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]

Everything is running out, buy while stocks last

The Guardian newspaper reports that two-thirds of the world’s resources have been “used up”, so with only a third left, the crunch cannot be far away for Planet Earth. (Let’s hope Hollywood is on the case). The splendid Cafe Hayek blog nicely chews up and spits out this Malthusian argument here.

I have a question. If the resources of the Earth are finite and everything eventually succumbs to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, then by the logic employed by the deepest of Greens, even if we recycle all our goods and live in mud huts, then at some point, the game is up, we are all doomed, the end is nigh. So my question would be that if this is so, then why not live life to the full and enjoy this “finite” world while we have it? Let’s get those SUVs, build those spacecraft, take those lavish holidays, create those new technologies. It is all going to end anyway, so enjoy!

Of course, the idea that resources are finite has been challenged by the late and much-missed Julian L. Simon. The Ultimate Resource is his masterwork. And what is the ultimate resource? You probably have guessed – the grey stuff between your ears.


Just to stir the pot in the peanut gallery:

Does anyone else find the use of the term “undocumented” to describe people who are in the US illegally to be more than a little disingenuous, misleading, and politically correct?

From Magna Carta to Surveillance State

There is an excellent article on the Social Affairs Unit blog called Civil liberties cannot be defended selectively, by Joyce Lee Malcolm.

As the culture and meta-contextual assumptions of liberty have decayed amongst the intellectual and activist elements of British society, the institutions supporting liberty for so long have been revealed to have no foundations and are thus unable survive the torrent of events such as Hungerford or even the 9/11 terrorist attacks in another country.

As the Joyce Lee Malcolm article points out, the so called ‘opposition’ and even the vast majority of the media have abdicated their role in seriously questioning the disassembly of ancient civil rights for decades, whilst the rights to self-defence, trial by jury and double jeopardy are steadily abridged. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the British system, which for so long survived and thrived by using the custom of liberty as its bedrock, has shown its fatal weakness. Defending civil liberties in the UK is becoming harder and harder because not only have the institutional means for doing so been effectively swept away, so few British people even understand upon what their now largely illusory liberties were based.

Schiavo 4 – RIP

Terri Schiavo died this morning.

I hope that her husband and family can find some peace, if not with each other, than at least within themselves.

Now that the emotional flash point of the debate is gone, I hope that we can have a more considered policy discussion over who should make medical decisions for non-decisional patients, and under what restrictions.

Samizdata quote of the day

To hear conservatives indicate that a husband is not the person best qualified to decide what his wife would have wanted indicates a view of what marriage constitutes that seems rather at odds with the usual conservative obsession with the importance and gravity of that institution.
Perry de Havilland

A little outsourcing

This BBC story could have come straight out of a comic novel:

A man in Australia tipped off police in Devon after seeing a suspected burglary on a webcam based in Exmouth.

Andrew Pritchard, 52, from Boorowa, New South Wales, saw two men run from a car to a beach-front kiosk.

After searching for the number of Devon and Cornwall police he was able to direct them to the scene of the crime.

However it turned out not to be a crime:

It transpired the pair were a man and a woman having an argument, not conducting a burglary, but the police praised Mr Pritchard for his actions.

I actually believe them. They were able to bustle about and investigate, but it turned out they had no actual criminals to deal with, so no horrid fighting and no horrid paperwork. Instead, they had a nice little story to trade with their local media.

As for the idea of people in Australia looking at pictures from our spycams, it has often puzzled me who on earth is supposed to keep track of all our spycam pictures, what with there now being about ten times as many spycams in Britain as there are people. I seem to recall that in this Libertarian Alliance publication, in the bit where I discuss how to exploit old people and thus keep them feeling important for longer, I suggest that oldies might like to do this. Let them earn their pensions. And now that we all have broadband connections, there is no need for these oldies to be in Britain. In fact, given what our criminals like to do to witnesses who grass them up, Australia is probably the ideal spot for them.

Dress code: Pyjamas optional

Kamal Aboukhater, producer of the independent film Blowing Smoke (full disclosure: he is a tBBC client), has put an invitation out to readers of the movie’s blog to come to a special screening of the film on April 21 in Los Angeles.

I think this is a first of its kind invitation from a film producer via movie blog – very exciting stuff. Blowing Smoke is a provocative film – the New York Post’s Richard Johnson called it “the most politically incorrect movie ever made” – and well worth checking out. Definitely not for the easily offended or faint of heart, though.

Schiavo 3 – the transfer of power

Nobody is willing to take the position (at least in public) that a person should not be able to refuse medical care in person, on their own behalf. However, many of those now engaged in the struggle over end-of-life health care are, wittingly or not, arguing that some health care decisions should be removed from private hands and made by the state.

The current baseline rule is that your personal autonomy with respect to consenting to or refusing to consent to medical care is pretty much absolute (I am discussing medical care, not mental health care, which operates in a parallel universe on these issues). I note that there are some second-order restrictions on what kind of care is actually available to you, arising from various licensing and regulatory regimes, but leave those aside for now. You can refuse any and all kinds of care, ranging from the most extreme life support to the most mundane blood transfusion, and people do all the time, even when the refusal puts their life at risk.

Things get more complicated when you are unable to decide for yourself (or, what amounts to the same thing, unable to communicate your decision). Someone has to decide what care you will be given. Your ability to make such decisions in advance will, sooner or later, be outrun by the unforeseeable complexities and irreducible detail of your medical care. If nothing else, someone will have to interpret your written instructions and apply them to the messy clinical realities. At the end of the day, if you are not “decisional” you will have a surrogate decision-maker. That decision-maker will either be a private individual or the state.

The current system very rarely results in the state directly taking custody of a medical patient who is not decisional, and is very heavily biased toward leaving health care decisions in private hands, with a fairly limited “reserved” power in the state to hear disputes about who the private decision-maker should be. So far, so good.

Although reasonable people can disagree on whether, for example, Michael Schiavo should be Terri Schiavo’s surrogate or one of her parents should be, this dispute is over the proper issue of which private party should make decisions. It is very difficult, I think, to argue that this issue hasn’t been fairly and adequately processed by the courts.

However, we are seeing increasing pressure to restrict the decisions that the surrogate can make. This is where it gets tricky, because legal restrictions on the decisions that a private decision-maker can make mean that the state is making that decision. If there is a law on the books that prohibits your surrogate from consenting to experimental treatments, then the state is making the decision that you will not receive that treatment. If there is a law on the books that prohibits your surrogate from withdrawing a feeding tube, then the state is making the decision that you will be fed through a feeding tube.

The current mantra that “if there is any doubt, err on the side of life” is a TV-friendly sound-bite in the service of expanding the control that the state has over your medical care, because this “principle” removes from your surrogate the ability to make health care decisions, and is functionally equivalent to the state ordering that medical care be provided regardless of your wishes. For your own good, of course.

Similarly, the endless agitation for more appeals amounts to agitation for more state review and oversight of a nominally private decision. For your own good, naturally.

In short, to the extent any coherent public policy is being advanced by the people who want the feeding tube re-inserted into Ms. Schiavo, it is a public policy that shrinks the decision-making powers of private decision-makers, and necessarily transfers those decisions from private hands to those of the state.

The over-riding principle that is cited in favor of this transfer of power to the state is the protection of life. However, the protection of life is not an absolute trump card; indeed, when it comes to medical care, personal autonomy overrides protection of life; otherwise, the law would require that life-saving health care be provided to you over your objections.

Nobody is willing to take that step, so advocates for the transfer of power to the state are left in the position of arguing that some decisions that you can make for yourself should never be made by your surrogate, but should be made by the state instead. Those are the only two choices on offer – either the state makes decisions about your end-of-life medical care by prohibiting your surrogate from deciding, or your surrogate decision-maker does.

I think you know where my instincts are when faced with a choice between preserving the private sphere and expanding state control.

Better safe than sorry: say no to the Precautionary Principle

You may well have heard this point made before, and I surely have myself, but it nevertheless made me grin, again, today:

We can only ask supporters of the precautionary principle to follow it through to its logical conclusion, that is not to have it applied unless it can be proved that no risk is involved. It is up to them to prove that this principle is harmless.

Those are the concluding words of Precaution with the Precautionary Principle, published (pdf only but in both French and English) by the Institut Economique Molinari. My thanks to Cécile Philippe of the IEM for the email that pointed me to this publication, and to this conclusion.

Help me! Can’t – stop – quoting –

I had intended to make the following excerpt from an essay by George Reisman, Education and the Racist Road to Barbarism, a Samizdata Quote of the Day:

Today, the critics of “Eurocentrism” rightly refuse to accept any form of condemnation for their racial membership. They claim to hold that race is irrelevant to morality and that therefore people of every race are as good as people of every other race. But then they assume that if people of all races are equally good, all civilizations and cultures must be equally good. They derive civilization and culture from race, just as the European racists did. And this is why they too must be called racists. They differ from the European racists only in that while the latter started with the judgment of an inferior civilization or culture and proceeded backwards to the conclusion of an inferior race, the former begin with the judgment of an equally good race and proceed forwards to the conclusion of an equally good civilization or culture. The error of both sets of racists is the same: the belief that civilization and culture are racially determined.

However I have changed my mind. Partly this is because Adriana has got in first with a quote of the day from the estimable Terry Pratchett, but also it is because Reisman’s essay is sucking great quotes out from my typing fingers like an unstoppable brain-eating science fiction monster, with the difference that my brain seems actually enhanced by the process. A single QotD is not enough to fulfil my compulsion.

Here is another memorable passage:

For the case of a Westernized individual, I must think of myself. I am not of West European descent. All four of my grandparents came to the United States from Russia, about a century ago. Modern Western civilization did not originate in Russia and hardly touched it. The only connection my more remote ancestors had with the civilization of Greece and Rome was probably to help in looting and plundering it. Nevertheless, I am thoroughly a Westerner. I am a Westerner because of the ideas and values I hold. I have thoroughly internalized all of the leading features of Western civilization. They are now my ideas and my values. Holding these ideas and values as I do, I would be a Westerner wherever I lived and whenever I was born.

Food for thought here:

I believe that the decline in education is probably responsible for the widespread use of drugs. To live in the midst of a civilized society with a level of knowledge closer perhaps to that of primitive man than to what a civilized adult requires (which, regrettably, is the intellectual state of many of today’s students and graduates) must be a terrifying experience, urgently calling for some kind of relief, and drugs may appear to many to be the solution.

I believe that this also accounts for the relatively recent phenomenon of the public’s fear of science and technology. Science and technology are increasingly viewed in reality as they used to be humorously depicted in Boris Karloff or Bela Lugosi movies, namely, as frightening “experiments” going on in Frankenstein’s castle, with large numbers of present-day American citizens casting themselves in a real-life role of terrified and angry Transylvanian peasants seeking to smash whatever emerges from such laboratories. This attitude is the result not only of lack of education in science, but more fundamentally, loss of the ability to think critically–an ability which contemporary education provides little or no basis for developing. Because of their growing lack of knowledge and ability to think, people are becoming increasingly credulous and quick to panic.

I found the essay via Abode of Amritas.

Samizdata quote of the day

It was so much easier to blame it on Them. It was bleakly depressing to think that They were Us. If it was Them, then nothing was anyone’s fault. If it was us, what did that make Me? After all, I’m one of Us. I must be. I’ve certainly never thought of myself as one of Them. No one ever thinks of themselves as one of Them. We’re always one of Us. It’s Them that do the bad things.
– Terry Pratchett, Jingo

The U.N. claws at cyberspace

I nearly choked on my tea when I read in my news alerts that the United Nations’ International Telecommunications Union wants to be given more influence over the Internet. I persevered and learnt ‘interesting’ things (interesting as in the Chinese curse “may you live in interesting times“…) The Chinese connection is somewhat relevant – Houlin Zhao, the venerable bureaucrat who heads the ITU, is a former government official in China’s Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications.

So, we have a UN agency, run by a (former) Chinese government official saying that they should be able to run more aspects of the Internet. Zhao wrote in December:

Countering spam is just one of many elements of protecting the Internet that include availability during emergencies and supporting public safety and law enforcement officials… The ITU would take care of other work, such as work on Internet exchange points, Internet interconnection charging regimes, and methods to provide authenticated directories that meet national privacy regimes.

In an interview with CNET news, Zhao explains ITU’s position:

ITU’s situation is similar to the U.S. Constitution. ITU is very dynamic. We try to keep abreast of the latest development of the market and to give assistance to human society for future development. Remember, ITU was created in May 1865 to develop a system for telegraphs.

The US Constitution…well, isn’t that nice? But then I read this and shudder:

One of the most important changes was the early stages, when the Internet started, when ICANN started in 1998. The purpose was to exclude governments (but that didn’t work). People realize today that the governments worldwide have to play a role.

No, Mr Zhao, people do not realise that the governments have a role to play, especially given that internet has been the fastest developing, innovative and dynamic technological and social advance that humankind has even known. Brining governments into it is just going to put a big spanner into the works. If anything, people have learned that you can have an entire dimension of your existence i.e. online functioning just fine, if not better, than the offline.

People say the Internet flourished because of the absence of government control. I do not agree with this view. I argue that in any country, if the government opposed Internet service, how do you get Internet service? If there are any Internet governance structure changes in the future, I think government rules will be more important and more respected.

What we have here is an example of authoritarian meta-context, Mr Zhao assumes that there are only two options – government opposition to internet service or complete control. Otherwise his statement does not make sense. How about no interference either way?