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]

Cheap electricity should be a noble cause, not something to be embarrassed about

I was watching this interview with “lukewarmer” Matt Ridley, who agrees that global warming is a problem but who thinks technology and market-driven solutions are a way to address it, not State dictats. He was being asked about the UK government’s proposals (I have no great confidence this will be remotely achievable) to ban sales of petrol- and diesel-powered cars by 2030. As he noted, such changes will weigh disproportionately on those on low to medium incomes. Even if electric cars and other appliance costs fall because of economies of scale, there is a high probability in my view that a push for “net zero” carbon emissions in the UK is going to require a big rise in electricity costs, and hence prices. And because energy is central to so much of our economy, that means more expensive food. More expensive everything.

Almost two centuries ago, free market lobbyists set up the Anti-Corn Law League to fight against tariffs on grain imports – and other items. Their cry was for “cheap bread”. It was a potent political message. I wonder if any political figure has the gumption to make “cheap energy” such a rallying cry. Because once the full, eye-watering cost of “net zero” becomes evident to ordinary consumers – forcing them to rip out gas appliances, lose their reliable cars and so on – the groundswell of anger is going to be considerable.

Another problem is that there is no real political opposition to this madness. The Labour Party – at least at the moment – is in thrall to this hairshirt Greenery. The Tories are for the moment rallying behind Boris Johnson although one wonders for how long once the costs come even more painfully evident. My hope is that a lot of those MPs in Midland and Northern seats who were swept in last December may be among those telling Johnson to show some realism.

Recent spending and delivery overruns on projects such as Crossrail give me no confidence the UK could create a grid to enable electricity-powered vehicles by 2030 on a scale to fill the gap left when petrol and diesel are taken off the table.

The cynic in me says that Johnson, who is mainly a political stunt artist, does not really care about the details, and will probably be retired from front-line politics, in a cushy job somewhere, once the nature of this mess comes home, and that someone else will have to clear up the mess.

Here’s another interview with Ridely about energy innovation. I can also recommend Alex Epstein’s The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, which has the sort of title designed to raise the blood pressure of today’s Green humanity-diminishers.

I wonder how long this Chinese tycoon will be seen in public?

Jack Ma, founder of Chinese e-commerce colossus Alibaba, might want to watch his back. An affiliate business of Alibaba, called Ant Financial, was due to float on the stock market last week but the IPO was suddenly pulled, leaving investment bankers who had underwritten the deal fuming. It also makes me wonder whether China’s President, Xi, is getting resentful about the power of the house that Jack built, so to speak.

Wall Street Journal has this story (item is paywalled, so here are four paragraphs):

Chinese President Xi Jinping personally made the decision to halt the initial public offering of Ant Group, which would have been the world’s biggest, after controlling shareholder Jack Ma infuriated government leaders, according to Chinese officials with knowledge of the matter.

The rebuke was the culmination of years of tense relations between China’s most celebrated entrepreneur and a government uneasy about his influence and the rapid growth of the digital-payments behemoth he controlled.

Mr. Xi, for his part, has displayed a diminishing tolerance for big private businesses that have amassed capital and influence—and are perceived to have challenged both his rule and the stability craved by factions in the country’s newly assertive Communist Party.

In a speech on Oct. 24, days before the financial-technology giant was set to go public, Mr. Ma cited Mr. Xi’s words in what top government officials saw as an effort to burnish his own image and tarnish that of regulators, these people said.

I would not be in the least surprised to see Jack Ma either end up as an exile in the West, or disappear.

As a media figure who works in the wealth management market, I often read reports about how China is kicking the West’s arse in generating gazillions of new billionaires. About how the country is overtaking the West, blah, blah. If that is the case, it is interesting that Chinese people try to get out, given half a chance, or suffer a worse fate. It is hard to see how a country that operates like this can really prosper in the long term, however mighty it looks now. People who fear that success makes them a target are not going to bother.

Samizdata quote of the day

The cost of “saving the NHS” has been more than twice the annual budget of the actual, you know, NHS.

Daniel Hannan. Writing in the Sunday Telegraph about the monstrous borrowing of the UK state (£: item is behind paywall).

Lessons for the UK from “over there”

Allister Heath has these thoughts about the US election results (as of the time of writing the result has not been fully declared, and as we know, this situation may not change for days because of legal challenges in state counts such as Michigan).

So what are the lessons for Boris Johnson? The first is to realise that the politics of the West are now all about class and education. The Tories can only win again if they maintain or increase their grip of working-class voters. That means, among other things, a Covid policy that doesn’t condemn them to permanent impoverishment. The second lockdown is a mistake. Johnson must put his new core voters first, not the professional classes and their Zoom meetings. That also means doubling down on the anti-crime agenda, on Brexit, on human rights reform, on abolishing the BBC licence fee. The Tory working class base doesn’t want to pay more for green energy, and they hate the Government’s awful, anti-car roads policies.

Second, Johnson needs a pro-growth, pro-entrepreneurial agenda: Trump was better at this, even if his reforms would be undone by Biden. The Tories seem too keen on taxes and regulations. Yet an entrepreneurial, pro-private sector jobs, self-help message would chime with aspirational ethnic-minority voters. The Tories must appeal to their economic and social values, rather than genuflecting to nonsensical woke ideologies that ethnic minorities don’t approve of.

Third, Johnson must halt the Left-wards drift of the upper-middle classes, something that Trump miserably failed to do. How? By ceasing to subsidise the creation of a woke generation, by preventing culture warriors from taking over schools, museums and corporations, and, crucially, by reforming universities. Education is vital, and we need more of it, but it doesn’t need to take place in universities. At least a quarter of students would be better off gaining high-quality technical or practical training, rather than wasting time studying useless social-science degrees at second-rate institutions.

What is driving the current policy

Janet Daley is on splendid form today, in the Daily Telegraph (£). Some choice paragraphs:

The establishment of social democracy as the prevailing governing system in the advanced nations of the West, bringing with it powers to distribute wealth and prevent gross inequalities, seems to imply that the state is now morally responsible for the welfare of everyone. From this principle of total responsibility it follows that every instance of ill health or death is the direct fault of the Government – even if those who are dying have reached the age at which it is statistically normal for them to die. The state must promise not just the best healthcare it can provide, but a kind of immortality: every death should be preventable. Every death (at whatever age) is a political failing. Those who govern must not only be infinitely caring, they must be omnipotent.

The secularism of modern democracy adds more weight to this. To accept any death (at any age) seems like a medieval fatalism which modern progressive thinking should reject. Along with the passive acceptance of mortality, the notion of acceptable risk – and the individual’s right to choose it – has to go out the window too. We must all look after one another – and we must all be responsible for the fate of everyone.

But this collectivist ethic is strangely contrary to the other strand of popular consciousness which is playing a major role in today’s events. This is the legitimising of chronic hypochondria. I cannot remember a time when there was such a neurotic obsession with health as a positive condition rather than a simple absence of illness or disability.

Ironically this more or less permanent state of anxiety about one’s individual well-being (which is really a form of narcissism) sits side-by-side with the unselfish commitment to the well-being of society at large. Maybe we have managed to create, with our conflicting compulsions – on the one hand, unrealistic expectations of comprehensive, government-enforced social responsibility, and on the other an equally unrealistic idea of an individual right to be free from pain or suffering – the perfect climate for the mess we are in.

Samizdata quote of the day

“The Soviet Union (also Mao’s China, North Korea, Cuba, and Venezuela) have proved that central planning is impossible. Even something as simple as corn. To grow corn, you just plant seeds in fertile soil, and wait. Yet every country that attempted to centrally plan it, has starved.”

Keith Weiner, who runs a precious metals investments business, based in Scottsdale, Arizona. He’s become a friend, and a fount of good sense on issues such as money and central banking. Check out his blog.

Samizata quote of the day

“If anti-state fanatics have been calling the shots for decades, why is the federal government bigger today than it was 40 years ago?”

Oliver Wiseman, writing a review of a book that alleges that most of our problems today were caused by free market think tanks and intellectuals. Wiseman is, rightly, dismissive of the book’s central claim.

Samizdata quote of the day

“In the first week of October, there were 91,013 cases of coronavirus reported in England and Wales, and 343 Covid-related deaths. That same week a total of 9,954 people died from various causes. Of those, just 4.4 per cent of the death certificates mentioned Covid-19.”

Annabel Fenwick Elliot, writing in the Daily Telegraph about the UK experience.

Are lockdowns and government missteps “teachable moments” for libertarianism?

Like a number of other readers of this blog, I have wondered how or whether the COVID-19 disaster, and the government responses to it, might actually lead to a sort of “libertarian moment” when people wake up to the insight, which this blog likes to make from time to time, that “the State is not your friend”. It might be too early to know whether the clampdowns will have this effect on people, but they might. During the 1940s the policy of food rationing, continued through the decade, and only ended by the time of the Queen’s Coronation in 1953, became hated. Churchill, with his gift for a phrase (I hope Boris Johnson remembers this), said his party would “Set the People Free”; he also talked of a “Bonfire of Controls”. If Mr Johnson has any sense, he will embrace such a move as soon as possible.

The failures so far of government over issues such as test and trace, and the chopping and changing of direction, with the current 3-tired restriction system, are surely examples of the folly of state central planning. As I have noted before, the National Health Service in many ways demonstrates the weaknesses of 1940s-era central planning. FA Hayek’s point about the “fatal conceit” of socialism, and of the hubristic idea that planners can run a society so much more intelligently than through the extended order of a free society, is truer than ever. On the other hand, those parts of the economy able to work more or less freely, such as supermarkets, delivery services and internet-driven communications channels, have more than risen to the challenge. That point needs to be rammed home over and over.

One of the problems with the 2008-09 financial crash was that a false narrative was allowed to take root that the cause was “evil bankers”, “greed” and laughably, “unregulated capitalism”. The cause was in fact more about state-influenced imprudent lending, too-big-to-bail promises of bailouts, years of underpriced money, and unwarranted confidence in risk management models. (See this excellent analysis in the book Alchemists of Loss, by Kevin Dowd and Martin Hutchinson.) We are arguably still paying the price for not pushing those insights hard enough. So I’d argue that one important lesson of the current shit-show is that it is vital to point out that it is free individuals, able to act on their initiative and through voluntary co-operation, and not the hubristic powers of a State, that holds the key to getting us to a better place.

Addendum: Here is a good point made by Sam Welsh in the Sunday Telegraph today:

I am not surprised that, among friends of all ages, I increasingly hear the question: why can’t we be trusted to judge the risk for ourselves? I had originally thought the pandemic would push society to the Left. But there is something morally offensive about a virus strategy that devalues all that makes life worth living, and which hinges on the incompetence of the Government and the state’s chronic inability to foresee the demands that will be placed upon it. That it then blames its failures on the very individuals it claims to serve only compounds the outrage.

Samizdata quote of the day

“Two bad things have happened at once. The first is that the phrase itself has been captured. “Safe spaces” for students are used to justify the “no-platforming” of thinkers who warn against the oppressiveness of “woke” doctrines. The Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson is only the most famous of the victims: he was offered a visiting fellowship at Cambridge but then, in March last year, was denied it after protests that his views might upset students. The second is that British universities, craving cash and students from foreign countries, have become dangerously uncritical of the terms on which they accept them. This is particularly true in relation to some Arab countries and even more so in relation to China.”

Charles Moore, Daily Telegraph (£)

The “envy of the world”

As the Daily Telegraph points out in its sharp (behind paywall) takedown of the UK government’s lockdown enthusiasm, the argument that we need to crush what is left of the UK economy to “protect” the National Health Service is based on the idea that the NHS will be overwhelmed by Covid-19 (despite the UK having had the late spring and summer to prepare for now). As the newspaper points out, the NHS is always “overwhelmed” this time of year because of flu and other winter-related bugs and diseases:

“But this is a perennial crisis. The NHS struggles under normal conditions in the winter because the system is completely dysfunctional. The Prime Minister needs to be honest about all of this and admit that not everything has gone according to plan. He needs to explain exactly why he is shutting down so much of the economy again and why he believes that drastically reducing social and family contacts is a price worth paying. He obviously wants to buy more time, but he needs to tell us how much and what for – and to explain convincingly why isolating the vulnerable (a strategy which seems ever more attractive by the day) while allowing the rest of the country to move on isn’t a better way forward. He needs to sell and explain his vision, not simply expect the rest of us to accept it automatically. Above all, he needs to spell out his Covid exit strategy. Britain’s economy and society cannot face another six months of the current madness.”

I occasionally read that the current “Tory” (yup, the scare quotes are there for a reason, folks) is moving away from all that ideological Thatcherite stuff about freedom, markets, scepticism of Big Government, to a more “pragmatic”, paternalistic approach. And yet the past few months have surely rammed home the message that the State does a lot of things very badly, while private enterprise, given the opportunity and freedom, does things rather better. The contrast between the ingenuity of supermarkets and their inventory management, on the one hand, and the NHS and its clunky, Soviet-style resource allocation, on the other, is harder and harder to ignore (example: cancer patients). And yet a vast swathe of UK public opinion, reinforced by all those cute rainbow symbols about “our NHS”, buys into the idea that this creation of late 1940s socialism and central planning is one of the high points of Western civilisation. We want to erase the very “problematic” Lord Horatio Nelson from Greenwich, apparently, but woe betide anyone who so much as suggests the NHS isn’t one of the Good Things of UK history. Remember the 2012 Olympic Games opening ceremony where, just before Daniel Craig as 007 did his skit with the Queen, we had a whole choreographed display honouring the NHS?

Sentimentality, Charles Dickens’ besetting vice as a novelist, is, I fear, shared by much of the UK public. It is an illness every bit as bad as that of COVID-19.

(As a corrective, I can recommend The Welfare State We’re In, by James Bartholomew. The book challenges many of the founding myths around the NHS, such as the idea that only the very rich got medical care before the late 1940s).

Samizdata quote of the day

“When your political system can be thrown into hysteria by something as predictable as the death of an octogenarian with advanced cancer, there’s something wrong with your political system. And when your judicial system can be redirected by such an event, there’s something wrong with your judicial system, too.”

Glenn Reynolds, “Mr Instapundit”, and US law prof.