Hayek’s guidance for western politicians on MidEast

Freedom fighters

In his final book, The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism, Freidrich von Hayek wrote that: “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design”.

Few people are more in need of one of Hayek’s lessons than western politicians.

Nearly two and half years ago civil unrest broke out in a number of Middle Eastern countries. An excitable western media, this generation of journalists eager for its own Fall of the Berlin Wall, soon christened it the ‘Arab Spring’.

How misguided this characterisation was quickly became apparent. Whereas the Prague Spring of 1968 had actually been about freedom the ‘Arab Spring’ saw unpleasant secular regimes elbowed aside only to be replaced with at least as unpleasant Islamist regimes.

Every use of the phrase ‘Arab Spring’ became an insult to those Czechs and Slovaks who had risked their lives for freedom. Eventually even the credulous journalists who had coined the phrase stopped using it.

While the regimes in Libya and Egypt quickly collapsed, the one in Syria put up a fight. A civil war broke out and settled into a bloody stalemate. On one side are the relatively secular, bloodthirsty Ba’athists led by Bashar Assad, on the other are the equally bloodthirsty Islamist; Al Qaeda inspired rebels.

There are deeper currents swirling in Syria. Assad and his Shia followers (as well as the non-Muslims who back him fearing the fate of their co-religionists in places like Morsi’s Islamised Egypt) are on opposite sides from the Sunni rebels of a schism that divides the Muslim world as the Thirty Years War did the Christian world.

Behind them, on either side, stand the Muslim world’s great Sunni power, Saudi Arabia; and its leading Shia power, Iran.

Of these two contending sides in the civil war in Islam, it is not immediately clear that we should be celebrating the victory of militant Sunnis. It is even less clear that we ought to be intervening to ensure it. Nevertheless, that is what we now appear to be drifting towards in Syria.

It is happening with a notable lack of enthusiasm in the west. When Britain went to war with Russia in 1854 a song became popular in music halls which went:

We don’t want to fight but by jingo if we do,

We’ve got the ships,

We’ve got the men,

We’ve got the money too

There is no such excitement now. Jaundiced western electorates seem to have a clearer appreciation than their leaders of the fact that in 2013 we have neither the ships, men, nor money for this adventure.

But politicians in the west have incredible faith in their own power. They are constructivist rationalists in the tradition of Descartes, possessed of the belief that with the judicious application of their power they can construct an optimal social order.

Armed with this belief David Cameron and Barack Obama appear to believe they can topple Assad, replace him with Syria’s version of Herman van Rompuy, and watch the country turn into West Germany.

This was the central fallacy of neo-conservatism. Contrary to Hayek, who believed that successful social orders emerge, neo-cons believed that order could be imposed or consciously constructed.

Despite the evidence of the last few years, our leaders’ Cartesian faith appears unshaken. There is a very real danger that in striving for an unattainable optimal solution they end up landing us with a situation which is worse than we have now.

This article originally appeared at The Commentator

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Ed Miliband on banking

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Speaks for itself

It’s a funny thing is politics. Someone demonstrates that they have the skill set required to win an election and, in doing so, they assume responsibilities for which they have demonstrated no discernibly appropriate skill set at all. It might be fascinating to hear Alex Ferguson give a lecture on football tactics, but I’d skip his thoughts on string theory and quantum mechanics.

Take Ed Miliband. The son of a politician, the brother of another politician, he has spent his entire life in politics. What is there is this background which gives him any basis upon which to comment on banking, let alone very much else?

Yet that is what he did last July when he gave a speech at the Co-op bank saying 

“It is a pleasure to be here at the Co-op. You have always understood that ethics of responsibility, co-operation and stewardship must be at the heart of what you do.

That’s one of the reasons why the Co-Op bank has in the last week seen a 25 percent rise in applications for accounts.

It was your values that I was talking about last September when I said to the Labour Party conference that Britain needed a different kind of economy.

An economy based not on the short-term, fast buck, take what you can. But on long-termism, patient investment, and responsibility shared by all.

Not an economy based on predatory behaviour. But productive behaviour.

Not an economy that works just for a powerful, privileged few But an economy that works for all working people”

And now, a little less than a year later, the Co-op bank is bust.

We, perhaps, shouldn’t be too harsh on young Miliband. After all, like much of our political class, he has very little idea of how things work beyond politics so it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise when he talks such obvious rubbish about non-political topics.

But we ought to ask ourselves a question; why do we give politicians so much power over things they don’t understand in the slightest?

The relationship between welfare and immigration

Home comforts: Firuta Vasile's initial request for benefits had been rejected by the local council

You give immigrants a bad name

The influx of Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants expected from January 1st 2014 has lately seen Britain’s politicians running round like headless chickens trying to prevent the obvious and predictable results of their previous actions (or inactions). The idea that people from these countries might come to the UK and avail of its generous welfare system has triggered concerns about immigration. Should we not, instead, be worried about welfare?

Classical liberals and many on ‘the right’ more generally would complain if government prevented a person from Bolton taking a job in Southampton. What right would a politician have to interfere in the mutually agreed employment decision of an employee and an employer? But if this is so, why should government have any more right to prevent a person from Juarez or Lahore taking a job in Minneapolis or Sheffield?

Indeed, if the government erected capital controls such as existed in the post war period to stop people shipping their wealth abroad, many on ‘the right’ would decry an act of confiscatory socialism. But why should the freedom of movement be granted to capital and denied to labour?

Immigration is an area of public policy rarely treated coherently. ‘The left’ frequently defend the free movement of labour (recently anyway) but oppose the free movement of capital. From ‘the right’ it is often the opposite. A common opinion, in pubs and taxi cabs at any rate, is that immigrants come here to sponge off our welfare state and take our jobs, a contradictory sentiment often expressed by the same person in the same monologue.

Some immigrants do travel to the UK to gorge themselves in the trough of its lavish welfare state. I wrote last January of Firuta Vasile, a woman who has apparently done little but leech off the British taxpayer since arriving from Romania in 2008.

Indeed, stories on BBC London about the lack of affordable housing in the capital are often illustrated with an interview with an immigrant demanding that more ‘affordable housing’ be made available by the state. But there is probably no shortage of affordable accommodation wherever they came from and the high prices of London are simply a market signal saying: This place is full up.

Immigrants like Ms Vasile give a bad name to the majority who do travel to Britain wanting to work. But, besides that, they are eroding support for the welfare state itself.

For all the noble notions of a brotherhood of man it remains a fact that people, in the main, feel more empathy with those who are more like them than those who aren’t. We generally care more about people who speak our language, dress like us, worship the same God (or none), watch the same TV programmes etc, than we do about people who don’t. This is one reason why the British or American media will devote hours of coverage to the deaths of American children in Newtown but spend little if any time on the Pakistani or Afghan children killed in drone strikes.

Regrettable as it may be, it is a fact of life that our empathy decreases as our differences with the person being empathised with increase.

The effects of this for a welfare state are as obvious as the effects of throwing your doors open while laying on a banquet of benefits. While people might be quite willing to pay towards a system that they believe is going to help people like themselves they will be considerably less willing to pay towards a system that they perceive benefits people who have very little in common with them. As Stuart Soroka writes

“Immigration has the potential to raise powerful challenges to the political legitimacy of the welfare state. Immigration can unsettle the historical conceptions of community, which define those who are ‘us’, recognized members of existing networks of rights and obligation, and those who are ‘strangers’ or ‘others’ whose needs seem less compelling. According to many commentators, the growing presence of newcomers, especially ethnically distinct newcomers, may erode the sense of social solidarity on which welfare states are constructed”

Or, as Milton Freidman put it: “You cannot simultaneously have free immigration and a welfare state”. The mass immigration overseen by the Labour government which saw millions enter Britain, 371,000 of whom are claiming benefits, has been one of the major factors in the decline in support for the welfare state in Britain. It has led to the serious consideration of a contributory element to welfare.

The answer is that government has no basis in rights to interfere with migration, but neither does it have a duty to subsidise it. If people want to go and work in Britain or the United States, and they can find employment, they should not be impeded. But if they cannot find employment the government should not hand them taxpayers’ money or goods and services purchased with that money.

There is a choice between immigration and welfare. The irony is that by choosing immigration a government of the left did more to undermine the welfare state than ‘the right’ ever did.

This article originally appeared at The Commentator

Ludwig von Mises on socialists and nanny staters

Still right after all these years

Every now and then you read something written some time in the past and almost literally double take at how relevant it remains. Check out the below – written in 1926 – by Ludwig von Mises in The Nationalization of Credit? from his Critique of Interventionism

“Guided by central authority according to central plan, a socialistic economy can be democratic or dictatorial. A democracy in which the central authority depends on public support through ballots and elections cannot proceed differently from the capitalistic economy. It will produce and distribute what the public likes, that is, alcohol, tobacco, trash in literature, on the stage, and in the cinema, and fashionable frills. The capitalistic economy, however, caters as well to the taste of a few consumers. Goods are produced that are demanded by some consumers, and not by all. The democratic command economy with its dependence on popular majority need not consider the special wishes of the minority. It will cater exclusively to the masses.

But even if it is managed by a dictator who, without consideration for the wishes of the public, enforces what he deems best — who clothes, feeds, and houses the people as he sees fit — there is no assurance that he will do what appears proper to “us.” The critics of the capitalistic order always seem to believe that the socialistic system of their dreams will do precisely what they think correct. While they may not always count on becoming dictators themselves, they are hoping that the dictator will not act without first seeking their advice. Thus they arrive at the popular contrast of productivity and profitability. They call “productive” those economic actions they deem correct. And because things may be different at times, they reject the capitalistic order, which is guided by profitability and the wishes of consumers, the true masters of markets and production. They forget that a dictator, too, may act differently from their wishes, and that there is no assurance that he will really try for the “best,” and, even if he should seek it, that he should find the way to the “best.””

Read the full thing here

Our ever changing moods?

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Same as it ever was

Are people more selfish now than they were in the 1970s? It’s often said they are and its just as often said that Margaret Thatcher is responsible. That’s usually said by the people who hold Margaret Thatcher responsible for everything.

But the evidence doesn’t support it. Consider the trade union leaders of the 1970s who plunged the country into darkness and cold, who treated corpses and rubbish the same as they refused to bury either as they were paid to. Consider the representative of the Confederation of Health Service Employees who appeared on television from a picket line outside a hospital the winter before Thatcher was elected; “if it means lives lost, that is how it must be…we are fed up of being Cinderellas. This time we are going to the ball”

Can you imagine anything more selfish than that? Any attitude less concerned with the ‘general welfare’ and more fixated on the ‘personal interest’?

The truth is that men and women have always been able to see what is in their interest as being in everybody else’s interest as well. Indeed, as the Roman poet Virgil wrote in the first century BC “Every man makes a god of his own desire”

Labour and the welfare bill

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…and I’ve got some magic beans to go with that

Last week Britain’s coalition government, a bunch of “ideologically-crazed demagogues”, launched a “brutal assault” on “the poor”. Or so said Owen Jones. So what form did this heinous act of heartless, senseless barbarity take? It voted to increase some benefits at the rate that earnings increase rather than at the (sometimes higher) rate that prices increase.

That’s it.

The hysterical tone in which much of the left conducts debate in this country is crippling our ability to have a serious discussion about how to bring under control a government debt which is set to have risen by 60 percent by the end of this parliament even after so called ‘austerity’. Eminently sensible measures on Housing Benefit or legal aid have brought predictions of a “final solution” or the end of justice in Britain.

The simple, central fact of British political life is that the government’s debt is rocketing by £326 million every single day. If even reasonable changes to Housing Benefit, legal aid, or welfare, which consumes one third of all British government spending, generate such apoplectic fury from the left, how on earth are we supposed to make even a start on tackling our out of control debt? It’s a serious question. Too serious, it appears, for the likes of Owen Jones.

But what was Labour up to while the coalition was engaged in this Blitzkrieg on the poor? It was making impassioned speeches and voting for benefits to increase faster than the wages which pay for them.

In truth the divide between those who pay for and those who receive benefits is no longer as clear as it once was. We have always had universal benefits paid to even the rich, hence the spectacle of a journalist from a family on a six-figure income wailing about having her Child Benefit taken away.

But besides that we have another toxic legacy of Gordon Brown. During Labour’s time in office he erected a thicket of benefits so baffling, vast, and labyrinthine that much of the country ended up snared in it. Ever greater numbers of people in work started to receive welfare and, bizarrely, Labour regard this as an achievement.

The thinking behind it was cynical. Like some mob boss in Vegas putting everyone on the payroll so no one would ever grass him up to the Feds, Brown reasoned that if he could play sugar daddy to a sufficiently large section of the British public by showering them with benefits they would never vote him out of office. It’s why the number of British households receiving more in benefits than they paid in taxes rose from 43.8 percent in 2000/2001 to 48 percent in 2007/2008. That, you’ll remember, was a period of economic growth.

Compare the essential fiscal promises of the two parties. The Conservatives say ‘Vote for us and you can keep what you earn’; Labour says ‘Vote for us and we’ll take money off someone else and give it to you’

Labour, quite simply, would cease to have any point if it wasn’t for the confiscation of wealth and its redistribution to its supporters. Thus we had the nauseating spectacle of David Miliband, who earned £125,000 for 15 days work as a director of Sunderland, accusing the welfare bill of being “rancid” as he argued for people on an average wage of £26,500 to pay more than the £3,100 per year they already do towards welfare.

Two-time Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson once said that “The Labour Party is a moral crusade or it is nothing.” It is now worse than nothing. It is a cynical, vote-buying machine, funded with other people’s money. That’s what they trooped through the lobbies for last week.

This article originally appeared at The Commentator

A conversation between a libertarian and a statist

In the interest of greater interaction between ideologically opposed people below is a conversation I had recently with a statist acquaintance of mine along with some interjections by an open-minded observer. As Bob Hoskins said in those BT ads, its good to talk.

Statist – Tax is the subscription you pay for living in a complex society like ours.

Libertarian – Can I unsubscribe?

Statist – If you go and live somewhere else, yes.

Libertarian – No, I want to stay here, it’s where I’m from after all.

Statist – Well then you’re choosing to belong to this particular club and thus have to pay he subscription decided by the majority of the club.

Libertarian – That’s what I was looking for, the majoritarianism, our way or the highway. It’s not a subscription, it’s a forced levy.

Tell you what, why don’t you slash my taxes and I’ll sort my own pension and healthcare out and educate my own kids?

Statist – As I said, you can always leave the club if you don’t like the way its organised and go and live somewhere that suits you better.

Libertarian – I don’t see why I should, I was born in this country just like you and your mates in the majority. It’s as much mine as yours. In fact, what gives you the right to issue an ultimatum like that?

As I say, why don’t you slash my taxes and I’ll sort my own pension and healthcare out and educate my own kids? I’ll go and do my own thing and you and the majority can do your thing, set up an NHS, a comprehensive system and all the rest, whatever you like.

Statist – Eh?

You apparently want to be part of a community called the UK, yet apparently you don’t want to abide by the rules that the majority of that community decides upon.  That makes about as much sense as me joining a tennis club, voting for the subscription to be £80 and when the majority vote for it to be £100 complaining that they have no right to issue to me an ultimatum that I should pay £100 to be in the club.

I think we are different planets when we are on this issue and I am afraid I really do not get this moral indignation at having to abide by decisions that the majority make that I might not agree with.  I mean I don’t like having to contribute to Trident for example, but I don’t think subscriptions to the nuclear defence system should be voluntary, even though I am quite happy to go without the alleged benefits of Trident.

Libertarian – No, I want to live in the place I was born in (hence your tennis club analogy is a total dud). You want to make my living there conditional on handing my money over to you and your mates in the majority so that you can spend it as you wish which may not accord with how I wish it to be spent.

So you havent answered my question.

Statist – You are making a fetish of being born on a particular piece of ground.  That, to me, is irrelevant.

You want to live in a particular political community.  That community has rules.  You can choose to obey those rules or go and live somewhere else.  If you choose to  live in that political community you can also try to persuade others to change the rules to your way of thinking.

I am struggling to see what is objectionable about that unless you are arguing that any government spending is of necessity illegitimate (police? courts? military? – they are all funded by money taken from you and I to spend in ways we might not agree with).

Your argument ultimately leads you to some kind of anarchism – after all if you should not have to pay for pensions, education etc, a pacifist should not have to pay for police, military or the rest the state’s coercive arms.  You then get a situation where people only pay for government functions they agree with which, of course, makes government impossible.

Libertarian – It’s not irrelevant to me, I was born here. I’ve just as much right to be here as you or any of your majority. And, for that matter, I have just as much right to tell you all to clear off.

There’s a fundamental point here. My philosophy would leave you alone. If you and everyone else in the country wanted to set up an NHS or paint your heads green you could do that. I wouldn’t stop you.

Your philosophy, by complete contrast, demands that I be involved on pain of expulsion or imprisonment. It requires that what 51% want is swallowed by the other 49% on pain of punishment.

Not too appealing.

Statist – You would agree then that I should not have to pay towards Trident and a pacifist should get a full rebate on all taxes that go towards the military?  After all anyone else who wants to pay for Trident or the military can continue doing so.  Me and the pacifist wouldn’t stop them.

Libertarian – Fine. I’d join you, Trident is a waste of money.

Statist – The point is – as you are well aware – that you do, in fact agree that the state should be able to coerce people to fund some things – the military and the justice system for example.  What we are therefore arguing about is not a point of principle about state coercion but about for what particular purposes the state should be able to coerce people.

Some people think that the state should be able to coerce people to fund the military.  Other people disagree with that.  Ditto with healthcare. How do we resolve those disagreements?  I can’t think of a better way than a majority vote.

Libertarian – Well, I have my doubts about the justice system. I deal with county courts day in day out and they are a shambles. I saw a woman at Bow County Court treated appallingly by the staff last week. I was going to tell her to go to the competing court but, of course, there isn’t one. That’s what you and your majority have given us for our forced levy.

The question is how do people spend their money. I can’t think of a better way than to let them spend it themselves.

Statist – So you don’t believe there should be any state at all?    No military?  No police?  Every person for themselves?

Libertarian – I don’t see why you assume that just because I don’t want the State to do something you assume that I don’t want that thing done at all.

Statist – Because your argument was that it was illegitimate for the majority to impose its will on the minority in any circumstances.  If you think that, as a matter of principle, the majority of the population should not be able to force you to contribute towards the NHS it must follow that, as a matter of principle, the majority of the population should not be able to force the pacifist to contribute towards the military.  It then follows that contributions to all government services become voluntary, with the resulting collapse of the state.

Libertarian – It means the State stops doing certain things but it isn’t very good at doing them anyway and, as I say, that’s not to say that those things wouldn’t be done at all.

Statist – So you have no objection on principle to the state coercing people to pay for things they don’t want to pay for, it’s just a question of deciding what those things should be?

Libertarian – I’m not clear on how you’ve deduced that. I think a system which gives most people what they want is better than one which gives 51% of people what they want.

Swing voter – I’m pretty sure most people are in favour of the NHS.

Libertarian – I’m sure they are.

Swing voter – So given that you want a system that gives most people what they want, do you want to be outside that system sorting out your own healthcare?

Libertarian – Wouldnt the option be nice? I mean, how chuffed would you be if you went into a restaurant and ordered steak only to be told “Well, 51% of the diners wanted Lentil Soup so you’ll have to have that”?

Swing voter – I think I’d prefer that option than the other option which is “51% of the diners have had the lentil soup, so supply is quite limited at the moment. If you want the lentil soup, you’ll have to pay through the nose for it”

I don’t think we should be continuing the Restaurant/healthcare comparisons…

Libertarian – You might be right but if this restaurant is charging you loads for lentil soup and you’re gagging for it would pay another restaurant to flog lentil soup cheaper. Of course, that presupposes A) the availability of another restaurant and B) the ability to pick up your wallet and go there with it.

Statist – Your original point appeared to be that it was somehow illegitimate for the majority to force the minority to contribute towards something they don’t want to contribute towards. You were waxing all indignant about that. I pointed out that, taking that principle to its logical conclusion would make any form of state impossible as all contributions to the state would become purely voluntary.

You seemed to accept that in that you drew a distinction between the things that you considered the state wasn’t very good at with the things that you considered it was good at (I know you don’t say that explicitly but you certainly implied it earlier) and, I assume, accepted that people should be coerced into paying for the latter. You therefore accept that it is not illegitimate, in some circumstances, for the state to coerce people to do things they don’t want to do

That then, of course, raises the question as to how we decide which things the state should do (and which people should be coerced to pay for) and what it shouldn’t do. I can’t think of any better way of deciding this then a majority vote.

The thing is you are between a rock and a hard place here. The only two logically coherent positions are:

1. It is never legitimate for the majority to coerce the minority into paying for things they don’t want to pay for. As such, no form of state and no state functions are legitimate.

2. In some circumstances it is legitimate for the majority to coerce the minority to pay for things they don’t want to pay for. Thus some form of state and some state functions are legitimate and what is to be decided is what those functions are.

It, of course, does not necessarily follow from proposition 2 that how you decide what those functions should be should be via majority vote. There are competing theories – you can refer to your Holy Book or you can have some concept of rights and I actually think what you are groping towards is some notion of the latter. You want to hold that some things inalieanbly appertain to the individual and should not be invaded by the collective. The problem you then, of course, have is on what basis can you say that these rights to appertain to the individual when the majority of your society disagree with you.

Take the notion of the right to property. Since the rise of socialism in the 19th century, this has been hugely contested. Those with property generally argued that things like progressive income tax, inheritance tax, nationalisation etc invaded the individual’s inalienable right to property and was illegitimate no matter than the majority might vote for them. The socialists argued equally vehemently that there was no such right (or that the right was limited by the needs of society as a whole). How can one decide a dispute like that? It’s either by voting or by war isn’t it?

Libertarian – It does not follow that because “all contributions to the state would become purely voluntary” “any form of state (becomes) impossible” There are all sorts of voluntary associations which have lasted longer than most states. 

“You seemed to accept that in that you drew a distinction between the things that you considered the state wasn’t very good at with the things that you considered it was good at (I know you don’t say that explicitly but it is certainly implied in post 98 )..” I didn’t intent to make that implication (I can’t actually see that I did) so the rest doesn’t follow.

“The problem you then, of course, have is on what basis can you say that these rights to appertain to the individual when the majority of your society disagree with you.” Indeed, it was the same problem slaves had in the United States. It’s the same thing gays have when US voters decide not to let them marry. If you believe that no right is inalienable and that we only have the rights we have because the majority consents to letting us have them, then if that majority votes for slavery or discrimination you would have to accept that as perfectly legitimate.

Swing voter – And if the majority votes for a compulsory healthcare system you have to do the same.

Libertarian – Indeed, exactly the same principle which brought you Obamacare brought you California’s ban on gay marriage.

Statist – So do you agree or disagree that a state, as opposed to voluntary associations, should exist?

On your latter point, I agree, it’s a difficult issue.  I didn’t say that I didn’t believe they were inalienable rights, what I said was that the nature of such rights is heavily contested.  If people can’t agree what those rights are, you then have to decide how one decides what amounts to an inalienable right and what doesn’t.

A burglar might argue that, as a staunch social Darwinist, he believes in the survival of the fittest and that he has an inalienable right to pit his strength against that of an individual householder and see who comes out best.  It follows that it is an infringement of this right for society to lock him up if he commits a burglary.

If we can’t say the burglar is wrong because virtually everyone disagrees with him, how can we say he is wrong?

Libertarian – Well if we both agree that there are inalienable rights then it becomes a slightly more technical question of what those inalienable rights are. Id argue there is an inalienable right to life, that’s why I oppose the death penalty. I think we’d agree. Id also argue you have an inalienable right to do what you like with your own body. That might be more contentious?

Exactly, which then begs the question as to how we decide what are and what are not inalienable rights.  Which then, it seems to me, leaves us with the alternatives of either majority vote or war.

It’s not an easy issue.  On something like the right to property I would say that this is a matter of majority vote.  If society votes to tax those earning over £150,000 at 50%, then those who have to pay such a tax have a duty to pay it and not resist it by force as an illegitimate invasion of their right to property.

On the other hand if Hitler had held a (fair) referendum on the extermination of the Jews and, say 70%, voted for extermination, I would say that the 30% had a right to resist that majority decision by force as an illegitimate invasion of the Jews’ right to life.

So sometimes, it seems to me, it is reasonable to allow a majority to define an inalienable right and sometimes it isn’t.  Unfortunately, the circumstances of when allowing the majority to define an inalienable right is reasonable is also contested and we go into an infinite regression…

Libertarian – Possibly all correct, but first Id ask again about that individuals right to do what he or she wants with her body. I would consider that inalienable, would you?

Statist – To an extent.  Does an individual have a right to pay a doctor to amputate his leg when there is no medical need for such an operation?  I would say not, given that the subsequent disability will impose burdens on society.

Libertarian – That’s only a problem if ‘society’ accepts those burdens. If the guy knows in advance that it wont he might think twice before doing it.

Besides, Aids is, I understand, disproportionately a disease which afflicts homosexuals. We could reduce rates of HIV infection and avoid these supposed societal costs by voting to ban gay sex.

I wouldn’t support that.

Statist – I think the nature of humanity is such that if people see a one-legged man, they will not stop to enquire how he came by his disability, they will try to help him , so it’s pretty impossible not to get a situation where having only one leg does not impose a burden on other people.

In fact, I think a society where people are not allowed to pay doctors to chop their legs off on a whim (incidentally the doctor commits the offence not the amputee) but where the disabled are helped without deep enquiry as to how they came by their disability is much preferable to a society where such voluntary maiming is allowed but where disabled people are only helped if enquiry establishes that they are deserving of help.

Your final para again illustrates the difficulty of balancing the rights of the individual with the rights of society and how this is deeply contested (and historically contingent given that, until 40ish years ago gay sex was illegal virtually everywhere).

Libertarian – If individuals willingly want to help the one-legged man that’s up to them.

In both cases we have a negative externality which could, we are assuming, be mollified by legislation, either to stop the man having his leg chopped off or to stop men having sex with each other. How can one be accepted and the other not? Especially when the externalities of Aids are much greater than the externalities of people having their legs chopped off to solicit sympathy and money.

Statist – Actually people tend to get their legs chopped off for reasons of sexual gratification..

Virtually everything anyone does involves a “negative externality”.  If I choose to go to work by train rather than bus that involves a “negative externality” to the bus company and its employees as it deprives the former of revenue and makes it slightly more likely that the latter will lose their jobs.  Politics is all about making subjective judgments as to which forms of individual behaviour involve such an unnaceptable amount of “negative externality” that they should be forbidden.

There is no deep principle that says an individual should be able to do whatever he likes and that “negative externalities” don’t matter.  Going back to our friend the social Darwinist burglar, he is, after all, just acting in accordance with his individual desires and his individual conscience, yet I think you would agree that, in his case, the “negative externalities” of his behaviour are such that we should forcibly prevent him from committing burglary.

Libertarian – Well, you see, if I believe in an inalienable right to property then the burglar hasn’t got a leg to stand on. Just like your amputee.

The conversation sort of petered out there.

Why I am a libertarian

Vote Johnson 2012

I’ve never liked the term libertarian. The views held by the people called libertarians today are the views held by those people who, until about half or two thirds of the way through the 19th century, were called liberals.

Then, so called liberals like JA Roebuck and his descendants interpreted a hole in John Stuart Mill’s “harm principle” big enough to drive state education, state pensions, and state healthcare through.

Since then the people who have called themselves liberals, especially in America, have been anything but. However, their theft of the title has been so complete that the real liberals are left with the clunky, manufactured label “libertarian”.

You can reach a libertarian philosophy one of two ways. Empirically, there is the fact that free societies fare better than those which aren’t free.

Morally, you can think that human beings are sovereign; that they have the right to choose what they do with their body and their property as long as anyone they do it with is consenting. That word, “sovereign”, used to apply to kings and emperors like George III or Louis XIV. For the libertarian, every man and woman is a king or a queen.

The belief in freedom of body and property is what sets libertarians apart from those on the left and right. In America, Democrats say you can do what you like with your body but what happens to your paycheque is up to the government. Republicans believe that you can do what you like with your paycheque but that what you do with your body is up to the government.

This confused hypocrisy of selective freedoms leads both Democrats and Republicans into ridiculous contradictions.

Democrats loudly proclaim their support for people’s freedom to marry who they want whilst seeking to limit their freedom to spend their money as they want by taking it from them in higher taxes. Republicans noisily support the individual’s choice to spend their paycheque as he or she likes, as long as he or she doesn’t spend it on marrying their gay husband or lesbian wife; that’s a choice they want to deny you.

Their belief in the freedom of body and property helps libertarians avoid such confusions. A libertarian understands that to be socially free and to be economically free are indivisible. It makes no sense to believe in social freedom without believing in economic freedom and vice versa. A libertarian supports gay marriage for the same reason he or she supports low taxes.

Aren’t libertarians selfish? After all, aren’t all those taxes spent on good things like welfare? Well, no. Lots of your tax money is spent on dropping bombs on other countries, interest on ballooning government debt, and attempts at economic “stimulus” which have only stimulated the red ink industry.

But just because a libertarian thinks the government shouldn’t be doing something it doesn’t mean that the libertarian thinks that thing shouldn’t be done at all. Take welfare. A libertarian believes that men and women will not walk by while their fellow human beings starve. A believer in government provision, on the other hand, believes men and women will not help their fellow human beings unless they are made to by government.

A belief that the government must provide is a belief in the rottenness of other people.

A libertarian would help that person themselves with their own resources. A statist would get the government to do it for them with someone else’s. The idea that libertarianism is selfishness is an inversion of the truth.

Besides, why is it considered “selfish” for a person to want to distribute the money they earn as they wish while it is considered “compassionate” for someone else to want to take that money from them so it can be distributed as they wish?

If person A supports the government taking money from person B to give it to person C that does not make person A generous. Person A giving person C their own money would do that.

A libertarian does not seek to impose his or her choices on others. The same goes across borders. Most people do not choose to live under cruel and despotic regimes but, as we saw in Algeria in 1991 and the “Arab Spring” recently, sometimes they do.

Where people live under oppressive regimes they despise, history indicates that freedom has to be won, as on battlefields from Naseby to Saratoga, or as in Eastern Europe in 1989, it cannot be simply bestowed. Successful orders emerge from within; they are not imposed from without.

I am not an Anarcho-Capitalist nor am I a Utopian. There is a role for government and there is a role for armed force. Just because your society might exist on peaceful, libertarian lines doesn’t mean others will. Ultimately the only guarantee against a Hitler or a Galtieri is the ability to defend oneself militarily. This includes pre-emptive strikes.

If Poland had had a reasonable belief that a pre-emptive strike on Germany in 1939 would have stymied Hitler’s invasion plans the Poles would have been quite justified in doing so.

But crucially this is about defence quite narrowly defined. Attempts in recent years to define “defence” more broadly so as to include nation building, democratisation, and humanitarian intervention, have failed and a heavy expenditure in lives and money hasn’t even bought much discernible goodwill.

The libertarian believes in twice as much freedom as a Democrat or a Republican. As long as everyone involved is consenting I would not seek to curtail what you do with your body or your property. I would not seek to use the government to enforce my choices upon you.

That’s why I’m a real liberal, a libertarian. It’s why you should be too.

This article originally appeared at The Commentator

NB For some reason The Commentator carried this with the name The evolution of liberal thinking

The life and death of Eric Hobsbawm

Eric Hobsbawm, 1917 – 2012

In his dotage in the 1990s a respected academic historian, author of bestselling books, and lifelong Nazi was interviewed for the Times Literary Supplement about his youthful commitment to Hitler. The interviewer asked “What that comes down to is saying that had the radiant tomorrow actually been created, the loss of fifteen, twenty million people might have been justified?”

The historian replied instantly; “Yes”

Of course, that never happened but something almost identical did.

In his dotage in 1994 a respected academic historian, author of bestselling books, and lifelong Marxist was interviewed for the Times Literary Supplement about his youthful commitment to Stalin. The interviewer asked “What that comes down to is saying that had the radiant tomorrow actually been created, the loss of fifteen, twenty million people might have been justified?”

Eric Hobsbawm, who died yesterday aged 95, replied instantly; “Yes”

It is one of the great mysteries of intellectual life in the last few decades that anyone who confesses to a youthful flirtation with Nazism or fascism is shunned by polite society until a sufficiently long and intense period of penance had passed, while a youthful fondness for communism is presented as one of those harmless things we all go through, like collecting football stickers.

During the 20th century the miserable ideology of communism slaughtered millions and immiserated millions more. Between the Ukrainian famine and purges of the 1930s, the gulags, Mao’s Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, and the Killing Fields of Cambodia, to the insanity of Mengistu in Ethiopia, communism was responsible for as many as 94 million deaths in the last century.

To paraphrase Montesquieu, there has never been a kingdom given to so much bloodshed as that of Marx.

And yet we don’t regard it with the same abhorrence as Nazism. Instead, the death of Eric Hobsbawm is mourned.

Ed Miliband said that this apologist for totalitarianism “cared deeply about the political direction of the country.” More, one hopes, than he cared for the millions whose deaths he excused.

For the BBC Nick Higham wrote that “Eric Hobsbawm was remarkable among historians in being proud to call himself a Marxist long after Marxism had been discredited in the West.” Hobsbawm was remarkable for no such thing. He was remarkable for his slavish devotion to the Soviet Union long after its full horror had been exposed. As Michael Moynihan wrote:

“When the bloody history of 20th-century communism intrudes upon Mr. Hobsbawm’s disquisitions, it’s quickly dismissed. Of the countries occupied by the Soviet Union after World War II—’the Second World War,’ he says with characteristic slipperiness, ‘led communist parties to power’ in Eastern and Central Europe—he explains that a ‘possible critique of the new [postwar] socialist regimes does not concern us here.’

Why did communist regimes share the characteristics of state terror, oppression and murder? ‘To answer this question is not part of the present chapter.’ Regarding the execrable pact between Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia, which shocked many former communist sympathizers into lives of anticommunism, Mr. Hobsbawm dismisses the ‘zig-zags and turns of Comintern and Soviet policy,’ specifically the “about-turn of 1939–41,”‘which “need not detain us here'”.

In 2002 Hobsbawm wrote “To this day I notice myself treating the memory and tradition of the USSR with an indulgence and tenderness.” Imagine a historian writing that about Nazi Germany and getting a 21 gun salute from the BBC.

Hobsbawm became a Marxist while living in Germany in the early 1930s. Like many during that time he saw a straight choice between communism and Nazism. He wasn’t alone in lacking the imagination to see the alternative of liberal democracy and many embraced totalitarianism of one colour or other.

But few embraced it with Hobsbawm’s vigour. In August 1939 erstwhile foes Hitler and Stalin signed the Nazi-Soviet Pact making Nazis and communists allies until Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. Many communists severed ties with Moscow in disgust but, as Nick Cohen points out, Hobsbawm remained a loyal propagandist for Stalin which in practice meant Hitler too.

Hobsbawm traveled to the Soviet Union in 1954 but noted that “It was an interesting but also a dispiriting trip for foreign communist intellectuals for we met hardly anyone there like ourselves.” To quote Nick Cohen again,

“If he had gone to Siberia, alongside the corpses of “anti-Soviet” Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Estonians, Latvians, Chechens, Tartars and Poles, of tsarists, kulaks, Mensheviks and social revolutionaries and of merely unlucky citizens who had been denounced by malicious neighbours, or rounded up by the secret police to meet an arrest quota, Hobsbawm would have found the bodies of communist intellectuals – just like him”

In 1956 the Communist Party of Great Britain again fractured over Soviet policy, this time the brutal conquest of Hungary which left possibly 2,500 Hungarians dead. Hobsbawm supported the invasion.

Time and again Eric Hobsbawm was faced with the full scale of the horror visited by the regime he supported and time and again he remained loyal. As he wrote in 2002

“The Party . . . had the first, or more precisely the only real claim on our lives. Its demands had absolute priority. We accepted its discipline and hierarchy. We accepted the absolute obligation to follow ‘the lines’ it proposed to us, even when we disagreed with it . . . We did what it ordered us to do . . . Whatever it had ordered, we would have obeyed . . . If the Party ordered you to abandon your lover or spouse, you did so”

Hobsbawm pleaded for “historical understanding”; he isn’t hard to understand. He was a man who failed to see that the choice of one murderous regime over another was no choice at all, who lacked the humility to admit it, and who was possessed of an incredible ability to blind himself to realities, no matter how bloody, which didn’t fit his view of the world.

Hobsbawm was the Marxist version of David Irving. Why is his death any more worthy of mourning?

This article originally appeared at The Commentator

Von Hayek was right

The Road to Serfdom is paved with good intentions

I’m a big fan of Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. In it Hayek argued that there was a tendency for growth of government to feed on itself to the extent that individual freedom was snuffed out and we all become lackeys of the state. It’s a controversial argument. Folks on the left dislike it, indeed, they find it personally insulting, as they take it that you are insinuating that in each of them is a totalitarian Soviet Commissar dying to get out.

That, indeed, is an argument I (and, I believe, Hayek himself) would refrain from making. But every now and then you will be talking to someone who considers themselves a sincere, well meaning, left wing, liberal, social democrat, and you will end up having a conversation like this…

Him – I wonder if looking back it would have been better for the West if Afghanistan had managed to get some stability as a Soviet satellite

Me – Impossible to say. Would a government imposed by the USSR have outlasted the USSR even without a war?

Him – I dunno, but I think there’s a very strong argument that Turkmenistan, Tadzhikistan etc are much better off for their years of Soviet rule than the ethnically and economically similar Afghanistan.

Me – I’d always secretly suspected it but now the truth is out; you’re a Tankie.

Him – Not really, I just prefer living under a Marxist-Leninist regime of the post Stalinist variety to living under Islamic fundamentalists. As I suspect would you (though that admission might have to be dragged out of your with red hot pincers…)

Me – I look at Cambodia and Ethiopia and I really am not so sure. To paraphrase Montesquie, there has never been a kingdom given to so much bloodshed as that of Marx.

Him – I did say of the post-Stalinist variety – i.e. the USSR and its European satellities c 1956-1991. (note that the i.e. does not follow)

There’s actually a point that the more the post war Soviet Union influenced a 3rd world country the more relatively civilized it was (see Mongolia and Vietnam). It was where in places like Cambodia and Ethopia where the Societ writ didn’t really run that you got blood baths

Me – You mean like Czechoslovakia in 1968?

Him – Reprehensible but compared to say, Chile 1973, hardly a blood bath. (Who knew ‘bloodbath’ was a relative term?)

Me – Not the point though surely?

Him – We were talking about blood baths.

Me – But I dont see why your judgment on the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia should be tempered by what happened in Chile five years later. You know, I was joking when I called you a Tankie, but now…

Him – Ok. The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 , whilst wrong, did not lead to a significant number of deaths and hence cannot be characterised as a blood bath.

Me – Yes, but it does rather knock your characterisation of the Soviet dictatorship post 1956 (ie stripping out all the millions of inconvenient dead) as a misunderstood philanthropic organisation into a cocked hat.

72 Czechs and Slovaks were killed by the way, thats insignificant for you.

Him – Where do I say that exactly?

Me – “There’s actually a point that the more the post war Soviet Union influenced a 3rd world country the more relatively civilized it was (see Mongolia and Vietnam)” quoth the raven

Him – I still can’t see the words “misunderstood philanthropic organisation”.

Me – But you can see the words “There’s actually a point that the more the post war Soviet Union influenced a 3rd world country the more relatively civilized it was (see Mongolia and Vietnam)”

I also notice no comment on your dismissal of the deaths of 72 Czech’s and Slovak’s in 1968 as insignificant.

Him – I don’t know whether you really can’t see my point or are being deliberately obtuse.

Post WWII the USSR was a status quo power. The last thing it wanted was chaos and destruction in its satellites. It wanted stability. Hence the countries more directly under its influence tended to be more stable (perhaps a better word that civilized). How you get from that a moral approval for the Soviet system per se I can’t see.

On your last point, I am really not getting into this. You seem to be in one of your belligerent moods this morning. But if you recall were talking about Cambodia and Ethiopia. Whilst the death of anyone is a tragedy and hugely significant for them and their families, I am sure you will agree with me that Czechoslovakia 68 did not involve a blood bath on the Cambodian and Ethiopian scale.

This started out as a interesting discussion on the benefits or otherwise of the USSR in promoting modernisation in Central Asia, but you seem to want to turn it into a fight. Sorry I am not up for that.

Me -I’m in a belligerent mood? Says a man defending the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia (not something my Trotskyite former comrades would do) and dismissing 72 deaths as not “a significant number of deaths”

Indeed it was an “interesting discussion on the benefits or otherwise of the USSR in promoting modernisation in Central Asia” but if you are going to make such barmpot assertions expect to get called on it.

Him – Don’t you think a casualty total of 72 for the invasion of a foreign country on the low side? And where exactly have I defended the invasion of Czechoslovakia? My first post on the subject said it was reprehensible.

Me – Yes, those wonderful Soviets, killing so few in the course of their invasion.

Him – Ok, we have descended to the level of the playground. That’s me finished.

“For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned.” – Matthew, 12:37