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]

Thoughts about what happened in Virginia this weekend

“It’s becoming so clear now why the war of words between SJWs and the new white nationalists is so intense. It isn’t because they have huge ideological differences — it’s because they have so much in common. Both are obsessed with race, SJWs demanding white shame, the alt-right responding with white pride. Both view everyday life and culture through a highly racialised filter. SJWs can’t even watch a movie without counting how many lines the black actor has in comparison with the white actor so that they can rush home and tumblr about the injustice of it all. Both have a seemingly boundless capacity for self-pity. Both are convinced they’re under siege, whether by patriarchy, transphobia and the Daily Mail (SJWs) or by pinkos and blacks (white nationalists). Both have a deep censorious strain. And both crave recognition of their victimhood and flattery of their feelings. This is really what they’re fighting over — not principles or visions but who should get the coveted title of the most hard-done-by identity. They’re auditioning for social pity. “My life matters! My pain matters! I matter!” The increasing bitterness and even violence of their feud is not evidence of its substance, but the opposite: it’s the narcissism of small differences.”

Brendan O’Neill, as seen on his Facebook page. He is writing about the violence in Virginia at the weekend.

I think he is broadly right, and if we are trying to work out where the rot of identity politics comes from (the libertarian scholar Tom G Palmer actually calls it “identitarianism”) I would wager that post-modernism, and the idea that there are no objective standards of truth and value, has something to do with it. Of all the books I have read in the past decade, Prof. Stephen Hicks’ short masterpiece, Explaining Postmodernism, gets as close as I can see to putting a finger on today’s nonsense.

Speaking for myself, I had a glimpse of this retreat from reason last week when, in an online chat with a friend about the Google sacking of James Danmore, a woman jumped in to state that no matter what arguments or logic I could use to object to the firing of this man, that her “lived experience” (ie, the fact that she knows Google female employees who are upset) would outweigh it. Not logic, reason or evidence, but “lived experience”. What this person failed to realise, perhaps, was she had committed a classic stolen concept error: the very attempt to deploy “lived experience” as a sort of “I win!” itself implies that there is some sort of logic against which one can test it. If there is no logic against which one can test and evaluate one “lived experience” against another, all one has left is that the gang of those with “lived experience” A beats those with “lived experience” B. This is known as Might is Right, or the power of the mob.

And in a world where logic and reason are dethroned because of hurt feelings, the results are very unpleasant. As we are seeing now almost daily.

Update: great editorial by the Wall Street Journal. ($)

Getting the excuses in first

(This is a reworking of comments I sent to a couple of friends of mine in an email. A few points have been cut out because they would not make sense to outsiders, and others have been added.)

I see that Owen Jones, the Corbynite journalist, is in the Guardian pushing the idea that if Jeremy Corbyn and his fellow socialists are elected into government, that elements of the “deep state” and all those dastardly neo-liberal establishment types will try and frustrate him.

In a country that has, or should have, checks and balances in a constitutional liberal order, no government, even if elected with a large majority in the House of Commons, should have unfettered power to re-order a country, to trample on property rights and other liberties.

It could be argued that naively or less so, the operatives of the “deep state” or even less “deep” state – such as civil servants, lawyers, etc might assume they perform some sort of function along these lines, although in a healthy political order that should be unnecessary. Of course it is outrageous if security services, which operate in the shadows, might try and frustrate a democratically elected government; perhaps, however, this is likely to happen if other, more credible curbs on unfettered power have been eroded, as they have been in the UK, over many years. (The proper solution is to rebuild those restraints. In the US, a great advocate of precisely that is Prof. Randy Barnett.)

In arguing that a government duly elected should be able to go all in and do what it wants, and take democracy “to the streets” and workplaces, and who stirs up fears about being frustrated by dark forces, Jones is pushing a sort of “mobocracy”. He is a sort of intellectual descendant of that mad and bad man, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who considered that no boundaries should exist in the face of any “General Will” of a public to be interpreted by the likes of himself. (I can recommend J Talmon’s book on this episode, The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy.)

There is more than just a whiff of the French barricades about Jones, although he would not last long in a fight, I suspect. He imagines that secret agents and other “conspirators” will try and frustrate a government he favours, but frustrating, or delaying, what a government can do is actually not a bug, but a feature, of a liberal order. In short, Jones’ rejection of any kind of restraint demonstrates an authortarian mindset at work.

There is a measure of truth in his claim about attempts by the security services in the 1970s to curb the Harold Wilson government of the time; the security services probably really thought that some in the Labour Party were in hock to the Soviets. I am sure that there were genuine instances of this. And for that matter, consider what is being said and done to Trump today and the claims and counter-claims about the “deep state”. Consider this item by leftist/civil libertarian Glenn Greenwald.  What is ironic is that the sort of claims about what could happen under Labour are being made by those fearful that Trump is suffering or could suffer the same alleged fate.

But beyond such conspiracy theories, there is a broader problem with the Jones article. So much of what is at fault with Jones’ take on the world is his total lack of perspective. For example, he goes on and on about “neoliberalism”. (A term for a sort of hybrid of genuine classical liberalism plus an acceptance of certain state institutions and functions, such as central banking. It is often associated with the influence of the Chicago school of economics and governments of Thatcher, Reagan and other.) But just how “liberal” is our current position? Given that more than 40 per cent of the economy is under state control and a good deal of the rest is regulated, it is laughable to argue that we are in a liberal position although these are matters of degree, of course.

The tragedy of it is that Owen Jones is not completely wrong to damn our current situation. If only, if only he could break free of his collectivism. It would be good to see him direct some of his fire towards asking who really gains from, say, central bank money printing and bank bailouts. (Clue: Not poor people.) He should consider the pockets of privilege created by land-use planning/zoning, or restrictions on entry into certain occupations. Or bash the corruption of quangos, NGOs and the whole structure of regulatory bodies endlessly calling for the control of this or that. Or nanny statist interference in the hobbies and pleasures of working people, such as smoking, drinking or whatever.

There is a lot of traction in the old Gladstonian class analysis of the “masses and the classes”; this is a tradition of thought that has been overshadowed in how class is often thought of as a concern that mainly comes from Marx.

The trouble is that Jones is a socialist and believer in Big Government, and hence hostile to the decentralised market order and thus ignorant of the the information contained in prices; he appears ignorant of the public choice insights of economists such as the late US figure James Buchanan and others. This means Jones lacks the intellectual equipment to understand what is actually going on. At  most, he glimpses a problem here and a partial solution there, but never quite breaks through. It is like watching a man try and measure the depth of the ocean by standing over the water with a telescope. It is genuinely frustrating.

Jones is maddening because you like to think there is a genuinely intelligent person there, is not beyond redemption (sorry if that sounds patronising), but a central part of how he thinks is fouled up. It is very hard to break this down, no matter how much evidence or logic is deployed. Too much of his thinking involves “boo” words (neo-liberalism, etc). And I suspect it would be too humiliating for  him to change course now, although you never can tell.

I would conclude by saying that almost without fail, use of “neo-liberal” in an article of any kind suggests the reader is an aggressive statist.

(As an aside, here is a sharp review of Jones’ book, The Establishment.)

Samizdata quote of the day

Surely it was sad when the Renaissance in Florence ended. Sure it is sad that the Renaissance in San Jose and Palo Alto ends. But things move on and bright productive brains meet somewhere else, most likely online now.

– A commenter writing on Eric Raymond’s “Armed and Dangerous” blog about the firing of an employee at Google for challenging certain notions around diversity in the workplace.

I think it may be too early to judge if this sort of issue is going to dent Google and hit its share price in the next few months but if this culture of SJW bullying does grip more firmly on that business, and others in Silicon Valley, then the prediction made above here may prove to be accurate.

Samizdata quote of the day

Kicking Livingstone out of London felt cathartic, but I hadn’t realised we were lucky not be shot in our beds as a result.

Graeme Archer

Politics and cars

What, one may ask, is wrong with the pursuit of automobile safety, fuel economy and pol­lution control? Only this: mandatory regulations that prohibit choices between better and cheaper cars force the average household in too many parts of the United States to drive second-hand, third-hand or simply very old cars that are drastically less safe, less fuel efficient and also more polluting than the prohibited cheaper new cars would be. Trump’s position was and is entirely forthright: he opposes the regulation of economic activities in principle unless unquestionably and very urgently necessary, as the control of climate change is not – depending on your definition of “urgent”. That was the clearest choice of all between Trump and Clinton, whose stance implicitly favoured $60,000 Tesla cars for the sake of the environment, as well as solar and wind power of ever increasing efficiency to be sure, but still now more costly than coal or gas.

Edward N. Luttwak, in the Times Literary Supplement.

Or to coin a phrase, it’s the car prices, stupid.

(I should add that my quoting this item does not mean I endorse all of the author’s views here, such as his seeming dislike of free trade.)

Jobs, automation and other terrors

In 1910, one out of 20 of the American workforce was on the railways. In the late 1940s, 350,000 manual telephone operators worked for AT&T alone. In the 1950s, elevator operators by the hundreds of thousands lost their jobs to passengers pushing buttons. Typists have vanished from offices. But if blacksmiths unemployed by cars or TV repairmen unemployed by printed circuits never got another job, unemployment would not be 5 percent, or 10 percent in a bad year. It would be 50 percent and climbing. Each month in the United States—a place with about 160 million civilian jobs—1.7 million of them vanish. Every 30 days, in a perfectly normal manifestation of creative destruction, over 1 percent of the jobs go the way of the parlor maids of 1910. Not because people quit. The positions are no longer available. The companies go out of business, or get merged or downsized, or just decide the extra salesperson on the floor of the big-box store isn’t worth the costs of employment.

Deirdre Nansen McCloskey

This is also plays to a contention that I see quite a lot on social media and other places that a “solution” to technology-caused unemployment and poverty is a universal basic income, paid for by taxing robots/capital. The whole notion frankly strikes me as intellectual and economics snake-oil: a tax on robots is a tax on capital, and reducing returns from investing in capital will, in my view, reduce long-term productivity gains and hence rewards to labour that we see every time that productivity has improved. After all, by “capital”, we also must consider human capital (skills, aptitudes, moral character, even) and how is one to distinguish that from simple “labour”? (This is, by the way, a killer argument against the Labour Theory of Value that underpins the rickety structure of Marxist economics.)

Here is an article at Econlog casting doubt on the “robots taking our jobs” theory, while pointing to a debate on the subject worth looking at.

I had a brief comment about this on Samizdata before, on May 23.

I have several problems with UBI, along the lines suggested by a writer at Catallaxy Files here.  Bryan Caplan has written another, in my view, strong take-down of the idea. Yes, I know that a variation on this is a negative income tax, an idea embraced by no less a figure than Milton Friedman.   

The attractions in superficial form of UBI are obvious, not least its apparent simplicity, and the idea that one could cut through the current morass of state entitlements/subsidies etc and even bolster support for a free enterprise system if everyone gets at least some sort of payment. For me, however, an issue is more moral – the idea that one is entitled to a handout by simply being a living, breathing creature – and economic – the potentially deadly impact on incentives and character.

I am planning to give a couple of talks about this subject in London, with one definite commitment being at Brian Micklethwait’s place at the end of September, and other possible talk in August. Details are forthcoming. I am generally, I think, against the idea, but I am happy to hear and read any really strong cases for it if people want to suggest them in the comments.

Class and all that

Obviously life is far harder than it used to be for young graduate professionals, and an increased reliance on the state (which the Labour vote represents) would be a completely natural, self-interested response. Today’s Labour middle classes, though, do often sound a little bit like they themselves don’t quite recognise that this is the dynamic here. ‘It is vital that we keep having free healthcare and education so that you do, too!’ they’ll say, effectively, to the far poorer. Or better still, ‘My mediocre philosophy degree contributes to the intellectual health of the nation at large!’ And at what point, I’m wondering, do the people who aren’t ever going to have a mediocre philosophy degree call bullshit on that? At what point do they look at the resources doled out to people far richer than them and ask bluntly whether this alliance is really working in their favour?

Hugo Rifkind, pondering on the love by some affluent people for Jeremy Corbyn’s brand of hard-Left politics

There are of course several factors in play: forgetfulness about how awful 1970s Britain was in an era of strikes, hyper-inflation, price controls, etc; a period of (relative) affluence that dulls the senses (at least for some of those, such as those without student debts); a Tory Party led by a “blue-rinse socialist” who seems almost as keen on regulation and state interference as some on the Labour side, thereby blunting the appeal of Tories to genuine limited-govt. conservatives; an education system that has turned out a group of “educated” people blind to the dangers of state power and reflexively hostile to the open market economy, and a legitimate sense of grievance over inflated house prices (planning laws, QE), heavy student debt/worthless degrees. As a set of background conditions, these are all ideal soil for a leftist politician, never mind a devious one as extreme as Corbyn, to grow in.

Rifkind is right to ask the question as to at what point does the middle-classness of Labour come into conflict with its purported “soak-the-rich” agenda particularly when said middle classes realise they are “rich” for the purposes of said agenda? For the time being, though, a large chunk of the “middle class” (well, the bit that works in the public sector and hence from the taxpayer) think the bearded one and his colleagues are just great.

All this stuff about class got me thinking. Recently, there was much muttering about how utterly middle class these days the Glastonbury music festival is, what with the fact also that the price of an admission is just shy of £250, which even today is a lot of money. Last weekend I went with friends to the utterly non-Corbyn spectacle, the Royal International Air Tattoo. It was noisy; the air was full of thunderous aircraft roaring about and doing their stuff. And as I looked about at the crowd, I saw lots of middle-aged blokes such as me in shorts and T-shirts with pictures of planes on them; wives and girlfriends who were just as keen; some ex-military types (you can tell by the haircuts and the physiques) and young kids all excited about these planes. There were a lot of people who, from what I can tell, were quite affluent but not showy apart from from camera lenses the length of RPGs; there were no loud Sloanes (maybe the aircraft noise drowned them out) or Islington scruffs. In some respects RIAT is an aviation version of Le Mans, the 24-hour motor racing odyssey I like to attend every year.

Frankly, the air show is a mental health break from the current news agenda.

Thoughts on Mr Corbyn

In assessing Corbyn’s achievement one must remember what sort of man he is. Having done very poorly at school and failed to complete any higher education, he seems to have imbibed at an early age the full agenda of the Guardian-reading London lefty: sympathy for a wide gamut of Third World causes, instinctive solidarity with all the enemies of bourgeois Britain (the IRA, Hamas, radical Islamists, etc), and a passionate opposition to Toryism. He has spent his life banging on about such causes to small audiences as a Labour activist and perennial rebel. With his beard, his vegetarianism, abstinence from alcohol, his failed marriages, his love of cycling and almost Dickensian passion for faraway causes of little relevance to the lives of those he represents, he is a type of idiosyncratic Englishman that Orwell liked to dwell upon, along with the figure of the middle-aged Catholic spinster cycling earnestly to church.

If one thinks about the sort of life that Corbyn lived for many years — ignored, even despised as a hopelessly eccentric and too-left backbencher, talking all the time of mass popular struggles elsewhere but doing so to tiny audiences in draughty halls, occasionally donning a scruffy duffle-coat to march with other CNDers on stirring but hopeless demonstrations — one realises that it has been a somewhat odd existence, led almost entirely among a small band of kindred spirits who keep up one another’s spirits by constant reaffirmations of how much they are against this, that or the other. For it is in the nature of such folk to be mainly against things and to be somewhat vague and wishful about what they are actually for.

R W Johnson.

Loathe Corbyn’s politics as I do, I am going to argue that his ability to stick to certain causes, however vile, over a long period of time has lessons for those who hold rather more reality-based opinions. Corbyn and his allies demonstrate that there is a lot to be said for an ability to keep going when everyone else panics or changes course very quickly. As a Marxist, he has absorbed the lessons of how intellectual and eventually political change/victory requires decades. Interestingly enough, I remembered reading much the same about the tactical purpose of the UK’s Libertarian Alliance, founded by Chris Tame. From my recollection – I cannot find the link, sorry – I remembered the point about how change takes time; it means those who argue for it need to be bold, even to shock, because that way one can shift the frame of what is considered respectable to discuss. Consider, it has been within living memory unthinkable to imagine that state-run sectors of the economy could be returned to private hands. When the likes of Arthur Seldon and Ralph Harris were promoting their classical liberal ideas as the Institute of Economic Affairs in the 1960s and 1970s, they were treated by the purveyors of conventional, usually wrong, opinion in much the same way as Corbyn might be, except that these gentlemen did not make a habit of knowingly sharing platforms with anti-semites and terrorists. (Libertarians, in my experience, are as capable of making the error of swimming alongside dubious characters as any others, mind.)

So yes, I think this RW Johnson article is a good one, and certainly worth study. It is also, however, worthwhile for those who ponder the political future of the UK to reflect on how someone such as Corbyn, a man who has never held a proper job and had to worry about creation of wealth and who has held the views he had, come within a whisker of occupying the same office as William Pitt, Robert Peel and Winston Churchill.

Samizdata quote of the day

I was speaking with a friend the other night, and I made the point that the meta-narrative of the 2016 election is learned helplessness as a political value.  We’re no longer a country that believes in human agency, and as a formerly poor person, I find it incredibly insulting.  To hear Trump or Clinton talk about the poor, one would draw the conclusion that they have no power to affect their own lives.  Things have been done to them, from bad trade deals to Chinese labor competition, and they need help.  And without that help, they’re doomed to lives of misery they didn’t choose.  

Rod Dreher . He is quoting JD Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and a Culture In Crisis

Theresa May, your taxi is waiting for you

Like most of my fellow Samizdata contributors, I imagine, I am watching the election results in the UK and the projections from exit polls suggesting that the Tories may not even have a working majority. And about 10 days or so before the full, formal negotiation process is due to start over the UK departure from the European Union.

It is a non-trivial possibility that Brexit may either not happen or at all, or take a form on such a humiliating basis that it is not really a departure from the EU at all.

As already noted, the idea that it was smart strategy for the Tories to pursue a centrist, pre-Thatcherite, interventionist agenda, was always dumb. Not least because to make a positive case, it was necessary to stress the pro-enterprise case for leaving the EU, rather than simply promising to introduce the very kind of dirigiste policies that the UK was supposed to be freeing itself from by leaving. Mrs May, does not have it in her to make a positive case.

It has come to this: a party led by Jeremy Corbyn, Marxist, hater of Israel, cheerleader for the IRA, Hamas, and a foe of open markets and the West in general could be close to holding power in a few days’ time. I seriously hope I am wrong. But whatever happens, I think it is highly probable that May may not be in Downing Street for very long.

Samizdata quote of the day

“The EU’s finances run the way they do because no one has a sense of ownership of the funds. It is always “someone else’s money” that is being abused.”

Lee Rotherham

Samizdata quote of the day

The main political insight of Thatcher and Reagan was that parties of the center-right must be parties of economic growth. Having wavered since, those parties now risk losing their way entirely. Some centrists will argue, quirks of this campaign notwithstanding, that Mrs. May shows how to win an election. The important question for conservatives to ask is: To what end?

Joseph C. Sternberg, Wall Street Journal (behind a paywall)