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]

What we want

The other day I had a pub conversation with a friend that went as rapidly from, “I favour reducing the size of the state” to “but poor people will starve” as any such conversation I’ve had before. There are certain things, such as roads, schools, health and welfare, that are so strongly connected in people’s minds to the state that intelligent thought about them is almost impossible. I wonder how this happens. It means that no shortcuts are possible. To be understood, you have to assume no shared knowledge with your interlocutor and start again from first principles. But this does not work well in a pub conversation or, for that matter, in a TV interview.

At one point I was told, “if you got your way, I would emigrate.” My friend was imagining a dystopian hell on Earth, which suggests, among other things, I had not properly made my motives understood. There is a tendency to assume that one’s political opponents want to enrich themselves at the expense of others. This may be a good assumption a lot of the time. When a socialist suggests taxing the rich to give to the poor, I might wonder how much he will cream off the top for himself. When I suggest that taxes should be reduced, it is obviously because I do not like paying tax and I am prepared to let poor people starve so that I can buy more gadgets. The universe is a zero-sum game: what else could I possibly mean?

So I need to spell out explicitly what it is that I want, because it turns out that it does not go without saying: everyone to be much richer, so that necessities and most luxuries are almost free; vastly increased life expectancy and improved health; less overall time spent on menial tasks and more time spent doing interesting things; in general more wealth, opportunities and happiness for all.

I know how to get there, too. A smaller state means faster economic growth. Nothing I want breaks the laws of physics, so the technology is just a matter of time and leaving people alone to get on with it.

What I want sounds to me like something that would sell. Maybe we should do what our opponents do and repeat it loudly, often and everywhere, and point out that anyone who opposes it is causing poor people to starve. It is the sort of approach that might work well in a pub conversation or, for that matter, in a TV interview.

20 comments to What we want

  • It’s perfectly simple to bring it back around to common ground, even in a pub conversation. All you have to do is point out how bad the government is at taking care of the poor. Everybody does a better job of it and everybody has direct experience of dealing with government. The only reason government is seen as the main care for the poor, now, is because government involvement squeezes out those who actually care.

    And if they point out that private care for the poor leaves people uncovered or has gaps, you point out that government care for the poor has those same gaps and adds corruption, fraud, abuse, and bureaucracy (but I repeat myself) on top.

  • Since that bastard Kim Jong Il has just died, it’s worth linking to a North Korean propaganda video on YouTube which has a disarmingly beautiful girl suggesting that without the state, housing would be much harder to obtain, if it could be found at all. This is a common trick. When ignorant of the alternatives, people tend to assume there aren’t any. She’s not wrong that there is more homelessness in the West than in North Korea, but it all neglects to mention that the average Westerner’s lodgings are several orders of magnitude better than the average North Korean’s (esp. outside of the capitol).

    Point being, when involved in bar arguments, that’s the tack I usually take. Soviet citizens standing in bread lines may well have wondered where food would come from if the state didn’t supply it. And it’s true enough that food was more equitably distributed in the Soviet Union. But all that ignores the point that there was a lot less of it available for everyone, and that the Soviet Union had famines, a phenomenon which hasn’t happened in tens of generations in the UK.

  • Snorri Godhi

    My first line of attack against the defenders of “the poor” would be different from those of Jacob and Joshua. I would point out that, in most European countries, the State spends something like 40% to 50% of GDP. Does all of this go to “the poor”? if your opponents think so, remind them of Monty Python’s Dennis Moore skit.

    If they remain unconvinced, point out that “the poor” in the USA have bigger homes than the average European, and free health insurance. That should take them off balance.

  • RRS

    Distribution through governmental functions is targeted to the those with sufficient economic power, which is found in the broad “middle class” however it is composed at any particular period.

    The “benefits” are structured to inure to that part of the electorate with the most effective political power, which has never been the “poor.”

    Perhaps this sounds like an echo of Deirdre McCloskey’s current works. But, it seems to be the reality.

  • Snorri Godhi

    Since I am going to have dinner with 4 friends from 4 different Western European countries in a few days, politics will probably come up , so please let me rehearse the line that I am going to take. I tried it in a pub, with some success.

    My view of politics is entirely amoral. (Mention of Machiavelli optional.)
    It is amoral, because I accept the reality of my powerlessness in politics. (Mention of Spinoza and Bismarck optional.)
    I draw a sharp distinction between politics as it is, and politics as it should be, and am interested only in the former. (Mention of Aristotle optional.)
    I am interested in politics mostly to anticipate black swans in as far as possible (mention of Taleb optional), and shift my savings if necessary; and, in an emergency, I want to emigrate before it’s too late. (Mention of Leo Szilard optional.)
    I take a view of which kind of country I’d like to emigrate to, but it is not my concern how a country should be ruled; though this is a subtle distinction.

    My interlocutors might protest that it’s paranoiac to think that I might need to emigrate; but granting that they are correct, how would they know that, if they did not follow politics?

  • I suggest starting by asking whether the person would support laissez-faire capitalism if it was the best way to improve the living standards of the vast majority, including the poorest, or something along these lines. If you can get them to accept economic liberty in theory if it is better at providing material well-being than the alternatives of interventionism and socialism, then proceed dispassionately to make the case, stressing the value-free nature of economics. If you can’t get them to accept this, even in theory, try to push them further and further into the egalitarian corner, so even they may see the absurdity.

  • cl

    There is a reason you can not convince people that the state is bad…simply put…they are the state. It is shared enslavement. To tell someone that the state, or rather the collective is what is immoral and wrong is to tell them that they are immoral and wrong.

    In the end they can not handle that reproach. The collective has a monopoly on protectionism and what is good. The individual is selfish. The collective is selfless. The individual can not be trusted. The collective is where trust is shared.

    I have given up trying to convince anyone of anything. They are too emotionally connected to the issues. They love the collective. The truth is…it, in my opinion is too late. The collective now has crossed the Rubicon.

    We are left with a world where more people benefit from the enslavement deal than loose. For all intents and purposes it over.

  • Hmm

    Rob, its not only aspects like “schools, welfare etc…” that are ingrained in people’s minds as needing government: The reality is that one of the main pillars of Western Secular (defacto religious) propaganda is that all individual thinking is suspect unless it is authorised by the recognised authority; i.e.. Academia composted, Government regulated, and Media promoted. When you enter a discussion with any single person who buys into a socialist mindset – you are taking on all they’ve been taught by Academia, Government and the MSM. That makes up a huge portion of their knowledge.

    Your argument is irrelevant – because their whole life’s foundation tells them you are an idiot. You cannot merely converse with these people you have to understand that they will not understand you, and so to gain any ground you have to lead them from the most basic of very basic basics.

    It is one of the reasons “Climategate” is so hard fought. Not only money – and many many careers, but in reality at a very large portion of the population’s “pschyes” now perilously rest on this triumvirate.

  • cl –

    I think your point is right but overstated. There are plenty of canonical examples of people being oppressed by the state that leftists love to talk about. One trump card I enjoy playing in arguments about affirmative action, for example, is reminding people that is was the state that did most of the oppressing as far as Jim Crow was concerned. Once you’re agreeing with them about state oppression as far as their favorite examples are concerned, and once it’s established that they don’t want to associate themselves with that particular manifestation of the state, the point is already conceded that individuals are not the state. Now, of course they can take the route that our collective membership in the state is precisely why we are responsible for its past decisions, etc., but even so they’ve allowed that some configurations of state are better than others, and that use of state power is not always benign. I think you’re right that a lot of people identify with the state on a personal level. (As an aside, one of the things the perplexes me about the gay marriage debate is why anyone waits for state approval to consider themselves married. Surely the same crowd that wants the state out of people’s bedrooms cannot need it to legitimize their personal relationships for them? I can see gay marriage as a struggle for equal property rights, but I really can’t understand why they invest so much importance in getting the government-issued marriage license.) But I think you’re overstating the degree to which they do so. It’s actually not that hard to make them see the difference, since they’ve already subconsciously seen it themselves.

  • 'Nuke' Gray

    Rob, a way around that argument is to ask about how big the units of government should be- one size fits all, or strong sub-units? If they go for a smaller size, then you could extol libertarians as believing in small governments- size, as well as scope. Soon, you’ll have them believing in towns having the right to be autonomous entities- then they can offer different policies- then you’ve got political freedom back on the agenda! (You could throw in the example of Switzerland as a model that it is possible to decentralise and be modern.) Argument open, if not yet won.

  • Most of the strange notions I encounter, such as communism and keynesianism, are coughed up by generally honest people with generally benevolent desires, but are predicated upon wildly idiotic and atrocious basic assumptions. With these folks I usually try to return the conversation back to the subject of basic assumptions and goals, such as liberty, prosperity, dignity, and justice. Those, at least, are a few of mine.

    The most common error I find is that the confused individual has chosen to maximize one principle, but at the utter destruction of another. Typically, to use my examples, they uphold some idea of dignity or prosperity, but in method completely sacrifice liberty and justice. I believe this is where the motivation came from to pervert the ideas of liberty and justice by co-opting and corrupting them into what are academically referred to as “positive liberty” and “social justice”. These terms are, of course, senseless, but they serve the consciences of the compassionate left. It is these instances of cognitive dissonance to which I appeal when having a beer with a lefty.

  • ThePresentOccupier

    Ach, Rob – just set fire to them and see if they want to wait for the state to come and rescue them, or if they’d prefer a more timely local intervention 🙂

    When it comes to how much tax we’re paying, a fairly socialist colleague of mine keeps telling me we should pay more, yet is reluctant to lead the way himself (and I think you can probably guess who, Rob!).

  • Sunfish

    If writing someone a $140 traffic ticket for excessive window tint, and not having a license plate on the front bumper, and failure of an adult driver to wear a seat belt, doesn’t make someone think that maybe the state is a little too pushy and intrusive, I don’t know what will.

    No, it wasn’t me. Someone else did it, and the guy -with ProgressNow and “Single Payer Health Care NOW” stickers all over his Subaru Outback- thought it was unfair and unreasonable. But not enough to get rid of his “MoveOn” t-shirt.


    And the serious response: I want people who want to mind their own business and be left alone to be able to mind their own business and be left the hell alone.

  • At least he wasn’t driving a Prius – is there a bonus fine for that?

  • Bod

    Well, the problem is that before the introduction of the Prius, Subarus were pretty much the go-to brand for that kind of citizen.

    I think I’m the only Subaru owner in the Democratic People’s Republic of Connecticut who doesn’t have ‘HopenChange’ and ‘Coexist’ stickers on it.

  • Paul Marks

    Actually when people of working age emmigrate they tend to go to the countries with a SMALLER government.

    Why would that be? Perhaps it would be interesting for the man in the pub to be asked.

    Also, in the evil United States, people tend to move from the least evil States (big government “compassionate” States like New York and California) to ultra evil States like Texas and South Dakota.

    Again why is this?

    Sadly often the people do not know themselves.

    Like the people who left California (because everything, for some strage reason, is falling apart) and went to Colorado – and then tried to impose the big government policies the had just fled the consequences of (on the State they had fled to).

    It is same with too many of the people who flee to New Hampshire – although it is really the education system that produces the attitute of “look to the government for everything”.

    Not just the false doctrines taught in the government school system – but the basic fact that it is a government school system

    All those pro freedom people in the 19th century who believed that “education” was vital for the spreading of pro freedom ideas and attitudes.

    They defined “education” as a system of state education – and thus caught themselves (and the world) in a terrible contradiction.

  • Classical liberal

    Those of us who want society to be organised – or disorganised, I suppose, for conservative-leaning people – in a radically different way often face this sort of problem, that is to say, our views on any given issue only fully make sense in the wider context of a worldview.

    So if one suggests, for instance, that welfare should be cut, one faces the allegation of leaving people to die in the gutter blah blah blah. What they don’t understand is that if my preferred state taxes would be lower, so people would have more money with which to give money to those in real need, and people would know that they had to look after themselves and others without the govt doing it for them.

  • Sunfish

    Priuses tend to be driven by bloody awful drivers: all over the damn road and convinced that their hybrid-driving goodness means that running lights and stop signs and weaving all over the damn place won’t hurt anyone.

    Outbacks, for all of the idiocy frequently found on the back bumper, don’t automagically attract people so smug as to enjoy their own flatulence.

    Besides, the Outback isn’t actually a bad car if you live in a place that has real winters. If it weren’t for trucks I’d look real hard at one for myself.

  • Some people I know I gave up on a long time ago; especially after one said “You should love Somalia, it’s the libertarian paradise!”