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]

When, if ever, is it right to use recent horrific crimes to push for political changes you wanted anyway?

I was struck by a particular contrast between two opinion columns that appeared in today’s Guardian. Both made reference to crimes in which many children were killed.

The first column I would like to look at, written by Zoe Williams, refers to the crime described here. Mick Philpott had lived in a ménage à trois with his wife, Mairead, his mistress Lisa Willis and the eleven children the two women had bore him. When Lisa Willis walked out on this arrangement, taking her five children – and their welfare benefits – with her, the Philpotts and another man set a fire at the Philpott house with the aim of framing Ms Willis for it, which would help him regain custody of their children and the income stream that came with them, and also so that Philpott could be seen to rescue the other six children who still lived in that house. It would also aid him in his custody battle to be hailed a hero. As it turned out, he could not rescue them. All six died in the fire. The three conspirators have been jailed for multiple manslaughter, with Mick Philpott receiving the longest sentence as the dominant figure in the group.

The Daily Mail published an article headed “Vile product of Welfare UK: Man who bred 17 babies by five women to milk benefits system is guilty of killing six of them.”

Zoe Williams of the Guardian was deeply angered by this. Her Guardian column has the title “Don’t get mad about the Mail’s use of the Philpotts to tarnish the poor – get even.” Ms Williams writes,

It is vitriolic, illogical depersonalisation to ascribe the grotesqueness of one wild, unique crime to tens of thousands of people on benefits. When any section of society is demonised on irrational grounds we have to take that seriously, so I will complain to the Press Complaints Commission, and I hope you will too.

The readers’ comments share Ms Goodman’s outrage, as does a similar comment piece about the same crime by Graeme Cooke which says,

There’s nothing wrong with moral principles in welfare policy but making political capital from an appalling crime is offensive.

The second, contrasting Guardian column, by Amy Goodman, referred to the gun massacre of twenty children and six adults carried out by Adam Lanza at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012. That crime and its legal and moral implications were discussed at length in this blog at the time it occurred.

Amy Goodman’s column has the title “It’s time for the majority to move on gun control” and includes the words:

The moment to pass gun control was when the national attention was riveted on the massacre at Sandy Hook, the brutal slaying of 20 children and six adults. Before the broken bodies of those victims fade from memory, our broken body politic must be mended. What is needed is a vigorous grassroots movement, to provide the leadership so lacking in Washington DC.

I do not wish to simply jeer at the inconsistency of the reaction of the Guardian’s writers and readers. They could quite fairly throw the same jibe back at us – I assume that most readers of this blog oppose gun control and objected to the demonisation of American gun owners because of one grotesque crime on much the same grounds as Ms Williams objects to the demonisation of British welfare claimants for one grotesque crime. I post this to ask, not answer, the question, when is it offensive and when is it a moral necessity to make political capital over the bodies of dead children?

The British ruling class are no longer good sports

The typical member of the British ruling class of yesteryear was complacent, arrogant, and a hypocrite. However his public school had at least imbued him with one particular virtue, or, failing that, had imbued him with the desire to appear to have that one virtue, which does well enough for most purposes. He wanted to be seen as a good sport. A chap who played the game. A chap who would not shoot a sitting duck or a grouse out of season, and who would never hit anyone who by reason of sex, age, or any other cause, could not hit back.

We have dispensed with all that foolishness now.

It is contempt of court for a juror ever to describe the deliberations of the jury of which he or she was a member. Thus the members of the jury held up to public scorn (“…a fundamental deficit in understanding … in 30 years of criminal trials I have never come across this at this stage, never”) by Mr Justice Sweeney for asking stupid questions cannot defend themselves.

Not playing the game, sir, not playing the game at all.

Related: Sexual and financial privacy and the bully pulpit.

A very trivial and very boring little post about the price of a chair

Tonight I have the first of my new lot of Brian’s Fridays, and with this in mind I have been keeping half an eye open for cheap, cheerful chairs. In the course of which process I recently discovered a new use for digital photography.

I am fond of joking that my digital camera, especially the latest one with its super-zoom lens, has better eyesight than I do, but this is more than a joke, which is why it is, I think, quite a good joke. It’s true.

So there I was in Tottenham Court Road looking through the window of a shop, long after it had closed, and observing from a distance a chair that looked pretty cheap to start with and had been reduced from … £something, to £something-even-less. From what? Even if I had more up-to-date glasses I probably couldn’t have made it out. And more to the point to what? Those vital numerals were quite big, but unclear.

I got out the camera, cranked up the auto-focus, took a photo, and I quickly had my answer:

ChairPrice

Still too much, I think. But good to know, in real time.

I’m still a bit hazy about how to do that click-and-enlarge thing here at New Samizdata, but trust me, on the original I could also see that it was reduced from £90.

Sam Bowman, my speaker for the evening, has just arrived, and I told him about this posting. Yes, he said, a little telescope in your pocket. Exactly so.

One of the many uncertainties about the future generally (such as the portentous banking uncertainties that Sam Bowman will be speaking about) and about the applications that people will find for new technology in particular is that you often can’t tell beforehand what rather surprising applications people will find for new technology. Digital photography costs more than nothing, quite a lot more than nothing if you really like it, but its marginal cost, the cost of the next photo, really is, pretty much, nothing. That means a world full of hard discs full of photo-crap. But it also means that if you have digital photography on you, you will find further genuinely useful uses for it, the way you never would for photography done with shops or dark rooms.

I have long used my camera to photograph signs, next to tourist attractions or to paintings in galleries. I even choose to speculate that in the age of digital photography such signs may well have become more elaborate, long-winded and informative. I routinely photo local maps while on my photographic wanderings, so that I later know where everything was, even years later. But I have never before used my camera actually to see something very trivial, very boring to anyone else, right then, right there.

The boringness and the triviality being the point. Capitalism doesn’t just do big stuff, like: digital photography! It does the little things, like telling you the price of a chair which is too far away for you to be able to read the label. And, you never know what other boring and trivial things it might be able to do for you in the future.

Don’t kill it.

Jacques Barzun, RIP

Here is a fine study in the New York Times of the writer and intellectual figure, Jacques Barzun. His views on art, culture and the state of our civilisation are all worth reading. He made it to almost 105 years of age.

Here is a Wikipedia page about him, which contains a full bibliography. Here is one of his better known books, From Dawn To Decadence.

Bitcoin talk

This coming Friday evening (Aug 3rd), there will be a talk, at my home, on the subject of Bitcoin, given by a German libertarian who is now visiting London named Frank Braun.

Frank Braun is an acquaintance of Detlev Schlichter. Detlev wanted London to offer Frank Braun some kind of libertarian welcome, but many of the usual libertarian welcomers are now out of the country, on holiday and fleeing the Olympics. So, I’m doing some Frank Braun welcoming. Which suits me well because I have for some time been thinking of cranking up my Brian’s Fridays, and this will be a good way to see if that really appeals. Plus, any acquaintance of Detlev Schlichter is an acquaintance of mine. Certainly, this particular talk ought to be interesting.

There is a posting up at my personal blog about the event. If you’d like to attend, and are near enough actually to do that conveniently, please email me (follow the link to see how).

Now, back to all the tidying up that I must do before Friday. That has now become urgent. Which was another reason why I said yes to Frank Braun dropping by.

Discussion Point XXXVII

Who do you hope wins the election in Greece today?

As a starting point for discussion, I thought the headline of this Guardian article “A Syriza victory will mark the beginning of the end of Greece’s tragedy” might well turn out to be true if Syriza do win, albeit not in the way the left wing authors expect.

“Suppose things go badly, and Italy is in trouble” – Milton Friedman on the Euro in July 1998

…the more likely possibility is that there will be asymmetric shocks hitting the different countries. That will mean that the only adjustment mechanism they have to meet that with is fiscal and unemployment: pressure on wages, pressure on prices. They have no way out. With a currency board, there is always the ultimate alternative that you can break the currency board. Hong Kong can dismantle its currency board tomorrow if it wants to. It doesn’t want to and I don’t think it will. But it could. But with the Euro, there is no escape mechanism.

Suppose things go badly and Italy is in trouble, how does Italy get out of the Euro system? It no longer has a lira after whatever it is – 2000 or 2001 – so it’s a very big gamble. I wish the Euro area well; it will be in the self-interest of Australia and the United States that the Euro area be successful. But I’m very much concerned that there’s a lot of uncertainty in prospect.

Professor Milton Friedman interviewed by Radio Australia, 17 July 1998

Discussion Point XXXVI

What will happen to the Euro? I am not asking “what should happen”, but what will happen. Take this opportunity to put your predictions on the internet, and later be hailed as a true prophet or derided as a false one.

Detlev Schlichter in House of Commons Committee Room 7

Yesterday afternoon, I attended the meeting at the House of Commons that I flagged up here a few days earlier. It was a fairly low key affair, attended by about thirty people or more. Not being a regular attender of such events, I can’t really be sure what it all amounted to. Things happen at meetings that you don’t see. Minds get changed, in silence. Connections are made, afterwards. You do not see everything.

But what I think I saw was this.

The first thing to clarify is that this was the Detlev Schlichter show. Steve Baker MP was a nearly silent chairman. Tim Evans was a brief warm-up act. Schlichter’s pessimism about the world economy was the heart of the matter. He did almost all the talking, and I believe he did it very well.

It’s not deliberate on his part. Schlichter just talks the way he talks. But his manner is just right for politicians, because he doesn’t shout, and because he so obviously knows what he is talking about, what with his considerable City of London experience, and that flawless English vocabulary spoken in perfect English but with that intellectually imposing German accent. He foresees monetary catastrophe, but although he has plenty to say about politics, and about how politics has politicised money, he is not trying to be any sort of politician himself. Basically, he thinks they’re boxed in, and when asked for advice about how to change that, he can do nothing beyond repeating that they are boxed in and that monetary catastrophe does indeed loom. But what all this means, for his demeanour at events like this one, is that he doesn’t nag the politicians or preach at them or get in any way excited, because he expects nothing of them; he merely answers whatever questions they may want to ask him. He regards them not as stage villains but as fellow victims of an historic upheaval. Despite the horror of what he is saying, they seem to like that. He didn’t spend the last two months cajoling his way into the House of Commons. He was simply asked in, and he said yes, I’ll do my best.

Present at the meeting were about five MPs, besides Steve Baker MP I mean, which is a lot less than all of them, but a lot more than none.

One, a certain Mark Garnier MP, seemed to be quite disturbed by what he was hearing, as in disturbed because he very much feared that what he was hearing might be true. Mark Garnier MP is a member of the Treasury Select Committee, which I am told is very significant.

Another MP present, John Redwood, was only partially in agreement with Shlichter. He agrees that there is a debt crisis, but doesn’t follow Schlichter to the point of seeing this as a currency crisis. In other words, Redwood thinks we have a big problem, but Schlichter thinks the problem is massively bigger than big.

Redwood was also confused by Schlichter’s use of the phrase “paper money”, by which Redwood thought Schlichter meant, well, paper money. Redwood pointed out, quite correctly, that paper money that has hundred percent honest promises written on it, to swap the paper money in question for actual gold, is very different from the paper money we now have, which promises nothing. Redwood also pointed out that most of the “elastic” (the other and probably better description of junk money that Schlichter supplies in the title of his book) money that we now have is mostly purely virtual additions to electronically stored bank balances. We don’t, said Redwood, want to go back to a world without credit cards or internet trading! All of which was immediately conceded by Schlichter, and none of which makes a dime of difference to the rightness or wrongness of what Schlichter is actually saying; these are mere complaints about how he says it. Such complaints may be justified, given how inexactly “paper money” corresponds to the kind of money that Schlichter is actually complaining about. But Redwood seemed to imagine that what he said about what he took “paper money” to mean refuted the substance of what Schlichter said. Odd.

For me, the most interesting person present was James Delingpole. (It was while looking to see if Delingpole had said anything about this meeting himself that earlier today got me noticing this.) The mere possibility that Delingpole might now dig into what Schlichter, and all the other Austrianists before him, have been saying about money and banking was enough to make me highly delighted to see him there, insofar as anything about this deeply scary story can be said to be delightful. But it got better. I introduced myself to Delingpole afterwards, and he immediately told me that he considered this the biggest story now happening in the world. So, following his book and before that his blogging about red greenery, Delingpole’s next Big Thing may well prove to be world-wide monetary melt-down. I would love to read a money book by Delingpole as good and as accessible as Watermelons. If Delingpole’s red greenery stuff is anything to go by, the consequences in terms of public understanding and public debate of him becoming a money blogger and a money book writer could be considerable. So, no pressure Mr D, but I do hope you will at least consider such a project.

Hayek vs Keynes at the London School of Economics

In front of an admittedly pro-“Austria” crowd at the LSE, it seems that academics defending the free market views of the late F.A. Hayek managed to fairly heavily beat those speaking up for JM Keynes.

This may not amount to much, but what I think these things accomplish is to remind the defenders of people such as Keynes (such as Lord Skidelsky, his biographer), that there are now hundreds, in fact thousands, of smart young economics and politics graduates and undergraduates who regard, say, Keynes and other economic interventionists, as wrong. Some of these people will become teachers and lecturers themselves, or, if they want to make serious money, work in banks and the like. Slowly but surely, all those people teaching stodgy, wrong Keynesian ideas are getting older and greyer and newer people with other ideas are taking over, however slowly at first. This LSE debate is the sort of event that makes me think that while the 2008 financial crash might be seen, in one way, as a supposed setback for “unregulated capitalism” (yeah, right), it has also pushed attention on ideas that got out of focus in the lazy, fat years of the dotcom boom and the early parts of the past decade. (And then of course there are all those tens of thousands of book sales of Atlas Shrugged, etc).

Libertarians and other non-socialists like to moan how our places of Higher Learning have been gradually taken over by people with bad and wrong ideas. We need, I think, to realise that that argument can cut both ways. People with good, insightful ideas can also enter these institutions, however slowly at first, and make a key difference. I think this is happening more than people realise. I know that optimism is deeply out of fashion these days. Wallowing in despair is, in my view, a cop-out.

Discussion Point XXXIV

What developments favourable to liberty will happen during 2011?

… and a happy new year to all.

Forthcoming events – Jésus Huerta de Soto tomorrow evening and Positive Money in November

Incoming from Sam Bowman of the Cobden Centre (and also the Research Manager and Blogmeister at the Adam Smith Institute – most recent blog posting here):

This Thursday 28th October, the world’s leading economist of the Austrian school – Jésus Huerta de Soto – will be giving the first annual Hayek Lecture on the topic “Financial Crisis and Economic Recession”. The lecture is a great chance to hear about the Austrian Business Cycle Theory from its leading living theorist. It’s free, no advance tickets are needed. It starts at 6:30pm and full details are available here.

That event has already been flagged up (although somewhat imperfectly!) here. The Cobden Centre head honchos are hoping for a good-to-bursting type turnout, to keep the buzz they are already creating buzzing along and buzzier. So if you can just show up, do. No compelling need to listen to everything that carefully, or not first time around, because unless things go badly wrong the event will be recorded. I will be going, and I expect to learn a lot.

And there’s more:

A conference is being put on in London on Saturday 13th and Sunday 14th of November by the Positive Money campaign. The conference is not Austrian – there will be speakers from a range of intellectual viewpoints – but it will focus on the issues of money and banking and will have lectures from several Cobden Centre board members, including Toby Baxendale, James Tyler and Steve Baker MP. Full details are available here.

One of the things I most like about the Cobden Centre is how they cooperate so enthusiastically and helpfully with other groups which have broadly (rather than merely narrowly) similar agendas, that latter event being typical of this mind-fix.