Reader Ian emailed me a question and was kind enough to hope it would provoke a post. It has. His email was long but the crux of it was this;
Why do you think commentators are so keen to present the "anti-vax" side as deranged?
The entire public debate seems to be "they work" so "you should take it" and if not you are an idiot who wishes harm on others.
It's a good question. I won't debate the pros and cons of the various vaccines, but will try to analyse why rational debate is so difficult. I have never been shy of expressing my views but even I have gone quiet during COVID.
My first thought is that it's a function of how un-nuanced public discussions have become. Many now conduct political debate at a comic book level. If your opponent is evil rather than misguided, your response is more severe. Ian and I thought about the vaccines and took different decisions but think no less of each other for that. If we functioned quasi-religiously, we'd cry heretic at each other and threaten hellfire.
It reminds me of an old post called Credo in which I lamented my loss of faith. As a first-generation atheist, I am still functionally Christian. I feel guilty if I break one of the commandments, even though I don't believe they came from God. The fully godless however tend to seek substitutes. Religion fills some need in our psyche and when it's gone we are vulnerable to other nonsenses-on-stilts. As Chesterton said;
When a man stops believing in God, he doesn't then believe in nothing, he believes anything"
Whatever the rights and wrongs of any given issue; political, societal or economic, it cannot be good if they can't be discussed. Traditional Marxism, for all its faults, was (at least in Western academia) a genuine attempt to analyse social and economic interactions rationally. Its thesis was finally discredited when the fall of the Berlin Wall was followed by a rapid and undeniable improvement in the lives of Eastern Europeans. Free markets delivered in a few short years what had been denied for decades and Marxism (as Marx understood it) died out in sane circles.
Yet its former adherents did not return to the free market fold. Like those atheists they sought a new faith that met their same needs. There is a certain type of human – aspirant alphas we might call them – who will not accept the rewards and prestige that the market offers their skills, endeavours, risk-taking and luck. They yearn – whatever the consequences – for a new order that ranks them higher. My MP had no power or prestige as a sociology lecturer in a crappy ex-Polytechnic. Her life quest – camouflaged by screeds of turgid prose – is for a new order than rates her as highly as Bill Gates.
Denied the old Marxism as an intellectual excuse for their aspirations, these types have constructed others. They had already been doing it for some time because, while they were still pretending the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact were defamed paradises, the proletariat in the West was rejecting their ideas. They had long sought new justifications for revolution and targeted new revolutionaries. Because, let's face it, the marshmallows of academia are never going to man the barricades themselves.
Different races and sexes, heterosexuals and homosexuals, the able and the disabled; all these and more "identity groups" were to be herded into opposing camps and incited to mutual hatred. Why? For the same old reason. To create problems that only an almighty state staffed by a clerisy of aspirant alphas could "solve".
It's not working so far. We rub along nicely for the most part. To the extent there's significant hatred it's mostly what they've cynically generated. They are going to fail again, but like their classically-Marxist predecessors they are going to do it slowly while ending a lot of lives prematurely and making the remaining ones poorer in every sense.
The main cost of their ideology at present is its intensification of divisions in debate. Their reduction of everything to simplistic binaries has crippled thought in the home of the Enlightenment. Whether talking about issues that affect every family (like the response to COVID) or recherché stuff like transgenderism, it's always now "the righteous" versus "the heretics". A crypto-religious fervour has people berating their families and friends when all should be focusing with calm, scientific rationality on the best way to preserve/improve the most lives.
I hope Ian can forgive his angry friends one day. In the middle of a witch-hunt, it's safer to cry "witch" than deny witchcraft exists. When I look back on my own conduct, I fear I shall not be proud. No I didn't cry "witch", but I lurked in the background trying not to be noticed while HM Government committed democide and HM Opposition bemoaned their lack of sufficient enthusiasm. I had no appetite to have "die, heretic!" screamed at me. Meanwhile, innocents died in care homes, of untreated cancer or heart disease or suicide. No I didn't take those lives, but I didn't save any either.
Let's hope the democides in the state apparatus – and friends who screamed "heretic" at their behest – have similar moments of self-reflection. Let's hope we see through the incitement to hatred that permeates critical race theory and its sister-doctrines and embrace the Age of Reason again.
I am reading an excellent book at the moment, "Factfulness" by Hans Rosling. I remember enjoying this, his first, fantastic TED talk in which he turned statistics into entertainment to great effect.
I am enjoying the book and recommend it to you. I have already taken two graphs from it and put them on my smartphone so that I can produce them at a moment's notice. They are updated versions of the amazing "bubble graph" with which he opened that famous talk. They refute most of the assumptions of my friends when they talk about the world and what should be done to make it better.
Here is global life expectancy in 1965. The developing world has "big families and many children die".
Here is the same graph from the latest figures, in 2017. All Rosling's statistics are from sources (the UN, the WHO, national statistical agencies) that people on the Left usually choose to believe. He was an expert in his field and I trust him, even if I don't always trust them.
It's a different world, but our public policy on such matters as overseas aid is still based on the first graph. Why? because the "facts" most deeply seated in our minds are the ones passed on to us by our parents and teachers. We in "the West" (a concept with which Rosling has a lot of fun in the book) behave, with squirearchical condescension, as if the world was still that way. Worse, we cling to the binary; us vs them, black vs white, rich vs poor, views of the world that the first of the graphs coloured, but which the two of them – taken together - disprove.
We cling to our familiar world-view not just because we don't see new data but because we like simple patterns; ideally with binary choices. We survived in the wild as early humans by making – and instantly acting upon – rapid and necessarily crude evaluations of our surroundings. Fight or flight depended upon an immediate decision based on imperfect data often acquired from peripheral vision. That's why we like our action movies, with unblemished heroes and irredeemable villains. Simple binary choices are what we are comfortable with – and the more important and frightening the choice – the more we crave them. That may be the reason for the appeal of political ideologies based on struggles between opposing forces. It may be why in the present pandemic we have formed into two rival factions between freedom and safety. That kind of dialectic appeals to us.
On that same theme, to the extent it doesn't confirm our ideological stances, we tend to ignore new data This is the lethal "confirmation bias" that prevents intelligent discussion and makes us cling to the apron strings of the familiar ideas we grew up with. I have changed my mind a few times in my life. I have been a member of left, centre, right and liberal parties before I reached my present view that they're all parasites on the make and to be avoided like lepers. That may suggest more open-mindedness than the average, but I don't delude myself. It only involves a few extraordinary moments of my life. Most of the time, I cherry-picked the available data to support my current thinking just like most people. If I am honest, when my mind did change, it was not as a result of study or academic debate. It happened because of personal experiences that so shook me up as to cause me to read different books and listen to different experts. The change of heart came before the change of mind. The new reading then came in search of academic underpinnings for my new view. I may worship at Reason's altar, but I am as unworthy as any.
Child mortality and life expectancy are good, reliable indices of human progress. Judged by those indices, the world is unarguably a better place than it was in 1965. The old West got richer during this period but that didn't stop the Developing World from living up to a name originally given to it, let's be honest, as a euphemism. In fact, it has advanced relatively faster. Given the low base from which its people started, those advances have also meant much more to them than ours have to us. Conversely the pie-slicing, economic illiterates among us like President Trump are wrong to believe that the developing world could only get richer by impoverishing us. All those newly-rich Chinese did not pick our pockets and we don't need to pick theirs. We can all get richer by delivering the goods and services to each other that we are best-placed to supply. Adam Smith is still right.
We get richer either by having more money with which to buy more things, leisure or experiences or by them becoming cheaper so that the same money buys more. We can also get richer by having stuff that our predecessors couldn't have at any price. If (God forbid) forced to choose between them, my smartphone is now probably more valuable to me than my beloved car. Yet my grandfather never heard of such a thing and my father still doesn't value it at all. To go further back, King Henry VIII considered himself one of the wealthiest men in the world, despite having fewer material goods, leisure, healthcare facilities, cultural opportunities and scope for travel than a poor person on benefits in his Kingdom today.
We are all getting richer by combinations of all those things and more but the point is we are getting richer and our world is getting better. The dark, Guardian- or NYT-reader narrative in which the world is becoming a steadily nastier and more divided place is both stupid and malicious. At some level they must know their narrative is false. They advance it not for the noble reasons they state but because it justifies political changes that will give them more power.
We must therefore try to get past what people say they want politically and judge them by the fruits of what they actually do. Calling yourself "anti-fascist", for example, counts for nothing. It's how you would behave that counts. Asking me to support "antifa" because of what they named their movement is like calling a bullet "nourishment" and asking me to expect a tasty meal when you shoot me. Handsome is as handsome does and all else is what a late Polish friend called – when faced with biz-speak – "piramidalna bzdura!" (a great pyramid of shit).
I miss Hans Rosling and I am glad he left us this book. I don't know what his politics were and I don't need to care because, whatever they were, he did good science well. He dedicated his last years to writing this book in an attempt to finish his life's work, which was "...to show more people, more convincingly, that their opinions were no more than unsubstantiated feelings." If we can all read it, and then wrench ourselves away from exchanging those "unsubstantiated feelings" nastily with each other on Twitter and elsewhere, perhaps we can help Humanity do even better?
I have not blogged about Coronavirus. Why? Because I have no relevant scientific knowledge or skill and this is a scientific problem, right? Everyone says so. Epidemiology is certainly not my subject and humility (not always my strong suit, to be honest) is definitely in order. So I have been all ears and no mouth. Thank goodness there are people who don't find epidemiology as boring as I do. I doubt I'd enjoy their company, to be honest, but right now I am ready and willing to love them.
From the outset, I worried that the governments of the world were caught up in a kind of mass hysteria. Leaving aside the totalitarian states (including the one whose vicious incompetence has probably given the world this learning opportunity) the response of the world's democracies has been fascinating. Firstly, our leaders played it down. It was just another flu. Then they realised they faced something that might kill voters on a scale comparable to Spanish flu, leaving grieving relatives disinclined to vote for them again. They acted on scientific advice to implement some sensible control measures. So far, so reasonable.
Then the press asked (as is its job) if the measures were enough. Discussion about how far the measures should go became a pissing contest and hysteria mounted. Opposition parties everywhere suggested they would (of course) do more and better. Popular pressure built until the current draconian measures were implemented. Even libertarians like me can't just blame the vicious statists here – our fellow-citizens cried out to be roughly dominated like the submissives they apparently are.
Governments anxious to be seen to "do something" (the curse of democratic politicians everywhere) made grand dramatic gestures – building hospitals in days that would normally have taken years. To hell with whether they were needed or not (the much bruited London Nightingale reportedly has just 19 patients) Look! We are doing stuff. Stuff you could never do yourselves!! The State and its hordes are heroes.
Now we face the risk of the worst economic crisis in centuries. Even citizens of those countries whose leaders did not stampede with the global panicked herd of brute beasts (h/t Sweden, Iceland and Portugal) will be badly affected by what is happening now. Those of us retired and living on our investments face ruin. Those earning a living by selling their labour face it too.
I have read what I can on the subject, noted the conflicting opinions, been amused by the fact that they are coloured by personal animosities between the scientists, and tweeted links to those writings on the subject that made sense to me. So what have I learned? Not much science, to be honest. Just that the laws of economics – a science every bit as imperfect as epidemiology – don't go away and nor do political divisions.
Even that learning is doubtful, affected as it no doubt is by my confirmation bias. The internet is awash with people (at times including me) using the greatest information resource in human history to prospect for nuggets of information that "prove" their opinions to be true. I try to be alert to that bias, but I must acknowledge that it exists. It draws my eye to every example of entrepreneurs developing solutions to the threat of the virus and every state agent behaving like a thug. The confirmation biases of Leftists, on the other hand, draw their eyes to noble agents of the heroic state solving problems and grasping capitalists profiting from tragedy.
Human knowledge in science advances, it seems, along as crazy a zigzag path as in other fields. Every new fact is seized upon to confirm views that are hard to shift. Extremely powerful forces are required to change human minds. The mind of Professor Neil Ferguson, for example, does not appear to have been much changed by his own scientific failures. In 2005 The Guardian ran this story;
Last month Neil Ferguson, a professor of mathematical biology at Imperial College London, told Guardian Unlimited that up to 200 million people could be killed. "Around 40 million people died in 1918 Spanish flu outbreak," said Prof Ferguson. "There are six times more people on the planet now so you could scale it up to around 200 million people probably."
Actually fewer than 500 people worldwide died. Amazingly the experience of being so bone-crushingly wrong does not seem to have impacted Professor Ferguson's self-esteem at all. There is something admirable in that. Being wrong once, doesn't mean you always will be any more than winning one bet guarantees you'll win the next. That it hasn't disinclined HM Government to take his prophecies of doom with a pinch of salt however, is not admirable at all.
What have have learned is that, as Bastiat told us long ago, problems arise when people prioritise the seen over the unseen. Professor Ferguson and his clients in government are not setting out to hurt anyone. I accept their sincere attempt to try to save lives. Their extreme focus on one seen epidemiological issue however may well cost more lives than they save when all the unseen issues they are ignoring emerge. As a commenter on this article at the Ludwig von Mises Centre's site said;
“If we want to stop traffic fatalities, we could ban cars. That’s a solution that would ‘work’. But it only ‘works’ if our sole benchmark is the number of traffic fatalities. What about liberty, moral agency and economic rights?”
Exactly. Stay safe, gentle readers, as no doubt everyone is advising you, but also stay calm. This too will pass and when one day we are looking back at it, I predict only that it will prove to have been a very different story than it seems at present. In the meantime, I commend you to this blog for a different perspective.
My conventional-thinking, main-stream media reliant friends sneer at the blogosphere; dismissing it all as "fake news". Yet at present they are furiously emailing, Facebooking, Whatsapping and Tweeting coronavirus disinformation by the shedload. Clicking on and deleting all this "fake news" from them affords me some amusement in a dark time. I do worry about the effect on the nation's morale however.
Humans didn't survive to become this planet's dominant species for lack of risk-aversion. We take in our stride the risks we are used to (e.g. driving) without worrying about the death rate but our instinctive response to novel risks is to over-react. Ex abundenti cautela, as lawyers like to say when lawyering an issue to death at great expense.
What scientific knowledge I have is – at best – that of a dilettante. It was gleaned from the basics I learned at school before dropping every science I could at the first opportunity. That has been supplemented by casual reading of science articles in generalist newspapers and magazines. Quite a lot of it came from my boyhood reading of super hero and sci-fi comics, so I can tell you more about the properties of Kryptonite than of any virus. So, unlike my friends on social media, I shall not be commenting on the medical risk. I have nothing to add and anything I do say will change nothing, so mum's the word. Actually, those theorising without data or expertise would do better (if they're lucky enough still to have her) to use that time to call their mum.
The only observations I have in the context of the present pandemic are to do with economics and political history.
Most economics errors (like the "broken window fallacy" first explained by Frederic Bastiat) stem from prioritising a seen effect over the unseen ones. In an emergency like the present one, governments – eager to be seen to "do something" – are likely to act forcefully on the seen economic effects of the crisis, while ignoring the unseen. Keeping their heads while all around are losing theirs and blaming it on them is hard for politicians at the best of times. Tending to narcissism or sociopathy anyway, they have less difficulty than the rest of us in seeing themselves as saviours.
Classical Liberals and the dryer kinds of Conservative feel threatened in such crises because we seem to lack the bold answers offered by authoritarian statists. Even Britain's classically-liberal Prime Minister, who is otherwise acquitting himself quite well in the circumstances, has promised state intervention on a scale and at a cost that might give Jeremy Corbyn or Bernie Sanders pause for thought. I predict that ten years from now it will be clear in retrospect that government actions to "save" the economy did more harm than good – even without taking into account the way such measures are bound to be gamed. Were I still practising law, I would be strategically positioning my clients under every tap of government aid that is about to be turned on. The lawyers, accountants and lobbyists of the big corporations will be doing just that.
As to political history, it teaches us that authoritarians love the opportunities presented by a crisis. I scoff at the conspiracy theories poisoning minds on the internet. No government (not even the monstrous Chinese regime) would cause such a pandemic on purpose, but all of them will seize the opportunity it presents to expand their power. Income Tax in Britain was introduced as an emergency measure to fund the Napoleonic War. Napoleon is no longer a threat, but still the tax bills keep on coming.
Any emergency measure should expire. If it doesn't, it's a fraud. Emergency laws (actually, I would argue all statute laws) should have "sunset clauses" so they expire unless specifically renewed. Parliamentary scrutiny is essential and any reader who has the ear of his or her MP should press these points home. As for the rest of us, let's just listen to the credible advice on offer, take what precautions we can and be kind to each other – especially the elderly and other vulnerable people who are most at risk. I hope all my gentle readers will come out of this pandemic unscathed. Here's wishing us all luck.
It was formed as a Three Musketeers style mutual defence alliance. An attack on one was to be treated as an attack on all. The anticipated attack was from the Soviet Union. NATO, with its US led military command based in Brussels, was the key international infrastructure on the Western side of the Cold War — mirrored orcishly by the Warsaw Pact.
The Warsaw Pact is gone. So is the Soviet Union. The Cold War, pace the traitors of our academia — is won. The Berlin Wall fell and the question Sir Keith Joseph asked my student union long ago has been answered;
if the Berlin Wall were to be taken down, which way would the human tide flow?
The world changed — unexpectedly and very much for the better — and my delightful career helping clients to rebuild post-socialist Eastern Europe was made possible. To what would have been the amazement of my young self, most of my friends are citizens of Warsaw Pact countries.
So why does NATO still exist?
The dismal science teaches us to distinguish between peoples’ stated preferences (often virtue-signalling lies) and their revealed preferences (how they spend their money). All NATO members say they believe in the alliance. Only four — the USA, the UK, Poland and Greece — meet their obligation to contribute more than 2% of their GDP. If you’re wondering, Greece has only accidentally met that target because of the catastrophic fall in its GDP.
Opinion polls and my own experience of the bitter, sneering anti-Americanism of my otherwise delightful continental chums suggest that as usual the revealed preference is the truth. The Germans and French would not go to war in defence of America or Britain if we were attacked. Britain was attacked, when the Falklands were invaded, and our “allies” and “friends” sold arms to our enemies and gave them all kinds of moral support. Remember the Welsh Guards (my grandfather’s old regiment) massacred by Exocets fired from Mirages? The USA has often gone to war since the alliance was formed and mostly only British warriors fought, died or were injured alongside theirs.
Germany, France and their freeloading friends have quite simply been taking the piss from the outset. They take the Americans (and us Inselaffen and rosbifs) for mugs. They plot to form an EU Army and regret that Brexit means they won’t be able to continue to rely on English-speakers as their cannon-fodder.
The continued existence of NATO has fuelled the epic paranoia of Russia’s military/intelligence apparatus. Desperate not to be decommissioned the generals and chekists have claimed that “the West” they grew up opposing is intrinsically hostile — rather than, in truth, insultingly indifferent — to Mother Russia. Their only “proof“ of this nonsense was NATO
During my 7 years living and working in Moscow I heard well-educated, cultured, principled Russians ask again and again what the hell we were up to in keeping it. I answered airily that all bureaucracies were self-serving and that NATO’s staff (like the chekists) naturally preferred repurposing to redundancy. I was probably right but morally not nearly right enough. Our useless political class had a duty to look past such rent-seeking and — for once — to do the right thing.
They are Dr Frankenstein to Putin’s monster.
NATO is yet another of many examples of the truism that, once a bureaucracy acquires a competence, it will never disband. It continues because it can. The political and economic ills that drove the creation of what is now called the EU have long since faded into history. But the plump parasites of its apparatus have repeatedly repurposed it. Britain is a paradise of social, ethnic and sexual equality compared to the days when the precursors of the Equalities Commission were formed but its staff will find imaginary evils by the thousand before they’ll return to productive labour. Marx would gasp at the generosity of Britain’s welfare state and marvel at the lifestyle of even the poorest Brit and yet trivial micro aggressions are enough to sustain the revolutionary fervour of Marxist academics desperate to live as idly and unproductively as the man himself.
NATO and these other examples remind me of the pre-reformation medieval church. Their stated objectives sound Godly and noble but their true purpose is to keep a bloated priesthood in luxury. Am I wrong? As always, please put me right, gentles all.
I spent today at this seminar co-hosted by the Ayn Rand Institute and the Ayn Rand Centre UK. I am not myself an objectivist but the speakers and the subjects were appealing. It was an interesting afternoon beginning with Yaron Brook’s presentation on the long-standing historic links between anti-capitalism and anti-semitism, going all the way back to Marx himself.
There followed a panel session on The Nanny State: Could Labour Outdo the Tories? featuring Douglas Carswell, Chris Snowdon, Lucy Harris and the indefatigable Dr Brook (who contributed at length to every session except the last).
Chris Snowden said he wished, as someone who opposed both Socialism and the Nanny State, that he could simply link the two. He then presented a sadly convincing case that, whatever other damage a Labour government might do, it was unlikely to be worse than the “Conservatives” in terms of interfering in our personal lifestyle and health choices. There is even a chance that it may be genuinely more liberal on the issue of soft drugs.
Lucy Harris, MEP for The Brexit Party and founder of Leavers of Britain said that to call the phenomenon "Nanny" statism is too kind. It’s not a nanny it’s a boss. Dr Brook said that the world needed bosses and that such people are actually tyrants. Lucy thought that the real problem in both the EU and the UK in this respect is Quangoism. I think she's right. Far too many nanny staters are not driven by genuine concern for our welfare. They are rent-seekers making a good living from creating jobs for themselves telling us all how to live. Lucy said she regularly re-reads Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier, which perfectly sums up the attitude – veering between "sniggering superiority" and contempt – of middle class socialists for the working people they profess to serve. I confess I haven't read that since my schooldays. I must do so again!
Douglas Carswell was the most optimistic member of the panel. He believes that Brexit has been a game changer in that voters will never take our incompetent rulers seriously again. He thinks social media has also made it permanently impossible for them to set the national agenda and steer debate as they always have. I think he underestimates the kind of sociopath attracted to the political life, but I hope I am wrong.
The next panel was called Can We Disagree? Cultural and Legal attacks on Diversity of Speech and the speakers were Toby Young, Yaron Brook, young Twitter sensation, Soutiam Goodarzi — @Soutiam21 — and Dr Brook again.
Toby Young spoke of a friend's experience in appearing on the BBC's "Question Time" show in Birmingham at the time Muslim parents were protesting outside a school about the "sex education" programme which contradicted their conservative beliefs. An audience member had asked the panelists simply to state whether they sided with the parents or the school authorities. All but his friend said emphatically they sided with the school. At dinner afterwards, all admitted to his friend that they did sympathise with the parents but had been afraid to say so for fear of being "monstered" by the "woke" lobby. He also spoke about the dishonest way in which the "no platform" types allege the risk of physical harm (e.g. "hate crimes") and psychological harm from mere speech. He pointed out that the much-bruited claims of a rise in hate crimes after the Brexit Referendum didn't show up in the statistics and that there was simply no evidence of psychological harm from speech.
He is planning to launch a Free Speech Union to support students, academics and others facing sanctions for speech and invited anyone interested in helping out in its formation to email him at email@example.com.
Dr Brook said that successive governments have failed in their key duty to protect free speech against violence. The problem began with Salman Rushdie's book The Satanic Verses. Governments did nothing to defend him. Then no newspaper in the US was prepared to publish the Mohammed cartoons from a Danish newspaper that triggered Islamist violence. He didn't blame the press because it was very clear the US Government wouldn’t defend them against the violent reactions they very reasonably feared. The current US Government, for all its bluster, won’t defend people against antifa violence either. He described the "woke" extremists against free speech as having a "Pre-enlightenment attitude". In those days the medieval church defined the range of acceptable truths that could be discussed. Now it is leftist academics who define it, but the outcome is the same.
All panelists agreed that it was necessary to fight back if freedom of speech is not to be lost. Soutiam’s youthful confidence was remarkable. She says the behaviour of Britain's university authorities in relation to suppression of free speech is more dangerous that that of government but she’s prepared to take them on. I am not sure if she's fearless or naive and I hope her prospects are not damaged by her courage. I weighed in during Q&A with a couple of examples from my own experience of just how lost Britain's universities are to liberty.
The final session was on People and Profits: Who Would Benefit From the End of the City? The speakers were George Grigoropoulos and Andrew Boff. George pointed out that Conservatives have, since Thatcher (whose tenure he described as “a blip in the history of regulation”) been responsible for a massive increase in financial sector regulation. Labour is not blameless but has not been historically any worse.
He said the only real difference has been in “the intensity of application of the same principles and assumptions” —namely, that risk can be regulated away (it can’t) and that regulators are inherently wise (they're not). He pointed out that it takes 200 full time employees per bank to comply just with the Basel III regime. For the whole EU that’s over 75,000 expensive staff taken out of production to collect and submit data to regulators he doubts are even capable of analysing it. He highlighted the moral jeopardy inherent in such detailed risk management regimes. Instead of actually assessing risk, banks are “ticking regulatory boxes”. When (inevitably) some unforeseen risk causes a crisis, they will line up to be bailed out, saying “we did what you said this isn’t our fault”.
Andrew’s presentation was more party political. He accepted that his party’s Theresa May had been the worst PM in living memory but said Corbyn and McDonnell were “lost to reason” and would make her seem good by comparison.
It’s always good to be reminded that the routine idiocies of our political class are neither unnoticed nor unopposed. The rest of the audience members were mostly very young reminding me that, despite what one hears, not all our young people are submissive to the busybody state.
I have left instructions that Paul Simon’s song “the Boxer” should be played at my funeral. Apart from the bit about “the whores on Seventh Avenue” I think it’s a good broad brush account of how my life has felt to me. It contains remarkable wisdom in the line;
A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.
That a 16 year old Jewish kid from Queenswas wise enough to know that still surprises me. I first heard the line when I was about that age myself and it should have been a helpful gift, but I was never able to internalise it usefully. I only ever remembered it too late; when my desire to believe something had led me astray.
One of my daughters once told someone “People have Dad wrong. He’s not a cynic. He’s a disappointed idealist.”Time after time I have trusted when I shouldn’t and ventured where angels fear to tread because I was not as wise as young Mr. Simon. The will-o-the-wisps of my hopes and dreams led me through Life's swamp. I’ve been lucky and have no complaints. My regrets, such as they are. are actually about my more cautious moments. Inspirational hopes and dreams lead men where dry calculation never would and – up to a point – that may be a good thing.
in my brief career in student politics, I heard wise old sorts in the Conservative Party say things like “the facts of life are Tory” and “Tory at 20, you have no heart. Labour at 30, you have no brain.” Slightly advanced by Ricky Tomlinson*, my own trajectory confirmed the latter at least. My career as a business lawyer certainly confirmed the former — at least when the Tory Party was still Conservative and based its policies on the facts of economic life.
So it’s not surprising that wave after wave of youngsters falls naively for the puffery of the snake oil salesmen of the left. Why, however, are there mature individuals who can’t see what poison Socialism is?
Partly it can be accounted for by the wisdom of the young Paul Simon. No-one wants to hear that the "facts of life are Tory" – especially if life is not going well for them personally. If the market values your labour less than you do yourself, it's obviously easier to believe that the market is wrong than to do something about improving your value to it. If you've trained for a dead industry, it's easier to demand that the state keeps it moving – zombie like – than to accept your mistake and retrain. Yet there is so much evidence that Socialism doesn't work. More than half of mankind lived under Socialist planned economies in the 20th Century. The empirical results of this monstrous experiment were uniformly terrible. Tens of millions died. Billions were impoverished economically, morally and in terms of liberty.
This is recent history. Many of the people who lived through it are still alive. As this article shows, (behind a pay-wall but you can still read a couple of articles a month for free) young people who listened to their family's experiences learned the ideological lessons. They did so even when they belonged to identity groups courted by the left in its attempt to foment divisions and hatreds to be "resolved" by their panacea; state violence to constrain free choice and free expression.
My childhood was awash with my family’s forlorn recollections about the hardships they endured under communism in Poland: the chronic scarcity of food, medicine and other basic necessities; outright hostility to basic liberties. And if we didn’t like it, too bad: they killed anyone who tried to leave.
Yet there are leftists in Poland today. Indeed there are statist authoritarians of both right and left who believe (though their grandparents are there to tell them otherwise) that an inexplicably virtuous state directing the masses will make them more moral, more patriotic and more productive than they would choose to be themselves. It would be funny if it were not so damned tragic. I lived in Poland from 1992 to 2003 and delighted in the fact that I met no-one, ever, who was inclined to believe such nonsense. In what is, perhaps, another example of my "hearing what I wanted to hear and disregarding the rest", I told myself the Polish nation was inoculated forever against the virus of statism. I was wrong. The ideological hog cycle may be even shorter than the economic one.
Confirmation bias is another explanation of people's ability to ignore evidence. We are seeing it daily in the never-ending national shouting match over Brexit. Every twist and turn just leads each side to exclaim "See! I told you so!!" It is all (even for someone so enthusiastically anti-EU that his late wife once demanded he make a New Year's resolution to shut up about it for 12 months) so damned boring that I have stopped watching the news or reading my daily newspaper.
Not too long ago, we saw the British Left praise Hugo Chavez's socialist experiment in Venezuela as an example to us all. Now it has ended, as all previous experiments did, in shortages, hardship and oppression, the very same people "hear what they want to hear and disregard the rest". It wasn't socialism after all. Mistakes were made. There was external interference by agents of capitalism. There was sabotage. All the excuses, in fact, that the Stalinists used to explain the stubborn divergence of tractor production statistics from reality.
It seems that every fact is Janus-faced to those informed by ideology or faith. The closest the left has come to acknowledging this was in developing the doctrine of post-modernism, This denies the very existence of truth and argues that all "facts" are mere social "constructs" shaped by the class, ethnic or other identity of the people positing them. How that can be true, when there is no "truth" is a question for longer-lived humans than I expect to be. I need time to have some more fun before I die, thank you very much.
Jeremy Bentham, perhaps the most pragmatic of all English philosophers, is said to have died regretting the great error of his life. which was to assume that it was only necessary to show Man what was right in order for him to embrace it. We who aspire to be rational must learn not to despair when Man cleaves to the irrational. In winning people over to the cause of Reason we must work with, and not merely scorn, their foibles. Were any religious people persuaded to renounce their faith by the late, great Christopher Hitchens' (probably correct) characterisation of their views as the product of "wishful thinking" for example? I have a close friend who is religious and, when I fear he is making a mistake, I rack my brain for the teachings of my long-ago Sunday school to construct a theological argument for him to act differently. Sometimes it works – at least a little better than telling him his faith is "wishful thinking" would! I care about him enough to shape my arguments to his beliefs when I want to help him. Perhaps I should extend that courtesy to others? How far though can I extend a courtesy that costs little when dealing with a kind and (mostly) rational man before I am respecting the monstrous views of barbarians?
If there is no Truth, life is just a pointless frolic. Yet, as Professor Peterson tells us convincingly in his books and videos, all the research suggests that the search for meaning is what makes us happy, not (pace the Founding Fathers) "the pursuit of happiness" per se. We don't need there to be Truth or Meaning to be happy, but we do need to be looking for both. Post-modernism is quite literally a counsel of despair and I suspect is only meant to dispirit most of us into inactivity while its hypocritical proponents get on with their quest to rule the world.
Where, gentle reader, do you stand? Is there truth? Should it be sought? Can it be found? To the extent that it requires others to accept it in order to improve the world, how best can one persuade them?
*In the linked post, I said I couldn't be sure that it was Tomlinson. My father has since read that post and confirmed that it was.
I am ideologically attracted to any alternative to fiat currency, which gives far too much power to the state. It's a power that has been ruthlessly exploited to steal (at least that's what it would be called if anyone else did it) from savers, investors and lenders by debasing currency through inflation. As Professor Philip Booth points out in the introduction to this book, the current pound coin when introduced purchased just 20% more than the "threepenny bit" from 1937 that it resembled. Under the "wise stewardship" of HM Government, the pound sterling has lost 98% of its value over the last century. The good old greenback that replaced it as the world's reserve currency has lost 85% of its value since 1971!
These losses are not caused by stupidity, but malice. Abandoning the gold standard and moving to currencies backed only by trust in the state gave untrustworthy states (that is to say all of them) the chance to tax secretly via inflation. So I would just love there to be a private alternative.
Currency serves three purposes. It's a means of exchange, a store of value and a unit of accounting. Historically it was either made of or linked to a substance (like gold or silver) that had an intrinsic value and a limited supply. Professor Kevin Dowd does a good job in this little monograph of explaining both how private currencies, including such cryptocurrencies as Bitcoin, work and why governments hate them so much.
He tells the story of two alternatives to the US dollar introduced by businessmen there; 'the Liberty Dollar" and "e-Gold". The Liberty Dollar was an actual coin (technically a medallion, because it didn't meet the legal definition of coinage) that was denominated in dollars and periodically revalued against them. People could exchange them for goods, hold them as a more reliable store of value because they were made of silver or gold, but couldn't really account in them because the relevant authorities wouldn't recognise them. The inventor, one Bernard von NotHaus, was trying to make a point about the US Government's abuse of its powers by providing a private, voluntary barter currency as an alternative. Liberty Dollars were not forgeries. They didn't pretend to be dollars. Indeed the whole point of them was that they were NOT dollars. They were something not merely different, but in key respects better.
By the time the US authorities stamped out the scheme and secured a 22 years sentence (vastly reduced on appeal) for Bernard, the people who held Liberty Dollars ended up richer than if they had held the "real" ones. He had made his point – in practical if not legal terms the authorities were the thieves – but he paid a heavy personal price to do so.
e-Gold went a stage further. Notes were issued against an actual reserve of gold held in London (to be beyond the reach of the US authorities). Doug Jackson, an American libertarian, came up with the idea – again neither to defraud nor even for personal gain – but to make a politico-economic point. Though holders of e-Gold again did better financially than if they had kept the dollars with which they bought it, he met the same fate. As Professor Dowd observes;
If one compares this case with the Liberty Dollar, one immediately notices worrying parallels: two decent businessmen operating out in the open, operating under the rule of law but trying to offer alternative monetary systems in one form or another, and both taken down by government agencies that were arguably operating outside the law themselves and have never been held to account – in essence, the victims of arbitrary government attack.
The ferocity of the government's response in both cases can only really be explained by its fear of citizens getting too close to a dirty secret. Economics is famously dull and few can be bothered to study it. Governments have, by the introduction of fiat currency, been able to hoodwink even quite intelligent citizens. We have accepted inflation as a fact of life (even though there was none for 300 years in the UK until we came off the High Gold Standard) and have somehow failed to connect it with the immorality of government policy. A couple of clever gents had to be "taken down" not for any actual threat they posed to the US dollar, but because their educational projects might just have succeeded in revealing the ethical horror at the heart of the Fed.
Hence Bitcoin, not actually the first cryptocurrency and now only one of many, but so far the best known. The ferocious use of state power to suppress earlier private currencies made it necessary for this new one to be utterly anonymous. Again, the motives were ideologically libertarian.
the designers of cryptocurrency sought to create not just a new currency, but a new anarchist social order
In the words of Wei Dai, the inventor of a Bitcoin predecessor,
the objective is to have a crypto-anarchy in which the government is not temporarily destroyed but permanently forbidden and permanently unnecessary. It's a community where the threat of violence is impotent because violence is impossible, and violence is impossible because its participants cannot be linked to their true names or physical locations.
Bitcoin has succeeded so far because even its inventor is anonymous, known only by the nom de guerre "Satoshi Nakamoto." It is completely decentralised. There is no central authority or organiser whatever. The "coin" is digital and uses public key cryptography. Authorising and tracking of transactions in Bitcoin is monitored by the community collectively. Before a coin changes hands, it is checked by the network to ensure that the user hasn't already spent it. As "Nakamoto" explained on its launch in 2009;
The root problem with conventional currency is all the trust that is required to make it work. The central bank must be trusted not to debase the currency, but the history of fiat currencies is full of breaches of that trust ... A generation ago, multi-user time sharing computer systems had a similar problem ... Users had to rely on password protection to to secure their files, placing trust in the system administrator to keep their information private. Then strong encryption became available to the masses, and trust was no longer required. Data could be secured in a way that was physically impossible to access, no matter for what reason, no matter how good the excuse, no matter what.
It's time we had the same thing for money. With e-currency based on cryptographic proof, without the need to trust a third party middleman, money can be secure and transactions complete.
The other ingenious innovation is the way in which the money supply is limited. This it too technical for me to explain here without re-typing large parts of the book, but if you are interested (and by now I hope you are) you can read the whole thing in PDF format here.
Professor Dowd doesn't think Bitcoin will endure but he is confident that one of its competitors will and he believes it will not be possible for governments to suppress it. Paradoxically, given that the whole purpose of a crypto-currency is to evade state control, the more powerful the oppression, the more valuable it becomes!
A state can be defined as a "regional monopoly of violence" but if Wei Dai's dream of making violence impotent comes true, at least in this respect, it will no longer be of use. As Professor Dowd says;
If the state really wants to get rid of Bitcoin, it should eliminate the state controls that feed it, for example, if the state ended the wars on drugs and terror, reduced taxes, ended policies of financial repression and re-established the privacy of individuals' personal financial information.
We all know, whatever our views on the value of statism, how little any state wants to do that! In the end the value of a functioning crypto-currency beyond the reach of state violence may be to restore honest money in general. That, gentle readers, is a consummation devoutly to be wished.
For the last four years, the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) has held a conference targeted at students under the banner THINK. Despite my age and my not being in formal education, I attended the first in 2015. I felt a bit out of place but enjoyed it thoroughly. In particular, I have been thinking, talking and writing ever since about a speech by the IEA's Director of Education, Dr Stephen Davis about medical advances to extend human life, driverless cars and vertical horticulture.
When I saw that Dambisa Moyo, author of Dead Aid, would speak at this year's event, I signed up to go again. Yesterday morning I went to the Royal Geographical Society in London and, despite the bright sunshine (thank goodness the hall was air conditioned) spent an enjoyable Saturday. Quite apart from the content, I loved being in the company of so many earnest and intelligent young people interested in the key ideas of economic liberty. In my circle of contemporaries, discussion can sometimes be a Pessimism Olympiad driven by an economically-illiterate media and a governing elite whose hostility to liberty is played upon by parasitical, rent-seeking toadies. It was refreshing to be among youngsters full of hope and ambition. Even their naivety is not a bug, but a feature. It will lead them into areas of research that the cynical would dismiss too soon.
The full programme can be seen here. After introductions by the organiser Christiana Stewart-Lockhart (coincidentally a school friend of Miss Paine the Elder, whom I have known since she was a teenager) there was an amusing welcome speech by Mark Littlewood, Director General of the IEA. He referenced the late, great Hans Rosling's Ignorance Survey, which demonstrated that chimpanzees out-perform humans on multiple choice questions about key facts, because (as Rosling said) "Chimps don't watch the evening news". Fake news is not a new phenomenon. Mark quoted Gladstone as saying
Men are apt to mistake the strength of their feeling for the strength of their argument. The heated mind resents the chill touch and relentless scrutiny of logic.
Anyone who has ever attended a political debate in a calm state of mind will recognise the truth of that.
The next presentation was by Tim Harford. His book, Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy, was in the goody bag and I will review it here when I get around to reading it. Given all the other books I picked up yesterday, that might be a while!
He made an interesting point about why the economic future is so hard to predict. As Galbraith said
the only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable
Tim put up a still from the original Bladerunner movie of Rachael, the "replicant" with whom the hero falls in love. He then showed the pay videophone in a bar on which the hero calls her to ask for a date and we all laughed. We often fail to understand that new technologies will not just slot into the familiar world but will change it and us. We also often think the dramatic, expensive innovation is the most important, whereas often it's the simplest and cheapest. While we all think of the invention of the printing press as the disruptive technology that gave us the modern world, he argued the invention of paper was more important. The Chinese circulated many scribe-written books on paper centuries before printing. Had all Gutenberg Bibles been printed on animal hides (as some were) a modest print run of 3,000 copies would have required the slaughter of half a million beasts! It wasn't the press that made mass literacy possible, but a cheap medium on which to print.
He gave several examples of new technologies that had no marked effect on productivity when first introduced. Decades later, when people worked out their possibilities, the real change came. Replacing the huge steam engine that drove a 19th Century factory with an electric one had only marginal effects at first in the US. Many industrialists that retained their old steamers probably thought themselves wise not to waste capital. It was only when the government cut off the supply of cheap labour by restricting immigration that manufacturers realised they could put small engines on every workbench to maximise productivity. Tim suggested we may see similar effects with the "IKEA-isation of solar power", for example, as the technology becomes "cheap enough to change the world."
Roger Bootle then gave us his "positive view of Post-Brexit Britain". As I am always trying to explain to friends who oppose it, Brexit doesn't guarantee anything good or bad. It only brings the levers of policy-making back onshore. If Corbyn's Labour wins the next election, our post-Brexit future will be dire. If future governments decide to regulate commerce in the same way as the EU or worse, then it will also be dire. The positive is merely that we now have the option to aim for freer trade, less discriminatory immigration that allows talent from anywhere in the world to come to our shores and more economic and social liberty. He believes, as do I, that this is more likely outside the EU, but we can – and may – screw up our own future. There are no guarantees. After all, we have often screwed things up for ourselves in the past.
As evidence of the EU's propensity to screw up, he cited "the greatest self-inflicted wound in all of economic history", the Euro. Since its introduction, the UK's economy has grown 40%, versus results in the Eurozone ranging from 30% growth in Germany (in whose interests it was designed) through economic decline in Italy to catastrophe in Greece. By allowing Germany to run huge trade surpluses without its currency rising in value, it has disturbed the balance of international trade and inflicted pain on every other EU state. The Euro is one of the main reasons for the "populism" that has given us not just Brexit but Trump, Orban, PiS in Poland etc. The gains of globalisation are now under threat because of a piece of political idiocy from France and Germany.
He urged his audience to push back against the myth that the EU promotes freer trade. It is in fact a protectionist customs union, with over 1000 tariffs; 12 for coffee alone. I have long argued that it is a racist institution because, as he said, the tariffs are structured to reduce competition from the Third World. For example they penalise coffee-producers who try to add value by processing their beans instead of just selling them as good little peasant farmers to the First World. The massive corporate lobbying business in Brussels (of which the pan-European law firm in which I used to be a partner was part) is there to ensure the interests of European corporations (and rich white Europeans like the French and German partners in my old firm with hobby farms to exploit the CAP) are protected, while Asian and African farmers stay dirt poor.
Dr Linda Yueh spoke about her new book The Great Economists: How Their Ideas Can Help us Today. I downloaded a copy as she spoke and will review it when I finish reading it. After lunch the IEA's current media star, Kate Andrews debunked the Gender Pay Gap and told us how delighted she was to walk past the new statue of Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square. Much has been made by militant feminists of the fact that she is the first woman to be honoured in this way, but they are too ignorant to realise that she was a free-marketeer economist and an individualist. She is by far closer to my own economic and political views than any of the men represented there. She would have been contemptuous of their distortion of statistics in a rent-seeking frenzy to keep alive a movement that has served its purpose.
The most difficult part of the day for me was a discussion between Chris Snowdon, Head of Lifestyle Economics at the IEA for whom I have a lot of time and Raj Chande of the Cabinet Office Behavioural Insight Team (aka the Nudge Unit) for whom I have none. Behavioural Psychology is fascinating and useful stuff. I learned a bit about it acting for retailers when I practised law. They use lighting, music, architecture and interior design to play with our minds and encourage us to spend more. In my case, they were never a match for my mother's frugal teachings, but I have smiled when walking around shops to recognise the games they play. I am using it on myself to change my habits for healthier ones and reached my target of losing 40 kg this year yesterday morning. It's all good stuff but both those examples are voluntary transactions. I don't need to go to a supermarket or shopping mall. I didn't (for 60 years) play mind games on myself to control my appetites. It's very different when government – funded by force with our money – uses it on us, its masters. There are now over 150 people in the Nudge Unit and it is exporting its programme of manipulation to the US and Singapore.
Mr Chande talked of the government respecting our liberties, while nudging us to behave "better" (as defined by it) and Chris Snowdon seemed prepared to accept that this was at least better than authoritarian regulation. I beg to differ. Law is the removal of liberty (for good cause one hopes). In our Common Law tradition the legislature is required to justify every new law precisely because it doesn't grant rights, but removes them. The state has become so huge and out of control that the debate each time has become perfunctory and too many laws are made, but at least there is a theoretical possibility of opposing them. There's no such democratic accountability for "nudges". They're tools of policy and wonderfully deniable if they go wrong. They are part of a trend for an over-mighty apparatus to become impatient with democracy and find ways to by-pass it. Over a thousand local electors in my London Borough have submitted protests over a new parking scheme for example, but the Council tried to sneak it through without any discussion at all. Only vigilant citizen journalists using local social media brought it to the attention of that thousand voters and made the bloody Council discuss it. They are clearly peeved at having to do so.
The bouncy, impertinent arrogant Mr Chande reeks of this attitude of contempt by the governors and their rent-seeking hangers-on like him for the people they are meant to serve. He told us that he was "a libertarian until I went into government". Power corrupted him and he's happy about it. I am very much not and for me he can stick his condescension where the sun don't shine.
The most disappointing part of the day was that Dambisa Moyo couldn't make it in person. She spoke to us over a dodgy Skype link from NYC and all credit to her for getting up so early to honour her commitment to speak. After the game-changing radicalism of Dead Aid, I was rather disappointed with just how orthodox her thinking is in other respects. She cited the fake Oxfam statistic of 8 billionaires owning more wealth than half the world's population (debunked later, see below). She expressed concerns over income inequality as a problem in its own right. She spoke of her concerns for the future of democracy because 138 people contributed half the money spent by candidates in the US Presidential Election, without noting that they mostly gave to Clinton and might be repenting the money wasted. She spoke of "populism" and declining turn-outs for elections in the West. In the typical style of the global elite, she seemed to think that was a failing on our part, as electors. We are not reading the right books or listening to the right experts, apparently. I asked her if she couldn't see that, as voters were not being offered real choices, their disillusionment and disengagement might be rational? I said
I have voted religiously all my life but will face a choice at the next election between two parties, both of whom want to steal more of my and my childrens' money and indebt still further my grandchildren yet unborn. Why is it wrong if I reject both?
This was the only question of the day to raise a cheer and a round of applause. She sympathised politely with my concerns but essentially restated her opinion unchanged. I am afraid she is not the ally friends of Liberty might have hoped for.
Tom Standage of The Economist (which has also lurched to the authoritarian left of late, leading me to cancel my subscription of 15+ years) spoke enthusiastically and knowledgeably about self-driving cars (or Autonomous Vehicles - AV's, as they have become known). Moving on from the naive enthusiasm for them expressed at the first Think conference I attended, he has given a lot of thought to their possible social and economic effects. As Galbraith's quote above makes clear, this is a thankless exercise in forecasting. As Tim Harford's talk illustrated such a technology will probably have more effects we don't expect than those we do. He told us that he expects the first driverless zones to be entire city centres like Seattle or entire cities like Singapore. The cars will probably be owned by the cities themselves and therefore integrated into public transport systems. Otherwise robotaxis are likely to continue the trend begun by Uber in taking as many people off buses and trains as they do out of private cars.
He waxed lyrical about the "opportunities" for governments to raise revenue from them. The technology requires them always to know – and signal – exactly where they are, so congestion charges can become far more localised and sophisticated. Surge pricing on the Uber model can control peoples decisions to use them so as to keep traffic flowing smoothly. A "zombie" tax on empty vehicles will stop operators keeping them on the road to avoid parking costs. He went on, chillingly, to outline some of the uses totalitarian governments might make of the technology. Ultimately it will allow government to control who goes where. China is currently engaged in herding a particular ethnic minority into an area which is "effectively an enormous concentration camp", he said and he can visualise a future in which AV cars, buses and trains simply refuse to take them anywhere else. In freer societies, he said it was as likely that AVs would generate "exurbs" (burbs beyond the burbs) by making transport very cheap ($0.70 a mile vs $1.50 for a private car and $2.50 for an Uber) as that they would lead to people living more densely in traffic-free cities. All would depend, as he had the audience repeatedly call out, "on pricing". To be more precise, on the pricing of such externalities through taxation.
In an afternoon session, Dr Vernon Smith – winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics and long associated with the IEA – was interviewed by Professor Philip Booth and fielded questions from the enthusiastic young audience. He was scornful about the very idea of using economics to predict the future and, as you would expect, enthusiastic about the approach that won him his prize; constructing practical experiments to test economic theories. I was very envious of the silver Western-Style bolo tie he wore; a gift from an academic friend when he won his Nobel, which featured the profile of Adam Smith.
The most elevating speech of the day was from Dr Jamie Whyte on "The Economics of Oxfam and Inequality". He thoroughly debunked the Oxfam statistic uncritically quoted by Dambisa Moyo. Yes, 8 billionaires have as much money as 3.5 billion people because those people have nothing. Divide the 8 billionaires' money amongst them and they would get a one-off $118 – hardly world-changing. A more valuable measure, never mentioned by Oxfam and their ilk is that in 1980, 40% of the world's population lived in absolute poverty defined (in today's numbers) as living on less than $2 per day. Only 8% still do. That's arguably the best progress in human history and it is ongoing.
Oxfam's numbers are systematically rigged to produce the most socialism-inducing envy. For example, a graduate of Harvard Law with a debt of $250,000 will feature in that bottom half of the world alleged to be victims of economic injustice, despite possessing a qualification guaranteed to make him rich. He or she is not a member of an impoverished class. He's just at a different stage of his life and will end in the top half or higher. The stats also ignore non-private income and benefits. "If I earn £200 per year and you earn £100, then I am only twice as rich as you if you ignore the value we both receive from the NHS, the state education system etc." Oxfam and other purveyors of fake statistics are in favour of redistribution, but never account for it in their figures.
He argued persuasively that if you look at individual welfare (in the broadest sense) you would be celebrating the achievements of capitalism in raising the living standards of us all. Equality of welfare matters, not equality of income or of wealth. He also gave a name to the phenomenon that led me to quit work at 54 - the diminishing marginal utility of income. I could earn more, but it wouldn't make my life appreciably better, so I stopped. More dramatically (I assure you) if Jeff Bezos lost half his wealth, or if his income halved, tomorrow his life would not be appreciably worse. The money in the hands of billionaires can't buy them more happiness and most of it is deployed in investments to try to make the world a better place for all of us. Do you pity George Soros for his massive income disparity with Jeff Bezos? No you don't because in practice it makes no difference to their welfare as human beings either way. A young questioner suggested that envy about income inequality was natural and that it caused real discomfort. Dr Whyte was too polite to tell him that was a choice. I was too polite to shout out that the problem would go away when his expensive degrees earned him some money.
The conference ended with a closing keynote from Dr Steve Davies of the IEA under the title "Dissecting Corbynomics" but he was in no way partisan. He was equally scathing about Theresa May's weak grasp of economics and said the next election would be (as I expressed it to Dambisa Moyo in my question) a contest between two economic idiocies. That was not particularly uplifting but it did ease me back into my usual world of the Pessimism Olympics.
If you have the chance to go next year, I recommend it. It's a great event, with serious speakers and listening to the young audience talking among themselves during the breaks will kill your pessimism about the future. That's good value for £100.
Having cancelled my longstanding subscription to The Economist, which I used to love but which is now staffed by halfwit conventional thinkers aligned with the Leftist Establishment, I take The Spectator instead. Its Editor, Fraser Nelson, chaired the above event at the Southbank Centre this morning and I turned up because I was invited. I am a real estate man but always focussed on commercial property. Housing was not my thing professionally. In my personal life I take the view that much wrong with Britain can be traced to our weird relationship with it; seeing it as more than shelter to keep the rain off while we are eating, sleeping or watching TV.
It's a key political issue now. The Conservatives fear that if a way can't be found for twice as many young people to become homeowners as are managing it at present a generation of voters will be lost to them. That's probably true. I have heard some seriously stupid suggestions about solving that problem from Tories recently. I was hoping to hear more intelligent ones today*
I did. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Liz Truss MP, said some sensible things. She noted that housing in London now costs 12 times average salary. Given the UK's rising population (the only one in Europe) we must "let our cities off the leash" and allow them to expand. More importantly we must densify them. She noted that infrastructure was key to this and claimed that levels of infrastructure spending (as a proportion of GDP, the dubious way politicians always like to state such figures) is at its highest for 40 years. You could have fooled me but I suppose she would know.
She claimed, mystifyingly, that the Government was "generating more land". I assume she meant it is finding ways to encourage more of it (and Britain is only 8% built upon) into development. She said we need to overcome "the blob of vested interests" and "challenge the mentality of the comfortable" who would rather the fields near their homes stayed open while their children or grandchildren lived like students in grotty house shares.
She warmed the cockles of my old heart with talk of "streamlining the Byzantine planning system" and intervening if local authorities failed to implement their local plans to allow their communities to grow. All well and good and it was cheering to hear sensible talk emanating from the Treasury of all places. The problem is that key solutions are not in the hands of Central Government. Planning is a local competence and public opinion expects it to remain so. If a local council denied a planning permission only to be over-ridden by Whitehall, there would be hell to pay. Local electors (at least the kind inclined to make planning objections) are NIMBIES to a man and woman.
The most depressing work in my career was when I was a young lawyer in Cambridge. It's a beautiful city blighted by hordes of other-worldly academics with too much time on their idle hands. Any application for some sensible modernisation to make their medieval museum vaguely resemble a liveable modern town raises dozens of objections from such types. Some of them used to instruct me to lodge them with the Planning Committee. I vividly remember, for example, trying to stymie a slight increase in the size of the Cambridge bus station to accommodate vehicles that couldn't navigate the narrow medieval street without an increased turning circle. I was instructed to tell the planning committee that the tiny strip of land to be taken from "Parker's Piece" was sacrosanct because "WG Grace used to practice his cricket there".
In the recent local elections the Tories on my manor ran on a slogan of "keep Ealing low-rise". If London is to be more densely developed (and it's one of the least dense capital cities in Europe) then more multi-family housing is needed. Paris raises permitted building heights steadily the further one gets from the centre. At six to eight miles from Nelson's Column, Ealing would (if it were in Paris) be full of high rise buildings. The happy folk who would live here if there were a sensible planning policy, however, don't have a vote. The selfish incumbents who want to delude themselves that their pocket-handkerchief gardens make them heirs to the Romantic Poets do have a vote. They use it to ensure their grandchildren bicker over who nicked the milk in their student-style communal slums.
I am a radical on Town & Country planning as on other economic issues. I would abolish it. To me it is offensive that the value of a man's land is stripped from him by laws that deny him the right to put it to its highest and best use without grovelling to local politicians in thrall to his envious neighbours. If you fear the consequences, pray consider Prague. It's one of the most conserved and protected cities in the world. You can't move a brick without conservation types crawling all over it and – very often – bankrupting you by demanding you alter the scheme you spent millions on designing to make it a replica of some older structure, traces of which they have uncovered in their parasitical zeal. Yet almost nothing that is beautiful about that city dates from the era of regulatory prod-nosing. If a Prague building is worth conserving, it was built by free landowners who would have put any passing busy-bodies to the sword. If you want to see a screwed-up city, consider what was done to Birmingham in the 1960s by a massively empowered City Council.
Land is very valuable in cities and the people who own it are inclined to maximise that value. They may have bad taste or poor architects but some reasonable building regulations would be sufficient to ensure that whatever they build in their own interests is at least better than the sort of crap a planning authority would do.
The panel discussion that followed the Secretary of State's speech was depressing. Clive Betts MP, "token Bolshevik" and chair of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee in the Commons predictably denied that planning was in any way a problem. In fact he wanted more prodnosing because technical standards in the UK construction industry are low (sadly, true) and would be improved by pubic servants regulating and supervising them (sadly as false as Satan's smile).
The people on the panel from the productive sector were steeped enough in the way British planning is run to know that no radical solutions are on offer. They cringed to their public sector masters and blathered about new technologies and creativity and "careful thought". They didn't seem optimistic about technology however, For example, modular systems speed the process of housebuilding in other countries and reduce the cost but on the narrow, winding streets of Britain's cities (especially London) to deliver a house in three truckloads would involve taking down lamp-posts and other street furniture along the route. Because of traffic congestion such deliveries would even then only be permitted in the wee small hours when, of course, the local NIMBIES would raise hell at their sleep being disturbed (and to hell with their grandchildren in bedsits).
Successive governments' consistent failure to maintain and improve infrastructure to meet the needs of a growing population has created a bloody mess. It would take a generation to fix if we began now in earnest. We haven't and we won't. Hence the nervous looks as an enslummed millennial (who let him in?) asked "what can be done now to solve our problems?" The truthful answer (that nobody gave) was that what is needed to solve today's problems should have been done during the last twenty years. And wasn't.
Someone from the Adam Smith Institute suggested the "quick fix" of building on parts of the Green Belt around London based on such criteria as proximity to existing transport links. That would certainly help. The Green Belt was established in a different era for a smaller city and it's time for it to go. The city that has the most parks of any in the world is not going to choke if it expands onto that sacred turf. London is not a city in a bottle. It's surrounded by the lush, green Home Counties. The trouble with the idea (and it might have to be executed for lack of a better one) is that it involves London sprawling, rather than densifying when people increasingly want (and environmental factors suggest that they are right) to live in the cities and not outside them.
Another practical fix is to convert retail to housing. Shopping centres are emptying because of the ever growing online market. The representative of the Federation of Master Builders on the panel reported that the local authorities he works with think their high street shopping needs typically to be reduced "by half" to reflect this trend. But local busybodies will get sentimental about shopping centres they never use, just as they demanded that pubs be kept open whose doors they never darkened. Such people have votes that count disproportionately because of the low turnouts in local elections.
Market forces could sort all this more quickly than you imagine. I watched markets at work in in the post-communist capitals of the former Warsaw Pact, where things were screwed up by decades of Communism on a scale that Londoners could never imagine. My clients fixed things at an incredible pace because they could. The communist bureaucrats were banished to their dachas and there had been no time for the new democracies to build their payrolls. I remember telling an incredulous New York banker worried about where the "banking district" of the new Warsaw would be that "It will be wherever you put your building sunshine". He put one on the best site he could find and, sure enough, his competitors clustered around him.
But real estate is not a free market business in Britain or anywhere else with planning laws. Land worth X without a permission and worth 20 X with is a commodity whose true value is mostly in the public domain. Only investment in infrastructure and courageous deregulation can solve this problem in the medium to long term. Only the shattering of such shibboleths as the Green Belt can do some good in the short term. The current government lacks the political chutzpah, and I can't even blame it. Such are the demographics of its core voters that it would have to be more un-Tory than is survivable.
Which leaves Labour to "solve" it in catastrophic ways. Buckle up for a bumpy ride. And take your poor grandchildren out to a nice dinner from time to time to cheer them up in the squalor you've confined them to.
*Regular readers will have noted that, despite my advanced age, I am not so much a cynic as a very disappointed optimist!