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]

Authoritarian naming

A court in Iceland has ruled that a 15-year-old girl can officially use her name. It seems that in Iceland there is a Naming Committee, and they can reject names that are not grammatically correct, or are “too masculine”.

There is a lot wrong with this. But I am most confused about one thing.

“I’m very happy,” Blaer said after the ruling.

“I’m glad this is over. Now I expect I’ll have to get new identity papers. Finally, I’ll have the name Blaer in my passport.”

Why does anyone care about the opinions of officials? None of my friends has ever asked to see my identity papers.

A triple stimulus

Many developed nations are currently in the midst of the worst recession they have experienced in decades. I would like to call for an economic stimulus to aid in their recovery.

I am referring not to the useless Keynesian orgy of wealth destruction that is often meant by this word, but an obvious strategy for improving economic growth that (mysteriously) most politicians rarely consider.

My proposed means of stimulus is the mass firing of government employees.

Every government employee fired aids the economy in three distinct ways.

First, there is the direct cost of the salary, benefits and retirement of those employees, which must be sucked out of the rest of the economy through coercive taxation, weakening it. Each dollar we leave in the hands of ordinary people is a dollar they can then proceed to spend on things they really want, which is always better for the economy than a coerced expenditure. (To be technical, the Pareto optimality of free exchanges and non-optimality of coerced ones lead us to the conclusion that a dollar spent freely is always of more value than a dollar extracted by force.)

Second, there is the cost to the economy of the negative work most government employees do. Although a small fraction of government employees are engaged in jobs that would exist even in a free society, such as designing bridges and the like, most employees in a modern government spend their time interfering in the productivity of others, reducing their output. Every time we dismiss someone whose job is to produce new rules governing the licensing of hair stylists or who spends their time investigating the conduct of pedicab drivers, we increase the productivity of those who will no longer be harmed by the efforts of those government employees. (Indeed, some individual government employees doubtless reduce the productivity of hundreds or thousands of private workers.)

Third, there is the cost to the economy of having someone essentially idle. Most government employees do nothing of actual use, and there is an opportunity cost to that. Such people could instead be doing something of value with their labor — from making chairs to writing computer software to running private enterprises. Every additional chair that gets produced (provided there is market demand for it) increases the wealth of the world. Instead of being a net drain on society, each government employee, once dismissed from their job and allowed to find useful work instead, could be a net gain to society. (Even those government employees engaged in work that might exist even in a free society, such as delivering packages or teaching children, could do so more efficiently if employed in organizations that were disciplined by market mechanisms.)

I would go so far as to say that this triple effect of every government employee dismissal implies a multiplier effect. (The uninformed might naively consider only the direct cost savings and not the other added benefits.)

I will also argue that the more we fire, the greater the stimulus, without any obvious limit short of running out of people to dismiss. There isn’t even any need to wait for a recession to enjoy the salutary effects of such a stimulus — a nation experiencing high growth can still increase it by this mechanism. Unlike other forms of stimulus, it is also possible for even the most impoverished of nations to undertake such a program without the least fiscal risk.

I therefore implore elected officials to adopt such programs as soon as practical. Every day of delay costs.

Not getting it yet

The state of nature is not the halcyon, bucolic life of myth. Existentially, the state of nature is a place of predators and prey. To escape that uncertainty, predators or prey can join together in mutual association, forming societies. Associations of individuals seeking escape from the state of nature can take one of two existential forms: Collectivist or Individualist.

In a collective existential state, society is one living organism: society and its members are one, and individuals exist only as inextricable parts of collective society. Society itself is alive – so by extension, the rights to liberty and property are also vested in society. Collective societies may grant privilege to members, but they may not recognize individual rights. All rights fall to the living collective society.¹

A collective society must have self-preservation as its primary function, and disentanglement of a collective is the death of something that had life.² In a collective existential state individuals are integral to the community: societal authority must control who joins or leaves the society. Collective societies without strong borders and powerful immune systems lack protection from external and internal threats. Let either its borders or its internal ‘immune system’ fail, and a collective society will bleed out its energy or be overwhelmed by parasites. Allowing departure enables internal threats to reposition themselves as external threats. Allowing departure allows the most productive and capable producers to escape with their skills to where they may benefit the enemies of the collective. This is why, as collectivist societies approach ideological purity, they invariably embrace genocide.

→ Continue reading: Not getting it yet

Newsflash: government blames others

In the UK, most of the price you pay to fuel your car is not paid to the Evil Oil Companies (boo hiss), it is in fact paid to… go on… take a guess…

The State.

Nice, eh?

So it takes a bit of front for some vile toad from the government to moan about oil companies screwing the customer by not reducing prices fast enough when the global prices fall.

So how fast does the government reduce their tax burden when the economy is tanking?  Oh yes, I forget, they generally increase taxes when that happens.

Sam Bowman’s talk last Friday: Thinking about what had been too big to think about

Arranging a meeting and chairing the Q&A of it is hard to combine with actually listening to all that gets said. So when it comes to what I personally learned from Sam Bowman’s excellent talk at my home (already plugged here) last Friday, and from the various reactions to it from the rest of us, it’s a case of me picking out verbal cherries, rather than me now being able to describe the entire fruit bowl. Mostly what I want to say is what an excellent restart Sam Bowman gave to Brian’s Fridays 2.0.

Bowman’s starting point was the difference between, in Donald Rumsfeld’s famed phraseology, “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns”, on the one hand the things you know you don’t know and quite consciously and deliberately choose to remain ignorant of, and on the other hand the things you don’t even know are out there to be known about.

I know that I don’t know how to sort my computer out when it malfunctions worse than trivially, but I have many friends more computer-savvy than I am. So for me, computer expertise is a known unknown. I am neglecting it, but do so “rationally”. I am approximately aware of what I am neglecting, and of the approximate costs attached to such neglect.

But what of unknown unknowns? As Sam Bowman so wisely said, those are harder to describe! If you could think of an example of an unknown unknown, then it wouldn’t be unknown, would it? The point being that unknown unknowns only reveal themselves in the form of surprises, “surprise” being a word that Bowman returned to quite a few times.

The case for a free society is not that we know exactly how it will be wonderful, but rather that it allows an infinity of different bets to be placed on where it is and where it’s headed and where it should be headed. Some of these bets will be right, a few very much so, although as much by luck as by judgement. In a centrally governed society, where one particular viewpoint is given the force of law, that one dominant judgement is almost certain to be wrong.

You can talk about “unknown unknowns” in retrospect, though, once they have finally made themselves known. Sam concentrated in particular on the now widely known, but a few years back not at all widely known, privileged legal position of those three now famous “ratings agencies”, S&P and … er … the other two. (He did of course say, but I wasn’t taking notes.) Also not at all widely understood were the Basel Accords (Sam rather charmingly called them what to my ear sounded more like the “Basil” Accords), which, in effect, positively demanded that banks to buy lots of “investments” of the sort then assumed prudent but subsequently revealed to be the opposite. The financial crash happened as a result of central bankers all scrupulously, in the name of “prudence” (remember her?), doing exactly as they were told to do and as they assumed they ought to do. This was a crash caused not by the neglect of duty, but by the misunderstanding of what duty really demanded. The bankers were not evil and greedy. They were misinformed. As is further illustrated by their own personal investment decisions, which were much the same as the investment decisions they made on behalf of others.

Others present may want to correct and fill out the above description of what Bowman said, Bowman himself in particular. I do not now plan to record my evenings for posterity, and this one wasn’t. I’d welcome comments about the wisdom of that decision. On the one hand, recoding would be a nice service for those who can’t attend. On the other, I want speakers to feel that here is a chance to explore, in a friendly setting, ideas they may not yet be completely on top of. I particularly like asking people to talk about things that they hadn’t perhaps realised were worth talking about, or people who have not themselves done much public speaking and maybe didn’t know they had it in them (in among other more practised and confident speakers). Recording equipment might get in the way of all that. There is, after all, nothing to stop someone else recording them talking about what they said at my place.

The reaction to Bowman’s talk can be summarised as: well, maybe, maybe not. The feeling of the room was that some people had given at least some thought to the possibility of looming financial disaster. Advice had been given to the higher-ups that was based on all kinds of assumptions holding true: provided this or that, then all will be well. The higher-ups tended to hear only the “all will be well” bit, while neglecting the earlier stuff about the assumptions being made. But the people who had given the advice certainly remembered the earlier bits. But what could they do, once those assumptions started to look seriously dodgy? The advisers were not themselves higher-ups.

For me the phrase of the night was “Too big to think about”, see my title above. Like many a memorable phrase, this one is adapted from another common phrase that has been doing the rounds: “Too big to fail”. Too big to fail refers to the dilemma of top decision makers when the proverbial waste matter had already hit the fan. “Too big to think about” refers to the problem of the uneasy lower-downers, the advisers, the quants and the specialists, the ones who did have very bad feelings, beforehand. Too big to think about referred to those for whom the unknown unknowns that eventually clobbered the higher-ups were actually, somewhat, known about beforehand. Various people in the room last Friday “actually heard people say” that if such-and-such does turn out as feared, then we’re all so f***ed there’s nothing that we, and certainly not that I, can do about it. We (I) will have far bigger problems than are covered by my little remit. So, we (I) just have to hope that all will be well, because if it isn’t, that’s … too big to think about!

Which leads inevitably on to the question of how much it was merely pure ignorance that was in play here, and to what extent moral turpitude was involved. How “pure”, that is to say, was the ignorance? There is, after all, a particular sort of immorality that consists of refusing to face unwelcome truths and to think about them in any detail. (Someone mentioned “unopened envelopes” at this point in the discussion.) The consensus of the evening, at any rate from where I stood (which tells you something of how crowded the room was), was that Bowman was making an illuminating extreme point, so to speak, but that the truth was somewhat more muddy and more morally complicated.

What was it about these financial institutions that made them vulnerable to such fingers-crossed, hope-for-the-best, ignore-the-worst, group-think? Mention was made of how a much more widely known-about-in-advance and much criticised set of rules, involving government guarantees of bank deposits, caused banks to be all about crazy risks and not at all about their own prudence, truly understood. That made particular sense to me.

I expected Sam’s talk to be good, and it was. But the quality of the Q&A struck me as being of a particularly high quality last Friday, with quite a few of those present having personal experience of the financial discussions and dilemmas being alluded to. Which is a further reason to maybe not freeze the speakers thoughts electronically. What if, in the light of what he hears from the floor, he ends up thinking slightly differently about his subject than he did when actually speaking?

What I particularly liked about the evening, aside from the quality of the speaker and the quality of the audience that the speaker attracted, was that, instead of assuming total stupidity or total villainy on the part of people from whom we hope and continue to hope for different and better thoughts and decisions, we were all, thanks to Sam Bowman’s eloquent lead, making a serious attempt to get inside the heads of these various decision-makers and their advisers. Arguing works far better if you seriously try to understand where other people are coming from and how they see the world, rather than just making insulting assumptions about their motives and thought processes. Us libertarians (in particular me libertarian) getting better at arguing is (for me) what these evenings are all about.

Samizdata quote of the day

Let’s see – Native Americans were wards of the state for a century, and, until the recent casino boom, were the most impoverished, addiction ridden, unemployed group in society; the family farmer has been the object of endless state programs to save him for most of he 20th century, and his numbers have shrunk from over half the population to under 2%; black people were “adopted” by the modern welfare state about 50 years ago, with the result that the black family has shattered, perhaps irreparably, and the male part is massively either in prison or unemployed, while the female half now has a 75% or so rate of births out of wedlock, and single parent families struggling with poverty lead to homicide from gang activity being the primary cause of death for young black males.

The wars on poverty and drugs continues to decimate the very populations they were supposed to help, the federal education programs have overseen a massive decline in the competency and educational achievements of our youth across the board, and catastrophically poor literacy rates among the minority communities.

The Fed decided to massively aid the housing market, to assist people in buying homes, and within a few decades, the housing and financial markets collapsed into a recession which we are still struggling to climb out of, and return to a semblence of our former economic levels.

And so now, the progressive state under the current progressive regime is going to come to the aid of the struggling middle class?

Yeah, that will work out just fine…

– Samizdata commenter ‘veryretired’

In praise of globalisation…

So you were expecting some long libertarian paean to globalisation, eh?  Perhaps you thought I was going to use my usual taunt at ‘locavores’ that unlike them, I dislike the idea of poverty and so have nothing against purchasing products from the less wealthy rather than just from tax subsidised first world farmers…




Not this time… because sometimes a picture from inside Festung Samizdata is worth a thousand words.

David Mamet rants magnificently

I would appear to be the last to know that the playwright David Mamet is, if not a member of my political family, then perhaps a cousin. The rant I link to below, which is exquisitely well written, is not going to persuade a single person who doesn’t already agree with the content, but it is an amazingly well designed firehose of hydrofluoric acid. Critics may (with some reason) say that it is vicious and panders to my affiliation group, but if so, it is literate vicious pandering.

The topic is ostensibly gun control, but in fact, it is mostly about collectivism in general. It begins with…

Karl Marx summed up Communism as “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” This is a good, pithy saying, which, in practice, has succeeded in bringing, upon those under its sway, misery, poverty, rape, torture, slavery, and death.

…and builds spectacularly from there.

“Gun Laws and the Fools of Chelm” by David Mamet

A very trivial and very boring little post about the price of a chair

Tonight I have the first of my new lot of Brian’s Fridays, and with this in mind I have been keeping half an eye open for cheap, cheerful chairs. In the course of which process I recently discovered a new use for digital photography.

I am fond of joking that my digital camera, especially the latest one with its super-zoom lens, has better eyesight than I do, but this is more than a joke, which is why it is, I think, quite a good joke. It’s true.

So there I was in Tottenham Court Road looking through the window of a shop, long after it had closed, and observing from a distance a chair that looked pretty cheap to start with and had been reduced from … £something, to £something-even-less. From what? Even if I had more up-to-date glasses I probably couldn’t have made it out. And more to the point to what? Those vital numerals were quite big, but unclear.

I got out the camera, cranked up the auto-focus, took a photo, and I quickly had my answer:


Still too much, I think. But good to know, in real time.

I’m still a bit hazy about how to do that click-and-enlarge thing here at New Samizdata, but trust me, on the original I could also see that it was reduced from £90.

Sam Bowman, my speaker for the evening, has just arrived, and I told him about this posting. Yes, he said, a little telescope in your pocket. Exactly so.

One of the many uncertainties about the future generally (such as the portentous banking uncertainties that Sam Bowman will be speaking about) and about the applications that people will find for new technology in particular is that you often can’t tell beforehand what rather surprising applications people will find for new technology. Digital photography costs more than nothing, quite a lot more than nothing if you really like it, but its marginal cost, the cost of the next photo, really is, pretty much, nothing. That means a world full of hard discs full of photo-crap. But it also means that if you have digital photography on you, you will find further genuinely useful uses for it, the way you never would for photography done with shops or dark rooms.

I have long used my camera to photograph signs, next to tourist attractions or to paintings in galleries. I even choose to speculate that in the age of digital photography such signs may well have become more elaborate, long-winded and informative. I routinely photo local maps while on my photographic wanderings, so that I later know where everything was, even years later. But I have never before used my camera actually to see something very trivial, very boring to anyone else, right then, right there.

The boringness and the triviality being the point. Capitalism doesn’t just do big stuff, like: digital photography! It does the little things, like telling you the price of a chair which is too far away for you to be able to read the label. And, you never know what other boring and trivial things it might be able to do for you in the future.

Don’t kill it.

What is easy and what is right

Yesterday, the Rhode Island State House of Representatives voted to legalize same sex marriage. There is some question as to whether the State Senate will also approve the bill, but there is clearly a trend building towards state by state approval of such unions here in the United States.

I’m strongly in favor of allowing gays to marry, and I’m very happy that the marriage equality movement is starting to win, but I’d like to point out a sad side note.

Although the growing victories of the same sex marriage movement are indeed a wonderful thing, they seem to be happening for entirely the wrong reasons. That is to say, this does not seem to be a triumph for the idea of human freedom. The reason the movement for gay marriage is winning in the US is primarily because more and more people think gays are decent people, and not because they’re willing to live and let live regardless.

The true test of whether you are in favor of freedom is this: if someone else is doing something you hate, but which does no violence to others, are you willing to leave them alone on principle?

If you are willing to leave others alone even if you dislike their behavior provided that behavior doesn’t physically harm third parties, then you support human freedom for its own sake. If you are only willing to leave others alone if you actively approve of their behavior, you are simply reinforcing your own tastes.

So, if you believe the reason we should permit gay people to marry is because you think gay people are decent, normal people, I can’t give you credit for supporting freedom in general (although I am glad that you’re with me on this one cause and will in no way refuse your help). If, however, you think that group marriages or Baal worship or something else you find creepy should be allowed simply because everyone involved is a consenting adult and it isn’t any of your business, then you are truly my ally.

Frequently, one hears anti-marriage equality spokespeople say things of the form “if you’ll let gays marry, why shouldn’t you allow group marriages”. (The exact other thing they pick for comparison varies but is not important.) When this happens, many of my friends say “oh, that’s a false equivalence, that politician is such an idiot for comparing those things”, but I think that is untrue, and they’re picking the wrong answer entirely.

The right answer is “if an adult woman and two adult men or any other combination want to get married, that isn’t my business either, whether I think it is a good idea or not”. As it happens, I’m not an advocate for polygamy – it doesn’t seem like a terrific idea to me – but if it is among actually consenting adults, it isn’t my business at all, regardless of whether I like it or not. The right answer is “if a group of people want to gather weekly to pray to the ancient Aztec gods, that isn’t something I should have any say about, no matter how stupid I think it might be, since it does not involve me.” As it happens, I’m an atheist and think all religions are a foolish waste of time (if not actively harmful to the participants), but it isn’t my business if people wish to engage in any peaceful activity, and prayer neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.

The politician making the comparison between gay marriage and polygamy is demonstrating that he doesn’t really believe in freedom – but so are the people who support gay marriage only because they happen to like gay people.

I’m willing to let neo-Nazis post antisemitic screeds not because I like neo-Nazis but because I believe freedom is more important than my distaste. If I only allow people to speak if I like what they have to say, I would be in favor of speech I like, not in favor of freedom of speech.

Similarly, it is not my place to tell a businessman who he should hire or fire, or where he should open his shop, or what days of the week he should keep it open, or from what countries he should buy his goods, or what he should make or sell. It does not matter if he is only selling copies of “Mein Kampf” typeset in comic sans and that he only will employ racist blond white men. I might not like what he is selling or who he employs, but it isn’t my business. If he wants to pay the racist white men he hires $2 an hour and they’re okay with that, it isn’t my business. If he legitimately buys a store 500 feet from a school, it isn’t my business if that’s where he sells his copies of Mein Kampf.

It is easy to be in favor of the right of others to do things you like them doing, of course. It is, in fact, a challenge to find anyone who wants to make activities they favor illegal. The real question is whether one accepts the right of others to do things that one does not like, on the principle that freedom is in itself a value worth supporting.

Changing a narrative

This caught my eye:

A favorite “progressive” trope is that America’s middle class has stagnated economically since the 1970s. One version of this claim, made by Robert Reich, President Clinton’s labor secretary, is typical: “After three decades of flat wages during which almost all the gains of growth have gone to the very top,” he wrote in 2010, “the middle class no longer has the buying power to keep the economy going.” This trope is spectacularly wrong.

Don Boudreaux and Mark Perry, via the Wall Street Journal. (Via Cafe Hayek.)

That is not to say that the growth rate could not and should not have been better. But that is not the same thing.

Samizdata quote of the day

An independent Ireland – an interesting idea, so when are they leaving the E.U. then?

Surely rule from Brussels is no more “independence” than rule from London.

– Paul Marks