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]

Forming an opinion about intellectual property

I have been on the fence about intellectual property for a long time. The suicide of Aaron Swartz set me thinking about it again.

The non-aggression principle allows the use of violence in defence of property. This is because if I spend an hour of my life mixing my labour with the land to make a widget, and then someone steals my widget, they have stolen an hour of my life. Some might say that if I spend an hour of my life on some intellectual pursuit then it is possible for someone to steal that hour of my life by stealing my ideas. Violence is then justified in response. But is that really what is going on?

Imagine I spend time writing a novel, print it on paper, then hand over the printed paper to Bob in exchange for money. Bob copies my novel out onto another piece of paper and sells it to Charlie. Clearly no theft has occurred; the state of my possessions is unchanged. If I devote a significant portion of my life to writing a novel because I hope to make a profit, and Bob makes so many copies that I am unable to, still no theft has occurred. I still have the original copy of the novel I wrote. What I have done is mix my labour with paper and ink to make some paper with a novel written on it. That it takes intellectual effort to make a novel that people want to read rather than paper scrawled with gibberish does not make Bob’s actions into theft.

Perhaps I can come to some agreement with Bob. I sell him my novel if he agrees not to make copies of it or let anyone else see it. If he does, I can attempt to punish him in some way appropriate to breaches of contract. When Bob shows my novel to Charlie and Charlie makes a copy of it, I can punish Bob. But I have made no agreement with Charlie, who can make copies with impunity.

If it is difficult to make copies of novels and only a few people can do it, I might be able to make a business selling paper copies because no-one who is able to will want to break agreements with me. But once someone invents a device that allows anyone to easily make copies, my profits will be affected. But still no theft has occurred. I can not resort to violence.

If I am clever I might invent some way to encrypt my novel and make sure it can only be viewed on devices registered to specific individuals all of whom have made agreements with me. But if David, who has made no agreement with me, examines the device, finds a flaw in it, and starts to make copies of my novel, still no theft has occurred. David is using his ingenuity to modify objects he already possesses.

Aaron Swartz copied scientific papers onto his computer. He did this by getting his computer to ask JSTOR’s computer to transmit them, and JSTOR’s computer did so. For this he faced 35 years in jail.

The birth of Northern Ireland and a big “if only”


In an ideal world we wouldn’t have states. But we don’t live in an ideal world and so we do have states and the borders that exist between them.

In the run up to the First World War state power was on the rise. For reasons I don’t entirely understand but I suspect are related, nationalist movements were springing up all over the world. Irish nationalism was one of them.

In 1912 the British government, which was dependent on Irish nationalist support began its third attempt to grant Home Rule to Ireland. This would have given Ireland a similar status to the one Scotland enjoys today – autonomy but not independence. Unionists objected.

On 1 January 1913 Edward Carson, the leader of Irish unionism, moved an amendment to exclude Ulster. This can’t have been easy for a man who as MP for Dublin University represented a non-Ulster constituency. It is significant because it marks the moment when Unionists accepted that Home Rule in some form was going to happen. What they were trying to do was to salvage something – as they would have seen it – from the wreckage.

The Times of 2 January 1913 explained the situation:

Ireland is a geographical expression. Statesmen have to deal with things as they are, not with the names of things, if they wish their work to stand. Politically, socially, and economically there are two distinct communities inside the geographical area we call Ireland. These two are not merely different, but sharply opposed in their ways, their ideals, their character, and their material conditions.

This is something that was recently echoed by Ruth Dudley-Edwards:

As a Dubliner from Catholic, nationalist stock (albeit by then an atheist), the biggest problem I faced when I began to cover Northern Ireland as a journalist two decades ago was that I couldn’t understand the thought-processes of most Protestant unionists. It took me a while to grasp that one of the biggest differences between the two tribes is that Catholics are naturally hierarchical, and Protestants aren’t.

John Redmond (leader of the nationalists) thought exclusion was absurd.

The proposal for the exclusion of the four counties of Ulster had some characteristics which enabled men to use more or less plausible arguments in its favour. But, if they were to give Unionist representation to these four counties, why not also give representation to the Nationalist minorities in Belfast?

Frankly I rather wish he’d been taken up on his suggestion. But anyway, the disturbing part is that he didn’t accept Ulster’s exclusion. Why not? Was it really so difficult to accept that there are two nations in Ireland and still are? Was it really so difficult to accept that if the Irish had a right to independence from Britain then the Ulster British had a right to independence from Ireland? Had Redmond accepted it he would have saved us all a lot of trouble. There would have been no Rising in 1916, no martyrs, no IRA campaign and no subsequent myth that the IRA were responsible for Ireland’s independence.

So, why the resistance to Ulster’s exclusion? Money may have been a factor. Then, as now, Ulster was much richer than the rest of the island. Revenge may have been another. This would have been revenge for lands nationalists felt they had lost three hundred years previously, although one dreads to think quite what form this revenge might have taken.

One of the baffling aspects of what was going on was the utter refusal of the British government to take note of the strength of opinion in Ulster. Half a million people signed the Ulster Covenant committing themselves to resisting Home Rule. The following 18 months would see large-scale gun-running, the foundation of an Ulster militia and an army “mutiny”.

Bringing this all up to date a recent poll suggested that only 7% of Northern Ireland’s population want unification with the Republic immediately and only 32% in 20 years’ time. It does rather beg the question why 45% or so vote for explicitly nationalist parties.

By the way I couldn’t help noticing that this historic parliamentary debate took place on New Year’s Day. In 2013, the politicians didn’t turn up until the 7th.

The verdant hills and plains of earth

“Did you know that the Earth is getting greener, quite literally? Satellites are now confirming that the amount of green vegetation on the planet has been increasing for three decades. This will be news to those accustomed to alarming tales about deforestation, over-development and ecosystem destruction.”

– Matt Ridley

The point about faster, and greater, plant growth is often ignored by those who bleat about the dangers of greater carbon emissions. Indeed, the upside of global warming – assuming that is happening – such as greater plant growth is often downplayed against the supposed downsides (rising sea levels).

Samizdata quote of the day

“We respect the Office of the President of the United States of America. But make no mistake, as the duly-elected sheriffs of our respective counties, we will enforce the rights guaranteed to our citizens by the Constitution. No federal official will be permitted to descend upon our citizens and take from them what the Bill of rights — in particular Amendment II — has given them. We, like you, swore a solemn oath to protect and defend the Constitution, and we are prepared to trade our lives for the preservation of its traditional interpretation.”

– The Utah Sheriff’s Association

(H/T, Unforseen Contingencies blog)

I am a British citizen with ambition: get me out of here

A lot of British people have done a “John Galt” in recent years, it seems, according to UK member of Parliament Nick de Bois:

Mr de Bois said tax does play a part in emigration, but suggested that culture is a more important factor, warning that Britain should encourage people to succeed and get rich, not criticise them. “Government must help lead a culture change in this country that competes with the new economies, one where competitiveness and success are valued and personal achievement and personal wealth are respected, not pilloried,” he said.

If you are mystified by the “Galt” reference (most Samizdata regulars will know it), it refers to the plot of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, in which a character called John Galt leads a “strike” of the top businessmen, scientists, artists and others to abandon their work at a time when such people are increasingly hampered by the State. In the US, the expression “Going Galt” has caught on to describe the sort of thing written about here.

Of course, emigration needn’t be a bad sign for a country and indeed, in some countries, emigration can relieve domestic pressures. In the 19th Century, large numbers of Britons left for the New World, seeking a better life. Of course, many from the around the world did so for reasons of persecution and poverty. The ability to exit a country is also one of the few things that might persuade an otherwise foolish government to pursue policies that encourage wealth creation rather than hurt it. As I have noted before, the ability of the super-rich – or indeed far less wealthy people – to get their money abroad, or move overseas, can be a healthy constraint on government. That is why I think “tax competition” between jurisdictions, far from being an evil, as leftist campaigners claim, is a good force in the world. And so it is important to bear in mind that when governments impose capital controls and exit visas, be very afraid.

In the meantime, although I don’t agree with all of its views, this book, Exceptional People: How Migrants Shaped Our World and Will Define Our Future, by Ian Goldin, Geoffrey Cameron and Meer Balarajan, is worth a read. (I am not so keen on some of its Transnational Progressivist leanings, though).




Sir David Attenborough would like us to die soon (sort of)

I recently read a fiery book, full of strong argument, well-presented data and verve, by Robert Zubrin, called “Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism… ” The book takes a blowtorch to today’s heirs of the Rev Thomas Malthus, the 18th/early 19th century political economist who argued that Man is doomed to outrun resources. Zubrin nicely skewers this reasoning, and takes on a range of population control characters ranging from Nazi advocates of eugenics through to supposedly well-meaning birth control enthusiasts in post-imperial India. (In the latter case, birth control was carried out with great brutality, as it was in China, with its “one-child” policy.)

And now, Sir David Attenborough, famous to generations of British TV viewers for his programmes about the natural world, reiterates the idea that humans are a “plague” on the planet and that there should be a lot fewer of them. Don’t worry, Sir David: judging by childbirth rates not just in the West, but in certain other countries, the risk of an accelerating growth in population numbers is unfounded, or at least that is how it seems to me. In some extreme cases, such as Japan and Italy, or arguably, Russia, the population is actually shrinking. (Maybe people just don’t get randy in those countries any more).  According to this article in the New York Times, population growth of the sort that gets Attenborough so steamed is not happening and may be in reverse soon. Attenborough is not just wrong, he’s out of date.

Attenborough will be listened to with a certain level of respect that gets granted to persons of his type. He is very grand, and yet comes across also as that “jolly nice English chap who likes his gorillas, moths and strange fish”. What he seems to lose sight of is that humans are as much a part of nature as any other species, and that he wants to deny to humans what any other creatures pursue, which is to thrive and flourish. (In the case of other species, they do so through the iron process set out by Darwin. A paradox, given that humans are the only species we know of to care about the fate of other animals.)  Then there is the point, made by the late Julian Simon and others, that humans are themselves a crucial resource,  a fact that those who take a fixed-wealth approach to life seem to overlook. (Simon famously beat population-control fanatic Paul Ehrlich in a bet about the prices of commodities. Ehrlich’s predictions have been so wrong as to be beyond parody.)

There is also the assumption that people who have “too many kids” in poor countries such as Ethiopia are too thick to figure out the supposed downsides (in countries where there are few social safety nets and mortality rates are high, having plenty of kids is entirely rational).

The history of government-led efforts at birth control and population control has been that it is ineffectual at best and savagely brutal and destructive, at worst. If you have any doubt of that, read Zubrin’s excellent book, and ask yourself what sort of person can support the ideas of Sir David, and his ilk, given the likely results.

Correction: a reader points out that it was Thomas Carlyle, not Malthus, who branded economics as a dismal science. My error.


Fellow travellers

A couple of years ago, Oliver Stone made a pro-Chávez film, South of the Border. ‘I admire Hugo,’ Stone declared. ‘The pure energy of the man is intoxicating.’ Such condescension modernises the 18th-century myth of the Noble Savage. ‘I know President Chávez well,’ claimed an equally condescending Sean Penn, the actor. ‘He is a warm and friendly man with a robust sense of humour.’ After a sponsored trip by car around Venezuela with Chávez, Penn posted on the internet a diary of thousands of words recounting in soapy detail their time together. ‘El Presidente is really human, like a brother.’ ¡Mi Hermano! Without embarrassment Penn could boast, ‘Just Hugo and me in a convoy of black vehicles.’ And in the course of the drive the wonderstruck Penn caught sight through the car windows of poor people standing by the roadside and weeping with love.

David Pryce-Jones, eviscerating the sort of people who look up to thugs such as Chavez. There is nothing wrong with admiring a political leader, democratically elected, who respects the checks and balances of a genuine liberal order, and who has the necessarily humility to realise the limits of office. I can admire such a person, but I find the sort of worship for political leaders, both democratic and non-democratic, that we see still today, to be alarming.

On a related point, I can recommend a study by Gene Healy – of the CATO Institute – about the glorification of the role of president in the US in recent times. There has been some creepy behaviour around those who venerated Mr Obama, although perhaps some of the mockery of him suggests not all of this should be taken seriously.

The Invisible Hook

In a discussion about a computer game, someone mentioned a book about 18th century piracy: The Invisible Hook by Peter T. Leeson. Click to look inside and the first words you will read are:

I’m not a historian. Nor am I a pirate. I’m an economist with a long-standing interest in privately created law and order who happened to wonder one day how pirates cooperated since they had no government.


Obeying the law is not enough – you have to read politicians’ minds, apparently

Here is a classic piece of nonsense to start this week in chilly Britain:

The UK tax authority said the amount of tax that big companies may have underpaid by using artificial intercompany transactions to inappropriately reduce taxable profits has risen 48 percent last year. The figure comes as public anger grows over tax avoidance by big businesses and British MPs investigate possible remedies.

– (From a report from Reuters.)

I read this report carefully and nowhere does it say that the firms concerned have broken laws, engaged in fraud, or used violence or engaged in criminal acts. They are taking full advantage of the laws of the jurisdictions with which they have contact, as their shareholders would expect them to do in maximising shareholder returns. If politicians really wanted to reduce what they see as such dodgy tax avoidance, perhaps they should enact taxes that are simple, low, and flat. This is not rocket science, as the 2020 Tax Commission report issued last year showed.

The recent naming and shaming of Starbucks, for example, of simply making use of legal arrangements, was particularly odious. No wonder people are thinking that we are living in a world like something from the pages of Atlas Shrugged.

Tim Worstall writes about this sort of issue a lot, usually in the process of skewering that socialist “accountant” from Wandsworth, Richard Murphy. Tim is always entertaining and instructive at the same time.



Samizdata quote of the day

I can appreciate that it is important to attract visitors, for the economy and all that. But there is always a balance to be struck between encouragement and grovelling. If Johnny Foreigner wants friendly he should go to America. There the natives are capable of wishing you a nice day without even a hint of irony. Here if someone approaches you with a wide smile and an outstretched hand you feel not warmth but deep suspicion.

Nigel Farndale

I remember reading Kate Fox’s “Watching the English” a few years ago and laughed out loud at some of her sharp insights about how we natives behave on this small, damp island.

Last October, I went shopping with my wife around San Francisco during a business/recreation trip to the Bay Area. With one exception – where I got treated rather rudely by a shop assistant – I was blown away by the friendliness and helpfulness of people and how it was done without being patronising or somehow false. Yes, California has its problems these days, but I wish I could import some of the attitude there to the UK.

Just imagine a German version of this…

It is always interesting that when newspapers cover Chinese news, mentions of history’s most prolific mass murderer just get reported baldly without much comment:

Players won points for acts of selfless Communist spirit and the winners were greeted, on screen, by Chairman Mao in Tiananmen Square. Points were deducted, however, each time a player had to be taken aside by his local Party secretary for a “corrective chat”.

China embraces online gamers

Yet somehow if a German videogame maker (let alone a government sponsored one) were to feature that also-ran mass murderer Adolf Hitler ‘greeting’ players on screen in a video game, I suspect the reportage might be… a tad different.

Curious, no?

The cheapest of cheap shots

London, January 18, 2013

“Snowfalls are now just a thing of the past”

The Independent, March 20, 2000