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]

Samizdata quote of the day

“Look around any developed country and it is obvious that there are a lot of people who eat too much. But there is another affliction of modern societies that too often gets overlooked: the greed for attention. If members of the Lancet Commission on Obesity had a taste for food as great as their appetite for hyperbole, their bellies would prevent them getting near a dinner table.”

Ross Clark, Daily Telegraph, 29 January (£).

Ah, happy days

“Bill Gates says poverty is decreasing. He couldn’t be more wrong”, writes Jason Hickel, an anthropologist at the London School of Economics.

Prior to colonisation, most people lived in subsistence economies where they enjoyed access to abundant commons – land, water, forests, livestock and robust systems of sharing and reciprocity. They had little if any money, but then they didn’t need it in order to live well – so it makes little sense to claim that they were poor. This way of life was violently destroyed by colonisers who forced people off the land and into European-owned mines, factories and plantations, where they were paid paltry wages for work they never wanted to do in the first place.

The comments give me hope.

The game goes on

Earlier this afternoon Guido posted a list of the amendments* to be voted on in Parliament this evening:

(a) Jeremy Corbyn – calls on the PM to rule out no deal while, predictably, keeping all options on the table

(o) Ian Blackford – notes that the SNP don’t like Brexit, calls for no deal to be ruled out and Article 50 extended

(g) Dominic Grieve – suspends normal Parliamentary procedure on six dates in February and March allowing MPs to hijack Brexit

(b) Yvette Cooper – suspends normal Parliamentary procedure on 5th February to allow MPs to bring a Brexit-blocking Bill in

(j) Rachel Reeves – calls on the PM to seek an extension to Article 50

(i) Caroline Spelman – notes that Parliament rejects leaving without a deal

(n) Graham Brady – calls for the Northern Ireland backstop to be replaced with alternative arrangements to avoid a hard border

As Guido said,

However, of all the amendments, only Grieve and Cooper have any legal effect as they would actively change the Standing Orders of the House, upending centuries of precedent. All the others, including Brady, are only statements of the Commons’ preferences.

The votes have now taken place. All the amendments failed except Spelman’s and Brady’s. That is, the only amendments that passed were to authorise the writing of two new (and largely contradictory) entries on Parliament’s wish list. I was glad to see that the amendments by the Tory Dominic Grieves and Labour’s Yvette Cooper, both of which aimed to stop Brexit by procedural tricks, were voted down by larger than expected majorities, including fourteen Labour rebels voting against their Whip on the Cooper amendment.

Much of what we saw tonight was tail-covering. Spelman’s amendment passed so that if No Deal happens and the zombies come, MPs can say, “Don’t blame me, I voted against zombies”.

Regarding the successful Brady amendment, the EU side has repeatedly said it will not re-open negotiations, so I assume its main purpose is to put the guilt of being the last people to say “No” onto them.

All in all, not a bad night’s work.

* “Amendments to what?” you ask. No idea, unless “Theresa May’s Brexit Plan” is the name of a Bill.

Thomas Piketty gets the Theodore Dalrymple treatment

In Britain, as in other countries, more than a quarter of the income tax is paid by 1 per cent of the population. But this is not enough for the Professor, irrespective of whether increasing the rate would increase the take (the purpose of tax being primarily symbolic). He would like capital to be taxed too, from above the not very high limit of $900,000. This would increase both equality and efficiency, according to the Professor, in so far as the money raised would then be redistributed and invested productively by the philosopher-kings of whom the professor is so notable an example.

All this is to be done in the name of what Piketty calls solidarity. ‘If Europe wants to restore solidarity with its citizens it must show concrete evidence that it is capable of establishing cooperation’: that is, it must raise taxes on the prosperous. Overlooking the question of what Europe actually is, or how it is to be defined (I suspect that the Professor thinks it is not continent or a civilisation, but a bureaucracy), this seems to me the kind of solidarity that only someone suffering from autism could dream up, solidarity equalling taxation administered by politicians, bureaucrats and intellectual advisers.

Theodore Dalrymple.

Samizdata quote of the day

After years of having their dignity drained from them by corrupt, ruthless and cold men, Venezuelans are now fighting for their freedom and demanding an end to an illegitimate regime.

They know what so many in this country do not, which is that Venezuela has, indeed, shown the world that another way is possible. It has exposed to the world an inhumane dictatorship whose coercive ideology has brought brutality, mass poverty, disease, and tremendous suffering to its people. And the name for that system? As Mr Corbyn told us himself, it’s called socialism.

– Conservative MP Priti Patel

All that the socialists now have to agree about is at what point real socialism in Venezuela was abandoned, betrayed, done wrong, blah blah. Kristian Niemietz is good on this subject. His point being, as explicated in this IEA podcast, that if real socialism was supposedly driven off a cliff by bad or stupid people, its inherent tendency to slide towards and then go over that cliff, no matter who is driving, need not be faced.

Remoaner MPs

They dislike the treaty but fear a clean Brexit,
They hope that – in more ways than one – they can fix it.
Too statist to say, even at their most livid,
“Take back control? Look at us, to whom you’ll give it!”,
Instead, as the fast-nearing date makes them manic,
Their failed Project Fear has become Project Panic.
Campaigning, they pledged they would honour the hour.
Elected, and climbing the greased pole of power,
They cling in death-grip to their fear-calming view,
We’re the wise – VoteLeave’s win showed the folly of you.”
In parliament’s past, you at many times find,
It avoids doing wrong by not being of one mind.
So if “House fulfils pledge” seems a doubtful prediction,
Let’s hope for “House deadlocked in fierce contradiction”.

“Have you considered masterly inactivity?”, replied Sir Humphrey Appleby when newly-appointed Prime Minister Jim Hacker asked what he should now do. Alas, so polarised is politics today that even – indeed, especially – Sir Humphrey would likely oppose inactivity in this case. We hope parliament will in fact do nothing supremely stupid during the next two months, but my most confident prediction is that whatever they do or don’t do will not appear masterly.

Yes, a certain perspective is in order

“It’s entirely true that China’s economic growth rate has fallen to the lowest levels in 28 years, back to the dreadful stagnation of 1990, when China was only growing at 4 percent or so. That’s more than the U.S. is growing even in the middle of the Trump boom. We’d all kill for a gross domestic product growth rate as high as what China calls low. This is not, though, a commentary on how bad our own economic policy is, nor really one on how good China’s is today. Rather, it’s one on how terrible, appalling, and truly awful China’s economy used to be.”

Tim Worstall, writing in the Washington Examiner.

It is indeed worth noting, in these times of trade protectionism worries, concerns about Chinese building of runways and facilities in the South China Sea, its surveillance state apparatus, and so on, to step back and reflect on just how far that nation has come since the mass murdering rule of Mao. Tens of millions died from war and Man-made famines and dislocations during the “Great Leap Forward” and the “Cultural Revolution”. These are grim realities that, by the way, appear not to be as well known among Western-educated folk as they should be. It does not do any harm, and might even give us all a bit of calm, to realise that what has happened in China, with all caveats thrown in, is infinitely better than what happened before. The rise of a large middle class in China is, or should be, a positive force in the world.

Why should she care?

Mike Smithson of politicalbetting.com says that:

The Telegraph is reporting details of at telephone conference call earlier this evening by about a dozen ministers who are pro-European. They include Amber Rudd and Greg Clarke the Business Secretary.

Basically they want the PM to commit to securing her Brussels deal within just two weeks. If that doesn’t happen then they will resign.The paper’s Steven Swinford notes:

“Ms Rudd and other Cabinet ministers have previously warned that as many as 20 ministers could quit so they can support the amendment tabled on Tuesday by Yvette Cooper, a senior Labour MP.

In the old days a Prime Minister who had ten ministers quit on them would have resigned out of sheer embarrassment, but given that Corbyn remained as leader of his party despite at least twenty of his Shadow ministers resigning the day after the referendum, why should Theresa May care about the loss of a mere ten?

It will save her the trouble of trying to keep sweet those foot-stampers who issue such meaningless demands as wanting “the PM to commit to securing her Brussels deal within two weeks”. If she were capable of securing a deal just by “committing” to it she would have done so by now. Unfortunately for her, deals involve two sides, and she has even less power over the EU side than she does over the side jokingly referred to as “hers”.

I am sure Mrs May will find ten up-and-coming MPs willing to take up the vacated positions.

While on the subject of deals with two sides, another politicalbetting.com article well worth a read is this one from Alastair Meeks: “Disastrously successful. The EU’s Brexit negotiation”. It starts with an apology for “going all Godwin on you” and then launches into a discussion of the Treaty of Sèvres after WWI. Never heard of it? You’re not alone; it was so harsh to the Turks that Atatürk and the Turkish nationalists rose up in outrage and overthrew those who had signed it. It was never implemented. As Meeks said,

The best outcome is one that will actually stick, not the one with nominally the most favourable terms.

Samizdata quote of the day

“This modern society seems to be threatened by a number of serious threats, and the one that I would like to concentrate on which will in fact be the central theme, although there will be a lot of subsidiary little items, the central theme of my discussion, is that I believe that one of the greatest threats to modern society is the possible resurgence and expansion of the ideas of thought control; such ideas as Hitler had, or Stalin in his time, or the Catholic religion in the Middle Ages, or the Chinese today. I think that one of the greatest dangers is that this shall increase until it encompasses the whole world.”

– Richard Feynman. The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, page 98. The comment comes from a talk he gave in Italy in 1964. I don’t doubt that he’d be alarmed and saddened at the censorious crap going on some Western universities today.

Spanish practices

Taxi drivers in Madrid are on strike over “unfair competition” from online ride-sharing services such as Uber and Cabify, reports El Pais. In English. On the internet.


Persuading people that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is wrong

Sure enough, it cropped up in my Facebook feed: “As usual, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is right: There should be no billionaires.” What does she say?

A system that allows billionaires to exist when there are parts of Alabama where people are still getting ringworm because they don’t have access to public health is wrong.

I came here to write about it, but Jonathan got here first. And he is right that classical liberal ideas are not popular. But I am optimistic that this can be changed.

I explained on Facebook that I thought Ocasio-Cortez is wrong for two reasons: Wealth is created. There’s not a fixed quantity of it. So billionaires don’t take anything away from anyone. Even just stating it like that is worth doing. Because deep down, people know it is true. They know that people do useful things or make useful things when they do work. Once you get past semantic misunderstandings about what “wealth” is, it is self-evident.

Even my second reason did not meet much objection: that the “system” that allows billionaires to exist is also the best there is. There is no other way of distributing resources without removing incentives from people. If people cannot keep the fruits of their labour, you get less labour in the world, and people on the whole will be poorer. It is not a hard point to understand. The example with the butcher and the baker works. There are plenty of examples of places with different “systems” and even more poor people.

I encountered the argument that no-one needs all that money and that billionaires are greedy. This is an opportunity to discuss how billionaires become so rich. The popular image of Scrooge McDuck and his pile of gold does not bear much scrutiny. Typically, billionaires are rich because they are useful in small ways to vast numbers of people. Businesses like Amazon, Paypal and Windows are very scalable. Bezos, Musk and Gates do not wake up thinking, “5 billion is not enough, where can I get my next billion?” They simply keep doing what they do because they enjoy it and they know how to do it.

Another objection I encountered is that nobody needs all that money. I think people have an image of a pile of gold being kept from poor people but it is not hard to pierce that misconception. There is only so much stuff a person can have. Billionaires do not have much more stuff than an ordinary, moderately rich person. Once you have a nice house, a boat, and a fancy car (which in any case has no more utility than a cheap family car), there is not so much more a person can have. What happens to the rest of the money? It is spent paying people to do things that are ultimately useful to other people. It is invested. Billionaires tend to be quite philanthropic, and they tend to have their own pet projects related to making the world a better place. Because there is very little else to do with so many resources. It is not hard to turn it into a discussion about whether Gates, Musk and Bezos are more likely to know how to improve the world than, say, the US Federal government. And it is hard to have an especially strong opinion that the US government knows best how to improve the lives of poor people. There is at least room for doubt.

And so ordinary voters, even ones who have suffered good educations, can be persuaded that billionaires are not a problem, and perhaps also that capitalism is not a problem, and perhaps also that redistribution of wealth is not the best way to improve the world. We need to develop the marketing techniques to do this, and then sell these marketing techniques to politicians. The left have claimed a monopoly on virtue for too long. It should not be so hard for classical liberals to dispense with the greedy banker image and market themselves as the ones who care about the poor and downtrodden enough to have solutions that work.

Let’s be blunt: classical liberalism is losing

I put this comment up on a group page on Facebook about the latest comments from the young Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, quoted approvingly by two academics in the US, and re-post them here, with some adjustments:

The problem, as I keep noting, is the zero-sum mentality. For such an approach, creating wealth is incomprehensible, and that therefore having much wealth must be evil. She carries the assumption that for A to be richer than the average, B must have been robbed in some way. There’s no sense of a rising tide of wealth, or any grasp of the division of labour, the benefits of innovation, anything. And then there is a sort of hatred of the good for being the good, a hatred even for people who have achieved great success. Even if her concern for poor people is sincere, she’s just treating rich people as means to an end (giving that wealth to others); she just assumes that their wealth was gained wrongly. (In case Paul Marks or others make this point in the comments, some of the rise in inequality in recent times is down to central bank creation of money, which has tended to benefit owners of real estate and equities, but I suspect that Ms Ocasio-Cortez isn’t going all Ludwig von Mises on the Fed.)

She’s not alone in calling for massive redistribution and it is obviously tempting these days to be patronising and poke fun at a not-very-smart young woman (she has a certain cunning in how to market herself), but we should not do so. I don’t pity her. I despise her and her revelling in what amounts to thuggery (which is what coercive state redistribution amounts to, stripped of the fancy language). The rot goes far wider. Prominent academics (such as the people quoted in that NYT article I linked to above), the likes of Thomas Piketty, newspaper columnists, TV broadcasters and arguably even the Pope all press the same, flat-Earth economic buttons. They haven’t been confronted enough. So many “right-wing” politicians aren’t any good at this; they behave all too often like rabbits caught in headlights. Since 2008, this has become worse.

This book, Equal is Unfair, by Yaron Brook and Don Watkins, is particularly good at skewering this egalitarianism.

Also I would argue that Robert Nozick’s renowned book, Anarchy, State and Utopia, and its chapter on egalitarianism and the flaws of Marxism contains just about the most deadly critique of this egalitarian mindset I have ever read. It’s now almost 50 years’ old, but it remains totally on target.

At some point, Ms O-C is going to over-reach, and make an ass of herself, as they often seem to do. Or she may be shocked at being outflanked by people even more collectivist than she is, and start to get a bit wiser. Who knows?

But the mindset she represents is not going away. And our universities and colleges are full of people who imbibe re-heated Marxist, egalitarian notions from their post-68 lecturers. There’s a huge task for genuine classical liberals to take up.