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

A census – as any social scientist knows – is absolutely essential to modern government. We cannot plan social policy if we don’t know how many people there are, where they are, what they do, how long they live, etc. A non-judgmental collation of information – which is what a census is – is the bedrock of civilised society. Democracy and accountable government depend completely this kind of knowledge. If we lose it, government will be run by gossip, innuendo and Daily Mail after-dinner ‘common sense’ (as if it isn’t already, but hey)

Guardian commentator tark

Rob Fisher on SuperFreakonomics on 10 O’clock Live

Here is a good piece by Rob Fisher about the latest episode of Channel 4 TV’s 10 O’clock Live. Particularly good bit:

Another highlight was the interview with Stephen Dubner, a co-author of SuperFreakonomics. The interviewers Jimmy Carr and Lauren Laverne failed to say anything remotely intelligent, but it thankfully didn’t matter too much because they did at least let Dubner speak at length. He made some good (and downright subversive) points about the incentives of politicians. He suggested that they sign up for long term projects such as “improve education” and they get paid at the end of 5 or 10 years proportional to the results. The idea is to align success in politics with success at achieving goals, and he compared this to how businesses succeed and fail. Getting this kind of thinking into the mainstream – not necessarily agreeing with the specifics but just getting people to think about economics and game theory and how politics really works – is great stuff. Well done Dubner and Channel 4.

I agree with Rob. My preferred attitude to spreading ideas has always been to unbundle them, to try to spread them, at any rate in hostile circumstances, one at a time or at least only a very few at a time. Bundling among friends is also, if you think about it, often saying just the one thing or just the few things, that the bundling of this with that and maybe also with that makes sense – this, that and that having already been long agreed about separately.

I haven’t watched 10 O’clock Live beyond episode one, but applaud Rob for doing so. We need our people everywhere, and watching (between us) everything.

Who said this?

“Today we are coming to realize that our land is finite, while our population is growing. The uses to which our generation puts the land can either expand or severely limit the choices our children will have. The time has come when we must accept the idea that none of us has a right to abuse the land, and that on the contrary society as a whole has a legitimate interest in proper land use. There is a national interest in effective land use planning across the nation.”

This piece of communitarian nonsense was issued by a senior US politician in the 20th Century (I quote from page 11 of “Property Rights and Eminent Domain” by Ellen Frankel Paul).

I wonder if Samizdata readers can guess who said these words. Some might be quite surprised, some not.

Update: answer – Richard Nixon.

Some British advice to America’s public sector trade unions

Which they probably won’t now take, but later they may get the point.

I recall how, some time in the early 1980s, I had a run-in with a British Post Office worker.

I had this package which I wanted the Post Office to, you know, post to someone. So I wrapped it up and took it to the Post Office.

But it turned out that it was just that little bit too big for the hole that this Post Office worker wanted to put it into.

“Look”, he said, as if instructing a small and inattentive boy. “It’s too big to go in,” said he. “Can’t you see that?” He had a point, sort of. It really wasn’t hard to see, now. Big package. Slightly smaller hole. As we would say now: simples. And yes indeed, I could see that now. But when I was wrapping up the package at the bookshop I was then working in, I had no idea about the hole I would later have to stuff the package into. I felt like hitting the Post Office worker with the package, or at the very least explaining all this, in an angry tone.

But, wisely, I did not do this. Instead, all forced charm and bogus ingratiation, I acknowledged the abjectness of my obviously foolish miscalculation, and apologised deeply. What had I been thinking? Then, I tried to persuade him to think of some other procedure to enable the Post Office to post my package, and eventually, after some further instruction of me concerning my sloppy and foolish ways, he did agree to accept the package, despite its obvious failure to fit into his hole. He took the package and disappeared in a self-important manner to some room in the back of the Post Office. I went back to my bookshop, muttering curses to myself and speculating about the hole I would really have liked to shove my package into.

Some little while later, I observed, on the television, some Post Office workers who were engaged in a fight of some kind against our then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. Mrs Thatcher wanted to do something or other to the Post Office that the Post Office workers were angry about. It would cause chaos, they said, and make the Post Office worse, they said, and more expensive, as it quite possibly would, and quite possibly did. But because these Post Office workers were dealing, not with defenceless little me, but with Margaret Thatcher on the rampage, they were the ones now on the defensive. She wasn’t trying to persuade them of anything. She was simply telling them. They were trying to persuade her to do things differently.

To this end, the Post Office workers were appealing for public support.

They thought they would get it, effortlessly. From the way they were talking on the television, you would think that The Public were about to rise up in a great tidal wave and overwhelm the Prime Minister with their hatred of her (then as now quite widespread) and their love for the workers of the Post Office and their admiration for their extreme wisdom and obligingness.

But The Public all did as I did. We just sat there, saying: “You bastards may well be right that Maggie T’s plan will harm the Post Office, but her plan does at least have one huge plus. You hate it! It will make you suffer! You think we will help you stop it. Dream on, you tyrannical, supercilious bastards.” The great public silence that greeted the Post Office workers, instead of the great wave of support that they had been counting on, must have shocked them deeply. Important silences, huge non-events, are not usually front page news. But I noticed, and others surely did too. I wondered what Mr Your-Package-Is-Too-Big My-Hole-Is-Too-Small was thinking and feeling about it all. I hoped he was suffering.

Those Post Office workers had totally misunderstood that package-in-the-hole moment that I had had with one of them, and millions upon millions of other moments like it, stretching back through the decades. They, the Postal Workers, imagined that at the end of such moments, The Public walked away full of love and gratitude for the Postal Workers. But actually, we walked away full of pent-up rage. We had had to force ourselves to fake love and gratitude, and hated the Postal Workers all the more because of this. They had believed our performances. They really thought that we really were full of love and gratitude for them. Big mistake. Huge mistake.

Come the day when the tables were turned by a politician who was aggregating all our rage into a force majeure moment which left them trying to persuade her to do what they wanted, they were helpless.

All of which was brought on by this Instapundit posting about how angry the American Public now feels about American public sector workers of various kinds.

I now feel much better. Also, I wonder if blogs will make a difference to this kind of thing. Will blogs, and especially blog comments, tell America’s public sector trade unionists to back off gracefully, the way no blogger or blog-commenter could tell our unions circa 1984? They surely will. They surely are. But will they listen? Will they get it? It will be interesting to see.

Lies, damn lies and ‘voluntary agreements’

Imagine you are walking down the street and a man in a suit walks up to you holding a large cudgel…

“Excuse me,” he says, “I have seen you walk down this street on a daily basis wearing a tee-shirt and in future I would like you to wear a suit and tie to raise the tone of the neighbourhood.”

“Er, no,” you reply, “I am happy dressed the way I am.”

“I see,” the man replies, “well I would rather not have to threaten to hit you with this cudgel if you do not do what I say so I want you to voluntarily agree to wear a suit and tie.”

“But you are threatening to hit me with that cudgel!” you point out.

“No,” he says, “I will only threaten to hit you with this cudgel if you don’t do what I want voluntarily.”

This statement of the bleedin’ obvious by me was brought on this sadly typical piece of ‘press release’ style journalism:

The three voluntary “responsibility deals” agreed with the food industry are aimed at helping the public to eat more healthily, in a drive to tackle the growing problem of obesity among both adults and children. Andrew Lansley, the Health Secretary, believes that firms will be more likely to set ambitious targets for themselves if they are negotiated on a voluntary basis. Rather than a “nanny state” approach, he is keen to arm the public with the tools they need to cope in an “obesogenic environment,” where people are bombarded with adverts for unhealthy food.

If firms break their promises, the Government will however consider taking compulsory measures.

So rather than writing an article that explains the dynamic of what is going on here, Rosa Prince in effect just delivers a government press release complete with the approved spin… ‘voluntary’… ‘not nanny state’…

Why exactly does The Telegraph need to have a ‘political correspondent’ at all rather than just republishing whatever the government wishes? What value is Rosa Prince actually adding here? The fact that these food industry groups agreed to do something under threat of compulsory measures means that this clearly is a prime example of the ‘Nanny State’ in action… and moreover if there is an explicit threat of legal coercion, how is this in any meaningful sense ‘voluntary’?

A classic of oratory from the Gipper

Here’s Ronald Reagan’s great speech of 1964. Like many classical liberals, I realise that he fell short of what we would want – the size of government did not appreciably fall on his watch, although tax rates fell sharply and some important deregulations continued. But the Soviet Union did reach its demise when he was in power – and he was partly responsible for pushing it on its deathbed – the entrepreneurial boom seen in areas such as Silicon Valley did seriously get under way why he was POTUS, aided by a friendly tax regime. It is not hard to see – much to the frustrations of his snooty detractors – why this man was so much loved. Here is a balanced assessment by David Mayer.

Pounds, shillings and pence

“There was never any widespread popular demand for change, and the argument that people would find a decimal system easier was true in practice only of those who rarely used it, i.e., foreigners. From an educational point of view, our duodecimal system was preferable because it taught children how to count in different bases. People brought up before decimalisation are almost invariably better at mental arithmetic than those born since. When we lost our shillings and pence, as when, more gradually, our weights and measures were subverted, we lost the full meaning of many of our nursery rhymes, jokes and proverbs. We also lost the actual coins, all of them superior in design to what replaced them and all, because they remained in circulation so long (it was common in the 1960s to receive a Victorian penny in change), of historical interest. Indeed, this is literally true, since the inflation of the Heath/Wilson years made the new coins almost valueless.”

Charles Moore, Spectator, page 11, 19 February edition (behind the subscriber firewall).

He is right on this. Yes, I can see some readers sniffing that a lot of old rot about rhymes and so on is hardly any reason for keeping a form of coinage, but I think he has a point about different bases in counting; even in my own field of finance and banking, I noticed that in some areas, such as the pricing of US bond securities, the practice was recently, or still is, to mark prices in sixteenths and 32nds, rather than in the decimal form used for Eurozone bonds, for example. And being able to do this is good for my maths – not a strong point.

But the broader issue surely, is that while the loss of old coinage may be upsetting to traditionalists, the real nub of the matter is that there is no point in embracing some “modern” standard of counting or whatever if the government, and central bank, debauches the currency. And unfortunately, even during the “good old days” when old coinage existed, the quackery of inflationism was eroding the value of those pounds (a unit of weight, remember) and everything else. I would settle for any coinage system so long as it retained its value.

What killed respect and affection for money was not the decimalisation mania of the late, unlamented Sir Edward Heath. It was inflation.

Samizdata quote of the day

It will not do to chastise Obama’s budget proposal as a simple “refusal to lead,” a “punt,” or a “cynical political maneuver.” Obama isn’t failing to lead. He is very cleverly leading us toward an irreversible expansion of the welfare state. If Obama is reelected and in control when the entitlement crisis finally does hit, he will manage the country toward Euro-style taxes and Euro-style socialism. After all, in the midst of its current fiscal crisis, Obama is pushing Europe to expand spending, not contract it.

I like this post by Lexington Green (h/t Glenn Reynolds), although his vision of permanent Republican meltdown is overdrawn. Lexington rightly rejects the “failure to lead” framing, highlighting Obama’s strategic moves and long-term intentions instead. The notion that Obama plans to use Republican proposals for cuts to kick off a movement of “angry and mobilized” beneficiaries is exactly right. Obama’s 2010 attacks on the Chamber of Commerce and his infamous “punish your enemies” exhortation were efforts to do the same thing. I lay out the rationale behind this intentionally polarizing strategy in the final chapter of Radical-in-Chief. It’s a program deeply rooted in Obama’s past. And in the absence of an honest avowal of his plans and motives in the present, only the past reveals the truth about this president’s vision of the future.

Perhaps I’m wrong and “the president’s abdication of leadership” sound bite will be enough to defeat “the GOP’s heartless cuts.” Even so, as an alternative, I suggest: “Obama’s radical plans are leading us off a cliff.”

Stanley Kurtz

Thoughts about a WW2 classic book about southern Italy

Travel books, or adventure books chronicling experiences of living abroad, can be highly variable in literary or other qualities. I have my favourites: I loved that PJ O’Rourke classic, “Holidays in Hell”; I enjoyed the travel and memoirs of the great Patrick Leigh-Fermor, and another favourite of mine was Eric Newby’s The Last Grain Race (describing his experience of sailing aboard a four-masted clipper-type ship). Being a bit of a yachtie, I also enjoyed the Robin Knox-Johnson account of his single-handed sailing trip around the world. And of course there are military memoirs where adventure and travel are co-mingled with armed expeditions. And a case in point is the writing of Norman Lewis.

I have not read much by Lewis, who died at the grand age of 95 after having spent a rich and varied career in places ranging from Brazil, Indonesia to Western Europe. And perhaps his most celebrated book is “Naples ’44”, describing his year in the southern Italian city in the immediate aftermath of the Allied landings in Italy. It is a superbly written account – Lewis has a wonderful eye for detail – and conveys the sheer bloody awfulness of life for ordinary Italians recovering from both the invasion and the Fascist regime that had been dislodged. For example, his descriptions of how little food the populace had, and what they had to eat, is sobering indeed to anyone reading moral-panic journalism about our supposed obesity crisis.

Of course, any account of southern Italy will include tales of the Mafia, and banditry, and the relentless amounts of corruption. What is particularly striking – and this is where the libertarian in me gets interested – is how the black market for stolen Allied goods, such as penicillin – thrived. Naturally, with so many goods suppressed or in short supply, criminal gangs and bent military personnel sought to make a market. This highlights how when markets are suppressed and where the fabric of civil society has been smashed by war, thugs can often fill the gap. In some cases, theft of supplies from the Allied forces got so bad that Lewis and his colleagues had to do something about it. Ordinary Italians who got caught pilfering supplies often received long jail sentences; well-connected businessmen (ie, Mafia guys), were acquitted when witnesses suddenly failed to show up.

Lewis became something of an expert on the Mafia and this region of Italy. He does not romanticise what he saw – he was too lacking in fake sentimentality for that. I have sometimes heard fellow free marketeers liken government to a sort of Mafia – tax is a kind of legalised thievery – but I am not sure it is an analogy I would push too far. I wonder how many of us would have wanted to live in Mafia-run Sicily or the neighbouring mainland, even with the tasty wine, olives and sunshine.

I intend to read a lot more of Lewis’s output. His writing is wonderful.

Samizdata quote of the day

“To all those under 30 who worked so hard to get this man elected, know this: he just screwed you over. He thinks you’re fools. Either the US will go into default because of Obama’s cowardice, or you will be paying far far more for far far less because this president has no courage when it counts. He let you down. On the critical issue of America’s fiscal crisis, he represents no hope and no change. Just the same old Washington politics he once promised to end.”

Andrew Sullivan.

Hell hath no fury. Of course, if “excitable Andrew” had been paying a bit more attention to Obama’s past, Senatorial voting record, choice of friends and so on over the past three to four years, as our own Paul Marks has been remorselessly doing, then Sullivan would not have been shocked by Obama’s position on the deficit, or indeed, anything else. But it was so much easier to obsess about Sarah Palin or “Christianists”, wasn’t it?

Samizdata quote of the day

I need to say this – you shouldn’t trust any government, actually including this one. You should not trust government – full stop. The natural inclination of government is to hoard power and information; to accrue power to itself in the name of the public good.

– Nick Clegg, interviewed by Henry Porter It is quite remarkable for a serving British minister to say this on the record. Public protestation of belief in the benignity and good intentions of the state is the normal standard.

A race in Maine

An old friend of mine, Andrew Ian Dodge, has joined the senatorial race in Maine to get on the Republican ticket, running up against Olympia J. Snowe. She is very much a RINO Republican, as you can see from this legislative record on her official website. Andrew Dodge has been a key figure in the Maine Tea Party movement, and has caused a stir by making it clear that the TP must be about tax, spending and the deficit, and is not interested in any social conservative agenda. For instance, he wants to cut the drinking age from its current age of 21 and is relaxed on issues such as gay marriage, etc. He may be seen as too much of a “wild card”, but he’ll freshen up the primaries, that is for sure.

Of course, having spent a fair amount of his life abroad, including the UK – his late father used to be a senior oil executive and Andrew lived all over as a result – he has seen what socialism has done in the UK, and does not want the same to take root ‘Stateside. That is an argument he can throw at any locals who wonder, absurdly, if he is “American” enough.

I wish him luck. At least the campaign will feature loads of good heavy rock music!