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]

We want to rule you because you are stupid and powerless and we are wise

Even by the standards of the authortarian depravity of people who work in the West’s places of higher education, this caught my eye:

“Against Autonomy is a defence of paternalistic laws; that is, laws that make you do things, or prevent you from doing things, for your own good. I argue that autonomy, or the freedom to act in accordance with your own decisions, is overrated — that the common high evaluation of the importance of autonomy is based on a belief that we are much more rational than we actually are. We now have lots of evidence from psychology and behavioural economics that we are often very bad at choosing effective means to our ends. In such cases, we need the help of others — and in particular, of government regulation — to keep us from going wrong.”

Via the website of Stephen Hicks.

Read the whole thing. And look at the sort of coercive measures she favours, such as over the number of children that people have. Here is the book.

The other day, we had a debate on this site about free will and determinism. It is a debate that goes back centuries. For what it is worth, I am on the side of those who believe that human beings, by their very nature, have volition – it is hard to see how humans can form concepts, judge and reason without a volitional capacity. Here is a great discussion of the issues over at Diana Hsieh’s Philosophy in Action blog.

Now, some people argue, this is all very academic. But as the example above shows, once supposedly “academic” and “scientific” people put about the idea that we are nothing more than puppets in a deterministic universe, certain consequences follow. It can – although it needn’t – lead to fatalism and nihilism. It can also mean that certain intellectuals and the like, rather as the Marxists of old, consider themselves able to rise above the herd, diagnose the ills of we meat-puppets, and lead us “for our own good”. Just as a Marxist would shout “bourgeois illusion!” if a person ever contested such ideas as historical inevitability, so today’s modern determinists, such the Sam Harrises, do the same in suggesting that our free will/volition is also an illusion.

And Harris’ recent forays into the world of political philosophy give us a good idea of how collectivist such people frequently are. Here, by the way, is an excellent short book by Tim Mawson, a philosopher, on the free will issue – it has a huge bibliography at the back which is also very useful.

Some things change and some things stay the same. And it seems that one constant debate is that between those who think that Man is, to an extent anyway, the master or author of his own story, and those who would rather Man just did what he was told, for his own good, of course. Well, I know which side I’m on.

Update, via the Art and Letters Daily website, I came across this rather soft-ball review of the book by a certain Cass Sunstein, one of those unashamed paternalists whom, it pains me to say, seem to be popular with the current political class. (But even he has reservations about this book.)


On the difficulty of remembering things past

I enjoyed reading this:

What we know about events in the Middle Ages depends upon a surprisingly narrow source base. We need to imagine a stage with ninety per cent permanently in darkness. An occasional spotlight flickers upon this corner or that, suddenly revealing details and colours that we might not otherwise imagine existed. A vague half-light enables us to discern some broader outlines, a few darker and lighter shadows. For the most part, however, we depend upon inference and imagination to establish what is there. It is no coincidence that those trained as medieval historians have occupied a disproportionately significant role in both MI6 and the CIA, precisely because the medievalist’s training ensures that the bare minimum of detail is employed to the maximum effect in intelligence gathering.

That comes right near the start (page 3) of A Brief History of Britain 1066-1485 by Nicholas Vincent. Whenever I read something that interesting at the start of a book, I am encouraged to continue. Dipping around in other parts of it suggests that there is much else in this book of interest. I was especially held by the bit I happened to read about how William the Conqueror and his heirs turned vast swathes of England into royal forests for their own hunting pleasure, the previous owners just being turfed out. That King William Rufus, son of the Conqueror, died in a hunting accident, caused much satisfaction among the conquered Anglo-Saxons.

Changing the subject somewhat, but only somewhat, from the disaster that engulfed Anglo-Saxon England to an earlier disaster that seems to have deranged the entire world, I see that Instapundit today linked to an article about a lady geophysicist called Dallas Abbott. Ten years ago, she had the bright idea of looking for evidence of asteroid strikes under the sea. She concluded from her investigations that a big asteroid splashed into the Gulf of Carpentaria (the big bite out of the north coast of Australia) in the year 536. I wrote about this event in an earlier posting here. The book I was reading then was by a certain David Keys, and he reckoned that the various climatic horrors fitfully reported around the world at that time, horrors also noted by Ms Abbott, were triggered by a volcanic eruption, in 535. But they are quite clearly both talking about the same disaster.

It is not surprising that we can’t even be sure that such a thing even happened, let alone what the details were. By the nature of such events, not a lot of written evidence survives about catastrophes. The people at the time were concentrating on trying to stay alive. Keeping us fully informed of the details of their difficulties was not their top priority.

Spreading ideas effectively

Suppose a well-off libertarian compiles a list of a hundred books that do a good job of promoting libertarian ideas and are not currently available online, goes to the publishers and offers to buy the online rights. Most books, including most books about ideas, do not make all that much money, so my guess is that a publisher should be willing to sell the online rights for ten thousand dollars, perhaps less. A few will be books that were or are best sellers, and their rights might be expensive—but those are books that most curious readers can probably find in the local library, so although webbing them would be useful, it would not be as useful as webbing less successful books. Cross them off the list and replace them with a few less expensive ones. Total cost a million dollars.

The project also requires a libertarian lawyer willing to volunteer his time to negotiate the purchases and a libertarian web designer willing to web the books, perhaps with the assistance of a few more libertarians willing to scan them. Libertarian lawyers and libertarian web designers exist—I’ve even gotten offers from some of the latter to redesign my somewhat out of date web site for free. And putting a hundred such books on the web should significantly increase both the number of people who become convinced by libertarian arguments and the quality of the arguments of those already convinced.

David Friedman.

Well, I have a pretty big book collections these days, although not as colossal as that of Brian Micklethwait of this blog, or the late Chris Tame (he had the sort of private library that was mind-blowing, and that was just the science fiction bit).

I’d be interested to know if such an idea could be made to work. If one of the main ideas is reaching out to students – who are short of money and for whom book purchases are a big cost – anything that can help things along is a good idea.  (The comment thread on Friedman’s post is worth reading also.)

Samizdata quote of the day

If they figure at all, it is as a group to be derided, reduced to a caricature framed by Boden, Waitrose tempered by Lidl, holidays in France, and a fondness for television box sets. Their dinner-party concerns about finding a good school, a decent house or a good hospital qualify for jokes, little else. The tributes paid to Richard Briers remind us that, at best, the middle classes are an object of gentle ribbing, but seldom to be admired as the shock troops of economic recovery. Instead, politics has been reduced to an argument over how best to clobber the wealthy in order to help the poor, two small groups who attract a disproportionate amount of attention from politicians.

Ben Brogan

Of course, it would be refreshing if we could just talk about people as individuals rather than as members of classes at all.

Helping children in Morocco

In April, my friend Elena Procopiu is going on a trek through the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, to raise money for a charity called the Moroccan Children’s Trust. Elena writes about MCT’s activities,and her fundraising activity for it, here.

There are hundreds of children on the streets of Taroudant suffering daily harassment, humiliation, physical abuse and exploitation as they try to earn a living off the streets. …

… and MCT is trying to do something about that.

Elena’s many friends have started chipping in. I will shortly be doing likewise. I have already learned some geography, by googling Taroudant.

I am looking forward to hearing about this expedition when Elena returns to London. Just as interesting as her report of the trek in the mountains will be what else she will then be able to tell us all about the work of MCT. After the trekking is done, the trekkers will spend a further few days meeting some of the local Moroccans involved, and some of the children and parents they are trying to help. If anyone reading this is inclined to donate also, Elena assures us that this is the sort of thing that all their donations will be spent on. The trekkers are all paying their own travelling expenses.

It makes a difference to me that Elena is personally acquainted with the people who run MCT, which as of now seems to be quite a small operation, with no big London HQ or any such nonsense. The boss of the enterprise is a British doctor. I’m guessing that MCT began when he was doctoring in Morocco, but then realised that many of his patients, or potential patients, had other problems besides medical problems.

I say “or potential patients”, because it is a sad sign of the times we live in that an important part of MCT’s work is helping people fill in forms, so that they can then visit doctors, attend schools, and so on. Sadly, being a bureaucratic un-person can be a slow sentence of death to someone already on the poverty line, in a country like Morocco.

Really helping total strangers can be very difficult. Time and again, people who are trying to help, or who say they are, only end up making matters worse (for coincidental evidence of which you need only note the immediately previous post here this very morning). Which is why, for me, having a personal friend involved in a particular charitable effort makes the difference – all the difference, actually – between me saying no and me saying yes, to a request for a donation. That way I will get the lowdown on how the money is really being spent, and whether it is reasonable to go on hoping that it is doing some actual good. Meanwhile I am genuinely doing a favour for a friend, who I already know I really will be helping.

I hope to be reporting further about this, perhaps with photos that Elena says she will be taking on her travels.

Oxfam persuades one of Europe’s biggest banks to stop doing capitalism

From today’s Financial Times:

BNP Paribas made a loud contribution to the debate on how comfortable fund managers, and financial institutions generally, should be about speculating on food prices last week.

On the back of criticism from Oxfam, the international aid agency, which accused the French house of “speculating on hunger”, BNP suspended subscriptions on two of its funds.

BNP’s Parvest World Agriculture fund, which manages €159m of assets, has been shut to new investors as a “precautionary” measure, while its EasyETF Ultra Light Energy fund has also been closed.

BNP Paribas has funds in which its clients invest; those funds hold investments in agricultural-related businesses and properties of one kind or another, such as companies that make farm machinery, etc. If commodity prices for things such as wheat and soy are rising and that encourages the share prices of various industries to rise, and this encourages more investment in those industries so that the production of said commodities rises, this is not a bug of capitalism, but a feature. And if those speculators, who bet that prices will rise, and they do, and therefore make money, their price-creation role – conveying information that triggers responses – is to be applauded, not condemned.

Oxfam, and other organisations that throw rocks at the financial intermediary role of speculators and the like, is merely playing to a long-established trope. It is demonstrating economic illiteracy on an epic scale. I can, of course, understand why a large bank that makes a big point of its image not wishing to offend organisations such as Oxfam. But bear in mind that what Oxfam objects to is the very process of the free market in action. When a bank caves into such pressure, then that surely is a sign that anyone serious about making money from the agricultural sector would be better advised to do so elsewhere.

In the meantime, if anyone can explain to me how a hungry person in a country benefits from such actions, do let me know.

Update: I suppose it is possible to argue that central bank inflation of the money supply via quantitative easing is encouraging investors to put this money into commodities and other “hard assets” in ways that have unforseen and negative effects, but I haven’t seen that point made by Oxfam.




Our genetic makeup and libertarianism

Over at the blog Gene Expression – a site focusing on issues such as inheritability of certain conditions and traits – I left a short comment in response to an article, entitled, Human Nature and Libertarianism:

“I guess a short answer is that anyone who argues that our inherited traits outweigh things such as our volition and capacity for free will (not necessarily using those words in the old religious sense) will find it to be an unreliable guide to their politics. Some Darwinians seem to be socialists, some on the right, some libertarian. The truth of the insights of Hayek, or Milton Friedman, or Ludwig von Mises, say, are not in my mind remotely affected one way or the other by whatever might be the latest insights from evolutionary psychology. I am concerned if issues of political philosophy (the proper role of the state, individual rights, whatever) are placed at the mercy of the laboratory.”

I suppose I should add that there are useful insights, of course, that can be drawn from scientific studies that try to get at how and why people hold the views they do, although I think these things need to be treated with a great deal of care.


What the Adam Smith Institute did

Successful people are often born into a world that is not, so to speak, theirs. The world in which they get dealt their first cards is what it is and where it is, but their real world, the world they were meant for, is something and somewhere else. They are born the son of a coal miner or of a provincial shopkeeper, yet their natural place in the world is to be a classical musician or a weather forecaster in a big city or a diplomat or a music hall comedian or a technology billionaire. The mega-successes are those who know, early, not so much what they want or want to do, as where they need to be – where, for them, the action is – and who shift heaven and earth to get to that sweet spot in the world just as soon as possible, often taking truly hair-raising risks to get there. They identify where they want to be, calculate the price of getting there, and pay that price. And then, having got to where they need to be, they are happy! The inconveniences and disappointments – even the humiliations – that they then encounter do not depress them, because everything that happens, however bad, is evidence that they are exactly where they want to be and where they should be.

In the early pages of Think Tank, subtitled “The Story of the Adam Smith Institute”, we are told exactly such a story, of a group of young pro-free-market guns knowing where they need to be, and doing whatever they have to do to get to that exact place, namely within ten minutes walk of the House of Commons, in the centre of London. They juggle finances, scrounge furniture off aunts in faraway places, put money down on a London office lease well before they know how they are going to meet the payments, buy and sell cottages in Scotland, earn extra money by teaching, and generally bet their farms on their new farm being just what they want. (By the way if you want a shorter review of this book than this posting is, try the three short reviews at the other end of the above link. All three are very positive, but also very informative.)

To help me think about this posting, I asked a respected friend what he thought of the Adam Smith Institute. I expected some sort of rumination on what they had achieved and what they might yet achieve, on what they have got right and what wrong. Instead my friend simply said that he liked Madsen Pirie. This is a significant fact about the ASI, I think. Simply, they are nice people, fun and interesting to be with. Following Madsen Pirie’s lead, they exude a gleeful camaraderie that my friend and I, and surely many others of a like mind, find very appealing. Madsen Pirie’s Think Tank radiates a similarly good humoured and companionable atmosphere. When reading it, I kept hearing that Madsen Pirie voice, with its big grin and its self-mockingly over-precise diction.

Cards on the table. I liked and admired this book a lot, just as I have long liked and admired its author. I was given a free copy of it by its author, who had very good reason to hope that I would say nice things about it, and I will. I recommend this book as an entertaining and informative way to acquaint yourself with the Adam Smith Institute and with those who founded and still lead it.

→ Continue reading: What the Adam Smith Institute did

Samizdata quote of the day

In Los Angeles, as the hunt for another registered Democrat on a killing spree continues, police opened fire on two innocent ladies delivering newspapers from the same kind of truck as the suspect. They seem to have done so without any attempt at identification. They didn’t even shout a warning first. 

It seems that those drawn to jobs as the state’s armed enforcers are also among those not to be trusted with weapons. I suggest it’s for the same psychological reasons. As the validated agents of what they see as a superior moral force, they feel justified in their appalling actions, but also sure that if they get it wrong the state will defend them. Reckless and panicky they may be, but having injured two innocents they “protect and serve” they are safe. At least as safe, say, as an NHS mandarin who presided over the deaths of thousands.

Samizdata quote of the day

I conclude, then, that it is not good long-term libertarian propaganda to argue for various alternative systems of politics, or incremental political changes, on the basis that they are somewhat better than what we have now and they are more easily achievable than radical libertarianism. For such a strategy can only waste endless time in endless compromise, while failing to explain properly the libertarian alternative and thereby making converts. It is far better to argue immediately and always for the radical libertarian option.

– Jan C Lester puts the case for libertarianism and against compromise in a talk, entitled “Democracies, Republics and other unnecessary evils”, which he gave to Libertarian Home at the Rose and Crown in August of last year.

I first heard Lester speak these words while watching this video of the event, but I was later able to copy and paste them to here from this full text of the talk, also made available by Libertarian Home.

On February 22nd Michael Jennings will be talking about globalisation

Following the highly successful (nobody has said otherwise to me) relaunch of Brian’s Fridays with a talk by Sam Bowman on January 25th, the last Friday of February is now approaching fast, in fact it is about as early in the month as a last Friday is capable of being, namely February 22nd. Tomorrow week, in other words. And my speaker will be my good friend and fellow Samizdatista, Michael Jennings, talking about How globalisation has made the world less rather than more homogenised. (And yes, isn’t it great that we now have author archives here?)

It will not amaze Samizdata readers to learn that Michael’s talk will be making maximum use of his impressive understanding of business and of technology, together with the fact that for as long as any of his London friends have known him he has been roaming the globe, looking at the impact of such things at first hand. Follow the above link if you doubt this, and look in particular at postings like this one, from last Christmas Eve. Many speak these days about globalisation. Michael really does know a great deal about what this process now consists of.

As I have earlier said here, one of my purposes in relaunching these evenings is to stir up more blogging than might otherwise have happened, by me and by others, both before and in response to these events. And that is now starting to happen. So far such blogging has mostly been me, but now Michael has joined in, with a couple of postings at my personal blog which are his in all but name, here and here, mentioning some of the themes he is now busy wrestling down into a forty minute talk.

The second of these two postings includes four photos, taken in Georgia, Cyprus, Tianjin (which is the fourth largest city in China), and Mumbai. He will be showing us further photos on the night. It also contains this line (under the Tianjin picture):

One could write an entire book about fake Apple Stores.

I wanted to make that today’s SQOTD, but the spot had already been taken.

What such bloggage means is that these meetings will have an impact way beyond the mere people who happen to show up on the night, in a way that was very hard to contrive with meetings of this sort in the days before the internet. As so often, when it comes to newly devised ways of communicating, the new ways don’t render the old ways obsolete. On the contrary, they make the old ways both easier to organise and more significant in their impact. Even if you don’t ever come within a thousand miles of my home, you may still benefit, albeit indirectly, from these meetings taking place.

As to the obvious way of multiplying the impact of these talks, by video-ing them, at present I am not doing this. Opinion, what I know of it, is divided on the wisdom of this decision, but my feeling is (a) that video works better when it is shorter and more visually punchy than just a person talking for half an hour or more, and (b) that there is value in at least some speaker meetings not being videoed. (If no other libertarians were videoing meetings, I probably would.) Speakers, especially the sort of younger and less experienced speakers whom I intend quite often to invite, may feel freer, in such unimortalised circumstances, to explore subjects outside their comfort zones and off the beaten tracks of the usual libertarian topics and arguments. Unvideoed meetings are a chance for people to think aloud, and perhaps attempt a talk which they will later perfect and want to have videoed, when it is good and ready.

If you would like to attend Michael’s globralisation talk, or would like information about future Brian’s Fridays, please email me (by clicking where it says “Contact”, top left, there), or leave a comment here (or there).

EU nagging put nag in your burger

“More regulation” is the cry in every gagging throat, following the revelation that numerous cheap meat dishes in several supermarkets that were labelled as beef or lamb actually contained horsemeat.

Regulation caused the problem in the first place.

From today’s Times (subscriber only):

The Government knew last summer that a sudden ban on cheap British beef and lamb meant it was “inevitable” that unlawful meat would be imported from Europe.

Unintended consequences, again. It would make a horse laugh.

Jim Paice, the former Agriculture Minister, warned the committee last summer that unlawful meat would be imported from Europe as manufacturers sought cheap sources to make up for banned British supplies.

The warning came after the FSA [Food Standards Agency] suddenly told meat processors to halt the production of “desinewed” beef and lamb, which was used in tens of millions of ready meals, burgers and kebabs each year, after orders from European Commission inspectors.

The committee demanded in July last year that the Government set out its plans to prevent illegal imports, stating: “The Agriculture Minister’s evidence suggested that it was inevitable that wrongly labelled or unlawful meat products would be importing into the UK to replace UK produced desinewed meat.”

Emphasis added. Do not, however, expect this aspect to be emphasised in the Radio 4 Food Programme. I could be proved wrong; there is a podcast here which I am not in the mood to listen to, but so far the BBC’s coverage has been a relentless flow of, if you will forgive yet another revolting processed meat metaphor, pink slime.