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]

Alex Singleton on Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent

Incoming from Alex Singleton:

I know you’ve described Noam Chomsky as “a monster” before now, so I thought you might be interested in a review that I have written of his book Manufacturing Consent.

Singleton’s review is entitled “Manufacturing Consent by Chomsky and Herman isn’t just wrong: it is ludicrous”. Chomsky argues that multinational corporations have it all their own way in the mainstream media. Singleton argues otherwise:

As Herb Schmertz, former VP at Mobil Oil, put it in a 1986 book: “[Many people are] under the false impression that the wealthier the organization, the more seriously its views are taken. I wish that were true! If anyone still believes that old canard, I invite them to spend a month working for a major oil company during the next fuel shortage.”


Having worked in the media himself, Alex Singleton now earns his living advising organisations, big and small, about how to handle the media. So, if you run a wealthy organisation, and you are facing some sort of crisis and consequently are liable to get a media beating, why not give Singleton a call? Maybe he could manufacture some consent for you.

I have yet to read most of it but I already greatly admire Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature

Can one say worthwhile things about a book that one has only begun to read? I think, often: yes. One thing one can definitely report is whether one is reading this or that book with enthusiasm, eager to learn what will follow, or only because of a self-imposed, well-I’ve-started-so-I-might-as-well-finish sense of mere duty.

So far, I have only read somewhat over a hundred and fifty pages of Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, but it definitely passes the above test. It is a huge book. Just before finishing this posting I happened to drop my (paperback!) copy of it on my foot, and it really hurt. The text alone runs to over eight hundred pages, and the notes take it over a thousand, yet I already know that I am going to go on reading this book until I finish it, and that when I do finally finish it (I am a very slow reader) I will almost certainly be somewhat regretful, as if coming to the end of a wonderful holiday trip or a particularly satisfying job assignment.

There are so many things I could say about this book, so many thoughts in it and provoked by it that would be blog-worthy, but let me focus on just one, which is that it is such a very, very worthy subject for an academic to be writing about. Pinker has chosen a subject that, he says, needs a long book. Well, a decent but short book could have been written about the relentless decline of violence in human affairs, but I am very happy that this one is indeed extremely long. It is not so much, for me, that this subject needs a long book, as that it so very much deserves one.

The story Pinker tells is of the relentless rise of what he is not afraid to call civilisation. Simply, we humans have become ever less nasty and sadistic towards one another as the decades and centuries and millennia have rolled by, both qualitatively and quantitatively. To make this point, he has already (as I am reading) piled on plenty of agony, about such things as medieval torture devices, and I am sure there will be plenty more such horrors to come.

Says Pinker of this process of moral improvement (on page 160 of the Penguin paperback edition), in a deeply felt parenthetical interjection …

– and if this isn’t progress, I don’t know what is –

Well said. → Continue reading: I have yet to read most of it but I already greatly admire Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature

Violence has decreased over time

Ben Pile at Climate Resistance notes Steven Pinker’s latest book:

In this startling new book, the bestselling cognitive scientist Steven Pinker shows that the world of the past was much worse. With the help of more than a hundred graphs and maps, Pinker presents some astonishing numbers. Tribal warfare was nine times as deadly as war and genocide in the 20th century. The murder rate of Medieval Europe was more than thirty times what it is today. Slavery, sadistic punishments, and frivolous executions were unexceptionable features of life for millennia, then suddenly were targeted for abolition. Wars between developed countries have vanished, and even in the developing world, wars kill a fraction of the people they did a few decades ago. Rape, battering, hate crimes, deadly riots, child abuse, cruelty to animals—all substantially down.

Sounds good, and all very plausible. But how to explain it?

Thanks to the spread of government, literacy, trade, and cosmopolitanism, we increasingly control our impulses, empathize with others, bargain rather than plunder, debunk toxic ideologies, and deploy our powers of reason to reduce the temptations of violence.

I am not sure about that government bit. Perhaps “rule of law” might be more accurate. Perhaps the Amazon reviews can shed some light. Says one reviewer:

Pinker challenges the two prevailing views of human nature – Rousseau’s view that the noble savage has been corrupted by civilization, and Hobbes’s idea that human greed and violence can only be curbed by strong government. The first view is common on the left of the political spectrum, the second among conservatives. The reviewers who think poorly of the book may have been upset by the fact that Pinker rejects both positions. Instead he shows, with a mass of evidence and interpretation, that violence has declined through history. We seem likely to have started with the high levels of inter-group killing found in our chimpanzee cousins, eventually to be tamed by the slow development of effective government, peaceful trading and eventually Enlightenment thinking.

Says another:

Words like `democracy’, `government’ or `gentle commerce’ are not seriously analyzed. Consequentially, his view of history is a very mechanical one: we were extremely violent in the past and thanks to the Leviathan and `gentle commerce’ we have become better persons. We either accept the political and economical assets of our era or we risk going back to violence and chaos.

My sense is that Pinker’s evidence for decreasing violence over time will be very interesting to see, but his explanations for why this is so will be less interesting. I think the answer is that technology makes us less violent, by making our lives overall so much more comfortable that violence seems even more out of the ordinary, and so to be avoided, than it otherwise would.

Samizdata quote of the day

“I am not one of those who have ever flattered the people, or striven to win favour by telling them that from the Crown or from Parliament that could be got which could not be got from themselves, by themselves. I would impress upon you this. What the State gives to you, the State takes from you first; it further charges you with the cost of collection, and with the cost of distribution. Better by far that you should save for yourselves and spend for yourselves, than put into the purse of the State your earnings of which only part can at best come back.”

Charles Bradlaugh, 19th Century British parliamentarian and campaigner on issues such as rights of non-believers, contraception, the case against the monarchy, and as this quotation shows, an opponent of socialism. The quote is taken from a review of a book about Bradlaugh by Bryan Niblett, who is known to some of us at Samizdata. Bryan is an Objectivist (as in an admirer of the philosophy of Ayn Rand) and has worked for many years as a private arbitrator concerning areas such as intellectual property. A very good and smart man all round, in fact.

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.