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The strange Tory silence on the UK Olympics

As regulars of this site will know, even the most ardent sports fans on this blog – Brian Micklethwait, Michael Jennings and yours truly – despise the Olympic Games. Or, more exactly, we despise how the Games in the UK are funded out of taxes, and despise the crooks, cretins and gullible fools who imagine that the benighted taxpayers of Britain are making some sort of “investment” by paying for the Games. The other evening, flicking through the channels, I saw Sebastian Coe, now a peer and a former Tory MP, go on about what a smashing “investment” the Games respresented, as if he was talking about a punt on the Nasdaq or a purchase of BMW bonds. That an alleged Tory should use the word “investment” to talk about something that could not stand up on commercial grounds and requires the looting powers of the state to function is depressing evidence of the calibre of Tories today. For all their faults, former Chancellors Nigel Lawson, Geoffrey Howe or even Norman Lamont never insulted our intelligence by abusing the English language in this way.

It is possible that the Conservatives have made the crude calculation that the blasted Games, which surge in cost all the time, are going to happen anyway, will be an expensive mess, and the best thing to do is to make supportive noises, not appear to be grouchy, and pin any blame for cockups on the Labour government. From a narrow tactical angle, this is possibly sensible. There are some battles not worth fighting; while the cost of the Games could run above 10 billion pounds, the overalll size of UK public spending is several multiples of that and the Tories or any decent opposition must focus its attention on that. Although a huge figure, the cost of the Games represents a rounding error compared to the total public spending burden. Even so, it would be good to see the Tories flaying the government over the fiasco that this event threatens to become. Over at the Social Affairs Unit blog, the writer Jeremy Black makes some good points on what this government’s opponents should be doing.

Oh well, at least writing about this takes my mind off Ipswich Town FC’s miserable footballing year and England’s loss of the Ashes. Sigh.


Classical music blogger Jessica Duchen yesterday featured a bit of video/audio of the great Grigory Sokolov playing the wonderfully manic third and last movement of Prokofiev’s Seventh Piano Sonata, which is marked Precipitato. I have a DVD of Sokolov playing this, plus some Beethoven, and I assume this clip is from that. (The Beethoven on that DVD is also marvelous. I’ve never heard the somewhat poor relation Op. 14 numbers 1 and 2 sonatas sound better. Or, maybe I’ve just never listened properly before, and this DVD of Big Bear Sokolov finally got me doing that. Don’t know, don’t care.)

To succeed, music has to have at least one of: melody, harmony and rhythm. Too much twentieth century classical type music scores zero out of three, and hence will never be widely liked. This Prokofiev movement scores a thunderously successful ten out of ten (to switch marking systems) in the rhythm department, and does pretty well on the other two as well, I think. (Which, come to think of it, is a description that applies pretty well to Prokofiev’s entire output.) Do have a listen/look if you’ve not heard this piece and enjoy white hot piano playing. It is about four minutes long, with lots of understandably noisy clapping at the end that you can ignore.

It helps that this is the kind of music that, I think, easily survives cheap computer-type speakers.

How appropriate

The president of our National Welfare Rights Network is a man named Michael Raper.

Surely an excellent name for someone who constantly thinks about how best to take advantage of taxpayers.

Discussion Point II

Do libertarians have anything useful to learn from Karl Marx?

Health, the role of the state and children

As if the threat of being bullied and labelled a fattie is not enough, there is now the risk that the state and its agents will take a child into care if that child is deemed “obese”. Over the last few days, the press has carried reports of how a young boy, weighing in at a powerful 14-stone (196 lbs/ 89 kg), narrowly avoided such a fate.

My first instinctive belief is that the state has no business telling us about what should be the shape of our butts. In the case of children, responsibility lies with the parents, and there has to be real and sustained proof of neglect and abuse to trigger any form of intervention. In nearly all cases, my view is that the “cure” of taking an “obese” child into care will far worse than the supposed problem. Yes, extreme obesity, as measured in terms of excess fat vis a vis overall body shape, is not something to laugh at or dismiss. Although I have been lucky and born with a slim physique, I still try to build on that good fortune by keeping fit. There’s no doubt that many people in Britain are unhealthily overweight. Lack of exercise, sedentary lifestyles and the demise of hard, physical labour all have an effect. But while I would encourage folk to look after themselves, ultimately, what people choose to do with their lives is their business, not mine. In the case of this youngster, realising that he is overweight should be incentive enough to do something about it. His parents may not be the brightest lights in the harbour, but from what I have read, they plainly adore their son, although they probably could exert rather a stricter control over his diet.

As we have also found in so many cases, paternalistic state actions often start to “protect the kids” and end up spreading towards adults as well. I hope this young man learns to take pride in his own health and can look back in future to this time in his life as one where he learned to control his appetite and also realise how dangerous the state has become. There are plenty worse things than having a large tummy, that is for sure.

Samizdata quote of the day

Impartiality is a pompous name for indifference, which is an elegant name for ignorance

– G.K. Chesterton, The Speaker, 1925

Why we can not win: at least not yet

It has often been pointed out that whilst government spending is seen as a proper way to express compassion we (meaning those of us who believe that government is too big) can not win.

The above was brought home to me, yet again, yesterday. I watched a person being interviewed by a television presenter, and the person was requesting yet more government spending.

A decade ago a new government scheme was set up to pay for medical cover for children from poor families not already covered by Medicaid (the ‘working poor’). As welfare state schemes tend to do, the scheme has greatly grown in expense and yet ‘essential needs’ are not being met and so the person was on television (with the full support of the television interviewer) saying that the budget suggested by President Bush was not enough.

That is right, the wild spending George Bush (a man who gives the impression that he has never come upon a welfare state scheme that he did not like) is being attacked for not spending enough taxpayers money.

The man who was speaking was Republican Governor Perdue, from conservative Georgia, who was in Washington DC (with other State Governors) to ask for yet more taxpayers money. After all Georgia has implemented the scheme ‘aggressively’ (this was assumed to be a good thing to do) and, therefore, was facing a serious financial problem. As the people talked film was shown of a poor little child getting medical care (subtext – if you oppose the scheme you are a monster).

And the interviewer? A presenter for Fox News (the only non leftist television network). If the ever-more-government-spending-on-welfare-state-schemes position wins by default (for there were no arguments) when the people in the conversation are a Republican Governor from a conservative State and a presenter from Fox News then what hope is there of victory, what hope of rolling back government? At present not much.

One can trace the roots of the problem as far back as one likes. Some trace it to the error made by the German Samuel Pufendorf and other scholars, in confusing taxes and government spending with the virtue of charity (as if there could be such a thing as compulsory charity). FA Hayek even traced the problem right back to human nature evolving when humans lived in hunter-gatherer packs, so that there is always a danger of civil society (or the ‘extended order’) breaking down under the pressure of our near-brute instincts – the atavistic instinct for ‘fair shares’ dignified as the doctrine of ‘social justice’.

However, be at that is it may, the belief that government spending = compassion is clearly deeply rooted. Is there anything that we can do?

Well we can argue against ever bigger government and we can try and get these arguments to the public. But many people before us have tried to do this, over the decades, and they have failed to roll back government or even prevent its growth (although we do not know how bad things would be if they had not tried). And we can do all we can to help people in need, but all the efforts of charity (or ‘benevolence’, or the ‘independent sector’ to those who have been taught to think of ‘charity’ as a dirty word), have not convinced most people that ‘helping’ is not a proper role for government.

Perhaps only the bankruptcy of the Welfare States of the modern world will make people think again. It is possible that even bankruptcy will not make people turn against statism, perhaps ‘pack instincts’ will take over totally with total collectivism and the break down of civil society. However, if we keep on arguing as well as can and trying to get our arguments before people as much as we can, then perhaps people will consider the path of freedom, the path of voluntary interaction that is civil society, when social and political bankruptcy finally occurs.

The most important day in US history

225 years ago today Parliament voted a resolution to end the war and grant the colonies independence. A month later Lord North faced a vote of no confidence and stepped down.

It seems to me any old place can declare independence, it is when your would-be rulers accept it that matters.

British Council is EUNIC, but no longer unique

The British Council announced that ten offices in Europe would shut so that funds could be diverted to the Middle East and Asia. Part of this diversion is admirable: an attempt to undermine the attraction of the Salafist ideology for impressionable youths. Scepticism rises over the small sums allocated in comparison to the rich charities that fund madressehs in all Muslim countries.

Martin Davidson, director general designate of the British Council, said it was “time to tackle the new challenges the world faces.”

These included “building trust with the Islamic states and China,” Davidson told the Press Association.

The council would scrap “traditional arts activities” in Europe, such as orchestral tours and artistic commissions, in favour of projects “designed to prevent Muslim youths from being indoctrinated by extremists sympathetic to al-Qaeda,” the Times said.

This project is coordinated by a new leader of the British Council, who also stated that they would be working with their European partners to promote common values. The British Council belongs to EUNIC, the European Union National Institutes for Culture, and this new organisation was launched on the 21st February 2007 (pdf file). Is it any coincidence that, as soon as the British Council is submerged within a pan-European body, its focus is aimed at the Middle East and China? Even the small details begin to back up Mark Steyn.

Tech support

I will be going to live in China shortly, however I intend to backpack around South East Asia for a few months before settling in Beijing. I do not really wish to lug my two hundred and fifty or so CDs around Asia. I am not a masochist. Also, I would hate to lose them. Yet I would also hate to be without my music – so I plan to buy a portable MP3 player and copy all of my CDs on to that. However, I do not know which model to buy, so perhaps a knowledgeable reader could help me out.

Firstly, I should mention that I do not want an iPod. I do not like having to use iTunes to plonk songs and data on the device, and I have heard a lot of stories about reliability problems – units dying just after the warranty has run out, unprovoked formatting of memory and that kind of thing.

I want a player that is compatible with Windows and has a relatively simple procedure for the addition of files – as I may be doing a fair bit of that at internet cafes and places where the software available is limited. Ideally, I would like to be able to rip a CD straight to the player without having to store the music files on a computer in the process. I am not awfully concerned about a video playing ability or an especially fancy display for viewing photos, as I will primarily be using the unit to listen to music. I would like the unit to have at least 30 gigabytes of memory, and I do not want to spend much more than 200 pounds or US$400.

A tech-savvy friend told me to check out the Creative Zen Vision M and the Toshiba X-series. Does anyone have any comment on these units, or any other recommendations?

Alice Bachini-Smith and Stephen Davies on the remoralisation of society

Everything I have heard and read tells me that this kind of thing used to be true in Britain.

I live in a very small street with only eight houses, but delivery vans come down here at least twice a day. Fed Ex and that other company. People have a lot of parcels delivered by not the Post Office these days. The internet brings us gifts every day.

They bash on the door a few times, then put the parcel down and walk off. One time, a delivery man hid the parcel under our doormat. I guess he thought it was more valuable-looking than usual (true- it was Lego/s). Nobody expects parcels to be stolen from doorsteps. Everywhere I’ve lived in England, that would be insane. I never minded about crime when I lived in the UK, but that was before experiencing life in a place that feels this safe. It’s wonderful.

I heard a story from my brother-in-law about Nottingham in the thirties. Apparently, in a very poor part of town and at a very poor time, as was the practice in such places in those times, a man used to come round with a big leather bag, collecting rent, in cash. This man was not liked. People went hungry to ensure that he got his cash. But it never occurred to him or to anyone that this was a stupid thing for him to do, because it was not stupid. Anyway, one day, he left his bag in the middle of the street for some reason, full of cash, unattended. A while later he came back and collected it, untouched, all the money still there. Those were the rules.

But stories like that about long-ago Nottingham are far easier to dismiss than the contrast that Alice Bachini-Smith describes from her own direct and hugely contrasting experiences. To tell me that I am wrong about 1930s Nottingham only involves saying that the story has become exaggerated over the years, as maybe it has. To tell Alice that she is wrong means telling her that she is wrong about her own experiences. It means calling her a liar, pretty much.

As to why things worked like this in most or even all of Britain in the past and still do work like this in the more law abiding parts of America, well, that is another argument. The reasons are quite complicated, I would say. (For instance, I have long believed architectural design to be part of the story.)

I recall publishing an interesting piece for the Libertarian Alliance by the historian Stephen Davies entitled Towards the Remoralisation of Society about these kinds of arguments. This was published in 1991 but since then the story in Britain has surely changed rather little and if anything has got somewhat worse. (Here and here are some more recent writings by the same author, the former being a book that you have to buy, but the latter being a blog posting that you can actually read.)

The unforgivable crime of being American

Today I visited the consulate of an Asian nation to apply for a tourist visa. When observing the visa application fee, I noticed that those travelling on a U.S. passport must pay almost three times more for a visa to enter this particular country. I believe many other countries impose an extraordinary surcharge for visa applicants travelling as U.S. citizens, too. Talk about American exceptionalism.

Still, I expect Americans are used to this sort of arrangement. When it comes to a whole suite of multilateral projects, the rest of the world expects the American taxpayer to cough up a hugely disproportionate share. When the American taxpayer wants to travel to the rest of the world, they find themselves paying considerably more for an entry visa to many countries as punishment for their poor choice of nationality.

Being a U.S. citizen must rankle at times.