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

The concept of positive freedom, therefore, is misconceived and cannot support the notion of welfare rights. The concept ignores the distinction between natural and man-made constraints on action. It ignores the distinction between failing to offer someone a benefit and imposing an actual harm. And the pursuit of positive freedom through state action violates genuine liberty. Someone who claims a right to a good that he has not produced (or acquired by some other voluntary means) is doing one of two things: either he is claiming a right to have nature supply him with goods without effort, which is absurd; or he is claiming a right to take goods from others against their will, which is unjust.

A Life of One’s Own by David Kelley, pages 76-77. I was prompted to dig out this quote following on from my posting just below about O’Rourke’s views on the difference between “gimme” rights and “get outa here” rights.

Why is that naughty man still mentioning the Soviet Union?

Sometimes it is the reactions of people that really give me ideas about what to write about. On Tuesday night, I went along to a book-signing and talk featuring the one and only PJ O’ Rourke, who has a new book out, entitled, “Don’t Vote, It Only Encourages The Bastards”. He was thoroughly charming and nice, and, I am glad to say, looks in pretty good shape after having beaten a recent cancer scare. I hope he’s around to tickle our funny bones for many years yet. Tuesday night’s event was put on by the Adam Smith Institute. This was appropriate: O’ Rourke has written about Adam Smith and to great effect.

He gave a variant of a talk which has been heard at several places this week. Here is a write-up of another event he was at by someone called Ian Dunt. And it is clear that Mr Dunt is not a great fan:

The first thing I noticed was the age of the audience. O’Rourke is 63, and the average age of the people listening to him was around that. Noam Chomsky is 82, but most of the people at his gigs are in their 20s, which gives some credibility to the old maxim about people drifting to the right as they age.

Or quite possibly, what happens is that when people in their 20s realise that Chomsky, with his moral equivalence idea that there is no real difference between totalitarian communism and liberal democracy, is talking pretentious nonsense, they wake up. Having a family, running a business, paying taxes and generally living tend to have a sobering, but also enlightening, effect. That is not the same as saying that people necessarily get more cynical or pessimistic as they get older. In my case (44 years old, a few greys but still dashing good looks), I am what might be called a “rational optimist”, to borrow from the title of Matt Ridley’s recent brilliant book. And O’Rourke, all 63 years of him, is pretty upbeat about what happens when free men and women, operating under some pretty elementary rules of the game, are left to get on with life. The real reactionaries and grumps, it seems to me, are those on the “left” – sorry it is a loose term but it will have to do – who so distrust ordinary people to run their lives that they consider it necessary for people to be directed, “nudged” or whatever, in the general direction of Progress. The real old farts are those who think it is somehow not an outrage that the state takes at least 50 per cent of all wealth.

Then we get to this passage:

O Rourke brought up Isaiah Berlin’s distinction between positive and negative rights, which is all-too frequently ignored outside of academia. In typical fashion, and rather usefully I thought, he turned them into “gimme” rights and “get out of here rights”.


As he aged, the role of “gimme” rights, which, as a right-wing American, he termed “entitlements”, diminished, while the role of “get out of here rights” evidently became more prominent. The argument, which is pretty topical given the debate over public spending, is that entitlements don’t ultimately promote freedom and that political leaders have been cowardly in their reluctance to disassociate themselves from them. I’ve never found this a particularly convincing argument and there was little last night to bring me onside, despite its witty and eloquent presentation. Ultimately, “entitlements” like free health care for all maximise freedom because health is the prerequisite for all other freedoms. Similarly, universal free education allows people to assess choices. There is no real freedom under ignorance. There is also, I would have thought, a strict minimal benchmark of material possession, under which political freedoms become irrelevant. After all, what use is the right to privacy if you have to sleep on the streets? It’s a crude example, but it highlights the difficulties conservatives have in completely disassociating economic and political rights.

This is a standard misconception; what the reviewer is claiming is that we need to have rights to things, such as education or healthcare, in order to also enjoy the kind of negative liberty that a classical liberal – as O’Rourke is – values. I am not so sure about that. The ability to act, to choose, or walk, lift your arms and so on is not the same as liberty. What we are talking about here is ability, capacity, or in other cases, wealth. A lot of people use the word liberty, and hence rights, very loosely. And in any respect, if we want more of healthcare, education and so on, it is far from obvious that saying that I have a “right” to something means that I do, or that I can coerce someone else to give me £X,000 to pay for whatever it is I deem I have a right to. Does this mean, for instance, that if Mr Dunt feels he has a “right” to an education for himself or his family, that the state should compel some people to teach him and his kids? Where does this presumption stem from? What happens if those told to teach Mr Dunt’s kids tell him, ever so politely, to get lost?

Also, while it is undoubtedly true that being educated and healthy helps us to make choices, it is a fairly practical point that under liberal capitalism, with more wealth and so on, education and healthcare tend to proliferate. It is poverty that best describes the lack of such things, and capitalism, given the chance, tends to be very good in eradicating this. Of course Mr Dunt, if I sense his political views accurately, probably would then claim that a lot of poor people in rich countries don’t enjoy this, to which I respond by saying that he should consider the role of non-state bodies (like Friendly Societies, etc) in delivering many of the things now presumed to only come from the state. And as a practical issue, O’Rourke could and did point out what a mess the State often makes of eradicating poverty, or even worse, in eradicating the habits that beget poverty. As an aside, a person who writes very clearly on the issue of conflating genuine rights from “gimme rights” is Tom G Palmer, in this recent book, Realising Freedom.

On we go:

So it was a little disappointing to hear O’Rourke end his argument with a defence of the free market, so dull and obvious that it did his considerable intellect a disservice. The free market merely communicates value, he argued, it was not an ideology or a creed. The reason for Communism’s collapse was its inability to properly account for the value of things, which money does instantly. It’s quite true, of course, but the only time it would crop up is when arguing against a Soviet economist. There are very few, if any, people today arguing for Soviet Communism. The current argument in the West is really about the appropriate balance of the mixed economy under a deficit, where merely promoting the benefits of the free market is something of a mute point. Given the combination of his intelligence and his position in a political culture where we usually hear only the raving lunatics, I was expecting something a little more rewarding. Something about this anti-Soviet argument reminded me of his age, and the age of the people around me.

The problem with this paragraph is that the case for the market is far from “dull and obvious”. The mixed economy we have now, as Dunt acknowledges we do, has not exactly shown itself to be a coherent mixture, at all. If the benefits of the market were really “obvious”, then how to explain why, in 2010, after a decade of what is sometimes called a period of “neo-liberalism (often as a term of abuse), we have a country with crippling public debts, a central banking system that operates more like Soviet central planning in how it sets the price of money, a vast Welfare State, high joblessness among much of the populace; a monopolistic healthcare system with problems of all kinds; rising regulatory burdens on business, and the rest? Something is clearly not “obvious” enough for people to realise there is a problem. Sometimes, banging on about the “obvious” is vitally necessary. And all the better if it comes with good jokes that make Guardianistas a bit uncomfortable.

And the line about the Soviet Union also jars. Reminding some people that we once were confronted by a vast, socialist empire, which, thanks to certain forces, collapsed, is a necessary thing. It may make a certain type of left-of-centre person uneasy to be reminded of the Soviet Union, in much the same way as it might make me uneasy to remember a youthful indiscretion. Leftists, when contemplating the terrible history of the SU, might want to say, “Oh, cannot we just move on and get over it?”, but I think that lets people off too lightly.

Down on the farm

For the last few days I have been far out in the Virginia hinterlands at the farm of a fellow libertarian with Belfast ties. In fact, his daughter was born there and it made for rather interesting evenings, chatting about firearms, how to live independently… and talking about Belfast pubs, pub owners and musicians we knew in common.

It goes almost without saying that I, being a Samizdatista of the Inner Circle and this, being a good size farm, one thing led to another and I let off a few rounds at innocent metal cans with a classic rifle.

DMA with Winchester .22
The can never stood a chance.
Photo: copyright Dale Amon, All Rights Reserved

In case you are wondering; this early 1932-34 era example of the Winchester .22 some of you remember from Boys Life, was lovely and in good shape except that the sight had serious issues. My first two shots at the can, about 25-30 yards out in the woods, missed. I thought I had lost the touch or perhaps my eyes needed work. I watched my friend try and saw the puff as his round impacted well above and behind the target. That told me what I needed to know. I aimed about six inches below the can and sent it spinning. A small thing, but I have not fired a rifle in a little over twenty years, so there was a bit of satisfaction in watching the can go flying.

I also had my opinion of chickens completely changed. Most chickens I have run across peck at the ground and pretty much do their dumb bird thing. But one of his hens was different. It was hand reared and as soon as we got to the coop it jumped up to ‘talk’ to us and be hand fed and get its feathers ruffled. This one had a real personality.

A hen with charisma
This personable young hen introduced herself to me while being fed by her personal nutritionist.
Photo: copyright Dale Amon, All Rights Reserved

Samizdata quote of the day

Third, there is a deeper reason for not worrying about China. China is inherently unstable. Whenever it opens its borders to the outside world, the coastal region becomes prosperous, but the vast majority of Chinese in the interior remain impoverished. This leads to tension, conflict, and instability. It also leads to economic decisions made for political reasons, resulting in inefficiency and corruption. This is not the first time that China has opened itself to foreign trade, and it will not be the last time that it becomes unstable as a result. Nor will it be the last time that a figure like Mao emerges to close the country off from the outside, equalize the wealth – or poverty – and begin the cycle anew. There are some who believe that the trends of the last thirty years will contine indefinitely. I believe the Chinese cycle will move to its next and inevitable phase in the coming decade. Far from being a challenger, China is a country the United States will be trying to bolster and hold together as a counterweight to the Russians. Current Chinese economic dynamism does not translate into long-term success.

– George Friedman of STRATFOR, getting it far righter than one of his namesakes.

Telling irate Americans they are childish is not smart

Following on from Brian Micklethwait’s posting on the TSA issue below on this blog, I was surfing the news pages via the RealClear Politics site and came across a piece of condescending nonsense from Ruth Marcus:

“The uproar over the new procedures is overblown and immature. The marginal invasion of privacy is small relative to the potential benefit of averting a terrorist attack. Meanwhile, some of the loudest howls of outrage emanate from those who would be quickest to blame the Obama administration for not doing enough to protect us if a bomber did slip through.”

This is pretty desperate stuff from the pro-Obama side. It manages to treat the appalling incidents at US airports as minor issues (they are certainly not); it also gives the false impression that the TSA methods are effective in deterring terrorists. But that seems far-fetched. Terrorists invariably change their choice of target to stay one step ahead of the game, as they see it. Instead of blowing up aircraft, they might be more likely to attack the airports as such; with all these passengers milling around waiting to be processed, that creates a pretty tempting target.

And as the author of the piece ought to know, it is things like good intelligence gathering and capture of terrorist backers and operatives that gives the real edge over these barbarians. For all the talk prior to the 2008 presidential elections, I very much doubt that anti-terrorism activities have changed all that much under Obama than was the case under Bush. The Patriot Act is still law; the Department of Homeland Security still exists, and is bigger and better staffed than ever; the DoD is still firing drones at targets over Afghanistan and who-knows-where-else; Gitmo is still standing, and indefinite detention of terror suspects remains a fact of US life. Funnily enough, both Republicans and Democrats are pretty easy with most of this, apart perhaps from some of the more independent minded ones, such as Rand Paul.

The TSA search procedures have outraged people who perhaps have not been as angry as they should have been about the growth of the database state in the US. At least this issue seems to be really pissing Americans off, just as the ID card issue annoyed a significant number of Brits. And that is a good thing for libertarians; it sometimes feels as if so many of our fellow citizens don’t give a flying expletive deleted about liberty any more. Well, it appears that quite a lot of them do, actually.

By the way, last night, I spoke to PJ O’Rourke – who I can attest is a thoroughly nice guy – and he reckons the TSA search procedures will have to change to reflect the public mood. Talking to Americans as if they are hysterical teenagers is part of why the Democrats got “shellacked” a few weeks ago, remember.

A great Libertarian has died

I have just received the sad news that David Nolan, co-founder of the Libertarian Party and co-creator of the World’s Smallest Political Quiz died November 21st, 2 days before his 67th birthday.

Rob Fisher does a junk-touching round-up

Here at Samizdata we’ve only paid rather sporadic attention to this whole TSA grope and change (a phrase we have surely not heard the last of) thing, our most thorough airing of the issue so far having been in this posting and in its comments. But over at Transport Blog there is an excellently link rich posting about it all, compiled by Rob Fisher.

In particular Rob notes a Slashdot commenter (on this) saying something which particularly deserves to get around:

I don’t even think the TSA should be the one scanning the people at all, it should be the individual airlines. That way you can choose to pay for your security if you really want it, and competitive practices can find the optimal solution.

Indeed, and this was mentioned in passing in the comments on that earlier Samizdata posting. Safety doesn’t need to be imposed by governments. People want safety, but they also want other things (fun, convenience, speed, comfort, not to be embarrassed or humiliated by neanderthals, etc.) and it should be up to people to make the trade-offs for themselves.

Personally, I suspect that an under-discussed aspect of all this is that a lot of people in the USA (as in many other places), and in particular just now in positions of authority and influence in the USA, think that air travel is evil and that curtailing it, by whatever method that works, is just terrific. These people are fast losing the argument about why air travel is evil (global warming blah blah blah), but the terrorism thing gives them an excuse to just keep on hacking away at the abomination (as they see it) of regular people regularly taking to the air. And the more that regular people squeal that they ain’t gonna fly no more, the merrier these flying-is-evil killjoys will feel about it all. Protest from the ranks of the newly immobilised is good because that means that it’s really working.

Samizdata quote of the day

In the run up to the election I was constantly told my intention to vote UKIP would do more harm than good by diluting the Conservative vote and potentially allowing Labour to remain in office.

My response to that threat was to point out that if Cameron was elected his statist policies and abandonment of what many still regard as Conservative values would be vindicated, thus exposing the country to the risk of a second Cameron term, and the certainty of a centre left, statist monopoly in politics.

If Cameron failed, especially if UKIP could claim the credit, the Conservative party would tear itself apart in a very messy but exciting orgy of blood letting before the traditional Conservatives (the Thatcherites if you like) joined UKIP supporters to form a new, electable centre right party and we would have a real choice at the next election. Cameron and his allies would no doubt have joined their friends in the Labour party. The Conservative name would have died, being soiled beyond recovery.

I fear the coagulation has saved Cameron and cost the country dear.

– Commenter MarkE

Samizdata quote of the day

“The average American has regular contact with the federal government at three points – the IRS, the post office and the TSA. Start with that fact if you are formulating a unified field theory to explain the public’s current political mood.”

George Will, writing about airport security and the lovely TSA.

Has another brand new custom-built headquarters ruined another famous institution?

Instapundit (and yes I am reading him a lot just now) has been linking to a book called Gray Lady Down, which is about the downfall of the New York Times, from a persuasive proclaimer of the statist consensus to an unpersuasive proclaimer of the statist ex-consensus. I’ve not read this book, but it has a big picture of a skyscraper on its front cover. Might there, I wondered, be a brand new, custom-built headquarters involved in this story? There might indeed:

The New York Times Building is a skyscraper on the west side of Midtown Manhattan that was completed in 2007. …

Previous example of something very similar here. Since writing that earlier posting, I have dug out the original description of this syndrome, by Professor C. Northcote Parkinson, and I note that he sees the causation involved as a bit more complicated than I had previously stated. It is not just that building a new headquarters building causes an enterprise to take its eye off the ball. Its eye already was off the ball, or it would never have decided to build its new headquarters in the first place.

How the state expands and how we might contract it

Instapundit quotes an emailer (Ed Stephens), on the subject of the TSA and its intrusive gropings at airports:

Remember how not long ago the President was so upset about the possibility of people being stopped and asked for “their papers” while going to get ice cream? It was the height of living in a police state. Yet we’ve not heard a peep out of him while TSA goons grope the general public (including nuns and little kids) on the way to grandma’s house.

If we are expected to put up with this, asking to see “your papers” suddenly seems a less onerous request.

Which was perhaps always the idea? Getting libertarians to beg to have to show only their papers. How perfectly statist is that?

This is how you get what you want in this world, whether you are trying to expand the powers of the state or to chip away at them. Demand something that is, to your enemies, totally outrageous. Then, with a great show of reluctance, settle for something only moderately outrageous. Repeat indefinitely. Sadly, for the time being, the expanders of the state are more numerous and more powerful than us chippers-away.

The secret of chipping away successfully is to continue to discuss the dynamiting of the whole damn mountain. How might that be contrived? How nice would that be? Then settle for dynamiting only half of it …

Thank goodness: David Cameron’s days are numbered

Here is Alex Singleton’s take on what could happen to Cameron’s chances of a second term, if he continues surrendering to the EU:

UKIP arguably cost the Conservatives 10 seats at the last election. If a handful of extra [Tory] activists defect to UKIP in each marginal constituency in time for the next election, and others prioritise their golf over Tory leaflet drops, this figure could easily increase, helping to drive David Cameron from Downing Street.

Given how statist Cameron is, that is a delightful thought.