbon tax, however, is what happens to the revenues. If they are levied by nation states, then clearly there will be demands for such taxes to be “harmonised” and levied by some sort of single organisation. And then the question arises as to what happens to such revenues?

Much of the book bears many of the trademarks of Tim Worstall’s own excellent blog: lots of data flecked with his caustic wit, often at the expense of such buffoons like George Monbiot and Jonathan Porritt, and on tax, the appalling Richard Murphy, who gets a solid going over at least once a day. There is a touch of PJ O’Rourke in how Tim likes to use a quip to make a serious point. I particularly like the way he gets hold of important concepts, such as the Law of Comparative Advantage, or the idea of opportunity costs, using examples of how forcing households to recycle waste imposes unpaid labour costs, which if added up, can be shown to represent a large cost. Being a good student of the great French classical liberal Frederick Bastiat, Tim understands the point about “what is seen and what is unseen” – understanding that the visible costs of environmental degradation need to be balanced against the unseen costs of trying to deal with it. Bastiat is one of those writers who ought, in a sane world, to be on the compulsory reading list of every school pupil.

The central message of this book is that there are problems, but there are also rational approaches to them, and that the Green movement, or at least its most collectivist parts, are blocking rational reforms. It is a similar point to that made by Matt Ridley in his book, the Rational Optimist, to which I have referred before. By their one-eyed focus on AGW alarmism, and by adopting a reactionary, command and control approach to the issue, they are blocking sensible alternatives, and also crowding out other issues, such as alleviation of poverty, which can be made worse by such foolish ventures as subsidies to biofuels, for example.

Chasing Rainbows makes for a good stocking filler this Christmas. Go on, do it for the children and for Tim’s bank balance.

Why is that naughty man still mentioning the Soviet Union?

Sometimes it is the reactions of people that really give me ideas about what to write about. On Tuesday night, I went along to a book-signing and talk featuring the one and only PJ O’ Rourke, who has a new book out, entitled, “Don’t Vote, It Only Encourages The Bastards”. He was thoroughly charming and nice, and, I am glad to say, looks in pretty good shape after having beaten a recent cancer scare. I hope he’s around to tickle our funny bones for many years yet. Tuesday night’s event was put on by the Adam Smith Institute. This was appropriate: O’ Rourke has written about Adam Smith and to great effect.

He gave a variant of a talk which has been heard at several places this week. Here is a write-up of another event he was at by someone called Ian Dunt. And it is clear that Mr Dunt is not a great fan:

The first thing I noticed was the age of the audience. O’Rourke is 63, and the average age of the people listening to him was around that. Noam Chomsky is 82, but most of the people at his gigs are in their 20s, which gives some credibility to the old maxim about people drifting to the right as they age.

Or quite possibly, what happens is that when people in their 20s realise that Chomsky, with his moral equivalence idea that there is no real difference between totalitarian communism and liberal democracy, is talking pretentious nonsense, they wake up. Having a family, running a business, paying taxes and generally living tend to have a sobering, but also enlightening, effect. That is not the same as saying that people necessarily get more cynical or pessimistic as they get older. In my case (44 years old, a few greys but still dashing good looks), I am what might be called a “rational optimist”, to borrow from the title of Matt Ridley’s recent brilliant book. And O’Rourke, all 63 years of him, is pretty upbeat about what happens when free men and women, operating under some pretty elementary rules of the game, are left to get on with life. The real reactionaries and grumps, it seems to me, are those on the “left” – sorry it is a loose term but it will have to do – who so distrust ordinary people to run their lives that they consider it necessary for people to be directed, “nudged” or whatever, in the general direction of Progress. The real old farts are those who think it is somehow not an outrage that the state takes at least 50 per cent of all wealth.

Then we get to this passage:

O Rourke brought up Isaiah Berlin’s distinction between positive and negative rights, which is all-too frequently ignored outside of academia. In typical fashion, and rather usefully I thought, he turned them into “gimme” rights and “get out of here rights”.

Yes.

As he aged, the role of “gimme” rights, which, as a right-wing American, he termed “entitlements”, diminished, while the role of “get out of here rights” evidently became more prominent. The argument, which is pretty topical given the debate over public spending, is that entitlements don’t ultimately promote freedom and that political leaders have been cowardly in their reluctance to disassociate themselves from them. I’ve never found this a particularly convincing argument and there was little last night to bring me onside, despite its witty and eloquent presentation. Ultimately, “entitlements” like free health care for all maximise freedom because health is the prerequisite for all other freedoms. Similarly, universal free education allows people to assess choices. There is no real freedom under ignorance. There is also, I would have thought, a strict minimal benchmark of material possession, under which political freedoms become irrelevant. After all, what use is the right to privacy if you have to sleep on the streets? It’s a crude example, but it highlights the difficulties conservatives have in completely disassociating economic and political rights.

This is a standard misconception; what the reviewer is claiming is that we need to have rights to things, such as education or healthcare, in order to also enjoy the kind of negative liberty that a classical liberal – as O’Rourke is – values. I am not so sure about that. The ability to act, to choose, or walk, lift your arms and so on is not the same as liberty. What we are talking about here is ability, capacity, or in other cases, wealth. A lot of people use the word liberty, and hence rights, very loosely. And in any respect, if we want more of healthcare, education and so on, it is far from obvious that saying that I have a “right” to something means that I do, or that I can coerce someone else to give me £X,000 to pay for whatever it is I deem I have a right to. Does this mean, for instance, that if Mr Dunt feels he has a “right” to an education for himself or his family, that the state should compel some people to teach him and his kids? Where does this presumption stem from? What happens if those told to teach Mr Dunt’s kids tell him, ever so politely, to get lost?

Also, while it is undoubtedly true that being educated and healthy helps us to make choices, it is a fairly practical point that under liberal capitalism, with more wealth and so on, education and healthcare tend to proliferate. It is poverty that best describes the lack of such things, and capitalism, given the chance, tends to be very good in eradicating this. Of course Mr Dunt, if I sense his political views accurately, probably would then claim that a lot of poor people in rich countries don’t enjoy this, to which I respond by saying that he should consider the role of non-state bodies (like Friendly Societies, etc) in delivering many of the things now presumed to only come from the state. And as a practical issue, O’Rourke could and did point out what a mess the State often makes of eradicating poverty, or even worse, in eradicating the habits that beget poverty. As an aside, a person who writes very clearly on the issue of conflating genuine rights from “gimme rights” is Tom G Palmer, in this recent book, Realising Freedom.

On we go:

So it was a little disappointing to hear O’Rourke end his argument with a defence of the free market, so dull and obvious that it did his considerable intellect a disservice. The free market merely communicates value, he argued, it was not an ideology or a creed. The reason for Communism’s collapse was its inability to properly account for the value of things, which money does instantly. It’s quite true, of course, but the only time it would crop up is when arguing against a Soviet economist. There are very few, if any, people today arguing for Soviet Communism. The current argument in the West is really about the appropriate balance of the mixed economy under a deficit, where merely promoting the benefits of the free market is something of a mute point. Given the combination of his intelligence and his position in a political culture where we usually hear only the raving lunatics, I was expecting something a little more rewarding. Something about this anti-Soviet argument reminded me of his age, and the age of the people around me.

The problem with this paragraph is that the case for the market is far from “dull and obvious”. The mixed economy we have now, as Dunt acknowledges we do, has not exactly shown itself to be a coherent mixture, at all. If the benefits of the market were really “obvious”, then how to explain why, in 2010, after a decade of what is sometimes called a period of “neo-liberalism (often as a term of abuse), we have a country with crippling public debts, a central banking system that operates more like Soviet central planning in how it sets the price of money, a vast Welfare State, high joblessness among much of the populace; a monopolistic healthcare system with problems of all kinds; rising regulatory burdens on business, and the rest? Something is clearly not “obvious” enough for people to realise there is a problem. Sometimes, banging on about the “obvious” is vitally necessary. And all the better if it comes with good jokes that make Guardianistas a bit uncomfortable.

And the line about the Soviet Union also jars. Reminding some people that we once were confronted by a vast, socialist empire, which, thanks to certain forces, collapsed, is a necessary thing. It may make a certain type of left-of-centre person uneasy to be reminded of the Soviet Union, in much the same way as it might make me uneasy to remember a youthful indiscretion. Leftists, when contemplating the terrible history of the SU, might want to say, “Oh, cannot we just move on and get over it?”, but I think that lets people off too lightly.

Harold Macmillan was not a superman

There have, as I might expect, been a flurry of reviews about a recent biography of Harold Macmillan, who – to those non-Brit readers who might not have heard of him – was prime minister in the late 1950s through to 1963, and who was involved in controversies that hung over his head until his very old age, such as the issue of his alleged involvement in sending Cossack forces back to the tender mercies of Stalin at the end of WW2. He was a complex and interesting character in many ways; my mother remembers his nickname of “Supermac” and the extraordinary period in the early 1960s when the Profumo Scandal broke, as well as Macmillan’s own resignation through ill health and the subsequent emergence of Alec Douglas Home as leader. Home, let it not be forgotten considering how he was mercilessly lampooned by parts of the leftist press, almost won the 1964 general election.

One review here by Simon Heffer more or less sums up my own views of the man. Heffer recognises that for all Macmillan’s undoubted merits – he was, for example, an extremely brave army officer wounded several times in the First World War – that he was a decidedly flawed politician in certain respects, particularly on the crucial issue of economic policy and industrial relations. The 1950s and 60s saw the rise of what was to be dubbed the “British disease” – a time of rising industrial strife, inflation, low productivity, endless “stop-go” cycles of Keynesian-inspired reflation followed by subsequent slamming on of the monetary brakes. And while it would be grossly unfair to pin too much blame on one prime minister for the sort of problems that eventually came to a head in the 1970s, he must take some share of the responsibility for the mess that was eventually addressed – after a fashion – by Mrs Thatcher’s administration in the 1980s. And yet the impression I get from Heffer’s review, and particularly, this one by Peregrine Worsthorne, is that the biography more or less absolves Macmillan of any blame whatever. Worsthorne’s review in the Spectator – behind a subscription firewall – carries this, for instance:

“He was right to have himself been the main political champion of his old friend Keynes and his economics.”

Oh dear. Fell asleep during the 1970s, did we?

He also says that Macmillan was right to have played down the danger of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. I am not sure that is really true, but if it was true, is that to his credit? With the benefit of hindsight, the Soviet Union was a rotten house that looked imposing with all its mass Red Square parades and all the rest but eventually crumbled very fast, but at the time, it did not seem that way, and some very supposedly clever people, such as that Keynes fan (!) JK Galbraith, were arguing as late as the early 80s that there was no real difference economically between the West and the Soviet Empire. And the sheer size of the Soviet armed forces, and the way that the Hungarian and Czech revolts were harshly suppressed, hardly squares with the idea that that Empire could be treated with a sort of shrug of the shoulders. By the way, for a dose of good sense on the Cold War years, I recommend this by Norman Stone.

But perhaps the most ludicrous aspect of Worsthorne’s review is this part, in which he writes mournfully of what might had been had Sir Alec Douglas Home won in 1964:

“This would have spared us both the Thatcher interlude, which put power in to the greedy hands of what Macmillan called the ‘banksters’, and then the Blair/Brown years, which entrusted it to the equally grasping and disreputable New Labour cabal, which purported to be a meritocracy. But it is beginning to look as if a promising reaction has set in – not too late one hopes – and although David Cameron is not exactly a 14th earl, he is the next best thing, so Uncle Harold must be cheering in his grave.”

I am going to do Worsthorne the respect of assuming he is sane, and serious, when he wrote that somehow, Mrs Thatcher’s time in office was some sort of ghastly “interlude” when the rightful aristocratic rulers of us unwashed were horribly pushed aside by a bunch of grammar school educated City slickers and Jewish intellectuals. Macmillan once infamously said that he regretted there were more Estonians than Etonians in the Tory Cabinet of the time, a particularly nasty little line. Sure, the attack on the Blair and Brown bunch is perhaps more deserved, but let’s not forget that Blair was a Fettes public schoolboy, and a good many of Mrs Thatcher’s ministers came from smart backgrounds.

In fact, when all is said and done, what Worsthorne rates as Macmillan’s greatest achievement, is contained in the opening paragraph of his review. I leave readers with this to ponder:

“Since the main purpose on earth of the Conservative Party was, and still should be, to keep Britain’s ancient and well-proven social and political hierarchy in power – give or take a few necessary upward mobility adjustments – Harold Macmillan must rank very high in the scale of successful Conservative prime ministers; just below Benjamin Disraeli, whose skill in sugaring the pill of inequality and humanising the face of privilege is never likely to be bettered.”

In other words, whatever Macmillan may or may not have done to stem the UK’s post-war economic decline, at least he kept the toffs on top.

Words fail me.

“Parliament took an ax to itself …”

From a WSJ review by Trevor Butterworth of Joel Mokyr’s The Enlightened Economy:

But the power of knowledge would not, by itself, have given Britain its formidable economic edge; the Continent, too, had an array of scientific genius as brilliant as any in Scotland and England. (Think only of the French chemist Antoine Lavoisier.) The reason for Britain’s exceptionalism, Mr. Mokyr says, lies in the increasing hostility to rent-seeking – the use of political power to redistribute rather than create wealth – among the country’s most important intellectuals in the second half of the 18th century. Indeed, a host of liberal ideas, in the classic sense, took hold: the rejection of mercantilism’s closed markets, the weakening of guilds and the expansion of internal free trade, and robust physical and intellectual property rights all put Britain far ahead of France, where violent revolution was needed to disrupt the privileges of the old regime.

Such political upheaval in Europe, notes Mr. Mokyr, disrupted trade, fostered uncertainty, and may well have created all kinds of knock-on social disincentives for technological and scientific innovation and collaboration with business. Much as we might deplore too many of our brightest students going into law rather than chemistry or engineering, it is not unreasonable to think that many of France’s brightest thinkers were diverted by brute events into political rather than scientific activism (or chastened by poor Lavoisier’s beheading during the Revolution).

Thus Montesquieu may have advocated free trade as passionately as Adam Smith, but Smith’s “Wealth of Nations” – the canonical text of the Industrial Enlightenment – fell upon a society primed to judge and implement it as an operating system. Evangelical and liberal alike shared in the vision of “frugal” government, as Mr. Mokyr puts it. In the opening decades of the 19th century, Parliament took an ax to itself, pruning the books of what were now seen as harmfully restrictive laws.

I have my doubts about whether robust intellectual property rights did much to encourage the industrial revolution, but apart from that …

This books is now in the post to me, thanks to Amazon, that characteristic trading innovation of our own time.

I suppose reading books like this is, for a British libertarian, an experience somewhat like that of a religious believer contemplating the delights of the Garden of Eden. It may be a bit bogus, in the sense that like all earthly Edens this one was decidedly imperfect and probably felt just as discouraging to its contemporaries as life seems to a lot of us now, a lot of the time.

For who knows? Maybe the times we are living through now may be looked back upon by later generations as similarly Eden-like, either because we are now making huge intellectual (as well as more obvious economic – think Amazon) progress, but we can’t quite see it (maybe any decade now our Parliaments will take axes to themselves), or because times are about to get a lot worse.

I hope (although I promise nothing) to report back here about whether the book deserves the above praise.