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]

Lord Deben on how (not) to influence and work for a better world

I think that this is a very revealing Tweet about last night’s House of Commons EU vote, from Lord Deben, formerly John Selwyn Gummer, and not in a good way:

So we leave all decisions to others and remove our major opportunity to influence and to work for a better world. We decide we are indeed just a nation of shopkeepers whose customers and suppliers decide and we obey. That instead of being the driver of the EU. What a come-down!

Lord Deben thinks that “we” were “the driver of the EU”, to which I would say that this “we” was only … a very few of us, and that also other EUropeans did quite a bit of driving. And, Lord Deben thinks that the best way to “influence and work for a better world” is to do politics, and EU politics at that.

Does Lord Deben think that Britain leaving the EU is not going to have any “influence” upon the world? I put it to him, as my trial lawyer ancestors would say, that this will have a big influence, provided only that it does happen. Just not the sort of influence that Lord Deben will like. It’s a lot to hope for, but I really do hope that Lord Deben is, approximately speaking, right about the sort of nation that Britain will become. Although, I can’t remember ever having “obeyed” a shopkeeper, unless they were the kind that collaborate with people like Lord Deben to restrict me in what I can buy.

When I think of the good that has been done for the world by inventors and entrepreneurs, and yes, shopkeepers, I think that Lord Deben’s is a very restricted view of the world and its possibilities.

Samizdata quote of the day

The logic of socialism is to look at someone in a wheelchair and punish the able-bodied by breaking their legs.

The Academic Agent, talking about The Problem with the BBC. The whole thing lasts just under ten minutes, and that little nugget comes about a minute before the end.

Thank you Instapundit.

LG unrolls a new kind of TV screen

Blogs like this one have a tendency to get rather doom-laden with the passing of time. As the political disappointments pile up and are fretted about, it tends to be forgotten that things could be a hell of a lot worse, and that in the meantime that there is much to celebrate.

Things like new gadgets and inventions. The one that I noticed recently was this new roll-up TV screen. That’s a link to a bit of video of an actor of rather modest means pretending to be a rich guy, of the sort who early-adopts such things as roll-up TV screens, before they are really good and way before they are cheap, but who is so very rich that this really doesn’t matter. He is not so much an impatient and/or extravagant idiot. He is more like a patron, giving the techies who did this, and who still have another decade of improvements and price-reductions to graft away at, a bit of well-deserved encouragement, for having at least got the thing working, sort-of, to the point where their bosses are now willing to boast about it. Well done lads, keep up the good work.

Here is another bit of video showing off the same device.

Whether this particular LG version of the roll-up TV screen will ever work well I do not know. But some time soon, this gadget and other gadgets a lot like it will surely start working very well, and then ever more cheaply and compactly. Hurrah. I suspect that roll-up TV screens will be very popular, just like flat TV screens before them, and for very similar reasons.

The sales pitch offered in the first bit of video linked to above is that you will be able to roll the screen down into its small horizontal case, and then enjoy your expensive view through your expensively vast window. Or maybe the story here is that you are such a superior person that only you need know that you ever watch television at all. As for me, I am perpetually pushed for space in my little London home, and a roll-up TV might give me a further little bit of accessible CD shelf space. (Please spare me the anti-CD comments. I like them. If you can’t read that without telling me to stop with the CDs, well, the bit in brackets here.)

Another major plus that will follow from this roll-up TV screen being perfected is that a mobile computer would need then only be the size of its keyboard, because the screen could be the same width as that keyboard, but any old height you want, when you unroll it. Will the standard screen of a computer morph from smallish landscape, if you get my drift, to about-three-times-as-big roll-up portrait? In the age of mobile portrait-type phone screens, that might make sense. As might rolling them up only a little, when rolling them up a lot might be rather anti-social or inconvenient.

Roll-up TV screens will be both big enough to see from a bit of a distance, and yet also small enough to carry around with you without too much fuss. So they’ll be a godsend for people giving talks in unfamiliar surroundings, where they want to show computer imagery but don’t want to depend on their hosts to supply a working big screen.

One final point, about all such developments. I vaguely recall doing a posting here about how a man I admire a lot, Steve Davies, has been arguing that we need different history dates, to celebrate the creative achievements of free people, and to replace the insignificant and frequently very destructive moments, individual or collective deaths mostly, associated with the doings of mere governments. Yes, here we are. But I now think that the whole idea of having alternative dates of this sort is a mistake. What does it matter exactly when the shipping container became the benign influence upon the world that it now is, or the Jumbo jet, or the communications satellite, or the personal computer, or the pencil, or the water mill, or the wheel? Or the roll-up TV screen? The way to identify these various gadgets is the way I just did, with words that allude to and label them. Searching for an exact date for each one is a waste of time.

Recently, I have been waving around the date that is May 24th 1844, this being exactly the day when Samuel Morse first publicly demonstrated his electric telegraph and his Morse Code. But it you want to say that the really important bit of that story happened a bit earlier, or for that matter a bit later, for this or that reason, well, fine. The point is: the electric telegraph and the Morse Code, some time around then. The whys and wherefores of these great steps forward are worth celebrating, by naming them. The exactly-whens don’t really signify. Approximately-when will do just fine. Just because we know exactly when some King died, or exactly when a particular and particularly bloody battle occurred, doesn’t mean we have to fret about exactly which bit of creativity was the most creative, in some quite long drawn-out stretch of creative endeavour, such as is now occurring with these roll-up TV screens. The point is: roll-up TV screens! Some time around … now!

‘…If there are not… …great private fortresses… …to which you can flee from the State, …’ . And then the Patreon/Mastercard question….

The words of economist and philosopher Anthony de Jasay, in a long interview on YT. The full quote, as I transcribe it:

‘…The State can starve you if it has sufficient power over the economy. If there are not (as Schumpeter put it) great private fortresses in the economy to which you can flee from the State, when all these private fortresses are demolished, then you are utterly delivered to the State….’.

. He also said

‘…the State can starve you if it has sufficient power over jobs, over the economy, because it can decide that you will not get a job…’

But with the Patreon and Mastercard blacklisting of certain ‘right wing’ voices on YT, such as the brave Robert Spencer and where no state appears to have done anything, we have a situation where private companies are choosing to end contracts with individuals on what can only sensibly be termed political grounds. This might be the thin end of a very broad wedge. In a cashless society, it could make like very difficult indeed for certain individuals.

Now a libertarian might say that this is unfortunate but simply the choice of a business whether or not it wishes to do business with any particular person, and is not a matter for any form of legal regulation. Furthermore, if there is a breach of contract (e.g. a bogus justification for not processing payments), then damages are limited to the losses that flow from the breach and would cease at the point at which the contract could lawfully have been ended.

A counter argument might be that if it is to do this, a business (assuming that we are talking about the legal fiction of a body corporate) which seeks to refuse custom on political grounds (rather than on grounds of breaching the law), then it should be open about its aims, and be specifically empowered to pick and choose customers in its terms of service and in its company rules. So if Mastercard advertise to me that I can use my card for payment, without qualification, then it has fraudulently mis-represented to me what it will do since in an objective reality, making payment to Mr Robert Spencer, (pbuh) is perfectly innocuous, and my custom has been obtained by deceit, and Mastercard has in fact a general obligation to process payments made by me to whomever I choose, except where an illegality issue arises, where it need not advertise the fact.

And of course, a company does nothing, it has the legal fiction of a corporate personality, whereby it is supposedly liable for its acts, not always those who work for it. But if those who work for a company are not acting in its best interests, but in the interest of their own malevolence, can that company claim against them? Should the ‘veil of incorporation’ be pierced?

And what sort of a weapon might that be in certain judicial circuits in the United States, or other jurisdictions, where ‘social justice’ might be deemed a requisite corporate objective?

So, what would those who tend towards libertarianism, and some around here may be 0.999 (recurring) in the direction, others not so close to being an integer, say could or should be done about the situation, if anything?

And does the State (from its own pov) need to do anything more to restrict the internet if there is a ‘private’ solution to undesirable speech on the internet?

A couple of surprises in the Human Freedom Index for 2018

The Cato Institute has published its Human Freedom Index for 2018.

The jurisdictions that took the top 10 places, in order, were New Zealand, Switzerland, Hong Kong, Australia, Canada, the Netherlands and Denmark (tied in 6th place), Ireland and the United Kingdom (tied in 8th place), and Finland, Norway, and Taiwan (tied in 10th place). Selected countries rank as follows: Germany (13), the United States and Sweden (17), Republic of Korea (27), Japan (31), France and Chile (32), Italy (34), South Africa (63), Mexico (75), Kenya (82), Indonesia (85), Argentina and Turkey (tied in 107th place), India and Malaysia (tied in 110th place), United Arab Emirates (117), Russia (119), Nigeria (132), China (135), Pakistan (140), Zimbabwe (143), Saudi Arabia (146), Iran (153), Egypt (156), Iraq (159), Venezuela (161), and Syria (162).

The positions of Venezuela and Syria were about as surprising as a [insert your preferred metaphor of complete unsurprisingness here], but I did not expect to see Canada listed as more free than the United Kingdom and the United States as less free.

Alex Epstein on the 97% lie

Alex Epstein gives a well-deserved kicking to that 97% claim:

What you’ll find is that people don’t want to define what 97% agree on – because there is nothing remotely in the literature saying 97% agree we should ban most fossil fuel use.

It’s likely that 97% of people making the 97% claim have absolutely no idea where that number comes from.

If you look at the literature, the specific meaning of the 97% claim is: 97 percent of climate scientists agree that there is a global warming trend and that human beings are the main cause – that is, that we are over 50% responsible. …

But do the “97%” even say that? And are the actual percentage that do say that right? My opinion has long been: No; and: No.

I scroll down, and am pleased to discover that Epstein agrees with me:

But it gets even worse. Because it turns out that 97% didn’t even say that. …

Marxists used to believe that Marxist tyranny was needed to rescue the world’s economy from capitalists. But that excuse collapsed long ago. The biggest economic rescue acts that are now needed are to rescue the bits of the world’s economy that Marxist tyrants have been busy ruining. So, should Marxists abandon these methods? Yes. Are they abandoning these methods? Many presumably have, and have gone silent. But others, the ones we still hear shouting their nonsense, just fabricated a different set of excuses for those same old tyrannical methods.

Samizdata quote of the day

“Doing nothing is a full-time job. Don’t imagine that laissez-faire means putting your feet up. All officials want to extend their powers; all bureaucracies will grow if they can. To stop it happening you need to be at your desk before the civil servants come in and still be there when they go home.”

Sir John Cowperthwaite, financial secretary, Hong Kong in the post-war period. (Quoted in this excellent CapX article about the terrible mayor of London, Sadiq Khan.)

Here is a profile of Cowperthwaite for those who want to know more about this admirable person, as different from the London mayor as can be imagined in terms of managerial approach and political philosophy. (Here is an interesting leftist’s blog comment on Khan, proof that he is not universally beloved on that side of the spectrum).

On human culture – and on how it got printed and then electrified

This coming Sunday, January 6th, I am to give a talk at my friend Christian Michel’s home in London, about the historical impact of the technology of information storage and communication. The somewhat cumbersome title I have supplied to Christian goes like this:

The difficulty and the ease of the making of and the distribution of cultural objects: A history of human civilisation in three layers

Yes, a bit of a mouthful, but it’s a complicated story.

The pre-talk blurb underneath that title, that I also sent to Christian, and some of which Christian has just emailed out to his list of potential attenders, went like this:

I love grand theories of history, and here’s another: history in terms of the storage and communication of what is dryly known as “information”. In more vivid English, in terms of all the cultural meanings we have created for ourselves and for each other (and also at each other, so to speak) over the centuries since humans first contrived to craft meaningful messages beyond what they merely said to one another.

There are three “layers” to the story I’ll be telling, divided into three by two history dates.

Layer One: Creating “cultural objects” is difficult and so is transmitting or communicating them.

Layer Two: Creating “cultural objects” suddenly becomes much easier, for those who command the means to do it, but transmitting them or communicating them remains difficult.

Layer Three: Both creating and communicating messages becomes easy.

Layer Two starts settling on top of Layer One with the printing of the Gutenberg Bible in the early 1450s. Layer Three starts to settle on top of Layers One and Two with the invention of the electric telegraph in the 1840s. (Morse code etc.)

Layers rather than “eras”, because the cultural habits and political institutions established during Layers One and Two – the civilisational divisions of Layer One and the nationalist passions (to say nothing of printing itself) characteristic of Layer Two – never went away and are still very much with us today.

Of course there’s much more to my story than that crude summary. I will elaborate on the above simplicities as much as time permits.

I’d be interested in what the Samizdata commentariat has to say about all or any of this.

For now, I will merely elaborate a little, as I will on the night, on the matter of those “civilisational divisions and nationalist passions”.

→ Continue reading: On human culture – and on how it got printed and then electrified

This should not have been a surprise to anyone paying attention

Now there’s an all purpose headline. I could have used it for a dozen posts, but the particular unsurprising event I choose to talk about today is this:

Collapse of ethical lenders stokes fears over credit access

Ethical lenders that have been touted as alternatives to high-cost firms such as Wonga and BrightHouse are going out of business at the fastest rate in years, fuelling concerns that less well-off customers are in danger of losing access to credit.

Eight credit unions across the UK have collapsed in 2018, affecting 14,000 customers with more than £25m in savings, according to an analysis of data from the Financial Services Compensation Scheme. Meanwhile some of the most successful remaining groups are being forced to cut back on lending.

The figures mark the worst year since at least 2010, as the sector battles against rising regulatory and technology costs.

Credit unions provide savings and loan products for members, with loan rates capped at 3 per cent per month.

The Financial Conduct Authority and the government have been cracking down on high-cost sectors such as payday lending and rent-to-own retailers that are seen to take advantage of vulnerable customers, and have repeatedly encouraged unions as a more affordable alternative.

Tim Worstall has been going on about this for years. Anybody that lends to the poor – be it Wonga or the Church of England – is either going to have to charge hefty fees in proportion to the sums lent or lose money. There are two reasons for this. One, any sort of lending has to cover administrative costs. Whoever answers the phone and fills in the form and makes the decision has to be paid. The cost in staff time to approve a loan of a hundred pounds might be less than the cost of paying someone to approve a loan of a hundred thousand pounds, but it is not a thousand times less. Two, you have to cover the losses caused by those borrowers who default. Where does the money to do that come from? That’s right, the borrowers who don’t default. And, um, how can I put it tactfully… the sort of borrowers who need to turn to a payday loan company or a credit union are exactly those who are most likely to default because they are “running on empty” when it comes to money.

If a well-meaning government decrees that loan rates should be capped at three per cent per month, then the amount of money needed to cover the lender’s losses ain’t coming in. Soon the law-abiding lenders must leave the lending business, sending the poor who need money quickly into the hands of the loan sharks, people whose debt collection operation tends to be done via steel-capped boots. But never mind that, at least nasty payday lenders have been stopped from making a profit from poverty.

Dr Stephen Davies on the wealth explosion unleashed by railways

I’ve followed the career of Stephen Davies ever since I got to know him in the 1980s. Here’s a photo I took of him in my home in January 2000, when he spoke at one of my last Friday of the month meetings.

Tonight, I photoed Stephen Davies again. Well, to be exact, he was on TV, and I photoed my TV:

That’s Davies doing a talking head job on the subject of Trains That Changed The World. Good to see the Institute of Economic Affairs also getting a good plug.

I’m watching these shows now, as I write this. The transformation of the lives of the great mass of working people and their families in countries like Britain and America in the nineteenth century is being well explained. Karl Marx, were he watching, would be cursing. Immiseration? Forget it. It was more like a wealth explosion, made possible by railways, probably more than any other technology.

During the last few years, it bothered me that Davies seemed to be doing so much – lots of educational outreach for the IEA, for instance – that he might not be finding time to write any books. Oh me of little faith. In April of 2019, this book will be published:

And oh look. It will be entitled The Wealth Explosion. If what Davies was saying on the TV is anything to go by, and it surely is, then railways will figure prominently in this book.

I just noticed that the Executive Producer of Trains That Changed The World was the famously anti-anti-capitalist Martin Durkin. That explains a lot.

Why so gloomy?

Matt Ridley:

Has the percentage of the world population that lives in extreme poverty almost doubled, almost halved or stayed the same over the past 20 years? When the Swedish statistician and public health expert Hans Rosling began asking people that question in 2013, he was astounded by their responses. Only 5% of 1,005 Americans got the right answer: Extreme poverty has been cut almost in half. A chimpanzee would do much better, he pointed out mischievously, by picking an answer at random. So people are worse than ignorant: They believe they know many dire things about the world that are, in fact, untrue.

Before his untimely death last year, Rosling (with his son and daughter-in-law as co-authors) published a magnificent book arguing against such reflexive pessimism. Its title says it all: “Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World — and Why Things Are Better Than You Think.” As the author of a book called “The Rational Optimist,” I’m happy to include myself in their platoon, which also includes writers such as Steven Pinker, Bjorn Lomborg, Michael Shermer and Gregg Easterbrook.

For us New Optimists, however, it’s an uphill battle. No matter how persuasive our evidence, we routinely encounter disbelief and even hostility, as if accentuating the positive was callous. People cling to pessimism about the state of the world. John Stuart Mill neatly summarized this tendency as far back as 1828: “I have observed that not the man who hopes when others despair, but the man who despairs when others hope, is admired by a large class of persons as a sage.” It’s cool to be gloomy.

Studies consistently find that people in developed societies tend to be pessimistic about their country and the world but optimistic about their own lives. They expect to earn more and to stay married longer than they generally do. The Eurobarometer survey finds that Europeans are almost twice as likely to expect their own economic prospects to get better in the coming year as to get worse, while at the same time being more likely to expect their countries’ prospects to get worse than to improve. The psychologist Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania suggests a reason for this: We think we are in control of our own fortunes but not those of the wider society.

There are certainly many causes for concern in the world today, from terrorism to obesity to environmental problems, but the persistence of pessimism about the planet requires some explanation beyond the facts themselves. …

One reason why people are so gloomy about the state of the world might simply be that most of us are genetically programmed to look more keenly for badness than for goodness, because badness, if ignored, might kill us. Impending disaster requires us to take action, by, say, getting out of its way. All that impending wonderfulness demands of us is … well, not much at all. As evolutionary scientists constantly remind us, what matters is individual and group survival and procreation, not the mere truth of things. If being unrealistically gloomy about the future of mankind makes us more likely to perpetuate our DNA, perhaps by making us believe that life has to be more of a struggle than it really does have to be, then maybe such pessimism is an attitude that has consequently become part of that DNA, in defiance of the mere truth.

But what do I know? Personally, I’ve always been an almost pathological optimist, about the world if not so much about my own prospects in that world.  That being all part of why I have read so much of what Ridley says on these matters.

Samizdata quote of the day

“The U.K. is a European country, and always will be. Trade and contacts among the nations of Europe can and should continue much as before. And I have no doubt they will do so. But the political nature of the EU has changed since monetary union. The EU failed to recognize that the euro would demand fiscal and political integration if it was to succeed, and that countries outside the euro area would require a different kind of EU membership. It was inevitable, therefore, that, sooner or later, Britain would decide to withdraw from a political project in which it had little interest apart from the shared desire for free trade.”

Mervyn King, former governor of the Bank of England. If you read his comments carefully, his displeasure at how the institution he led has become a plaything of Remainer propoganda is plain. His book, The End of Alchemy, contains a devastating take-down of the euro and is an explanation of why the UK had little alternative in the end but to leave. King was never quite of the full “establishment” – too much of the West Midlands grammar school boy to really be at ease in the EU corridors of power. Good.