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Sir Charles Trevelyan, the Irish Potato Famine and the inversion of reality. Not laissez-faire in Ireland under Trevelyan – the opposite of laissez-faire.

This post is written by Paul Marks and is posted on his behalf as he is not in a position to post.

Part of the story of Sir Charles Trevelyan is fairly well known and accurately told. Charles Trevelyan was head of the relief efforts in Ireland under Russell’s government in the late 1840s – on his watch about a million Irish people died and millions more fled the country. But rather than being punished, or even dismissed in disgrace, Trevelyan was granted honours, made a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath (KCB) and later made a Baronet, not bad for the son of the Cornishman clergyman. He went on to the create the modern British Civil Service – which dominates modern life in in the United Kingdom.

With Sir Edwin Chadwick (the early 19th century follower of Jeremy Bentham who wrote many reports on local and national problems in Britain – with the recommended solution always being more local or central government officials, spending and regulations), Sir Charles Trevelyan could well be described as one of the key creators of modern government. If, for example, one wonders why General Douglas Haig was not dismissed in disgrace after July 1st 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme when twenty thousand British soldiers were killed and thirty thousand wounded for no real gain (the only officers being sent home in disgrace being those officers who had saved some of them men by ordering them stop attacking – against the orders of General Haig), then the case of Sir Charles Trevelyan is key – the results of his decisions were awful, but his paperwork was always perfect (as was the paperwork of Haig and his staff). The United Kingdom had ceased to be a society that always judged someone on their success or failure in their task – it had become, at least partly, a bureaucratic society where people were judged on their words and their paperwork. A General, in order to be great, did not need to win battles or capture important cities – what they needed to do was write official reports in the correct administrative manner, and a famine relief administrator did not have to actually save the population he was in charge of saving – what he had to do was follow (and, in the case of Sir Charles, actually invent) the correct administrative procedures.

But here is where the story gets strange – every source I have ever seen in my life, has described Sir Charles Trevelyan as a supporter of “Laissez Faire” (French for, basically, “leave alone”) “non-interventionist” “minimal government” and his policies are described in like manner. I must stress that I do not just mean sources such as “Wikipedia” (according to which the economic polices of General Perón were good for Argentina, and the failed communist, from each according to their ability – to each according to their need, experiment in the Plymouth colony in North America, in the early 17th century, never happened, despite Thanksgiving), I mean every source I have seen. Here is a quote from an article on the BBC website:

Laissez-faire, the reigning economic orthodoxy of the day, held that there should be as little government interference with the economy as possible. Under this doctrine, stopping the export of Irish grain was an unacceptable policy alternative, and it was therefore firmly rejected in London, though there were some British relief officials in Ireland who gave contrary advice.

It would seem odd for the creator of the modern Civil Service to be a roll-back-the-government person – but let us examine the theory in relation to what actually happened.

Let us test the theory that Ireland under Charles Trevelyan was a “laissez faire” place. Under this doctrine taxes would be very low – well were taxes very low? No, taxes were crushingly high – under the slogan of “Irish property must pay for Irish poverty” Irish Poor Law taxes, under the Act of 1838, (which had not even existed in the 18th century – the time of Edmund Burke) were pushed higher and higher – and the taxes were spread, although you wouldn’t know that from Wikipedia. As various “Poor Law Unions” went bankrupt the British government insisted that other Poor Law Unions that had not gone bankrupt, for example in the Province of Ulster, come to their aid – by pushing up their taxes. Thus taxes everywhere in Ireland became crushing. Taxes in Ireland had not been low before – indeed Edmund Burke had calculated that, relative to the wealth of the people, taxes in 18th century Ireland were much higher than taxes in England and Wales – but in the late 1840s under “laissez faire” Trevelyan taxes became much higher than they had been. The armed Royal Irish Constabulary, a national police force, perhaps more like a Gendarmerie, which had not existed in the 18th century, had its work cut out making sure these taxes were collected. And Charles Trevelyan insisted that the government education system, which also had not existed in the 18th century, not be neglected. The idea of perhaps spending the money devoted to the government schools on famine relief – well perhaps best not to mention that to him, even though Ireland had existed for many centuries without these government schools. Well, to a bureaucrat, children must be educated, even as they starved and died, just as dead men must be sent formal letters of complaint that they had not filled in government forms (no, I am not making that up) in relation to their relief work (even if they had not been paid – due to not filling in the correct forms).

Ah yes, the relief work. The endless “roads to nowhere” and other such schemes, Keynes did not invent these, but multiplier there was none. Charles Trevelyan was very determined that none of his relief projects should benefit the Irish economy (yes – you did read that correctly, NOT benefiting the Irish economy was his aim), that is why the roads tended to go from “nowhere to nowhere” and the other projects were of much the same “digging holes and filling them in again” type (much like the mad projects in France after the Revolution of 1848 – and yet no one calls them “laissez faire“). This was due to Trevelyan’s hatred, and hatred is not too strong a word, for Irish landowners – most of the anti-Irish comments that Irish Nationalists gleefully quote were actually directed at Irish landowners (most of whom were Protestants); Trevelyan hated them with a passion and attributed all the problems of Ireland to them (rather than to the Penal Laws, undermining the property rights of Roman Catholics and Dissenting Protestants, which had actually created the Irish “Peasant Plot” system over so many years – the Penal Laws had been repealed. but the system they created remained), no scheme must in-any-way benefit the accursed “gentry” (who Sir Charles seems to have regarded as close to being spawn of Satan). That the Whig Party itself was the creation of the aristocratic landowners does not seem to have carried much weight with Trevelyan – after all he was not working for the landowners, he was, at least in his own mind, on a mission from God (yes – God Himself) to set the world to rights. A Philosopher King – or rather a Philosopher Civil Servant, who treated the forms and regulations he created as Holy Texts.

None of the above is anything to do with “laissez faire” it is, basically, the opposite. Reality is being inverted by the claim that a laissez faire policy was followed in Ireland. A possible counter argument to all this would go as follows – “Sir Charles Trevelyan was a supporter of laissez faire – he did not follow laissez faire in the case of Ireland, but because he was so famous for rolling back the state elsewhere (whilst spawning the modern Civil Service) – it was assumed that he must have done so in the case of Ireland”, but does even that argument stand up? I do not believe it does. Certainly Sir Charles Trevelyan could talk in a pro free market way (just as General Haig could talk about military tactics – and sound every inch the “educated soldier”), but what did he actually do when he was NOT in Ireland?

I cannot think of any aspect of government in the bigger island of the then UK (Britain) that Sir Charles Trevelyan rolled back. And in India (no surprise – the man was part of “the Raj”) he is most associated with government road building (although at least the roads went to actual places in India – they were not “from nowhere to nowhere”) and other government “infrastructure”, and also with the spread of government schools in India. Trevelyan was passionately devoted to the spread of government schools in India – this may be a noble aim, but it is not exactly a roll-back-the-state aim. Still less a “radical”, “fanatical” devotion to “laissez faire“.

Paul Marks.

The lost chord, correction, TUC booklet

Seated one day at the organ
I was weary and ill at ease
And my fingers wandered idly
Over the noisy keys

I know not what I was playing
Or what I was dreaming then;
But I struck one chord of music
Like the sound of a great Amen

The Lost Chord was an immensely popular song of the late nineteenth century. It described how the singer had found, then lost, a chord played on the organ that seemed to bring infinite calm.

I have sought, but I seek it vainly
That one lost chord divine
Which came from the soul of the organ
And entered into mine

In like fashion did I, my friends, linger in the library of Her Majesty’s Treasury in my lunchtime many years ago, seeking to put off the moment when I would have to go back to my humble office and do some actual work. Like the fingers of the weary organist upon his instrument, thus did my skiving fingers wander idly across the spines of the publications the Treasury thought might help its minions control public expenditure*. By a chance equally slim did I find the booklet issued by the Trades Union Congress that I am going to talk about in this post. And by a fate equally tragic did I fail to take note of the title, author, year of publication or even the colour of the cover, and lost it again forever.

Which is a bit of a bummer really. This post would have been a lot more convincing if you guys didn’t just have to take my word for it that the damn TUC book ever existed. Then again, it was nice to be reminded of The Lost Chord which was the favourite song of an old chap I once knew who fought in the First World War.

This booklet. For anyone still reading, it was about “Technology in the Workplace” or summat. I got the impression that it had been published in the last years of Callaghan’s government. (This story takes place during Thatcher’s premiership.) It did not bring me infinite calm. It brought me a Hard Stare in the Paddington Bear sense from another patron of the library, because I was going “mwunk” and “pfuffle” from trying not to laugh.

The booklet was all about how when the bosses tried to introduce new technology, workers could use the power that came from being a member of a trade union to block it. It did not go so far as recommending that all new devices such as “word processors” and “computers” should be rejected out of hand, but it made quite clear that no such new-fangled gadgets should be allowed in if it meant the number of jobs for typesetters or stenographers should go down. The power of the unionised worker to resist such impositions was, of course, greatest in our great nationalised industries.

The pages of the little book were clean and perfectly squared off. I do not think anyone other than me had ever read it. Yet it seemed to come from a long-ago time or a foreign country, probably East Germany, so great were the changes that had come to Britain in those few years since it was published.

Yes, Britain changed. And now it’s changing back.

Jeremy Corbyn promises free broadband under Labour.

Labour’s proposal seems very popular, although, hilariously, support drops steeply when the question moves from “Do you like Labour’s plan to give you free stuff?” to “Do you like Labour’s plan to nationalise BT Openreach?” – but even then a solid third of the country hear Jeremy Corbyn say, “we’ll make the very fastest full-fibre broadband free to everybody, in every home in our country”, and also hear that the Labour manifesto is to reiterate the radical 2017 commitment to ‘sector-wide collective bargaining’ – and seriously believe that the “very fastest full-fibre broadband” is going to be brought to them by the unionised workforce of a nationalised industry.

*Or as the Treasury Diary handed out free to staff members one year described it, pubic expenditure.

It is past time for a Hayek statue

I agree with this, from Matt Kilcoyne of the Adam Smith Institute.

It is past time that Nobel Prize-winning economist and great social thinker, F A Hayek, had a statue in London.

Hayek is one of the greatest modern economists, and while his intellectual presence in academia is extraordinary, it is time for his legacy to be extended to the greater public.

Hayek traced the idea of spontaneous order from Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ to the present day. He made it one of the most important underpinnings of social and economic freedom. He also made groundbreaking contributions on trade cycle theory and policy, competition in currency, and even human psychology.

A physical memorial would not only honour him directly, it would also bring his name and presence before people who do not yet know of his books and his ideas, and prompt people to find out more about his output and his wide intellectual influence.

I have become very bored of people saying that “now is the time” for XYZ, when in truth it should have happened a long time ago. So he had me at “It is past time …”, even if the wording seems a bit clumsy. It has long (see paragraph 2 above) been “time for his legacy to be extended to the greater public”.

I Hope that, if this statue happens, it’s a good one. I look forward to taking photos of it.

Ann and the Giant Credit Card

“The beauty of a Green New Deal is that it would pay for itself”, writes Ann Pettifor.

To raise the money for a green deal, governments would have to draw on their equivalent of a giant credit card, but would also be able to take advantage of investment by savers. Thankfully, the creation of millions of jobs will generate the income and tax revenues needed to repay any borrowing.

I loved the line about the giant credit card. It reads like a weird mutant “Guardian X CBeebies Story Timecrossover fic.

The trouble is that these days, so do both the Guardian and CBeebies Story Time.

The Starhopper has landed

Last night, SpaceX completed a 150m hop test of the Starhopper test article for the upcoming Starship spacecraft. (Recall that Starhopper is basically a water tower with a rocket engine at the bottom.)

This may not look impressive to an untrained eye. After all, SpaceX has been landing rockets like this for a while. However, bear in mind what you are watching. This is a vehicle the size of a large townhouse (it’s 20m tall) being balanced at a single point at its base, and it isn’t so much as wobbling. (That’s much like keeping a water bottle balanced with your index finger.) Said house-sized object is then seamlessly translated upwards and over, and rotated at the same time, before landing perfectly. It’s propelled by the world’s first full flow staged combustion engine to actually fly — an engine burning methane, a relatively new fuel for rockets that has never before been used for real flights either.

Yes, SpaceX makes it look like getting a rocket to hover is easy. However, it isn’t even remotely easy.

This test makes it ever more likely that prototypes of Starship/Superheavy are going to be in flight tests of their own within the next couple of years. That, in turn, makes the era of affordable spaceflight ever closer. Recall that a fully reusable spacecraft means at least a two order of magnitude reduction in launch costs.

So, this minute long flight is a critical step towards the day where humans live permanently off the Earth. We at the Miskatonic University Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics will continue to monitor and report as future Starship test flights occur.

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.