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]

STFU with your “vote or STFU”

I find myself being exhorted, by various Facebook friends who think they are being clever, to “vote or STFU“. Apparently, the right to vote is rare and precious, should not be wasted, and if I do not vote I lose the right to complain about the government.

vote-or-stfu_o_878705

This is all nonsense.

Firstly, nobody loses the right to complain about violence being initiated against them by anyone for any reason. Voting has nothing to do with it.

It is possible to dislike the policies of all candidates. In that case I am told I should vote for the least worst candidate. But this is not necessarily a good strategy. The least worst candidate might be evil, and win, and everyone will think they have a democratic mandate to do evil things. Low voter turnout could be a good thing, making governments nervous and full of self doubt.

My only alternative to voting, I am told, if I am so clever and don’t like any of the policies on offer, is to stand for election myself and find out how popular my own unique set of policies is. There are various problems with this. I am not a talented politician. Even if my policies were very popular, I would lose because of this. I have limited resources and wasting them on something I know I will fail at is pointless. I should spend my energies elsewhere doing something productive. And my policies are not popular. They are the correct policies, but the electorate still thinks that voting for other people’s money is in their best interests. Perhaps one day they will learn, and I hope to help them: there are more ways to be politically active than voting or standing in an election, such as spreading ideas or developing political strategy.

Finally, my vote is in any case statistically insignificant. Even if I didn’t live in a “safe seat”, the margin is unlikely to be 1. Even this blog post is more influential than my vote.

Chimpanzees as legal persons

The Guardian reports:

Chimpanzees granted petition to hear ‘legal persons’ status in court

Wise’s argument in this case and others is that chimpanzees are intelligent, emotionally complex and self-aware enough to merit some basic human rights, such as the rights against illegal detainment and cruel treatment. They are “autonomous and self-determining”, in Wise’s words.

You can probably see why this post bears the “Self-ownership” tag. Many of the people arguing for legal personhood for animals are twerps like this one, who claims that she finds “discrimination on the grounds of species as distasteful as discrimination on the grounds of race or sex.”

However the arguments put forward by the Nonhuman Rights Project do not seem obviously wrongheaded to me. For instance they do discriminate on grounds of species, between higher and lower animals. This comes from their Q&A page:

Your first plaintiffs are chimpanzees, and you are also talking about elephants, whales and dolphins. What’s next after that? Dogs and pigs?

Our plaintiffs will be animals for whom there is clear scientific evidence of such complex cognitive abilities as self-awareness and autonomy. Currently that evidence exists for elephants, dolphins and whales, and all four species of great apes. So, for the foreseeable future, our plaintiffs are likely to come from these three groups.

Here is a fact I find disturbing to contemplate: some severely mentally disabled human beings are less intelligent than chimpanzees. If our society does start to act on that fact in its laws I hope and pray that it does so in the direction of granting more rights to animals, not taking rights away from disabled humans.

The NHS and the single thank-you

I was ill recently. In the end it was “just a virus” but I had symptoms enough one Saturday that I braved the local NHS walk-in centre. This is where you end up if you have the bad manners to get ill on a weekend.

It was functional, in its way. I was told there would be an hour-and-a-half wait and that is what it was. There are no doctors, only nurses, but they are skilled enough to determine whether you are likely to survive until Monday, or so I imagine. But the economics of this kind of place are such that every body through the door is nothing but a drain on resources, and no-one is making any effort to conceal this fact.

Truly it is a miserable place to be. I do not expect a medical waiting room to be jolly, but I saw not the merest hint of a smile from any staff, and the receptionist was very grumpy about my address being out of date on her computer. There is no welcome; no sympathy; no bedside manner.

If you want to find a deep root cause of problems with the NHS, I submit the inevitable hatred of the staff for the burdensome customers.

Here is another piece of evidence: when I said “thank-you” to the nurse, she replied, “you’re welcome.”

Mario Cuomo: An Appreciation

Those of you not in the United States may be blissfully unaware that Mario Cuomo, a former three term Governor of New York and briefly a feature on the national political scene because of a famous speech he gave at the Democratic National Convention, has died. Mario Cuomo was also the father of the current Governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo.

There have been many hagiographies in the press in recent days, for example: Mario Cuomo, Ex-New York Governor and Liberal Beacon, Dies at 82, but I think that a personal appreciation is in order when so lauded an example of the good politician has passed into the Great Statehouse in the Sky.

He will always be associated in my mind with several great achievements while Governor of New York, the office in which he is most remembered.

First, a couple of decades ago, he drove my health insurance premiums from about $50 a month to a bit short of $300 a month in a single year. This was done by the expedient of declaring it was unfair that people might have to pay a fortune to get insurance when they were already ill and passing a law requiring insurers to offer health insurance at the same price to all comers regardless of age or pre-existing condition. Whether you were 22 and healthy or 59 and suffering from liver cancer, you could walk up and buy a brand new policy at the same price.

This remarkable idealism has kept New York State at the forefront, the very cutting edge, of insurance premiums. The cost of insurance in New York has never gone down since Cuomo’s sagacious reforms, and indeed usually has lead the U.S. in price. To be fair, part of the cost rise for me was because I could no longer get an indemnity plan with a very large deductible because no insurer wanted to offer one ever again given the change in regulations, but that was only part of it. Now, of course, $280 (or whatever the price was, I confess I would have to check) would be a great bargain — the price has gone up greatly since then.

Affordability has of course been a concern for many politicians since those heady days — there are still some of considerable means who can afford health insurance after all. I’m sure President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, with many similarly brilliant ideas, will eventually fix this — premiums rose another 20% in the last year nationwide — and I look forward to its continued implementation.

Mario Cuomo’s second great achievement was the state takeover of the Long Island Lighting Company, aka LILCO. LILCO was in financial straights because Mario Cuomo himself blocked the opening of the Shoreham Nuclear Power Plant after it had been fully constructed to the tune of $6 Billion in 1980s dollars. Because LILCO had spent billions on a generating facility it was not allowed to turn on, it was in bad shape and charging high rates to its customers to remain solvent. Mario Cuomo declared the real issue was LILCO mismanagement and that the state could do a far better job running a power company than the private sector (which is, after all, driven only by mindless greed for profits) and so New York State forcibly took over LILCO and turned it into the Long Island Power Authority, AKA LIPA.

LIPA proceeded to spend very little money on maintenance over the next decades, until Hurricane Sandy hit and took out a large fraction of their lines because not even basic tree branch trimming over residential power cabling had been done in decades. Andrew Cuomo, Mario’s son and by now the Governor himself, got on TV after Sandy to angrily and vociferously condemn the horrible mismanagement by LIPA, an agency he personally controlled, but which he somehow failed to mention that he was in fact in complete control of as he told the viewers that he would absolutely hold the parties responsible to account. His father’s role was never mentioned by anyone in the news media, and his own was barely recalled either — somehow they, too, conveniently forgot that he was condemning mismanagement by himself. (I am unfair in saying this — a story buried far into the front section of the New York Times did mention it in connection with a corruption investigation. It seems that a report was prepared by a state commission condemning Andrew Cuomo’s administration for its role in screwing up LIPA, but Andrew Cuomo used his power as Governor to make sure it was never released.)

Mario Cuomo’s third great achievement was to raise taxes repeatedly, making New York State the most heavily taxed in the U.S., and New York City by far the most heavily taxed jurisdiction in the U.S. by virtue of having high city income taxes on top of the state ones. New York State has mysteriously been falling behind other states in population rank — it fell from #2 to #3 and now recently was passed by Florida and is #4 — and industry has been leaving the state for some decades now. (A succeeding Governor, George Pataki, lowered rates a bit, and California raised them further, so New York is no longer #1 in taxation, but Mario Cuomo’s son still has time to uphold family tradition and restore the state to its previous glory.)

Oh, and one minor achievement comes to mind. (Sadly this last point is purely from my memory, and I can’t find easy documentation of it on line, assistance would be welcomed.) During a major newspaper delivery strike (the delivery truck operators were being paid over $100k a year — this is $100k+ decades ago in non-inflation adjusted dollars you understand — with overtime and the papers didn’t think they could afford that any more for unskilled work), Mario Cuomo more or less blocked all investigation of acts of brutal violence by the union’s thugs. It seemed people were going around beating the operators of newspaper kiosks that none the less carried the newspapers in spite of the strike, and similarly beating people who delivered the papers anyway. At the time, Cuomo seemed to feel, much in the manner that President Obama does now about the malfeasance of the Bush administration, that it was best to look forward and not backwards. This was even the case in spite of the fact that the strike was still underway and “forward” hadn’t happened yet.

I can think of little else notable that Mario Cuomo got done while Governor. In spite of lots of lobbying by reform groups he did not push to fix the vicious sentences the state meted out for minor drug crimes. He did not fix the state’s horrible divorce laws, notably at the time some of the worst in the nation. He did not reform the police, or improve educational outcomes, or even deal with the enormous deferred maintenance problems on state highways and bridges. (He did veto the death penalty a few times, which seems to me to have actually been a good thing, though others may argue otherwise.)

However, Mario Cuomo will always be remembered as the man who once gave a very well written speech at a Democratic National Convention, and who really cares if a politician is a corrupt, economically ignorant mismanager if he can deliver words written by other people with a really solid and practiced public speaking style.

No wonder, then, that he is now described in obituaries as a lion, nay, a giant of politics, in story after story after story.

I encourage all to mourn his loss in whatever manner they feel appropriate.

The Senate’s Report on the CIA’s Torture Program

A few hours ago, the heavily redacted 500 page executive summary of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program, a.k.a. “The Torture Report”, came out.

Here are just a few things I’ve learned from it.

In November, 2002, a man named Gul Rahman, who was totally innocent of any crime so far as we can tell, was being systematically tortured by the CIA at a top secret site named COBALT in an unnamed foreign country. It was felt that he was being “uncooperative”, probably because it is hard to even convincingly lie about having information when you were arrested for no reason and have no basis on which to spin a story. To make him “more cooperative”, he was shackled naked in his unheated cell 36ºF cell. The next morning, his jailers found his body. He had died in the night of hypothermia.

This is just one of the literally hundreds of horrors to be found in the Senate Intelligence Committee report on the CIA’s crimes against humanity. It is described on page 54 of a 500 page summary of a 6,000 page report we will never see.

Gul Rahman’s murderers will never be brought to justice. Indeed, the man responsible for this, known in the unredacted portion of the report only as “CIA OFFICER 1″, received a $2,500 spot bonus four months later for his “consistently superior work” [page 55 of the report.]

Page after page after page recounts things like this and far worse. You can go almost anywhere in it and find things that beggar the imagination. Picking at random, for example, page 50 informs us: “One senior interrogator told the CIA OIG that “literally, a detainee could go for days or weeks without anyone looking at him,” and that his team found one detainee who, “‘as far as we could determine,’ had been chained to the wall in a standing position for 17 days.””

Oh, and the full 6000 page report’s creation was hampered by systematic destruction of evidence by the CIA and by their deliberate attempts to infiltrate, disrupt and harm the investigation, almost the least of which were deliberate lies made to Senate investigators, the CIA’s Inspector General, and other authorities. Hell, they even hacked the committee’s computers to try to disrupt their work and spy on them. The Director of the CIA also lied repeatedly to Congress. (See the report.) Who knows what sort of things are recounted in the evidence that was destroyed or never seen?

Anyway, back to our modern oubliette. Gul Rahman was just one of many, another statistic, another “oops” in a series of “oopses”. A man chained to a wall standing up for 17 days? Also an “oops”. We’ve all become so hardened to this that it doesn’t even shock us or surprise us that the State tortured an innocent man and froze him to death and never even considered punishing anyone for it. It no longer shocks us that someone might be chained to a wall standing up for 17 days. It no longer shocks us that a CIA interrogator killed a man he was torturing but was none the less allowed to continue working. It doesn’t shock us that two psychologists with no real qualifications were paid $80m to consult on how to torture people more effectively, not that a lick of useful information appears to have been uncovered, and it doesn’t even shock us that the CIA systematically lied to make it seem like brutal torture was producing intelligence when it came up empty.

Oh, yes. That too. All this sadism, much of which was bizarre, vicious and extemporaneous, yielded nothing. Yes, I’m sure there will be counterclaims, as the CIA has been busy lying about that for years, but the report’s authors, who had all the right clearances, examined all the evidence in detail and found nothing of value was produced — absolutely nothing.

Anyway, this sort of outrage is now just part of the background we live under — pervasive digital espionage, censorship, “extraordinary rendition”, force-feedings at Guantanamo, and all the rest. It is routine, uninteresting, not worth your trouble. Move on. There’s nothing to see here. This is just the way the world is. Nothing will happen even if you get angry, so why waste your time?

O tempora, o mores.

An open(ed) letter to Professor Stephen L. Carter

Funny. I read the SQOTD from today, and suddenly recalled a long-forgotten e-mail I sent in the wee hours of the morning six or so months ago. The fact I had sent the e-mail in the first place was unusual for me, as I was moved to compose and send it to Bloomberg columnist and Yale law professor Stephen L. Carter after reading the good professor’s column, and I cannot recall another occasion when I have got in touch with a journalist over something of theirs that I’d read. Professor Carter’s article must have made a big impact on me.

It did. Here it is, if you would like to have a read for yourself. Basically, the professor is making the same perfectly valid point as Brendan O’Neill regarding the hive mind mentality of a significant number of today’s university students, and chucking in a good intergenerational sneer for luck. It is the latter that particularly shat me off when I read Carter’s column, and prompted me to send the following to Professor Carter six months ago and late at night when I should have been working on something else:

Dear Professor Carter

I agree with your observations regarding the (in)abilities of the current crop of graduates, but seeing as though you decided to target that generation so explicitly, I thought maybe you might consider how the conditions that characterised your own generation’s formative years came to be.

When recounting “your day”, you wrote of an intellectual culture which “celebrated a diversity of ideas”; where “pure argument” trumped all, and a contrarian point of view was celebrated and even utilised to orient one’s own perspectives. This is the academic process at its very best, and you were most fortunate to benefit from it.Unfortunately, to channel your President, you didn’t build that. You didn’t build that. And not only did you not build it – you subsequently tore it down. And you replaced it with the appparatus that has created the mindless, chanting drones you decried in your Bloomberg piece.

Am I being unfair to target you? Well, about as unfair as you were being to the current crop of graduates. Your generation unquestionably ripped apart that which you claim to revere, and the Class of 2014 is simply a manifestation of the values your generation cherishes. So why are you training your guns on those kids when the true vandals are at still at large – and are in fact running the show?

I don’t mind catty articles – I really don’t. They’re often the most entertaining. However, I don’t understand why you’re thrashing a bunch of 20 year olds who are the product of an education system that your generation dominates – and that system has equipped them so poorly to deal with rational discourse that you could probably expect little more than an effete ‘whatever’ in response to your criticisms of them. Surely you know this. Attacking them smacks of cowardice to me. You’re aiming at the easiest targets.

If you really want to castigate a group of people for allowing academia to degenerate from what it was in your undergraduate years to what we see today, go and seek out faculty and policymakers who look about your age.

Yours faithfully
James Waterton

I received no response. Not that this surprised me.

I agree with Carter in that much of the student body – and most of those who consider themselves “activists” – are intellectually incurious ideologues primarily concerned with feeling that they are Good People, and indicating this to other Good People. But who moulded them? The answer is implicit in Carter’s article, when he reflects on how things were different back when he was at university. It is a pity he lacked the even-handedness to consider what changed between then and now, and decided to instead chastise those responsible for the mindlessness of the modern student activist. I’m talking about the Boomers, of course, and the muses that inspired them. They really did screw up an awful lot, and like Professor Carter in this instance, I suspect they will never admit to what they have destroyed.

The Human Rights Act as a constitution of liberty [no, really]

(This is the text of a talk I gave at the Adam Smith Institute last week. More than one person has asked me for it, so I make it available here.)

I am here to defend the Human Rights Act. It is not an idealistic defence but a pragmatic defence, rooted in historical context. Should classical liberals support the Human Rights Act against repeal? Do we need it? My answer is yes.

Our reactions to phrases become readily conditioned. And so it has been with “human rights”. Let us remember for a moment that the full title of the agreement that is under siege here is the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. If it were called the Fundamental Freedoms Act would it be as easy to undermine?

Sad to say ‘human rights’ do have a bad name, and they have that bad name for good reasons. Their strongest proponents often do the most harm to their reputation – not because of the legal content of what they say, but of their approach to the law.

This comes in two forms which sometimes overlap: the rarer is soft revolutionism from the far left – human rights as a transitional demand. This approach makes human rights a movement more than a doctrine or legal concept.… a means to control the terms of any political debate.

More common is a not entirely conscious belief that human rights and the Human Rights Act in particular embody the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth of how states should treat people. It’s a sort of human-rights fundamentalism, a desire for revealed wisdom in which “but that is contrary to Art 6″ is a morally conclusive statement.

→ Continue reading: The Human Rights Act as a constitution of liberty [no, really]

Malala does not deserve the Nobel Prize for Peace (please read on)

She doesn’t deserve to be saddled with it. Having shown real courage she does not deserve to be inducted into a club many of whose existing members are so grotesque that the blogger Jim Miller has for years called the Peace prize the “Nobel Reprimand”.

I also worry that seventeen is too young to be made into an icon. Maybe I worry too much. So far her response seemed to display a fortunate combination of groundedness and a pitch-perfect judgement for what to say to the press. I genuinely hope that her response includes quite a lot of calculation, because a person who can work the crowd is more likely than an ingénue to be fitted by temperament to thrive rather than wilt in a life spent on the world stage.

Why I am happy that Scotland has voted NO

All things considered, together we do pretty well in this very imperfect world.

Why I want Scotland to vote YES

I have many Scottish friends, both north and south of the border. My views have nothing to do with ethnicity, it is entirely about political culture. And if other Samizdatistas want to say why they want a NO vote, by all means do so.

I am of the view that English political culture has become steadily more toxic, hollowed out by multiculturalism and moral relativism, resulting in shocking incidents like the Rotherham scandal. Indeed the Tory party is hardly a conservative party at all, and is increasingly interchangeable with Labour and the LibDems. The mere fact the Tories chose David Cameron as leader tells you something about the state of the Stupid Party, a man unable to win an outright majority against probably the most inept, least charismatic and most spectacularly unsuccessful Labour Prime Minster since Harold Wilson. Yet the best Cameron could manage was a coalition.

But there are quite a few counter currents. The classical liberal tradition is not dead and buried, and it is by no means impossible to posit plausible scenarios in which the values of Cobden, Acton, Burke, Mandeville and… Adam Smith… and other followers of what Hayek called the “British Tradition” such as Montesquieu and de Tocqueville, once again informed a mainstream political movement. Those traditions of thought are not dead, they are just… waiting. At least in England.

But it has long seemed clear to me that as toxic as the political culture had become in England, it is even worse in Scotland.

And so my support for an independent Scotland is not because I do not think there are many fine classical liberals and other friends of genuine liberty north of the border, but rather there are just not enough of them. It is an exercise in ‘political triage’ on my part. Much as I would love to see Scotland once again embrace Adam Smith and Hume, I cannot see that happening any time soon. I may admire those willing to stay and fight for a better Scotland than the one they will get under the likes of Salmond, but I think it is a fight they cannot win.

And that is why I support Scottish independence. I see it as a gangrenous limb in need of political amputation, or we risk loosing everything it is attached to.

Social Darwinism

If one gets into a discussion of evolution by means of natural selection with politically-minded people, and evolutionary mechanisms in economics and society come up, then those who consider themselves on the left, or ‘caring’, are highly likely—as surely as Godwin’s Law—to start emphasising that evolution proceeds not only by individual selection, but by group selection. The point intended by this trope is that group selection is how caring collectivity succeeds, and that market, and other pointwise-negotiated, institutions—what with their brutish know-nothing insistence on competition and individual benefit as the measure of all things—are arbitrary, unnecessarily harsh, and retard progress.

Be careful what you wish for. Consider for a moment the social mechanisms we see everywhere that are calculated to the collective advantage of one gene pool over another. They are particularistic institutions with little truck with equality of treatment: the clan; the tribe; religious exclusivity; in-marriage, family honour and sexual repression; suspicion of outsiders; vendetta; genocide.

I’ll stick with ‘the tyranny of choice’, thank-you.

A dissenting view on Iraq and intervention

I recognize that some of the other contributors to this blog believe that military intervention in Iraq was justified.

However, it appears that, after expending literal trillions of dollars, and after countless deaths, Al Qaeda, which had not even a slight foothold in the country before the U.S. led invasion, is in a position to take over the bulk of the country. Certainly it is a real risk in coming days, even if it does not actually happen.

Iraq had no involvement in 9/11. Trained weapons inspectors said that it possessed no weapons of mass destruction, and that claim proved to be correct, while the claims of politicians that they were actively developing WMDs proved to be wrong. Today, however, Iraq stands on the threshold of being a location actually controlled by Al Qaeda, an outcome that would have been unimaginable if Saddam Hussein had remained in control.

Some might ask, “who could have predicted that the U.S. would leave the country with a corrupt, ineffectual government capable only of looting foreign aid and oil revenues?”

I would argue that anyone with an understanding of what government programs are like could have predicted that.

One might have a beautiful, seemingly airtight argument for why an ideal intervention into Iraq might have been of enormous benefit both to the Iraqis and to the world. This is not very different from the beautiful, seemingly airtight arguments made by Statists for why the government should run health care, or why it should help train the unemployed for new jobs, or a raft of other claims.

However, in the end, your beautiful idea will not be executed by angels, or even by you. It will executed by bureaucrats.

Perhaps (and I say at most “perhaps”) if angels had invaded Iraq they would have produced a wonderful outcome. However, the nation was invaded by the same keen minds responsible for such disasters as the U.S. Postal Service, the Veterans Administration hospitals, the Internal Revenue Service, and other organs that are hardly paragons of good management and reliable execution.

Libertarians are (correctly) fond of telling collectivists in debates that utopia is not an option. One cannot compare one’s idealized government program against the alternative, one must compare what will realistically happen under state control with the alternative.

The current disaster is simply another example of this. Iraq was not, in fact, invaded by angels, it was invaded by the U.S. government, the occupation was run like any government program, and the resulting disaster was entirely predictable.

The lesson to us all is that it is all fine and well to muse “if I ran the world”, but in reality no one person can run the world. Even if a leader actually has the best of intentions (which is rare in itself), they plan as men do, not as gods do, and they rely upon men, not gods, to execute their plans. Dreaming about what might be accomplished by gods is insufficient. One must instead discuss what is actually achievable by men.