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]

Samizdata quote of the day

Time and time again,
translation seems to sabotage the words,
you know what is said,
is not what is heard…
Soulwax, song: Conversation Intercom

Rage on

While shuffling through a stack of magazines at the barber shop yesterday, I came across the August 9th issue of The New York Magazine. While not particularly familiar with the publication, one of the articles caught my eye. It was a conversation between Norman Mailer (NM) and his son John (JBM) entitled What I’ve Learned About Rage.

If I was more into the political scene in New York I probably would have realized what was coming but I somehow confused the name Norman Mailer with Norman Rockwell (heh), so I read on preparing to receive some fatherly advice about managing emotions. I got a lesson, alright, but certainly not the one I was expecting.

From the article, I gather that the Mailers are insiders with the New York Democratic (Socialist) Party. Besides being further proof that the mainstream media is in the tank for Kerry, the article was mostly how the Democratic Party can arrange protests during the upcoming Republican (Conservative) National Convention in New York. Those protests have already begun. The goal is to cause the most disruption to the Convention while simultaneously gaining the most favorable press for the Democrats. Disgusting, but dirty political tricks are nothing new to either side. The elder Mailer even suggested those sneaky Republicans really, really want lots of nasty riots and so will be secretly stirring up protests against their own Convention. I can not speak for the Republican planners, but that thought certainly gave me a rather nauseating glimpse into Mr. Mailer’s political mind.

Anyway, what really flabbergasted me was a something only a few paragraphs into the article where the younger Mailer dropped this little bombshell:

JBM I feel we’ve entered a realm where the question is, whose propaganda is better? The left (Democrat) is beginning to figure out that they can’t beat the right (Republican) with intelligent argument. They need punch phrases that get to the heart of the average American…

Excuse me? Your party can not win with intelligent argument? Is that because you have no intelligent arguments to make or because the majority of people are too stupid to understand? This suggests either a very deep flaw with your basic tenets or a very dim view of the population in general. JBM continued with:

… If that’s the case, what is the future for our country?

What indeed? The elder Mailer had a ready answer.

NM That’s not my first worry right now…

Double excuse me? You do not care what happens to the country as long as you win? I am beginning to understand why your party is bereft of intelligent argument!

Now, maybe I am just naïve. Maybe this is really how all politicos feel. But when was the last time you supported a group who proudly proclaimed: “Our side is wrong. We do not care. If we make enough noise, you idiots will still vote for us”?

All That Secrecy Is Expensive

During the 2003 fiscal year, the federal government spent more than $6.5 billion securing classified information, according to a new “Secrecy Report Card” from OpenTheGovernment.org, a coalition of government watchdog and civil liberties groups. That’s an increase of more than $800 million from the previous year, according to the group, and a nearly $2 billion jump since 2001. But it’s only a best guess, really; the report card’s accounting doesn’t include a penny from the Central Intelligence Agency, which keeps even its overall budget classified.

The big problem with having too many secrets isn’t that it’s a waste of money; it’s that it jeopardizes security, according to William Leonard. He’s the director of the ISOO, and, essentially, the man in charge of the government’s classification policies.

By keeping knowledgeable parties from sharing what they know, “secrecy guarantees a less-than-optimal outcome,” Leonard told Wired News. “In analyzing intelligence, in developing military plans, there’s a price that gets paid.”

That’s a view echoed by both the 9/11 Commission, in its final report (PDF), and several of the Defense Department’s top current and former spies.

When libertarians disagree

A smart and thought-provoking blogger I have recently come across, Perry Metzger, who seems to hail from the anarcho-capitalist bit of the libertarian intellectual universe, does not like the way this blog has supported the military ouster of Saddam Hussein. Now, of course another certain Perry (de Havilland) of this parish thinks rather differently.

Metzger asks how it is that folk who are so ardently opposed to the State can possibly countenance the use of force, including appropriation of wealth via taxation, to topple another regime deemed to be dangerous. Well, it is actually quite easy to answer that question in my view. First of all, not all libertarians believe a free society can exist without a minimal state, including one with the ability to provide external and internal security, which may include the need to take out violent and hostile foreign regimes.

Second, the supposedly sacred libertarian principle that thou shalt not initiate force against another is not very useful when it comes to judging whether regime X or Y poses your country a particular threat or not, and whether action of a Bush-style pre-emptive sort is justified and perhaps even more important, whether it is prudent. Good people will and do differ a lot about that.

Such disagreements cannot in my view be arbitrated solely by referring to abstract moral principles – although principles are of course crucial – but have to be also judged on events, by weighing up the possible consequences of an action or taking no action. In fact, taking no action and adopting a purely reactive approach to defence will also have consequences, not all of them necessarily good ones. There is no easy way to say which approach will always be better. So even two ardent libertarians who read a situation in the Middle East, say, could differ on fine points and end up having precisely the sort of heated debates we get in the comments sections.

I have changed my mind on so many aspects of the current war in Iraq that my head will probably explode at some point. At one point I felt the whole affair was a dumb mistake and we would have been better off leaving Saddam in his palaces and let things run on awhile. But regardless of what I thought about facts on the ground and the news reports I read, I honestly do not feel that appeals to higher tenets of libertarian theory really ever decisively swayed my mind about the particulars one way or the other.

High Noon in Najaf: a disastrous mistake?

It appears that Sadr and his Islamo-fascist militia will be allowed to slip away from the Mosque of Ali in Najaf without further harm. Even if they are indeed disarmed (yeah, right) before they withdraw, the fact their organisational infrastructure will be left intact calls into question the whole point of opposing him in the first place.

It seems to me that there are really only two sensible ways to see this:

Either conclude that following a policy of using force to confront Islamic extremism is too bloody to stomach, leading inevitably to adopting a policy of withdrawal from wherever Islamic terrorism threatens modern global civilisation…

…or conclude that once a decision to use force is taken, it will be followed through robustly and ruthlessly with the intention of killing fundamentalists leaders like Sadr and ideally as many of his hardcore supporters as is practical as well.

In reality I expect neither clear conclusion will be reached in the corridors of power in Washington DC (and do not get me going about the buffoons who run the Foreign Office) and a middle-way fudge that is already being offered up in the established media will be the perceived wisdom as key elements of the political classes work to keep the world safe for Sharia, legally enforced burquas, clitoridectomy and judicial amputations.

Surely the best way to ensure the survival of a tolerable regime in Iraq is to fill the graveyards with as many Islamic extremists as possible. If that policy is not acceptable, then surely one has no business using force to begin with as it seems perverse to kill people unless you are willing to do so for a damn good reason… either fight a war or do not, the middle way just gets you the worst of both worlds: you are hated for the people you kill and held in contempt for the people you would not kill.

The opportunity was there to turn the mosque of Ali into a funeral pyre of Islamic political aspirations. Today was the very last chance to do exactly that but it looks like the opportunity will drift away by this evening.

What a pity.

Movie reviews and safe option of sneering

Perry de Havilland has pointed out previously that film critics seem to regard it as safer to sneer at films than to praise them.

Praise a film (at least praise a serious but non knee-jerk leftist film) and you run the risk of being considered weak minded. Sneer at the film – and you are a sophisticated person who is not taken in by commercial tricks.

The film critic of the Daily Telegraph is one of the sneering school of critics (that a Conservative newspaper allows its cultural coverage to be dominated by the standard knee-jerk crowd is, sadly, normal). In his review of The Village he duly sneered at the film – and, for good measure, sneered at The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable as well.

Well this got my attention (which, I suppose, is the point of a review) as I liked both of these films. Many people got to see the Sixth Sense – but, and in my opinion unfortunately, most people followed the far stronger and more unified critical attacks on Unbreakable and did not see the film.

Recently Unbreakable has been shown on British television and many people have said to me that they thought it was a good film. “Did you go and see Unbreakable when it was on at the cinema?” – “No, because the critics said…”

It seems to me that what the critics really hated about Unbreakable was that it was not ‘tongue in cheek’ or a ‘good romp for the kids’ but also did not make any ‘serious’ (i.e. leftist) political points. Unbreakable was essentially a non political but serious film which examined the question of what if a man really did have ‘special powers’, why would he deny them – and what would make him not deny them.

Of course one could say “Of course old Paul Marks liked the film – the hero is a bald security guard” as I am a bald security guard. However, the film stands up in the view of most people who have seen it (and most of these people are not bald security guards).

As for The Village itself:

Well yes, I liked the film (so thank you to Daily Telegraph reviewer for sneering at it – otherwise I would not have gone to see it). There are a couple of twists in the film (one fairly mild another more radical), but the film is well made, does make sense (and the more you think about the film, the more sense it makes that certain things happen the way they do) and was a good film to watch.

If you go to see the film (because of what I write here) and do not like it – well I am sorry to have badly advised you. However, at least I am giving my honest opinion – not just sneering to seem hip.

Olympic farce

I have not really managed to develop much of an interest in the Olympic Games currently underway in Greece. I am watching the television right now. A bunch of Greek ‘fans’ are objecting to some US athletes for reasons I cannot quite seem to understand, judging by the less than helpful BBC commentator team.

The Games are not supposed to be about nationalism, and yet the constant focus seems to be on how many of ‘our’ (British) athletes have won how many gold, silver and bronze medals. When the Games are completed, there will be the usual bleating/gloating over how well ‘our’ men and women did. If ‘we’ do badly, be ready and primed for a great wailing about the unsportiness, unfitness, lack of moral fibre blah blah of young British folk.

It is easy to forget that the Olympics were originally envisioned as celebrating the value of individual achievement and struggle over nationalistic competition. I think it is fair to say that this hope has been well and truly thwarted.

Under-skin ID tags generate concerns

ZDNet has an article about the implanted RDIF chips and the debate about its pros and cons.

Advocates of technologies like radio frequency identification tags say their potentially life-saving benefits far outweigh any Orwellian concerns about privacy. RFID tags sewn into clothing or even embedded under people’s skin could curb identity theft, help identify disaster victims and improve medical care.

Critics, however, say such technologies would make it easier for government agencies to track a person’s every movement and allow widespread invasion of privacy. Abuse could take countless other forms, including corporations surreptitiously identifying shoppers for relentless sales pitches. Critics also speculate about a day when people’s possessions will be tagged – allowing nosy subway riders with the right technology to examine the contents of nearby purses and backpacks.

The notion of embedding RFID tags in the human body, though, remained largely theoretical until the 11 September, 2001, terrorist attacks, when a technology executive saw firefighters writing their badge numbers on their arms so that they could be identified in case they became disfigured or trapped.

Richard Seelig, vice president of medical applications at security specialist Applied Digital Solutions, inserted a tracking tag in his own arm and told the company’s chief executive that it worked. A new product, the VeriChip, was born.

Trading Privacy for Convenience

Washington Post has an article about a test project, which aims to give frequent fliers a quicker pass through security checkpoints, is underway at four US airports. It relies on the latest biometric technologies to verify a passenger’s identity with increased precision. Digital fingerprint scans and photographs are already used to identify foreigners traveling on a visa, and U.S. officials plan to encode a facial recognition technology into passports.

The program offers the first wide application of iris-scanning technology, which had previously been used only for government employees with access to classified sites or for employees with access to nuclear facilities, said Paul Mirenda, director of field operations for LG Electronics Inc., one of the TSA’s contractors that makes the scanners. The technology takes a close-up photograph of the iris, which has more unique characteristics than a fingerprint, and applies digital codes to the photograph to store it as a bar code. The photograph and fingerprint are then stored in a file along with other information about the passenger.

But some security experts worry that terrorists could apply to become a registered traveler and score an easier pass through security checkpoints. “If you look at 9/11 hijackers, some of them would have qualified as frequent fliers. All they had to do is run a few tests and find out what the parameters were and get people registered.”

Travelers who signed up for the program yesterday said they were impressed with the technology and were eager to be afforded special privileges at the checkpoint. None of the enrollees said they had a problem with providing the government with their personal information.

Samizdata slogan of the day

Freedom of press is limited to those who own one.

– H.L. Mencken

Which is what is so great about blogs and the blogosphere. Got a view about something? Set up your own ‘press’ and blog it.

Muddled thinking from a good man

The one thing I know government is good for is countervailing against monopoly. It’s not great at that either, but it is the only force I know that is fairly reliable. But if you’ve got a truly free market you only have a free market for a while before it becomes completely regulated by those aspects of it that have employed power laws to gain a complete monopoly.

The above paragraph appears in the latest edition of libertarian magazine Reason, one of the best and most thought-provoking mags out there in my opinion. The quote is taken from John Perry Barlow, veteran campaigner for civil liberties issues, scourge of government attempts to invade privacy, and a writer of lyrics for none other than the Grateful Dead.

And yet the above quotation is to my mind a piece of economic illiteracy so bad that I was rather surprised that the Reason interviewer, Brian Doherty, let him get away with his assertion about the free market so easily. However, where Reason failed, Samizdata can step in.

First off, when Barlow talks of ‘power laws’, what exactly does he mean? If he means stuff like draconian copyright laws, or licencing privileges to shaft potential competitors, then surely such things are the creation of governments and not a feature of a ‘free market’! Most of the restrictions on competition which bar entrepreneurs from entering a field were created by governments in response to business lobbying. That is clearly a bad thing, but it is weird for Barlow to suggest that the remedy to such abuse of power is to ‘re-regulate’ the market to somehow make it freer. The solution to the problem is surely to cut the state down to size so that it cannot disburse such corporate welfare privileges to vested interests in the first place.

In holding this view, Barlow makes the classic mistake of so many folk who think they have discovered a fatal flaw in capitalism in that some sectors of an economy get to be dominated by one or two major businesses such as Microsoft or the aluminium firm Alcoa. “Monopoly!”, they cry, before demanding anti-trust style laws to break up businesses into smaller, supposedly more ‘perfectly’ competing bits. (Yes, I know Microsoft’s particular circumstances are open to many legitimate attacks – I am not an apologist for them, in case commenters bring this up). This view is based on the failure to grasp that just because a firm has X percent of a market share and is very big, it is therefore somehow able to coerce folk into buying its products. However inconvenient it may be for me to avoid using the products of Bill Gates, say, I can do so. Microsoft or General Motors do not force me to buy their services at the point of a gun.

Another mistake linked to this confusion about monopoly is the failure to see that competition is not a state of affairs desirable for its own sake, but rather a dynamic process in which economic actors like businessmen are trying to figure out new and better ways to satisfy demands and also to come up with goods and services previously unthought of. At any one freeze-frame of an economy, there will be big, mature businesses fighting to hold their ground and operating on thin profit margins; medium-scale firms still posting sharp growth, and embryonic small fry waiting to burst into the scene. If a big firm with a large market share takes its eye off the ball for a second, it quickly can be overtaken by a previously unkown upstart, as indeed happened to IBM and other firms once thought to be invincible by critics like Barlow.

Big businesses are often the worst defenders of free markets, and are often only too keen on spending millions of their shareholders’ money in lobbying for tariffs and other cushy deals from the State. But to expect the State, given its terrible track record, to make the market more “free” is one of the dumbest delusions there is.

Addendum: Thomas Sowell’s excellent Basic Economics is a good place to clear up the sort of economic fallacies such as Barlow’s.

The unspecial relationship

As the French celebrate the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Paris from Nazi occupation , it seems to me entirely appropriate to draw attention to a rather more sanguine view of French history.

French-bashing has always been something of an indulgent British cultural habit that appears to have caught on in the USA where I get the impression that it is fast becoming a national pastime. Speaking for myself, I find most of its manifestations to be crass and juvenile but that should not deter any serious and critical examination of the key role played by the French state in much of the darkness and turmoil that has so overshadowed the 20th Century.

Professor Christie Davies has done just that in a forthright and trenchant essay for the Bruges Group:

The French defeat in 1870 decisively confirmed France’s decline from being the most powerful nation in Continental Europe to that of a feeble and unimportant country rapidly falling behind Germany in population, economic importance and military strength. A decent and sensible country would have accepted that its relegation to the second division was inevitable but the French now tried to drag every country they could find into fighting the Germans. The French threw enormous sums of money into the economic development and thus military strengthening of Russia, then lost it all and nearly ruined themselves. The French shamelessly manipulated the guileless British into thinking they ought to be at the heart of Europe even though they never got further than the Somme. This delusion of an enfeebled France that it somehow had a historic right to dominate Europe, if not by force then by chicanery, is still the source of many of our more recent problems.

As I am not a historian I cannot vouch for the accuracy (or otherwise) of the various factual claims and I suppose it behoves me to point out that the Bruges Group is a think-tank staffed mainly by Conservatives who take a famously hostile view of the European Union.

That caveat aside, Professor Davies essay makes for a compelling, tragic and utterly damning read.

[My thanks to Nigel Meek who posted this article to the Libertarian Alliance Forum.]