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]

Schoolboy howlers

We all love those daft things that school children put on exam papers – How long is the menstrual cycle? Three feet; that sort of thing. So, here are some from a hundred years ago (when they didn’t have such things as menstrual cycles):

After twice committing suicide, Cowper lived till 1800 when he died a natural death.

Much butter is imported from Denmark, because Danish cows have greater enterprise and superior technical education to ours.

In the British Empire the sun always sets.

The courage of the Turks is explained by the fact that a man with more than one wife is more willing to face death than if he had only one.

Under what conditions will a body float in water? After it has been in the water three days.

Some of the others might turn out to be even funnier if I understood them.

The days when railway companies held their passengers to ransom

In these enlightened days of state-controlled railways and fare control it is sometimes difficult to believe that there was a time when railways were monopolies red in tooth and claw and were more or less free to do what they wanted.

And here, from a hundred years ago, we have an egregious example of precisely the sort of monopoly abuse we have so often been warned of. It’s revision time for fares and you know what’s coming: they’re… er… reducing them:

The Times 3 December 1913 p5

The Times 3 December 1913 p5

Well, that’s as may be but the only reason they’re doing that is because they’re making the service… er… better:

In anticipation of the opening of the first section of the electrified suburban lines during the coming year…

As it happens the lines to which they refer weren’t electrified until 1916 – not that that is particularly important.

So, what’s going on? Well, as Brian Micklethwait likes to point out everything competes with everything else. Railways may not compete much with other railways but they sure as hell compete with buses, trams, cars, moving nearer work and finding a job nearer where one lives.

Even so, railwaymen often refer to the “sparks effect”. This is the phenomenon whereby a newly electrified line will see a significant increase in passengers. With that in mind you would have thought they could increase their fares. I can only imagine fares are being reduced because they are able to run more services.

By the way, not strictly relevant but I loved this from column 1 on the same page:

Mr J. D. Gilbert asked the chairman of the Highways Committee whether in view of the by-laws allowing passengers to stand in the tramcars, the committee had considered the advisability of issuing notices, similar to those in use in Manchester, asking ladies to have all hatpins protected.

From here

From here

Deirdre McCloskey’s list of true liberals

Almost a decade ago now, the still much missed Findlay Dunachie did a posting here about the wicked sayings and doings of Communist academics and supporters and subverters in America, some of whom were then trying to expunge from the historical record their long catalogue of blunder and subterfuge and just plain evil. Earlier this year I encountered this posting again, and recycled its particularly eloquent opening sentences as a Samizdata quote of the day.

But this posting contained other things that were perhaps even more memorable than those opening sentences, namely two lists of the bad communists and communist sympathisers in question. List One: The Academics. List Two: The Spies. May they live in infamy.

I was reminded of those lists when I recently encountered another such list, this other list being a roll of honour rather than of dishonour. It appears towards the end of Deirdre McCloskey’s book Bourgeois Dignity, which was published in 2010. (The Anton Howes talk that I flagged up here recently is pretty much Anton Howes channelling this book.)

What is this book about? Well, one way to describe it would be for its author to list all the people whose ideas she approves of and is herself channelling.

So, that’s what she does, on page 400:

My theme in short is the true liberal one of the de la Court brothers, Richard Overton, John Lilburne, William Walwyn, Thomas Rainsborough, Richard Rumbold, Spinoza, Dudley North, Algernon Sidney, Locke, Voltaire, Hume, Turgot, Montesquieu, Adam Ferguson, Smith, Thomas Paine, Destutt de Tracy, Jefferson, Madame de Stael, Benjamin Constant, Wilhelm von Humboldt, Charles [not Auguste] Comte, Charles Dunoyer, Malthus, Ricardo, Harriet Martineau, Tocqueville, Giuseppe Mazzini, Frederic Bastiat, Mill, Henry Maine, Richard Cobden, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Cavour, Johan August Gripenstedt, Herbert Spencer, Lysander Spooner, Karl von Rotteck, Johan Rudolf Thorbecke, Carl Menger, Lord Acton, Josephine Butler, Knut Wicksell, Luigi Einaudi, H. L. Mencken, Johan Huizinga, Frank Knight, Ludwig von Mises, Willa Cather, Rose Wilder Lane, Walter Lippmann until the 1950s, Nora Zeale Hurston, Karl Popper, Isaiah Berlin, Michael Polanyi, Friedrich Hayek, Raymond Aron, Henry Hazlitt, Bertrand de Jouvenel, Ronald Coase, Milton, Rose, and son David Friedman, Murray Rothbard, James Buchanan, Ludwig Lachmann, Gordon Tullock, Thomas Sowell, Joan Kennedy Taylor, Roy A. Childs, Julian Simon, Israel Kirzner, Vernon Smith, Wendy McElroy, Norman Barry, Loren Lomasky, Tibor Machan, Anthony de Jasay, Douglas Den Uyl, Douglas Rasmussen, Deepak Lal, Chandran Kukathas, Ronald Hamowy, Tom Palmer, Don Lavoie, David Boaz, Richard Epstein, Tyler Cowen, David Schmidtz, Donald Boudreaux, Peter Boettke, and the young Robert Nozick. It is the obvious and simple system of natural liberty. It contradicts the aristocratic sneering by conservatives at innovations and at the bourgeoisie, or the clerical sneering by progressives at markets and at the bourgeoisie. The true-liberal claim is that unusual bourgeois dignity and personal liberty in northwestern Europe, and especially in Holland and then in Britain, made for unusual national wealth, by way of a revaluation of ordinary, bourgeois life.

Interesting, both for its inclusions and for its exclusions. Particular kudos to the very select few who need only be mentioned with one surname!

The most notable exclusion that commenters here may want to notice and opine about is Ayn Rand. Rand gets no mention either in the book’s index or in the list of works cited. My guess is that McCloskey’s attitude to Rand can be summarised as the claim that Rand contributed a minus quantity to our understanding of, to quote the title of McCloskey’s earlier book, The Bourgeois Virtues.

For me it is the inclusions in this list that are the most interesting. It makes me want to learn more, in particular, about the English men of the seventeenth century at the top of the list, and about all those Germanic sounding people, throughout, several of whose names are entirely new to me.

I’d be very interested to hear if anyone reading this list can honestly claim to have even heard of everyone on it. Paul Marks has, obviously, but … anyone else?

Happy Christmas to all who are reading this, and happy googling, of the who is he? sort, that this posting will, I hope, stimulate.

Anton Howes on the industrial revolution – now available on video

One of the intellectual highlights of my year has been hearing Anton Howes (whom I first noticed while noticing the Liberty League) expound the idea that the British industrial revolution was, at heart, an ideological event. The industrial revolution happened when it did and where it did because certain people in that place and at that time started thinking differently. To put it in Samizdata-speak, the metacontext changed. Particular people changed it, not just with the industrial stuff that they did, but with what they said and wrote.

I first heard Howes give this talk at my last Friday of the month meeting in July of this year. Happily, Simon Gibbs of Libertarian Home also heard Howes speak that night, and immediately signed him up to do a repeat performance, this time with a video camera running, for Libertarian Home at the Rose and Crown.

And the good news is that the video of this Howes talk at the Rose and Crown is now up and viewable at Libertarian Home. If spending half an hour watching a video does not suit, then you might prefer to read Simon’s extended summary of the talk. The same video is also up at YouTube.

I wrote a bit at my personal blog about that subsequent evening, and there is lots else I want to say about what Howes is saying. But one of the rules of blogging is not to let hard-to-write and consequently not-yet-actually-written pieces interrupt you putting up easier-to-write pieces that you actually can write and do write.

So: Anton Howes is a clever guy. Watch the video. And watch out for him and his work in the future.

A website about human progress

Recently I’ve been getting emails from the Cato Institute plugging their new website, HumanProgress.org.

Personally, I find the way that this website works to be annoying and confusing and just generally off-putting in a way I can’t quite pin down. I can find stuff, but every time I try to make progress through it, I am assaulted by what feels to me like mild-to-severe waves of user hostility. The screen, for instance, frequently covers itself in grey, in a manner which feels to me like it’s not working properly. But it could easily be that it is just me that is now semi-permanently annoyed, confused and hostile. I’d be slightly interested in whether anyone else shares my annoyed, confused and hostile reaction to the way this website works.

But I am really far more interested in the message that the website is trying to put across. It could be that there is just so much good news about human progress to be navigated through, such an abundance of data choice when it comes to learning about how well the human species is doing just now, that any website devoted to such matters is bound to overwhelm and confuse someone like me, whose brain is rooted in the twentieth century, when news like this was so much harder to come by and when websites were only being dreamed of. (The multiplication of genuinely useful websites seems to be a story that HumanProgress.org doesn’t seem to provide data about, but maybe they do and I just haven’t spotted it yet.)

This message, of relentless human betterment, will surely remind many readers of Steven Pinker’s recent book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, which I wrote about here (where there are links to other and earlier postings on the same subject).

The Zabern Incident gets serious

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about the beginning of the Zabern Incident. Well, now it’s got a whole load more serious.

There have been further incidents in Alsace. Mainly these have involved locals insulting soldiers and the soldiers reacting with extra-legal brutality but they haven’t been without their farcical side. In one incident, the participants in a court case managed to get caught up in riot and various judges, clerks and advocates found themselves spending a night in the cells. In another, Lieutenant Förstner, the 18-year old who sparked it all, went out on a shopping trip. Normal enough if you discount the escort of four soldiers with bayonets fixed.

And now it’s reached the floor of the Reichstag. And the Chancellor, Bethmann Hollweg, has lost a vote of confidence.

The Times 5 December 1913 p9

The Times 5 December 1913 p9

In a democracy (e.g. France which in this very week in 1913 has also no-confidenced its Prime Minister) that would mean it’s time for the Chancellor to pack his bags. But not in Imperial Germany. In Imperial Germany the Chancellor is answerable to the Kaiser not the Parliament. Democratically elected representatives can huff and puff as much as they like but they are not going to blow the Prussian Army’s house down. At least not for another 5 years.

This kinda sorta brings me on to an observation: the end of monarchy is a bloody and protracted affair. In England the process began in 1642 and was probably all over by 1700 and involved a couple of civil wars and a military dictatorship. In France it took about 80 years (1789-1871) and involved three revolutions, a terror and a twenty-year war. In Germany (at least the Western half) it lasted from 1914 to about 1948; in Russia from 1917 to 1989; in Spain from about 1920 to 1980. In each case millions died. Oh, and China of course (1911-1980).

The only exceptions I can find are Portugal (although that had a period of dictatorship) and Turkey (dictatorship again). Japan is almost impossible to categorise not least because you have to decide who you take as the monarch: the Emperor or the Shogun?

Getting back to Imperial Germany, the tragedy is that here we see them within touching distance of a proper, functioning democracy. So near and yet so far.

We do not have to choose between dreaming of a better future and thinking intelligently about how to get a better future

Madsen Pirie describes how he invited his University of Brighton audience to look at the world “through neo-liberal eyes”, rather than through the sort of eyes they are probably more used to using:

Others look at what is and compare it with a vision in their mind of what it might be. We are more empirical, comparing it to what was. Life expectancy about 150 years ago was about 30 years, and had been so for millennia. Now it is about 68 years globally, and higher than that in developed countries. We look at death to mothers in childbirth, and see it is now a tiny fraction of what it was even at the turn of the previous century. We look at infant mortality and see how that, too, is now a tiny fraction of what it was. Many of the diseases of the past have been conquered or controlled, and although there are new ones now that we live longer, we are in the process of controlling those, too. In the past most people battled to survive at subsistence level, whereas now we have more people above poverty and starvation than ever before in the history of humankind.

In other words we see things as being better than they were. Of course we can imagine a future which will be better than our present, but the empirical approach is to compare present with past, examine what made the difference, and attempt to do more of it. What made the difference was economic development and wealth creation, not the redistribution of existing wealth. It was opportunity, not equality, that drove progress, and we who support freedom want to see more of it, so that the future world will be as different from the present as ours is from the past.

I agree with everything there, except that very first sentence, about how “others look at what is and compare it with a vision in their mind of what it might be”, the implication being that we “neo-liberals” don’t do this.

I think it is truer to say that we do indeed think in exactly the empirical yet optimistic way that Pirie describes, but that we also compare what is with what might be. The difference is not that we look to the past and our opponents look to the future, but that we look more intelligently at the past than they do, and we also look to a different and better future.

I do not welcome, for instance, a future of “equality”, the sneer quotes there being because equality of the sort that is equal enough to satisfy the sort of people who demand equality will require someone to impose it, and that someone has to be unequally powerful to be doing such imposing. If you truly believe in equality, then you – you personally – will do what you can to improve the circumstances of those at the bottom of the heap. The poor will keep their freedom, thereby ensuring that whatever improvements you offer them really will be improvements. And you will not contrive these improvements by robbing richer people, because that will require you to be – unequally – powerful enough to do that, and there goes your precious equality. It will be equality that does not apply to you.

But just because I do not dream silly dreams of imposed equality, this does not mean that I dream no other dreams, dreams of freedom, dreams of progress, and yes, dreams of greater equality, that really is that, rather than just inequality that has been rearranged a little, in favour of new equalising rulers.

And nor does it mean that Madsen Pirie himself refrains from any such dreaming. He dreams – does he not? – of a future world that is – in a good way – “as different from the present as ours is from the past”. And he compares, as I do, that dreamed future with the present, to the present’s disadvantage.

Che Guevara condemns himself

These ten quotes by Che Guevara are getting quite a mention around the blogosphere, and deservedly so.

David Thompson includes a link to them in his latest clutch of ephemera. Instapundit linked to them. And now I’m doing it here.

This is exhibit number five of the ten, picked pretty much at random, to illustrate the atmosphere of these ghastly pronouncements:

To send men to the firing squad, judicial proof is unnecessary.  These procedures are an archaic bourgeois detail.  This is a revolution!  And a revolutionary must become a cold killing machine motivated by pure hate.

This posting is now at the top of this long list of Che Guevara postings here, but will surely sink downwards in the future, as we all continue to point out what a monster this man was.

First thoughts on America 3.0 – the Emmanuel Todd connection

A great deal longer ago than I now enjoy remembering, I rashly promised the authors of America 3.00: Rebooting American Prosperity in the 21st Century – Why America’s Greatest Days Are Yet to Come, James C. Bennett and Michael Lotus, that I would, very soon, write something here about this book. But this is not a regular book review. I have an agenda of my own to plug with regard to America 3.0, which is, in two words: Emmanuel Todd.

I have greatly admired Emmanuel Todd, the French anthropologist and historian, ever since, in a 1980s remainder shop, I first encountered English translations of two of his most important books, the English titles of which are The Explanation of Ideology and The Causes of Progress, my copies of these two books being among my most treasured possessions. America 3.0 is in no small measure the book that it is because Bennett and Lotus have also acquainted themselves with Emmanuel Todd’s style of thinking, and have applied it to America. And the most interesting fact about America 3.0, from where I sit, is that its publication may prove to be some sort of breakthrough for Emmanuel Todd in the place that James Bennett himself has dubbed the Anglosphere. My hope concerning America 3.0 is not so much that what it says about America will captivate lots of Americans, although I’d be very happy if it did, but that it may, because its authors based it partly on a foundation constructed for them by Emmanuel Todd, help to spark what I think is a long overdue debate throughout the Anglosphere, a far grander debate than a merely American discussion about America. This debate will encompass the entirety of Emmanuel Todd’s grand narrative, and will concern the entire world.

The historian Alan MacFarlane, author of, among other books, one called The Origins of English Individualism, whose work is aligned with that of Emmanuel Todd, is one of the few historians writing in English to have given Todd the time of day. The authors of America 3.0 tell me that in an email to them, MacFarlane said that Todd is “roughly right” in what he says. Which sounds like rather faint praise. But when you realise that what MacFarlane reckons Todd to be “roughly right” about is one of the most confidently reductionist, yet original and interesting, and above all persuasive explanations of the entire process of political and economic modernisation that has been accomplished and is still being accomplished by our relentlessly formidable and complicated and belligerent and inventive species, everywhere on earth during the last five centuries and more, and for at least the next several decades, then you begin to see where my admiration for Emmanuel Todd is coming from. Many very capable and admirable historians score eight, nine or even ten out of ten for their life’s work. Compared to them, I would give Todd about eight hundred out of a thousand and counting. The man is operating at a different level of explanatory reach to all other historians I have ever read, or have ever read about or heard of. Yes indeed, as MacFarlane’s comment illuminates, Todd has, over the years, got quite a few of the details of his grand narrative somewhat wrong, in fact he probably gets far more things wrong than most good historians ever get right. But what he does get right … well, it is an epic story, and furthermore, a story that I now believe, with MacFarlane, to be “roughly right”.

So, what has Emmanuel Todd been saying?

→ Continue reading: First thoughts on America 3.0 – the Emmanuel Todd connection

Samizdata quote of the day – special JFK anniversary edition

The King of Camelot was killed by a commie loser. The impossibility of processing that drove the left crazy, and they still can’t face it.

- Glenn Reynolds, who clearly enjoys annoying conspiracy theorists, as I do. Meanwhile, Janet Daley reflects on what it was like to be a Kennedy supporter back in the early 1960s.

Fools and their futile appeals

White Sun of the Desert writes on Obamacare.

Parallels between the soft evils of the modern UK or US and the monstrous twentieth century dictatorships do not usually appeal to me for reasons I need not rehearse. However I think that in this post Tim Newman has made an acute psychological comparison.

Time to appeal to the vozhd.

What is digital photography doing to us?

I have just fixed to do one of Christian Michel’s 6/20 talks at his home in west London, on January 20th of next year.

In the spirit, which Christian encourages, of lots of us being libertarians but not droning on all the time about libertarianism, I have chosen a subject that will, I hope, cut across and rearrange the usual ideological divisions at these evenings.

Here’s the bit of the email I sent to Christian, explaining what I had in mind to talk about:

What Digital Photography is doing for us and what Digital Photography is doing to us.

I will speak first about the recreational pleasures and economic benefits of digital photography, making fun and memories for us, and communicating information about products for sale and work progress, or lack of progress, accidents, and so on. In general, I would say that the fun side of digital photography is quite well understood, but that the (other) economic impacts of digital photography are less often talked about.

And I will also muse more speculatively, about the effects that digital photography is having on our lives, minds and culture. What difference does it make to how we live, how we experience the present and the past, and how we feel about such things as privacy, and the right to turn over a new leaf when changing from crazy adolescent to responsible job-seeker? Or from crazy adolescent to solid married person? What does digital photography do to personal relationships? I have trouble predicting what I’ll say in this bit, because I have lots of further thinking to do.

I have never spoken formally about this subject before, and will be making guesses and asking questions, as well as supplying answers. In both parts of my talk I will solicit assistance from whatever audience shows up. Almost all of us have experience of using digital photography (perhaps in surprising ways), and have thoughts (perhaps also surprising) about its impact on our lives.

Christian’s reply included this:

The second part of the talk is clearly the more interesting one, at least to me. You have much time to develop it.

I have already written here about the economic impact of digital photography, here, and here. But what of the second part of my intended talk, the part that Christian would prefer me to concentrate on? Does the Samizdata commentariat have any thoughts as to how I might set about answering the questions above about the difference that digital photography makes to how we live, and to how we feel about how we live? Any thoughts along these lines would be greatly appreciated.

I think it was the experience of dashing off the commentary on these wedding photos that got me thinking about giving this talk. In that posting, I speculated about how the contrasting ways in which photography was done in the past (very clunkily and expensively and rarely) and now (with ridiculous ease) has affected our picture (literally) of the past. That’s the kind of not-quite-obvious effect I am looking to be told about.