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]

Samizdata quote of the day – anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine version

“The U.S. and NATO, in their innermost sanctum, should be asking themselves a question and probably are: Would this war already be over if they had sent a couple dozen F-35s to assert mastery over the skies of at least Western Ukraine on or about day 14?”

Holman W. Jenkins, jnr (Wall Street Journal $).

Samizdata quote of the day – Royal Air Force recruitment disaster version

Why might an organisation such as the Air Force be tempted to pursue compliance with such zeal that it ends up unlawfully non-compliant? The simple, if cynical, reason is that for any bureaucracy, targets related to process are much easier to hit reliably than targets related to outcomes. What’s more, outcomes-based targets which can be brute-forced through process – ensuring that 40% of recruits are female by 2030, for example – are easier to manage than end-use targets, such as having an operationally effective Air Force.

Henry Hill, CapX.

Samizdata quote of the day

“Governments over the years have ruined many successful domestic industries. Interference in football could well have the same doleful effect. We have enough problems for the government to sort out before it interferes in yet another area of economic and social life.”

– Professor Len Shackleton, IEA Editorial and Research Fellow, and author of the report Red Card. The quotation came from a press release I received today from the IEA.

So, when does the Brexit dividend arrive then?

This is a slightly altered version of a comment I left on a Brexit page on Facebook as prompted by this article about IMF forecasts and related issues at Reuters:

The most ardent Brexit supporters have to take this sort of analysis on board because it is relentless in much of the media, and not without reason. Some of those who backed exit from the EU for freedom reasons wanted the liberalising impact of less red tape, a reduction in the burden of the State, and a more intelligent government approach to areas where the State inevitably gets involved, including R&D spending, infrastructure, education, etc. Nearly all of the drivers of long-term wealth creation are home-grown, and cannot be blamed on the EU, or attributed to it. Long before we even thought of a referendum, the UK’s productivity and investment levels were poor, from 2009 to 2019, by past and contemporary standards. (The referendum was held in 2016 and we only actually left four years later.)

The petulance of the EU in trying to harm the UK for the sin of leaving was probably inevitable and forseeable, and there is a need for whoever is in Westminster and Whitehall to slash the burdens on business and the individual to balance this out, as well as hammer out genuinely good FTAs with countries that broadly share our values and market systems. A mutual recognition of standards approach to the EU, when it comes to EU-destined exports to the bloc, should be possible in time although it may take a while for the EU to avoid the “cutting off the nose to spite the face” stance of the past few years. The UK remains an important trade partner, given our net importation of manufactured goods from the continent.

Samizdata quote of the day – corporation version

“Unlike government, a corporation has no legal authority to force anyone to do anything. It can’t tax you, arrest you, or conscript you. It can’t force you to work for it. It can’t force you to invest in it. It can’t force you to buy its products. Bakan, however, says corporations “determine what we eat, what we watch, what we wear, where we work, and what we do.” No, they don’t. They make us offers, which we can accept or refuse. But those offers give us countless options to improve our lives—options we wouldn’t have otherwise. Far from a threat, the earned economic power of corporations brings us great benefits.

People interact with corporations voluntarily. If a corporation sells a shoddy product, people can refrain from buying it. If it sets prices they regard as too high, they can negotiate or look for a better deal. If it pays low wages or lays off employees, they can work elsewhere or start their own business. If people think Google and Facebook collect too much personal data while failing to properly safeguard it, they can use other platforms or services. Bottom line: If you don’t like a corporation, you can avoid it. You do not have this choice with government, though. Ignore the IRS, and fines, penalties, or prison await you. You can opt out of Google and Facebook, but you can’t opt out of the surveillance dragnet of the NSA.”

Michael Dahlen, The Objective Standard.

The Precautionary Principle and “synthetic meat”

Virginia Postrel, whose book, The Future and Its Enemies, is shown on the upper-left of this blog’s page (under the work of Karl Popper and the handgun), recently wrote an article that got me thinking about how the Right has its own form of Precautionary Principle. A few days ago, she wrote an article in the Wall Street Journal about synthetic meat. She later thought about the topic some more on her Substack. As she noted, anyone who has spent time in a chicken factory and slaughterhouse is going to be keen on the idea. (I have no view on the nutritional case for or against synthetic meat, although I’d imagine that some poor brute of an animal reared in a massive shed and pumped full of antibiotics is probably not superior to a synthetic alternative. You don’t need to be a veggie to be unhappy about this.)

Glenn Reynolds, who usually strikes me as the sort of chap to be interested in tech innovation, including agriculture, writes this by way of a rebuttal to Postrel. I find his reasoning is mistaken (more on that later), but here are his comments in full:

Well, I too am a meat eater who likes human ingenuity and technological progress. But I can see a couple of problems. One is that “synthetic meat” is a confusing term. It means real meat, grown in a vat instead of in a cow, but it sounds like it might be the non-nutritious “Beyond Meat/Impossible” slop marketed to vegans.

Second, the technocracy is pushing this stuff, and the technocracy is currently in bad odor. There’s a real lack of trust, and once people start to think that the technocracy will do things to them that they don’t like — and often lie about it in the process — the lack of trust spreads from specific subjects to more general matters. Plus, given that most opposition to meat-eating is essentially religious in nature, rejecting it is not exactly a matter of irrationality.

In an ideal world, where we could talk about this sort of thing on its own merits and in a generally good-faith manner — like the world we at least thought we lived in back in the ’90s — things would be different. But we don’t live in that world now.

There are several problems with this in my view, even as one who can feel the force of what Prof. Glenn Reynolds writes. First of all, whether the term “synthetic meat” is misleading or not, the free marketeer in me prefers to let entrepreneurs and consumers, subject to laws of fraud against dishonest marketing, figure this out.

Second, whether the “technocracy” is pushing this stuff is not, in my view, sufficient justification for people to throw shade on this technology. A few years ago, I recalled how parts of the Green movement, particularly those of a Left-wing nature, liked to hate on genetically modified crops, particularly if they were produced by big American firms such as Monsanto (booo!, hiss!). And one could have argued that a reason why they did so was because, if it is possible to feed a much larger population with GM crops, etc than with conventional ones, then those Paul Ehrlich doomsters’ fox has been well and truly shot. Come to that, imagine that really clever carbon capture tech is created, thereby royally screwing the global warming alarmists’ whole argument.

It is possible to see how, depending on where you stand on the political battlefield, that a tech might be an enabler to those whom you dislike. Dammit, I bet one could have said the same about the internet 30 years ago, or the motor car 100-plus years ago. I have even read people denounce private spacefaring because of its sinister libertarian motivations (“All those crazy Heinlein fans in space”).

It may be that those who are promoting synthetic meat are all vegetarians and sinister tyrants, but if there is a case for it on its own merits, then why the hell should I care? There’s a danger of what I called motivated reasoning here getting out of hand. I can, in fact, see a future where people remain meat eaters, getting much of their meat protein from synthetic sources and occasionally spending a bit more to buy the organic, “real” forms, such as grass-fed beef, wild salmon, venison, and so on. Is this really such a bad outcome, particularly if some of the worst forms of factory farming die out? As a libertarian chap – and one raised on a farm in East Anglia – preferring to see animal husbandry done with due regard to animal welfare is not, in my book, a “soppy” or for goodness sake, “woke” point.

This paragraph from Postrel strikes me as particularly on point, because it strikes me that on parts, if not all of the “Right” (a package-dealing term but it will have to do), quite a few people have become so riled up by certain developments that they end up opposing technologies and innovations in case it encourages things they don’t like.

The best argument against the development of cell-grown meat is that technocrats believe that anything good must be mandatory, especially if the good thing claims to help the environment. So if someone invents cell-grown meat, government mandates will soon follow. We therefore shouldn’t encourage alternatives to the status quo lest we be forced to adopt them. It’s the same argument we hear from people who believe that saying cities should allow property owners more flexibility about what they build on their land is tantamount to banning single-family homes. This culture-war form of the precautionary principle is as bad as every other form. It’s a prescription for stasis.

Update: Matthew Lesh of the Institute of Economic Affairs has thoughts on cultivated meat, and why the UK should seize the benefits of being outside the European Union to encourage agricultural and food innovation.

Samizdata quote of the day

“We are all capable of hypocrisy. When someone says at a party, `I’m a great listener,’ you just know they are going to yak on about themselves for hours.”

Tim Stanley, Daily Telegraph. (£)

Samizdata quote of the day

“A reasoned case can be put that the NHS, the education system, welfare state, housing stock and even our transport infrastructure cannot cope with a rapid and relentless growth in the number of people living here. However, these are all areas run or heavily controlled by the state. It’s rare to hear Tesco complain that there are too many customers wanting to buy groceries or cinemas that too many wish to watch movies.”

Mark Littlewood.

Brief reflections on Paul Johnson

Paul Johnson, one of the great figures of post-war British journalism, has died at the grand age of 94. He was the author of about 50 books, and I read several of them in my youth. Of all the books, the one that stands out for me is Modern Times. That was a one-volume study of the 20th century. Johnson was unafraid to challenge stereotypes. He defended US Presidents Harding, Coolidge and Nixon from the reputational shade cast upon them and was unsparingly hard on the likes of F D Roosevelt and JFK. He slammed the United Nations, lauded the NATO alliance, and pointed out how so many “third world” countries went disastrously wrong in embracing Fabian socialist ideas after the Western empires ended. In that sense, he gave every impression of enjoying how he trashed one Received Wisdom notion after another.

Johnson was a deeply religious man – a Catholic – and an awareness of God’s wrathful judgement on sinners was never very far away. I don’t share his faith but can respect how, at its best, the English Catholic tradition in the West has produced writers of great insight (GK Chesterton is another outstanding example). And he anticipated the “culture wars” in many respects. His insight that much of the New Left had given up on the idea that there is such a thing as objective truth stuck in my mind. He regarded one of the big disasters of the 20th Century was how scientific concepts such as relativity morphed, wrongly, into the idea of moral relativism, and all the horrors (communism, fascism, etc) that stemmed from it. His was a theological analysis, with a fair sprinkling of Aristotelian common sense (he was a great admirer of Thomas Aquinas).

In the first part of his journalist life this man, easily recognisable with his mane of reddish – later gold – hair, was a man of the Left and despised the Tory establishment of Eden, MacMillan and the like, although he was also a liberal in the sense of valuing free speech and democracy (the sort of Left that gave us George Orwell, for example). He worked as a young writer in France, and later became editor of the New Statesman magazine.

In the 1970s, as trade union strikes raged, inflation accelerated and old certainties crumbled, Johnson shifted to the Right, and became a fan of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. He was a champion – with some caveats – of free market capitalism, mass prosperity and individual liberty. He admired Lee Kwan Yew of Singapore and people like that. He was unafraid to attack high-profile intellectuals’ reputations, however grand, such as JJ Rousseau, Sartre, Brecht, Ibsen, Hemingway, Mailer and Marx. His heroes were people such as JW Turner (the painter), Churchill, Eisenhower, De Gaulle and Adenauer. In later life, Johnson took up painting, and wrote intelligently about art. A man of varied tastes and enthusiasms.

He was one of those writers, such as the late Auberon Waugh, P J O’Rourke and Roger Scruton, where I read everything they wrote, whatever the quality. More often than not, I learned something valuable, even if I disagreed with what Johnson wrote. Like other political “converts” to the liberal free market point of view, he had a certain zeal of one who has forsaken old nostrums. His writing output was prodigious.

I think the Christian in him thought that he was put on this Earth to write and that there was no time to waste. I understand that the final years of his life were blighted by Alzheimer’s. For such a brilliant man and polymath to be afflicted seems particularly cruel.

Anyway, I am sure that I will revisit his books and glean fresh insights. May he rest in peace.

Update: Here is an obituary from the WSJ ($).

Samizdata quote of the day – Harry Windsor edition

“But fully mature people still have a sense of their own privacy, they keep to themselves what is properly kept to oneself. Privacy isn’t some relic of the pre-tech past, as I said once, it is connected to personhood. It has to do with intimate things—the inner workings of your head and heart, of your soul. You don’t just give those things away. Your deepest thoughts and experiences are yours, held by you; they are part of your history. They are part of your dignity. You share them as a mark of trust. This is true intimacy, not phony intimacy but the real thing. If you tell all the strangers your secrets what do you tell your intimates?”

Peggy Noonan, WSJ ($)

US education apocalypse comment

“Skeptical American employers, to remain globally competitive, will likely soon administer their own hiring tests. They already suspect that prestigious university degrees are hollow and certify very little. Traditional colleges will seize the moment and expand by sticking to meritocratic criteria as proof of the competency of their prized graduates.”

“Private and online venues will also fill a national need to teach Western civilization and humanities courses—by non-woke faculty who do not institutionalize bias. More students will continue to seek vocational training alternatives. Some will get their degrees online for a fraction of the cost. Alumni will either curb giving, put further restrictions on their gifting, or disconnect. Eventually, even elite schools will lose their current veneer of prestige. Their costly cattle brands will be synonymous with equality-of-result, overpriced indoctrination echo chambers, where therapy replaced singular rigor and their tarnished degrees become irrelevant.”

Victor Davis Hanson, military historian, classicist and Californian farmer, writing in the American Greatness website, December 2022.

There are, I am pleased to say, signs of pushback. UK-born historian Niall Ferguson and others are building a new university in Austin, Texas, while the evolutionary psychologist and writer Jonathan Haidt – co-author of The Coddling of the American Mind – is the moving force in the Heterodox Academy. That’s what I love about the US. In contrast to a rather tired Britain, the US retains this sort of can-do mindset in the face of imbecility.

Rights – true and false

There is a problem, so it is said, with hundreds of thousands of people leaving the workforce in their early 50s. Many of them are, I suspect, affluent and think they can afford to do this, although I suspect a number of them will need to return to work not just because their financial projections are mistaken but because they become bored and miss the sense of purpose that comes with productive work. The rising tax burden under the current “Conservative” government, increasing the marginal rate on top earners to around 60 per cent, is also arguably encouraging many to give up on work and do a “John Galt”. (UK GPs, for example.)

In its own response to the issue of a shrinking workforce, the opposition Labour Party has come up with the idea of making working from home a “right” for those in their fifties.

The “right” to work from home does not exist if you drive a lorry, put up scaffolding, mend radiators and air conditioning units, service cars, fly aircraft, tend to the sick and dying, coach football teams, weld oil rig installations, grow wheat, or serve in the armed forces. Interestingly, the vast majority of those who are able to work from home, such as those being targeted by the Labour Party in these cases, are the white collar middle class, and specifically, many of those working in big banks, civil service jobs, and the like. This is very much a play for the metropolitan, service sector middle class, and unlikely to mean much to the sort of folk I mentioned above.

It also, as an aside, is an inversion of what the term “rights” means. A right, properly understood in my view, is a ultimately a demand for non-interference with my liberty as an autonomous human being; it is not about forcing others to give me things. Or, to put it in the words of the late, great P J O’Rourke, Labour is championing “gimme rights”, when what is needed is more respect for “get outa here” rights. To claim the “right” to work from home assumes that an employer or other party should be forced to accommodate themselves to this claim, even by coercive force. Now I have no quibble with those who negotiate a work-from-home arrangement by contract in a free market (I work from home for part of the week); what I do have an issue with is making this an entitlement, a claim that others must enable by having to transfer resources of some kind. Such “rights” aren’t compossible – they cannot exist without conflicts, claims and counter-claims. These are different from the “negative” rights of classical liberalism. My “right” to be left alone doesn’t require anyone to do anything or pay for anything; my “right” to healthcare, on the other hand, does.

See this item on Classical Liberalism: A Primer, from the Institute of Economic Affairs.