THE LAST DITCH An Englishman returned after twenty years abroad blogs about liberty in Britain
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October 2013

Sticks and stones - again

BBC News - Football fans jailed for abusive Stephen Lawrence chants.

Some thick young men have been given sentences of twelve and eighteen months for uttering bad words. They now block six prison places that could more usefully have been occupied by people convicted of violent crimes or even such crimes against property as our socialist police force can be bothered to detect.

Do I really need to say that I disapprove of the words uttered? I would certainly never invite such people to dinner. However, now that criminal records render them even less employable, we will probably be buying their dinners for a long time after they have finished their porridge. Perhaps even when they are no longer young idiots with poor taste and worse judgement and could have been useful members of society.

Man the trains with burly bouncers and chuck people off if they make a nuisance - even in ways less odious than this. If someone is provoked to violence by nasty words, let him use that provocation as a defence or mitigation when charged with assault. But let's get the criminal law out of speech please.

Nudge nudge

BBC News - Can you persuade people not to buy stolen goods?

The British authorities now seem to have placed property criminals on the 'too difficult' pile. The authors of a new "report" say that those who steal take so little interest in the law that they don't even know the relevant punishments. Surprise, surprise.

Given the rates of recidivism in Britain, knowing the punishment seems to make little difference. Some might suggest that's because (a) the detection rate is so low as to make criminals think they were just unlucky to be caught and (b) the sentences are an inadequate deterrent for those without concern for reputation. However, the British state never chooses to do a job better if it can give itself a new job instead. 

What does a criminal do when faced with a tough potential victim? Look for a weaker one. Likewise, as the state can't (within the constraints of current ideology) influence criminals as it would wish, it turns its sights on the rest of us. Knowingly receiving stolen goods has, of course, been a crime for centuries but
The authors of the submission suggest, as a first step, the default position should be that anyone found in possession of stolen goods be prosecuted under the Theft Act.
If it turns out the laptop you bought on eBay was stolen by the seller, are you to be prosecuted for the new crime of "possession of stolen goods?" 

My criminal law tutor at university thought me odd for disliking crimes of "strict liability." I preferred (and still do) the traditional formula that a crime must involve both mens rea and actus reus (an intention as well as an act). Of course prosecutors prefer purely factual crimes - like having a stolen laptop in your house - to the hassle of having to prove you knew it was stolen. That's just one more good reason why the preferences of prosecutors should never be considered in creating criminal law.

This new proposal is presented as a trendy 'nudge' solution. It certainly isn't if it involves creating a new crime of 'possession'. That would be a bog-standard use of state violence. If the report's authors are proposing a change in prosecution policy so that everyone found in possession of stolen goods is taken to court, it's no better. That would be an extreme example of  'process as punishment' as well as a monumental waste of police and prosecution resources.

Would dragging people through the courts when even the police and Crown Prosecutors believe them innocent really be an effective way of winning hearts and minds? I doubt it. It would create a lot of public sector 'jobs' though and make more people more afraid of state power.

Of sound and unsound money

Frexit fever reaches heart of French establishment – Telegraph Blogs.

When the Euro was about to be launched a colleague and I were in Germany on business. Over drinks with our German business partners they teased us about it. In all previous such conversations with them we had been primarily concerned about the impact of EU policy on the UK's interests. As a global trading nation, we argued, these often diverge from those of the more parochial economies of mainland Europe. To their surprise, on this occasion we were more worried about Germany for whom we predicted the Euro would be a disaster.

I told them of overhearing the then Finance Minister of a less wealthy EU country explaining to a group of Economics students how he proposed to 'pump up' their currency in advance of joining the Euro. Once in, he told them, the marriage to the Deutsche Mark would give his citizens high purchasing power and increase their ability to borrow. My colleague pointed out that, because of their history, Germans are averse to debt and afraid of inflation, while other Europeans are not. They - and their governments - rather like the idea of large debt paid back in bad coin.

They scoffed, but history proved them wrong. The Greek government, for example, had lied through its teeth in the run up to joining EMU and has been officially criticised for continuing to do so in the years following the adoption of the Euro. They statistically masked the effects of their orgy of spending and debt until there was nothing to do but prop them up if the currency was not to be jeopardised.

Our German business-friends were man enough to call my colleague last year and tell him that we had been right. I take no pleasure in that. History continues to vindicate commonsense over voodoo economics, without ever teaching the 'something for nothing' crowd to adjust their expectations to reality. I also feel no glee at the stirrings in the French Establishment about 'Frexit.' I would rather be rich than right. I would rather be free than either. This mess is going to hurt me in the end, however right I was.

Just look at the views of François Heisbourg, as reported in the linked Telegraph Blog. He is a Knight of the Legion of Honour and holder of the French Order of Merit. He is also Chairman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies and an insider Énarque par excellence. You will find little sign in his words of a new dawn of commonsense in the European élite.
The dream has given way to nightmare. We must face the reality that the EU itself is now threatened by the euro. The current efforts to save it are endangering the Union yet further
The retreat he proposes is merely tactical. He is still locked into the mad meme of 'ever closer union.' His only concern is that introducing the Euro too soon has threatened that objective.

In my view, the introduction of the Euro was a misjudged attempt to bounce Europe into political union. The federalists knew that a currency crisis would happen. If two middle-aged English lawyers could predict it over beer in Frankfurt, how could the great minds of the Énarques fail? I believe they anticipated the current crisis (or something like it) and believed it would force a concentration of political power, however little European citizens might want it.

It never made sense for nations with different economies, fiscal policies and approaches to state expenditure to be locked into a single currency without a single government. The crisis turned out to be a bug, but it was meant to be a feature. Even now most federalists, disappointed though they must be that Europeans' appetite for union has diminished in its wake, are still claiming all is well. Those, like Heisbourg, who say that;

God knows denial has been for a long time, by default, the operating mode of those in charge of EU institutions.

are simply concerned that the political miscalculation of premature currency union is now threatening the success of the whole project. None of them have learned a thing.

No less predictable, but far more chilling, are these words;
Money has to be at the service of the political structure, not the other way around
He says it to oppose those federalist politicians who, he claims, are trying to shape political structures to prop up the Euro. He is right to oppose that and might say, I suppose, that I am taking his words out of context. Still I think, in a Freudian way, they are incredibly revealing of the attitudes of our political elites.

Until our mad masters re-learn that money is a means of exchange at the service of the whole society there is no hope for our economic security. The users of a currency are the ones who matter, not the politicians administering it. We 'own' our money and the underlying value it represents, not them. The only true economic role of 'the political structure' is to ensure its soundness so that we can continue to trust it. That they now complain we don't trust them is very largely a product of their failure to perform that basic task. They have behaved like racketeers and cannot complain when that's how they are seen.

Political elites have got away so long with debasing money to serve their own ends that it now seems they have come at last to believe that this is its true purpose.

Robber Barons; then and now

I am happy to be the source of Samizdata's quote of the day, but my own choice today is from this 1970s lecture by Milton Friedman at the University of Utah; 
We had robber barons then and we have robber barons today. But there’s a big difference between the robber barons then and the robber barons today. The robber barons then primarily could get their money only if people freely gave it to them. They got their money by selling a service. And nobody had to buy it. And if people bought it it was because it was a better service than it was before. The robber barons today are in a large part able to get their money by sending a policeman to take it out of your pocket.
I commend Professor Friedman's speech to you. Even someone as opposed to current economic ideology as I am, still falls from time to time for some of its pervasive - and destructive - foundation myths.

h/t the ever-educational Café Hayek

Religion in today's Britain


At the O2 Arena last week, popular comedian Micky Flanagan got a roar of approval from most of his capacity audience for the following line;

"I am not religious ... because I AM NOT FUCKING MENTAL."

He went on to make them roll in the aisles (a dangerous pastime on the steep tiers at the O2) by conducting a conversation with an imaginary vicar about 'teabagging' his imaginary gay boyfriend. This to give his audience the comedic pleasure of picturing the discomfiture of the 'homophobic' clergyman. 

I am sure his audience members are more typical of current British public opinion than the Christians among my friends. Religion in general and the faith of our fathers in particular has become little more than a synonym for 'homophobia' in metropolitan circles. If most Londoners met their creator on Hampstead Heath (as an accountant does in one of my favourite jokes) they would not fall to their knees. They would look Him up and down contemptuously and say "Some people are gay, God. Get over it."

I have stated my own views on religion here before. They have not changed much, even after the shock of the late Mrs P.'s conversion to Catholicism. I hope I am no smug, dismissive, arrogant Dawkins-style atheist. I have religious friends. I like them, respect them and am careful not to deploy my weapons-grade argumentation to undermine their faith. When I see a friend in trouble, I envy them the confidence their faith gives them to try to help in the face of implacable fate. 

Every culture in history evolved at least one religion in the course of its development. The utility of religious belief in handling the central problem of being human is obvious. Voltaire said it best. Like most people, I am not so narcissistic or self-important as to worry about my own death. My passing will make no significant ripple in the cosmos and that's fine with me. But every time I lose someone I care about, I would love the comfort of religion. When I look back on some aspects of my life, I also understand the appeal of the Catholic rite of confession. Absolution. What's not to like?

Christianity, even if little-practised now in Britain, is an inseparable part of our culture. Even British atheists are clearly a- the Christian Theos. It informs who we are. Our art and literature are so steeped in it that they make little sense without a basic understanding of The Bible. I feel guilty when a Christian would and am impelled to similar good acts. I feel bad if I am not suitably grateful for the blessings in my life; ludicrously as I have no-one to thank for conferring them. I don't think a Christian neighbour would be able to identify me as an atheist without asking.

I am not in any way against religious belief. I simply don't have it.

At the suggestion of a friend I have been attending weekly viewings of Father Robert Barron's film series, "Catholicism". I asked the organisers if it was ok for an atheist to come along and explained that I wanted to understand what my late wife had signed up to. They have been welcoming and I rather fear becoming their pet heathen. I am certainly now the most prayed-for atheist in Chiswick. They are good, serious, kind people but they are even more hopelessly at odds with the zeitgeist of modern Britain than I am. Like so many in our weirdly fragmented society, they operate in their own social bubble and seem unaware of the rising hostility they face. Their naievety is touching and worrying. I feel as protective of them as they do of me.

The recently retired Chief Rabbi wrote an interesting article suggesting that atheists are failing in an implied obligation to offer an alternative moral structure.

I have not yet found a secular ethic capable of sustaining in the long run a society of strong communities and families on the one hand, altruism, virtue, self-restraint, honour, obligation and trust on the other

Most atheists I know are quick to say that the religious have no monopoly on morality. Fair enough. There are many moral atheists. I hope I am one of them. But Rabbi Sacks is right that we offer no common moral basis for society. As the rubble of the old faiths is consigned to the landfill of history, I fear that without common values our behaviours can only be kept within safe bounds by state power. If men fear no gods, they must fear other men.

That's a sobering thought because, while we can mock the violence caused by religion (the conquistadores, the crusaders, the Inquisition, 'the Troubles', Islamic terrorism etc.) the state is an institution with a worse record. Having conceded control of so much of our lives to it, are we now ready to let it define our morals too?

Our dangerous zeitgeist

Here is a short quote from someone you have never heard of; Elise Groulx Diggs, co-chairman of the International Criminal Bar. The source for the quote is here, though I read it in the International Bar Association's dead tree magazine.

Law is an amazingly transformational tool and it doesn't take that many people to bring about change.

Whether or not you agree with the particular changes she's talking about doesn't really matter that much. Law is there to set limits to human vices, not to promote human virtues. This not least because humans are in closer agreement as to the former than the latter. Every law diminishes liberty and even a good one is a necessary evil. A bad one (and most are now bad ones) is just evil.

To put it another way, Law itself is a prison and the fewer people who ever see its bars, the better. That 'not that many' people can transform the lives of the rest of us by force of law is undoubtedly true. It happens all the time, but does not strike me as a thing to be happy about.

The lady has had a distinguished career and, from my brief research, has done a lot of good in this world. I am sure she is very admirable and I don't single her out because I think she is in any way to blame for our situation. It's just that her words sum up crisply, for me, the great mistake about the nature of Law that is making the Free World less so by the day.

Work, apparently, is not the answer. Is it idleness then?

BBC News - Alan Milburn says child poverty 'no longer problem of the workless and work-shy'.

I am trying to stay positive in the face of a nation gone mad. I really am. I was much helped by a pleasant meal last night with a fellow-blogger and occasional commenter here whose views are relentlessly sane.

I even briefly managed to do it in the face of Alan Milburn's certifiable analysis of the woes of our poor. 
He thinks we need higher minimum wages to price more low-skilled people out of work and perhaps even make offshoring fashionable again. No trace of sanity there but still I managed to keep smiling.

Sadly, however I made the mistake of reading the comments on the linked article at the BBC website. The drivel there is enough to make the brightest optimist despair.

Try this for size;
The real reason why poverty is increasing is that we have had government after government making public sector cuts. This has led to more expensive services and unemployment which forces wages down. And all this has been done in the name of tax cuts for the rich. 
or this
Rent and utility bills are killing everybody including business, they must be capped and energy re-nationalized. I don't care if people think it's socialism because at what point do you say capitalism with no rules or morals has to stop and isn't working?
or this
So much for our government's claim that work is what stops poverty and benefits is (sic) what keeps people in it
or even this
I couldn't care less how well the banking sector is doing or what the GDP is or the UK's position in wealth tables is so long as I can turn the lights and heating on and eat decent food without worrying about the cost. [my emphasis] MAJOR wealth distribution needed
Yes, of course. That will all work in Britain. After all remember how well it worked in China, the USSR, Eastern Europe, Cuba and - oh wait - here.

Was ever any man as wrong as Francis Fukuyama? Despite the comprehensive proof of its failure when tested disastrously on more than half of mankind in the 20th Century, it seems the cancerous doctrine of socialism will never die in Britain until the government's cheques actually start to bounce. Not while the state's employees, corruptees and other dependents retain the vote. This despite their conflict of interest, not just with taxpayers, but with the fabric of reality itself.

Where are Reuters when corrupt officials cripple India?

This fawning piece lavishes praise on Indian bureaucrats - the country's 'best and brightest' - for their response to Cyclone Phailin. Perhaps they even deserve it.

Yet India's potential is wilfully and systematically damaged every day by official corruption; corruption that is the key story in the world's greatest democracy. I do appreciate that journalists can't tell that story quite so easily. It would certainly take more work than calling government offices and lazily listening to officials praise themselves.

Even then, the true masters of India inadvertently reveal their true colours. One official is quoted as saying;

Those who were not willing (to be evacuated), I was telling the local official to use force, because the rules permit that.

So adults said they would prefer (for whatever reason) to stay put and take their chances with the cyclone, but were dragged away violently for their own protection. The official openly boasts of this assault and the uncritical journalist reports it as a positive. After all it was within 'the rules' and what else matters?

It sounds like these officials did a reasonable job on this occasion and of course I am delighted the fatalities were so few, but I still doubt their credentials as 'public servants' and their understanding of ethical concepts.

Of selfishness

The conventional view in Soviet Britain is that those who do business are heartless sorts driven by selfish pursuit of that dirtiest of all words in our foul-mouthed society; p**f*t. Yet my recollection of thirty happy years in business is of being under constant pressure to find ways to serve the interests of others. I like my fellow-men, trust them and certainly respect them more than any Socialist I ever met, but I didn't do it for love of them. I did it because that was the best way to help my business prosper.

Now I live mostly on my savings plus an occasional fee for consultancy, my life is very different. I suspect that in its daily details it's much more like that of a leftist academic (let's call him Ralph) who thinks profit is a dirty word. Subject to my social and domestic obligations, I spend each day more or less as I please. I have an online subscription to The Guardian so as to understand what my enemies have in store for me, but I no longer have any obligation to read outside my field of interest. Indeed most of what I read is written by people of the same views as myself. Despite my painful time with The Guardian each day, I am now almost as little exposed as Ralph to opposing points of view. Everything I write is to promote my own world view and - I suppose - to garner the approval of like-minded folk.

Unlike Ralph, I am not a cost to anyone else. His conscience is of the 'social' variety and is therefore untroubled by living on money taken by force from others. Mine would be. Like him, I now deliberately contribute very little to GDP by my labour, though my capital is doing its bit, as perhaps is his. He may - after all - have inherited from a family who were economic hosts rather than parasites. There are many Socialists of that ilk, not to mention the ones whose fathers prospered mightily as parasitic Ralphs.

Our Ralph does no productive labour because he's more focussed on redistribution of wealth than creation. I limit mine because I already have enough and am apparently - rather to my own surprise - less consumed by greed than he would think. I also don't see the point of working if more than half of my earnings would be taken from me and almost half of what was left when I died would be taken from my children. Ralph is probably an advocate of the policies that created this situation but thinks me selfish for refusing to work anyway and thinks I should be somehow forced to labour (a notion towards which all Socialism trends).

I pay indirect tax on everything I buy (£118.17 on my new iPhone, for example). I also pay Council Tax. This is tax taken from income already taxed, but in fairness Ralph pays it too. The only difference is that he pays from money ripped violently from his fellow men. I pay from cash received freely in return for contractual value.

The more my life becomes like Ralph's and the less I live the way he disdains as selfish - the more selfish I feel. The more I think about how he actually spends his time, the more I despise his self-indulgent lifestyle and his selfish refusal to contribute even his own costs, let alone pay those of many others - as I have done. He has not paid for his childrens education, for example. I paid for mine and for that of countless others.

So who is the more selfish; the man who creates wealth or the man who claims the right to seize the wealth of others? Who is the more heartless; the man who feels a twinge of conscience about no longer serving his fellow-men (despite having done do for decades) or the man who has lived his whole life on them as guiltlessly as a flea on a dog?

Lessons from the government shutdown in America

You can't look because the rangers aren't being paid
We won't learn much from the current events in America. 'Paine's Law' applies; any fact may confirm any political view. This post may well be an example of that so put on spectacles tinted with your favoured shade and interpret accordingly.

Mark Steyn relates the story of a park ranger ordering American pensioners back onto a bus in Yellowstone National Park, telling them they 'couldn't recreate' because the park is closed. He reports that the rangers have barricaded 'Old Faithful' and are keeping an armed guard on the nearby hotel so that no-one can approach while they are not being paid.

You would think that, if park rangers were unpaid, they would stay home and - to the precise extent that they usually perform a useful function - problems would ensue. Perhaps there might be a higher rate of accidents. More people might get lost or hurt by dangerous animals. There might be an increase in vandalism or theft. There might be damaging fires because no-one would enforce park rules about camping. People would see these bad consequences and insist their legislators taxed them more or - more likely - borrowed more against their unborn grandchildrens' future earnings so the rangers could be paid.

In fact, what has happened is that self-interested state dependents have turned up to work, unpaid, in order to prevent any member of the American public enjoying land that statists laughably claim they own. In truth, these 'public servants' are harassing their supposed 'masters' in pursuit of a political campaign. They are demanding with menaces increased public borrowing to pay their wages, benefits and future pensions.

If the money stolen by government was spent as usefully as statists insist, the US would be in crisis right now. Frustratingly for them, life is going on. So those who - in statist fantasy world - serve 'the people' are showing up to work unpaid to ensure the people can't enjoy 'their property'.