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Dead trees and pajama kids at the Adam Smith Institute

The ASI hosted a gathering of bloggers and curious old media types in Westminster last night. Times journo Danny Finkelstein and well known blog commentator Tim Worstall. As with all the ASI events I have attended, I rather enjoyed myself and there was a large posse of OG bloggers to swap scandal with.

Read more about it from Jax here.

From Pitt to Brown: how the UK state has grown

In his classic demolition of Big Government, Parliament of Whores, P.J. O’Rourke explains that one of the keys to explaining how govermment can spread its tentacles and prove so hard to roll back is that its very size makes it hard for anyone, even a smart reformer, to understand. The bafflement that one experiences when looking at the extent of the state is part of why it stays big, he argues.

I was reminded of this by the sheer contrast with what used to be the case. As William Hague points out in his excellent biography of 18th Century UK statesman Pitt the Younger (now out in paperback), Pitt had hardly any resources at all in his brief spell as Chancellor of the Exchequer. There were no civil servants or secretaries, no armies of bureaucrats. Nothing. Nada. Zip. And when Pitt entered 10 Downing Street, the actual size of the state engine at his command was just as meagre, even though this was a government that was to wage war against Bonaparte, deal with the growth of an empire in India and the effects of the Industrial Revolution.

Ponder on that, Gordon Brown.

Brad Pitt to be John Galt?

Rumours are afoot that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are going to be in Hollywood’s attempt to bring Atlas Shrugged to the big screen. They might make an interesting pair to play John Galt and Dagny Taggart.

Partisan neutrality?

Mike Masnick, posting on Techdirt, notes an unfortunate development in U.S. politics: the adoption of network neutrality as a partisan issue. At which point the discussion starts to sound eerily familiar:

The only reasons the telcos are in the position to violate network neutrality are because they’ve pretty much been granted subsidies and monopoly rights of way – and part of that bargain was that to increase competition, there needed to be open and fair access. To suddenly claim that we need a hands off approach is ignoring the fact that there’s never been a hands off approach and the companies involved were granted special rights.

This neutrality dilemma reminds me a lot of similar discussions of free markets. The difference is that it is a less mature discussion – for now. We have been talking about markets for a long time now, and we no longer frame the debate in terms of whether a market is simply free or un-free, as all markets exist in a relative state of freedom at all times.

The debate on neutrality, being younger, so it still sounds, like a bunch of people agitating for or against a perect state of being known as ‘neutrality’. But like freedom, neutrality an ethos, not a state of being. As Masnick implies, there may be such a thing as objective reality (I like to think so), but there is no such thing as objective neutrality.


Life is far more fun when you have a really good book on the go, and the only thing wrong with mine just now is that it weighs too much to be lugged about comfortably on my pedestrian journeyings around London. It is The Lives & Times of the Great Composers by Michael Steen. For me, this book is perfect. I know what most of the music that the great composers composed sounds like. But I am enjoying hugely learning more about the circumstances in which this wonderful music was composed and first listened to.

After an Italian prelude, the first big name composer Steen deals with is Handel, the German who ended up living in London for most of his life.

Handel’s London was an exciting place (p. 39 of my unwieldy paperback):

The year before Handel arrived, Sir Christopher Wren’s St Paul’s Cathedral had been completed at a cost of £1,167,474 paid for largely by the import duty on coal. Sir Isaac Newton, the great scientist was still at work. London, with its sounds of wheels rumbling on cobbles and cries from the street vendors, was well into a century of commercial and cultural prosperity: the country’s population grew by 71 per cent over the century; its merchant fleet more than doubled in tonnage between 1702 and 1776.

London, in other words, then as now, was making lots of progress. Perhaps because music itself can be such an otherworldy thing, even when composed by such a worldly figure as the energetically entrepreneurial Handel, Steen chooses in this book to emphasise the material aspect of things when describing the world in which this music was created.

The kind of people who enjoy the fruits of material progress, but who enjoy them more than they think about how they were first devised and are now cultivated, often dismiss progress as a small thing, perhaps because they dislike the kind of people who are needed to make it, and the methods they must be allowed to use. (Basically: commerce. And insofar as “public spending” is involved, someone has to make that money first before it can be spent.) Such people should ponder pieces of writing such as what Michael Steen says next about Handel’s London:

Behind its superficial prosperity and elegance, London was overcrowded, squalid and full of beggars. People had fleas, lice and few teeth. Most people defecated in nooks and crannies, or used public lavatories built over rivers such as the Fleet. For the more refined, with a small fee, the ‘human lavatory’ would provide a pail and extend its large cape as a screen. Lavatory paper did not exist, the alternatives ranged from a sponge on a stick in a container of salt water, to stones, shells and bunches of herbs.


But the most chilling observation Steen makes about the trials and tribulations of material life in the early eighteenth century – instead of the early twenty-first, say – is this, a couple of paragraphs later:

The political outlook was uncertain.

So? When was it not? But now, hear the reason:

Queen Anne, who was in her late 40s, had borne seventeen children; mostly still-born, none had survived.

Let an anti-progress person of now read that, and then try telling us that material progress of is no great importance, or of no “spiritual” significance, that it is merely a matter of brute, animal comfort. The Queen of England, no less – who presumably enjoyed, if that is the word, the very best medical attention then available – scored zero out of seventeen in the deadly game of childbirth and child-rearing; which meant that there was no obvious royal heir, which meant that the political outlook was uncertain. Poor, poor woman.

Later (p. 54), Michael Steen throws light on another kind of material progress, of a sort that is far more widely and deliberately scorned than progress in things like plumbing or medicine (which is often merely forgotten about), namely cosmetics. Steen has this to tell us about the way that the sort of women Handel often had dealings with – such as the highly paid and outrageously indulged and pampered opera singers whom he supplied tunes for, the crazy rock stars of their day – tried to beautify themselves:

Their faces were painted with compounds of white lead, rice and flour, with washes of quicksilver boiled in water with bismuth.

Suddenly, the progress made in female adornment, which has put incomparably more convenient and healthy – to say nothing of far more visually appealing – methods of adornment into the hands of any modern woman with a few quid to spare who wants them, appears almost as impressive as progress in plumbing, medicine, nutrition, travel, civil engineering, electronic entertainment, or even the wondrous progress that was about to be made in the two centuries after Handel, in music.

Now THAT’S art

Harry Hutton, the funniest man in the blogosphere, has auteured a short film.

Vikings: The other side of the story

Having previously written a post on Alfred the Great (who I still think was the greatest Englishman who ever lived) and his family, I think it would be nice to present a pro-Viking post (or at least pro-Norse: not quite the same thing).

To go a Viking is to ‘raid’ in the language of old Norse and most Norse people were not raiders – they were farmers, craftsmen and traders (although someone might be any of these three things and still be a raider at some time in their life) like most non-Norse people in the period (from the late 8th to the early 12th centuries).

Raiding is not a libertarian activity (robbery, slave taking, rape and murder are violations of the non-aggression principle) and (as stated above) non-raiding occupations were much the same among Norse folk as among non Norse folk. So why do many libertarians (and non-libertarians) have a soft spot for the ‘Vikings’ (if we must call the Norse Vikings)?

Well a case can be made for the Norse as the freedom loving folk of pro-Viking popular legend.

It starts with Charlemagne (768-814). Charles the Great King of the Franks and later first Holy Roman Emperor. Charlemagne’s grandfather was the great general Charles Martel who defeated the Arab invasion of France, and his father was Pepin who deposed King Childeric and made himself King of the Franks (rather than just the “Vicar of the Palace” and real power behind the throne that Charles Martel had been). Charlemagne had some trouble imposing his rule (over other claimants to the throne) and had to beg the aid of Tassilo the ruler of Bavaria.

However, the internal politics of the Franks would not be a great concern if it were not for the policies of Charlemagne. Most rulers of this period raided (the later Vikings were not breaking totally new ground here) – loot was a good way of winning the loyalty of the hard men one need to be able to count on to preserve one’s rule. But Charlemagne raided more than any other ruler of his time.

Sometimes Charlemagne waged war with an ideological justification, for example the long wars against the Saxons in order to impose Christianity (more on this later). Other times it was to eliminate a potential rival (such as when Charlemagne betrayed Tassilo by the conquest of Christian Bavaria) and sometimes it was just in search of loot and ‘glory’ (such as the long distance raiding against the Avars). Charlemagne’s wars against the Saxons and his pressure on the Frisians (part of centuries of pressure on these folk of what is now the coast of north west Germany and north east Holland) and Denmark caused considerable interest in the Northern world.

Serfdom (the semi-slavery of the peasants – and idea that went back, in various forms, to the late Roman Empire) was never successfully imposed on the Frisians or the Saxons, but the spreading of religion by the sword was not Charlemagne’s only intent – the spreading of the Frankish social system (a military elite, loyal to a great warlord, living off the forced labour of others) was certainly part of the story. And in order to imposer this vast numbers of people were killed in Charlemagne’s campaign of terror.

It is hard to be sure (and it is contested) but some claim that there were great councils of the North – and that the ‘Viking Age’ (at least at first) was a response to the activities of Charlemagne. Certainly (even if we keep to the idea of the Vikings as independent raiders) the pressure on the Frisians meant that their sea power could no longer control the North Sea – leaving the area free for others.

Charlemagne also favoured the power of the Church – not just the worship of the Christian God. This meant the rise of what came to be called tithes and other forms of church taxes. But even after the Norse became Christians they tended to resist such taxes. For example in Iceland they were not imposed till the 1080’s and in Norway to the early 1100’s.

Serfdom as also strongly resisted by the Norse. In won out in Denmark – but never in Sweden or Norway (even after these areas became nation states). The case of Norway is interesting. As late as the early 1100’s there were still four different peasant assemblies that elected Kings (who did not have to be the same person) – such ideas were outside the mainstream of European thought (as expressed by Charlemagne and those who came after him). Slavery did exist in the Norse world – but it tended to decline. For example, in Iceland it died out completely in the 11th century. And (of course) Charlemagne was just a greater slave trader than the Vikings ever were.

Lastly there is the matter of price control. There were (broadly speaking) two views of the concept of the ‘just price’ in legal-theological thinking of the time. There was the view that the just price was a price that was freely decided between buyer and seller (this view is reflected in the laws of Bavaria in the 8th century) and there was the view that the ‘just price’ was the price established by custom or law.

Charlemagne favoured the latter view – and his officials (and those of later Kings) tried to impose detailed price controls (and other regulations). The Church was never united behind Charlemagne and his officials – but Charlemagne had saved the Pope from the power of the Lombards and the Pope did declare him Holy Roman Emperor, so the view of the dream of extensive state power (itself a dream of re-establishing the controls of the late Roman Empire) was a respectable one within the Church – and cast a long shadow over the Middle Ages and beyond.

The Norse however rejected the very notion of Imperial power in such matter (indeed in all matters). So perhaps people are not totally foolish to remember some aspects of the ‘Vikings’ with certain warmth.

You have no right to not be offended, part II

Just as I suppprt the right to publish drawing that annoy the hell out of some Muslims, I also support the right to publish drawings which annoy the hell out of some Christians.

If some find provocative images of Jesus offensive, they should feel free to express their outrage… but should not feel free to express their outrage to their legislators, because the implication is clear that they want them to use the violence of law to prevent themselves from being offended… to which I can only say, they have no such right.

Samizdata quote of the day

The frankly shocking discovery that this blog is being used as an educational aid for A-Level politics students is proof, if proof were ever needed, that state education is failing our children.

Guido Fawkes yesterday (knowing that no-one will agree)

The price-fixing fallacy as applied to oil

When people in public offices start bleating about a conspiracy of private firms to screw the public, it is usually a sign that said public official is trying to spread a profound misunderstanding of market forces, or is an idiot, or is trying to name a scapegoat to shore up public support. In the case of President George W. Bush – not exactly the brightest light in the harbour – it may be just be a combination of all three.

Anyway, veteran libertarian scholar and free marketeer Tibor Machan is having none of it.

Oil prices are high – though in inflation adjusted terms, not as high as in some periods. The reasons for this have nothing to do with the nefarious activities of Big Oil. It is caused by rising demand from the expanding Chinese and Indian economies; a lack of supply caused by low investment during the 80s and 90s when crude prices fell to below $10 per barrel at one stage; a lack of refining capacity for the same reason; regulations designed to cut pollution, which raise production costs, the interruptions to supplies from the Middle East because of the conflict there, and finally, an element of speculation from hedge funds and the like.

Adam Smith famously warned of the dangers of firms forming cartels to prop up the price of a particular good or service, although in practice such cartels tend not to last very long unless they can enlist support from governments in some ways to prevent new companies from entering a market. If Exxon, say, tried to do a deal with Shell to rig the price of gasoline at X dollars a gallon (not litres, dammit) then sooner or later another firm would see a market opportunity to undercut that price, and in an age when motorists can check prices on the internet, it is hard to see how this process could be stopped without State intervention.

Conspiracy theories are great fun, and I hate to be a party-pooper, but in 99 times out of 100, they are bunk.

Opera on DVD

The constant temptation for writers here at Samizdata is to focus only on politics, and as a direct consequence to get depressed. Politics is always depressing. Depressing is what politicians do. They say they are going to encourage this or that, but these thises and thats generally involve extorting yet more tax to pay for such encouragement, which depresses taxpayers yet more, and the encouragement as often as not turns out to be the opposite, while nevertheless scaring away any non-governmental encouragers who might really have helped, which is especially depressing for everyone who got their hopes up.

So, I will now write about opera on DVD, which is not nearly such a depressing subject as politics, and especially not right now. True, opera is often paid for by governments – which goes a long way to explaining why most new operas now are such junk. And true, the stories told in operas are often themselves very depressing, involving, as they often do, politicians, as well as other sorts of bad people doing bad things. But, despite all that, the presentation on DVD of the operas that date from the time when opera was show business and when people ran opera houses for fun and profit, rather than out of a sense of cultural duty, is now getting seriously into its stride.

DVD has always seemed to me the obvious way to enjoy opera. The thing itself, in an actual opera house with actual live singers and players, is for me just too expensive and too chancey. For instance, a few years ago I attended an English National Opera production of Madame Butterfly. It was advertised as being sung in English, but it turned out to be that particular sort of unintelligible English that only opera singers sing. Waar-blaar-traar-hyaar etc. I couldn’t make out one single damn word of it. Since I was paying for someone else to be there too, that was a big slice out of a hundred quid in exchange for a few tunes that I already knew and already had on CD in several versions, all of them better.

And as for when they are singing in another language, well, where’s the fun in that if you don’t understand it? To enjoy that, you have to do a ton of homework, and for me that drains all the fun out of it. No, the answer had to be DVD, with subtitles (which I believe you can often summon up even if they are singing in operenglish). And the good news, for me, is that opera DVDs are finally coming within my price range.

I don’t buy opera DVDs new, any more often than I buy full price regular classical CDs new. I buy them new, that is to say, only very occasionally. Fifteen quid for one disc? No thank you. And operas on DVD still tend to cost nearer thirty quid than fifteen, if you buy them new. But, and this is the really good news, opera DVDs have finally started to show up in decent numbers in the second hand classical CD shops and market stalls that I regularly visit. So, for instance, I recently got the entire Levine/New York Met set of Wagner’s Ring Cycle for thirty quid, and, during the same trip, Beethoven’s Fidelio and Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier for a tenner each. Some operas are going now for even less. That, for me, is value. These prices mean that now, I can finally allow myself to enjoy opera, because if I become addicted to it, as I never have allowed myself to so far, the habit will not ruin me and mean that I have to die under Charing Cross Bridge in a cardboard box, instead of indoors and comfortable.

Have I disliked opera because I really did dislike it? – mostly because of the wobbly, incomprehensible way they so often sing it. Or did I dislike it in mere self-defence against being economically ruined by it? Hard to say. But, a few nights ago, listening to the closing scene of Der Rosenkavalier, I could feel myself getting seriously hooked.

Der Rosenkavalier contains many ridiculous things. The leading man is sung by a soprano, which takes some getting used to, however well she sings. And teenager Sophie, whom the leading man (well, more like a boy) eventually becomes engaged to in that melodious last scene, is, in this production, rather obviously nearer to forty than twenty, albeit a very nice looking forty-year-old. Above all, these people are all old-time Viennese, which means that not only does the villain have a thoroughly warped view of the world, but so, frankly, albeit to a lesser degree of course, do the good guys. I.e. the good girls.

But no matter. Richard Strauss’s taste in operatic singing is pretty much the same as mine. He adored the light soprano voice – as opposed to the heavy, wobbly, knock-a-giant-down-at-fifty-paces Wagner-type soprano voice – to the point where ever since, people have tended to call such sopranos “Straussian”. (Gundula Janowitz and Lucia Popp are two of my favourites, both of whom were sublimely wonderful performers of Strauss’s sublimely wonderful Four Last Songs, which I have adored for decades.) Der Rosenkavalier, like most operas, has its longueurs, when they do that annoying form of operatic talking which is half talking and half orchestrally accompanied singing, which is similar to what actors used to do, without music. But every so often, and the final scene of Rosenkavalier is definitely one such time, they get some actual tunes to sing, and as Sophie and the Boy/Girl Soprano sang away ecstatically, I could feel myself surrendering.

Good. For me, classical music is something to enjoy first, rather than to “understand”. But, there is no doubt that if you do want to deepen your understanding of this music, you have to at least be acquainted with opera. Mozart’s piano concertos, for instance, are intensely “operatic”, and a thorough study of the way they echo tunes in his operas will give you an order of magnitude greater feeling for what they are all about.

I already have a number of operatic DVDs, quite aside from the ones I have recently acquired, for the operatic DVD bargain is not an entirely new phenomenon. But, for all the considerations alluded to above, I have tended to keep them on the shelf, unsurrendered to. Now, I look at my little DVD opera collection with new eyes, knowing that I will soon be listening to it with new ears and watching it with those same new eyes, enthralled.

Home Office promotes free movement of labour (hopefully Clarke’s resignation)

Charles Clarke appears before an Eminent Jurists Panel, spruced up and professional, to defend the undermining of due process and roll his eyes backward, because they just do not get it. Terrorists, they kill people, we need security.

“I defend it categorically,” Clarke told the Eminent Jurists Panel at a hearing in central London. The orders give some capacity for the state against people we don’t feel able to pursue through the courts in a normal prosecution.”

Clarke today rejected those arguments in his testimony, suggesting the panel may have failed to grasp the gravity of the terror threat.

“I don’t think you understand,” Clarke said. “Do we just somehow pretend it’s not there?”

That was the response of the Home Office to foreign prisoners who were designated for deportation after completing their sentences. They just slipped away… into the community.

Matters were made worse by Clarke’s admission late Tuesday that he did not know where most of the offenders, who include three murderers and nine rapists, were.

Among the offenders, five had been convicted of committing sex offences on children, seven had served time for other sex offences, 57 for violent offences and two for manslaughter.

There were also 41 burglars and 20 drug importers among those released back into the community without considering their removal from Britain.

Our Home Secretary has taken personal responsibility for this slight hiccup.

Clarke, who has accepted personal responsibility for the ‘shocking and systematic failure’ of his ministry and the immigration agencies in dealing with the cases, said Tuesday evening: “I certainly don’t think I have a duty to the public to go – I have a duty to sort this out.”

All the foreign prisoners released will be served with a ‘super-ASBO’ (Anti-Social Behaviour Order) trademarked TB, and supervised by the Probation Service.