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 placemen

Britain’s charities and quangos are now stuffed to the gunwales with Labour placemen, writes Fraser Nelson in the Telegraph.

Not news to you, perhaps, but news to many.

What can be done? Dante placed the simonists in the Eighth Circle, turned upside down in large baptismal fonts cut into rock, with their feet set ablaze, but I’m thinking in the shorter term.

The tangled logic of Peter Oborne and the Savile scandal

You have to hand it to Peter Oborne, the newspaper columnist, for his ability to think several contradictory thoughts at the same time when writing for the need for the head of the BBC Trust, Chris Patten (a former Tory party chairman and Hong Kong governor), to resign over the Savile sex abuse scandal:

“And it is important that he [Chris Patten] goes very soon, because he is doing such damage to an institution that stands for everything that is best about Britain – integrity, fairness, and generosity. Above all, the BBC represents a common sphere of British public life which is not part of the marketplace, and yet not controlled by the state. Alongside Parliament, the NHS, the Army, the monarchy and the rule of law, it is one of our great national institutions.”

Well, if Oborne thinks that the BBC, an organisation that has the privilege of taking revenue in the form of a tax (the licence fee) levied on anyone who owns a television, regardless of their viewing habits, is a “great national institution”, and “not controlled by the state”, which is laughable, then how does he go on to say this:

“It is deeply unfortunate that, over the past few decades, the corporation has been colonised and captured by a narrow, greedy, self-interested and self-perpetuating liberal elite, ignorant of ordinary people and contemptuous of ordinary morality – hence, in part, the Savile affair. The unprincipled and arrogant conduct of that elite has provided a great deal of ammunition to the broadcaster’s enemies, such as the Murdoch press, and thus placed the BBC’s future in jeopardy.”

But if the BBC is a “great institution” – which I contest – then the fact that it has been “colonised and captured” by such terrible people must surely point to the problem that any state-privileged institution with certain monopoly powers, such as the BBC, can be captured by such people. The point is not to create such bodies with such privileges in the first place, since they almost always end up being captured or politically manipulated; or, to establish such powerful checks and balances that bad behaviour is rapidly dealt with. (In the case of the army and the legal profession, even they are not free of problems.)

The foolishness of Oborne is in his naïve belief that all that is necessary is for good and honest people to be put in charge of X or Y, and all will be well. The problem is not the people, but the monopolistic system in place. In all state bodies where an element of state privilege is involved, and where the competitive force of the market does not apply, the way to the top is often through political scheming rather than simple merit, although no doubt there are elements of meritocracy involved, at least in the early years of an institution when there is plenty of idealism in the air.

And the reference to the Murdoch media empire is typically misleading and gratuitous, since Murdoch has, in the face of the outrage about the behaviour of some of his journalists, shut down a newspaper (the News of the World), suffered major shareholder damage, and seen the potential breakup of his empire. Ask yourself this: in a year’s time, does anyone expect anything similar to happen to the organisation known, hilariously, as “Auntie”?

Needless to say, I should add that some of the same problems apply to the National Health Service, the UK’s socialised medical system which, despite some tweaks, still runs on the same quasi-Soviet basis as when it was created in the late 1940s. Savile was able, so it is alleged, to abuse young patients in at least one of its hospitals (Stoke Mandeville), and it is appalling that his activities were not stopped. I am not saying that a completely private medical system would be free of such monsters, but one has to ask whether the public’s almost religious view of the NHS, despite everything, is a hindrance to clear thinking about such matters.

The 1920s, 50s and 80s – three good US decades

“Obama went on to tell Romney: “You seem to want to import the foreign policies of the 1980s, just like the social policies of the 1950s and the economic policies of the 1920s.” So he’s Reagan, Eisenhower and Coolidge all rolled into one? Sounds way too good to be true, but one can only hope.”

James Taranto.

I suppose a person could argue that the 1920s were flawed in America because the boom of that era ultimately led to the Wall Street Crash of 1929, but can, say, Harding and Coolidge get the blame for the scale of the downturn in the 1930s? And a lot of good things were created and invented in the 1920s in the US. The major turd in the punchbowl was Prohibition and the associated surge in organised crime. As for the 1950s, yes, Eisenhower was no radical, but as a recent biography sets out, he was a wise leader in many ways, and the process of dismantling the Jim Crow regime in the South was under way before JFK got in. As for Ronald Reagan, well, to even hint that Romney could be a new Gipper, and take the US back to the vibrant 80s when the Soviets were on the run counts as a massive own goal for Obama. Just think what Romney must have thought: “God, this preening jerk actually tried to imply that I might try and have a re-run of the 1980s! I have got the White House in the bag.”

Finally, the 1950s in the US gave us lots of Hitchcock movies, Elvis, Chuck Berry, Grace Kelly, M. Monroe, lots of good novels, interesting aircraft and space-craft, and er, some of these beauties.

Samizdata quote of the day

Any organisation that is not dependent upon its customers, whether a state or private monopoly, will eventually become self-serving. During my career I was party to many conversations about how to maximise profit for the owners of our businesses and provide attractive employment terms for our staff, but they all turned in the end to what our customers would want, or at least accept. We spent much more time worrying how to please customers than please ourselves. Satisfied customers who choose to come back are the only guarantee for owners, managers and workers in the private sector that they can achieve their personal goals.

As will all state enterprises funded by taxation, the BBC has become, in effect, a worker’s co-operative. The “customers” have to pay regardless, so they become irrelevant and the focus turns to the interests of its own people. No private business would survive the shit storm that is heading the BBC’s way. The share price would now be collapsing as investors tried to get out before the lawsuits begin. I confidently and sadly predict however that the BBC will survive. It has the coercive power of the state behind it and will simply take your money to settle the cases. It is the left establishment’s propaganda arm and they will rally to restore its reputation.

We are about to have an instructive, but depressing, demonstration of the realities of modern Britain. We will be able to compare and contrast the BBC news and current affairs teams’ handling of this story with their campaign against News International. Just imagine if the phone-hackers had worked for Newsnight and Savile had worked for Sky News!

Tom Paine comments on the Saville scandal at The Last Ditch.

Follow the first link there and read the entire posting. Better yet, if you have the time or can make it, follow the last link and read the entire blog.

The latest posting there is entitled QC appointed to advise the BBC over Savile case. Says Tom Paine: “The expenditure of your money on the BBC’s defence begins.”

Mastery of the waves

As we head in to the final days of the US elections, an issue that has been aired has been the size of the US navy. The number of ships that the US navy has will, according to Mitt Romney, decline from its current number of below 300 towards the lower 200s if projected cuts are put in place. Some conservative parts of the blogsphere, such as Pajamas Media, are giving Mr Obama a hard time for his comments, and maybe his arrogance is annoying, but is he necessarily wrong? Does the US actually need more than 300 vessels to do its job? And if so, what sort of vessels? If you have, say, a carrier, it needs a large fleet of support vessels and frigates, not to mention other kinds of support, to operate effectively rather than be a burden.

As I noted some time ago, the world of military hardware is being dramatically changed by developments in science and technology, as recounted in this astonishing book, Wired for War. Romney and his advisors should not just blindly go along with the “we need a vast navy to do our job” mindset. The US is broke; frankly, if Republicans want to be taken seriously on the case for cutting spending, they need to recognise that the sheer scale of the US military at present is financially unsustainable and needs to be focused more on domestic defence, and defence of certain key trade routes of importance to the US (which is where a navy comes in) against the likes of pirates.

I know it is going to get me unpopular around here, but not everything that Obama says or does is necessarily wrong, or even done for malevolent reasons (cue reaction from Paul Marks!). And even so, there is a need for small-government conservatives and genuine liberals to think about the fundamentals of what a defence policy should look like, and what can be afforded. This article at Reason magazine by Nick Gillespie is a good starting point, in my view, as this Reason magazine piece also.

Talking of the US navy, let’s not forget that this is the 200th anniversary year of the War of 1812, in which the sailors of the US gave the Brits quite a licking.

I have yet to read most of it but I already greatly admire Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature

Can one say worthwhile things about a book that one has only begun to read? I think, often: yes. One thing one can definitely report is whether one is reading this or that book with enthusiasm, eager to learn what will follow, or only because of a self-imposed, well-I’ve-started-so-I-might-as-well-finish sense of mere duty.

So far, I have only read somewhat over a hundred and fifty pages of Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, but it definitely passes the above test. It is a huge book. Just before finishing this posting I happened to drop my (paperback!) copy of it on my foot, and it really hurt. The text alone runs to over eight hundred pages, and the notes take it over a thousand, yet I already know that I am going to go on reading this book until I finish it, and that when I do finally finish it (I am a very slow reader) I will almost certainly be somewhat regretful, as if coming to the end of a wonderful holiday trip or a particularly satisfying job assignment.

There are so many things I could say about this book, so many thoughts in it and provoked by it that would be blog-worthy, but let me focus on just one, which is that it is such a very, very worthy subject for an academic to be writing about. Pinker has chosen a subject that, he says, needs a long book. Well, a decent but short book could have been written about the relentless decline of violence in human affairs, but I am very happy that this one is indeed extremely long. It is not so much, for me, that this subject needs a long book, as that it so very much deserves one.

The story Pinker tells is of the relentless rise of what he is not afraid to call civilisation. Simply, we humans have become ever less nasty and sadistic towards one another as the decades and centuries and millennia have rolled by, both qualitatively and quantitatively. To make this point, he has already (as I am reading) piled on plenty of agony, about such things as medieval torture devices, and I am sure there will be plenty more such horrors to come.

Says Pinker of this process of moral improvement (on page 160 of the Penguin paperback edition), in a deeply felt parenthetical interjection …

– and if this isn’t progress, I don’t know what is –

Well said. → Continue reading: I have yet to read most of it but I already greatly admire Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature

Samizdata quote of the day

“You don’t have to support the campaign to reform Section 5. But one day, your teasing dig in a colleague’s leaving card will be taken the wrong way; or your mobile phone comment will be misheard by passers-by in a crowded street; and then they will come for you.”

Victoria Coren, over at the Guardian. Her article refers to comments made about the American actress, Lucy Liu. (Time for a gratuitous link to the lovely lass, Ed).

Two different photographs of the same London sculpture

Here is a photograph of a sculpture, which I recently chanced upon, in the part of the city that is London is known as the City of London:


The sculpture is called “Rush Hour”. It said so, on a sign in the ground in front of it. I also photographed the sign. This is a good habit for a photographer to get into. Cameras are not just for taking pictures. They are also for taking notes.

What struck me about this sculpture, as I looked at it and photoed it, was how depressed they all look, especially when compared with London’s sculpted warriors. The warriors depicted on war memorials had any number of agonies to contend with, yet they stick out their chests, jut out their chins, look the world proudly and defiantly in the eye and tough out whatever challenges and horrors they are obliged to endure. These office drudges, on the other hand, have given up. Their eyes point downwards, avoiding any contact with the world or with me and my eyes. They trudge forwards, following the person immediately in front. They do not look like people fighting a war, successfully. They look more like prisoners of war, in a war that their side is losing.

But, when I got home I checked out the website mentioned in the sign in the ground under the sculpture, the sign that I had photographed, and when I did, I got quite a shock. I was confronted by this:


These city commuters are facing the cares and stresses of their lives with a degree of stoical optimism, even heroism, that their cousins in my photograph conspicuously lacked. Urban drudgery may defeat lesser beings from foreign lands, but Britain can do it! We shall prevail! Final victory over financial services industrial monotony will be ours!

I actually had to study the above two photographs quite carefully before being entirely convinced that they are both of the same thing. Are there, I wondered, several versions of this sculpture, in different places? I slowly worked it out. These are the same statues, in each photograph. But the photo at the website was taken by someone crouching down, very low, and perhaps even lying on the ground (which means, for instance, that at least one of the figures at the back is entirely blocked from view). The figures are not on a pedestal, as both photographs make entirely clear. But this other photographer makes them look as if they are.

Particularly significant, as I say, is the matter of eye contact. In my photograph, the commuters dare not look at me. Instead they look downwards. This is why they look so defeated, so ashamed even. But in the website photo, they are looking straight at the camera, and although not happy exactly, they seem proud of what they are doing, and confident that they can face any challenges life presents them with.

The lighting is different, and that does make a difference. But mostly, the difference is in the angle of vision.

The point of this posting is not that the angle you see things from makes a difference. Most of us know this. My point is that, when it comes to the particular matter of human statues, it can make a very big difference, far bigger than I, at least, had realised, until I spent those minutes checking these two photos to be sure that they were of the same thing.

What, I wonder, might be the effect of photographing war memorial statues, statues that are on a pedestal, from a position of vertical equality, or even slight superiority? Suppose, while photographing the figures at the centre of the recently unveiled memorial to Bomber Command, that I had somehow raised myself up to their level, or even somewhat above that level. Might my photographs have looked different in their psychological atmosphere? Would the figures suddenly have seemed less heroic, less like the masters of their fate and more like the victims of it that many of them must surely have felt?

If so, it would appear that pedestals are an even more significant part of our civilisation than I had realised.

Samizdata quote of the day

[A]ll law-enforcement agencies really believe they need more powers. But, when they say that, they should be completely ignored. Not criticised, not accommodated, just disregarded.

The sincerity is beguiling but it’s meaningless. “Help us to do our jobs better,” the police implore. “We can see the good we could do if you let us.” They almost certainly can. But they can’t see what it would cost society in lost freedoms.

– David Mitchell, in an article that is so sharp it is quite hard to pick out the best quote. Read the whole thing.

A possible explanation for why we are currently getting so many scandals

Andrew Mitchell, the government enforcer, allegedly calls a policeman a “*u**i** pleb”. George Osborne, the finance minister, boards a train with a second class ticket and proceeds to sit in first class. MPs, of all parties, are found to be scamming the taxpayer by owning one house and living in another – no, I don’t understand how the scam works either.

So, why are we getting so many scandals now? Is it because this is a particularly bad time for it? I don’t think so. My guess is that the amount of obnoxious behaviour by politicians is more or less constant over time. The variable is the press.

Older readers, and those with a fascination for history, will remember the spectacular collapse of the Conservative government in the mid-1990s. Originally elected in 1979, for over 10 years there was an almost complete absence of sleaze stories. About the only one I can think off the top of my head was Dennis Thatcher’s use of No.10-headed notepaper. And then, all of a sudden, in about 1992 they all started coming out: cash for questions, three in a bed, secret love children, more cash for questions, affairs with actresses. Every day a new scandal.

As I said, it seems improbable that Tory MPs were for 10 years purer than the driven snow and then, all of a sudden, dropped all principle like it was a form of radioactive waste. No, what happened was they had always been acting like this; it was just that now the press started reporting it. And why now (or, is it then?)? Because of Black Wednesday. Black Wednesday – Britain’s forced departure from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) in September 1992 – had demonstrated in the clearest possible terms that the government didn’t know what it was doing when it came to the economy. At that moment the press got angry. So long as they believed that these people knew how to ensure prosperity they were prepared to turn a blind eye to the odd peccadillo. But now they realised that they had been hood-winked. After that any Conservative was fair game.

Now, Cameron’s government has not had an ERM moment as such. But then again, it has never demonstrated any great degree of competence. Faced with the greatest economic calamity in living memory (or the Second Great Depression as Brian likes to call it) it has drifted and the press has started to notice. The feeling of hoodwinkedness and corresponding anger is now fully fledged. I unconfidently predict a stream of scandals until Cameron leaves office.

Samizdata other quote of the day

To be sure, all governments since the invention of papyrus have had cause to fear leaks, and all modern British governments have known that after 50, or 30, or 20 years most official paper will be released to the public. But when these documents were generated, their authors knew – or thought they knew – that, in principle, they were secure until that release. Their premature disclosure could not be ordered by an information commissioner or tribunal. Without such security, there can be no honesty. It is simple: if you fear your private communication will be laid before the world, you will write it quite differently, or not at all.

So the effect of FoI is to promote dishonesty and concealment. I pity any biographer of any prime minister from Tony Blair onwards. He or she will not be short of government paper. Thanks to the computer’s power of infinite reproduction and the advent of the email (to whose implications, by the way, FoI gave no thought), he will drown in material. Because of the cant in which modern administrative documents are expressed, words like “openness” and “transparency” will be spattered over thousands of pages. But there will be no such openness or transparency. The big decisions will all have been made in whispers in a corridor, or abbreviated in a text message. To find out what happened, the biographer will have to rely solely on the fallible memory of elderly ex-ministers and officials.

Charles Moore

Samizdata quote of the day

I preferred BSA when they made motorbikes.

– James P is one of many Bishop Hill commenters who is unimpressed by the activities of the British Sociological Association, who are trying to insert sociology into the CAGW debate. To make people believe in CAGW, with further doomed attempts along these lines?