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.
The Misses Paine once said "Dad is not a cynic. He's a disappointed idealist." This may be so. Equally, it could be said that a man who reaches his 60s without becoming somewhat cynical has simply not been paying attention. There are some things in Britain I can still trust. The way the Common Law develops itself quietly, sensibly and practically (when not over-ridden by statute) for example. The jury system, for another. I would still trust a panel of British jurors over any tribunal known to Man if I were charged with a crime of which I was innocent.
Sadly I can't trust Parliament any more. John Bercow saw to that. Nor can I trust British Democracy more generally, alas. The past few months have shown us – even more than the long years of defiance of the popular will over Brexit - that the self-selected, self-serving members of the permanent apparatus of the state are far more important in practice than our elected representatives.
Our rights were not quashed because our politicians exercised scientific judgement. People who act on science they don't understand are every bit as blindly faithful as the religious and our MPs are a particularly ignorant bunch. Not only, by any means, on matters scientific. They possess precious little knowledge of anything useful and usually no great experience of the real world. Apart from a brief honourable spell as a DJ, my own MP (for example) has never received a penny of income freely paid under contracts with people who had other choices. Before she was a Marxist trying to foist Communism on us by stealth in Parliament, she was a tax-funded sociology lecturer trying to indoctrinate our impressionable young.
We have had one scientifically-knowledgeable Prime Minister (the first major political figure in the world to pay serious attention to the problem of climate change by the way) and she is now universally despised by the liberal arts-educated bureaucracy and most of her political successors. Even to say her dread name with approval is to mark yourself out as an untermensch. There have been many times since the pygmies drove her out of office when I have wished she was in Number 10 still. Never more so than in the past few months.
Lockdown (a horrible euphemism drawn from the prison system) happened because the apparatchiki of the Deep State decided it was necessary to close the useful parts of society. They have deprived the productive citizens who pay for everything – private and public, of their livelihoods, because they saw an opportunity to reassert their power after their embarrassing setback at the peoples hands over Brexit. They saw the chance to take an extended holiday on full pay from jobs (often non-jobs) that already pay more (on average) than those of the productive and which yield pensions substantially greater than those the private sector taxpayers who pay them can ever dream of. "Serve them right", our Deep State masters no doubt thought while trashing our lives, "for we are their moral superiors because of our [well-paid, over-pensioned] lives of 'public service'". They service us, in my personal view, more in the agricultural sense than any other.
My respect for the teaching profession in principle is great. No more important group of workers exists in a well-organised society. I personally owe a great deal to one or two conscientious teachers among the throng of idlers, wasters, lead-swingers and intellectual under-achievers who staffed my bog-standard comprehensives. But it would take a greater idealist than I have ever been to keep on rose-tinted spectacles now in viewing British teachers. They have shown themselves (with honourable exceptions who should really find a profession with worthier colleagues) to have absolutely no concern about the education or welfare of the young people in their charge. They have used COVID 19 both as an excuse to idle and a political stick with which to beat a government they consider to be their political enemy. "Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach" was always (I thought) a rather unfair assessment. Now it seems generous. Those who can't be arsed, teach, might be closer to the mark.
I made some of these points in conversation with a fellow-photographer at a shoot I attended today – pointing out that Woodstock and the Isle of Wight Festival were staged, the worlds economies continued to function and social and sexual lives were unaffected globally during the just as deadly Hong Kong Flu pandemic of the Sixties and that the UK death toll this year will likely be greater from untreated cancers and other serious diseases because of the "save the NHS" strategy than from COVID 19 itself. "It's one of those situations," he opined, "when the politicians can't do right whatever they choose." He has a point. The cynic in me agrees and even perhaps feels sorry for our politicians. They have, after all, seen voters (scared senseless by outrageous propaganda from Deep State agencies everywhere) back the apparatchiki in opinion polls. The Great British Public is, it seems, a bunch of submissives clamouring for more not less of a spanking from their government. The battered idealist, from some deep crevasse in my soul, cries out that leadership should still be a thing and that they could have stood up to their advisors – if they only had a single ragged principle to their sorry names.
I cringe now as I remember all the times I told colleagues, clients and friends in the post-Communist countries where I worked for twenty years that "Brits would never accept" the various impositions that their governments, administrations and police (conditioned by decades of totalitarianism) were still inclined to attempt. All my proud talk of "yeoman spirit" and the ghost of Hampden, seems to have been so much embarrassing nonsense now as I angrily watch my fellow-citizens drop all claims to freedom while clamouring for more discipline from stern Father State. The only winners here will not be us or our politicians but the staff of the state apparatus that rumbles on regardless of our votes. Unless a party emerges that promises to do to the entire state apparatus what Ronald Reagan did to America's air traffic controllers, I shall probably not be voting again. It's not a matter of not encouraging the politicians. It's just recognising that – as things stand in modern Britain – they don't matter.
I cannot be sure and must beware of the post hoc fallacy, but I think I may once have done some good in the field of public education. I asked a question of Trevor Philips, former chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission at the "Battle of Ideas" conference at the Barbican in 2012. He had wondered aloud why boys and girls from Chinese and Indian families do so much better in Britain's schools than white children, whereas black boys do far worse. I ventured to suggest that, whatever else it proved, it showed the Left had been wrong for decades in accusing teachers and/or "the education system" of racism. What kind of racist, I wondered, favoured Indians over Pakistanis, or Chinese over whites? He asked me, "if it's not racism what is it?" and (as the crowd shouted me down) I said it was culture. I said I had lived in China, where education was regarded as the most valuable of goods and I suspected the same was true in India. "If black British mothers treat their boys like Indian and Chinese mothers treat their children, they will get the same results," I said to howls of derision. That may be the least racist sentence I have ever uttered, but the cries of "racist" didn't abate until I retreated into my happy obscurity.
At that point Trevor was a lifelong, much respected member of the "Labour movement". Now he is discredited, spurned and has been denounced as an "islamophobe". I hope I helped him on his way that day. I was reminded of that moment when reading Hans Rosling's book "Factfulness" recently. This passage in particular brought it to mind;
In 1972, as a fourth-year medical student, I studied at the medical school in Bangalore. The first class I attended was on examining kidney X-rays. Looking at the first image, I realized this must be kidney cancer. I decided to wait awhile before telling the class, out of respect. I didn’t want to show off. Several hands then went into the air and the Indian students one by one explained how best to diagnose this cancer, how and where it usually spreads, and how best to treat it. On and on they went for 30 minutes, answering questions I thought only chief physicians knew. I realized my embarrassing mistake. I must have come to the wrong room. These must not be fourth-year students, these must be specialists. I had nothing to add to their analysis. On our way out, I told a fellow student I was supposed to be with the fourth-years. “That’s us,” he said. I was stunned. They had caste marks on their foreheads and lived where exotic palm trees grew. How could they know much more than me? Over the next few days I learned that they had a textbook three times as thick as mine, and they had read it three times as many times. I remember this whole experience as the first time in my life that I suddenly had to change my worldview: my assumption that I was superior because of where I came from, the idea that the West was the best and the rest would never catch up. At that moment, 45 years ago, I understood that the West would not dominate the world for much longer.
Rosling tells the story against himself and dates his understanding of the outdatedness of "Western" ideas about "developing countries" from that moment. It's a good illustration of that, certainly, but it's also an explanation of why, for example, there is a higher proportion of both Indian and Chinese doctors in British hospitals than of their respective ethnicities in our general population. It's a disparity that literally no-one is attributing to "structural racism" and there is something to be learned from understanding it.
No doubt some were better-educated elsewhere from a textbook three times as thick that they read three times as often. Others had mothers not yet fully assimilated into our culture who would have taught them at least to read the thinner text book more times. Just as I am optimistic that Pakistani-origin Muslim girls in Britain will be easily lured from misogyny into the local way of thinking about women, I am pessimistic that - in a generation or so - Anglo-Indian/Pakistani/Chinese boys and girls will have dumbed-down like everyone else in our state-organised schools and colleges.
Dumbing down our education system to protect our coddled young from “pressure” was not a good idea. As Rosling's story (and my own sad experience of "mixed ability teaching" and "Cuisenaire rods" in my bog-standard state schools) tells us, it’s been going on for a long time now. We now have coddled students taught by coddled teachers who were themselves taught by the first of the Western coddled. Without the "tiger mothers" in our immigrant populations we Brits whose parents couldn't afford private education would have no collective memory of what it is to be taught with rigour, free from concern for our fragile "self-esteem." The tiger mothers have been distant enough from local culture throughout to resist and so continued to demand more – thus scoring all those boast-worthy offspring in white coats and lawyer suits.
The young lawyers I worked with in China were the product of a culture that has valued education above all other things for millennia - since the power of the Emperor was first quietly supplanted by a mandarin class appointed by competitive examination. A Chinese mother, however humble, could see her son (admittedly only her son at that stage) rule the greatest nation on Earth if she pushed him hard enough at school. That kind of ingrained notion dies slowly. When I visited India for the first time to meet the parents of Mrs PII before our marriage, I was struck on my six hour road journey from New Delhi to their home by the sheer number of roadside advertisements for educational institutions – far more than for consumer goods. She tells me that many of them are scams and rip-offs preying on the hopes and dreams of poor parents, but the fact remains the demand is there.
The educational success of Chinese and Indian children in our system is due to the sheer bloody vigour (going on ferocity) of their parenting. We all, black white and beige, need to learn from that. If the post-war changes in Western education have proved anything it's the wisdom of the old adage "Spare the [now of course metaphorical] rod and spoil the child." Spoil too many of your children and you may doom your civilisation. Would legislators with any intellectual rigour have passed this resolution in the California State Senate? Would anyone educated with any rigour be committing the crimes against history, commonsense and reason occurring daily on the streets of Britain and America?
I say to any parents reading this – your children are neither fashion accessories nor playthings; they’re humanity’s future. Get on their case and give them no damned slack at all. For all our sakes.
I joined the Conservative Party as a young man (having recently recanted my teenaged Maoism) because of Margaret Thatcher. She was not headed to the same destination as me, ideologically, but she was at least pointing in the right direction to be my fellow-traveller. She was socially-conservative in a way that I was not (I led my University Conservative Association on a gay rights march, for example and supported the Federation of Conservative Students' policy on legalising drugs that led her to shut us down) but she was clear-sighted, principled and above all moral.
Her morals were not entirely mine, but I would rather be led by someone with morals than without and she was the only moral Prime Minister of my lifetime so far. Most, like the current incumbent, were amoral going on sociopathic (fairly usual for high-achievers in most fields, to be fair) and some, like Gordon Brown or John Major, were actively immoral. Once she was hounded out, I left the Party. I was, for some years, a Thatcherite but I was never a Tory.
So I am not blind to the lady's faults. Leaving aside her inclination to use the state as an instrument of her personal morality, she also made some policy misjudgements and we still live with their consequences.
She misidentified the key threats to liberty in Britain. Hindsight is cheap, I know, but the trade unions in mining and other productive industries were already on the way out. The real threat to our future was in our schools and colleges, where children were already being consistently taught a warped view of history and a contempt for economics in general and the market system in particular. In my education during the 1960s and 1970s I may perhaps have had a Conservative teacher. It's possible, but even then their discretion was by far the greater part of their valour. I can only surmise because no possibly Conservative school teacher dared say so. My Socialist teachers, of course, never shut up about it and when I studied Law at university, there was not even one discreetly-silent lecturer I could optimistically imagine to be non-Left.
Margaret, as Education Minister, should arguably have grasped that generation after generation of our youth could not be processed through such a thoroughly infiltrated, ideologically-monochrome system without lasting damage. Such was her own strength of character that I suspect she simply didn't understand the problem. She was not weak and pliable. No leftist teacher impeded her ideological journey. Why should others not see through them too? She was also focussed on achieving one of the great offices of State, and probably regarded the Ministry of Education as a "woman's job" with which she had been fobbed off. She may even have had a point. For myself, I regard education as supremely important – all the more so for having had to get so much of mine from independent reading, in spite of (and it really was quite often for the perverse pleasure of spiting) my would-be indoctrinators.
I recently finished reading the excellent book "Factfulness" mentioned in my last post. The research that was the life's work of its author Hans Rosling demonstrates that leaders in both public and private sectors waste much effort addressing problems that no longer exist. Like many people achieving power or influence in late middle age, Margaret was often focussed – at best – on the problems of her own youth, and – at worst – on those of her teachers' youth.
Arguably, a consequence of another of her errors is in the news this morning. Focussed as she was on reducing the state's area of operations, Margaret was resisted at every turn by the Deep State. As a leader who wanted a smaller state apparatus her main advisers throughout her premiership were the leading members of that apparatus, whose success in life was not gauged by their productive contribution to society but by the size of the department under their control.
So when the trendy idea of "care in the community" came forward it must have been a relief to have some advice that was consistent with her small state ideology – or at least that could be made to seem so. There was an undoubted need for reform of mental healthcare. There are well-documented cases of people who were unable to escape from what used to be called "lunatic asylums", despite having fully-recovered from the problems that led to their admission. In some cases, people were trapped in them for decades on the basis of a misdiagnosis. So the radical idea of closing them down and entrusting the care of the mentally ill to their families, local social services and other community institutions must have seemed attractive – especially as the real estate boom of the time (in which my career as a property lawyer was incubating) offered good returns from the large buildings in larger grounds that would be "liberated."
In fairness to the Deep State Leftists behind the idea, her government seized mainly on the "close and sell off the mental hospitals" idea and less on the "build community resources" part. If she had implemented the policy as they had wished (and I don't know why I bother to say so as it's true of everything they ever propose) it would probably have cost much more than the old system and would certainly have added to the Deep State voter-farm of public sector workers who can be relied upon to vote Labour in order to secure an ever-growing state for them to feed on.
According to Jonty Bravery's prosecutor
“He said he had to prove a point to ‘every idiot’ who had ever said he did not have a mental health problem; that he should not be in the community.”
I do not blame my local council's social workers for this psychopath's misdiagnosis, even though evidence was given during his trial that he told them he intended to kill to make his point. People say crazy things and, sadly, it's best that they are not taken too seriously unless and until they act on them. With hindsight we can all wish the poor Ealing employee (who must feel terrible right now) that Bravery told his plan had acted differently. So differently that his poor child victim and his family had been spared their insufferable horrors. In truth if they had made a fuss they would more likely have been criticised for it. I doubt it would have affected the outcome. I am not known for my empathy with state employees, but social workers do a job that, mostly, can't be done. They're often on a hiding to nothing whatever choice they make.
Yes, it's now clear that Jonty Bravery is a psychopath. He's crazy but he's not stupid. Yes, he was prepared to kill if it served his purpose. That's what differentiates psychopaths from the often high-functioning sociopaths I worked alongside in my profession and the various businesses we served. His essential point seems to have been (and in this respect he was right) that given his condition he could not be expected to live "in the community". He was one of those monsters Nature occasionally sends among us and well beyond being socialised. He needed to be in permanent, secure, residential care away from the community and under the supervision of trained carers.
Now he is.
From his tragically-warped perspective, everything is working out precisely as planned. It's horrific and scarring for his victim's family, but it's no surprise that he has smiled his way through his trial. His sentence is no punishment. He now has what he wants for the rest of his life. My point is that – without the Thatcher government's mistake in seizing upon a crazily misguided Deep State policy proposal, he could have had it without killing anyone. Maybe she should have stuck to her principles even more strictly than she usually did?
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 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
I have been reading another of the books I snagged at the recent Think! conference organised by the IEA. You can read it too, online for free. It's a well-researched, well-reasoned piece of work. It won't please those on the Right or Left who rage at Auntie's perceived bias because it reaches a nuanced conclusion. Yes, the BBC has a bias but it's not a crudely political one. It's the predictable bias of the kind of middle class professional person who chooses to work in a public service broadcaster. In the chapter "Why is the BBC biased?" written by Stephen Davies of the IEA, he explains why people with views as radically divergent as, say, Owen Jones and I all feel that the BBC is against us;
...certain views are marginalised and either misrepresented or even ignored. It is not a straightforward matter of either left or right views being treated in this way. Rather, all views that are not in the conventional wisdom are slighted, even if they are widely held among the public. Examples from the right would be support for radical reform of the welfare system or the NHS; from the left, it could be the popularity of public ownership of utilities ... Certain views are clearly represented as being uninformed or exotic, such as scepticism about man-made climate change, hostility to immigration or doubts about the benefits of formal education. Sometimes this judgement may be true, but to simply ignore and disregard a view is actually counterproductive if your aim is to inform.
In addition there is an intensification of the structural tendency of the modern media to see political and intellectual divisions in binary terms. This leads to many perspectives being simply ignored or misrepresented. In the last 30 years for example, it has become part of the conventional BBC view that opposition to the EU is definitively located on the right. This means that the continuing and at one time prominent socialist critique of the EU is simply not represented. On the other side, opposition to immigration is thought to be associated with other views conventionally placed on the right, so that left-wing opposition to labour migration is airbrushed out, despite being common among many Labour voters. At the same time, the strong support of most free-market advocates for freer immigration is ignored and glossed over. In other words, the very existence of certain kinds of combinations of views is simply ruled out, and they are not even considered, despite being perfectly coherent intellectually and widely held.
The last discussion I had on immigration, for example, was just this week with a new friend who is an active member of the Labour Party. He is of the same vintage as myself and is a "Old Labour" socialist from the provincial working class that founded the Party. He is uncomfortable with the "Metropolitan elite" now in charge and is more scathing about identity politics than any Tory I know. He is firmly in favour of restricting immigration; believing that it has reduced working class wages. I, on the other hand, would be in favour of open borders if we could first abolish the welfare system that distorts the labour market and attracts unproductive immigrants. For so long as that system exists, I favour a liberal immigration policy that actively encourages skilled workers to come here, regardless of their origins, but offers no welfare benefits to first generation immigrants unless and until they have paid a minimum contribution into the system.
Neither of us fit the simplistic right/left BBC narrative, so our views never feature. He and I haven't talked about the BBC yet, but it would be perfectly understandable if we both thought it was biased. That wouldn't matter so much if the BBC was not (a) funded by state force and (b) the provider of 75% of all television news viewed in the UK. Though the internet is undermining its near-monopoly it still shapes the views of most voters, who rarely ignore its narrative. Hence Auntie's conniptions at the result of the EU Referendum. A decision was made on the basis of opinions outwith her conventional wisdom. It's from "out of left field" as our cousins across the pond say and must be wrong, or mad, or both.
So who are these people who choose to work for a public service broadcaster, bringing their unconscious biases with them?
The initial factor is the very narrow and restricted background of BBC staff, both of presenters and producers. The proportion who are privately-educated (and, by extension, upper-middle class) is several times the national average (Milburn 2014). Generally they come from professional backgrounds rather than commerce or business, much less from working-class households. Much of the critical comment on the narrow base from which the BBC draws its senior staff emphasises the lack of ethnic or gender diversity; but, while there is undoubtedly something to this, it is swamped by the social origins phenomenon. The women and ethnic minorities who do work for the BBC in roles such as producer, presenter and senior manager are likely to come [my emphasis] from the same kind of educational and social background as their white, male colleagues.
What this naturally leads to is a common shared set of beliefs and attitudes, deriving from common or shared experience. In a very real sense the conventional wisdom referred to earlier is the shared outlook of a specific social group or formation. The problem, of course, is that, in the absence of challenges or dissent from people from a different background, all kinds of beliefs remain unquestioned, with the status of 'obvious truth' or 'common sense' attached to them. These kind of unexamined assumptions exist at the level of general principles rather than particular issues. Examples might be that it is always good to help the less fortunate or that most social problems should be understood as having structural causes rather than being explicable through individual agency or action, or that business activity is a zero sum game. Moreover, once a particular set of attitudes becomes widely shared within any organisation, it tends to attract people who share them, and so the situation becomes self-perpetuating and reinforcing.
Then there is the fact that no-one who disapproves of an organisation funded by force would dream of applying for a job there. This is a problem for all state organisations, not just the BBC. I could not live with knowing that every penny I "earned" had been taken by force from my fellow men. I would be as ashamed of working for the Government or the BBC as I would be to work for the Mafia – and for the same moral reasons. I derive my self-respect from taking care of myself and my family and from being a burden to no-one. I am proud of the fact that every penny I have earned came from voluntary transactions with clients who had plenty of other choices. That is why it's difficult to get classical liberals of any stripe into Parliament, Whitehall or the BBC. The self-selected political and administrative classes comprise people who have no moral objection to living parasitically on their fellow-men. We can't expect such people to favour a smaller government, privatisation of the BBC or less state intervention in private life. If they did, they wouldn't be there.
Some may go into politics, the Civil Service or the Beeb with the honourable goal of relieving the burdens of oppressed taxpayers. Few stick to that objective. They will find most of their colleagues bemused by them while they are junior, fearful when they are senior and downright hostile if they come near the levers of power. If not independently wealthy (and why would they work in such mundane roles if they are) they will find themselves under financial as well as social pressure to conform. Their advancement is very likely to depend upon the approval of people who share the conventional wisdom.
This is an interesting book and worth a read. I would love to hear your views on it, gentles all.
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.