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]

Discussion point: Boko Haram

I would so like to believe this video is a sick joke. The grinning idiot, swaying and bobbing around, scratching his bum, fiddling with his little red cock’s-comb topknot or bobble hat or whatever that is, rubbing his thigh while talking about the market for slaves… surely he cannot be real, cannot be serious?

Yet those who ought to know think it really is Abubakar Shekau speaking. And if it is, that is further confirmation that the abducted children have already been raped and enslaved.

Faced with Abubakar Shekau’s statement that he will sell for sexual use girls as young as nine, many of those who are usually firmly of the opinion that interference in foreign quarrels is always an evil rediscover a use for Hellfire missiles.

What should be done? Anything?

The elephant in the auction room

Qatari money fuels record price at ivory auction, reports Adam Sage of the Times.

An auction of elephant tusks in France has fetched a world-record price and illustrated the enduring lure of ivory for collectors.

Quite why the Qatari riyal in particular has the power to drive up prices Mr Sage does not say. One of the big bidders was a Qatari. That is the only justification for the headline. Strangely enough Mr Sage was also the author of another Times piece from a month ago that might give a slightly more plausible explanation for record prices at an ivory auction in France:

Ivory worth £6m is ground to dust next to Eiffel Tower

Three tons of impounded ivory were crushed next to the Eiffel Tower yesterday in an operation designed to highlight French opposition to the illegal wildlife trade.

However Mr Sage did not appear to perceive any possible connection between the two stories.

Discussion point: currency options for an independent Scotland

In the event that Scotland disregards my feelings and votes for independence, what currency would you recommend it use?

Opinions on this matter do not split neatly between Left and Right. Here are two of today’s articles on the subject; one from the Adam Smith Institute and one from the Guardian. A few days ago the pro-independence, pro-market campaign group “Wealthy Nation” republished this article from the Institute of Economic Affairs, recommending that Sterling be kept for the time being. It looks a serious piece, but it was written before the recent interventions by George Osborne and Manuel Barroso.

Commenters wishing to use words like “seignorage” are requested to give me warning first so that I can hide behind the sofa.

Norman Podhoretz on how President Obama is weakening US foreign policy on purpose

A while back, I did a piece here about US government space policy. I tried to answer the question of why President Obama was doing it so bizarrely well, given that he seemed to be doing lots of other stuff so bizarrely badly. My answer was basically that he is doing everything well, as he understands it. He believes the US government has been chucking its weight around in the world far too much of late, and that this aspect of its activities should be weakened. And he believes that the US government hasn’t chucked its weight around enough, domestically. That aspect of US government policy should be strengthened. All this has been and is being busily accomplished, indeed accomplished with considerable political virtuosity, with Big Government and the political party that favours Big Government working ever more closely in harmony with one another.

Norman Podhoretz seems to agree, certainly on the foreign policy bit:

It is entirely understandable that Barack Obama’s way of dealing with Syria in recent weeks should have elicited responses ranging from puzzlement to disgust. Even members of his own party are despairingly echoing in private the public denunciations of him as “incompetent,” “bungling,” “feckless,” “amateurish” and “in over his head” coming from his political opponents on the right.

For how else to characterize a president who declares war against what he calls a great evil demanding immediate extirpation and in the next breath announces that he will postpone taking action for at least 10 days – and then goes off to play golf before embarking on a trip to another part of the world? As if this were not enough, he also assures the perpetrator of that great evil that the military action he will eventually take will last a very short time and will do hardly any damage. Unless, that is, he fails to get the unnecessary permission he has sought from Congress, in which case (according to an indiscreet member of his own staff) he might not take any military action after all.

Summing up the net effect of all this, as astute a foreign observer as Conrad Black can flatly say that, “Not since the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, and before that the fall of France in 1940, has there been so swift an erosion of the world influence of a Great Power as we are witnessing with the United States.”

Yet if this is indeed the pass to which Mr. Obama has led us – and I think it is – let me suggest that it signifies not how incompetent and amateurish the president is, but how skillful. His foreign policy, far from a dismal failure, is a brilliant success as measured by what he intended all along to accomplish.

I am seldom convinced by explanations of why the President of the USA has just done something that the explainer considers stupid, when the explanation is that the President of the USA is himself stupid. I didn’t believe this kind of thing when it was said about Reagan or Bush jnr by their political opponents, and I don’t believe it now when it is said about Obama, by his political opponents. Those who argue that this or that bad thing happened because the President is an idiot call this argument things like: “Occam’s Razor”. But I think they confuse brevity and simplicity, and what they want to believe, with truth.

If the President is so stupid, how come he’s President? He got that bit right, didn’t he? And President Obama is a member of an even more exclusive club, one that also includes Reagan and Bush jnr. He is a President of the USA who got himself re-elected. The dumber and more disastrous you think his first term policies were, then the smarter you must concede he had to be to win re-election.

I think the argument that Obama knows just what he’s doing and is doing just fine, by his reckoning, makes far more sense.

On Murray Rothbard


By the time he gets to foreign policy, Rothbard has been on such a jihad against the state, and the U.S. government in particular, that he goes berserk and accuses the United States of being the bad guys in the (then ongoing) Cold War. In the First Edition (1973) he went so far as to attribute to Stalin a libertarian foreign policy, alleging the USSR practiced non-interventionism. When it was pointed out to him that the USSR invaded Finland, Rothbard added to his Second Edition a defense of Stalin’s attack, arguing that Stalin only wanted to reclaim traditionally Russian Karelia and liberate all the Russians supposedly living there. All of that is a-historical nonsense and Rothbard simply invented it. The Soviets planned to capture all of Finland and had even assembled a new Marxist government they hoped to install in Helsinki. The areas Stalin invaded are not “traditionally Russian.”  But even if Rothbard’s interpretation were true, how can Rothbard justify on libertarian grounds the bloodiest dictatorship in history attacking a free country in an effort to get “its” land and people back? It makes no sense, but Rothbard’s only concern is to defend his indefensible claim that the United States surpasses the rest of the world in doing evil. Unfortunately for Rothbard, long before the First Edition came out there was ample evidence that the Stalin and other Soviet leaders engaged in interventionism all around the world, often quite bloodily (Katyn Forest anyone?) Rothbard’s “libertarian” defense of Stalin is despicable and intellectually dishonest — and that’s the real problem with this book. Rothbard pretends that he’s doing careful analysis and finds the state wanting while showing that his own anarcho-capitalist system shines. But in fact, no argument is so bad, no intellectual sleight-of-hand too dishonest, if it will get Rothbard to his pre-chosen conclusion.

Charles Steele.

How often do we see the “enemy of my enemy is my friend” error among even pretty smart people – and Rothbard was not a stupid man. I have come across some libertarians who, out of an entirely rational desire to be wary of state adventurism, moral panics and so on, bend over backwards to play down threats and problems that statists talk about even when those threats and problems might actually be real. (This can be seen sometimes on issues such as Islamic terrorism or, for that matter, on environmental issues.) This can undermine the credibility of the argument. Far better for the libertarian to say: “Yes, I agree that X or Y is serious and cannot be ignored but a free society such as the one I favour is a far better position to deal with it than your Big Government-model one.”

Rothbard, it also should be said, was also an enthusiastic stirrer and practical joker: I think he enjoyed being outrageous for the sake of being outrageous; his pranksterism sometimes became an end in itself. (Sometimes those on the receiving end deserved it.) But this sort of behaviour carries its costs. It also leaves one with a sneaking sense that the joker might use the “but I was only joking!” defence as a ploy in case he or she was actually serious.

As Charles Steele writes in the same piece, this is all a great shame given that Rothbard could also be right on a lot of issues. I can recommend Brian Doherty’s Radicals For Capitalism, which gives Rothbard a lot of detailed treatment.

I think it was Rothbard who once came out with the crackerjack line: Say what you like about Marx, but at least he wasn’t a Keynesian.

Leakers and leaks

As recently reported by the McClatchy Newspapers, the Obama administration views whistleblowing and leaks as a species of terrorism. According to McClatchy: “President Obama’s unprecedented initiative, known as the Insider Threat Program, is sweeping in its reach. It has received scant public attention even though it extends beyond the U.S. national security bureaucracies to most federal departments and agencies nationwide, including the Peace Corps, the Social Security Administration and the Education and Agriculture departments. It emphasizes leaks of classified material, but catchall definitions of ‘insider threat’ give agencies latitude to pursue and penalize a range of other conduct. … Leaks to the media are equated with espionage.”

Glenn Reynolds, talking about the role of leakers and whistleblowers.

This can be a complex issue, for all that I share much of what Reynolds says. Take, say, Switzerland, famous for its bank secrecy laws. What happens if an employee of a bank (this has actually happened in real life) gets all upset about the fact that, due to the laws, he or she cannot divulge the identity of a client even that client might be avoiding or evading taxes? (In the latter case, evasion is not a crime in Switzerland, but tax fraud is. The difference is technical). Now, suppose that person divulges all to Wikileaks, or the local Swiss newspaper, or the New York Times. Is he or she a hero? Well, if you hate Swiss banks and think its 1934 law is an abomination and that everything should be out in the open, maybe. (It might be worth noting that the person is not forced to work in a bank if he or she finds it objectionable.) But clearly, privacy, confidentiality, or call it what you will, is something that a lot of law-abiding people worry about. The same might apply in a case, where, say, a person who works for a pornography video firm starts, after having suddenly developed a “conscience”, to start sending out the names and addresses of the people who have bought videos or downloaded the stuff.

Whistleblowers can and do do a vital job and sometimes their lives are made very uncomfortable about it. There is the recent case of a person who tried to alert the public about the dreadful situation in the Mid-Staffordshire part of the UK National Health Service, for instance.

I guess one broad way to consider the issue is that with governments, unlike private sector companies, the former are paid for by taxes, and the taxpayers are entitled to expect those bodies to be run appropriately. Although watchdogs and politicians in theory are supposed to enable this to happen, in practice, monopolistic organisations with the powers of coercion are vulnerable to abuse. I have already mentioned the NHS. Consider also the less-than-perfect UK police force, which has been mired in various corruption scandals in recent years, or the BBC, the state-privileged UK broadcaster that for years allowed a paedophile by the name of Jimmy Savile to work there (although it is not known if the BBC ever had enough evidence to kick him out). In these sort of cases, a leaker of information can do the public a favour. The risk of leaks is also one of those things that keeps organisations on their toes – well, good. On the other hand, journalists need to use a bit of commonsense so they don’t become the tools of someone else’s agenda. Not all leakers are heroes, or even all that bothered about issues of liberty and justice.

One issue of course is that while it is right for a whistleblower to blab to the press about a systemic problem, it is and can be wrong to leak in cases where a private individual’s privacy and welfare might be put at risk. And for that matter, where a leaker passes on information that might aid an enemy force and endanger lives (this is sometimes argued to be the case with some of the Wikileaks stuff about the Middle East), this also crosses a line.

As far as the Obama, or indeed any other administration, is concerned, fighting against leakers may sometimes be necessary, but by and large, the best way to avoid problems in the first place is to do fewer shameful and stupid things that people want to leak about. And the Obama administration seems to be intent on collecting scandals the same way that some folk collect stamps.

Meanwhile, it appears Mr Snowden cannot find a country that will have him.

On the joys of climate change conferences

James Delingpole has a nice posting about a recent excellent performance by Peter Lilley, the Tory MP who seems, unlike many of them, to have retained a large measure of common sense. This is what Mr Lilley said recently about the constant run of conferences held to discuss environmental issues:

“Those whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad. One of the early signs of madness is an indulgence in compulsive displacement activity, which could not be a better description of the whole COP process. Tens of thousands of people are displaced across the globe to an environment where they are cut off from reality and the rest of the world, where they can indulge themselves in demonstrating their lack of realism and reality, and where the original objective of obtaining a legally binding agreement between nations to reduce worldwide emissions has itself been displaced by the alternative objective of reaching an agreement to meet again—and to agree to reach an agreement at some distant future time. That is displacement activity on a massive scale, and it involves a massive degree of hypocrisy, given the huge emissions incurred by these eco-warriors as they swan across the globe in jets and hire fleets of limousines, so emitting more CO2 than a small African country.”

It is Earth Day today, by the way.




What the new Fat Controller might now do

Mick Hartley, who has been watching North Korea closely for years, senses that things may be about to explode, sooner rather than later:

Under the departed Dear Leader, there was at least some measure of balance. The Songun military-first principle held sway then as now, of course, and the level of vitriolic rhetoric aimed at South Korea and the US and Japan was constant and unrelenting, but there was some sense of a cunning plan; of a canny political operator at work.

Now, though, with the new Fat Controller Kim Jong-Un, there’s a strong feeling that it’s all getting out of control. As a sign of his weakness and insecurity, and doubtless under all kinds of internal pressures, and in-fighting within the top brass which we don’t know about, he just keeps pressing the same buttons that worked for his father, but he has to press them harder and harder. Up with the militarisation; up with the vicious rhetoric; up with the provocations and the bluster. He doesn’t know what else to do. Now the whole country’s on a war footing, the economy – such as it was – is imploding, and maybe for the first time in the history of the DPRK there’s a sense that the suffering people may not be prepared to tolerate this increased hardship much longer.

The logic of his position, then, may force him into some reckless action. He’s backed himself into a corner. South Korea’s western islands are looking increasingly vulnerable. If he doesn’t do something he’s going to look weak, and all that hardship is going to look like it was all for nothing to the wretched populace. And, as the economy tanks, he has to do something sooner rather than later….

I recommend also reading Hartley’s earlier piece, linked back to there, which does indeed link in its turn to reports about the vulnerability of some South Korean islands, but which is itself a copy-and-paste posting about what China is preparing to do about all this. Preparing to invade North Korea, basically, and racing against time. As always, when states like China build railways (in fact when almost any state has ever built a railway), the thinking is not just economic; it is also military.

China was and remains content to sponsor a North Korea that is vicious and strong. But a North Korea that is vicious and weak, to the point of recklessness, is a serious threat to China’s interests.

It says everything about the state of life for regular people in North Korea that if and when the Chinese do invade, the Chinese may well be greeted as liberators rather than as another bunch of predators.

Game developers jailed

ARMA III is a realistic first person military simulation game set on an accurate, high-definition rendering of the Greek Island of Lemnos which is close to Turkey. Last year the mayor of Lemnos expressed his displeasure at this, citing the Island’s peaceful reputation, while the head of the town council worried about national security.

This year, two of the game’s developers visited the island and ended up in prison for allegedly taking photographs of military installations there. Perhaps they had not heard of what happens to plane spotters in Greece. They are having to wait in jail for their trial for a long time because Greek judges have gone on strike in protest against austerity measures.

I am not sure what all this means but I will be considering other holiday destinations. Hat tip to Reddit.

Squander Two on the difference between international and internal politics

I like this (the second paragraph (of two) of this):

For better or worse, there’s a world of difference between international and internal politics. Heads of state are like in-laws: obliged by their position to meet each other and smile about it no matter how they may feel about it. Their subjects are more like neighbours: they can pick and choose which ones to socialise with, and report the psychotic ones to the police.

That, which I only just noticed, was posted on June 23rd. But some things will keep.

Time was when lots of heads of states were, literally, in-laws.

It is becoming normal for websites to disappear

One minute Kim Dotcom is running a successful file sharing website, renovating his mansion, driving his luxury cars and sailing on a superyacht surrounded by topless girls. The next, his birthday party is being raided by New Zealand police with helicopters and automatic rifles. Living in New Zealand, hosting his website in Hong Kong, and running the site as a file storage service similar in many ways to DropBox or Microsoft’s SkyDrive did not help him.

The New Zealand police simply did the FBI’s bidding. The indictment states that, due to various workings of MegaUpload such as the way users could get paid for hosting popular files and unpopular files would get deleted, it is not just a file storage service like DropBox. This is not unreasonable.

But it is, perhaps, surprising that the assertions of the FBI are enough to remove a well known web site from the Internet. It turns out they can already do that, even the day after the anti-SOPA protests during which everyone complained that the government would be able to take down websites if this scary new bill passed.

Meanwhile in the UK it looks likely that ISPs will be told to block access to PirateBay.

I’m not necessarily arguing that Dotcom and PirateBay are good guys, although their copying of bits of information is arguably peaceful while states’ reactions are violent.

But there is a trend here I don’t like. There was a time when you could host your web site in the right jurisdiction and it would not be touched. Now governments are learning how to apply various laws to remove them. Forcing ISPs to block access makes life less pleasant for ISPs, and it is likely to be somewhat effective. I expect more websites to disappear, and I expect this to become more commonplace. Eventually it will be normal and no longer newsworthy.

Samizdata quote of the day

Ideas matter, and especially to intellectuals like President Obama. He is not a rigid ideologue and is capable of flexible maneuvering. But his interpretation of history, his attitude toward sovereignty, and his confidence in multilateral institutions have shaped his views of American power and of American leadership in ways that distinguish him from previous presidents. On Libya, his deference to the UN Security Council and refusal to serve as coalition leader show that he cares more about restraining America than about accomplishing any particular result in Libya. He views Libya and the whole Arab Spring as relatively small distractions from his broader strategy for breaking with the history of U.S. foreign policy as it developed in the last century. The critics who accuse Obama of being adrift in foreign policy are mistaken. He has clear ideas of where he wants to go. The problem for him is that, if his strategy is set forth plainly, most Americans will not want to follow him.

The Obama Doctrine Defined by Douglas J. Feith and Seth Cropsey