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]

Sir Roger Scruton (1944-2020) RIP

“Falling to the bottom in my own country, I have been raised to the top elsewhere, and looking back over the sequence of events I can only be glad that I have lived long enough to see this happen. Coming close to death you begin to know what life means, and what it means is gratitude.”

Sir Roger Scruton, academic, writer and supporter of East European dissidents, died yesterday after a short illness. I knew he was getting on in years but his death nevertheless came as a shock to me. I did not agree with all of his views, but I did on most of them, and he was one of those men I regard as a defender of liberty and of civilisation in its fullest sense.

I met him when I was only 22, having recently graduated from my college. I had contributed a couple of small items towards the Salisbury Review journal that he edited, and was invited to a wonderfully posh and fun black-tie dinner at Hatfield House, ancestral home of the Salisbury dynasty, and joined by such luminaries as the journalist T E Utley, and Enoch Powell. I remember – this being 1988 – that Powell spoke with his customary intensity about Margaret Thatcher’s Bruges Group speech of that time, and remembered thinking that this issue over Europe would dominate much of our politics. I wasn’t wrong.

When you are a young graduate, making your way in the world and trying to get the advice of clever people, it makes a lot of difference when the folk you meet and admire turn out to be great as people. Roger Scruton was one of them – I remember his wit, kindness and helpful advice. The same applied around the same time when I met two outstanding thinkers: Anthony Flew, and David Friedman (son of Milton Friedman). A few years later I met P J O’Rourke, who was hilarious and full of encouragement towards me as I told him I was a trainee journalist. I had the same experience when I met Auberon Waugh once. It really matters that people whom you meet like this give the time and trouble to talk to young people, and I try and remember that when, now that I am in my greying middle age, that youngsters whom I come up against ask me about what I do. Scruton was a model of the good and considerate teacher.

It has been remarked elsewhere that Scruton was more admired abroad than he was in the UK, and that applies of course to the UK’s education establishment, much of which is dominated by the Left. His book, Thinkers of The New Left, is one of his most brilliant, and dissected the likes of Foucault, Derrrida, Heidegger and Althusser – a veritable gallery of knaves and fools. Their defenders weren’t happy, and Scruton’s chances of academic grandeur suffered. He taught in the US, wrote more books and ran a farm. In middle age, he took up horse riding and hunting with hounds with a zeal of a convert. In some ways he was a bit of a paradox: the grammar school boy with a bit of a rebellious streak, except that for him, being a true rebel meant being conservative rather than a socialist. It is a quality I share in some ways, as do many of those who write for this blog.

I think that history will be kind to him: his focus on issues such as understanding the importance of beauty in human life, for example, will last a bit longer than some present obsessions, including, I hope, the intellectual cul-de-sac of “woke” politics. (Here is an obituary in the National Review, from the US.)

All that remains is for me to express my condolences to his family and many friends. In particularly, I think of those people in Eastern Europe he helped, at some risk to himself, during the years ahead of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Unlike some academics, he was also a man of action and he was brave as a lion. RIP, Sir Roger.

Samizdata quote of the day

“Did you know that your dog owns your house, or rather some portion of it? If this is not immediately obvious to you, you will find it helpful to consider some aspects of the ethics and economics of redistribution.”

Anthony de Jasay, the political philosopher who died not long ago, and one of those intellectuals that many people will not have heard of. A marvellous writer. The essay from which these words come is a gem.

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.

UBI is a political cancer, and will kill us if it is not extirpated

My topic today is Universal Basic Income, a.k.a. UBI, which I regard as nothing less than a cancer of the mind, and which I fear may soon become a cancer on society. The origin of this metastatic neoplasm was supposedly innocent intellectual woolgathering by libertarian economists, but it may yet end far less innocently.

Most libertarians understand that it is insufficient to have good intentions for a proposed policy, as good intent does not imply good results. In the end, all policies are implemented not in a utopia inhabited by angels, but rather in a society composed of self-interested humans. Laws are administered not by divine spirits but by politicians and bureaucrats who are themselves self-interested, and who possess all the foibles of the flesh.

Advocates always say social engineering would work if ‘done right’, but the possibility of ‘doing it right’ is zero in the real world. Public choice economics is no more avoidable than physics; you can no more handwave it away than you can handwave away the second law of thermodynamics.

In some theoretical sense, of course, physics seems more rigid than the rules of human behaviour, because individual humans can to some extent choose how to behave, but in practice, once you have huge masses of people involved, the law of large numbers takes over, and the force of their natural behaviour is only slightly less inexorable than gravitation. One needs to remind oneself of that early and often when thinking about proposed political policies, even in an academic context.

In spite of this principle being well understood by libertarians, the notion of UBI has taken root in parts of our community, and it has now even spread into the wider society, having infected the minds of many intellectuals on the left and right.

For those that are not familiar with the term, UBI (Universal Basic Income) means, roughly, “the government should guarantee everyone some minimum level of income whether they work or not”.

The notion began simply enough. Some economists observed that there are a myriad of intersecting government programs for the poor (in many countries, dozens) which distort behaviour in horrible ways and which cost a fortune in overhead to administer. This is where the problem of UBI begins, in the hubris of the armchair philosopher. “What if”, these economists asked, “we can’t get rid of the dole entirely (even though that would be better) but we could at least make it efficient by replacing the entire morass with a single program, say a negative income tax?”

Trained to explore ideas (no matter how bad) for a living, said academic economists then vigourosly explored this impossible hypothetical world in which they could not get rid of the dole but could somehow get politicians to perfectly implement their hypothetical improved alternative, and proceeded to write lots of papers about it.

Again, this academic musing was already a utopian impossibility, for in the real world, there are interests that would act to block the elimination of existing welfare schemes and insist that the new scheme be added to the current ones rather than replacing them. This sort of thing is routine, of course; originally, VAT schemes were thought of by academic economists as a less distorting replacement for income taxes but ended up added in addition.

The interest groups arrayed against replacement of existing welfare schemes range from the bureaucrats whose job it is to administer said schemes (and who for whom ‘efficiency’ means unemployment), to the vast range of contractors employed in providing benefits of one sort or another, to the politicians who get votes and power in exchange for largesse paid for with other people’s money, to the current recipients of existing benefit schemes who will correctly reason that the notion behind ‘efficiency’ is not to increase their benefits. There’s no advantage in replacement for any member of the existing system, and thus, it was a non-starter to begin with.

This did not, however, prevent many people from falling in love with the idea, as wouldn’t-it-be-ever-so-elegant-if-it-could-happen so often trumps this-is-reality in the minds of those saying ‘what if’ over a pint or seven late in the evening at the pub next to the economics department offices.

Oh, and of course, a form of the negative income tax was created in the United States under the name of the ‘earned income tax credit’; as might have been predicted in advance, it was added to existing welfare programs rather than in any way replacing them.

From this simple yet benighted beginning as a completely unrealistic thought experiment, the idea of UBI gained traction and then, as most cancers do, developed a mutant and even more virulent cell line, one that allowed it to spread and grow in the minds not only of leftists (who are already inclined towards redistribution of all sorts) but those on the right who are inclined to view ordinary people as useless.

We are now informed that UBI is a solution to a different problem as well. We are informed, in not-so-hushed tones, that the rise of new technologies like Artificial Intelligence will soon automate away most jobs, resulting in a vast class of people who will be unemployable in any trade whatsoever, which will consequently lead to mass unemployment, and that said permanently unemployable people will starve to death if we don’t find ways to provide them with income.

We are told we thus must guarantee a minimum income for all, without regard to whether they are capable of earning a living on their own, or we’ll have riots on our hands once AI based systems become ubiquitous. They claim that we should, nay, must, promise everyone some minimal subsistence income, whether they work or not. This will provide the masses with the ability to survive, and thus society will be preserved.

I note that this ‘automation will lead to mass unemployment’ scenario contradicts centuries of experience in which, rather than leading to mass starvation, various forms of automation have always led to vast increases in human welfare as per capita productivity skyrockets, and old jobs have simply been replaced with new ones.

However, we’re told that this time, it’s different. “We’ve never seen automation this thorough and extreme!” we’re told. “AIs can replace white collar workers, not just blue collar! No one will be useful any more!” Well, maybe. But as it has not happened yet, and Ricardo’s comparative advantage argument remains intact even if AIs exist, I remain quite skeptical that “this time, it’s different.”

Regardless, in their zeal to fix a problem that might or might not happen at an undefined time in the future, the UBI advocates may create a problem that’s far, far worse. (That’s even ignoring, for the moment, the fact that insisting that some people be allowed to live off of resources taken by force from others is deeply immoral.)

If you promise people an income regardless of whether they work or not, many will decide not to work, as not working is attractive. Once they have decided not to work, they become dependent on the state for their continued ability to survive while not working, and become inclined to vote for increased benefits. Starting as a safety net, the UBI will be seen as an ordinary way for people to live, and advocates will demand ever more. They will scream “no one can survive on £700 a month! It forces people to live in squalor! The UBI must be raised to £1200 a month!”, and then “£1200 is insulting when some earn millions! It must be £2000” and then “How can anyone raise a family on only £2000 a month with modern expenses in an expensive city! The UBI must rise to £3000” and on and on.

Elections, are, even at the best of times, an advance auction of stolen goods. If there’s a UBI, votes will hinge upon how much more generous with other people’s money one candidate is versus another. As benefits rise, more and more people will decide that they, too, would rather not be working, and join the class of people who only take and never make. Freed of the need to consider questions like “can we afford these children”, UBI recipients will feel happy raising larger families than they might otherwise, while those who work continue to feel the pinch of limited time and resources. If it’s truly available to all, UBI recipients will become a plurality of the populace, and then a majority, and from there, a death spiral is almost inevitable.

The larger the fraction of society on the dole, the more obviously foolish actually working will seem, the faster more people will go on the dole, and the faster the system will disintegrate. If UBI becomes a reality, most of the population is going to become unproductive, resentful of productive people, and strongly motivated to see increases in the UBI through ever increasing expropriation of the resources of the productive. Sure, we have some of that now with existing state benefits. With UBI, it will become vastly worse. Candidates buy votes now, but with UBI it will become an ever-accelerating race among politicians to see who can buy more votes with more resources stolen from an ever-shrinking productive minority. Perhaps the end could be staved off by making the franchise contingent on not being on UBI, but that’s a pipe dream; in the real world, the advocates will scream about the rich disenfranchising the poor and the like and it will never happen.

If almost everyone depends on the state for their survival, that’s the beginning of the end for that civilisation. A spiral towards a Soviet or Venezuelan style collapse is inevitable, and there’s no way to fight it in a democracy, because in a democracy, the majority get what they want, good and hard.

The only thing left for anyone who does not want to join those on the dole, anyone with assets, marketable skills, and an urge to produce, will be flight. Which will probably become illegal, because if you flee, you’re depriving the majority of your work. The system requires your slave labor to keep everyone else fed. Eventually, as in the Soviet Union, you will not even be allowed to leave.

Many advocates of UBI are probably well intentioned. That does not make the idea any less dangerously foolish; intentions do not matter much, and they matter practically not at all when an idea is sufficiently destructive. Of all the terrible ideas I’ve seen gripping the fevered imaginations of social engineers in recent years, this has been one of the worst. UBI is a political cancer, and will kill us if it is not extirpated.

The equal oppression of the laws

“… nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” (14th amendment to the U.S. constitution)

Americans, especially right-wing ones, object if laws that protect them are applied unequally – if, for example, it is a crime for government emails to be held on private servers, but not when Hillary does it. But of course, right-wingers, especially American ones, believe that many laws don’t protect; they oppress. (And it is a point of honour in those who call themselves libertarians to believe that even more of the laws are like that.)

In the US, they seem to understand that these two beliefs support each other. The right dislike Obamacare – and were angry when Obama gave some Democrat constituencies waivers and deferrals when introducing it. No-one called them hypocrites for complaining about the unequal enforcement of a law they never wanted passed in the first place. Similarly, no-one seems to have missed the Logan Act during the centuries when it went unenforced, but did even the most fanatic NeverTrumper write “We should be above that” when Trump supporters pointed out that if the act was back in use then John Kerry should be prosecuted under it? Washington’s lobbyist class honours the Foreign Agents Registration Act far more in the breach than the observance, but the MSM seem keener to understate that fact than to denounce as hypocrites those right-wingers who say that now unregistered Republicans have been charged, prosecute some unregistered Democrats.

This attitude, I believe, extends to the first amendment. Legal exceptions to the first amendment (‘fighting words’, ‘clear and present danger’) are few, and the right wants it kept that way. But so long as those exceptions apply to them, the right also want them applied to any left-wing violator. They see that as defending free speech – not betraying it.

Here in Britain, by contrast, confusion reigns. Right-wing blogger Sargon of Akkad jokes about not offering violence to a left-wing politico – and the police visit him. Left-wing BBC comedian Jo Brand jokes about thowing acid rather than mikshake over Farage – and the police do not visit her. Whereupon Brendan O’Neill (who has written freedom-supporting articles in the past) writes in the Spectator (of which the same can be said) rebuking Mr Farage for suggesting that they should have.

(A PC gang once visited a pub where Nigel Farage, his wife and their children were dining, eager to cause harm. And he knows the drycleaning cost of getting mikshake off your suit. So I have a bit more sympathy for Nigel than for any other party leader, even Boris, when he yields to the temptation to wonder whether, despite Brand’s claims, it was not quite only a joke. But let us take it that it was just a joke.)

Brendan appears to be saying the true lover of free speech should not demand “the equal oppression of the laws”. Brendan wants an equal liberation from hate speech laws – Jo Brand must have the right to joke about throwing acid at Farage and Count Dankula must be free to film his dog doing a Nazi salute. I would like that too, but meanwhile,

“It is a settled rule with me to make the most of my actual situation, and not to refuse to do a proper thing because there is something else, more proper, which I am not able to do.” (Edmund Burke)

By criticising Nigel for resisting the double-standard (that Brendan also hates), Brendan implies that Farage’s demand for legal equality, not just Brand’s exploitation of left-wing privilege, is what stands in the way of that equal liberation. I think he is making a mistake – and confusing his mistake with the meaning of ‘free speech’.

I would much rather live in a Britain where neither Sargon nor Jo had a visit from the police – but I don’t. I’d criticise Farage if I thought Jo Brand dissapproved the police visiting Sargon – but I don’t (this pertinent hint merely confirms things I’ve heard her say). Unequal enforcement of the hate speech laws has been an essential part of maintaining them from the start. You don’t fight them by protecting that inequality. Free speech means the state shall not control what we may say. The state has yet more control when it does not just ban speech but bans it arbitrarily. So when people try to end that arbitrariness, they may not be failing to “disagree with what you say but defend your right to say it”, as Brendan claims; they may be defending free speech.

For clarity, let me illustrate with an example programme. Imagine (but don’t hold your breath for it) that PM Boris (radicalised by how he’s been treated, and heading a party purified by defections, internal deselections and/or external Brexit Party rivals) announces a bill to roll back the attack on free speech (e.g. repeal every such law since 9/11). However, he also announces that, while this bill slowly works its way towards the royal assent, his government, to protect equality before the law, will prosecute a backlog of unlawfully-suppressed cases from those years – remarks that were ever so woke, but were also hate speech as defined by the equitably-phrased laws, uttered by people who had also demanded the laws punish far less hateful remarks of their opponents.

– To Brendan (I would guess if I had only the Spectator article as my guide), these prosecutions would be no better than evil revenge, discrediting the cause and making the return of laws against ‘hate’ speech more likely.

– To me, they would be a good way of educating the public about what was wrong with those laws, and also a way to make the left think twice about reimposing them the moment they got back in power. But, beyond these tactical points, they would also uphold the principle of equality before the law.

We will not lack for mind-broadening frenemies to defend even after tolerating ‘equality before the law’ arguments against the loudest “I can say it but you can’t” enforcers of the double-standard. The woker-than-thou of today love purging the woke of yesterday – they will supply.

Equality before the law is good in itself. Demanding equality of oppression before the law is a way to expose a dishonest process. Think carefully before judging it a betrayal of our war against the hate speech laws’ evil goal, rather than a way – that can be both honest in itself and effective – of waging it.

It seems young adults are not as keen on socialism as some might fear

An interesting item on the Guido Fawkes blog:

The polling reveals that UK citizens overwhelmingly agree that “competition allows for better prices for consumers”, “competition between companies allows for more choice for consumers”, and “competition encourages innovation and economic growth” storming ahead of the other large EU countries Germany, France, and Italy in each of those categories.

A point worth making that goes way beyond current political fights is that it has become something of a cliche that young adults, in particular, are so annoyed at the lack of affordable housing, or worthless higher education qualifications + debt, that they are all hot for the 1970s tribute band routine of Corbyn in the UK or, for that matter, Bernie Sanders in the US. The media (and often the conservative bits of it) appears obsessed with running stories about the latest dumb statements of someone such as Alexandre Ocasio Cortez, the young Congresswoman in the US, or surveys about how young adults all want socialism. But from my admittedly impressionistic stance, I am not seeing an upsurge in enthusiasm for state control, rationing of resources, bureaucracy, etc. A poll conducted by Gallup in 2005 showed how lots of young US males wanted to start their own business. A more recent study from 2016 shows that a large number of Millennials, that generation which a Gen X-er like me likes to poke fun at, want to create their own firms.

It seems to me that any half-intelligent politician (that’s going to be a small population sample, ed.) should tap into this and stop pandering to the idea that the “young” all have a crush on Big Government. What I suspect is going on is that they dislike Bigness per se, not always coherently (Big Business is downright good if the bigness comes from superior performance rather than political favours), and want lots of choices and options in their lives. So smart policy, including around issues such as civil liberties, should play to that. It depresses me how our current political class seems so keen, for example, on regulating the internet and the like, because this is exactly the sort of issue that young adults, given their distrust not just of business but very big techs such as Facebook (even though they use it) get fired up about. One would think, therefore, that tapping this distrust makes sense.

After all, even if you have decidedly mixed views about a character such as Julian Assange, the Wikileaks man who was arrested in the UK yesterday, it is hard not to notice that a lot of people admired how he poked the establishment (well, at least that is what he claimed), in the eye. We are living at a time when there is a lot of dislike of established ways of doing things and this is something that thoughtful libertarians must embrace.

Related thoughts from the Institute of Economic Affairs.

Samizdata quote of the day

“A termite has about 100,000 neurons and we probably get through that number over a big weekend.”

John Searle, American philosopher.

The constant denial that humans possess agency

Following on from the posting below about the “ISIS bride” is this comment from Brendan O’Neill at Spiked:

Indeed, the story of these three London girls who ran off in 2015 was always a very telling one. It contains lessons, if only we are willing to see them. Too many observers have focused on the girls’ youthfulness and the idea that they were ‘groomed’ or ‘brainwashed’ by online jihadists. Note how ‘radicalisation’ has become an entirely passive phrase – these girls, and other Brits, were ‘radicalised’, we are always told, as if they are unwitting dupes who were mentally poisoned by sinister internet-users in Mosul or Raqqa. In truth, the three girls were resourceful and bright. All were grade-A students. They thought their actions through, they planned them meticulously, and they executed them well. Far from being the passive victims of online radicalisation, the girls themselves sought to convince other young women to run away to ISIS territory. The focus on the ‘grooming’ of Western European youths by evil ISIS masterminds overlooks a more terrible reality: that some Western European youths, Muslim ones, actively sought out the ISIS life.

A point that comes out of this is how it is so common these days to downplay the fact that people make choices and have agency. Whether it is about young adults joining Islamist death cults, or people becoming addicted to drink, porn or social media, or falling into some other self-destructive and anti-social behaviour, very often people talk about the persons concerned as passive, as victims. “She was groomed to be a terrorist”…..”he suffered from alcoholism”…..”he was damaged by over-use of social media”……the very way that journalists write sentences or broadcast their thoughts seem to suggest that people don’t really possess volition, aka free will. (Here is a good explanation of what free will is, at least in the sense that I think it is best formulated, by the late Nathaniel Branden.)

Sometimes debates about whether humans really do have volition can sound like hair-splitting, an obscure sort of issue far less important than other matters of the day. I disagree. For decades, centuries even, different arguments have been presented to show that humans are pushed around by whatever external or internal forces happen to be in play, whether it is the environment, toilet training, parental guidance, economics, the class system, whatever. Over time, these ideas percolate into wider society so that it becomes acceptable for people to talk as if their very thoughts and actions aren’t really under their control. The self-contradictory nature of people denying that they have volition (to deny is, after all, a decision) is rarely remarked upon.

When people think about the problem of “snowflake” students, or identity politics, or other such things, remember that these phenomena didn’t come out of nowhere. We are seeing the “cashing in”, as Ayn Rand put it almost half a century ago, of the idea that people are not agents with will, but mere puppets.

Update: A lively debate in the comments. There is some pushback on the idea that the ISIS bride sees herself as any sort of victim but I think that charge is correct because of the entitlement mentality she is displaying by demanding that she returns to the UK to have her child, and no doubt fall on the grace of the UK taxpayer. And that mindset is all of a piece of thinking that actions don’t bring consequences.

After all, if she is the devout believer in creating a Global Caliphate, based on killing and enslaving unbelievers and all the assorted mindfuckery of such a goal, it is a bit rich, really, for her to come back to a country the prosperity of which is based on it being a largely liberal, secular place. She wants to have her cake and eat it.

Of course, some young jihadis can be brainwashed and are surrounded by a culture that encourages such behaviour, but it is worth pointing out that there are hundreds of millions of Muslims who, whatever the pressures, don’t do these things, and some are trying their best to move away from this mindset. And one of the best ways that liberal (to use that word in its correct sense) societies can resist the pathology of Islamist death cults is by resisting the “victim culture” and insisting on people taking ownership of their actions, with all the consequences for good or ill that this brings.

As an aside, here is an interesting essay by a Canadian academic debunking what might be called “apocalyptic ethics” and a rebuttal of the argument that as religious fanatics embrace death, they are beyond the rational self interest test of ethics. The article deals with that argument beautifully.

Money without Kings

It appears that Kenya has some something surprisingly sane: it has decided to remove portraits of real people, especially politicians, from its currency.

At one time, policy in the United States was quite similar; anthropomorphic representations of abstract concepts (like “liberty”) were the only human images permitted on government produced money. Then, slowly, the inevitable happened, and politicians began to be deified by putting the likes of Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Jackson, and the rest on coins and bills.

I think the notion that senior politicians are not, in fact, kings and emperors, and ought not be the subject of secular worship, remembered with expensive public memorials, put onto money, have bridges and airports named after them, etc., is a rational one, and I hope that it someday becomes much more widespread.

On Thanksgiving

Tomorrow is the U.S.’s Thanksgiving holiday. It is a fine time to reflect on the bounty that the productivity increases brought by capital accumulation and technological improvements have brought to us.

The cost of the ingredients of a Thanksgiving feast for ten are now said to cost an average worker their wages for under 2.25 hours of labor. A 16 pound turkey now costs less than what an average worker earns in an hour.

We live lives of such astonishing wealth that we scarcely notice it. Only a fool would rather be an Emperor in 1600 than a poor person living today. Compared to a king of several centuries ago, poor people in the developed world live in astonishing luxury. In the developed world, we eat fresh vegetables in midwinter, our homes are heated toasty warm in the winter and cooled and dehumidified in the summer, we travel in enormous comfort (no wooden wheeled carriages without shock absorbers for us, and indeed, we can fly to the other side of the world for a quite modest sum of money), our medical care is incomparably better, our beds more comfortable, our entertainment options beyond any ancient potentate’s wildest dreams. This is true even of quite poor people, at least in developed countries.

Whence comes this bounty? It is not because of union organizing, or minimum wage laws, or the triumph of the proletariat over the evil factory owners. Indeed, a few centuries ago, there were few mass production factories to triumph over.

No, the source of this bounty is productivity, and the engines of productivity are deferred consumption being invested in improved infrastructure (that is, capital accumulation), improved technology, and specialization. Thanks to our better means of making things and the sacrifices needed to construct those means, productivity per worker is orders of magnitude higher, and thus there’s more stuff to go around.

Centuries ago, it required something like 750 hours of human labor to produce a simple tunic; today it requires minutes of human labor. Almost no one is capable of truly internalizing this change. The shirt on your back once was a valuable capital good requiring four months of constant labor to produce. Now it’s not even worth repairing if it tears, it’s too inexpensive to replace it. Because of this change in productivity, even quite poor people in developed countries own many sets of clothing.

Centuries ago, there was barely enough food to go around, and often far too little, as a result of which starvation was common. It required constant labor by most of the population to produce enough food. Then, mechanization of agriculture set in, and the production of synthetic fertilizer, and pest control, and improved breeding methods; today, it requires very few people to grow more than enough food for everyone. There is so much food, in fact, that obesity has become a disease of the poor, an unprecedented development in human history.

So it is across the span of consumer goods. The amount of labor it requires to produce enough light to read at night has gone down by orders of magnitude, and the quantity of light produced by an ordinary lightbulb is 100 times greater than that of a candle at a tiny fraction of the price. Many goods didn’t even exist before; in my father’s youth there were no televisions, and now people can buy 4k 130cm flat screens.

We were assured by Marx in his writings that the unavoidable result of capitalism over the long term would be the persistent reduction in the quality of the lives of poor people. This was inevitable because capitalists would be forced to engage in greater and greater extraction of the surplus value of the production of their workers. As with essentially all of Marx’s predictions, this did not come to pass; indeed, the opposite has been true.

Marx’s views were based in an entirely counterfactual set of theories of how the world works. Sadly, even though essentially everything Marx claimed about economies and society has proven false, and although essentially every prediction he made has been falsified, and even though his ideas led to the deaths of at least 100 million people in the 20th century, Marx is still wildly popular with the supposed educated classes of our society. (Indeed, even though Marx’s vicious bigotries were the cause of as much or more horror than those of the fascists, it is still respectable for academics to call themselves Marxists. Calling yourself a Nazi will rightfully cause you to be ejected from polite society, but call yourself a Marxist and you can get tenure. But I digress.)

Sadly, the myriad of capitalists that have kept us fed, warmed, clothed, entertained, and healed are largely forgotten. Like fish forgetting they live in water, we forget most of the time that we owe so much to the market economy we are surrounded by, to the vast number and diversity of producers, bringing to bear astonishing specialization and division of labor, creating an incomprehensible number of goods.

We owe so much to people in the past denying their current wants to carefully invest in the future that they might have more tomorrow. It has been the capital they slowly accumulated for us over centuries that has made us all so comfortable. The resources carefully husbanded by capitalists looking to the future were converted into capital equipment of all sorts, from house insulation to computer networks, from injection molding machines to automated teller machines, from to MRI scanners to torque wrenches.

Ultimately, we owe everything to them, and to the never-ending quest for higher productivity among selfish people desperately trying to out-compete their brethren. To quote Adam Smith:

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.

So tomorrow, when I, as with millions of others sit down to have an unnecessarily large meal with my family, I’ll try to be mindful of how hard the struggle was to move from caves and huts to comfortable modern homes, from bare subsistence to feasts that can acquired by trading less labor than it used to require to make a chair leg, from a world lit and heated only by fire to one where I can sit in shirtsleeves reading comfortably at night while a freezing wind howls outside.

What’s even more amazing is this: if people cease to try to prevent the world from getting better, our descendants may pity those living today for our astonishing poverty, for they may someday be vastly richer than we are.

A Dissent

Today is the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I, which killed something between 15 and 19 million people, an astonishing and colossal waste of human life and potential.

Sometimes it is necessary to engage in violence to prevent even worse violence, but it is always a terrible thing when that happens, and is nothing to be celebrated. At best, the “victory” of the allies was that nothing particularly worse happened, although what happened (including the deaths of about 2% of the population of Great Britain and 4.25% of the population of France) was pretty much as awful as one would imagine to begin with. As an anti-nationalist, I note that there is no good reason to believe the deaths of millions of Austrians and Germans (something like 4% of the population in those countries) was any less of a tragedy. All deaths are tragedies, and all deaths are premature.

War is not glorious. It achieves no great goals. It cures no diseases, it bridges no rivers, it builds no great cities, it does not launch people into space, clothe the naked, or feed the hungry. Those are worth celebrating, those sorts of achievements represent mankind at its best. War does quite the opposite thing — it destroys resources in bulk, kills vast numbers of people, and sets back human achievement, sometimes by years, sometimes by decades or longer.

Nor is participation in war laudable. Sometimes it is necessary to defend oneself, but there is never any glory in it. Dying face down in the mud is tragic, not glorious, and World War I was almost nothing but one tragedy after another, over and over, multiplied by the millions.

So, today is properly a day of mourning, for a world that was happily growing in population, accumulating capital, and engaging in peaceful trade, which was rent asunder by a stupid, useless waste of human life.

At one point, this trauma was deeply etched into the minds of most average people, but the memory has faded as the generations have passed, and thus the world flirts with horror again and again. Humans do learn, but far too slowly, and there are many people who work actively to tell other people things that are not true.

Sadly, intelligence and rationality are not universally revered, and thus, many are forced to learn the same things over and over, with bloody results.

Defending the Billionaires

Nobody gets to the vast levels of wealth of someone like Bezos without being a gangster. Nobody.

Once again, someone is here to give voice to the voiceless: the poor, underrepresented billionaires who cannot defend themselves.

My disinterest in arguing with you could only be described as “sexual” in intensity. Go rant on your own blog.

          — A famous internet personality

Those are three choice quotes from an argument I got into on the popular blog of a popular San Franciscan. He was a shareholder and early employee of the first company to make a commercial web browser, became quite wealthy in the IPO, and then proceeded to buy a nightclub, and later a pizza parlor next to the nightclub. He also writes regularly, with undisguised loathing, of his distaste for wealthy people.

You can find the original argument using a search engine, but I do not care to direct people to it, and would prefer that you not look, and that if you do, that you leave it unmolested. There is no point in trying to educate those who do not wish to learn; it is generally a waste of time, and I don’t actually enjoy irritating people even if they are themselves less than perfectly civilized. The blog owner suggested I “[g]o rant on [my] own blog”, and so here I am.

The conversation that triggered the “ranting” which I reproduce below suggested, among other things, that the fact that Jeff Bezos is rich is evidence in itself that he’s a bad person, that it is impossible to get rich without foul means, etc. (In other words, it suggested the usual array of collectivist arguments for why envy of wealth should be a guide to political policy.)

The comments also implied that it is horrible that anyone would come to the defense of a wealthy entrepreneur, that one must be a terrible person to defend people who are so clearly not in need of defense. Let me, then, be that horrible person. I think that anyone who is slighted for no reason beyond bigotry and envy deserves defense — indeed, that such defense is necessary for a functioning society.

Here, then, are (lightly edited) my comments from the thread. I’ve separated the individual comments with horizontal rules. If you are a regular on this blog, you may accurately guess the content of my counterparty’s brief and non-substantive comments without reading them.


I always thought that envy was a vice, not a virtue, but I guess people are into reveling in it anyway.


I’ve found fairly few of the “Eat the Rich!” crowd who are actually virtuous, but boy do they do a good job getting angry with others for the “crime” of having earned more money. Such people also pretend it is a virtue to criticize business people for existing, and rich people for having their money, as though it was all a zero sum game, which of course it isn’t — the game isn’t even remotely zero sum. The world’s total supply of goods and services is not, after all, fixed, so it is not the case that one person having more means another has less.

Many of these adherents to the practice of vigorous public expression of thinly disguised envy are even fairly rich people themselves, even have businesses, but naturally they think of themselves as virtuous and anyone who has more money than them as being remarkably evil, or at least, so they proclaim in public. Somehow their own stores and restaurants and factories and the like aren’t evil, though, only other people’s are. (“I run a nice honest business, but he’s got more money than me, so he must be terribly, terribly bad” certainly reads a great deal like envy.)

There are, of course, societies that do operate on a zero sum principle, and those are precisely the societies where most such upper class critics of other people earning money would find themselves imprisoned for having even the “modest” businesses they themselves own. Those societies are also generally desperate and poor. (Many such people were happily chirping about how great Hugo Chávez was and how wonderful Venezuela was, even past the point where it became obvious that starvation was growing in a country with the largest proven oil reserves in the world. I’ve heard few to no retractions from the former admirers, many even claim that the Bolivarian paradise Chávez was building has somehow been ruined by foreigners, but the mechanisms they propose for this are universally implausible.)

Anyway, I find it interesting that people complain about others for no better reason than that they earn some large amount of money per minute, as though this was in itself a reason to think they were somehow bad.

Again, envy is a really, really ugly emotion, and this reads as nothing more than the sort of envy we usually try to teach children not to indulge in, but it seems that at least at the moment, we have political movements (on both sides of the supposed political divide) who anchor their entire program in the basest possible human emotions: envy, fear of people unlike themselves, dehumanization of those judged to be members of outgroups, etc. This tendency appears both among the “build a wall and make Mexico pay for it!” types and among members of the “eat the rich!” crowd, though remarkably each believes that only the other exhibits such abhorrent beliefs.

I’m sure I’ll now be told that it’s different here, but everyone claims their own vices are not actually vices and that the people they mindlessly hate deserve it. No one ever admits there’s something wrong with their own views. No one ever admits to having base and unreasonable emotions, no one ever sees themselves as the bad guy. I know people who honestly believe Mexicans are going to destroy U.S. society by committing the horrible crime of crossing the border and working hard, I know people who honestly believe that landlords are evil for wanting to charge market rents. The arguments are all the same, the claims that I’m a bad person for pointing it out and that the arguer’s personal hatreds are different from other people’s hatreds are dull and basically inconsequentially distinct from those of others.


“Earned”, right. How about crimes like not paying taxes, which are only crimes if you’re poor?

Don’t you own a business? How do I know you paid your taxes? I mean, you say you have, but everyone says they have, right? Shouldn’t I be protesting your wealth? I mean, you’re wealthier than all but a small fraction of a percent of the US population, and by world standards, you’re in the top tiny fraction of a percent. Clearly if you were a decent person you would be giving all your worldly goods up — no one “needs” to own a nightclub and a restaurant and the rest, right?

Only, that argument would be as unreasonable as all the others being made, even if it’s no different in any respect from the one you’re making.

Really, though, it is a fantastic signifier of that. Nobody gets to the vast levels of wealth of someone like Bezos without being a gangster.

Jeff Bezos’s company ships something to me several times a week. I use his service because it is vastly easier for me to get decent products at a reasonable price that way than any other. In doing this, he’s done me a huge service. A new clock for my office wall arrived not very many hours ago, as did a book I couldn’t possibly have found at the local store. He’s probably saved me thousands of hours over the years hunting around on foot only to get worse products at a higher price. I’m glad to have paid him for the service of saving me that time and providing me with better merchandise. Over the years, I’ve paid him only a small fraction of what those many hours would have cost me in lost earnings — he captured only a tiny fraction of the value that I captured.

Because hundreds of millions of other people find his products and services useful, they voluntarily use them, and as a result he’s very very rich — but only because hundreds of millions of people want to use his firm’s services. I could choose to buy from all sorts of firms, but I don’t, because his does better by me than theirs along a variety of metrics. (For certain products, like computer parts, I use competitors services, because they’re better.)

So he got really rich doing what he does well. Not by “gangsterism”, which would imply using guns to use violence to get your way. Which is, by the way, what most people who think he doesn’t pay enough taxes would like — they would like their prejudices and hatreds to be enforced by the police. They would cheer if (say) they saw a cop beating Jeff Bezos up. In this, they’re not much different from the people who think any given group, from blacks to bankers, need to be kept down by the police more of the time. And it’s true, he’s more able to defend himself than the average black person who is victimized by racists, but it’s not true that the sentiment being displayed is any more savory. In the end, it’s the same desire to see people who are part of an outgroup physically harmed, mostly just for being members of the outgroup.

Anyway, though, I’m sure loads of other people could make precisely the same argument about other people, say people who own restaurants. “How did he get wealthy enough to buy a restaurant? Normal people who work stocking shelves don’t have that sort of money. He must be a gangster. He must have stolen it. These excuses about how he worked hard and his company IPOed are garbage — it was theft from other people that got him his money.”

The problem is, of course, that the argument is false. But it’s easily applied to people who own nightclubs, not just people who own internet department stores.

Anyway, I’ve heard this same argument thousands of times. In no case does it seem to amount to more than “I’m envious of the rich person, and because it is socially acceptable to slag rich people, I’ll express that anti-social sentiment in public, pretending that it’s virtue and not vice.” Only, from what I can tell, envy is just about never virtuous, and should not, in fact, be socially acceptable.