Sunday, December 31, 2006

Four New Additions to my Blog Roll

All with some connection to the Guardian.

Ben Goldacre's Bad Science Blog
James Galbraith's Comment is Free Posts (James is the son of John Kenneth)
Conor Foley, who writes incredibly sensibly on Comment is Free about Latin America, aid work, and humanitarian interventions
And the splendid Pickled Politics (Sunny et al)

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Toxoplasma Strikes Back

Yikes. Regular readers (I know, I know..) may recall my suspicion of the parasite Toxoplasma. Needless to say I'm even less impressed by this.

A common parasite can increase a women's attractiveness to the opposite sex but also make men more stupid, an Australian researcher says.

I am going to resist the temptation to make any wisecracks about the high school I went to. I'm simply going to restate my claim that this parasite is too intelligent by half. (And more intelligent than at least half...must not make joke...must not...........)

God Strikes Back!

Right in time for Christmas, the New York Review of Books has a critical review of Richard Dawkins' book 'The God Delusion.' And, lest you think that the scientist writing the review is simply surfing the rising religious tide in his homeland, it's worth remembering that a similarly critical review of Dawkins was published in the NYROBs' sibling from the atheist side of the Atlantic.

I haven't read Dawkins' book but, from the sounds of things, he suffers from a similar sort of atheist certainty to that which has always irked me when expressed by Johann Hari.

The central point that both Orr and Eagleton make is that Dawkins doesn't really engage with sophisticated theology: he simply sets up a straw-god and proceeds to bayonet it. True, there are an alarming number of people who worship at the feet of that selfsame straw-god but if you are to argue, as Dawkins does, that religion is the problem per se, rather than simplistic takes on religion, it does seem somewhat inadequate not to have a tilt at the real thinkers in the opposing camp.

Eagleton also gets points poetic for his beautiful explanation of the interaction between reason and faith using the conceit of love.

Dawkins rejects the surely reasonable case that science and religion are not in competition on the grounds that this insulates religion from rational inquiry. But this is a mistake: to claim that science and religion pose different questions to the world is not to suggest that if the bones of Jesus were discovered in Palestine, the pope should get himself down to the dole queue as fast as possible. It is rather to claim that while faith, rather like love, must involve factual knowledge, it is not reducible to it. For my claim to love you to be coherent, I must be able to explain what it is about you that justifies it; but my bank manager might agree with my dewy-eyed description of you without being in love with you himself.

Deft metaphors aside, I am not sure that Orr and Eagleton land quite as many punches as they think they do: from what I've heard Dawkins does a reasonable job of defending himself when he's actually debated in person. Nevertheless, the reviews make good reading.

To me, the main concern with religion is it's extremely problematic relation with power. If religion were, as it ought to be, a purely personal pursuit, it would be fine. However, almost as soon as religion was invented (or revealed) it has been used as a tool of power. As a means of oppressing women. As a means of controlling thought within societies. And as an excuse for subjugating other societies.

Clearly, as the past century has shown, getting rid of God has not even come close to resolving issues of power and people's power over others. (And here is were I think Dawkins is particularly mistaken: if you want to rid the world of human rights abuses you need to champion human rights, and foster the conditions where they flourish. Wailing about religion is simply tangential to this.) Yet, if we are to argue using the tools of reason, I am confident that I can - with a few preconditions - win the debate about whether we ought to respect human rights. If we are to argue using the tools of religion, this won't be the case - you can simply claim that God has decreed that human rights are bad, and that will be the end of the argument. We will have no ether across which we can measure the distance that our arguments travel.

That being said, the devil, for my my side of the argument, of course, is hiding in the details of my preconditions: increasing overall wellbeing say, or maximising capabilities, or liberty. Each of these requires, as far as I can tell, some small - erk! - leap of faith of its own. Enlightened self interest can get us some of the way there but it doesn't seem to me that we can reason our way to altruism or charity. Such positions must, I think, stem from another part of the the human whole. Not necessarily from god above, just not from reason alone.

The details are difficult. Definitely. Which is why, I suspect, that - short of apocalypse in the meantime - we'll be arguing these things for millennia to come.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Welfare and Well Thought Out Arguments

Polly Toynbee talks commonsense on welfare in the Guardian. She's writing about England, but much of this resonates with welfare debates in New Zealand too. Some good snippits.

"Work is the best welfare, a hand up, not a hand out" was New Labour's first mantra and it remains true for most people most of the time, but not all. This social contract has mostly been kept by both sides under Labour. Tax credits and benefits for children have doubled and, for the first time, pensioners are now less likely to be poor than the general population, thanks to pension credits. Fulfilling their side of the imagined contract, 70% of the long-term unemployed have taken jobs and there are now virtually no young long-term claimants, thanks to the New Deal.

But yesterday Hutton shook a threatening stick at those he regards as social-contract defaulters. He made a good case: one in 10 of those who draw jobseeker's allowance has spent six of the past seven years on benefits, yet in many areas there are unfilled low-skilled jobs alongside high rates of unemployment. If the jobs are there, why don't they take them? He picked on Glasgow, which has above average unemployment and twice as many unskilled vacancies as the national average.

Is it that simple? There is a very grey line between the plain idle and those who are illiterate, mentally unfit, psychologically odd, ex-prisoners, unattractive to employers, non-English speakers (Labour has stopped free English courses), drug addicts, alcoholics and other bad prospects. In Glasgow, for example, what are these vacancies? Mostly part-time hotel and catering, bar work and waitering with unsocial hours. Those running programmes to help the unemployed into work say these are student jobs, or for young foreigners: the hardcore unemployed are simply not equipped to do this work. Many live on peripheral estates miles out of town with no night buses back - a taxi costs three hours' work at the minimum-wage...

...But let's keep this in perspective: there are only 100,000 of these hard cases, and the jobseeker's allowance is a pathetic £57.45 a week, not enough to survive on. I tried, and fell into unavoidable debt within weeks. Those in debt fear taking a job as loans sharks chase them once they start earning...

...Meanwhile, the minimum wage is so low it can be impossible for those without children to work at a profit. Why work if it leaves you even worse off? The social contract says work is the best welfare, but for some it isn't. One reason why is housing benefit - the glitch in the system. Beveridge never solved it, Labour promised a review but abandoned it; yet losing housing benefit on taking a job is a great disincentive to work.

Look closer at housing and see the damage done by gross inequality, as wealth at the top stamps on those below. London has the highest unemployment, with half its children born poor. Yet it is also the richest place. This is no mere accident of Dickensian contrasts, but partly cause and effect. As the City reaps its £9bn bonuses, that money fuels an ultrasonic house-price boom. It's bad enough around the country at 180% up in the past decade, but far worse in London. Rents are sent sky high, making it impossible for the unemployed to lose housing benefit by taking a job. They will never own a shed in the capital as the gap yawns ever wider between the 70% homeowners counting untaxed winnings every month, while the rest and their children are consigned to social housing forever.

[Emphasis Mine]

Wednesday, December 13, 2006


Via Maxspeak, a nuanced article in the Washington Post (possibly free registration required) on what drives Chile's economic success.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The truths are out there...

Some of my best friends are 911 conspiracy theorists. We don't talk about it much - or, at least, I try and avoid talking about it, simply because I hate arguing with friends.

All the resulting bottled up counter-arguments probably contribute to the fact that 911 conspiracy theories really get my goat.

On top of enforced repressed skepticism on my behalf, one other reason that the theories bug me is because many of the people involved don't really seem that interested in the truth (now there's an irony given the name 'truthers'); instead their approach seems to start with the certainty that a conspiracy is a-foot and then involves finding every single factoid that - atomised and on its own - might provide evidence of this. They rarely, as Matt Taibbi notes, ever engage in trying to construct a plausible coherent alternative version events themselves. Indeed they don't even seem bothered when there own assertions contradict each other. Taibbi:

...9/11 Truth is the lowest form of conspiracy theory, because it doesn't offer an affirmative theory of the crime...Strikingly, there is no obvious answer to that question, since for all the many articles about "Able Danger" and the witnesses who heard explosions at Ground Zero, there is not -- at least not that I could find -- a single document anywhere that lays out a single, concrete theory of what happened, who ordered what and when they ordered it, and why. There obviously is such a theory, but it has to be pieced together by implication, by paying attention to the various assertions of 9/11 lore (the towers were mined, the Pentagon was really hit by a cruise missile, etc.) and then assembling them later on into one single story. But the funny thing is, when you put together all of those disparate theories, you get the dumbest story since Roman Polanski's Pirates.

The specifics vary, but the basic gist of what They Say Happened goes something like this: A group of power-hungry neocons, led by Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Bush and others and organizationally represented by groups like the Project for the New American Century, seeks to bring about a "Pearl-Harbor-like event" that would accelerate a rightist revolution, laying the political foundation for invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Your basic Reichstag fire scenario, logical enough so far. Except in this story, the Reichstag fire is an immensely complicated media hoax; the conspirators plot to topple the World Trade Center and pin a series of hijackings on a group of Sunni extremists with alleged ties to Al Qaeda. How do they topple the Trade Center? Well, they make use of NORAD's expertise in flying remote-control aircraft and actually fly two such remote-control aircraft into the Towers (in another version of the story, they conspire with Al Qaeda terrorists to actually hijack the planes), then pass the planes off as commercial jetliners in the media. But it isn't the plane crashes that topple the buildings, but bombs planted in the Towers that do the trick. For good measure -- apparently to lend credence to the hijacking story -- they then fake another hijacking/crash in the Pentagon, where there actually is no plane crash at all but instead a hole created by a cruise missile attack, fired by a mysterious "white jet" that after the attack circles the White House for some time, inspiring the attention of Secret Service agents who point at it curiously from the ground (apparently these White House Secret Service agents were not in on the plot, although FBI agents on scene at Ground Zero and in Shanksville and elsewhere were).

Lastly, again apparently to lend weight to the whole hijacking cover story, they burn a big hole in the ground in Pennsylvania and claim that a jet went down there, crashed by a bunch of brave fictional civilians who fictionally storm the fictional plane cabin. The real-life wife of one of the fictional heroes, Lisa Beamer, then writes a convincingly self-serving paean/memoir to her dead husband, again lending tremendous verisimilitude to the hijacking story. These guys are good!

Taibbi then follows this up with a truly hilarious fictitious conversation between Bush, Cheney and others which includes gems like:

BUSH: I'm a total idiot who can barely read, so I'll buy that.

Taibbi makes also makes the point that leftwing conspiracy theories not only divert energy from all the real issues that the left ought to be worrying about, but that they also provide the right with plenty of ammo with which to write-off the left in general. The prevalence of real conspiracy theorists makes it that much easier for the right dismiss a whole heap of other critics as 'conspiracy theorists' too.

Or as Christopher Hayes puts it in this, very thoughtful essay from the Nation:

For the [Bush] Administration, "conspiracy" is a tremendously useful term, and can be applied even in the most seemingly bizarre conditions to declare an inquiry or criticism out of bounds."
In his essay, Hayes goes on to highlight what he thinks is one of the key reasons for the prevalence of conspiracy theories: the credulous nature of much of establishment media.

The public has been presented with two worldviews, one credulous, one paranoid, and both unsatisfactory. The more the former breaks apart, the greater the appeal of the latter.

I couldn't agree more.

To Hayes' explanation of the rise of conspiracy theories I thought I'd add a couple more:

First, that modern government (particularly modern American government) is a beast with many, many of secrets tucked away. Too many, as John Ralston Saul points out in Voltaire's Bastards. Many more - and held much longer - than can be explained by the need to "keep things from the enemy". Keep things from the voting public more like it. And this alone, while not justifying the belief that the neo-cons dynamited the twin towers, does provide people with a perfectly good reason to be very skeptical of the powers that be. And all it takes is a few apparently damning factoids to carry people over the boarder from skepticism into conspiracy land.

Second, 911 and all that, has created a world where the answers for us on the left aren't so easy anymore.

True the United States is a militaristic super power, currently in the hands of a bunch of deranged neo-thugs, but the people they are fighting aren't exactly a charming lot either.

True, the erosion of civil liberties in many western democracies is a bad thing but, at the same time, the threat of terrorist attacks is real. Over-hyped, but real nonetheless.

Now for me personally, these trade offs (for want of a better word) didn't stop me from opposing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, nor do they stop me from believing that civil liberties are too important to surrender, but they do leave me feeling conflicted and unsure.

I doubt I'm alone in this, and my sincere belief is that, for many 911 conspiracy theorists, it is simply more comforting to believe that all the problems really do come from one side, and that there are not difficult trade offs to be made.

It's a very strange sort of comfort of course - as Hayes notes, "...if tens of millions of Americans really believe their government was complicit in the murder of 3,000 of their fellow citizens, they seem remarkably sanguine about this fact. By and large, life continues as before, even though tens of millions of people apparently believe they are being governed by mass murderers" - but it's a comfort nonetheless.

Sunday, November 19, 2006


At Crooked Timber Chris Bertram has a good post on the importance of inquality.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

A Simple (but resilient) Definition of Power

I'm 100% sure this has been thought of elsewhere, and I'm not claiming anything profound - I'm just pinning this up here to clarify my own thoughts.

Power over someone is simply the ability to restrict their choices.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Teaching Economics

Christoper Hayes has an interesting article on the way first year economics classes are taught. It focuses on the University of Chicago, but much of it reflects my own experience.

Some good bits:

Neoclassical economics smuggles a great many normative wares underneath its positive trenchcoat, both in its assumptions about how humans operate—as individuals rationally
maximizing their utility—and its implied preference for “markets in everything.” Because neoclassical economics always presents itself as a value-neutral description of the world, its ideological commitments can be adopted by those who learn it without any recognition that
they are ideological. This is the source of some very spirited debate within the field itself. A growing global movement of “heterodox” economists has criticized the ideological confines and blindspots of the neoclassical approach. As Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz put it, the dominance of the neoclassical model is a “triumph of ideology over science.”

Sanderson’s politics aren’t one-dimensional, and he certainly isn’t a propagandist. But the fact remains that he has the predispositions of someone who “learned economics from Milton Friedman.” First, there’s a tendency to see trade-offs between equity and efficiency even where
they might not exist. Dean Baker, an economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research and author of the book The Conservative Nanny State, points out that policies can be both fairer
and more efficient. For instance, Baker told me, “it is not clear that a flat tax is more efficient than a progressive income tax. This is entirely an empirical question. It is entirely possible that taxing middleincome workers and Bill Gates at a 25 percent rate will create more distortions
than taxing middle-income workers at a 15 percent rate and Bill Gates at a 40 percent rate. … They want liberals to say that we care about fairness and they care about efficiency. This is crap. They find ways to justify redistributing income upward and proclaim it to be efficient. The
reality is it is not fair and generally not efficient either.”
But when equity and efficiency tradeoffs do arise, economists like Sanderson are systematically biased in favor of efficiency because that’s what they are experts on. Efficiency they can measure and analyze. Fairness? That’s the turf of philosophers and politicians. This tendency
is most pronounced in discussions of economic growth, and how the benefits of that growth should be distributed. Sanderson paraphrases his Nobel Laureate colleague Bob Lucas, who
says that “once you start to think about the benefits of high growth, it’s hard to think about anything else.” In other words, first worry about how best to grow the pie, then how to slice it up. Let efficiency trump equity, create wealth, and then you can use the extra wealth
you’ve created to alleviate inequality. This makes a certain amount of sense. But when this rhetoric comes to dominate our politics, the problem of inequality is never addressed. Now is always the time for growing, later is always the time to address concerns about equity. The result is predictable: In countries that have adopted the neoclassical policy prescriptions
(including the United States), there has been an ever-widening gap between rich and poor.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The Crimes of Punishment

If you have a chance, have a listen to the BBC documentary, “Call That Justice”. The documentary looks into crime and punishment, and – in the second part – into the US prison system. In particular, it examines the glee with which many states lock away their children.

The section of the documentary that I listened to focused on Colorado which (forgive me if the details aren’t entirely correct) has a law through which prosecutors can call for child-offenders to be tried as adults. Colorado also has mandatory life sentences for homicide (or at least for homicide in some instances). This means that if a prosecutor demands that a child murderer be charged as an adult and, if they are convicted, they will spend the rest of their lives behind bars – no chance for redemption.

This legislation has already led to cases where teenagers have been given mandatory life sentences for murdering their abusive parents, but the Colorado situation is even more crazed. In Colorado they also have legislation in place regarding felony murder. This means that, if you are involved in a crime where someone is killed – even if you did not kill them yourself – you can be sentenced as if you were the murderer.

Combine all these rules together and you get the Case of Erik Jensen. Erik walked in on his friend Nathan Ybanez murdering his (Nathan’s) mother. Nathan had suffered abuse at the hands of both his parents over many years and, even though Erik and others had tried to get Nathan help, it was never made available. Eventually, his situation intolerable, Nathan cracked.

Erik was not involved in the murder but he helped Nathan tidy the house afterwards. For the crime of making the spur of the moment decision to help his friend, Erik is now serving life without parole.

Does this sound like justice?

If you're as appalled by this as I am have a look at the Pendulum Foundation’s website for ways to help.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Atlas Mugged? A reply to Duncan Bayne and Peter Creswell

A bloke by the name of Peter Creswell and one of his Objectivist fellow travellers, Duncan Bayne, have been kind enough to blog replies of a sort to my ‘essay’ “What’s the Matter with Libertarianism”. I say “of a sort” because Creswell and Bayne both appear to primarily replying to a post on NoRightTurn, which linked to my essay. They claim to be responding to me, yet it is fairly apparent that neither has read much of my essay. Nevertheless, given that their responses have been aimed in my general direction and given that they bandy my name around, I feel like I ought to reply.

First I’d like to thank them for taking the time to write (if not read) and for attempting to explain the rationale behind their beliefs.

In the interests of being both systematic and rapid I will respond to Bayne and Creswell in Turn – Starting with Bayne.

Duncan Bayne

Bayne starts his response with a pithy explanation of why he is a libertarian:

I am a Libertarian because I am capable of running my own life, and think others are too. Libertarianism is the political expression of Mill's statement of harm…

Duncan’s obviously written this in haste. I can empathise: in blogging we often find ourselves reaching for a succinct, evocative sentence – one which we latter regret. So I won’t linger too much on the first part of his opening sentence which is so dreadfully vacuous it’s embarrassing. For what it’s worth I’m glad to hear Duncan is capable of running his own life, but if he doesn’t give some credit for this to the altruistic acts of others (family etc) or to the benefits of collective action – public roads, schools, prisons etc. – then he’s being completely intellectually dishonest. Furthermore, if he thinks that the rest of the world shares the privilege of self-actualisation that he feels he possesses, he really needs to get out more often . (I mean honestly Duncan, do you include in “others” elderly, children, invalids, people starving during a drought…?)

With regards to his evoking of Mill, this is the first evidence that Bayne has simply not properly read my essay. Under the heading “No Man (or Woman) is an Island” I spend quite some time explaining why Mill’s maxim, while being perfectly reasonable, simply isn’t a defence of libertarianism. I suggest that Bayne read this section of the essay as I don’t have time to repeat myself.

While Duncan couldn’t make time to actually read what I wrote, he did have time to have a read about the ‘about me’ section of my blog. This has lead to him writing:

“Terence – who is happy to be described as having a ‘latent hostility to capitalism’ while, of course, availing himself of technology made & sold by capitalists in order to express that hostility.”

I’ll ignore the fact that, when it comes to computer technology, we all benefit from state investment in IT R&D and that open source software (no property rights here guys) continues to be some of the best. I’ll simply note that I reproduced the accusation because it is (a) quite funny on its own terms and (b) totally incorrect. By advocating for the reforms necessary to humanise capitalism I’m hardly expressing hostility to it.

Duncan then moves on to “clear up a misconception”: me conflating libertarianism with Objectivism. This, sadly, is more evidence that he hasn’t read my essay as I point out early on that I am aware of the differences between different libertarian thinkers. I’m also aware that Rand believed herself to be telegraphing a deeper world view into the political philosophy that she espoused. Yet the political philosophy is, for all extents and purposes, libertarianism. Hence my inclusion of Rand in my critique.

I am grateful to Duncan for providing some information on the splits amongst different libertarian groups in the USA. This is interesting, and appears to be one of those pleasant-ironic ‘reflections’ that makes history so much fun to follow: libertarians squall as much, and over as trivial things, as Trotskyites.

Duncan then, after move’s into the “deep” philosophical underpinnings of his own, Objectivist, libertarianism, noting that:

As Rand has explained, people live by rationality and production – liberty is merely a necessary precursor, borne of the requirement that in order to act rationally, one must be free from compulsion.

This sentence is – taken as a whole – incoherent so I’ll try to address the points I think it makes, one at a time:

people live by rationality and production

People do, indeed, live – in part – by rationality and production (with the exception of hunter-gathers, of course, weren’t so much into production). But they also survive and thrive, thanks to a whole bunch of other attributes, including: empathy, intuition, instinct etc. By ignoring this, Duncan is simply engaging in the reverse engineering much beloved by ideologues everywhere. That is: my utopia looks like X. For X to be realistically plausible world people need to be like Y. Therefore I will claim that people are like Y and so – logically – X is the type of society I need.

liberty is merely a necessary precursor, borne of the requirement that in order to act rationally, one must be free from compulsion.

Two points here:

1. (Which is slightly tangential) rationality itself, is partially a product of nurture, being the product (in part) of the environment we are raised in and the education we receive – in other words: if you really care about cultivating rationality you’ll understand that positive freedoms matter .

2. (Which borrows from Richard’s excellent point made in the comments of my own original post). If Duncan believes that reason can only realised through non-interference then what does he make of this thought experiment:

Annie lives in a libertarian utopia. Sadly her husband Robert became gravely ill several years ago and their medical bills have driven them to the edge of destitution. Annie and Robert live next to Murray (Muzza to his mates). Muzza is happily wealthy. One day Annie and Robert’s situation becomes particularly grave: their infant son Milton is struck with disease too, and will die is he doesn’t see a doctor. Unfortunately, there is no money for this.

Now Annie has long ago suppressed her emotional attachment to her child (love, what a repulsively un-human sentiment!) But, thinking purely rationally, she knows she needs Milton alive to support her and Robert in their dotage. So Annie makes the rational choice to burgle Muzza’s house. Muzza call’s the cops. And they stop Annie.

Did Muzza have the right to do this? Do the cops have the right to stop Annie?

Not if Duncan’s thinking at all consistently.

Duncan then goes on to argue:

Furthermore, a right can only be proscriptive.

Really says who? why?

And then, a little further on:

But that doesn't mean that anyone is obliged to support me if I'm incapable of doing so

Compare this with the horrors he sees in social democracy:

After all, (and especially in a socialist state where healthcare is paid for by the general citizenry) one could easily concoct an economic rationale for the execution of the terminally ill, retarded, or recividist [sic] criminals.

Social Democracies might conceivably (but in fact never do) do this, meanwhile Duncan’s own utopia appears to explicitly countenance the leaving the needy to their fate. Executed, starved – they’re still dead.(1)

Duncan also notes that:

to demand charity from a productive member of society is equivalent to mugging him.

Atlas mugged! Duncan should read up a little bit on social contracts here. If society – that inextricably linked web of individuals, causes, and effects – decides, through a democratic mechanism that everyone should contribute in the name of a greater good, which itself leads to improved individual good, then no mugging has taken place. The free rider problem has simply been put paid to.

Duncan then ‘moves on’ to address my critique of the utilitarian argument for libertarianism. It appears that he is unaware that he has, from time to time, already being making a utilitarian argument for libertarianism (if Objectivism is not to be impaled on the “is ought” problem then an intermediate step through utility is required).

Duncan claims:

There is a clear relationship between liberty and propserity [sic]. This has been demonstrated by the case of North and South Korea, which are visibly different from orbit, and in the failure of socialised education.

These two sentences deserve a prize for a truly amazing error to word ratio.

Firstly – Duncan, once again, hasn’t read my essay at all carefully. Up until a point “liberty” does indeed lead to increased economic prosperity. Beyond that point the correlation simply doesn’t exist. And that point is several light years to the left of a libertarian society . It’s called Sweden. So spare me North v South Korea. All that tells us is that totalitarian societies inhibit growth (there are interested exceptions to this though – maybe in a future blog post) it does not tell us that libertarian societies will have stratospheric rates of growth. Moreover, the state actually played a significant role in South Korea’s economic miracle. As it does in all other economic success stories.

My own post on taxes and growth for more on this explores these matters further. Or, if you have time, search for William Easterly’s cross country regression analyses that show that (short of being punitive) tax take is not negatively correlated to economic growth. Or just read the book I linked to in my original post – it contains careful analysis rather than hair-brained comparisons.

Secondly – I think you’ll find that in South Korea (that libertarian paradise) the state’s involved in the education system too. As it is in almost every developed country. So – if you view economic development as good – it’s ever so slightly hard to claim that socialised education has failed miserably. Indeed, here in New Zealand literacy rates are very high, secondary completion rates are high, tertiary uptake rates are good. Things could improve, true. But it’s very hard to characterise this as a failure.

Duncan then, with nary a flap of his sails, tacks away from utilitarianism and back to defending Nozick and justice. He makes a – sort of – fair point about the Libertarianz not supporting the Seabed and Foreshore Act (good for them). And then goes on to agree with me that it would be simply impossible to create a just distribution of property rights as per Nozick’s terms. Fine, here’s hoping that his libertarian brethren now ever-after cease to make any claims for the fairness of their system. What he doesn’t do is explain (other than the banal “two wrongs don’t make a right”). Why, if we accept that we can’t possibly get a just distribution of property in a historical sense, we should then accept start from now libertarianism over some other form of distributional justice.

Peter Creswell

Peter Creswell is(?) was(?) a fairly senior figure in the New Zealand libertarian party – the Libertarianz – so I’m grateful he’s taken time to respond to my essay.

Some of what he says is similar to Duncan Bayne’s claims so I will concentrate on what I see as additional points of some form.

Creswell starts out by (possibly unwittingly) making a utilitarian defence of property rights, which can surmised as: we need property rights, and the incentives and protections they provide to enable us to produce. And we need to produce to survive. Now this claim is not incontestable of its own accord (any anarchists around?). It’s also unclear why Creswell would choose property rights on there own here rather than say property rights and education. However, up to a point, I don’t entirely disagree. There’s a place for property rights, but if you are making a utilitarian claim for them you don’t need to be absolutist about it. I.e. (and this is my own belief) up to a point, a clear and transparent system that fairly protects property rights – for the entire population – is desirable. (This point is mostly uncontroversial in economics (see North, Rodrik or Acemoglu on institutions)). However, absolutely inviolable property rights aren’t consistent with a utilitarian defence of property rights whatsoever. As I noted – pretty fucking clearly I thought – in my original essay and, as I have repeated above, one relatively clear lesson of economic history is that some compromise between property rights and other societal needs – enforced well – appears to lead to the best outcomes. For an excellent vox pop theoretical explanation of this I recommend Dani Rodrik here in Finance and Development.
Right about now I think you’ll find Creswell retreating into an absolutist defence of property rights (stubbing his toe on the is-ought dilemma on the way).

Creswell then goes on to claim that: “Markets are simply the sum of voluntary choices taken by individuals seeking to better themselves”. Peter (and anyone else inclined to agree), please, take the time to read the section in any first-year economics textbook on market failures. This will explain why that just ain’t so. To paraphrase Joseph Stiglitz: part of the reason the invisible hand is invisible is that, much of the time, it doesn’t actually exist.

After this Creswell disputes my interpretation of freedom.

The chief problem with positing freedom as something different to this, as for example so variant of ‘freedom from want’ is that reality provides no guarantees on that score, and the state is in no position to fake reality any more than you or I or Jacques Derrida.

This, I think conflates freedoms with rights somewhat, but, glossing over this, I’ll simply note that – in New Zealand – the state is quite capable of providing education and some health care. While, in other parts of the world, (often partially because of the result of poor education and epidemics) it is unable to provide the freedoms that Mr Creswell wants anyhow.

Creswell then argues that.

If providing ‘freedom from want’ is considered to be the state’s job, then coercing those who provide the means of life is what the state is required to do, and (as history shows) there goes the whole voluntary interaction deal…

The trouble with this claim is that the moment you get the state involved - for any reason – it brings with it coercion. And the end of the “whole voluntary interaction deal”. Don’t blame positive freedoms for this.

Finally, Mr Creswell makes the same point as Duncan about distributive justice, Maori and the Libertarinz. So he can refer to my answer to Duncan on that point.

One sentence after indicating that he places some worth in Nozick’s view of justice. Mr Creswell writes:

I’d like in conclusion to just point out to both Terence and Idiot Savant that I am not a Nozikian, and I know no libertarians outside academia who are. There is a reason that Nozick is popular in university politics departments, and it’s not because he provides robust arguments for liberty. Quite the opposite.

Actally, the reason that Nozick is popular in the academy is because his philosophical thought (which extends much further than political philosophy) is considered credible and worthy of consideration. This includes his defence of libertarianism. In my opinion it’s faulty, but it least it starts from premises which aren’t full of errors and which other political philosophers can meaningfully engage with. Rand, on the other hand, trips on the is-ought problem right after take off and then falls forwards. She comes up with an explanation (as I understand it, a mix of utilitarianism and the idea that the only moral act is an un coerced one) but then loses it in the subsequent flailing of arms and ideas. In the end she crunches to the ground painfully. I’m not a political philosopher but I’d imagine that most political philosophers have quite wisely decided to steer well clear of the crunch.

All of which reminds me that I did, at one stage in my original essay, promise to poke fun at Rand. This would have been mistaken, for Rand’s life was a tragic one. And I think that her world view stems from the trauma her family suffered at the hands of Bolshevism.

Ms Rand went through this tragedy and generated a misguided philosophy as a response. When, as she aged, someone close to her treated her with all the selfishness that she herself espoused, she degenerated into sorrow and bitterness. Not an Island after all. And not deserving of humour, just pity.

(1) If you support Social Democracy either from a Rawlsian perspective or from a sophisticated/indirect utilitarian perspective then you would never support the these actions. Pace Rawls – no one, behind a veil of ignorance, would rationally choose to live like this. In sophisticated utilitarianism, because we are not oracles, we do put in place systems of rights [including ones precluding the types of acts that Duncan describes] because, in the long run this is the best way to preserve our well being.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Raging Against Modernity

Almost as long as I have been blogging I’ve been meaning to rescue this little exchange from the comments over at John Quiggin’s wonderful blog.

Elizabeth Says:

Here’s some humour that puts everything into context.

Subject: The Modern Noah

In the year 2005 the Lord came to Noah, who was now living in Australia, and said, “Once again, the earth has become wicked and over-populated, and I see the end of all flesh before me. You need to build another Ark and save 2 of every living thing along with a few good humans.

You have 6 months to build the Ark before I start the unending rain for 40 days and 40 nights”.

Six months later, the Lord looked down and saw Noah weeping in his yard - but no Ark.

“Noah!” He roared, “I’m about to start the rain! Where is the Ark?

“Forgive me, Lord,” begged Noah, “but things have changed. I needed a building permit. I’ve been arguing with the inspector about the need for a sprinkler system. My neighbours claim that I’ve violated the neighbourhood zoning laws by building the Ark in my yard and exceeding the height limitations. We had to go to the Development Appeal Board for a decision. Then the Department of Transport demanded a bond be posted for the future costs of moving power lines and other overhead obstructions,to clear the passage for the Ark’s move to the sea. I told them that the sea would be coming to us, but they wouldn’t listen.

Then I had problems getting the wood. There’s a ban on cutting Local trees in order to save an endangered species, the spotted quoll. I tried to convince the environmentalists that I needed the wood to save the quolls - but no go!

When I started gathering the animals, an animal rights group sued me for confining wild animals against their will. They said it was cruel and inhumane to put so many animals in a confined space.

Then the local council ruled that I couldn’t build the Ark until they’d conducted an environmental impact study on your proposed flood.

I’m still trying to resolve a complaint with the Human Rights Commission on how many indigenous people I’m supposed to hire for my building crew.

The Immigration department is checking the status of most of the people who want to work and I’ve even had a letter from Amanda Vanstone asking about my ethnic background!

The trades unions say I can’t use my sons. They insist I have to Hire only Union workers with Ark-building experience.

To make matters worse, the Taxation department has seized all my assets, claiming I’m trying to leave the country illegally with endangered species.

So, forgive me, Lord, but it would take at least 10 years for me to finish this Ark.”

Suddenly the skies cleared, the sun began to shine, and a rainbow stretched across the sky.

Noah looked up in wonder and asked, “You mean you’re not going to destroy the world?”

“No,” said the Lord. “The Government beat me to it.”

fatfingers Says:
September 9th, 2005 at 6:34 pm

Ha ha, Elizabeth. Not. I am so sick of that modern-day Noah parable. I’ll give you the express refutation.

Think of it this way - a lunatic who thinks God is talking to him wants to cut down trees that aren’t his to build an ark that will impact on his neighbours and need powerlines and bridges torn down to move, and that will be filled by starving wild animals.

Do you let him go ahead?


Viva fatfingers I say. But the reason for my post isn’t just to bask in the verve of a blog commenter with whom I agree, but also to make a semi serious point about New Zealand’s much despised Resource Management Act.

Typically it is the left – of the post and pre modern variety – that is accused of being detached from reality and against progress. But I would contend that here, in New Zealand, the people with the real problem with reality – at least when planning laws are concerned – come from the right.

These are the people who bluster that, thanks to the RMA it is impossible to get anything done in New Zealand anymore. Not like the good old days when a bunch of good keen blokes could muck in and clear some sand dunes and make a splendid cricket club – or whatever; free from the constraints of hateful bureaucrats.

Now’s true that, once upon a time you could just about do something like this. And it’s also true that if you tried to do so now, you’d have several arms of local government reaching out to stop you. But the problem here is not one of government. It’s to do with the reality of modern life. Once upon a time there were a heck of a lot fewer New Zealanders; there was also a heck of a lot more undeveloped space. Accordingly, it was much easier to build, clear, destroy and create without significantly impeding on the lives of others (with the exception of native landowners, who disappear from all the fables of the right). Now that just ain’t so anymore. Because, particularly in urban areas, there are so many more of us, and because there is so much less space, we have come to a point where we place a much higher premium on the un (or under) modified environment. Be it where we live, or where we holiday. Or where we would just like it kept preserved so that our children can have some idea of how it once was.

The reason, then, why it’s so much harder to build, clear destroy, and create than it used to be is simply the reality of modern life. There’s no use railing against the RMA: you could tweak it – perhaps; resource it better – certainly. But scrap it and it will return as fast as you can say “huh I actually kindof liked that Pohutukawa”.

What’s the Matter with Libertarianism?

If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And when I am only for myself, what am I?... – Hillel the Elder

Conventional wisdom has it that the 2005 elections in New Zealand were fought, to a significant extent, over the size of the government. According to such conventional wisdom, the reason why Kiwi voters almost turfed Labour out of power despite 6 long years of economic prosperity was because they were sick of a big, greedy government that insisted on running huge surpluses funded by their hard earned wages (never mind that the surpluses weren’t huge). In short, New Zealand voters, we are told, wanted a piece of economic freedom. Yet, oddly enough, despite the supposed thirst for economic liberty, the 2005 elections also turned out to be spectacularly cruel for the two parties who, on the surface at least, were offering the most economic liberty of anyone: ACT and Libertarianz. ACT, who proudly refer to themselves as “the Liberal Party” (that’s classical liberal darling), saw themselves almost extinguished as a political force, being reduced to receiving 1.5% of total votes cast and only being kept in parliament by Rodney Hide winning his seat in Epsom. While the Libertarianz managed the scarcely credible feat of receiving a percentage of the party vote that was 37.5 times smaller than the percentage ratio of government spending to GDP they had campaigned on. This was despite the fact that they were calling for government spending to be only 1.5% of GDP in the first place (in other words they received a whopping 0.04% percent of all votes cast).

All of which ought to be provoking something of an existential crisis in our classical liberal and libertarian friends at present. After all, one of the prerequisites for believing that libertarianism will lead to a better world is the belief that people (individuals) will make the right choices if only given the freedom to do so. Yet here was the public (that motley collection of individuals), operating under all the freedom of MMP elections, choosing to flush the two parties who had the most confidence in their ability to choose wisely down the electoral toilet.

No doubt ACT-ites and their Libertarian brethren will have their own explanations for this: the pernicious influence of state-run education perhaps? Or the endless torrent of propaganda that flows from the obscenely statist (and state-owned) National Radio? Or the fact that the elections themselves were organised by the state (when, surely, private contractors would have been best for the task)?

But I’m not so sure. In fact I’m inclined to believe that the reason why ACT and the Libertarianz did so badly was because the New Zealand voting public (who, it’s true, even I despair of often enough) were smart enough at least to recognise baloney dressed up as political theory when it was presented to them.

What follows is what I see as “being the matter with Libertarianism?” In particular, what I see as being the matter with Libertarianism as it manifests itself in the New Zealand political arena. I won’t, except for the odd instance, be assailing the wisdom of Robert Nozick (who was wise enough to recant some of what he said anyhow) nor Hayek. Not even Ayn Rand (oh heck maybe occasionally in her case – it’s kind of fun). And I do recognise that there is a reasonable degree of heterodoxy of belief amongst Libertarians themselves (Nosick, Hayek and Rand, for a start, are completely different animals, and – likewise – ACT and Libertarianz have plenty of air between them). What I intend to do is take aim at libertarianism, as it is broadly represented in the Great New Zealand Debate.

People Don’t Live by Liberties Alone

While I have no intention of debating particular libertarian philosophers, I do feel that it is worthwhile starting by pointing out a few of the philosophical holes in the Libertarian ship. After all, any ideology that starts taking on water in the deep blue depths of philosophy is likely to be next to sunk by the time it has sailed as far as the treacherous shoals of practical application.

In my mind, the largest of the holes in the HMS Liberty is the privileging of certain “rights” over others. And, in particular, the privileging of one person’s right to hold private property over the right of another human being to survival (or even good health). The inalienable right to acquire and hold private property is central to almost all libertarian(i) thought, yet explanations of why one person’s right to possess inanimate objects or land ought to take precedence over another person’s right to survival tend to be thin on the ground, or unconvincing. Which, to be fair to libertarians, is probably because they are rather hard to construct. After all, what is more central to the human condition: property or survival? Indeed, what is actually more important in safeguarding the total quantity of freedom (aka liberty) that any particular person is able to enjoy in their life: ensuring that they get to hang on to every bit of private property that they have ever acquired(ii) or ensuring that they receive food and shelter sufficient to enable them enjoy another day on this planet?

Against which, a libertarian might argue that, in the real world, freedom and property are all that is really required to ensure survival; that man can live by liberty alone: with freedom from a greedy state, his or her industriousness and capacity to reason will be sufficient to put food on the table. True, there might be the odd person who, through their own indolence, goes hungry, but that’s their problem. All of which is a nice fantasy but also, sadly, complete nonsense. For the simple reason that people are – whether libertarians like to admit it or not – affected to varying degrees by forces beyond their control. No matter how hard a small farmer works, if he is caught up in an event like the Oklahoma Dustbowl, there is a pretty good chance that he will starve or at the very least suffer. The same is true for an urban worker who is caught in the tides of economic depression – through no fault of her own she may find herself unable to put food on the table.

Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen covers this ground in his book Poverty and Famines, showing that significant famines have occurred without anyone’s rights (as conceived by libertarians) being violated.

Freedom’s Just Another Word…

In another of his books – Development as Freedom – Sen discusses another flaw in libertarian thinking which, while not necessarily present in all libertarian thought, certainly finds a happy home in the rhetoric of New Zealand’s libertarians. This is the equating of negative freedoms with freedom per se. As Sen so neatly points out in outlining his capabilities approach to measuring poverty, the concept of freedom surely relates to what we are able to do with our lives not simply what we are permitted to do. Or, in other words: positive freedoms matter. Getting the “government off our backs” will increase freedom when the government is doing things like restricting newspaper’s freedom to publish; but when the government is involved in other undertakings like ensuring that we can all read and write, getting it off our backs is more likely to reduce rather than increase the freedom of a significant proportion of the population. Newspapers, after all, are only any use if you can read them. None of which is to say that the dreaded state will inevitably do a great job of promoting such positive freedoms or even that it inevitably does a better job than the private sector does. But – given that in New Zealand education is a major chunk of government spending, and given that the experiences of countries where education has been privatised indicate that one of the effects has been to move it out of the reach of poorer sectors of the population – it seems at least worth acknowledging that eliminating (or dramatically shrinking) the state might not actually increase the real freedoms of the average New Zealander.

No Man (or Woman) is an Island

As I noted earlier, a significant proportion of New Zealand’s libertarians like to refer to themselves as ‘classical liberals’ alluding to the fact that their ideology has a pedigree that stretches to enlightenment liberals such as John Stuart Mill and Adam Smith. I have written elsewhere why I think Smith was a great thinker but why I also don’t believe that his views on the state are particularly relevant to today’s debates, so I won’t rehash my arguments here, other than to note that we have another word (other than classical) for groups that cling to literal interpretations of texts written hundreds of years ago, ignoring the lessons of the intervening years. Instead, for a moment I want to examine a particular quote from John Stuart Mill. In ‘On Liberty’ Mill wrote: “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.” Personally, I am not sure that I agree entirely with Mill on this matter but I think that the general principal is reasonably a solid one, and one that should be overridden by policy-makers with utmost caution. Which seems like a strange thing to admit in an essay headed “What’s the Matter with Libertarianism?” Strange because most Libertarians would also agree with Mill, and maybe even appeal to Mill’s Maxim when staking the case for their libertarianism. My problem with libertarianism, however, is not so much with the ideal that the only place for government is in mediating when the actions of one person interfere with the life of an other, but rather with the fact that libertarians seem to have a limited understanding of just where and when the actions of one person may cause harm to others. Most libertarians, for example, would agree that it is appropriate for the collective unit (the state in the case of Minarchists, militias or something similar in the case of Anarcho-capitalists) to intervene to stop one person from beating to death another person for no reason, or from stealing their justly acquired property. And I’d agree with them. The trouble is that there are millions of other situations where the actions of one person interfere with the wellbeing of others that many libertarians seem to be wilfully blind to: pollution for example; or noise pollution from boy-racers; or the danger caused by speeding drivers etc. It’s possible that some libertarians might even agree with me that some form of collective action might be appropriate in these instances. However, where we would part ways almost certainly is the issue of seat-belt laws. To a libertarian, mandatory seatbelt laws are an example of the state doing just what Mill extols it not to do: intervening in people’s lives “for their own good”. Surely, if I choose not to wear a seatbelt, knowing the risks, this is my own business as I am the person who is going to go flying through that windscreen, no one else. And I am the person who is going to bear the consequences of my action: no one else. Except that things aren’t that simple – starting with the wellbeing of any dependants that I might have. Of course a libertarian might respond to this by asking: “well what if I don’t have any dependants?” This changes the situation somewhat but your actions are still going to have an emotional impact on your family and friends. To which a libertarian might then reply: “well, what about if I have been a good Objectivist for many years and – for some hard to grasp reason – have no friends and have alienated my family?” Even then though there is going to be the cost of the ambulance and hospital treatment which will be born by the rest of society. “Ah, but not if we scrap public health care and I have insurance?” a libertarian might reply. Unfortunately though, in this case, the costs will simply be born by other policy holders. Which would probably lead to a libertarian’s final response: “well what about if we scrap public health care and if I have no insurance and don’t want to receive health care?” Even then though things aren’t that simple: humans are empathetic creatures and your actions are still going to have an impact on the ambulance driver who has to leave you to die by the roadside or the A&E surgeon who has to decide to withhold your treatment.

In saying all this, I am not making an argument for extreme communitarianism where all our actions have to be considered intensively vis-à-vis their impact on other people. I’m not even necessarily making the case for seat belt laws. I am simply pointing out that humans are communal beings and that our lives are linked in innumerable ways. This is something that means that there are, in reality, very few “victimless crimes” or actions which we may take that have absolutely no impact on other people. Which, in turn, means that an awful lot of what the state does actually takes place without violating Mill’s maxim above.

At the end of the day, our lives are full of interactions with other human beings – they are an inescapable element of being human. We rely on others and, likewise, others rely on us. Other people’s choices influence our lives. And our choices influence theirs. Libertarianism, by its almost exclusive focus on the rights of the individual simply isn’t a workable philosophy when placed in among the messy – interconnected – reality of human existence.

Just Plain Unjust

“Such are the rich, they seize what belongs to all and claim the right of possession to monopolise it.” Saint Basil of Caesarea, 4th Century.

As well as being a long way removed from the reality of human existence, libertarianism suffers from the problem that, when placed in historical context, it is thoroughly unjust – even on its own terms.

Libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick famously argued (partially in response to Rawlsian and Utilitarian arguments about distribution of income) that: “A distribution is just if it arises from another just distribution by legitimate means.” Which is a pretty succinct statement of the libertarian perspective on distributional issues. Ultimately, I don’t agree with Nozick here – I’m in favour of something representing a Utilitarian approach – however, even if you do accept Nozick’s proposition, it’s no argument for the justness of libertarianism in any practical sense. In fact it’s evidence as to why any libertarian society must inevitably be unjust – at least by Nozickian standards. This is for the simple reason that the current distribution of income (in New Zealand, in the USA, in the world) hasn’t arisen legitimately from another just distribution at all. Think of all the crimes of history: of all the violations of property and liberty as defined by libertarians (the Nazi theft of land and belongings from the Jews; the collectivisation of private property that took place in the Soviet Union followed by the de-collectivisation which handed most of this property to figures high-up in the communist party; the theft of indigenous people’s land by the colonial powers; slavery; the billions of contract violations that have taken place since the first contract was drawn up). Once you do it becomes clear that our present ‘distribution’ is anything but just. What’s more it’s irredeemably unjust – on Nozickian terms. This is because while it might be – theoretically – possible set up some sort of draconian court that looked back through all the injustices of the past and confiscated from those who benefited from them, returning wealth to those who had lost, in practice, this would be impossible. Not in the least because you would have to be compensating people who were already dead (and, indeed some who were never born) by taking property from people who might not be alive (or have ever been born) were it not for the injustices perpetuated by their forbearers. In the absence of any real chance of justice looking back, a libertarian could possibly argue for some sort of ‘level playing-field moving forwards’ form of justice as a next best option. This might involve a 100% inheritance tax accompanied by massive investment in public education for a generation followed thereafter by a libertarian system with strict protection of property rights. This would at least be interesting, if still highly implausible. But you certainly won’t find it in the proposals of New Zealand’s libertarian parties. To be fair this, perhaps, is because a 100% inheritance tax would be politically unpalatable to most New Zealanders; but at the very least, one would expect Libertarians to be as hawkish as practically possible when it came to rectifying past wrongs. This would provide their philosophical system with a tiny semblance of fairness.

Yet, Libertarianism, as it is advocated in the political arena in New Zealand, argues for nothing of the sort. The ACT party, for example, is not, as you would think, staunchly in favour of providing redress to Maori for our long history of violating their property rights. Much the opposite in fact: ACT is one of the cheerleaders of ‘moving on’ from the crimes of the past; of putting an end to the ‘culture of grievance’(3). What they’re really advocating is ‘start from now’ libertarianism which, funnily enough, almost-always finds its strongest advocates amongst those who are doing pretty well at present thank you very much.

Mostly Bonkers - what’s Worse, it wouldn’t Work

The final problem that I have with libertarianism runs as such. Even if you’re willing to accept that it’s philosophically dodgy and unjust even on terms of its own philosophers you might still favour libertarianism simply because it worked. If, unfairness and all, it provided the best outcome for people. Utilitarian’s libertarianism, so to speak. The trouble is simply put (and apologies for the shortness of this section I would like to get this essay finished) there’s simply no evidence to show that a ‘freer’ economy leads to better outcomes than a more regulated one (up to a point of course – we’ll call that point Sweden). As Harvard Economic historian Peter Lindhart shows in his book Growing Public, state intervention in the European welfare states, did not – over the last century – lead to appreciably slower growth than in more liberalised economies like that of the US. All the US has got for its troubles is a less healthy less secure society with a bundle of social problems that are worse than those encountered by Social Democracies. And this is despite the fact that the US is only slightly more liberalised than the European states. Now it’s possible that you could argue that the US only suffers because it hasn’t been bold enough in embracing ‘Freedom’, but given that the major problems it encounters – the environment, health care, inequality, poverty etc. – have only ever been addressed effectively using collective action, it’s pretty darn hard to see how more economic liberalisation in the US will take the country closer to utopia.


What I have written above is my attempt to explain what bothers me with libertarianism and why I would never vote for its acolytes here in New Zealand. To me libertarianism just doesn’t pan out: when expressed in terms of rights it renders absolute a right (property) the pre-eminence of which it cannot defend; its rhetoric co-opts the word freedom and robs it of half its meaning; and it is unjust – on its own terms. What’s more I see no evidence that – even if you were to discard all the concerns above – it would ‘work’ any better than the alternatives. In short it is wholly unconvincing.

The iconoclastic Canadian-born economist John Kenneth Galbraith once wrote that: “The modern conservative is engaged in one of man's oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.” To the extent that much modern conservatism is libertarian in nature, and because none of the justifications offered for it hold water, I am inclined to agree.

Perhaps I am wrong though. This is only a blog post – a first draft if you will – I’d love to hear where my mistakes are.

Some Readings:

In terms of Books – Amartya Sen’s Development as Freedom covers, makes an eloquent argument in favour of positive freedoms.

Some online articles I found worth a read were:

Johann Hari on Ayn Rand

The LRB on Ayn Rand (hat tip to Anon in comments)

The Wikipedia has an ok section on criticism of libertarianism

And, of course, on libertarianism itself

This is an online index of criticism

A conservative criticism of libertarianism, which – typically enough – uses ad homs. etc. It almost made me want to side with the libertarians.

This is someone who obviously got tired of arguing with libertarians on Usenet

If house pets were libertarians – a cartoon

A good critique of libertarianism by a philosopher:

Whittaker Chambers’ famous review of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.



(1) It is central to right-libertarian thought, but not, of course, to the beliefs of anarco-socialists who, typically, reject private property along with government.
(2) At this stage I am working on the assumption that such property is justly acquired. I’ll deal with unjustly acquired property later in the essay.
(3) The term ‘culture of grievance’ is particularly rich coming from a group of people who appear to grieve excessively for every penny they pay in tax.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Conrad Interlude

"And I looked upon the true sea - the sea that plays with men till their hearts are broken, and wears stout ships to death." Joseph Conrad

Friday, July 21, 2006

The Spanish Civil War

New Zealand's public radio has some great stuff (two interviews) up on the Spaniosh Civil War. While the links are live, it's well worth a listen.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Economic Shock Therapy

More from Gapminder. Compare the fates of China and Poland (who underwent a gradual transition from communism to capitalism) with that of Russia and Moldavia, who were subjected to economic shock therapy.

Thursday, June 29, 2006


Via Crooked Timber - Gapminder is an incredible tool which lets you view international development statistics as animated graphs.

Have a look at this graph of life expectancy, versus GNP by country, animated by year. And then watch the interactive UNDP human development trends data show (it's on the front page, just scroll down a little).

Here's a snapshot from the Life Expectancy v GNP graph. I've tracked three countries on it. The first, Rwanda, is a tragic illustration of what genocide really means: in a few short years, life expectancy plummets from almost 45 years to slightly under 25 years, then the economy tanks. After that, you see a shaky climb back up to somewhere near where they were in 1975 (maybe a bit richer, but with a slightly lower life expectancy.) The second country I've tracked is South Korea - a development success story with a steady increase in wealth and health. The third country I've tracked is Botswana, which was for many year's considered sub-Saharan Africa's own model of success. Indeed it's trajectory is similar to South Korea's at first (just a decade behind: in 1985 it was where Korea was in 1975). Then, in the early 1990s, AIDS arrives and it drops off the edge of a cliff. Had its initial positive trend continued, Botswana may have had a life expectancy of about 70 come the turn of the millennium; instead it's around 35).

The impact of AIDS.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006


Johann Hari recently wrote an article criticising Niall Ferguson and his dreams of empire. Fergusson and other right wing historians responded. Hari responded, Ferguson responded again, and Hari published Ferguson's response on his website along with the responses of some of Hari's supporters. One which I wrote. It's sad to admit, but I'm kinda chuffed. This almost fills in the vast gap in my life created when Mr Hari closed the comments on his website...

UPDATE: The Indy, published the letter too. Albiet in an abridged form.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

State intervention is for Muggles!

Foreign Affairs has an excellent review of William Easterly's new book on international aid and its inadequacies written by Amartya Sen. Amongst much well reasoned argument, Sen makes the following point (which is expressed, not untypically, obtusely, but which also turns Easterly’s ill thought-out wizard-wand straight back at him).

Perhaps the weakest link in Easterly's reasoning is his almost complete neglect of the distinctions between different types of economic problems. Easterly is well aware of the efficiency of market delivery when commodities are bought in a market and backed by suitable purchasing power, and he contrasts that with the usual infelicities and inefficiencies in getting aid to those who need it most. But the distinction between the two scenarios lies not only in the different ways of meeting the respective problems, but also in the nature of the problems themselves. There is something deeply misleading in the contrast he draws between them, which seems to have motivated his entire project: "There was no Marshall Plan for Harry Potter, no International Financing Facility for books about underage wizards. It is heartbreaking that global society has evolved a highly efficient way to get entertainment to rich adults and children, while it can't get twelve-cent medicine to dying poor children." The disparity in the results is indeed heartbreaking. But jumping from there to arguing that the solution to the latter problem is along the same lines as the solution to the former reflects a misunderstanding of what makes the latter so much more difficult. (That major issue is clearly more important than the minor point that J. K. Rowling was on welfare support and received a grant from the Scottish Arts Council when writing the first Harry Potter novel.) [My emphasis]

Easterly’s argument turned into a toad…

Easterly responds here but, wisely this time, keeps Harry Potter out of it.

Another Good Hitchens Take Down

Literary magazine n+1 has an excellent takedown of Christopher Hitchens. While I differ from the article’s author in never having been a huge fan of Hitchens*, I agree wholeheartedly with the article’s central thrust. In particular, I agree that Hitchens appears to have degenerated into a single issue nutter; not only that, but someone who has chosen to focus on a single issue which – while important – is far from being the greatest threat “civilisation” is up against. Moreover, it is far from clear that he actually understands his single issue all that well either. These points, combined with is Hitchens’ proclivity for debating straw-men rather than real people – which is well documented in the n+1 piece – is for me, what makes him so annoying.

Nestled amongst the article is a good nuanced explanation of opposition to the invasion of Iraq:

Hitchens has rebuked the American left for its supposedly intransigent refusal to consider supporting the American government in any military undertaking “unless it had done everything right, and done it for everybody.” He is mistaken. I was not, I am sure, the only leftist who at least tried to distinguish between intentions and consequences. It was as plain as day to me (and no matter what Hitchens may say, I can’t help suspecting it was equally plain to him) that the Bush Administration’s chief purposes in invading Iraq were: to establish a commanding military presence in the region where the most important natural resource in the world is located; to turn a large and potentially rich country into a virtually unregulated investors’ paradise; to impress the rest of the world once again with America’s insuperable lead in military technology; to exploit the near-universal hatred of Saddam to legitimize (by establishing a precedent for) the doctrine of unilateral American military intervention expounded in the National Security Strategy document of September 2002; and to unify the electorate behind an administration that was making a hash of the economy and the environment in order to reward its campaign contributors. Still, this is not why I opposed the war. If I had not also believed that the invasion would strike a sledgehammer blow to most of the world’s fragile hopes for international order and the rule of law, I might have calculated that, whatever the government’s motives, the potentially huge expenditure of lives and money it contemplated would be better employed in removing Saddam than in, say, providing clean water, cheap vaccines, mosquito nets, et cetera to the wretched invisibles, and so saving tens of millions of lives. Not likely, but it would have been a decision based on calculation rather than principle.

Would that Hitchens could capture some of this nuance at some stage in his life. It’s unlikely, it seems: once a polemicist, always a polemicist. The writer of the n+1 article attributes Hitchens’ sharp shift from radical left to affinity with the radical right to impatience with gradual change, with progressive reform. I can empathise with Hitchens’ impatience, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that it is his revolutionary zeal – whether once well placed or now sadly misplaced – that hinders him from making any serious contribution to the discussions that matter**.

* I’ll do admire his writing ability (except when it spills over into grandiloquence).
** Hitchens seems also to fixate on personalities. Sometimes this, combined with his force and urge for change, leads to his best work – I think. On the other hand it also seems to leave him staggering from vendetta to vendetta and, all too often, prone to pettiness.

humans re-considered

][poiuy yuerew wqq

the guardian publishes things like this, and you expect me not to vomit on it?

as for the Wall Street Journal all I can say is that if you were, at least, readers of the WSJ I might get a bit of variety in my diet, rather than endless canned horse.

I feel a hair-ball coming on.

azwscef ';lmkjh

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Cats Reconsidered

Ok, ok; after reading this I have to confess to feeling conflicted. I'm still a cat lover but Toxoplasma gondii seems just too intelligent by half.

On paper, Toxoplasma gondii looks as if it ought to be the most famous parasite on earth. This single-celled pathogen infects over half the world's population, including an estimated 50 million Americans. Each of Toxoplasma's victims carries thousands of the parasites, many residing in the brain. As if that were not enough of an accomplishment, Toxoplasma is equally adept at infecting all other warm-blooded animals, as disparate as chickens and kangaroos…Cats play a major role in the parasite's success. They can carry it in their intestines, where they can produce egglike cysts called oocysts. A single infected cat can shed 100 million oocysts in its droppings. The oocysts can survive in the soil for over a year and can contaminate drinking water… Once Toxoplasma enters a host, it spreads quickly. Within hours it can be detected in the heart and other organs. It is even able to infect the brain, which is protected from most pathogens by a tight barrier.

Mercifully the article notes that: “For the vast majority of people, Toxoplasma causes no serious effects.”*

So I guess the cat stays in tonight after all.

However, I’m still somewhat concerned:

For decades, most scientists believed that people with healthy immune systems had no effects from Toxoplasma. But some studies in recent years have hinted that the parasite can exert surprising effects on behavior, at least in animals. In 2000, British scientists demonstrated that rats infected with Toxoplasma lost their fear of cats. They proposed that this strategy increased the parasite's chances of getting into its final host.

I wonder if Toxoplasma leaves a certain other species of mammal altogether too inclined to forgive their cat's faults…

*Toxoplasma can be dangerous to the immuno-compromised and to unborn foetuses.

In Defence of Cats

On the other hand. Who could argue with a species which chases bears up trees.

This Could Only Happen to a Liberal*

Our cat started making chucking up noises the other night**. So my partner grabbed the nearest thing she could find to place between cat and carpet. And it was a success: cat vomited on newspaper not carpet, and everything was happily-ever-after-esque. Or at least it would have been to were it not for the fact that the aforementioned paper was the Guardian Weekly (brand new). We tried to punish the cat by putting him outside, but he gave me that kind of look which said, “punish me, when you're at least partially at fault, that can’t be just”. So I relented and let him stay inside. Do Wall Street Journal Readers have these kind of problems? I suspect not…

*technically left-liberal
**which could be the result of over feeding stemming from redistributionist tendencies on behalf of the cat’s owners co-habitants.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Health Care and Costs

Over at Just Left, Jordan made a comment on the future of health care in New Zealand. As always it was thoughtful and - more surprisingly - some of the responses he received were thoughtful too. Quite a few of them came from the 'privatise health care' school of thought of course. I offered my own comment too, which I've repeated here, in part to keep this blog active and in part because it summaries my own thoughts on the matter pretty well.


A few of the elephants in the room:

1. Aging population: more people, living longer in the period of their life when they are most likely to encounter health problems. This means that, whether you run a private or public health care system, you are going to have to do one of two things in the near future: spend a lot more money on health care; or start rationing it (which, in effect, we already do through waiting lists).

2. New technology: as medical technology advances there is an ever expanding list of diseases that can be treated with new techniques. This is, of course, an excellent thing, with obvious personal, social and economic benefits. It also means that someone (the insurance policy holder, the government...) is going to have to spend more to pay for the aforementioned treatments.

3. Globalisation and, in particular, the globalisation of labour markets: To an extent nurses and doctors exist in a global rather than a national labour market. Meaning that the purchasers of their services - to an extent - have to compete with the World's wealthiest countries and what they can afford to pay. Now a raise in nurses' pay isn't a bad thing. In my opinion they are incredibly under-valued. But it does mean that the consumer (government or individuals) are going to have to pay more.

4. Past underspending: Throughout the 80s and 90s we underspent on health care, accumulating quite a deficit in terms of resources (buildings and the like). This means that we will have to spend significantly just to "break even" and thereafter start seeing improved outcomes. A case in point is the refurbishment of Wellington Hospital.

With regards to the private versus public health care debate:

1. The United States – one of the few developed countries with a mostly privatised health care system – spends a lot more per capita on health care than do European countries with similar (or better) quality state provided health care systems. [I can provide references for this if anyone is interested]. This is because markets in health care are dramatically different for markets in Hamburgers. In the case of the United States part of the problem is that marketised health care has created a vast – private – bureaucracy in which much time is wasted by insurance companies trying to avoid paying medical providers and so on. The US health system is also unable to benefit as easily from monopsony as are single provider systems (unlike Pharmac in New Zealand).

2. In general, markets in health are less desirable than markets in most other things; there are a variety of reasons for this including:

a. externalities (think epidemics);
b. the fact markets struggle when dealing with long-term risk;
c. the fact that, when it comes to choosing appropriate medical technologies and strategies, experts and planners can do a better job than consumers. This is because health is a complex business requiring specialist knowledge; unlike, say, taste in hamburgers.

d. Markets, when they function properly, optimise efficiency. They promise nothing when it comes to distribution. Or in other words, a purely market system, doesn’t guarantee provision of services or products to all. That’s fine when it comes to Hamburgers – I don’t think every New Zealander has the intrinsic right to eat McDonalds. But when it comes to health, in my opinion, every New Zealander does have the right to health care. This is a moral choice and others can disagree with me on the matter; but the point here is that it is a moral issue not an economic one. And if the New Zealand public feels similarly to me (and given that the two parties who were mostly likely to fully privatise health care, together, received about 2% of the vote in the last election I think it likely that they do) then you are going to require some form of government intervention in the system. Even in the United States, this takes place to an extent via Medicare (or Medicaid – I get the two confused). Unfortunately, however, because it’s tacked on to a market system, it takes place very inefficiently (for the reasons mentioned above).

For these and other reasons, I don’t think that privatised health care offers any solution to the problems confronting us in New Zealand.

The fact that privatisation is no panacea obviously doesn’t solve the dilemmas confronting public health provision in New Zealand (the elephants in the room above). In my mind, possible solutions are as follows:

1. Raising taxes (the trouble here is political palatability of course)
2. Seeking efficient (as opposed to ideologically driven) ways of running our health care system (it would be interesting to see what those European countries that provide very good health care efficiently do).
3. Moving the ambulance to the top of the cliff. Labour’s done some good stuff here like making primary health care affordable for some (why not all?) people (in the long run primary intervention is cheaper than secondary and tertiary); but there is a lot more that could be done. For example, when it comes to non communicable diseases (which are an increasing burden on our health care system), encouraging healthier diets and lifestyles might help (remove GST from fresh fruit and vegetables would be a good start).
4. Tackling inequality; as counter-intuitive as it sounds, there is a lot of evidence that high levels of inequality lead to worse health outcomes (see Richard Wilkinson’s work on this).

Thursday, April 20, 2006

What's the Use-ton?

Euston Manifesto has certainly set the cat amongst the pigeons back in the mother-land. I was even tempted to write about what I objected to in the manifesto; but someone called Mike Marqusee has said almost everything I wanted to, so I'll restrict myself to two points.

1. I’d have thought that the current mess in Iraq would have provided the pro-invasion left* with sufficient self-doubt by this stage to curtail anything so grand as a manifesto. I would have been wrong of course.

2. Does any of this really matter? Well here's my prediction: if, within the next few months, you hear about this anywhere else in the NZ blogosphere the manifesto might actually have some impact. If not: oh well at least they had fun.**

* While not all of the manifestos signatories are pro war (or indeed even left) its drafters all appear to come from this camp.
** While there's quite a lot that bugs me about the manifesto it's bang on in a number of areas and, even if it fades away (pretty likely), the tensions that produced it will be with the left for a long time I think.

The article so bad it lured me back into blogging

Good grief; this article is terrible even by the standards of the Murdoch press. Think a mixture of Helen Hughes and Rudyard Kipling. Or in other words, White Man's Burden Australian style...aaaarrrrrrrrgggggggghhhhhhhhhh

Sunday, March 12, 2006

yet another blog break...

Probably no real posts from me until early April - just too busy.

In the meantime you (yes even the spambots which are almost exclusively the readership of this blog) may enjoy reading Gary Younge's barnstorming Guardian column on bravery and political correctness. And Paul Krugman has an excellent look at the health care crisis in the US in this NYROB article.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Girl In the North Country

I just went and saw North Country and it was a powerful movie. Powerful enough to inspire me to read about it some more on the internet - and I stumbled across this summary of the true story. Enraging, sad and worth reading: simply to get some tiny idea what those women went through.

In this "post-feminist" age it is far too easy to take for granted the achievements of feminism; and to forget just how much more needs to be achieved. To do so would be a huge injustice.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

if we were serious about the "war on terror"...

Can someone please explain to me why this front of the war on terror hasn't been fought on more vigorously? Conflict of interests perhaps?

Thursday, February 23, 2006

More On Lott

Tim Lambert has written a special post to help celebrate John Lott's arrival in New Zealand. Lambert has spent much time debunking Lott's "research" (remember the conference that Lott will be talking at claims to be about "solid research, not pious hopes"), and Lambert's latest post is worth a read as it links to other posts explaining the flaws in the particular "research" that Lott will be talking about while here.