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]

Boiling Mad

I wonder what it is that motivates politicians and bureaucrats to dream up new schemes to strangle free enterprise? That they are wrong goes without saying but are they driven by a genuine (if misguided) belief that they are helping to make the world a better place or are they spiteful and envious ghouls who pursue power so they they can wreak their vengeance on those who are manifestly better then them?

Increasingly, I take the latter view, reinforced by these kind of reports from the Spectator on the new European Pressure Equipment Directive:

“Under the directive, all companies which manufacture boilers will be obliged to nominate a ‘notified body’ —in practice, one of several insurance companies which have been licensed for the task — which will then have the power to conduct an initial inspection costing several thousand pounds, and unlimited follow-up inspections costing the company £700 per day.

Take that, you wealth-creating bastards!! And, for the little guys, a double-whammy. In fact, a death-whammy:

“Large engineering firms will be able to absorb the costs, but for the likes of Ian Stock, whose Carmarthen-based company Dragon Boilers Ltd makes copper boilers for model railway enthusiasts, it could spell ruin. ‘There is no limit to how often the notified body could come and inspect me,’ he says. ‘Any time it can say to itself, “We’re short of money, let’s make a trip to Dragon Boilers.”

Poor Mr.Stock. Still, at least he’s got the message in no uncertain terms. Let us hope he sees fit to spread it.

Only way is up!

I agree with Brian(!): what is the rest of the world like, the UK is the fourth ‘freest’ economy? I recently came across the claim that 10 per cent of the French population (a quarter of the work-force) has civil servant status. This figure includes employees of public sector companies like EDF-GDF (electricity and gas company, which owns private power companies in the UK).

The good news is that even a modest proposal such as ‘natural wastage’: not replacing some of the bureaucrats who retire (at 55), has profound effects. The same is true of public spending: with over 1,000 taxes collected in France, it isn’t hard to find cost savings, just scrapping the 500 most expensive to collect would be a significant shift.

There are two kinds of reformers in France at the moment: the libertarians who want to change the system from ‘dirigisme’ to capitalism, and the European fanatics who want the French state to cut spending in order to keep the Euro afloat.

Women as human hi-fi sets

Last night I found myself watching the BBC2 rerun of Pride and Prejudice, and was held. It was better than I remember it as having been the first time around, I suspect because this time I actually watched it instead of merely taping it and reading the reviews. It’s about a family with five daughters, and the agonies suffered while the daughters set about trying to find husbands.

In those pre-industrial days, the marital desirability of a woman seemed to involve singing and piano playing a lot. There’s a cruelly memorable moment when paterfamilias, a man fonder of being witty than of being kind, even to his own daughters, tells one of the less musically sparkling ones that she has “delighted us enough” with her music-making.

This emphasis on music as a man-getting asset used to puzzle me. Wasn’t looking good and cooking good sufficient? (Or at least supervising the people who did do the cooking.) But if you think of women as hi-fi sets for their husbands, before hi-fi sets actually existed, it all makes sense.

The idea that big white machines have replaced many of the domestic duties of women is a familiar one. That smaller blacker machines may also have had the same kind of effect only occurred to me more recently.

Samizdata slogan of the day

It would be better that England should be free than that England should be compulsorily sober.
-William Connor Magee (1821-1891), clergyman, speech on the Intoxicating Liquor Bill, House of Lords, May 2, 1872

New French Government: initial impressions

The French Libertarian forums are already trashing the new government of Jean-Pierre Raffarin. “They’re only cutting income tax by five percent!” Scandalous. They haven’t announced the immediate abolition of the protected status of civil servants. Imagine! Michel de Poncins – a speaker at the Libertarian International meeting in Paris, April this year – sums up the mood writing in French that “Rien n’a changé, tout est pareil” (Nothing’s changed, everything is the same).

It all reminds me of the arrival of Mrs Thatcher in the UK in 1979. Not only was the basic rate of income tax only cut by 3 percent, but VAT (sales tax) went up by almost double to 15 percent. There was no privatisation for years. Trade union reforms took five years to introduce. There were corporatists in the Cabinet!

There are three possible explanations for the new government programme:
1) Raffarin has an agenda which is more tactically cunning than the last botched effort at reform (Alain Madelin announced pension and state employee pay reforms and was removed after a week of street demonstrations in 1995).
2) Raffarin is a willing or unwilling stooge for the old corporatist clique who will block any meaningful reform.
3) Both of the above.
The joke is that whatever the conspiracy, events have a habit of running out of hand. M de Poncins latest book is appropriately enough called “Thatcher à l’Elysée”.

J2M: not quite hero, not quite villain

Jean-Marc Messier, the chief executive of Vivendi Universal, is facing the chop after running up huge debts in his sewage to film studio empire.

He’s a product of the French administrative elite that slips from running Edouard Balladur’s political office (former prime minister), to running a public utility, that somehow winds up privately owned with him in charge. This is not a unique story.

What is different is that Compagnie Generale des Eaux (as it was called) is one of the pioneers of private contracting of waste services, and road sweeping in the UK (operating as Onyx). The company also owns Connex, a private train operator in southern England and Southern Water. The group was renamed Vivendi after buying Canal Plus, the main pay-TV cable company in France. So far, J2M (as he likes to be known) was performing as a French business tycoon: the darling of the conservatives and left alike for being a model for French competition with the world.

However, J2M had the temerity to buy Seagram (the Canadian group which owned Universal studios) in 1998. In response to raised eyebrows among the French intelligentsia about French cultural protectionism, J2M said that the French cultural exception is dead. Now he is assailed by both US players (for his financial affairs) and left to hang by his French associates (who regard him as an Anglo-Saxon traitor).

I’m torn between sympathy for a French pro-free-trade businessman (!) and glee at the likely collapse of a political entrepreneur.

Selfish genes and unselfish behavior

I cringe when Philosophers begin arguing Ethical Systems from First Principles. Codes of behavior built from argument based on mathematical rigour have a place in academia but are extremely dangerous when applied to the real world. People are not logical programs built from a rational base. They are a collection of hundreds of millions of years of gene based behavioral evolution and some thousands of years of mind based cultural evolution. Only the later of these is “perfectable”. One who thinks otherwise carries the shadow of Gulags Yet To Come in their eyes.

More so than the practitioners of many disciplines I’ve delved into, philosophers seem to place Humanity on a high pedestal of Rationality. I don’t. I see people as one more data point on a continuum of data points; a vector of traits which exist elsewhere but reach their highest expression (so far, and in our own biased eyes) in our species.

If you have decided by this point I am a follower of Richard Dawkins, then you are an astute observer and commendably well read. Dawkins changed our way of looking at evolution from one based on populations of individuals to one of populations of genes. Genes do not care about individuals (or anything else for that matter, so excuse my anthropomorphics). If a behavioral pattern kills 10% of a population but causes the other 90% to be fruitful and multiply, there will be more copies of the gene or genes (or memes if we are dealing with culture-based behavior) responsible for that behavior. Genes are the individuals which compete with each other and evolve. Not cells. Not tissues. Not wombats. Genes.

Altruism may be emphasized or de-emphasized by cultural traits and training but it can never be eliminated. It is a part of our hardwired animal program. Species with altruistic behavioral patterns will thrive at the expense of those which do not have them. It may be rather hard on an individual to throw themselves on a handgrenade or charge a machine gun nest, but by their action a larger number of the genes and memes expressed in them will survive and propagate than would otherwise have done so. It’s purely a numbers game.

I chose altruism as an example because it is currently under discussion, but the point I wish to make is a much more encompassing one. Human beings are not empty general purpose computers to be programmed at will to whatever happens to be the Perfect Ethics of the day. They come with a very large baggage of hardwired behavioral preferences which will make a mockery of the Perfectionist’s attempts to create the perfect “Your-favorite-ism” Man.

The attempt may be akin to bean-bag punching but this has never stopped Perfectionists from trying as we can see from Cambodia, Siberia, Dachau and Srbenica and Paris in the Ideological Centuries and the long line of religious pogroms stretching back into the mists of pre-history.

Samizdata slogan of the day

“Hey, Yutz! Guns aren’t toys! They’re for family protection, hunting dangerous or delicious animals and keeping the king of England outta your face!”
– Krusty the Clown from ‘The Simpsons’

I’ve got a hunch political correctness will just not go away

A theatre company has dropped the word hunchback from its stage adaptation of the classic novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame and has renamed its touring production The Bellringer of Notre Dame after discussions with a disability adviser who raised the possibility of offending people with spina bifida or the disfiguring scoliosis of the spine. These are the moments when one doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

As a result, the world is surely a better place. Well, at least for Libby Biberian of the Scoliosis Association who was pleased with the change. She said she would be embarrassed and offended by the original title. Victor Hugo’s classic novel, set in 15th century Paris around the cathedral of Notre Dame, tells the tragic story of Quasimodo (the un-PC hunchback bellringer) and his love for a beautiful gypsy girl Esmeralda (who is probably next on to-do list of the PC busy-bodies).

But David Baguley, professor of French at Durham University, said:

“It is a concession to political correctness.”

No shit, Sherlock.

Business in fiction

A new publication by the free market think tank, The Institute of Economic Affairs, “The Representatives of Business in English Literature,” Readings 53, takes a look at how businessmen have received a bad deal in fiction. In a nice review in the Financial Times (registration necessary for the article, via www.ft.com), writer Stephen Overell notes that Ayn Rand’s classic, Atlas Shrugged, was a ‘freak’ in that it celebrated business and the trader ethic.

And I had to laugh. For Overell starts his analysis by quoting the ‘sacred text’, as Adriana Cronin would describe it, of Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, the bit where Francisco D’Ancona praises the idea of ‘making money’. Overell goes on to show how Rand’s view of wealth creation stands in total contrast to 99 percent of literature’s portrayal of capitalism and businessfolk. Just so.

I like to think that this review, by a FT journalist not necessarily well disposed towards libertarianism, puts the recent jousting on Samizdata about Rand into some kind of perspective. It seems some of the biggest haters of Rand are libertarians, while non-libertarians seem quite intrigued by her writings, so much so that they could even turn people on to capitalist ideas. To quote Margaret Thatcher, it is a funny old world.

A reason to be cheerful?

Over on the Liberty Log there’s a recent reference to one of those reports, which says that Britain’s economy is fourth freest in the world. The implication is: hurrah! But this means that only three economies in the world are less gummed up with governmental and other bullshit than this one. What the hell must the others be like?

Anyone for tennis?

Boris Johnson, Conservative MP and editor of the weekly British magazine, The Spectator, delivers a furious serve down the baseline to the neo-mercantilists at the Guardian newspaper. He says that organ is getting all worked up about how tennis balls are produced by downtrodden workers in the Third World and made out of precious materials. (I cannot find a link to the story). What do the Guardianistas imagine workers making such things would be doing otherwise? Studying for MBAs? Writing software? Suffice to say that Boris subjects the Guardian’s flat-earth analysis to a superb take-down. Strikes me that the Member for Henley should get his own blog. Boris, come and join the party. We need more British bloggers.