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]

Meringue exports

One big problem of Brexit is that it’s created a big category error in everyone’s thinking. Problems are categorised as being caused by Brexit instead of by trade regulation.

Nobody notices the EU could just choose not to restrict food imports from the UK. Or vice versa. French people’s inability to buy British meringues is unseen.

Because we use egg, there was a real problem with ‘do we need to get a vet in to certify the egg?’ and we were being pushed from pillar to post from [the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs] and the Department for Trade and it was so difficult to understand.

Is there really any need to check food at the border? Might one not reasonably assume that British food legally sold in Britain is safe? Stopping diseases at borders might be somewhat useful but this is something that can be activated after the detection of a specific problem, just as it presumably is within the EU.

The real reason for these regulations is to make work for regulators.

Perun on the war in Ukraine

Perun is a gaming YouTuber who started making PowerPoint presentations on the war in Ukraine and they are so good that his channel has since become extremely successful.

The two most recent presentations are particularly good. In Who is winning? – Mythbusting the Ukraine-Russia war, Perun looks at claims of kills of each side vs. inventory (Russia’s overstatement is reaching its limits), the idea that attacking Kiev was a feint (a bad idea if so), various claims that Russia could do better if it wanted to (it is trying its hardest) and discussion of how well Russia is doing towards Russia’s own claimed goals (not well). All of this is done without sensationalism, with well-explained reasoning, with evidence where available and descriptions of the limitations of the evidence. There is no cheerleading here: claims that Ukraine has more tanks than before the war started are examined critically, as are Ukraine’s claimed successes.

However, as reasonable as it sounds to me, I am not very well placed to judge Perun’s military analysis. I think I understand some economics, though, and he makes a lot of sense in The Price of War – Can Russia afford a long conflict? Certainly the inverse of Gell-Mann amnesia applies. He points out that the price of the Ruble and the Russian stock market are at this point propped up by market interventions. “The Russian stock market is doing ok. But only because nobody’s bloody allowed to sell their shares.” (Did I mention Perun is Australian?)

He points out just how “hilariously” bigger the economies of all the Nato countries combined are compared to the Russian economy, and how that means that the West can continue to support Ukraine indefinitely while still growing, and Russia can only get poorer as the war goes on. He downplays the importance of Russian hydrocarbon exports to the West, because in the long term we can wean ourselves off them, and that leaves Russia selling them at a discount to India, and with a hefty bill to construct pipelines to China.

One aspect covered in both videos is the difficulty of Russia controlling the Donbass region in any useful way. Assuming Ukraine does not just give up and agree to hand it over, the Russians potentially have to defend it from attacks forever. That would make keeping it expensive and extracting any gas from beneath it difficult.

According to Perun, it does seem as if Western support for Ukraine and shunning of Russia, if kept up for long enough, will be very unpleasant for Russia. They would be better off giving up sooner rather than later, and even then Russia is in a bad way if the West pours aid and investment into Ukraine and does not return to investing in and trading with Russia. One possible problem with this is confidence:

The West needs to recognise its own strength. It’s always funny watching countries like Germany act really afraid of Russia, frankly, when economically Germany’s got about as much heft as the Russians do. Sure, Germany’s dependent on Russian gas but Russia is dependent on gas sales to Germany, too. The West seldom acts like it is the 40 trillion dollar gorilla that it is. It needs to acknowledge that is has muscle; it needs to be willing to use that economic muscle.

Digital Markets Act

With the Digital Markets Act, the EU wants to make competition between tech giants more fair. What could possibly go wrong?

In his weekly podcast, Linus Sebastian gushes about all the wonderful things it will bring: ensuring interoperability of instant messaging services (so you can more easily abandon Apple devices even if all your friends have them and use iMessage); the ability to use alternative app stores (which is what Epic games was hoping for so it could sell Fortnite VBucks to iPhone users without paying Apple); the right to uninstall pre-loaded apps (aka bloatware); no self-preferencing (e.g. putting your own products at the top of search results); more rules about combining personal data without consent; no more requiring developers to use certain services to get their apps onto app stores, making it easier to, for example, use alternative payment processors; allow app developers fair access to supplementary functionalities of smartphones (for example access to NFC for third party apps on iPhones).

“This is just such an obvious list of things that no consumer should oppose,” says Linus. And he is right. All these things would be very convenient.

But Linus does not consider the means by which these things are being attempted. One wonders what minor inconveniences he would not resort to legislation to solve. The non-aggression principle does not occur to him. Never mind the motivations of the people behind it or the time-proven tendency for all state regulation to have unintended consequences.

At 18:48 he responds to a commenter. “BFire just outed themselves as someone who doesn’t get it. ‘More government control. You’d think Canadians would have learned.’ No! This is a government body stepping in to reduce corporate control. Everything here is about loosening an iron fist. How is it not clear? This is one of those things: I just don’t get it. How can you oppose being allowed to remove crap you don’t want from your devices?”

Linus has fallen into a semantic muddle. No-one is being allowed to do anything. People are being forbidden from doing things. The answer is easy: if you want to be allowed to remove crap you do not want from your devices, simply buy devices that do not take that control away from you. The beauty of this is that it does not require any violence!

Linus must know on some level that violence is involved. His next sentence: “Companies being forced to make their products inter-operable. How can you oppose pro-consumer legislation?”

Perhaps one might oppose it because it is legislation which means that force is used. You might also oppose it because it may not lead to the utopian world its proponents imagine. Alec Muffet tweets that enforced interoperability will weaken end-to-end encryption of messages (and he goes into much more detail in a recent essay). There is a consequence that might not actually be unintended by the state actors behind this legislation and that might well harm the very consumers they claim to help.

The whole thing is also obviously unnecessary. In the video there is some discussion of Google search results becoming a bit rubbish lately since many more of the top results are just adverts. Luke Lafreniere (the chap on the right who works with Linus) talks about using Duck Duck Go to get better results, not just for privacy. So there is a free market solution to these problems that is already working.

At 29:39 Luke straight up announces that he would consider not buying Pixel phones if other phones allowed him to remove all the crapware. He seems completely unaware that the problem of crapware is already solved: simply buy devices that do not have crapware.

But for all the practical considerations, there is an easy way to counter all of this from first principles. Violence is bad, and the ends do not justify the means. You just need to have the semantic discipline to see through such constructs as “pro-consumer legislation”.

This is not going to work

UK online safety laws to be strengthened:

The new communications offences will strengthen protections from harmful online behaviours such as … deliberately sharing dangerous disinformation about hoax Covid-19 treatments.

Social media bosses face jail if they do not do as they are told.

Meanwhile, attempting to be the sole arbiter of truth turns out to be not quite so easy:

Facebook’s actions won’t stop The BMJ doing what is right, but the real question is: why is Facebook acting in this way?

Why, indeed?

How to end poverty

A new article by Max Roser, founder of Our World in Data, spells out exactly how to end poverty.

I calculated that at a minimum the world economy needs to increase five-fold for global poverty to substantially decline. This is in a scenario in which the world would also achieve a massive reduction in inequality: inequality between all the world’s countries would disappear entirely in this scenario. It should therefore be seen as a calculation of the minimum necessary growth for an end of poverty.

Anyone arguing that economic growth is in any way bad, or needs to be reduced, is saying that they have enough and they do not care about anyone else.

Insulin in the USA

Insulin is expensive in the USA. “The average list price of one unit of insulin in the US is $98.70, compared to $12 in Canada and $7.52 in the UK.”

Then why do not people simply buy it from wherever it is cheaper? Because it is illegal to import it. Why is it not made more cheaply by competitors? Because the FDA have not approved this. President Biden claims to want to lower insulin costs but continues to support state violence that restricts access to medication.

Adam Smith: Father of the Fringe on YouTube

Incoming from Dominic Frisby:

The YouTube premiere of our feature documentary Adam Smith: Father of the Fringe will take place this Sunday evening at 7pm and you are invited to join. I hope you can make it. If you can’t fear not, the film will remain on YouTube thereafter, so you’ll still be able to watch. We’ll leave it on there until some broadcaster with deep pockets wants to broadcast it.

See also my previous post about this.

Adam Smith: Father of the Fringe

On Monday night I attended a screening of Dominic Frisby’s film Adam Smith: Father of the Fringe at the IEA.

It is a documentary about how the government-subsidised Edinburgh Festival was usurped by amateurs who just turned up, organised their own venues and ticketing, and put on their own shows. The fringe festival was, and remains, a triumph of the free market. This is in spite of many of the performers being somewhat left-leaning. In the film, one comedian being interviewed points out that doing comedy for a living is very entrepreneurial, and that during the 80s most comedians were mocking Thatcher whilst doing exactly what she wanted.

It is a funny, entertaining and informative film. Dominic Frisby tells a good story. During the Q and A afterwards, one young questioner said that he was worried about his generation because they all seemed to think socialism was the right way. He thought that films like this might go some way to convincing them otherwise. There proceeded some discussion about how a good story is often more persuasive than facts and logic. Dominic pointed out that most people saw themselves as wanting to be nice, and the prevailing view was that anyone not on the left was unkind and uncaring. Clearly some better marketing is needed.

The counterpoint, demonstrated here, is that the state subsidised organisations are slow, curmudgeonly and favour the distinguished and established elites. The free market is for amateurs and small groups who experiment, fail, and provide much desired diversity of choice, interesting niche products and discovery of exciting new innovations. The film gives examples of all this happening at the fringe. During the Q and A, comparisons were made to YouTubers, who similarly provide diverse opinions and information on niche topics, as compared to the mainstream media who offer a narrow selection of often poorly researched information. It seems to me that the distinction between big and small organisations in general is relevant. Big companies who hold apparently unassailable apparent monopolies in some sector are regularly usurped by nimble startups despite the former’s capture of state favour.

After the event I chatted with the director of the film, Alex Webster. He had pointed out that cheap equipment was one of the things helping those YouTubers. It turned out we both own the same camera: the Blackmagic Design Pocket Cinema Camera 6K Pro. It is a relatively cheap device that can capture video with cinematic quality good enough for a Hollywood feature film. Blackmagic Design are making film-making cheap not just with cameras but with the editing, compositing and colour-grading software Davinci Resolve which anyone can download for free. This is one of the ways that young people with little money can develop their skills in film-making, and that small, independent, innovative, niche film-makers can afford to make their films.

Perhaps there is a chance that fringe-like dynamics might come to the aid of those who have the desire and ability to improve the marketing of the idea of freedom by telling some compelling stories about it.

The Life of Brian Transcribed

On Friday September 3rd, an event was held at the headquarters of the Institute of Economic Affairs in Lord North Street, London, in honour of our own Brian Micklethwait. This event was announced previously on this blog.

Brian was in attendance along with a large packed room of his friends, and many nice (and, importantly, true) things were said about him, which I think he greatly enjoyed.

A video recording was made of the event but something went wrong with the sound recording. For the Brian Micklethwait Archive I have started to transcribe what can be heard of the speeches and comments made. There are some gaps but you can get a good idea of what was said in the formal speeches and afterwards when the microphone was passed around for people to speak. The work is incomplete and ongoing, but I might as well share what I have so far.

My requests:

  • If you can fill in any gaps or correct any mistakes in my transcriptions, please comment here or contact brianmicklethwaitarchive@gmail.com .
  • If you were unable to attend, or did attend but ran out of time to make their comments, or otherwise have more to say about Brian, please comment here or contact brianmicklethwaitarchive@gmail.com . I think Brian will enjoy reading them.

Lorry driver shortage

In the news cycle of late: lorry driver shortage threatens empty supermarket shelves.

One product so affected is apparently bottled water. I can say I have been having trouble buying the particular brand of bottled soft water I put in my coffee machine to avoid having to descale it so often.

The Road Haulage Association wrote to the Prime Minister with five causes of the shortage: covid, Brexit, retiring drivers, a driving test shortage and IR35. The first two are causing foreign drivers to return to their home countries, not to return, they say. The last two I imagine are exacerbating the first three. If you make lorry driving pay less and cost more (whether obvious monetary costs or by increasing bureaucratic hurdles) it stands to reason that supply will diminish. To get supply back to the same level, you will have to pay more. In macroeconomic terms: taxes and regulations reduce economic growth. This is how that looks in real world terms.

IR35 is particularly egregious. A driver recruitment agency writes:

The effect of the IR35 reform is to force agency workers who previously operated as Ltd Companies to pay more tax and their agencies or end clients to pay Employer NI Contributions. If we were to keep the drivers’ net income the same, it would result in an increase in employment costs of 25% to the agency.

Maybe they are exaggerating their own costs, but the exact number does not matter too much. More tax is being collected from the employment of lorry drivers: that is the point of the IR35 regulation. One way or another it will be paid for by people directly and indirectly using the services of lorry drivers. Someone might argue that prior to IR35, the haulage industry was immorally getting away without paying enough tax, but that someone must now accept the increased costs of certain goods, including to poorer people for whom such goods are a more significant portion of their income.

Increased barriers to immigration are also said to play a part here. It is undoubtedly true that increased immigration drives down wages as it increases supply, which is to say it drives down the cost of hiring lorry drivers, and drives down costs to everyone who is indirectly using their services. Quite possibly the remaining lorry drivers are happy about this shortage (although I do suspect that any thus increased earnings are just going towards the now higher taxes). Also happy are the people who want everyone to have higher wages and use terms such as “living wage”, even if (as I suspect) those people also want more freedom of movement without wanting any reduction in wages that comes with it.

In the long term, more immigration should not mean lower wages: there is no lump of labour; if there are more people then there is more work to be done. On the contrary, denser concentrations of people create efficiencies that decrease costs, which makes things cheaper, which is the same thing as increasing wages. But dynamics are often overlooked. If you suddenly reduce the supply of lorry drivers you are going to suddenly increase the price of them. All of the other effects take time. And some of those effects will be cost-cutting innovations that reduce the need for lorry drivers. So watch out, lorry drivers.

I am a computer programmer. There was a time when there were suddenly many computer programmers arriving from Europe. My wages did not go down. The increased supply of programmers meant that more projects were started, there were more interesting things to work on, more interesting people to work on them with, and in general much more opportunity. Now it is becoming harder to hire programmers. I suspect if this continues, a lot of projects will happen in places where it is not so hard to hire programmers. My wages will not go up. The equivalent problem for the lorry drivers might be that as things get more expensive, people buy less things. Everything gets less interesting. That is how economic decline looks and it will not be good for the remaining lorry drivers in the end.

I have my doubts about whether the shortage will become a real crisis. So far, supply chain crises as a result of Brexit and covid have proved remarkably short-lived, and supply chains remarkably robust. Some new equilibrium will be found. But relative costs do change, and the people who want higher taxes, more regulation, higher wages or less immigration, ought to have the downsides of their demands pointed out to them.

How to win the libertarian argument

The converting-Libertarian-Alliance-pamphlets-to-HTML phase of the Brian Micklethwait Archive project continues.

When I add something new, I also add a news update post about it. These usually briefly describe what the update is with, perhaps, a quote. Today’s update about How to Win the Libertarian Argument contains some of Brian’s most important and useful wisdom: how to spread libertarianism by arguing (and not necessarily by winning arguments). I could not choose which quote to use, so there are a lot of them. I’ll repost them here.

When was the last time you *won* an argument, right there in front of you? When was the last time someone said to you: “By heavens! You’re right about this, and I’ve been wrong about it all of my life, until you took the trouble to straighten me out. How can I possibly thank you? Let me, as a pitifully small token of my infinite gratitude, kiss your shoes.”? Not recently, I would guess.

The article covers the importance of politeness:

The *right* way to be an extremist is to say what you think and why, while absolutely *not* assuming that the person you are talking to has any sort of obligation to think likewise, and if anything while making it clear that you rather expect him not to. You think what you think, and he thinks what he thinks. And if he hasn’t told you already what he does think, then an obviously polite next step would be to ask him to talk about that. The two of you can then try to pin down more precisely how you disagree, assuming you do. It is possible to be an extremist without deviating from good manners, and that is how.

By merely proving that libertarianism and decency can cohere in the same personality, you will be a walking advertisement for the cause, as I might not be.

And it covers how to sell your ideas:

First announce your product, and try to spin out the conversation about it. You do this by finding out what your audience wants, and you try to explain, if you can, why your product will supply this. In the case of El Salvador, find out what the man thinks is now wrong with El Salvador and explain how your ideas might improve things, and why his ideas might only be making things worse.

It offers the sort of wisdom that people on Twitter could do with hearing:

No matter how “extreme” is the opinion I may read in a pamphlet or magazine, I am never, so to speak, at its mercy. I can stop reading it at any moment, and so in the meantime I need not feel threatened or even discomforted by it.

The world is full of people with wildly different views about the philosophical foundations of life, of the universe and of everything, yet on the whole they get along peacefully enough. Where there are major breaches of the peace, these are just as likely to be between peoples with near identical views on “the fundamentals” as between people without such philosophical affinities.

And there are descriptions of the ways in which people change their minds.

The notion that one can “convince” somebody of the truth of libertarianism with one mere “argument” is rooted in a false model of how people think about political matters. Political thought is rooted not merely in “facts” but in contrasting “world views” or “models” of how the world is and how it ought to be improved.

For some anti-libertarians it comes as a shattering revelation to learn that there actually are real live libertarians, and that we mean what we say. Until then they had assumed that people only believed in capitalism for the sake of their dividends. The mere *existence* of a sincere libertarian might for such a person be the decisive, conversion-inducing “fact”.

Do keep an eye on the updates, or follow the Twitter feed if you are so minded. I have been managing about two per week so far.

The Brian Micklethwait Archive

Our very own Brian has written an awful lot over the years; his writings have influenced, encouraged and advised many of us Samizdatistas and other libertarians. When I heard that he was trying to find his old writings and get them in order, I had a think about how I could help, and so began the Brian Micklethwait Archive.

The idea is first of all to put a lot of old writing in a more convenient, easy to find, search, quote and refer-to location. Some writings exist only as PDFs which do not render well on mobile devices and do not work well with the rest of the internet. That part to do with fixing that has got started already. The next idea is to find all the places Brian has scattered his work, such as his many defunct blogs, and make sure that it stays online and is easy to navigate. Then there are other things such as podcasts to be organised and catalogued, and a database of quotes to build.

Why go to all this trouble? The writings and ideas are valuable. Brian himself has argued for the value of repetition: old audiences need reminding and new audiences need a chance to discover things for the first time. An archive does not have to be a musty museum, seldom-visited: its contents can be blogged and tweeted about and memed for eternity. And it gives me something useful to do: my creativity has not been flowing in the direction of blogging lately, so here is a way I can help the cause of liberty.

And you can help too, by commenting here or otherwise pointing me in the direction of particular bits of Brianalia that I ought to get to sooner rather than later. Or keep an eye on that site or its Twitter account and read and tell people about it.