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]

The human machinery of North Korean fantasy

I recommend this short illustrated talk given by an American academic (no: businessman – see comment) who taught at Beijing University and who went with his family on a trip to North Korea. Here is part of what he says:

This is a woman that was directing traffic with great resolve and military precision outside the front door of our hotel. We watched her for at least ten minutes, as she moved and rotated with complete control of her little domain, and we didn’t see a single car go by. [Laughter] I mean, you do have to wonder what they think. …

He then sees one of those giant stadium displays, done with thousands of big hand-held squares which keep changing.

This big display, which sat opposite most of the people is just a huge communist video monitor, one person per pixel. The resolution of this screen was about seventy by four hundred. The frame rate was one to two hertz, and you could get up to two frames a second, before muscle fatigue set in.

And then we see this screen in action. It is actually rather impressive, especially when you consider how much the poor bastards doing it probably get to eat each day. And they’re the lucky ones.

It often happens that people who report not on “the situation” in wherever it is, but simply on what they happen themselves to see, can supply an extraordinarily vivid feeling of what it must be like there. They don’t tell the whole story. But then again, they don’t pretend to.

Meanwhile, the latest “news” from North Korea, is that they are building a huge underground fighter runway, right near the border with the hated South, Thunderbirds style. It is supposed to be invulnerable to military attack. Fat chance. I wonder how many people will die while making it.

Attention, Buenos Aires readers

A change in employment has meant that I suddenly have three weeks leisure on my hands, and as a consequence I have decided to address my terrible inadequacies as a traveller by making my first trip to South America. I shall thus be arriving in Buenos Aires late tomorrow evening, and the plan is to be in Argentina for three weeks. This has come suddenly. My plans involve the city of Buenos Aires, some time in the Mendoza wine country, but otherwise I shall be more or less making it up as I go along.

If any people have tips with respect to things I must not miss seeing, please put them in the comments. Alternately, if any members of our immense Argentine readership want to go out for a drink or dinner, please also respond.

Despotism: state power beyond the law

The distinction between the legal order in Western democracies and the tyrannies of Stalinist Russia or modern China or the Arab gulf states, is often thought to be stark. In Britain in particular, we are complacent that 800 years of the common law will protect us against the overreaching power of state functionaries.

Today comes a case that shows this conceit to be ill-founded. It was already widely known that the Home Secretary would like the power to lock anyone up for seven weeks on her say-so. But it is not in effect yet, and is likely to be opposed in parliament. Who knew that the British state is already punishing 70 people with effective suspension of all their economic rights on mere accusation, by freezing their assets by Treasury order without any legal warrant or process?

The Terrorism (UN Measures) Order 2006 and the 2006 al-Qaeda and Taleban (UN Measures) Order were made under section 1 of the 1946 UN Act in order to implement resolutions of the UN Security Council. These orders are not parliamentary instruments but “orders in council” – the council in question being the Queen’s Privy Council, so that the rules under which (according to solicitors for the victims)…

We have the madness of civil servants checking Tesco receipts, a child having to ask for a receipt every time it does a chore by running to the shops for a pint of milk and a neighbour possibly committing a criminal offence by lending a lawnmower.

…have not troubled parliament even under the pathetic ‘negative resolution’ procedure by which most of our law is now made. Nor has any judge or other independent authority been in involved in these seizures or assessed the evidence (if any) that justifies them. Nor is there any time limit. Or need to bring charges to support the indefinite punishment.

Which remains, though the learned judge found it entirely illegal, indefinite:

Jonathan Crow QC, for HM Treasury, had told him the UK government would be left in violation of a UN Security Council order were the orders to be quashed immediately.

The Treasury said the asset-freezing regime and individual asset freezes would remain in place pending the appeal.

A spokesman said the asset-freezing regime made an “important contribution” to national security by helping prevent funds being used for terrorism and was “central to our obligations under successive UN Security Council resolutions”.

To which I say, and not for the first time, damn the UN. Neither the UN nor Treasury officials are supposed to make our law. And if this proscription stands, then we might as well have no law.

Decline and fall in easy-to-follow steps

Fabian Tassano, who has recently written a rather fine book, links to this rather darkly amusing outline of how a country goes down the U-bend.

The interesting question is whether there is an equivalent series of steps showing how things get better. An issue that occasionally comes up in the comment threads is how do we get from the current god-awful statist mess A to sunlit uplands of liberal society B? What should happen first, second, third, fourth, etc? For instance, what would be the sequence of changes? Should we start with the little stuff (abolish the Arts Council, confine Polly Toynbee) or the Big Stuff (slash the Welfare State, abolish state education departments, repeal most taxes)?

Islam’s copernican alchemy

I am not sure if there is an upsurge in what the BBC inaccurately refers to as

part of a popular trend in some Muslim societies of seeking to find Koranic precedents for modern science.

The impact of scientific theories upon Islamic beliefs has not acquired attention from the media. There are strands of creationism in this religion, and an unsurprising bout of natural theology has come to the fore. This differs from arguments concerning design in the nineteenth century, since these accepted and celebrated the successes of natural philosophy, the forerunner of today’s sciences.

Indeed, the attempts of Islamic scholars is to wed Quranic and scientific authority with some perverse results:

Muslim scientists and clerics have called for the adoption of Mecca time to replace GMT, arguing that the Saudi city is the true centre of the Earth.

Mecca is the direction all Muslims face when they perform their daily prayers.

The call was issued at a conference held in the Gulf state of Qatar under the title: Mecca, the Centre of the Earth, Theory and Practice. One geologist argued that unlike other longitudes, Mecca’s was in perfect alignment to magnetic north.

The odd combination of divine jurisprudence and natural authority is welded by the Islamic scholar in a bizarre Copernican alchemy.

A prominent cleric, Sheikh Youssef al-Qaradawy, said modern science had at last provided evidence that Mecca was the true centre of the Earth; proof, he said, of the greatness of the Muslim “qibla” – the Arabic word for the direction Muslims turn to when they pray.

These attempts to appropriate and distort the sciences are not the easy option of science versus religion. Let us avoid the old bugbear of faith versus evidence, since most scientists combine the two without difficulty. They do tell us that schools of Islamic jurisprudence recognise science as a source of power and a rival authority.

It is called “Ijaz al-Koran”, which roughly translates as the “miraculous nature of the holy text”.

The underlying belief is that scientific truths were also revealed in the Muslim holy book, and it is the work of scholars to unearth and publicise the textual evidence.

If Islamic scholars attack scientific knowledge, they will sound backward and primitive, reducing their own influence over a society that becomes more literate and educated year after year. The other strategy is to co-opt this power, a power required to strengthen Islam, yet ensure that it does not undermine the truths of the Qu’ran that they perceive as poor.

Science will go hand in hand with awkward manifestations of Islam. But the premutations can amuse:

The meeting also reviewed what has been described as a Mecca watch, the brainchild of a French Muslim.

The watch is said to rotate anti-clockwise and is supposed to help Muslims determine the direction of Mecca from any point on Earth.

The state fines businesses for recycling

Shane Greer reports on his attempt to get Westminster City Council to recycle business waste. It turns out that the council, while willing to collect his office’s waste, will not recycle any of that waste – and will fine him if he puts his waste in recycling facilities aimed at domestic users. That sounds awfully like punishing businesses that try to be green.

The problem with councils running recycling services is that they are inefficient and fail to innovate. They use outdated methods that are expensive, and end up recycling in the same way as British Leyland used to make Austin Minis (at a loss).

In large parts of Ireland, a recent report by Gordon Hector points out, the state has let the free market deal with refuse collection: individual customers choose from private companies and pay directly, rather than through council tax. Competition has meant that technologies and methods unknown in the UK have been deployed. Greyhound, one of Ireland’s larger waste companies, recycles 87% of the rubbish it receives (because recycling is good for its profits). The best-performing council in the UK only recycles 55% of waste; the lowest 11%.

This might not compute with environmental activists, but yet again we see that the free market is greener than state control.

– Update: On another brain-dead environmental issue, have a look what the council at Basingstoke is doing to destroy the local environment and harm taxpayers simultaneously, by pushing development into the beautiful Lodden Valley, instead of on the bod-standard land it already owns in Manydown.

Samizdata quote of the day

“The only way that that Liverpool is going to win the [English Premier] League is if Robert Mugabe is counting the points.”

An anonymous commenter on the Guardian’s sports pages, arguably the best bits of that outfit.

Is technological and industrial change slowing down?

Tyler Cowen, the US economics writer, ponders – in the course of responding to a column by the US leftist economist Paul Krugman – whether modern industrial development would have reached its current pitch had it been forced to deal with today’s levels of regulation. On the face of it, had the Industrial Revolution, starting in the 18th Century, had to deal with 21st century levels of state bureaucracy, health and safety rules, and the rest, we’d still be using horses and carts and there’d be no blogging. Or would there? The trouble with these kinds of assertions is that there is no counterfactual universe against which to check it. The best we can reasonably do is to look at those societies that have imposed heavy restrictions on entrepreneurship and technology, and those that have not done so, and see if there are any consistent patterns to give us an idea. I suppose one good example is what happened in China about 600 years ago, when the rulers of that nation decided they’d had enough of all that exploration business and turned inwards. Another might be the extraordinary rise of Hong Kong in the 1940s under the benign laissez faire policy of UK colonial administrator, Sir John Cowperthwaite.

The other point that Cowen and Krugman deals with is the idea that the pace of development in the field of energy and industry has slowed down. Well, up to a point. When the late Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001 was made in to a film by Stanley Kubrick, people who watched in the 1960s were led to think that travel from Earth would soon be a relatively normal event. We have not got there yet. Maybe the problem is that there are sometimes periods of history of enormous change compressed into short periods, followed by longer stretches of time when not a lot appears to happen, but actually the incremental changes are quite big. We just need to get used to this rather than become unduly depressed that we are in a holding pattern rather than moving forward.

Note: I appreciate that not everyone accepts that the Industrial Revolution “started” in the 18th Century, but from my own readings, that century is when the critical mass of scientific, technological and economic forces came together, starting in the UK. For a marvellous account of the men who helped shape that revolution, I recommend this by Jenny Uglow.

On the pace of scientific advance in the West, and how it has arguably slowed since about 1950, this Charles Murray book of a few years back is a good read and is absolutely packed with statistics. I am not a professional statistics man so I am not sure I can comment all that intelligently on the rigour of his methods, but they look pretty robust.

A certainty of alarmists

Take a pinch of salt, stir in speculation, and pluck figures from thin air. Simmer with press releases escaping. Voila! alarmism, without a shred of evidence, justsetting out how the future will shape itself:

Climate change could cause global conflicts as large as the two world wars but lasting for centuries unless the problem is controlled, a leading defence think tank has warned.

The Royal United Services Institute said a tenfold increase in energy research spending to around £10 billion a year would be needed if the world were to avoid the worst effects of changing temperatures.

However the group said that the response to threats posed by climate change, such as rising sea levels and migration, had so far been “slow and inadequate,” because nations had failed to prepare for the worst-case scenario.

The source of the report is Nick Mabey, a former senior member of the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit, and has an unsurprising background in environmental charities, non-governmental organisations, and think-tanks. He has contributed to the economic study of global warming and its transmutation into the agitprop term, ‘climate change’. His article adops a certain tone….

Food riots in Mexico City, environmental outrage from Osama bin Laden and Russian territorial claims in the Arctic: the past year has seen climate change emerge as a serious issue across the security agenda, from the abstraction of discussions in the UN Security Council to the brutal reality of drought-driven conflict in Africa. These are just the first signs of how climate change – and our responses to it – will fundamentally change the strategic security context in the coming decades.

Climate change is already creating hard security threats, but it has no hard security solutions. Climate change is like a ticking clock: every increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere permanently alters the climate, and we can never move the hands back to reclaim the past. Even if we stopped emitting pollution tomorrow, the world is already committed to levels of climate change unseen for hundreds of thousands of years. If we fail to stop polluting, we will be committed to catastrophic and irreversible changes over the next century, which will directly displace hundreds of millions of people and critically undermine the livelihoods of billions. There is some scientific uncertainty over these impacts, but it is over when they will occur not if they will occur – unless climate change is slowed. Preventing catastrophic and runaway climate change will require a global mobilisation of effort and co-operation seldom seen in peacetime.

Not so much economics as prophecy. Uncertainty of outcome is downplayed and the effects are asserted as fact, although Mabey would be the first to see the future since Christ or Nostradamus.

More questions than answers

I live about twenty miles from the polygamist ranch near Eldorado, Texas, and my office is about three blocks from the courthouse where the child welfare case(s) are being handled. A few observations, from up close:

The Schleicher County sheriff seems to have been in firm control of the law enforcement activities at the ranch, and there really is no federal presence or role at all. This probably has a lot to do with the lack of any kind of violence or armed stand-off, in contrast to the Branch Davidian, um, incident, where the feds disregarded the local sheriff’s advice and went in heavy.

I am perfectly willing to believe that there were all sorts of sexual abuse of teenage girls – illegal marriages, statutory (and perhaps even forcible) rape, etc. If the current allegations pan out, I think that the men involved in what amounts to a sex slavery ring should be jailed, and I am even willing to grant that the state should have the authority to take custody of children who have been subjected to this kind of abuse. For the moment, let us leave avoid the well-ploughed ground about the appropriate age of consent for sex.

That said, this case increasingly looks to me a like a serious overreach by the state, and one that practically begs us to conclude that the state was motivated to take down this community, even when doing so required it to go beyond what was necessary to ensure the welfare of the children.

(Warning: Actual statutory language and legal analysis follows below the fold) → Continue reading: More questions than answers

Mexico’s Hugo Chavez wannabe

Granted I am somewhat indifferent to democracy, seeing it as nothing more than a tool for securing limited government (at best) or a mechanism for legitimising proxy theft (at worst), but as so many leftists make such a song and dance about the importance of democracy, it is remarkable to see people like Mexican Hugo Chavez wannabe Lopez Obrador casting it aside when he does not like the way it is headed. His supporters simply seized control of the chambers of both houses of Congress back on 10th April so that they could block government proposals to ease restrictions on private investment in the state oil industry. Obrador does not like the fact he cannot democratically get the results he wants, so he just stops debate on the subject in congress completely. Fair enough. If I was the Mexican government, I would just start ruling by edict until the democratic institutions become functional again, or failing that, just send in the riot cops with instructions to bust some heads to remove some political trespassers.

People opposed to Obrador have made a very effective advertisement likening him to sundry totalitarian thugs. However Obrador has demanded this advertisement be ordered off the air by Mexico’s federal electoral authority, indicating as well as disliking democratic processes he cannot control, he also does not believe in freedom of expression. Quelle surprise.

Well due to the magic of the internet… here it is.


A culture of derangement

The UK government has been peddling a culture of fear since 9/11 as an excuse for ever more control over people’s lives. Strange how people in Britain managed to survive all those years of Irish terrorism without such madness. To see how successful they have been at making this psychosis a pervasive feature of British life, check this out.