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

“The veneration of St Greta is an extraordinary, yet unsurprising, phenomenon. Our comfortable lifestyles, and the decline of religion in the West, have created a spiritual void. But this new religiosity carries few redemptive qualities, such as hope or forgiveness. Questioning any aspect of its message is to be labelled a “denier” – the ultimate form of heresy. Yet Thunberg’s affiliation with Extinction Rebellion’s extreme, anti-capitalist aims should prompt questions – especially because Left-wingers have routinely used the threat of global panic to herd populations towards socialism. During the Cold War, the anti-nuclear movement was infiltrated by hard-Leftists, keen for the West to drop its opposition to the Soviets.”

Madeline Grant.

By the way, this essay, by George Reisman, is one of the best demolitions of the anti-human aspects of environmentalism, in my view. And this by Robert Zubrin is also excellent.

By the way, I was in New York last week on business. Much of the traffic was in chaos because of the UN General Assembly, which Greta Thunberg, along with others, addressed. I fail to see how any of that helps Planet Earth.

No, slavery did not make America, or the West, richer

US economic historian Deidre McCloskey debunks the claims – which I see have been given fresh impetus by the New York Times recently – that since the very earliest days of the colonies, slavery has been one of the main things that made America rich. This claim draws on a zero-sum mentality: the only way to raise living standards is squeezing surplus value out of workers against their will (to put it in Marxian terms). In other words, the claim goes against the classical liberal argument that slavery is ultimately not just wicked – which it is – but also economically stupid, because free labour is more productive than unfree labour. The more options people have about where and on what they work, the bigger the pie is. And even those small number of folk who get rich on slavery (but where did they get the guns and the whips and the land to use to jail said slaves?) could and did get even richer had they not been slavers. (There is also the ever-present fear that slavers must have that sooner or later there will be a revolt, in which said slavers get killed.)

The whole article is first class and I strongly recommend it. She takes issue with the “King Cotton” school of history that has gained some recent traction. Bookmark this article for when some apologist for coercion trots out the old line that no “great civilisation” ever existed without slavery. Quite simply, it is bullshit.

Here is another report about the NYT project (the NYT is behind a paywall, and I cannot be arsed to subscribe to a publication likely to damage my blood pressure).

Samizdata quote of the day

“By stifling his criticisms of human rights-abusing regimes, what Donald Trump may see as the projection of strength is surely viewed by America’s adversaries as weakness. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan blames the United States for an attempted coup against his regime, and Trump calls to congratulate him on his suspicious election victory. North Korea murders and purges its nuclear negotiators and Trump gives Kim Jong-un a photo op on North Korean soil. Vladimir Putin counters American geopolitical and economic interests at nearly every turn, and the president can’t bring himself to say a bad word about the autocrat in the Kremlin. What American interest is being advanced by this servility?”

Noah Rothman, Commentary Magazine.

Book Review: Apollo In The Age Of Aquarius

The 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 space flight to and from the Moon has been covered extensively in a raft of books, television programmes and films. A few weeks ago I watched the Apollo 11 film of that name. This is a documentary that features, so the film-makers say, previously unseen footage, and it certainly is a remarkable film. One of the good things about it is that it does not involve any narration: the film and the action do the “talking”. I watched it on a large IMAX screen at London’s Science Museum. I heartily recommend it. I actually found it rather moving. That sequence of when Armstrong takes control of the Lunar Module and flies to the surface, with Aldrin counting out the altitude, knowing they have precious little fuel to spare, is one I can watch over and over. (Armstrong is one of my all-time heroes. The very fact that he conducted himself in such a modest way since the mission ended only reinforces that.)

The space missions of the 1960s were, of course, part of a much bigger set of actions involving the US, former Soviet Union and other select powers. Let there be no doubt: the Moon missions were a big “front” in the Cold War. We libertarians will debate whether all the spending on such a programme was justified (I will come back to this point in a bit) but it strikes me that the success of the Apollo missions were surely a valuable morale booster for the West and for America. It showed that for all the Soviets’ early successes in beating the US in some aspects of space flight, that by the mid to late 60s that edge had gone.

Putting the likes of Armstrong, Aldrin et al up there was a way for the US to poke Moscow in the eye. But it was about much more than that. It appears to me (born in May 1966) the product of a time when governments still had tremendous confidence in technology, as did much of wider society. And yet as we know, the end of the Moon programme coincided with events such as various environmentalist campaigns calling attention to the real/alleged damage Man was doing to the environment; it also overlapped with the Vietnam War, the oil price shock and the challenge to established Western assumptions about energy. And there was the rise of radical feminism and the Civil Rights campaign.

A lot of people have noted how the space programme contrasted with all the tumult and messiness of wider American/Western society at the time. At more or less the time that Armstrong was taking his “giant leap” for Mankind, Jimi Hendrix was playing his version of the Star Spangled Banner at muddy Woodstock (he’d probably be condemned by today’s left for being a reactionary conservative for playing it at all); Charles Manson and his fellow monsters were causing havoc. Several major public figures, such as Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, were murdered. The space programme was, on the other hand, all clean, with white rockets and gleaming craft; it had a focus on scientific precision and a celebration of human efficacy. It was about what Man can do and achieve, given rational focus on a goal. It was also a very technocratic thing, and an example – which is often trotted out by politicians who like big vanity projects – of a big government effort actually working pretty well. (From the moment that JFK gave his speech about the Moon in 1962 it took just eight years to pull that feat off. It takes people longer to make James Bond films these days.) The men (and some women) at NASA looked different from the rock musicians and protesters of the time: whenever I see photos and old films of the chaps at Mission Control, for example, they all have air force-style buzzcuts, narrow dark ties and have names like Dave, Deke and Al. They drive Corvettes , live in small neat homes with pools (this impresses a Brit) and talk with clipped Midwestern or occasionally more gravelly Texan accents. They play golf. Al Shepard even took a golf club up to the Moon. How middle class is that?) They don’t look like Janis Joplin fans and probably could not give a damn about recycling of single-use plastics.

→ Continue reading: Book Review: Apollo In The Age Of Aquarius

Samizdata quote of the day

“We didn’t always know it at the time, but Hong Kong has been a kind of bellwether for the state of freedom in the wider world.”

Tyler Cowen.

He’s right, which is why, despite the mockers, I am writing about this topic quite a bit and intend to keep doing so.

Terrible arguments excusing what is going on in Hong Kong

On social media I have come across this sort of “argument” used to justify Beijing’s attempt to put its boot fully on the face of people in Hong Kong:

Britain has no right to interfere in any way, even to protest. That’s because the evil British conquered Hong Kong in the 19th Century, got the locals hooked on opium, and ran it as a colony. Colonies are evil, even if they have the benefits of the English Common Law, reasonably non-corrupt officialdom, and all the rest of it. So it is better that Hong Kong be taken over and turned into the rest of China, with all its charming qualities.

If I wanted to engage in “whataboutery”, I could respond (and did, to wind up a couple of particularly nasty interloctors) with the following points:

China has conquered places of its own. Its treatment of Muslims, Christians and others in different parts of China, including the use of internment camps, etc, has been a disgrace. If today’s Chinese want to play the imperial victim card about Scotsmen taking over Hong Kong and turning it into a capitalist dynamo, they might want to look in the mirror a bit first.

China is a repressive state – and while by far from being unique in that regard, its practices (organ harvesting, internment, intense state surveillance, etc, etc) makes it an egregiously bad place by any sort of pro-liberty metric. Whatever the real or alleged sins of the British Empire, what is happening now is clearly a threat to liberty, and we should judge it on its merits.

There is also a curious sort of moral inversion one sees here. A place (Hong Kong) is a former colony and another place (China) takes it back from said former imperial power. Hong Kong is gradually squeezed; there are protests, and the fears of protestors are widely discussed. And the best that those who try to defend China is to say “oh, but Opium Wars!”

Of course, there is a distinct possibility that some of the people making the Opium War point are in fact bots produced by the Chinese state, or trolls working for Beijing. That point cannot be ruled out.

Samizdata quote of the day

“When the U.K. handed back control of Hong Kong to China in 1997, Beijing promised the city that it could maintain an independent legal system, democratic freedoms and a “high degree of autonomy” for at least 50 years. This “One Country, Two Systems” formula has underpinned the city’s success because it allowed Hong Kong to maintain access to global markets as a separate, law-abiding and free-trading member of the World Trade Organization. But as President Xi Jinping has concentrated more power than any Chinese leader since Mao Zedong, Hong Kong’s autonomy – and therefore its economic raison d’etre – has come under ever greater threat.”

Ben Bland.

My expectation is that if China does indeed fully crush what autonomy Hong Kong has, business will flee to the benefit of Singapore, mainly, and possibly other jurisdictions along the Pacific Rim. It will be commercially dumb of China to do this, but bear in mind that what is dumb commercially is not always dumb if your main agenda is nationalism and being a general asshole. In the meantime, I will go to Hong Kong and do business there and have a good time, but I fear the good times aren’t going to last forever.

Samizdata quote of the day

“So well done to them all as they mass on the safe, sunlit and tank-free streets of London in their courageous anti-Trump protest. And on the thirtieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre of thousands that the (actual fascist) Chinese government pretends never happened, maybe at least some of the more cerebral protesters will allow themselves a bit of pause for thought. These thoughts in particular: I really ought, in the name of consistency, to have been kicking off about the red carpet for Xi Jinping in 2015; and if there’s just one thing I suppose at a push I will give to Trump, he’s got to be right about the whole Chinese government-Huawei-5G business. Happy Tiananmen Anniversary. Happy, easy, safe protest against the non-fascist President of the United States.”

Julie Lynn.

In Hong Kong, the gruesome anniversary of the Tianamen Square killings were commemorated yesterday. Given that HK is sort of part of China (its autonomy is being eroded), future vigils to mark this day of infamy may not take place.

Samizdata quote of the day

“They’ll often talk about anything they do apart from making a profit, which is the central purpose of a business and which is what drives businesses forward.”

Liz Truss, UK Treasury minister, reflecting on how many business leaders today seem embarrassed and incapable of talking about building wealth, and would rather talk about how they want to give it away, or pander to environmental pressures, etc. It is refreshing to see a UK minister giving this mindset hard treatment. It would be good if this happened more often.

(I am writing these words from Singapore, which I am visiting for a business trip. The city-state that does not appear to have quite such a cringe about capitalist success.)

Samizdata quote of the day

“In the past few decades, digital pornography has been blamed for—well, pick a noun and add the word sex. It’s been named as a culprit for both sex addiction and sex abstinence. It’s been blamed for poor sex education, rampant sexual violence, and rising sexual dysfunction. Pornography is practically the Swiss Army knife of social calamity.”

Derek Thompson, The Atlantic.

Reminds me of the old gag: Why was the Swiss military so optimistic about the outcome of a war?
Answer: Because they had a wine corkscrew in their knives.

Chinese tech, Five Eyes, and The British Establishment

The UK government led by Theresa May really is quite something, is it not?

Huawei is already embedded in Britain’s elite: in 2015 it appointed to head its UK board Lord Browne, the former chair of BP, who was ennobled by Tony Blair’s administration and served David Cameron too. At the same time, it appointed to its UK board as non-executive dierectors Dame Helen Alexander, formerly leader of the EU-loving Economist Group and Confederation of British Industry (now deceased), and Sir Andrew Cahn, a former civil servant who resigned from Cameron’s Trade and Investment Department in 2011 in order to chair Huawei’s new British advisory board.

May’s government is sacrificing national security, the special relationship, and Brexit in favour of Chinese money and EU integration.

The article is written by some chap called Bruce Newsome, and it makes a good deal of sense. Even if you are sceptical of some of his points about how accountable US intelligence operations are (not very, judging by what has been going on vis a vis Mr Trump) its contention that it makes more sense to trust the US rather than China seems correct to me. This current government is endangering the UK’s long-standing intelligence co-operation under the “Five Eyes” pact with the US, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. And it is being done by a government that failed to deliver on taking the UK out of the EU by 29 March, giving comfort to those who still dream of taking the UK more fully into a developing European state with its own military command structure, at odds, as it will inevitably be, with NATO.

The rollout of a 5-G network in the UK will, hopefully, bring major benefits to users, but you don’t need to watch a lot of scary thrillers to understand the risks in getting a firm involved that is so closely embedded with the Chinese state. (Sure, many Western firms are also embedded in their respective states, so it comes down to a judgement call on which states are less evil, and I think I know the answer to that).

Even those of an anarchist/minarchist turn of mind when it comes to intra-government intelligence sharing processes ought to worry that the UK seems keener to do deals with Chinese state-backed tech firms than protect an alliance that helped to win the Cold War. Such matters should not be discussed behind closed doors of government, but be out in the open.

As far as Theresa May is concerned, my contempt for this individual has gone from gale warning to hurricane-force levels, with no signs of improvement soon.

Environmentalism’s philosophical black hole

This below is from an essay that was produced in 1990 by US economist George Reisman. (I also have his immense tome, Capitalism, which is excellent.)

The idea of nature’s intrinsic value inexorably implies a desire to destroy man and his works because it implies a perception of man as the systematic destroyer of the good, and thus as the systematic doer of evil. Just as man perceives coyotes, wolves, and rattlesnakes as evil because they regularly destroy the cattle and sheep he values as sources of food and clothing, so on the premise of nature’s intrinsic value, the environmentalists view man as evil, because, in the pursuit of his well-being, man systematically destroys the wildlife, jungles, and rock formations that the environmentalists hold to be intrinsically valuable. Indeed, from the perspective of such alleged intrinsic values of nature, the degree of man’s alleged destructiveness and evil is directly in proportion to his loyalty to his essential nature. Man is the rational being. It is his application of his reason in the form of science, technology, and an industrial civilization that enables him to act on nature on the enormous scale on which he now does. Thus, it is his possession and use of reason — manifested in his technology and industry — for which he is hated.

The doctrine of intrinsic value is itself only a rationalization for a preexisting hatred of man. It is invoked not because one attaches any actual value to what is alleged to have intrinsic value, but simply to serve as a pretext for denying values to man. For example, caribou feed upon vegetation, wolves eat caribou, and microbes attack wolves. Each of these, the vegetation, the caribou, the wolves, and the microbes, is alleged by the environmentalists to possess intrinsic value. Yet absolutely no course of action is indicated for man. Should man act to protect the intrinsic value of the vegetation from destruction by the caribou? Should he act to protect the intrinsic value of the caribou from destruction by the wolves? Should he act to protect the intrinsic value of the wolves from destruction by the microbes? Even though each of these alleged intrinsic values is at stake, man is not called upon to do anything. When does the doctrine of intrinsic value serve as a guide to what man should do? Only when man comes to attach value to something. Then it is invoked to deny him the value he seeks. For example, the intrinsic value of the vegetation et al. is invoked as a guide to man’s action only when there is something man wants, such as oil, and then, as in the case of Northern Alaska, its invocation serves to stop him from having it. In other words, the doctrine of intrinsic value is nothing but a doctrine of the negation of human values. It is pure nihilism.

A reason why this essay is evergreen (geddit?) is because its philosophical assault on environmentalism is one that is all too rarely crafted. Most critiques are a mixture of making fun of protestors or contesting specific claims they make, not the wider set of assumptions on which environmentalism rests. Consider the antics of campaigners making a nuisance of themselves in central London in recent days. Most responses have been: The campaigners are smug, middle-class berks (while true, is not an argument); they are disrupting lives of ordinary people (true, but is not a refutation of their claims about the Earth); their conduct is not a good way to raise awareness about the plight of the Earth (that’s debatable) and that they are alienating people (true, but again, does not say their arguments are bunk per se).

Free marketeers can, by logic, be alarmed by Man-made global warming, or be more sanguine or neutral as Matt Ridley is and so on, so even those who generally go with the classical liberal flow can worry about such issues on the facts of the case. It is true that there is a lot of overlap between those who fear AGW and who want the State to control our lives more, whether via population control, banning products and energy use, etc, but that’s by no means a given. (There are, by the way, genuinely liberal ways of thinking about conservation, pollution, externalities of human behaviour, etc.)

I think the environmentalist movement has been allowed to claim the philosophical high ground by default because by and large, we bipeds with our out-sized brains and reversible thumbs have allowed it to happen. It is rare to read a Reisman-type attack on this mindset (sharp-eyed readers will note from his language that he is an Ayn Rand fan). Another example of a more comprehensive critique of such anti-humanism comes from Robert Zubrin in his book Merchants of Despair (see a Reason review of his ideas here).

The core of the problem, as Reisman frames it, is that environmentalists commit the sin of making a contradiction: They applaud being at one with nature, and therefore are fine with animals eating other animals and of their adapting to environments through the long march of evolution over masses of time, but they are not happy when Man lives according to his nature, by re-arranging the environment to suit his needs because of how Man, unlike animals that we know of, has a rational faculty able to grasp concepts and think ahead. The Greens say: everything apart from Man can live as it does, but Man is somehow different, a sort of unique creature. That seems, well, unnatural. We even get echoes of this mindset when you read of people saying why they want to help the Earth by not breeding. (Mind you, the sort of people who choose not to breed for such reasons are probably doing Mankind a favour by not spreading their DNA.) Any other creature does not think “I won’t have kids to save the Earth”.

The contradictory mess that is environmental ideology is all of a piece with it being, in many respects, a secular religion. The people blocking traffic in London may not think they are religious in the way that, say, the builders of Notre Dame did all those centuries ago, but they are in similar company. At least church architects had something tangible to show for their devotion. With today’s Greens, all we are likely to ever get is litter.