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]

Free market protection agencies and the tragedy of the commons

Get into a discussion with any self-described anarcho-capitalist and it is only a matter of time before you are directed to David Friedman for an answer to the conundrum posed. I have generally considered such appeals to authority as tacit admissions of defeat – if an argument is any good, it ought to be easy to summarise and explain. Conversely, it is often the least defensible arguments which require complex exposition (and by a third party to boot!). I was recently referred to Friedman by Scott Scheule during a discussion at my own blog and promised that Friedman would deal with the thorny question of what differentiates the “Free market protection agencies” predicted by anarcho-capitalists under anarchy from the real world “protection agencies” we observe in conditions approximating anarchy such as mafias and warlords. Friedman sketched out this scenario: → Continue reading: Free market protection agencies and the tragedy of the commons

Samizdata quote of the day

Some people will forever be chasing the chimera of better government. This shields them from the idea that the only option is less government
Peter Gordon

Of Schmiberals and Schmibertarians

Natalie got there ahead of me but I also noticed the preposterous attempt by the pseudo-liberals of Crooked Timber to lecture us “Schmibertarians” in the ‘correct’ libertarian stance towards Iraq.

I thought it might be informative to examine the Crooked consensus and some of its logical implications. I would summarise the “Samizdatistas are schmibertarians” argument – and anyone who suspects I’m setting up a straw man here is invited to read the relevant posts and particularly the follow-up comments – as follows:

  1. ‘Proper’ Libertarians oppose major government programs funded by coercive taxation, the Iraq war is such a program.
  2. ‘Proper’ Libertarians are wary of any kind of social-engineering, so the neoconservative plan to remodel Middle Eastern countries as democracies is futile folly.
  3. Thus anyone who supports the war against Saddam is necessarily a sham libertarian who just thinks it’s cool to blow things up.

My first reaction was to the irony of being lectured in ‘correct’ libertarianism by a bunch of egalitarian, social-engineering collectivists who presume to identify as “Liberal”. Indeed it is precisely because this previously unambiguous term has been suborned by those who display a cavalier disregard for the classic liberal values of autonomy, individualism and limited government that many of us reluctantly adopt the libertarian moniker in the first place.

The premise behind the argument is dubious to say the least. It is generally taken to be the case that arguments are accepted or opposed on their own merits and without reference to whether they conform to some theology to which those making the argument are perceived to subscribe. I were to argue against, say, a Creationist, it would seem to me to be a pointless task to identify what a ‘real’ Creationist ought to believe prior to debunking his theory. Indeed, the logical consequence of a position which states that the correct libertarian ought to oppose the Iraq war according to libertarian first principles is that those who oppose the war are implicitly endorsing those specific libertarian principles. So, the next time some wonky twig proposes a massive government intervention or other, one can remind him that, as his opposition to the Iraq war demonstrates, such social engineering ought to be avoided.

It is also curious to note the partial isolationism adopted with regard to Iraq, considering the enthusiasm regularly displayed for action against third world ‘exploitation’. Thus, according to the Crooked Timber moral calculus, it is not ok to interfere in the affairs of another country if its citizens are being tortured or murdered but it is ok to interfere to prevent those (remaining) citizens getting a good job with a dreaded multinational corporation!

Benefits of incrementalism

Discussing nationalised healthcare with those of a leftist frame of mind, it occurs to me that one is put at a disadvantage in attempting to demonstrate the merits of a private healthcare system if one restricts the options to a public health system versus private health system. This tends to conflate the separate benefits a private system would provide. Nationalised healthcare systems are wasteful and ruinously expensive but there are actually two separate phenomena contributing to this.

  1. Any business which is run by the government will have priorities unrelated to those of the customers of that business and will tend to provide the product or service it wants to provide, in the quantities it wants to produce as opposed to providing the product according to the customer’s demand. This leads inexorably to unsatisfied customers, gluts, rationing and shortages.
  2. ‘Free’ healthcare is a problem similar to the tragedy of the commons. If there is no cost to be borne by availing of ‘free’ healthcare, there is no corrective against frivolous use of this service. The phenomena of bored pensioners visiting the doctor for a chat is solely that of a system where that doctor’s time is paid by the taxpayer and not the loquacious geriatric. Hypochondria, held in check by a pay-as-you-go system is positively rewarded by free healthcare.

One is further disadvantaged by conflating nationalised health with redistributionism per se. Thus, if the matter for discussion is simply nationalised health versus private, one must not only convince the sceptic of the benefits of the market but also to abandon a, perhaps cherished, redistributionist outlook. Yet, it is not necessary to do so if these issues are separated. In agreeing to set aside the issue of redistribution in the first place it ought to be possible to agree with the leftist interlocutor that the government does a lousy job of running the health system. An ardent supporter of cradle to grave healthcare, if intellectually honest, may be persuaded to concede that, so long as the government still pays for it, healthcare would be better provided by the private sector. If this step is accepted, such an intellectually honest leftist might also note the role of incentives when healthcare is provided on a no-cost basis. In an alternative system, an individual might be provided with health vouchers or subsidised insurance, perhaps a no claims bonus might apply or a policy excess. In such a system, the government still picks up the tab but there is at least some incentive for the user to modify his consumption.

By separating the issues it may be possible to reach wider agreement on privatising health than would be possible with the issues lumped together. It is probably worth adopting such an incrementalist approach in lieu of the ‘greedy’ approach of the absolutist. For most of the issues which concern libertarians, a step in the right direction is not only useful in getting closer to one’s goal, it may also offer a noticeable improvement in its own right.

More sustainable than thou

Natalie’s post below, referencing ‘new age travellers’ reminded me of something I saw on TV the other night: One of the reality TV programmes littering the Channel 4 schedule is Wife Swap. This features two families of contrasting lifestyles swapping wives for a couple of weeks. This week saw unabashed ‘consumerist’ Joanna exchange with soi-disant ‘eco-warrior’, Emily.

The violent disagreements frequently showcased in this series were notable by their absence but a source of intense irritation for me was the smug way that Emily’s family presumed to lecture Joanna’s family about the ‘unsustainability’ of their ‘consumerist’ lifestyle. This was to be set in contrast to the supposedly sustainable, humble way of life enjoyed by the environmentally friendly family. Yet it seemed clear to me that it was the lifestyle of the latter which was truly unsustainable. After all, this particular eco-family, eke out an idyllic idle existence in their forest house… courtesy of state benefits!

If all of us capitalists downed our tools to live in the woods and embrace the eco-lifestyle there would be nobody paying the taxes which fund these ‘alternative’ lifestyles, nor indeed would there be an economy to provide all those things you can’t just grow. Whatever chance a self-supporting eco-warrior has of convincing me of the superiority of that lifestyle, when one attempts to do so from a position of state-funded idleness, the proper reaction is derision.

The principal reason this is worth noting is that guilty consumerists prove notoriously receptive to the kind of nonsense peddled by the likes of Emily, probably imagine that the greater virtue lies in the faux-sustainable lifestyle and provide insufficient defense of the capitalism which actually ‘sustains’ all of us.

Samizdata quote of the day

Imagine the police surrounding a bank and telling the robber barricaded inside, “Just throw out your weapons; you can keep the money and the hostages!”

Todd Skelton on Gadhafi’s “rehabilitation”.

Do “anarchists” really want anarchy?

As Mayday approaches and with it the traditional harbingers of summer, such as the sight of a freshly dug paving brick in flight, with its comet’s tail of dirt particles, tracing an arc towards a McDonalds plate glass window or the contents of a looted Baby Gap whirling in the breeze, blue bibs and striped sleepsuits hanging off street lights, my thoughts turn to that strange creature who has emerged from winter hibernation, the anti-globalisation “anarchist”. This creature represents a conundrum: While he professes to favour anarchy, he is more likely than not to owe his current indolent lifestyle to a most un-anarchical social welfare system. How to reconcile this contradiction?

The first thing I’d like to say is that I am not anarcho-libertarian. I do understand the arguments, I just remain unpersuaded. But my intention here is not to provide a rebuttal of anarcho-libertarianism, rather to compare it with the “anarchism” more prominent in the popular imagination, that of a Mayday protester. If you take such an anarchist at his word and grant that he will be happy to forego the benefits of a redistributive welfare state once his utopia arrives, where does his purported philosophy differ from an anarcho-libertarian or anarcho-capitalist?

It occurs to me that the principal difference lies in the respective attitudes towards private property. The anarcho-capitalist respects private property, his own and others. The “anarchist” considers all property to be theft and asserts a right to expropriate such property as he needs or wants from others. As a welfare state needs a state to sustain itself, the anarchist presumably imagines that the “needy”, in lieu of state handouts, simply steal what they “need” from others. Of course if you are one of those “others” you may not be so keen on this happening. As there would be no state police force, the task of defending property devolves to the individual who may contract it out to private security services. Thus the anarchy favoured by the “anarchist” turns out strikingly similar to that proposed by anarcho-capitalists. Is this really what he wants?

I suggest that what the “anarchist” really wants is short term anarchy. An afternoon or so of mayhem, “for kicks”, and then a return to an un-anarchical world where the welfare state remains to inadvertently subsidise his “alternative” lifestyle.

The political society

There is an intensely irritating advertising campaign showing currently on British TV, its cumbersome catchphrase: “If you don’t do politics, there’s not much you do do“. It is run by the Electoral Commission and goes one step beyond explaining to people how to exercise their democratic franchise by promoting “political” interference into almost every aspect of quotidian life.

The animated advert features two men in a pub. The first’s gauche attempt to bring up some tedious manoeuvring in the European parliament is deftly dismissed by the second’s sensible rejoinder that he “doesn’t do politics”. Our statist ‘hero’ is not so easily assuaged however, as each subsequent time the second man complains about various items from pub closing time to sporting achievements, he is pointedly reminded by his friend that he “doesn’t do politics” and thus implicitly isn’t entitled to an opinion on such things. The assumption behind this campaign is that everything that matters – “not much you do do” – ought to be subject to political mediation. In reality, the only reason the pub landlord closes at that specific time is because “politics” forces him to do so. If he “didn’t do politics” so much he might close at a time of his own choosing which may suit him and his customers better.

It is telling that this latest promotion of a society based on political mediation to replace that based on voluntary interaction is not by a political party or a pressure group but by a supposedly independent body. This surely demonstrates the folly of assuming independence as to the proper role and size of government in any body funded by the government.

Samizdata quote of the day

That’s my basic rule: whatever the problem, the government’s a bigger one
Mark Steyn

Cultural Luddism for beginners

David produced a useful guide to Tranzian for beginners. I thought it apt to follow with a guide to Cultural Luddism – the language of those who reject modern cosmopolitan capitalism – for those who might otherwise be perplexed at the offerings of this group of pseudo-libertarians. → Continue reading: Cultural Luddism for beginners

All you need is a few nuts

I had been mulling over the reiteration, last week, of our dear leader’s approach to political parties. It occurs to me that while Perry’s prescription – don’t vote and have nothing to do with political parties – is tempting, it is ultimately flawed. It is possible to affect a weary disdain for politics if you are fortunate to live in a country where some liberties remain. It is, however, dangerous to assume that this situation is static.

In any election – and for the purposes of argument I refer to a two party system such as the US or the UK – one is inevitably offered what appears to be Hobson’s choice: Two sets of control freaks who share the same basic statist assumptions. That this is barely palatable to the libertarian doesn’t alter the fact that there are bound to be differing outcomes depending on whom is elected and that one of those outcomes would be worse than the other. Thus while it is true to say that one’s individual vote will not make any difference to the outcome, the libertarian should have an interest in that outcome.

There remains the question, if one chooses to engage in mainstream politics, of how to improve the choice offered to the voter. There is no prospect, under the UK’s first past the post system, of a government being formed by any party other than Labour or the Tories. It may seem, at first, like a daunting task to convert either party towards any kind of libertarianism. How does one persuade an entire party of committed statists away from statism? Surely by the time everybody was on board, the “libertarianism” would be watered down so much so as to be unrecognisable? One possible answer to this conundrum was suggested to me while reading the Observer Food Monthly.

Heston Blumenthal, chef-proprietor of the 3-Michelin-starred Fat Duck restaurant, takes a uniquely scientific approach to cooking. One of the concepts which informs his thinking is Flavour Encapsulation. This describes the strength of flavour imparted when elements of contrasting flavour remain whole and unblended. Blumenthal explains it thus:

Make a cup of coffee with one ground coffee bean – it will taste horribly insipid. Now take the cup and fill it with hot water; just before you drink it, pop a coffee bean into your mouth, crunch it and then drink the water. This time, the coffee flavour will be far stronger and last in the mouth a lot longer. The experiment shows that a coffee bean delivers a far greater flavour eaten whole than when ground up in a cup of hot water. Effectively, the flavour is encapsulated in the whole bean but dispersed in the water.

This is the culinary principle behind such things as marmalade, fruit cakes, spaghetti carbonara, even something as naff as sun-dried tomato ciabatta and explains why significantly more flavour is required for ‘smooth’ food such as a souffle or pureed soup than ‘chunky’ food. If your objective is to create a nutty chocolate bar there is an efficient method and an inefficient method. The reason why smooth textured praline is more expensive than a chunky ‘choc and nut’ bar is because far fewer nuts are required for the latter to achieve an equivalent flavour. To convert a party such as the Tories towards libertarianism it is not necessary to puree and blend with the mass, all you need is a few whole nuts.

You think that’s cannibalism?

David is too easily impressed. Over here in Ireland, we were doing public sector cannibalism when public sector cannibalism wasn’t cool.

In 1992, the Irish Labour party broke with tradition by entering into a coalition government with Fianna Fail. The Labour party had increased its share of the vote after a campaign of vigorous opposition to Fianna Fail. To placate its voters, most of whom had expected that they were kicking FF out of government, and because they were feeling cocky, Labour demanded a whole raft of rhetorical leftiness in the government program. One of these was to rename the crusty old “right wing” Department of Justice as the brand new, “compassionate” Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. A consequence of this was the establishment of Citizen Traveller, charged with:

implementing an integrated communications initiative to promote the visibility and participation of Travellers within Irish society, to nurture the development of Traveller pride and self confidence, and to give Travellers a sense of community identity that could be expressed internally and externally.

This translates as: a Traveller-advocacy group working out of a government department, their motto: “Promoting travellers as an ethnic minority”. So when one government department – the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform – enacted legislation to enable the police to evict caravans which were trespassing on private property, a branch of the same government department – Citizen Traveller – took out expensive billboard and newspaper advertisements to protest this “racist and unworkable law”.

We are unfortunate in that, despite his classical liberal background, our current Justice minister Michael McDowell has developed a Blunkett-like authoritarianism but he is to be congratulated for phasing “Equality” out of his department and ultimately shutting down Citizen Traveller.