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]

What does ‘totalitarian’ actually mean?

1. of or pertaining to a centralized government that does not tolerate parties of differing opinion and that exercises dictatorial control over many aspects of life.
2. exercising control over the freedom, will, or thought of others; authoritarian; autocratic.

3. an adherent of totalitarianism.

Random House Unabridged Dictionary

But are those really the best definitions of totalitarian?

When someone uses the term ‘totalitarian’, we think of Stalin’s Soviet Union or Hitler’s Germany or Pol Pot’s Cambodia or Mao’s China. Those were indisputably totalitarian states. We think of gulags and killing fields. We think of secret police and surveillance.

Yet I would argue that all those things can just as satisfactorily described as ‘tyranny’ of whatever political completion. The thing that makes a place ‘totalitarian’ is not the nastiness of it or even the repressiveness of it, but the totality of state control. The real defining characteristic of totalitarian seems obvious from the word itself.

And what is a total state? It is a state in which there is no civil society, just politically derived rules by which people may interact. And I would argue the key to that is removing the right to free association, usually on grounds of ‘fairness’ or ‘diversity’ and by declaring private property to be ‘public’.

Britain has no gulags, no killing fields, it has a relatively free press (though less so than it was), it has no internal passports (though they are working on that with ID cards and panoptic surveillance)… but every year we take more and more steps towards the destruction of a voluntary civil society of free interaction and its replacement with a state in which no aspect of life is not politically regulated. This is often described as making things ‘more democratic’… and in that the supporters of the total state are not being disingenuous, for democracy is just a type of politics after all.

We are headed for a different kind of totalitarianism than that of Stalin or Hitler or Mao, but a total state really is what a great many people have in mind for us all. They seek a sort of ‘smiley face fascism’ in which all interactions are regulated in the name of preventing sexism, promoting health, and defending the environment. The excuses will not invoke the Glory of the Nation or the Proletariat or the Volk or the King or the Flag or any of those old fashioned tools for tyrants, but rather it will be “for our own good”, “for the Planet”, “for the whales”, “for the children”, “for the disabled” or “for equality”.

But if they get their way it will be quite, quite totalitarian.

A critical misunderstanding

A mailing from the Royal United Services Institute invites me to a conference in April:

The Critical National Infrastructure (CNI) is both the backbone and the lifeblood of the country. It comprises the assets, services and systems that support the economic, political and social life of the UK. Any disruption, damage or destruction to all or part of the CNI could result in grave consequences for the functioning of government, the economy and society. Clearly the CNI is vital to the country’s well-being but the planning and implementation of its security is a Byzantine process; the CNI is a complex and uneven environment with ownership and responsibility spread across the public and private sector.

The threats it confronts are myriad including terrorist attack, industrial accidents and natural disasters. As demonstrated during the July 7 bombings, the Buncefield Disaster, and the foot and mouth outbreak, the CNI is a labyrinthine web of interdependent vulnerabilities that requires a coordinated and coherent response across its entirety to ensure its effective security and resilience in the face of such threats.

Dangerous rubbish. This is an epitome of the statist miscomprehension of complex systems, of economies and ecologies. ‘It is messy; we must coordinate it,’ they say. There are vital things that can be identified in advance as such, and other things not necessary to the ‘backbone of the country’, they think.

But the connections in a natural web are flexible, or they don’t get established in the first place. “Interdependent vulnerabilities” are what make systems adapt, the source of resilience. In unmanaged, open, systems everything is important and everything is unimportant: all things contribute their part to everything else (and you can’t directly measure their contribution), but competition ensures they are all redundant and replaceable.

The response to 7 July was a demonstration of improvisation by thousands of separate actors – millions if you count all those who took simple decisions to get out and walk, rather than passively waiting to be evacuated by the authorities, which would have been the orderly, planned, way to do it. London was functioning again in a day, despite, not because of, the “strategic interventions” that restricted the recovery of traffic flow, and filled the streets with police.

Livestock farming in Britain almost didn’t survive the Deprtment for Rural Affairs’ “coordinated” response to the last “foot and mouth” outbreak. Fortunately at the time DEFRA lacked the powers to coordinate more farmers out of business. The department didn’t see it like that: Its plans were frustrated, and that’s why things were as bad as they were. The ‘defect’ has been eliminated by the Animal Health Act 2002 and the Civil Contingencies Act 2004.

Nobody in government had to tell Tesco’s dealers to buy up more petroleum in Rotterdam when the Buncefield depot caught fire. The state way is a ‘strategic reserve’ of petrol under armed guard somewhere, distributed eventually by rationing according to who is important enough to get it, after declaration of a suitable emergency. As it was, loss of 20% of the country’s stocks overnight caused scarcely a single car journey to be cancelled – apart from those of the people no longer commuting to the flattened industrial estate.

Those ex-commuters would not be comforted by the thought that distributing tiles or soft drinks is not “critical” and not to be guarded by the state. What they do matters to them and their customers. When I want petrol, petrol matters; when I want tiles, they matter. We are all equally made poorer by the unavailablilty of either, because we can’t predict what we will want. Nor can the state.

How dare the planners decide for me what it is I want, as they do implicitly when they define some workers, some structures, as “key”? Well there’s a confirmation bias at work. What the state can best monitor is important (invisible, uncontrollable processes couldn’t be); so those who work for it are. Chaos is bad. State plans are designed to control chaos; therefore they do, and any unfortunate or unforseen consequences are just the remnants of chaos uncontrolled. Bad things are not in the plan, so not of the plan. They are part of the failure to squeeze out doubt, never caused or exacerbated by wrong or unnecessary decisions by the authorities.

The misunderstanding at the heart of planning is a fundamentalist belief that order and simplicity are public goods. They aren’t. It may be good to have them in your own life – if you want them. It is probably necessary to have them in managing a task, running a business, playing a game; to make any well-defined single goal attainable. Clarity in shared procedural rules is highly desirable. But if we want to live in a world where the goals and threat aren’t well defined, where we have a choice, and where how we live is not vulnerable to simple shocks from unexpected angles, then universal order and simplicity are bad. Conflict and competition, difference and redundancy are good. The more disorder, uneveness, and complexity our society has, the richer our lives, and the better equipped we are collectively to meet disaster by routing around damage.

Dancing with Sister Morphine

I came out of hospital yesterday. La Belle Dame is in America making money (one of us has to) so Dave picked me up and steered me home. I live quite close to the Chelsea & Westminster and needed some air to clear my head so we walked back. I felt surprisingly well considering I have been under a general anaesthetic and had quite a few squishy bits from inside lopped off me. In fact I felt amazingly well.

The journey back home was interesting. The colours were so very bright and someone seems to have turned up the contrast. Sometimes when I looked closely as the things written on the back of people’s tee-shirts whilst walking down King’s Road, the words seemed to suddenly zoom away from me towards some vanishing point.

Getting home and having a nice shower was a transcendent experience but the thing that really kept me captivated was the way the water fell down, coming from hundreds of feet above my head and travelling downwards towards the gleaming ceramic floor perhaps three yards below. I could feel the vibration of the water spiralling down the plughole and the strange flute-like sound it made.

I looked forward to getting some good food as being chopped up had not dented my appetite and the hospital food was moderately dreadful. When it came time to eat, for some reason Dave would not let me near the hot stove. The smell of bacon was almost erotic.

Dave and I work together and I had been struck by some really good creative ideas whilst pacing back and forth in the ward the night before last, waiting for the frigging painkillers to actually do something. The ideas kept pouring out of me and Dave just absorbed them like the 185 IQ colossus he is. For a while at least.

But then I noticed that I was having to force the ideas out through clenched teeth and they kept bouncing off Dave’s head rather than going in. To make matters worse although the bacon surrendered to me willingly, the sausages were staring at me with ill concealed contempt. I stabbed a couple to death as punishment and gave the rest to Dave.

Today I find the internet in front of me and deep throbbing pains from within. Be prepared from some bad tempered blogging over the next few days when I can drag my fingers to the mouse. Tramadol, Co-Codamol and Diclofenac are pallid impostors. Sister Morphine is a fickle lover and she would not come home with me.

The public mood (while the public moo-ed)

I am feeling less of a lone loony than I did. After a decade of my saying the key thing wrong with the demon eyes campaign was that the slogan ought to have been: ‘New Labour: Old Danger’ because the electorate should not have the purported newness reinforced, more and more people in the chattering classes seem to be accepting that there is a danger. Even such fringe lefty agitators as Clifford Chance LLP have offered severe warnings about the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill. Too late?

The War on Liberty may never end, but it became a general action only in the 90s – just about the time, the Wall being down, and the net routing round borders and censorship, we free-lifers had begun to feel we were winning. Now I find I am doing my bit with NO2ID and we are gearing up for a ten-year campaign. Grand constitutionalist coalitions are being proposed left, right, and centre (which I’m sure are meritorious). The differences between Peter Hitchens and Mark Thomas begin to be indistinguishable when the establishment is of the extreme centre…

What worries me is that this ferment is still superficial, a speck of mould on Mr Blair’s Horlicks. It concerns the tiny minority of the population that reads the serious press, say 10% – and of those only the avid followers of politics, maybe a quarter of that. The readers and writers of blogs are fewer still, and more introrse.

The mass of the population of Britain is nescient, complacent, and has no interest in the abstractions of liberty, or the threats from power assumed only to be threats to others, to bad people. Many people are happy to claim the status of an ‘ordinary’ person, with “nothing to hide, nothing to fear” from officialdom, while being paradoxically susceptible to fears of everything else. Passively concerned with material welfare, security against virtual risks, and gossip, they graze and are milked as the livestock of the state.

This is Foucault’s concept of governmentality in action. Not, pace his fans on the left, a neo-liberal order, but a post-liberal order in which the foundational institutions of liberalism – liberty and individuality, rule of law, the separation of private and public life, a civil society and a political sphere distinct from one another – have ceased to have a meaning for even the bulk of the middle-classes.

Where is the cattle-prod that will change the public mood?

David Cameron as Peter Sellers

The Tories could simply abolish entire government departments that the ‘man in the street’ really does not give a damn about (such as the DTI for example) and save huge amounts of money… but far from cutting pointless state expenditures, Cameron is in the process of making it politically impossible for him to do anything but ape Blair. Why? Because there has been no meaningful attempt by the Tories to even make the idea of a smaller state something that is simply a feature of normal political discourse. They have left the thinking to the other side and now have to fight every battle on ground Tony Blair has chosen for them.

The Tories have had more than a decade to put in the intellectual ground work for cutting the scope of the state and to argue their positions on the basis of several rights, and yet have done nothing of the sort because that is not what most of them believe. That is hardly surprising given the pathologies of the sort of people who are drawn to politics: they do not get involved because they want to wield less power than the previous guys who ran things. Understanding politicians and what they are likely to do is much easier once you realise that almost everyone in politics (even the ‘nice guys’ who wear sensible cardigans and remind you of Wallace and Gromit) have more in common psychologically and morally with your typical member of a street gang than with most of the people who actually vote for them.

However where does that leave people who do want a less intrusive state and cannot bring themselves to believe the Tory party does not give a damn about them? Well it leaves them trying to convince themselves that Cameron is just playing a clever game because the alternative is just too dreadful. He is the man who will save us from those who are incrementally destroying our competitiveness and strangling our civil liberties because, well, he has to be, who else is there?

But even if his conversion to ‘soft socialist’ economics is because he is going after LibDem voters who think high taxes and regulations are a good thing, it would at least require Cameron to also make a pitch based on civil liberties, the one differentiating issue where the LibDems make sense, and yet the main thrust of the inconstant Tory opposition to ID cards is based on their cost.

Those of you who think Cameron is just being clever should go watch Peter Sellers in ‘Being There’ and realise that what you are mistaking for cleverness is in fact just emptiness.

Are you a ‘citizen’ or just a ‘subject’?

My previous article seems to have sparked off a discussion amongst the commentariat on the difference between being called a ‘subject’ or a ‘citizen’. To prevent that comment section from digressing too far, I thought it might be interesting to provide an article to revisit the topic even though I have written about it before.

There are some historical reasons why the British have been ‘subjects’ (as they were subject to the laws of the Crown), whereas Americans have been ‘citizens’. The reality is that the British are subject to are the laws of a democratically elected Parliament. As in truth the Royal Assent is nothing more than a historical curiosity, the actual differences between the way individuals truly relate to state in the United States and Britain is less than it might seem. The principle differences of significance are be that as Britain is more democratic at th national level, individuals have less institutional defences against the power of the state, whereas in the United States, with its written constitution and clearer separation of powers, an individual has more structural defences against the excesses of democratic politics, at least in theory.

In my experience most people tend to think they are citizens rather than subjects of whatever nation issues their passport. However I have always though the term ‘subject’ was a far more honest word to describe the relationship between individuals and the state rather than the prouder egalitarian sounding ‘citizen’. We are subject to taxes, we are subject to laws, we are subject to conscription of various sorts (be it military, educational or judicial). Sure, we ‘citizens’ are empowered via the glories of democracy, but quite how being out-voted and then being subject to some law you oppose ’empowers’ you is unclear to me, even if it is a reasonable law. To be a subject may seem demeaning but in truth that is what we are: subjects.

As it happens, I think the term is even more appropriate for US ‘citizens’ given that at least in Britain and almost every other country, to avoid your particular state making ownership claims on the product of your labour, you just have to leave the country and live somewhere else. States generally do not claim to own you independent of your location, just the territory you live on and part of your labour within that territory in return for its ‘protection’ (capisce?).

The United States, on the other hand, claims you owe them the obeisance of taxes regardless of where you are physically located anywhere on the planet, although in practice it often makes arrangements with other nations to only impose its demands if you make more than a certain amount (double taxation treaties). Yet the obligation to report your income from overseas and to pay the IRS is still there if they wish you to do so.

So if it is not just sovereignty over a piece of land that the USA claims, it actually contends that it owns part of your labour regardless of where you live, making you subject to taxation for merely having the permission to live in America even if you choose to live elsewhere, then you sure sound like a ‘subject’ to me.

Church and state

“America’s militant agnostic minority has totally distorted the meaning of separation of church and state. It doesn’t mean banning religion and religious values from the public square. It doesn’t mean Howard Stern’s off-color (and frequently off-the-wall) ‘humor’ is protected speech, while the free _expression of religion is banned. It means the United States will establish no official religion, while remaining equally hospitable to all religions — and to those who practice none. Religious principle is not something to fear and loathe and banish from the public square; it is a code of conduct on which we can and should rely to guide our personal and civic behavior”
– singer Pat Boone, writing in the San Diego Union-Tribune.

I know, I know – Pat Boone? But he seems to me he got this one about right (except for the implication that Howard Stern’s humor may not be protected speech).

Contrary to popular belief, “separation of church and state” is not found in the US Constitution. What is found in the Constitution is a prohibition on the establishment of a state church (which is why it is known as the Establishment Clause) reading thusly “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…” The ‘separation’ meme comes from correspondence between Jefferson and Madison, but was never enacted in Constitutional language.

A nice, fairly even-handed intro can be found here.

Personally, I think that the issue of impending theocracy and separation of church and state evaporates, once you take seriously the US Constitution’s limited grant of power to the national government. If the national government is held to its enumerated powers, then it lacks the power to implement into civil law most behavioral controls that various religions might promote. Since the federal government restricted to its enumerated powers has no Constitutional basis to, for example, ban abortions, it simply cannot be used for that purpose by the purported theocrats among us.

The various left-wing ninnies who are running around bleating about theocracy are, in effect, hoist on their own petard. Having spent generations destroying the idea of limited government and creating an all-powerful national state, it ill becomes them to complain now that their tool is being turned to different ends. Even so, it is astonishing that virtually none of them realize that the uses to which the Republicans want to put federal power are inevitable, once you establish an all-powerful state in a country that is actually quite Christian and conservative, all told. It is sad but unsurprising that none of them are willing to attack the problem at its root by calling for limited government. No, the only solution the statists can imagine is seizing power again, themselves.

A moment of utter clarity

It will come as no surprise to regular readers of this blog that we have long regarded the Ban on Foxhunting with Dogs as having very little to do with foxhunting.

As David Carr has pointed out before, those who shout loudly that the move against hunting is ‘undemocratic’ are completely wrong: it is perfectly democratic. Welcome to the world in which there is no give and take of civil society… welcome to the world of total politics.

Mr Bradley says: ‘We ought at last to own up to it: the struggle over the Bill was not just about animal welfare and personal freedom: it was class war.’

The MP for The Wrekin adds that it was the ‘toffs’ who declared war on Labour by resisting the ban, but agrees that both sides are battling for power, not animal welfare.

‘This was not about the politics of envy but the polities of power. Ultimately it’s about who governs Britain.’


‘Labour governments have come and gone and left little impression on the gentry. But a ban on hunting touches them. It threatens their inalienable right to do as they please on their own land. For the first time, a decision of a Parliament they don’t control has breached their wrought-iron gates.

No kidding. That is what we have been pointing out here on Samizdata.net for quite some time and why we have treated commenters who shrugged and said “why get worked up about foxhunting?” with such derision. It was never about hunting but rather things that are far, far more fundamental. It is about those who would make all things subject to democratically sanctified politics (‘Rule by Activist’) seeking to crush those who see private property and society, rather than state, as what matters.

Mr Bradley, 51, admits that he personally sees the campaign to save hunting as an assault on his right to govern as a Labour MP.

And Mr. Bradley is correct but for one thing: the battle in question is about the limits of political power and not just Labour’s political power. Until the supporter of the Countryside Alliance see that they are actually struggling against the idea of a total political state, they will not even be fighting the right war. It is not about who controls the political system but what the political system is permitted to do under anyone’s control. The United States has a system of separation of powers and constitutional governance which (at least in theory even though not in fact) places whole areas of civil society outside politics. Britain on the other hand has no such well defined system and the customary checks and balances have been all but swept away under the current regime. Britain’s ‘unwritten constitution’ has been shown to be a paper tiger.

But those who look to the Tories to save them from the class warriors of the left are missing another fundamental truth. During their time in power, the Tory Party set the very foundations upon which Blair and Blunkett are building the apparatus for totally replacing social processes with political processes, a world in which nothing cannot be compelled by law if that is what ‘The People’ want: populist authoritarianism has been here for a while but now it no longer even feels it has to hide its true face behind a mask.

Moreover it would take another blind man to look back on Michael Howard’s time as Home Secretary and see him as being less corrosive to civil liberties that the monstrous David Blunkett. Have you heard the outraged Tory opposition to the terrifying Civil Contingencies Act? Of course not, because the intellectual bankruptcy of the Tory party is now complete… for the most part they support it. If the so-called ‘Conservatives’ will not lift a finger to stop the destruction of the ancient underpinnings of British liberty, what exactly are they allegedly intending to ‘conserve’? The Tories are not part of the solution, they are part of the problem and the sooner the UKIP destroy them by making them permanently unelectable, the better, so that some sort of real opposition can fill the ideological vacuum.

Those who were marching against banning foxhunting completely miss the issues at stake here. The issue is not and never has been foxhunting but rather the acceptable limits of politics. And you cannot resolve that issue via the political system in Britain. It is only once the people who oppose the ban on foxhunting and the people who oppose the Civil Contingencies Act and the people who oppose the introduction of ID cards and data pooling all realise that these are NOT separate issues but the same issue will effective opposition be possible. And I fear that opposition will, at least until the ‘facts on the ground’ can be established, have to be via civil disobedience and other ways to make sections of this country ungovernable by whatever means prove effective. The solution does not lie in ‘democracy’ but rather by enough people across the country asserting their right to free association and non-politically mediated social interaction by refusing to obey the entirely democratic laws which come out of Westminster.

Peter Bradley is right and he has provided any who are paying attention with a moment of utter clarity: It is time to challenge his right to ‘rule’ by whatever means necessary.

Regulation and data

This article from the Washington Post, on the application of the little known Data Quality Act to hobble the regulatory leviathan, is full of unintentional insights. The Data Quality Act is, well, let the Post tell it, and let the insights begin!

The Data Quality Act — written by an industry lobbyist and slipped into a giant appropriations bill in 2000 without congressional discussion or debate — is just two sentences directing the OMB to ensure that all information disseminated by the federal government is reliable.

The first insight is, of course, the clonking great pro-government, pro-regulation bias that the Post brings to this story. Note the disparaging terms applied to this piece of legislation, which has a genesis and a pedigree that is totally ordinary – most legislation is the product of interested parties, and most finds its way onto the books via massive omnibus bills that no one reads. However, these routine facts of Washington life are given ominous prominence only when the media outlet is opposed to whatever was done. The rest of the story is riddled with similar bias – in the Post’s world, regulation is always good, always to protect the people, never fails a cost-benefit test, always supported by the preponderance of the scientific evidence, etc.

The next set of unintentional insights comes to us when the relatively innocuous purpose of the Act collides with the prerogatives of the regulatory state.

But many consumers, conservationists and worker advocates say the act is inherently biased in favor of industry. By demanding that government use only data that have achieved a rare level of certainty, these critics maintain, the act dismisses scientific information that in the past would have triggered tighter regulation.

First, of course, note who the Post asks for their opinion. Of equal interest is the rather revealing admission that, in the past, regulation was apparently handed down on the basis of information that was, how to put this, of less than adequate quality. Declining to regulate because the data isn’t there is, of course, a Bad Thing.

These final comments surely need no elaboration.

“It’s a tool to clobber every effort to regulate,” said Rena Steinzor, a professor of law and director of the Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Maryland. “In my view, it amounts to censorship and harassment.”
. . . .

Yet Steinzor, the Maryland environmental lawyer, and other critics complain that the OMB’s involvement politicizes the process. The expertise of the handful of scientists hired by Graham, they say, cannot match that of the thousands of experts on agency staffs.

My friend Ed

Compared to other people (or rather, other people of my acquaintance) I joined the internet revolution rather late. While most people I meet are able to boast that they have had an e-mail address since the late (or even mid) 1980’s, I was not similarly endowed until 1998.

But what I lacked in early adoption techniques I made up for in subsequent enthusiasm. This was a whole new frontier and I revelled and rejoiced in the exhilirating liberation it provided. I am sure that plenty of our readers have experienced that same feeling.

And it was while I was on this big journey of discovery and emancipation that I stumbled across a forum (there were no blogs in those olden times) run by LM Magazine. LM stands (or stood) for ‘Living Marxism’ and it was run by the same people who, today, run Spiked-Online.

As with most internet fora, there was a regular contingent of posters and, in the case of the LM Forum, this consisted of a whole gaggle of Marxists, Communists and Trotskyites. Into this lion’s den barged (or perhaps blundered) two libertarians; one of them was me and the other was an American called Ed Collins. → Continue reading: My friend Ed

How ideas spread and get acted on – the weight of numbers fallacy

Almost anything you say about how ideas spread and eventually get accepted and acted upon is liable to be (a) true, but (b) over-simplified, because the whole truth about how ideas spread and get acted upon is far, far too complicated ever to keep complete track of. Where the definite falsehood creeps in is when people say, or more commonly imply through the other things that they say, that ideas can only spread in this way or that way, and that all the other ways they can spread don’t count for anything.

There is one such implied falsehood which we at Samizdata, for humiliatingly obvious reasons, are likely to be particularly interested in and cheered up by contesting. This is the idea that what matters when it comes to spreading ideas is sheer weight of numbers. It’s the idea that getting some other idea to catch on and be acted upon is a question of assembling a sufficiently huge number of people who believe this idea to be true or good or appealing, and then for this vast throng of supporting people to prevail against the other almost equally vast (but not quite) throng of people who believe the opposite.

Clearly, as a partial description about how some ideas spread, at some times and in some places, this kind of thing can definitely happen. Political elections are often just like this. This vast throng of humanity votes for this idea, that throng votes for that idea, and the winners are the ones who appeal to the biggest throng.

But as a complete description of how ideas spread this picture is false. Most things, after all, are not decided by political elections. For example, I would say that when historians look back on our era, they will say that the development of the Internet was a huge historical event, up there with the first printed bibles in local languages, or with the development of the railways or of the motor car. Yet neither the internet, nor printing, nor railways, nor motor cars were any of them set in motion merely by political electorates, and nor, once they had got underway, were any political electorates ever invited to vote against them.

The weight-of-numbers model is even seriously false when it comes to understanding the full story of most political elections. Yes, elections decide who will occupy various political offices, and what will be written about in newspaper editorials for the next few years. But these elections seldom decide very much about what actually gets done from these offices. Instead, democratic true believers (the ones who really do believe that absolutely everything should be decided with a head count) constantly rage at how “undemocratic” democracy typically turns out to be. They have a point.

I will now offer you a thought experiment, the point of which is to explain how unimportant mere numbers of believers in an idea can be, and how much more interesting and complicated the spread of and adoption of ideas can sometimes be. → Continue reading: How ideas spread and get acted on – the weight of numbers fallacy

Hitler’s home in Homes & Gardens

There’s an article in today’s New York Times, an article about another article, in Homes & Gardens. But follow that Homes & Gardens link and you won’t find any mention of this article, because it was published in 1938 and was about Adolf Hitler’s “Bavarian retreat”.

The predominant color scheme of Hitler’s “bright, airy chalet” was “a light jade green.” Chairs and tables of braided cane graced the sun parlor, and the Führer, “a droll raconteur,” decorated his entrance hall with “cactus plants in majolica pots.”

Such are the precious and chilling observations in an irony-free 1938 article in Homes & Gardens, a British magazine, on Hitler’s mountain retreat in the Bavarian Alps. A bit of arcana, to be sure, but one that has dropped squarely into the current debate over the Internet and intellectual property. This file, too, is being shared.

The resurrection of the article can be traced to Simon Waldman, the director of digital publishing at Guardian Newspapers in Britain, who says he was given a vintage issue of the magazine by his father-in-law. Noticing the Hitler spread, which doted on the compound’s high-mountain beauty (“the fairest view in all Europe”) at a time when the Nazis had already gobbled up Austria, Mr. Waldman scanned the three pages and posted them on his personal Web site last May. They sat largely unnoticed until about three weeks ago, when Mr. Waldman made them more prominent on his site and sent an e-mail message to the current editor of Homes & Gardens, Isobel McKenzie-Price, pointing up the article as a historical curiosity.

Ms. McKenzie-Price, citing copyright rules, politely requested that he remove the pages. Mr. Waldman did so, but not before other Web users had turned the pages into communal property, like so many songs and photographs and movies and words that have been illegally traded for more than a decade in the Internet’s back alleys.

Still, there was a question of whether the magazine’s position was a stance against property theft or a bit of red-faced persnicketiness.

Now this episode could be turned into yet another intellectual property comment fest, and if that’s what people want, fine, go ahead. But what interests me is the ineptness of the commercial Homes & Gardens response, their woeful neglect of a major business opportunity. An honest response from them about their reluctance to get involved in political judgements of the many and varied political people whose houses they have featured in their pages over the decades, and about all the other famous (and infamous) people whose homes they’ve written about over the years, together with a website pointing us all to their archives, might surely have served their commercial purposes far better, I would have thought.

This might have morphed into a discussion of the comparably fabulous pads occupied by other famous monster-criminal-dictators (including some featured in Homes & Gardens, of the exact degree of opulence/disgustingness of the homes of the Russian and Chinese Communist apparatchiks, but of their far greater reluctance (when compared to openly inegalitarian despots like Hitler) to reveal their living arrangements to the world, in the pages of such publications as Homes & Gardens. There might also have been some quite admiring further thoughts on the nice way that Hitler had arranged matters for himself, from the domestic point of view, the way the design of the house made maximum use of the view of the mountains, etc., etc. It does sound like a really nice place.

Such a discussion could surely have been combined with a robust defence by Homes & Gardens of their intellectual property rights under existing law, and in a way that might have been to their further commercial advantage. They might have simply reprinted the entire piece in a current issue, together with their current comments about it.

But no. Down go the shutters. And an opportunity to bring Homes & Gardens to the non-contemptuous attention of a whole new generation of readers, instead of to its contemptuous attention, is missed. Or is about to be missed. → Continue reading: Hitler’s home in Homes & Gardens