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An analogy about World War One

It will be obvious that this post was prompted by Perry Metzger’s post “A Sad Anniversary”.

Regarding the undoubted fact that the net result of the First World War was almost wholly bad, consider this analogy: your home is invaded by a gang, who have given ample evidence of their lawless nature as they rampaged through your neighbourhood before reaching you. Maybe you have not always been a blameless citizen yourself, but, by God, you won’t take this lying down. So you resist, calling in your family and neighbours to help. They pay a high price for their solidarity. At the end of the fight you look round and see relatives and friends dead, crippled and embittered. The neighbourhood you sought to defend has been wrecked. You also know that many of those dead gang members were more deluded than evil. What was it all for? Nothing has been gained, much has been lost. Worse yet, this slaughter will begin a cycle of violence that will take many more lives in future. Surely it would have been better all round to just let them in and let them take what they want?

Or would it?

A Sad Anniversary

One hundred years ago today, on July 28th, 1914, a month after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on the Kingdom of Serbia and began an invasion. This was the official beginning of World War I.

Within weeks, every major and most minor countries in Europe had declared war upon some subset of the others.

Almost all wars are a terrible, stupid waste of human life, but “The Great War” was especially pointless.

You can grossly oversimplify and explain what most wars were about in a sentence or two. World War II could be said to have been about a group of governments attempting to gain through conquest and others trying to stop them. Vietnam could be explained as the US government’s attempt to back an authoritarian government with little internal support to try to hold back a communist takeover. These aren’t great explanations but they’re at least “sort of” explanations.

World War I has no real explanation beyond “a bunch of inter-governmental alliances got triggered in the aftermath of an assassination.” If you study the events in a history class, it takes days to explain the causes of the war, which is to say, to get to the point where you understand that there wasn’t really much of a cause, and not really much in the way of actual objectives on either side. (Sure there are “explanations” and I’m certain someone with a pedantic streak will bring them up, but I feel that they’re beside the point.)

It was not war for conquest, not war for political objectives, just war for war’s sake.

In spite of this lack of real purpose, enormous patriotic fervor was brought to bear by both sides. Anyone opposing the war was painted as a near enemy of humanity. Young men by the millions were conscripted or (even more tragically) convinced to voluntarily enlist “for their country”.

In the end, 16 million people died and a further 21 million suffered injury, some grievously enough to render them crippled for life, and all, in the end, to accomplish nothing of significance.

One might have thought that something might have been learned by our culture from this event, that the deaths of the millions might have at least brought about some sort of lasting moral disgust that convinced people that perhaps there was something deeply sick about blind patriotism, that perhaps warfare was in general not a glorious pursuit, that perhaps the presumption that governments act in the interest of their population might be misguided, etc.

There was, of course, a brief paroxysm of loathing. How could there not be when so many of Europe’s young men died uselessly in muddy holes? However, it did not last. The cultural memory faded quickly. Eventually, the world went back to business as usual, with governments slaughtering each other’s populations, and even more often their own populations, with increasing zeal.

World War I proved to be just an overture. The 16 million killed were barely a footnote in what was to come. In the 20th Century, about 160 million people died in wars, and about a further 260 million were killed by their own governments in democides of one sort or another. That’s 420 million people killed by various sorts of government managed madness in a single century alone.

420 million people killed by governments. That’s a staggering figure, far, far beyond my ability to comprehend.

Has the bloodletting ceased, now, in the 21st century? No, of course it has not. The human race appears to be immune to education.

And this is why, tonight night, I’m going to sit in a very old pub in New York City, raise a glass of scotch, and mourn for the dead, as too few people seems to remember them.

From the earth’s core to the uttermost star: how far up and down should property rights extend?

I see that government ministers have authorised an expansion of fracking in the UK. In general anything that riles up the Greens pleases me. But only in general.

As I understand it – OK, make that “I think I remember reading somewhere” – it has hitherto been the case in the UK that if you own a property you also own what lies below, not just immediately below such that you can prevent someone excavating their bomb shelter under your house, but all the way down in a long thin cone to the Earth’s core. So a property owner can forbid fracking beneath their land however deep the drilling. Anyone know, is this right? And whether it is or not, should it be?

I really do remember reading somewhere a science fiction story in which the entire universe had been assigned to various Earthly nations based on what cone of sky was above the territory of each country at midnight on a particular date. I cannot recall how or if that story dealt with either the effects of terrestrial boundary disputes, possible objections from as yet undiscovered alien species at their involuntary inclusion in one of these thin but infinite empires, or the curvature of spacetime. Granted that “to the edge, if such exists, of the universe” is taking property rights a tad too far, how far above your house should your property rights go?

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.

In which this humble writer is pulled under the bridge and eaten

I thought this bijoux little commentette of mine to my post demanding reparations be paid to women, a reply to an irritating factual objection from running dog of the neoliberal neopatriarchy Tim Worstall, was rather good in the insane troll logic line:

Tim Worstall,

“As it happens the majority of wealth is held by women (longer life spans and inheritance etc to blame for that), so, on average women are richer than men.”

You just don’t understand.
Clearly it is a benefit to receive money (such as reparations) without having to work for it.
Therefore possession of whatever quality makes one eligible for reparations is a form of unearned privilege.
Relative group poverty is by definition the result of past injustice, and makes your group eligible for reparations.
Therefore you males, by your relative poverty, are the possessors of unearned privilege.
Therefore it is only justice that you privileged ones make reparations to those like me who are underprivileged.
(Standing orders and direct debits payable to the Natalie Solent Justice for Womyn Settlement Account.)

However Beatrix Campbell has me beat:

Crime is only “free trade” by another means, and since it involves force, it is not free.

I demand reparations for the crimes committed against women by men!

My case to receive reparations is just as solid as the case for reparations to be paid to African-Americans by lesser-hyphenated-Americans.

Many members of a group to which I belong by accident of birth were enslaved by the group to which you belong by accident of birth (talking to you, heterogametic oppressors). Don’t waste my time with talk about how the law has given women equal legal status to men for generations now, because we are still poorer than you. Well some of us are poorer than some of you and some of us are richer than some of you, but let me tell you that even if I’m doing fine myself, the thought of people with bodies more like mine being on average poorer than people with bodies less like mine is a profound hurt that can only be assuaged by money.

No, the fact that you personally have never enslaved, beaten or otherwise oppressed a woman is not relevant. Can’t you see this thing is bigger than mere individual morality?

You can stop whingeing about how lots of men in history were oppressed quite as much as women were, or how people of both sexes were oppressed on many grounds other than gender, such as class, religion, nationality and race. I am quite aware of that already and join with all victim-groups in unbreakable solidarity, unless any of the oppressors included my ancestors such as to place me in a paying-out group, in which case the notion of paying reparations for the crimes of one’s ancestors is ridiculous. It is the present – a present in which many women are cruelly oppressed – not the past that matters! (Er, when it comes to us getting the money, that is. When it comes to deciding who pays the money, it’s the situation centuries ago that matters, obviously.)

Anyway, why should an artificial construct like “nationality” or “race” be the factor that determines who gets reparations? Gender, unlike race, can be determined objectively. Make gender the criterion and you will be troubled by very few of those pettifogging legalisms you get with race about how all the mixed ancestry people would have to pay reparations to themselves.

Cease your caterwauling about how your great-grandpa once put half a crown in a suffragette collection box. Obviously guilt can be inherited (by you) but the notion of heritable credit is contrary to reason.

None of your man-splainin’ nonsense about being partially descended from women, either. I’m certainly not going to let myself off from the solemn duty of identifying solely with my own gender just because some of my ancestors were men. See, if I can maintain decent standards of group segregation, so can you.

Do not presume to ask how many generations must go by before your group is to be permitted to cease its duty of unrequited toil (mediated via the tax collector and the Reparations Administration Agency) for the benefit of my group. Be assured that we will let you know when we no longer want your money. Until then, woe to that man by whom the offense cometh. That’s you, that is.

Piketty and the Shoe Event Horizon

In Douglas Adams famous non-fiction series on galactic economic history, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, we are presented with a description of the tragedy of the planet Frogstar B.

On Frogstar B, for a time shoe production increased faster than the rate of overall economic growth. As a result, with time, shoe production became a larger and larger fraction of the economy, until finally the Shoe Event Horizon was hit, at which point nothing but shoes could be manufactured, and lacking any other goods or services, their civilization collapsed.

Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” describes a similar tragedy that lies inevitably in our future, the point at which the only economic activity left is investment, all money is held by a tiny minority of wealthy people, and our civilization permanently ends.

Will we be wise enough to learn from the people of Frogstar B, and place a heavy tax on capital before our doom is reached?

I hope not, because of course Douglas Adams was writing comedy, not an economic history. Sadly, Piketty appears not to be a parodist, and presents the claim, in all seriousness, that something like a Shoe Event Horizon, in this case the Investment Event Horizon, could actually happen.

Normally, I would ignore such a book, but numerous commentators (all of whom, by strange coincidence, were already enthralled by the idea of expansions state power) have responded to Piketty’s call for heavy wealth and income taxation with rapturous reviews, driving Piketty’s work to the center of much of our current political discussion.

It is therefore, sadly, our duty to seriously to consider his arguments and the effects of his proposed remedies…

→ Continue reading: Piketty and the Shoe Event Horizon

He checked his privilege

I learned about white male Princeton freshman Tal Fortgang and the unearned privilege that got him where he is via Instapundit.

I decided to take their advice. I actually went and checked the origins of my privileged existence, to empathize with those whose underdog stories I can’t possibly comprehend. I have unearthed some examples of the privilege with which my family was blessed, and now I think I better understand those who assure me that skin color allowed my family and I to flourish today.

Perhaps it’s the privilege my grandfather and his brother had to flee their home as teenagers when the Nazis invaded Poland, leaving their mother and five younger siblings behind, running and running until they reached a Displaced Persons camp in Siberia, where they would do years of hard labor in the bitter cold until World War II ended. Maybe it was the privilege my grandfather had of taking on the local Rabbi’s work in that DP camp, telling him that the spiritual leader shouldn’t do hard work, but should save his energy to pass Jewish tradition along to those who might survive. Perhaps it was the privilege my great-grandmother and those five great-aunts and uncles I never knew had of being shot into an open grave outside their hometown. Maybe that’s my privilege.

Or maybe it’s the privilege my grandmother had of spending weeks upon weeks on a death march through Polish forests in subzero temperatures, one of just a handful to survive, only to be put in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp where she would have died but for the Allied forces who liberated her and helped her regain her health when her weight dwindled to barely 80 pounds.

Read the whole thing. The fact that those telling him to “check his privilege” were wrong in their assumptions is only the beginning of his argument.

Samizdata quote of the day

Creating more value in an economy would do more than wealth redistribution to combat the harmful effects of inequality.

- Tyler Cowen, in a review about a much-discussed book by Tom Piketty on the subject of inequality. Piketty favours a lot of heavy state activity to control and reduce said inequality. Now, it is easy to just default to the standard libertarian line and say that fretting about such inequalities is just an excuse for a statist power grab. The fact is that the sheer gap in wealth we can see today is a reason why, however mistakenly, idealistic, smart people are fearful of, and hostile towards, laissez-faire capitalism. So it is worthwhile to keep making the economic, philosophic, and political case for why coercive measures to reduce inequality is bad and dangerous.

I could not resist adding in this paragraph from Cowen:

The simple fact is that large wealth taxes do not mesh well with the norms and practices required by a successful and prosperous capitalist democracy. It is hard to find well-functioning societies based on anything other than strong legal, political, and institutional respect and support for their most successful citizens. Therein lies the most fundamental problem with Piketty’s policy proposals: the best parts of his book argue that, left unchecked, capital and capitalists inevitably accrue too much power — and yet Piketty seems to believe that governments and politicians are somehow exempt from the same dynamic.

All this vulgarity blinds us to certain truths

Astute observations from the EconLog blog:

Now, lots of people find the rich tasteless–and perhaps with good reason. This happens very frequently to intellectuals, who (they think) have better taste than most people. To be fair, intellectuals find the great unwashed pretty tasteless too. In the Anticapitalist Mentality, Ludwig von Mises argued that they very often misinterpret capitalism for being responsible for the low taste of the masses, and thus become inveterate critics of the market system: “Capitalism could render the masses so prosperous that they buy books and magazines. But it could not imbue them with the discernment of Maecenas or Can Grande della Scala. It is not the fault of capitalism that the common man does not appreciate uncommon books.”

Those who criticize the low taste of the poor do not maintain that the poor do not deserve the money they make: but they criticize capitalism for brainwashing them to spend it on culturally worthless items (as “the poor” tend to prefer the collected works of Stan Lee to Marcel Proust). Those who criticize the low tastes of the rich do instead maintain they do not deserve the money they had, and they criticize capitalism for rewarding culturally worthless people.

I’d say this is an argument that has very little to do with “redistribution and inequality”, unless you believe redistribution should work from the tasteless to the tasteful. I am sure that Tamara Ecclestone’s wedding cake didn’t bake itself, that her new luxury Range Rover SUV did not assemble itself, and that “her large house in Kensington Palace Garden” did not refit itself either. The profligate spending by Tamara is a great opportunity for many to make their living. Her largess in using her freedom to choose, helps others in making use of their “freedom to be chosen”–i.e., it enables them to provide services, make money, grow their kids, buy a little nice summer house, and choose between spending a night at the opera or watching “A Night at the Opera”.

Personally, I’d go for watching the latter’s brilliant movie comedy the Marx brothers. That’s my low-brow side coming out.

My only caveat is about the final paragraph where the author defends the rich their spending by saying that this creates employment. I can see how a socialist/other might say that if we grab this money and redistribute it, this might also create jobs, etc. By all means point out how money circulates, but remember that utilitarian/consequentialist arguments for capitalism can get unstuck at times. In the end, if Lady Vulgar wants to spend her gazillions on flash cars, houses or whatnot, that is her business. End of story.

Advice on successful propaganda from a left-winger

George Lakoff says, ‘Liberals do everything wrong’

“Progressives want to follow the polls … Conservatives don’t follow the polls; they want to change them. Political ground is gained not when you successfully inhabit the middle ground, but when you successfully impose your framing as the ‘common-sense’ position.”

If all political belief originates from one of two wellsprings, if the last thing you should do to propagate your belief is to water it down, if backing it up with facts just weakens it, what would a debate look like, in a world of perfectly understood frames?

It is, plainly, the longstanding failure to protect nature that powers Lakoff’s exasperation with liberals. “They don’t understand their own moral system or the other guy’s, they don’t know what’s at stake, they don’t know about framing, they don’t know about metaphors, they don’t understand the extent to which emotion is rational, they don’t understand how vital emotion is, they try to hide their emotion.

Unlike Professor Lakoff, I think that liberals (in the US sense of the word) propagate their ideas quite successfully, but his advice on framing seems well worth following.