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]

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.

A statement of corporate philosophy I can get behind

These days, there is a lot of effort behind what is called the corporate social responsibility movement to inject what some of us might see as Leftist political ideas into the ways companies operate. (There is debate about this among free market folk, it ought to be conceded. See an article at Reason magazine.) Some of this is mandated by state regulation; some of it can also come from pressure certain types of shareholder (if there is consent involved, libertarians can’t object to that in principle). The old idea, put forward by the late Prof. Milton Friedman, that the primary obligation of company management is to maximise shareholder value, is shocking to the modern mindset. During my time in writing about and following the modern investment and financial industry, I am relentlessly bombarded by calls for firms to be more mindful of their social, environmental and related obligations. Making profits is all too often treated as a tad vulgar, even immoral. (This perspective might change a bit as and when the next recession bites.)

With that in mind, it’s refreshing to read a statement of corporate philosophy like this, from the Asgaard (as in the Vikings) business that runs the Starting Strength weight training operation, associated most famously with barbell lifting trainer and wonderfully plain-spoken Mark Rippetoe. The whole statement is great, even if you have never been to a gym or aren’t interested in lifting weights (full disclosure: I am doing the barbell lifting programme (in the UK) and it has already changed my health for the better).

Here are a couple of paragraphs:

We don’t like big government, government regulation of the workplace and personal space, and government safety nets for those who decide not to finish life’s heavy sets of 5. We don’t appreciate people who are constantly offended for other people at no cost to themselves, and who feel the need to force us to agree with their opinions, which we cannot be made to do. We like people who take personal responsibility, who do not ask for charity, and who give freely when they feel compelled to do so. We appreciate an honest effort toward a worthwhile goal, and we will help if we can.

We like nice guns, good food, strong drink, talented musicianship, thoughtful art, and the effort it takes to create them. We appreciate beautiful women and handsome men, masculinity and femininity, and we know the difference. We also understand that some people have different opinions about these things, and we respect their opinions at precisely the same level of enthusiasm with which they respect ours.

As an aside, I came across Rippetoe (or “Rip” as everyone calls him) via Glenn Reynolds. So I owe the law professor and blogger supremo for putting me on the path to getting stronger.

The sleep of reason brings forth monsters

Any scholarship that proceeds from radically skeptical assumptions about objective truth by definition does not and cannot find objective truth. Instead it promotes prejudices and opinions and calls them “truths.” For radical constructivists, these opinions are specifically rooted a political agenda of “Social Justice” (which we have intentionally made into a proper noun to distinguish it from the type of real social progress falling under the same name). Because of critical constructivism, which sees knowledge as a product of unjust power balances, and because of this brand of radical skepticism, which rejects objective truth, these scholars are like snake-oil salespeople who diagnose our society as being riddled with a disease only they can cure. That disease, as they see it, is endemic to any society that forwards the agency of the individual and the existence of objective (or scientifically knowable) truths.

Having spent a year doing this work ourselves, we understand why this fatally flawed research is attractive, how it is factually wrong in its foundations, and how it is conducive to being used for ethically dubious overreach. We’ve seen, studied, and participated in its culture through which it “proves” certain problems exist and then advocates often divisive, demeaning, and hurtful treatments we’d all do better without.

From the publication Aero. The authors deserve praise for exposing the intellectual disaster zone that so much “grievance studies”, and their denial of the existence of objective truth, amount to. The authors are left-liberals who use the word “social justice” without, I wonder, being aware of FA Hayek’s demolition job on the use of the word “social”. Even so, bravo to them: they obviously have stirred up a hornet’s nest. Further, they highlight how peer review in some higher ed. fields is a shambles.

The more I read, the more urgent it is for parents to really consider whether sending their offspring to these places is a form of harm.

Samizdata quote of the day

Perhaps, then, the most dangerous piece of ‘common sense’ in Peterson’s new book comes at the very beginning, when he imparts the essential piece of wisdom for anyone interested in fighting a powerful, existing order. ‘Stand up straight,’ begins Rule No. 1, ‘with your shoulders back.’

Caitlin Flanagan, in the Atlantic Monthly.

Samizdata quote of the day

A few weeks ago in central London, I watched a group of protestors holding aloft anarchist signs as they demanded greater government spending. They seemed almost as confused as the fellow who tweeted me his denunciations of globalisation the other day – using a mobile device made in Korea and software written in California.

Douglas Carswell, Rebel, page 295.

The presumption of liberty

My attention was drawn to an article about a harmless Australian eccentric who was unsuccessfully prosecuted by the authorities.

The gentleman who was harassed, a certain Mr. Meow-Ludo Disco Gamma Meow-Meow, had removed the fare chip from a train travelcard and had it implanted in his hand, thus allowing him to access the train system without needing to carry the card — he could wave his hand over the card reader instead. No allegation was made that he had defrauded the Sydney transit system in any way. He paid his fare, he was just using a chip implanted in his hand instead of into a plastic card.

However, the humorless martinets of the prosecution service decided to go after him anyway, even though he had obviously done no harm to anyone. Why? Presumably because we now live in a society where the implicit rule is, that which is not explicitly permitted is forbidden. Never mind that he’d paid his fare, never mind that no tangible harm was done to anyone or anything, it annoyed them that someone might do something they found peculiar, and so they set forth to crush that behavior.

(Mr. Meow-Meow’s fare chip was cancelled, by the way. This, to me, seems like a breach of contract, and possibly even a theft, as he had paid legitimately for his travel, and his money was taken without recourse.)

The assumption in any civilized society society should be this: that which harms no one is legal, and should not be subject to punishment upon the arbitrary and capricious whims of humorless prosecutors who decide to find something irritating for no important reason. Laws should be few, clear, irredundant, and should exist only to deal with actual interpersonal conflicts in which one party has actually damaged another and not merely offended their sensibilities. It should never be possible for an official to decide to crush someone merely because they find them vaguely distasteful in some manner.

Indeed, any official who decides to do such a thing should, in turn, themselves be guilty of an offense, for they have proposed to use the weight of the courts not to restrain a malefactor but to deprive someone of their freedom.

The presumption should always be that things which harm no one are perfectly legal. The fact that your neighbor doesn’t like your haircut, or the music you prefer, or the fact that you like keeping your proximity chip in your hand rather than in your wallet, or that you eat strange food or enjoy sleeping at the wrong time of day should never be an offense, and indeed, society should vigorously and mercilessly prosecute those who would interfere with the liberty of others.

Mr. Meow-Meow won his day in court this time (although he found himself forced, unaccountably, to pay court costs when he had caused no one any harm), but I fear that the presumption of liberty in the Anglosphere has long since been forgotten. It is long past time to resurrect it, and vigorously.