11 December 2009

Major threat to your email

I just came across this story, from a few months ago. I'm surprised it didn't get more play, because it's much more serious than the run-of-the-mill software vulnerability story.

PC's are not secure, and never have been. For most of us, that hasn't been a big concern. We try to keep viruses and bots off our systems, either by avoiding Windows or by more iffy and difficult methods. But that's mostly due to a desire to keep our systems running and be good network citizens. But the risk of a personal attack on your system has always been a long shot, because, despite the fact there are many people who could read your email, there's little reason any of them would want to. The sets of people who know how, and people who would care to, are small enough that their intersection is probably zero.

That calculation has now changed. If there is someone who has a grudge against you, or some other motive to want to read your email or impersonate you, and that person knows how to buy stuff on the internet, you are now at serious risk.

I've talked before about how to make your email secure, but it's difficult to do reliably, and the advice in the article is probably best. If you want to keep stuff secret, don't put it on a computer, unless you're an expert.

03 December 2009

Climategate - sceptics come out

Damian Thompson says "I had no idea that so many mainstream politicians entertained doubts about the AGW thesis."

That is why the event looks like it's going to turn into a victory for the sceptics after all. It's not that the leaked data and emails does all that much damage to the alarmists' arguments. It didn't need to: they weren't that strong to begin with.

The case for global warming depends on positive feedback - in more ways than one. First, because the actual temperature change due to increased CO2 concentration is not worth worrying about, and can only be a problem if it produces weather changes that themselves create more warming - positive feedback. And secondly, because the electorate, reasonably, takes the scientists' word about the seriousness of the problem, and responds by demanding that politicians demonstrate their concern about the problem, which they do by creating more opportunities for alarmist scientists, who then persuade the public even more of the need to demand more from the politicians...

So a key element in the forming of the AGW political consensus has been that people just accept what they're told. That's what anyone would expect - you've got to be a bit odd to start to delve into the details of atmospheric physics, weather station siting, dendrochronology, Regularized Expectation-Maximization calculations, just to check up the conclusions of the people who are actually qualified to talk about these things. If someone starts challenging the conventional wisdom by referring to all these technicalities, the only sensible thing is to ignore the technicalities and make a judgment based on the the trustworthiness and qualification of the competing authorities.

The leaked emails change that - not because the man in the street will say - "Oh my! There's a perhaps somewhat disturbing compensation between indirect aerosol forcing and sensitivity across the CMIP3 models that defies the assumption of independence!", but because he will see that the argument is not between robot white-coated paragons and a few scruffy nutters, but between two groups of real people, at least one of which must be wrong. That doesn't change his mind, but it takes the pressure off, so that politicians who have not previously dared to express contrary opinions feel able to make themselves known. That in turn will stir up more doubt, and the positive feedback will move the issue back to being a legitimate debate, as it belongs to be.

29 November 2009

ClimateGate and CSI

ClimateGate, as I wrote earlier, does not expose the evil machinations of the Knights Carbonic. It doesn't tell me anything I didn't already know (although it proves one or two things that were fairly obvious but previously had barely-plausible deniability)

It is important, though, for what it tells the wider public. Not what it tells them about Climate Science, but what it tells them about science generally. Climate Alarmism has been a beneficiary of a kind of CSI Effect. "There was also evidence of genetic material from a franklinia alatamaha on his shoe. The only known specimen in this area, outside a specialized botanical garden, was given to Senator Alan Corman as a gift."

The truth of science is rather different. And I don't say that because I'm anti-science, It's just that science is a slow process, and, above all, a social process. It isn't all "Hurrah, I've discovered Boyle's Third Law." What is unusual about climate science is not the science itself, but the relevance of public opinion and the relevance to politics.

Science that's of particular interest to the public is usually bad. Usually what happens is that the Mail and the Express get all excited, and everyone else ignores it. What happened with climate science is that a scare story had stakes that were high enough that all the papers got involved, leading to irresistable pressure on politicians, leading to a whole industry being created on the scare.

A story which serves as a nice microcosm of the process is this one. Warning people of dangers is part of the HSE's job. They ran a campaign, in cooperation with the TUC, to warn building workers about the dangers of asbestos. In doing so, they exaggerated the risk of death by an order of magnitude, by using a theoretical risk model with simplifying assumptions that were incorrect.

A lobby group complained to the Advertising Standards Authority, which ruled against the HSE. That could happen, because the issue was never big news, and no significant politicians had attached themselves to either side of the question. (Scientists dont politicise science, politicians do). Nobody at the ASA got a concerned call from David Cameron. So in this case, the error was corrected. It's not bound to happen that way.

28 November 2009


When I announced I was giving up on politics, I was at a loss as to what do do with this blog. One option that I considered was concentrating on the climate question. I didn't take that option, primarily out of cowardice. There has been a determined and deliberate campaign to make out that climate sceptics are not simply wrong but insane. This has been somewhat successful, to the point that I was seriously concerned for my professional reputation should I persist in arguing the sceptical case. This in itself is a remarkable state of affairs, given that the position I am nervous about admitting to holding, is, according to some opinion polls, that of the majority.

(As an anti-democrat, I cannot and do not claim much significance for the majority status of climate scepticism. I merely make the point that it is very strange that the majority view is not even respectable)

The leak of the CRU data has tempted me to stick my head over the parapet once more. The first thought when they appeared was that it was too good to be true, and that the emails must have been faked or planted. That fear faded, but what eventually emerged was that the emails, at least, are less compromising than they appeared at first glance.

To take the most quoted example, the "Nature trick", it is at the very worst an attempt to spin the data in such a way that the headlines of articles point more in the direction of unprecedented modern warming. It might not even be that, but it doesn't matter, because we already had proof that the data was being spun in that way, which I presented in April 2008.

The more I look at the documents the less bad they seem. I had set store by the "Rules of the game" presentation as evidence of excessive politicisation, but when I looked at it I saw it was produced by an advertising agency for the government. It is a shocking disgrace that it was produced and is being used, but one can hardly blame the CRU just for having a copy of it. It is nothing to do with them, and in fact the advice it gives is that the scientists' work should be ignored or glossed over - even suggesting there might be scientific questions is something the politicians want to avoid.

Next, we had the "harry_read_me" file, and the contortions that had to be done to turn a heterogeneous heap of instrument data and adjustments into a presentable, usable gridded global temperature history. People who've never had to anything of the sort were shocked by the problems described - incompatible data sets, inconsistent data sets, code written by departed programmers doing things they don't understand, corruption introduced by format conversions, ad-hoc fixes to cope with missing or corrupted data, mysterious factor-of-ten discrepancies, struggling with inappropriate out-of-date programming languages, success defined as getting data out at the end that "looks right" after nights and weekends of failure. I've worked on software producing summary reports of data from multiple sources, and I've seen all those things, and done many of them myself. It's pretty much inevitable.

After that came the famous

valadj=[0.,0.,0.,0.,0.,-0.1,-0.25,-0.3,0.,- 0.1,0.3,0.8,1.2,1.7,2.5,2.6,2.6,$
2.6,2.6,2.6]*0.75 ; fudge factor

None of the blogs I've seen that seized on that actually traced the output of the code through to the papers where it was presented, to see if the adjustments were explained there, assuming the output was ever published at all, which has been denied

I don't now expect the leaked documents to show deliberate fraud, but I never believed there was any in the first place. At least, since there is no reason for Phil Jones to resign and be replaced by someone else, one eternal truth can be upheld - George Monbiot is always wrong.

What the emails do show are two things:

Fact 1. That the researchers - Jones, Briffa, Mann, and others - see themselves as having a responsibility not just to do the science but to persuade the public of the seriousness of the problem and of the need for political action

Fact 2. That as part of this, they want to prevent sceptical research from being published or believed, and at least believe they have some power to do so

Neither of these this are actually serious accusations against the individual scientists. Today it would be thought very strange to argue that a scientist finding what he believed was a serious threat to humanity should not act on that belief by seeking to influence politics. When the government funds research, it wants to fund research that is relevant, and all that the scientists' activism amounts to is arguing that their research is, in fact, relevant. And of course someone has to review and edit papers and decide which are good science and which aren't - that's what peer review means.

And that is the real point here. Because although both of these facts are just the result of Jones et al doing the jobs they're employed to do, the result of the combination is that science is broken. It's not their fault.

You can have partisan presentations of the evidence, provided there is opportunity to compare competing partisan presentations. And you need to have assessments of the value of scientific claims, but those should not be made or controlled by partisans of either side. What has gone wrong is that one side has been allowed to silence the other.

The analogy I like is to agency ratings - it worked well until it was made official. When the only asset a rating agency had was the trust that the market had in their judgement, they were extremely conservative. Nobody would pay the agency to give an instrument a rating that nobody else would believe. Once there were laws that many of the largest investors were required to invest in instruments that had AAA rating, that gave the ratings a value in excess of their credibility.

Peer review is the same - publication in the more prestigious scientific journals was valued because it was understood by other scientists as a recommendation that the work was of a high quality. The editors of journals were motivated not only to maintain but to improve the reputation of their journals. Now that review has gone from being solely a recommendation of quality directed at the scientist's peers, to a stamp of worth directed at politicians and the public, the incentives in the system have been distorted.

27 October 2009

Clap your hands if you believe

The UN has appointed as a "Honorary Ambassador of Green" an imaginary entity that is said to only exist if enough children believe in it.

Words fail me...

04 October 2009

The End

I've been on holiday for a couple of weeks, and I expected to write quite a lot here in that time.
The reason I didn't is that my political thinking has pretty much come to a conclusion. I don't like it at all, but it's a conclusion for all that.

When Adam Smith was writing, there were many theories, public and private, about what a business ought to do. Smith pointed out, [drawing from Darwin and Malthus] (edit, yes I really wrote that, oops), that whatever theory they believed, the businesses that survived would be those which aimed at maximising profit, or those that, by coincidence, behaved as if that was what they aimed at.
The situation in politics is that, while there are many theories about what politicians should do, those politicians will succeed that behave as if their aim is to achieve power at any cost. Perhaps historically many politicians had other aims, and the successful ones were those who happened to act as a pure power-seeker would, but now there is sufficient understanding of what path will gain and hold power that those who consciously diverge from the path least will be those who win.
To be clear, I'm not simply talking about electoral politics here. I'm talking about all politics, in non-democratic systems, in the electoral process, and in the wider and more important politics beyond elections, where power lives in media, civil service, educational, trade union and other centres outside the formal government.
The trivial fact - that power will go to those that want it - is reinforced by the more effective co-operation that pure power-seekers can achieve than ideologues. A large number of power-seekers, although rivals, will co-operate on the basis of exchanges of power. The result is a market in power, and that is the most effective basis for large-scale collective action. Those attempting to achieve specific, different but related aims will find it much more difficult to organise and co-operate on the same scale.

Is it not possible, then, to have significant influence, not by competing directly with politicians but by competing with the media/educational branches of the establishment by promoting ideas? The metacontext, as the folks at Samizdata say. It is indeed possible to influence politics by doing that, and that is what libertarians have done for the last half century or so. But I'm not sure it's possible to have good influence. Certainly some good things have happened because libertarians have changed the metacontext to the point where the things have appealed to power-seekers. But some bad things have happened that way too. The fact is that while the "background" beliefs of the electorate and other participants in politics does have an effect, there is no reason to assume that correct background beliefs cause better policies than incorrect background beliefs.
One of the most depressing aspects of activism is that on the very few occasions when you get someone onto your side, either by persuading them or just finding them, more often than not they're still wrong. They're persuaded by bad arguments rather than good arguments. Activism would appeal to me on the idea that I will win out in the end because my arguments are good, but in fact not only do my good arguments not win against my opponents' bad arguments, my good arguments do not even win against my allies' bad arguments. The idea that truth is a secret weapon that is destined to win out once assorted exceptional obstacles have been overcome is an utter fantasy.
As a result, even if you do achieve marginal influence by working for policies or ideas that would be widely beneficial, your success is likely to backfire. The other players in the game are working for the narrow interest of identifiable groups and, as such, are able to mobilise far greater resources. They also are willing to trade with other power seekers, which improves their effectiveness further. The idealist is not able to do that, because the idealist obtains only the particular powers he wants to keep, whereas the politician grabs whatever power he can, even if it is of no use to him, and that which is of no use to him, he trades. The only way to do that is to get whatever power you can, which is my definition of a politician.
It still feels like there is something noble in working for better government, even if the project appears doomed. But there isn't. After all, most utopians from anarchist to fascist to Marxist are working for better government, but we oppose them because their utopias are unachievable and their attempts to get there are harmful. Your ideas don't work because they're flawed, my ideas don't work because politics is flawed. Hmmm. Why are my ideas better than yours, again?
And that is the final straw. In truth, I have never been an activist. I have neither appetite or aptitude for practical politics, which after all is basically a people business, but I used to believe it was interesting to look in isolation at the question of what those with political power ought to do with it, so as to make the government as good as possible, in a vaguely utilitarian way. What brings my political efforts to an end is the realisation that that is meaningless. A political theory based on the assumption that a government will act in the general interest once it understands how to do so is as useful as a theory based on the assumption that the world is flat and carried by elephants. Politics has given me some entertainment over the years, but not as much as Terry Pratchett has.
If I am going to assume that governments work in the general interest, once they understand how to do it, I might just as well assume that industrialists work in the general interest, in which case all my clever arguments about the value of private property rights for resolving opposing private interests are completely irrelevant.
It's amusing that of all the posts on this blog, one of the most important turns out to be one that I thought at the time was unimportant: this one, originally driven by my musings on Newcombe's Paradox.
Almost all significant propositions are, implicitly or explicitly, of the form IF {some hypothetical state of the world} THEN {something will result}. In politics, the hypothetical frequently involves some person making some decision. The proposition therefore needs to take into account whatever is necessary for that person to actually make that decision - and the other effects of those necessary conditions may well be more significant than the stated result.
I came very close to making all the connections back then, even raising the significance of my facetious "if I were Führer" form of putting political propositions. I am not Führer, and never will be, and neither will anyone like me, and all my political logic collapses on that just like any other proof premised on a falsehood.
Where does that leave me? I am no longer a libertarian - I find libertarian arguments just as correct as I always did, but they are of no relevance to the real world. I could continue to comment here on the stupidities that people accept from various politicians, but I would be doing it in the same spirit as if I were judging the team selection of a football club - in full awareness of my own impotence and irrelevance. Maybe I will. It would make more sense to take up something useful, like gardening.
I can also attempt to benefit humanity by encouraging others to detach from politics as I am doing. Someone has to have power, and if you think you can get it and you would be good at it, by all means go for it. If not, then leave well alone. Be one of the ruled, and pursue whatever aims you choose without the illusion that you have the right, the duty or the capability to change the policies of the rulers. Embrace passivism.

08 September 2009

Dennis Wheatley

My Leader, Ian PJ, has dug up the "Letter for Posterity" written by popular author Dennis Wheatley in 1947, and tried to claim him as a Libertarian.

It will hardly do. Wheatley was at the very least conservative, and I would happily claim him as a reactionary with only slight reservations.

In particular, he had no respect for mass democracy. His letter (available in full as an 11-page pdf from the BBC) disposes of it in a couple of paragraphs:

... But the voice [of the people] was stilled by the coming of the electro-machine age, as the new inventions enabled the professional politicians of all parties to get into direct touch with every community, however remote. First came the electric press, enabling a million or more copies of a newspaper to be run off in a single night -- and enormously improved arrangements for distribution. Then came the wireless telegraph -- which swiftly developed into radio, with a five times a day news service which, by means of a cheap receiving set, could be picked up in every home. And these were followed by the cinematograph which soon became one of the most insidious weapons for political propaganda.

The result was that instead of forming their opinions by quiet thought and reasoned discussion, the bulk of the people took them ready made (from so called "informed" sources) ...


And before you ask, no, blogging doesn't help. What led to the centralisation of opinion-forming was not the necessity of centralisation - such as has been attributed to the capital costs of printing and broadcasting - but the possibility of centralisation: the fact that the most immediately attractive ideas could reach everyone at once, unfiltered, and gain credibility from their momentum.

(Do not imagine that I wish to reimpose the filters on the flow of ideas: it can't be done, and it shouldn't be done. I don't want to control the opinions of the masses, I want to ignore them.)

So, no, Ian, Wheatley would not think all the better of us for being "committed to peaceful change through the ballot box". He would think we are wasting our time.

Unfortunately, his prescriptions are not optimistic, unless you accept his assertion that when we are killed fighting for our freedom against the state, we will be reborn with "a finer, stronger personality" as well as being an example to others. (The problems of being an atheist and a reactionary are a subject I've been meaning to write about for a while).

Back to Wheatley's non-libertarianism; if we have any historical model of libertarian government, it is probably Whig Britain at the end of the 19th century. Here's what Wheatley's recurring hero the Duke de Richleau says about the classical liberal movement, in a scene set in 1906

The main plank in the Liberal platform has for long been Free Trade, and with it they have won the votes of the masses in the towns because, on the face of it, their policy means cheap living. But go a little deeper into the matter and you will find that it has another altogether different aspect. The great strength of the Liberal party lies in the industrial north, and the money to finance industry comes from the rich manufacturers and the old Whig families who have invested their wealth in commerce. They are very shrewd people, and they know that if they can bring the cost of living down they will then be able to force down wages and derive bigger profits from their factories.

"Vendetta in Spain", Dennis Wheatley, 1957 ISBN 0-09-004660-9 p.153

I mentioned slight reservations about Wheatley's reaction - simply, he is too soft. In the letter, he defends Kings being answerable to an aristocratic class, and even to the will of the people when that was not short-circuited by mass communication.

06 September 2009

An Enhanced Model of Zombie Infestation

It's finally here! I have corrected what I saw as the major flaw in the zombie-infestation model I described earlier, and proceeded to draw a number of interesting conclusions about the effects of zombies on a human population based on my enhanced model.

I even went to the length of learning LaTeX so as to write it up properly.

Here it is! [pdf]
(link updated Nov 2010)

There's actually a lot more I could do, but I don't have enough time at the moment. I have run a lot of simulations, implemented in Ruby, which guided me to the approach I took. It would be interesting to parameterise the difference between my model and the Ottawa one - they had zombies becoming corpses when killed by humans, whereas I have made them destroyed altogether - I could add another parameter γ which is the proportion of killed zombies which are destroyed. It would be zero in the original model and one in mine, and I could calculate how values less than one affect my conclusions.

There is a serious side to this. In accepting the approach taken by Munz, Hudea, Imad and Smith? I constrained myself, while improving the model, to using the same basic technique. If I could include some phenomenon in the model as a rate of change of a population variable, I did. If I couldn't model it in that way, I didn't include it. So including a natural decay rate of zombies would be easy, but introducing the effects of age on humans or zombies would be very difficult.

Most strikingly, I didn't make any correction to an obvious error in the model, that humans and zombies do not achieve better "combat" results by outnumbering the enemy. I didn't do it because the line I did take was more interesting. But Mencius Moldbug's law of sewage applies - if you base a conclusion on N assumptions, and one of them is crap...

Of course, nobody would really rely on such crude mathematical treatments when planning for unlikely events, would they?

Would they?

05 September 2009

Political Passivism

For two years now I have been hanging on the words of Mencius Moldbug, who's analysis of the politics of our time (Unqualified Reservations) I find almost completely persuasive.

Having advanced a vision of government by for-profit corporations, MM has at last started to lay out the path by which we can get from democracy to responsible, effective, secure government.

His answer so far validates both my high estimate of his understanding, and my pessimism. The logic is completely sound.

The problem with government is politics - the fact that no government can aim primarily at the welfare of the population, or for that matter even at its own profit, when it is constrained most of all by politics to do whatever is necessary to hold off rivals for power.

Anyone who attempts to improve the government, in any aspect, by any method, is committing politics and is therefore part of the problem. MM gives us a steel rule - that in order to become worthy to hold power, the first requirement is "absolute renunciation of official power".

Will this approach - passivism - work? It doesn't seem likely. But, it doesn't seem likely that activism will work either. I've said before, long shots are all we've got

Passivism appeals to me. I even put forward my own version when I refused to sign a petition calling for Gordon Brown to resign. But I have not completely abandoned activism, albeit in the form of half-hearted engagement with the least effective activist movement imaginable.

Since passivism is the prerequisite to step 1 of the procedure for reaction, and since 9a implies at least a 9b, there may be something I can do to bring about a better government. When I find out, I will consider it here.

03 September 2009

Politics is a spectator sport

More evidence for my claim that the main value of politics to ordinary people is as a spectator sport:

The Monkey Cage writes:
the actual audience for news wants to hear more about strategy. Why? Probably because they already know what candidate or, in this case, policy they favor — at least in broad terms (e.g., yea or nay on health care reform) — and so they want to know whether their preferred policy is “winning.” That’s what strategy coverage provides them.

via TGGP

(By the way, I've been quiet lately because I'm working on something that will revolutionalise the state of the art of zombie population modelling).

20 August 2009

Zombie Attacks

OK, yes, I have read the paper constructing mathematical models of an outbreak of zombie infection (as described in Wired and many other places.

The problem with it is that it's stupid. It's not stupid because it's a stupid idea, or a waste of time, or the wrong approach, or anything like that, it's just done really badly.

Basically, the authors make some simple assumptions about the rate at which the dead rise from graves, the rate at which they turn humans into zombies, and the rate at which humans kill them, and show that in any outbreak the zombies will kill everyone. They add a few slightly more subtle tweaks, and show that the zombies will still kill everyone.

Their conclusions rest entirely on one assumption that they make at the beginning and never defend, which is that dead people turn into zombies without any provocation, at a rate proportional to the number of dead people. That is, the number of new zombies rising in a given night is proportional to the number of people who have ever died (and not already risen). Even if you kill a zombie, it just goes back to being a dead person and will rise again in due course (proportional to the model parameter ζ).

Well, duh. Obviously in those circumstances the human race will be replaced by zombies. It really doesn't take a lot of mathematics to work that out.

The problem is that this falsifies their claim to a serious conclusion:

... While the scenarios considered are obviously not realistic, it is nevertheless instructive to develop mathematical models for an unusual outbreak. This demonstrates the flexibility of mathematical modelling and shows how modelling can respond to a wide variety of challenges in 'biology'.

I could believe that if they had shown that the modelling showed how different outcomes related to different assumptions. But that they published this without identifying the key assumption that produced their "zombie takeover" conclusion — the assumption that there is no way, natural or technological, from preventing any corpse from eventually becoming a zombie, contrary to pretty much all authorities as well as common sense — the only conclusion is that the mathematical model distracted them from thinking properly about the scenarios.

There's just no point doing this sort of thing unless you take it seriously.

Update: Wrote my own improved model

09 August 2009

The Rights of the Mob

Previously on Anomaly UK, I have discussed Rights and the relationship between rights and Mob Violence

I am brought back to these subjects by a programme I happened to catch last night on BBC4, about the Miners' Strike.

The point I had previously missed, but has to be taken into account, is that a mob of protesters is generally recognised to have additional rights beyond those that exist in law.

From a legalistic viewpoint, the violent clashes of 1984 were very clear. The government has the duty of keeping the roads open - that has been the case for as long as there have been governments and roads. If a group illegally blocks the road, they must be removed, without more force than necessary, but with as much force as is necessary. If that means charges of mounted police, then send in the horses. If it means tanks, send in tanks. If it means machine-guns, load them up. It is out of the question that the law can be openly defied by violence.

Clearly, that's not the situation - nobody saw it that way. The horses were controversial, tanks and guns would have been out of the question, while giving up and allowing the strikers to block the road was a real possibility. Nor was the restraint on the government's actions some irrational daintiness on the part of Lady Thatcher - to have employed sufficient force to make victory in the field certain would have torn the country apart. The Police and Army would have run real risk of mutiny, workers in other industries would have sided with the miners - these were real dangers which put the outcome of the overall dispute in doubt.

Any model of where real power lies in the country, such as I have been attempting to create, is incomplete unless it can explain what rights a mob is understood to have, to form and to break the law without facing any greater force than lightly-armed police.

The limitation of the power of the state is simply that it can't shoot everybody - it requires a level of voluntary cooperation from the population in general in order to function. But that only pushes the question back - why would rolling armoured cars through picket lines have forfeited that cooperation? It breaks some unwritten rules, but where did they come from?

I wrote in the context of more recent disturbances that rights are acquired by violent precedent - that if a group has won a conflict in the past, they will be assumed to win again, so that conflict is avoided. But that does not cover the case - what is the precedent for the use of military levels of violence against mobs in England not being successful? The chief candidate that comes to mind is the Peterloo Massacre, but that was not really unsuccessful, in that a revolt was averted. 1972's Bloody Sunday would seem more relevant, being both recent and a case where lethal force used by the government did backfire politically, but I get the feeling that at the time Northern Ireland was seen as more of a special case, being at that time a conflict between two groups in the population rather than one group against the government.

My impression is that Peterloo is the key precedent, and the reason it counts as a defeat for the government is because the British regime in its entirety - from the TUC to Margaret Thatcher herself - is descended not from the government of 1819 but from the protesters of 1819. They won in the end and the measures that the ancien regime used against them are now out of bounds.

04 August 2009

Remember 42 days?

Really excellent point at Heresy Corner last month. After all that fuss, for weeks and weeks, about whether the counter-terrorism bill of last year would include the provision for detaining terrorist suspects for 42 days, the subject is now so forgotten that when the minister concerned talks about it, it is not newsworthy.

This is the best demonstration of my recent claim about the limits of voter influence. Because we all knew all along what Heresy Corner proves, that the argument was never about a concrete legal proposal at all. The question was a symbolic one. What was at stake was entirely feeling or impression -- did the government need to show it still wanted to do more for security, or was the whole fluid inspections, photography restrictions, CCTV thing going too far? Should we trust the security services or the civil-liberties lawyers? Would the new powers affect "ordinary people" or just outsiders, and if so was that a bad thing or a good thing?

The technical questions about arrest, and evidence-gathering capabilities before and after charge, PACE, legal discovery and so on were far too complex to be part of the debate, even with the enormous coverage the issue got. The questions of what it meant for the authority of Gordon Brown, the status of members of his cabinet, the future positions to be taken by the Conservatives, and the momentum of political sentiment in the public were much more tractable. The end result was the government lost. That was what it was all about, and the details of criminal procedure being no more relevant now than they were then, there is nothing more to be said.

Celebrity and Politics

So, Esther Rantzen has confirmed that she will by standing at the next election, in spite of my entreaties.

I do not think she will win, but she may be a harbinger of what is to come. I have suspected for a while that media figures are capable of moving into politics very successfully, through the more normal mechanism of joining major parties rather than running as independents. In the long run, the question is not so much whether celebrities will be able to win seats in parliament, as why they would want to.

It is necessary to understand what an MP is. Technically, MPs are legislators, who vote in parliament on bills and motions. However, that is now a ceremonial role, with no effect on the government or the country. The position of MP is an apprenticeship to the ministers or shadow ministers. In the same way that apprentice footballers have the irrelevant job of cleaning boots to keep them in their place and instill obedience, MPs have the irrelevant job of turning up for votes in accordance with the whips' orders. (They also have the even more irrelevant job of acting as a kind of Citizens' Advice Bureau for their constituents, but I'm not sure whether that's to give them practice running an office, or for some other nefarious end.)

Therefore being an MP is, in itself, no more desirable a prize than being a football club boot-cleaner. OK, it is rather better paid, but that's not much of a pull for the average TV star. It doesn't even provide much publicity - does anyone remember hearing much about, say, Gyles Brandreth during his time in the House?

The position of MP is only meaningful as a step towards the front bench, just as a football apprentice is only in it for his chance at the first team.

The advantage that a celebrity has is recognition. But while recognition is an advantage while rising in a political career, it is a handicap as the top approaches. When it comes to a party leadership contest, the most important factor is actual power - Gordon Brown was able to succeed Blair because he was already powerful. But after that the biggest advantage is not being disliked. In a leader-of-the-opposition contest, the ideal is for the general public not to know anything about you at all. That worked for Cameron, Duncan-Smith, Hague, and Blair. (Howard was an exception, but he was never intended or expected to win a general election).

Therefore, if a soap star or newsreader wanted to succeed in politics, they could probably get selected as a candidate, probably get into parliament, would probably be able to rise quite rapidly to a junior government role - PPS, or Minister of State, but would find it quite difficult to reach a major cabinet position, because of all the people who didn't like them.

We see glimmers of the future in Brown's elevation of Alan Sugar. Not being an MP, Sugar is out of the main political career path, but if his entrance had been a bit more planned he could have got a seat in the Commons and been better situated for a less temporary role. He would have gained his current position in his first parliament, but the odds would not be in his favour for further promotions.

The celebrities with the greatest advantage would be those whose public roles gave them credibility on political issues; the interviewers, newsreaders, and pundits. Robert Peston, say. Or more lightweight figures like Nicky Campbell, or Rantzen twenty years ago rather than now.

I suspect the step has been slowed by the reluctance of party grandees to admit potential rivals with such inbuilt advantages. In today's environment, however, the potential candidate only needs to announce his intention, and the onus is on the party to explain why they are refusing him.

The key question, as I said, is whether celebrities would want to abandon their media careers for politics. Most wouldn't, at the moment. We have seen that those that did, like Martin Bell and Robert Kilroy-Silk, set their expectations too high.

But once a few more oddities have blazed the path, the game changes, because ambitious young things with eyes on the greasy pole will see media as the career path to the cabinet - not in one explosive burst but by working through the ranks just a bit quicker than the normal rate. Rather than hanging around the think tanks and party research offices, they'll be driving with all their ambition into the local TV studios, working the system with whatever influence they have at their disposal to get them the foothold of popular visibility, so that they can then switch to party politics with a head start over their anonymous rivals. Rising stars will be guided by their political mentors through tame TV or newspaper departments. The end result is that the two sectors just merge into one. Media figures will expand their reach from the political areas they currently own (such as the London Mayoralty) to those which are currently held against them by the party machines. Shifts from media to politics and back, like Kilroy-Silk's will become commonplace.

What's most important is not the effect on politics, but the effect on media. That is always the way - politics stays the same, but what it touches gets polluted. The Robert Pestons and Jeremy Paxmans (Paxmen?) of the future will not be doing their jobs because that is what they set out to do - they will be doing their jobs to get the public reputation that will put them in high government office. The detrimental effect on the media will be equivalent to the detrimental effect on Parliament of making an MP job nothing more than a stepping-stone. The lines have been blurring for some time.

25 July 2009

Voter Power

In my previous post, I wrote
. It is not controlled by the electorate, but neither is it independent of the electorate. The effect of the electorate's limited power of choice is not catastrophe, but the slow expansion of the bureaucracy into every area of life, along with a slow decline of effectiveness in everything it does.

That probably needs to be explained more carefully. I've talked about the three-way game between civil servants, politicians and voters before, but there's a lot more that can be said. It's easy to argue in terms of "Democracy means the people control the government" or "Our democracy is fake", but the truth is more complex.

To a first approximation, democracy in Britain is fake. The real power lies with the civil service, who have to reach a compromise with other powerful interests in the media, other industry, the universities.

They also have to deal with the politicians who are nominally in charge of them, and who themselves are answerable to the electorate. In theory this is what gives the voters the power.

The politicians want to satisfy the voters by doing popular things, but that only works for them if they can appear successful. If the permanent establishment wants one thing, and the voters want another, the politician will do better in elections by following the wishes of the establishment than by following the wishes of the voters. Because if they do what the voters want, the establishment can make them look bad - everything that goes wrong (and lots of things always go wrong) will look like the politician's fault if the government is following a policy which the establishment opposes.

What it amounts to is that the fact that politicians are elected is an essential part of the system, which would be very different without it, but that its effect is not to take power away from the permanent establishment to any large degree. The voters have no fine control over policy, but within the permanent establishment (which obviously itself contains factions and differences of opinion) policies which have more appeal to voters will always have a slight advantage over policies which have less.

On this very coarse level, what most clearly gains votes is the expansion of the clients of the state - those on benefits or those in government employment. An establishment policy which cuts government employment will be one which politicians will be able to resist, one which adds them will be very hard to resist. Detailed arguments about economics or technicalities are insignificant in electoral terms compared to that - because the context in which they are presented to the voters is set by the civil service and media.

24 July 2009

Two Kinds of Democracy

Arguing against democracy can get confusing because democracy exists in two very different forms.

What we have in Western Europe and America I call "Old Democracy". It has parties and regular elections, which are carried out fairly, and it also has powerful non-party institutions of civil service, law and media which stabilise the whole edifice. These powerful institutions get their power mostly from tradition - from the fact that they have had power for a long time and are widely respected as such.

These systems of government are very different from those created by a pro-democratic revolution or a pro-democratic invasion. Those normally produce "Young Democracy", in which power is concentrated in elected institutions.

One cannot argue for or against democracy without distinguishing these two forms. Their merits and faults are quite different.

Old Democracy is the system of which it is tiresomely said, that it is the worst form of government ever tried, except for all the others. The claim is irritating but more than plausible - the most successful governments of the last hundred years, leaving aside a few city-state tax havens, have been of this kind.

Young Democracy, on the other hand, is what Old Democracy purports to be. The voters can vote for what they want, and they get it. Any theoretical, rather than empirical, defence of democracy applies to Young Democracy, not Old Democracy.

Young Democracy, however, is highly unstable. If the people can vote for what they want, then before long they will vote for "Strong Government" which will put an end to free, fair elections. The best case for a Young Democracy is that the unelected institutions solidify power and it becomes an Old Democracy before that happens.

The faults of Old Democracy are more subtle. It is not controlled by the electorate, but neither is it independent of the electorate. The effect of the electorate's limited power of choice is not catastrophe, but the slow expansion of the bureaucracy into every area of life, along with a slow decline of effectiveness in everything it does.

The endpoint of Old Democracy is the utter bankruptcy of the state and its collapse under the weight of its ineffective functions. I don't think that has ever happened in the West - economic growth has kept up with the growing cost of government - but I would expect it to look something like the end of the Soviet Union. which I do not classify as an "Old Democracy", but which in its late stages shared many of the characteristics of a very old Democracy.

Alternatively, it might not be coincidence that economic growth and the expansion of the state keep pace with each other. It may be that Old Democracy exercises just as much waste as the economy can afford. The growth of the state is not an inevitable process of Old Democracy per se, it is its inevitable response to economic growth. Old Democracy would therefore be stable in the long run.

The virtue of Old Democracy is its stability. I have made the case before. While Mencius Moldbug may have come up with something better, he has yet to describe how it could come about, and my own suggested path to non-democratic government is no more than a sketch.

Supporters of Democracy are able to switch between the two forms as it suits them. Thus a commenter at UR was able to say
You like to offer up weak, fledgling democracies that collapse into dictatorships as arguments against democracies, but really they're just arguments for creating democracies that can stand up to the overly ambitious sociopath and his cronies.
But a democracy that can stand up to its new leader is one that can stand up to the voters - i.e. an Old Democracy. The implication that it is voter power which protects democracy from tipping into totalitarianism is the opposite of the truth.

I must admit finally that the labels "Old Democracy" and "Young Democracy" are not ideal. Not every Old Democracy was previously a Young Democracy - the non-elected institutions in Britain are older than the mass suffrage, and I'm curious about the history of post-war Germany. And Old Democracy is only one possible outcome of Young Democracy - the Old's link with the Young is more a matter of its own propaganda than a natural one.

09 July 2009

Hierarchy of security needs

Mencius Moldbug's latest has a real gem where he talks about the political needs of a society as a hierarchy of needs parallel to Maslow's psychological hierarchy of needs.
there are four levels of sovereign security. These are peace, order, law, and freedom. Once you have each one, you can work on the next. But it makes no sense to speak of order without peace, law without order, or freedom without law.

His claim is an essential tool for understand how I can whinge about ID cards and yet make allowances for brutal policing in China or Iran.

To analyse the reasons behind the hierarchy, the first need is peace, and the second order. Order is valuable, but if an enemy is present, the inhabitants must use violence against the enemy. If inhabitants are using violence, you do not have order. Therefore, peace must come before order.

If you have peace, you can then impose order, and stop inhabitants using violence within the realm. We also desire law, meaning that by following some published laws, I can be assured I will not be the subject of violence from or approved by the state. But if violence is not controlled between inhabitants, then safety from the state is of little value. The state has to first reduce violence between inhabitants to a low level before we can get benefit from the state following law.

Once we have law, there is then value in freedom. Freedom means that the state will not restrain me from doing things I want to do, to the greatest extent practical. I cannot have any freedom if I do not know what the state will and will not punish, so law is a prerequisite to freedom.

Therefore, the hierarchy is : peace, order, law, freedom.

I want to live under a good government, and a good government is one which will provide freedom. But I cannot have freedom unless there is law, there cannot be law unless there is order, and there cannot be order unless there is peace.

We have order where I live, and mostly we have law. I would like more freedom than we actually have, and I think it is entirely practical to allow more freedom without compromising the more basic social needs of order and law.

In China, there is order and they are working on law. There is much less freedom than in Britain even under New Labour, but allowing freedom to political rivals is almost sure to wipe out law and severely reduce order. We can see that order has broken down in part of China just recently.

The hierarchy of needs also explains some of my differences with Mencius. We could do with a little more order and law around here, but we have enough to support freedom. Mencius gives the impression that in his area, at least, order has broken down. Now, I don't live in the leafy, peaceful suburb where my mother went to school, my grandfather used to play bowls, and I used to play in the park when I visited, and where the Shine My Nine gang now kills those who encroach on its women. But then, I live in Luton, which isn't exactly cut off from the problems of the rest of Britain. And yet in my view we have at least the necessary minimum of order. I would like more, but I don't think we have to abandon law and freedom to get it.

(Is it not possible to have order without the state, some will ask? I think not, though that's another discussion).

07 July 2009

What Ecclestone should have said

In Britain, if we want a government that was not entirely dependent on actively managing interest groups to hang on to power, either with elections or without (and I do want just that), there is only one conceivable alternative basis that the government could rely on for authority and legitimacy. That is of course the monarchy. And while a genuine restoration of monarchy is just conceivable, it is a very long way from being likely.

The advantage of monarchy is that the ruler does not normally face a rival who holds an equal right to rule. That makes him the opposite of a modern dictator who rules because the army followed him, and will be deposed by the next person who can get the army to follow him instead.

Her Majesty, for all her strengths, is I fear a little past the stage of being able to lead a counter-revolution. She could of course serve as a figurehead, but that would not fill the need for a stable government that could concentrate on governing well rather than retaining power. The shogun with real power would have rivals who were his nominal equals, and struggles among them would dominate government just as her nominal subordinates do today in Whitehall.

No, we need a ruler with real personal power, who cannot be replaced by a rival with equal legitimacy. If the current sovereign is too old, we must wait for her successor. Unfortunately, the idea of the Prince of Wales assuming personal power as an autocrat comes over as somewhat ludicrous. Even if I am misjudging him, and he does have the inclination and competence to rule, it seems far-fetched that he could command the organs of state to support him.

As an aside, I might seem to be contradicting myself here - my point is that we need a ruler not responsible to popular opinion, yet I am ruling out King Charles III on the ground that the army etc. will not wear it. However, the value of a monarchy is that once established, its legitimacy is inherent and not dependent on external opinion polls or power struggles. To go from a failed democracy to a monarchy nevertheless will necessarily entail a power struggle of some kind - the first monarch will have a harder job than his successors.

Leaving Charles aside, then we look at the next generation. There, possibly through mere ignorance of their actual nature, we have grounds for hope. The long-cherished links between the Royal Family and the military are much stronger than Charles managed, the young men show admirable willingness to defy popular and fashionable opinion, and not in the direction of exotic mysticism or deep environmentalism either. The next decade will very likely crush my hopes, but based on what we know now it remains at least conceivable that in the kind of degringolade which hangs over this century, an emergency seizing of power in royal hands could be the response to one disaster or another.

It is a long shot, but it is more imaginable than any other route to non-political government that I can think of.

Of course, monarchy does not eliminate all the problems of politics. The fact that the monarch has an extra legitimacy from who he is gives him a head start in holding off rivals who cannot duplicate his every other asset, but there is a level of political lead which will overcome that advantage. The King therefore needs to do expend that much less effort on security. That itself makes his government more pleasant than a dictator's would be, which reinforces both his own position and the legitimacy of monarchy as a concept. But if he is unwise, he will fall as many past monarchs have.

Not that the monarch needs to be exceptional. His absolute power over government does not mean he has to make every decision. He merely has to hire expert managers. The essential feature is that the hired manager is not a public figure, and does not command any legitimacy of his own - he can be fired at will by the monarch. The King must take care that the manager is doing well, but that is a far easier job than the management itself.

There are also the other difficulties inherent in monarchy, which arise when the succession is unclear, or when the rightful monarch is incapacitated. It would take a new Wars of the Roses, though, to bring the quality of royal government down to the level of recent Prime Ministers.

05 July 2009

Bernie Ecclestone on Government

Apparently Bernie Ecclestone, on being accused of a dictatorial approach to his business, made the reasonable point that democracy isn't as good as it's cracked up to be, and followed with a rather ill-considered defence of Hitler.

I suspect the comments were off the top of his head, as they show signs of not having been thought through. Politicians are too worried about elections, it is true, but modern dictators generally come to power on the same basis of mass support as democratic politicians, and hold on to power by maintaining mass support. Ecclestone acknowledged that, even going much further than I would in claiming that Hitler had been "pushed to do things he didn't want to do", but he didn't draw the relevant conclusions about the similar natures of populist dictatorships and democracies.

I think the difference between a democratic leader and a dictator is not so much whether elections are held, as whether the normal expectation of the society is that the leader will remain in power. If that is the norm, such that opposition is unrespectable, then elections can be held and even be reasonably fair, but the government will still be considered a dictatorship. I would put Putin, for instance, somewhere in that category.

Ecclestone said that Max Moseley would make a competent dictator for Britain, based on his experience of working with him. That may be true, but a struggle for political power does not in general promote competent managers such as Ecclestone assures us Mosely is. It promotes the likes of Hitler, who I suspect would have done a poor job of managing a motor racing competition. A dictator Moseley would have to spend all his attention and skills on hanging onto power, and would not be able to manage the country like a profitable entertainment business.

Politics is the problem, and a dictatorship is not an alternative to politics. It is merely a rearrangement of who the ruler has to do politics with. Because the dictator can be deposed by a rival at any time, he does not even have the secure truce period of a democrat's term of office. Every year is election year. This is one reason why dictators tend to be even more tyrannical than democratic governments.

This is also the reason why attempting to make government better by making it more responsive to the population only makes things worse. The contradictions show through in every attempt at reform, such as have been put forward by Douglas Carswell. Yes, politicians would be more accountable if they could be recalled. That would indeed be more democratic. And if every year was election year, would government be better, or worse? The opposing forces of democratic ideology and realism result in an equilibrium, which is as much democracy as we can get without producing government so drastically bad that people start to realise that democracy is the problem, not the solution. And switching to a new Moselyism would cause just the same problems as would "fixing" the undemocratic elements of the status quo.

Secrets and non-secrets

Very silly story in the Mail - shock, horror, the head of MI6's wife is on facebook!

There's very little revealed in the story that wasn't in the press-release-driven reports when his appointment was announced.

The head of MI6 is not a secret agent. He is a government administrator.

Secrecy used to surround the intelligence service, but that's not because it was intelligence, it was because the British government was secretive about everything. There was a move to more openness under the Major government, and the government is now genuinely slightly more open than before.


You say "Military Coup" like it's a bad thing.

The constitution of Honduras has an article 239 which specifically prohibits not only the reelection of a president, but also proposing to reform it. It's a neat idea - remember I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that Thomas Paine had recommended something along the same lines with respect to monetary policy.

President Zelaya proposed a referendum to overrule (without legal justification) this article of the constitution, and was told by the Supreme Court that he couldn't. He then had the ballots printed abroad and attempted to carry out the referendum illegally, and, after votes by both the Congress and the Supreme Court, the army was ordered to arrest him. Which they did.

Hat tip to Half Sigma, whose line is that this is no coup, but a simple exercise of law.

Assuming ½σ has the legalities straight (since Honduran constitutional law is one of those odd gaps in my knowledge) I would still say that whether this is a coup is merely a question of definition. The question matters to many people because they have an unjustified prejudice against military coups. I've been thinking sympathetically about the concept of the army removing the government for a while, so the idea that a coup might be legal strikes me not as a paradox but as a ray of sunshine - if nothing else, it allows me to post some of my thinking about the future of Britain without being a terrorist.

The advantage of a definition of coup that ignores the legality is that it allows me to describe what happened even in situations, like this one, where I don't know what the law precisely is. There has been a military coup in Honduras, which I think was probably a legal one. There, isn't that an efficient description of the situation?

The thing about constitutional legalities, as I suggested in my recent post on Iran, is that they never ultimately matter because there's no forum where they can reliably be resolved, the competent court always being in effect one player in the political game. Some of the participants may be influenced by their perception of the legal situation, but that's the only importance of law.

The court made the legal decision to have the president arrested, then the army made the political decision to obey the court rather than the president.

As I said in a comment at UR, For law to be preserved, law and government have to be two different things. If the law overrules the government, then it is not law, it is government. If the government can decide what the law is, then similarly, it is not law but government.

20 June 2009

Anonymous Blogging

All the discussion I've seen about the unmasking of Night Jack, the award-winning blogger who told us about life in the police, seems to stand on dangerously bad assumptions.

Many, like Hopi Sen, argue on the basis that anonymous blogging is in the public interest. Some, like the always reasonable chris dillow, dispute that claim. All of them scare me.

For what it's worth, I think that anonymous blogging is in the public interest. But that's an awfully flimsy ground on which to build the shocking restriction on freedom which Night Jack's victory would have produced.

The case wasn't about whether Night Jack could blog anonymously — whether he could blog without telling anyone his identity. What was at issue was whether The Times, having found out his identity, would be allowed to tell anybody. The only possible answer to that question is yes, of course. Isn't it enough that this country has the most oppressive libel laws in the world, without putting still more restrictions on what the press is allowed to tell us? Even the Max Moseley case based its verdict in favour of Moseley's privacy on the basis of a breach of his confidence — that the information came from somebody who had a duty to keep it private. Night Jack originally made a similar claim, but dropped it, claiming only that it was in the public interest that we not find out who he was.

I would like to see a right to blog anonymously, but all I would expect that to encompass is to be allowed to publish without having to identify myself, not to prevent anyone who happens to know who I am from telling anybody else. I want to be permitted to have a secret, but not assisted by the power of the law in keeping it a secret — that's my job.

The frightening assumption is that if anonymous blogging is in the public interest, anonymity should be protected with the power of the state, and if it is not, then it should be broken with the power of the state. Everything that is not compulsory is forbidden.

18 June 2009

Fusion power

What we need to solve energy problems, or so I have heard, is a "Manhattan Project" for fusion

In the original Manhattan Project (aka MED for Manhattan Engineer District), vast scientific and engineering resources were employed in developing an atomic bomb. Examples of huge successful government projects are sufficiently rare that it continues to serve as an example that such a thing is in fact possible.

The major research project into fusion is the ITER development, in the news today because estimates of its cost have increased from the original USD6bn to USD16bn. At that level, this one project costs, in inflation-adjusted terms, two-thirds of the total cost of the Manhattan project, which took multiple design approaches in parallel, and included successful production of working devices. Leaders of the Iter project agree that fusion energy production will not happen in
the next 40 years.

The management problems of a programme of this length (and research into tokamaks has been going on since the 1960s) are quite different from those of a one-off war "project" like MED. Nobody expected to spend their entire career in MED, and the top management were senior army officers who would certainly be going onto something very different. Also, the Manhattan Project, because it was part of the effort of fighting a particular war, could have failed. The programme of developing tokamak fusion energy cannot fail. Either it will succeed, or it will carry on for ever. The constraints of war gave the management of the MED the most important capability a manager can have - the ability to shut down something that isn't working. In an unconstrained programme, doing that is both an admission of error and a sacrifice of power, and just doesn't happen without very strong outside pressure.

At least according to the BBC article, the success of tokamak fusion depends on the invention of materials which do not currently exist: something strong enough to hold a vacuum but transparent to neutrons so as not to be vapourised by the activity inside. The real situation is presumably more complicated, but the upshot is that the whole approach of generating power by confining a plasma with magnetic fields to the point where it fuses might never work. If IEC/Whiffleball fusion is possible (which is even more doubtful) then it will be generating power long before ITER produces any useful results.

What the BBC story really represents is various scientist/bureaucrats squabbling over the goodies.

The reason science and bureaucracy don't mix is that getting things wrong and then publicising the fact is the way science advances, but avoiding and, most importantly, never admitting mistakes is the way bureacrats advance.

Working fusion power would be great, but one has to ask what the point is since we already have the science we need to generate electricity more cheaply and with less pollution, and we're not using it. If ITER succeeds, then in fifty years we will be able to build fusion power plants, but will they really be cheaper than building fission plants? What would fifty years of massive research into safer, more efficient fission power give us? It's as if we invented planes, got them working, then stopped using them and threw all our resources into trying to develop teleporters. I'm not saying fission power is the answer to everything. If we were still building plants, that wouldn't mean there was no reason to look for something better, but if we're not using what we've got, what are we looking for?

17 June 2009

Iran Elections

Here's what I believe about Iran:

First, I support the concept of national sovereignty. There should be no interference in the internal affairs of Iran that fall short of invading it and declaring it a protectorate. This is not so much a moral principle as a practical one - attempting to change a country's government, with or without local allies, is an act of war.

I don't know whether the election of Ahmedinejad was legitimate. Very possibly it wasn't. Quite possibly it was - our view of the national mood both before and after the vote was skewed by the greater visibility of the Tehran population relative to the rural population.

The rural population is much more conservative than the city population. If we assume for the sake of argument that the vote was counted fairly, then what we are seeing resembles in some respects the situation that arose recently in Thailand. There, Thaksin Shinawatra had the support of the countryside, but was deposed by the capital city.

The difference in that case was that the Bangkok middle classes controlled the armed forces, and were able to take power through them. In Tehran, the questions appear to be whether the government is prepared to put down the revolt violently, and if so, whether the security forces will follow orders to do so.

Ultimately, the conclusion is that a government cannot survive on the support simply of a backward rural population, even if that population constitutes a majority. Note that the Islamic Republic was originally installed by the city population.

Of course, the protesters are not calling for an end to the Islamic Republic, only for the change of government they claim the election should have produced. That means they could win without the country falling into chaos (unlike, for example, the Chinese protesters of 20 years ago). If it becomes accepted that the election was rigged, there could be a very peaceful transition. Even so, if that were to happen, the proof that the Tehran mob can overrule the election result (honest or not) will not go away.

Maybe the more important conclusion to draw is that a truly national election is a very bad thing. The last few US presidential elections have produced great criticism of the "Electoral College" system, but that system is essential for producing an uncontested result. If the election is decided by the total number of votes over the nation, then it becomes too easy to add extra votes in areas where one site dominates. If you only count constituencies, then both sides can closely observe the process in the areas which are close, and in the areas which aren't, it doesn't matter, because the side which has the ability to rig the vote has no reason to. In Iran, suggestions that ballot boxes were stuffed with fake votes in parts of the country are plausible because the side that make the claims are not well-enough represented there to stop it.

The great advantage of democracy is that it gives the government enough legitimacy to stay in power without the massive intrusive social control that modern dictatorships normally require. Doubts over the count undermine that legitimacy, so it is essential that counts are visible enough to be trusted. That is much more important than that the system used is perfectly "fair". I am quite disturbed that, where we have grown to trust the fairness of elections, we are throwing away their verifiability in exchange for better fairness.

13 June 2009

Euro Elections

Great result for UKIP, obviously, but the rejoicing slightly tempered by disgust at two seats going to the Greens (again).

It can't be said that the UKIP vote was a fluke, but though they may keep many of the votes in a general election, those votes won't do them as much good. The drop in turnout from 2004 to 2009 was close to the total UKIP vote. Even supporters of the EU now realise that it doesn't make any difference who sits in the European Parliament. The only thing at stake in a Euro election is the salary and expenses package. This is immensely valuable to a small party, so supporters of small parties are motivated to vote. Also there's a kind of poetry in electing anti-EU MEPs, so UKIP do much better than other small parties.

As an aside, I was amused by the delay in counting the results in order to wait for other member states who voted at the weekend. Pretending that there was a single Europe-wide election simply drew attention to the fact that there wasn't. The BBC's web coverage was particularly annoying, as results in other countries were reported only in terms of the EP "groups" - so for instance if you look at the Ireland results, you're left trying to guess which parties won seats - "Left" got two and "Socialists" got two - what are they (I think its Labour and Sinn Fein, but I don't know which are which). "Liberal" gained three and "UEN" lost four - quite a shakeup there! I suspect that's Fianna Fail changing groups, but if I want to know for sure I have to look somewhere other than the BBC.

Because elections happen so rarely, it takes many years for people to learn how to use them. It wasn't until the 1980s or even 90s that tactical voting really got going, and voters are still learning that in EU elections, they can vote for whoever they want. The tactical voting will really make itself felt in the next general election, and any prediction based on "swing" will be completely off, as the measured swing will go to Conservatives or Lib Dems depending on which one is more likely to beat Labour.

Thomas Paine

Nice point here - Thomas Paine was one of those weirdos pushing "democracy" back in the 18th. Sensible people pointed out that that would lead to disasters such as paper money. Paine responded that that could be avoided even in a democracy - and that any legislator voting for it should be executed. Somehow his solution was never put into practice, however, and, in this as in other respects, the gloomy predictions of the anti-democrats were fulfilled.

BNP Failure

The BNP didn't do nearly as well in the Euro elections as I thought they might - there was no sudden tipping into a situation where a large group of supporters realised how large they really are. I suppose with hindsight an election just isn't a mechanism for that to happen - my comparison with the fall of Eastern bloc single-party machines was invalid, because the self-discovery process requires that people openly show their support for the opposition, and, whatever happens to the Labour Party, the wider establishment is still strong enough for that sort of public display to be highly inadvisable.

Of course, it is only a suspicion of mine that such a group really exists, and the outcome is equally well explained by the theory that in fact only a few percent of the electorate supports the BNP's ideals and policies. The larger number of people who, like Peter Hitchens, oppose immigration on the basis of economic and social issues rather than on the basis of race, are still reluctant to associate themselves with the shunned racists.

10 June 2009

Presidential Government

Tony Blair (remember him?) was long accused of a "presidential" style of government. His ministers were completely under his authority, and always replaceable. This may be part of Gordon Brown's problem - he is attempting to govern in Blair's style, and running out of MPs who can complete his cabinet. The problem is that Blair had three things enabling his presidential government, which Brown doesn't have:

1. The authority with the party that came from being a proven election winner
2. People skills
3. Gordon Brown

Number 3 is the punchline, of course; but the Blair regime was a double act from beginning to end. No other minister had the power to overrule the prime minister.

The real point was that the sidelining of the cabinet under Blair was not so much part of the general centralising trend as an aspect of Blair's particular personality and situation.

06 June 2009

Demonstrations in Luton

As a change from analysis, here's a bit of reportage.

This document was distributed in Bury Park, Luton last week (click on it to enlarge to read it, and the full text is below):

It's printed on A5 paper and came through the door. I didn't have to transcribe it as text because googling about I found it in this comment from the "islamic awakening" forum. Only the title is changed. The text below therefore exactly corresponds to the leaflet. I added the bold and italics to match.

The document is not dated, but "the demonstration which we saw on Friday" refers to the 29th May (2009). The background situation is described in this Independent article. I can't add to or validate that account - I always seem to miss the actual aggro, somehow.


In response to a demonstration held in Bury Park on Friday, we would like to inform all Muslims in Luton about some important facts:

The demonstration held against the Royal Anglian Regiment on 10th March 2009 was to forbid the evil of the illegal occupation of Iraq, the murder of innocent Muslims in the name of freedom and democracy by the US and UK regimes and a call for Islamic law i.e. the Shari’ah as a solution for all our problems. This was done in response to Allah (SWT) saying: ‘Let there arise from amongst you a group(s) of Muslims, calling to Islam, enjoining good and forbidding evil, these will have success [Quran 3:104]

The response from the Muslin Ummah world-wide was phenomenal, with praise and happiness for the small group of Muslims who had the fortitude to speak the truth in front of the army of Pharaoh. This demonstration also led to many discussions openly and publicly about the illegal and oppressive war waged by the US and British against Muslims in Iraq.

On the other hand the demonstration which we saw on Friday in Bury Park led by Abdul Qadir Baksh and those from the ‘Islamic’ centre was clearly calling for the arrest of Muslims, was co-operating with the same police who routinely raid and arrest innocent Muslims and was intended to forbid the call for the Shari’ah and support the law and agenda of the taghout British government. And Allah (SWT) says concerning people like this: The hypocrites, men and women, are from one another, they enjoin (on the people) evil and forbid (people) from the good, and they close their hands [from spending in Allah's Cause]. They have forgotten Allah, so He has forgotten them. Verily, the hypocrites are the Fasiqun (rebellious, disobedient to Allah). [Quran 9:67]

They may feel justified in their stance because of the attack against their centre but when did they ever become angry when the masjids in Baghdad were on fire? When did they ever raise their voices when the masjids in Gaza were being bombed? Even worse when did they ever demonstrate when our brothers and sisters were being tortured, raped, killed and murdered in Iraq, Afghanistan, Gaza, Chechnya, etc..? Especially when the Messenger said: “One drop of Muslim blood is worth more to Allah than the Kaba’ah and its whole surroundings.” It is indeed ironic that the very people who have never lifted a finger to defend Muslims being oppressed around the world have only found the courage to condemn Muslims that have the courage to stand for the Ummah. Verily guidance and knowledge is a blessing from Allah (SWT) granted to those He loves.

We call upon Muslims in Luton to remember that our purpose in life is to please Allah (SWT) and not Gordon Brown, to serve Allah (SWT) and not the Saudi regime [supporters of the disbelievers], that we must stand up against those at war with Islam and Muslims and not against practising Muslims.

The Muslims must remain strong and not give in to the whisperings of Shaytaan to sell their religion for some miserly gain in this life. We are in the strange times, where the Prophet(saw) foretold there will be those who stop commanding good and forbidding evil, who in fact enjoin evil and forbid good and who further call the trustworthy liars and the liars trustworthy. This is the time mentioned in the narration of the Prophet when the ruwaybiddah will be ruling (such as the Saudi regime) who are the worst among the people but in charge over their affairs. May Allah (SWT) protect us from the tawagheet and their alliance, as he protected our brothers Musa (as), Essa (as) and the Messenger Muhammad (saw).

Finally we would like to ensure all Muslims and non-Muslims that Insha’Allah we will never stop calling for Islam, until the Deen of Islaam becomes dominant or we die in the struggle for its domination world-wide, as was the struggle and call of the best man who has ever walked the earth, the Messenger Muhammad (saw).

05 June 2009

Peston on Deregulation

Robert Peston, who gets a bad press in some quarters, describes in some detail the "rampant deregulation" which we are told preceded the credit crunch:
As someone who has been a banking journalist at various times since the early 1980s I can speak with weary authority about the many years of intellectual toil invested by an elite financial priesthood of central bankers and regulators in devising complex rules on the capital that banks should hold.

These are known as the Basel Rules. And since the late 1980s, they have been the foundations of how banks operate: they determined how much banks could lend relative to their capital resources.

It's generally a good post, about subordinated debt.

The Chinese Civil War

My blogroll is full of pictures of the unsuccessful attempt twenty years ago to overthrow the Chinese government.

I have seen little discussion, however, of what the result would have been if it had succeeded. We have the example of Russia to show us that even the peaceful overthrow of a one-party state is not any guarantee of decent government. That's of limited use as a guide, however, as the USSR had internally failed before it fell, whereas the Communist Party of China was and is still very much in control.

It is not the case that, because I oppose the ideology of democracy, I think the appearance of democracy in China would have been a bad thing. I still hold the position I took here - governments need to stay in power, and the less destruction they have to cause to do it, the better, and in an advanced economy, democracy is the least destructive way of preventing a change in government. I think some time this century China will need to transition to a western-style civil service-based democracy.

That is jumping the more important question, however, which is whether the collapse of the CPC (as would have occurred if it had been showed to be incapable of controlling its own capital) would result in a western-style democracy. These are notoriously difficult to build, not least because those building them appear to have no understanding of what they actually are. (The most important ingredient, of course, being a united media establishment which tells people what to vote for). The chances of one emerging out of China in 1989 would be practically zero. I don't think there would be much chance today.

My other thoughts on Chinese Democracy are on my other blog

30 May 2009

The Hole in the Ceiling

I do wonder how it is that people are able to support democracy, while at the same time having any understanding of the outside world.

A partial explanation has appeared in the comments to my post on Nadine Dorries' lucid and mostly accurate explanation of the MPs' expenses issue.

If the voters support a good policy, that's what you expect.

If the voters support a bad policy, that's not because voters are incompetent, it's because of the media brainwashing them.

Therefore, all the policies that the voters actually support are good, and once we stop the media from getting them to support bad policies, everything will be fine.

The thing is that this has already happened. The establishment - the civil service, the BBC, the state education system - tells people what to vote for, and they do. The results are considerably better than would be the case if voters simply made up their minds based on the facts. The most damaging options are not even offered to the voters.

But the control of the establishment is not complete - notably, unlike in America, it does not control the newspapers. Usually, the business interests behind the newspapers stay in line, but on this occasion - and this is precisely Nadine Dorries' complaint - the Telegraph stepped out of line, and told the voters that MPs had taken effectively twice the pay increase they admitted to since 1991, in the form of allowances.

That is what happened. I say so, Nadine Dorries says so, the commentator who was arguing says so. Why are we arguing?

I am arguing that what this shows is that the system of government in this country is a pretence. The establishment tells the voters what to vote for, the voters do it, and we thereby get a bad but not catastrophically bad government.

I suggest taking the voters out of the loop. Their independent influence is small, as we all agree, since we all agree that one newspaper read by 2% of the electorate is the real decisive factor in this story. Small as it is, I see no reason to assume the influence is beneficial. However, the necessity of keeping up the pretence leads to astonishingly bad policies, such as, in the most extreme case, trying to export the voting part of our system to countries which don't even have a civil service/media establishment to tell the voters what to vote for! I mean, how is that ever going to work?

I want a ruler, or ruling establishment, that treats this country like an asset. I want them to say "this is my country and I'll take what I want from it", whether that be duck islands or third homes or 76 Rolls-Royces. If they did that, they wouldn't need to lie to us from the cradle to grave to keep us from voting against them. They wouldn't need to turn half the population into dependents on state handouts to keep them from voting against them. They would only need to run the country efficiently so as to maximise their loot.

Of course, this can't happen. And the reason it can't happen is because such a government would have to waste an even larger chunk of the country's potential in defending itself from the mob, which believes a government is legitimate if and only if it lets them draw a cross on a piece of paper twice a decade.

The hole in the ruling establishment caused by the Telegraph letting the expenses cat out of the bag is not the point. It is a hole that shows us that the ceiling is not the sky.

Quote of the Day

Coercive geographic monopolies on violence work, folks, much though we may hate it.

- Patri Friedman

The Rise of the BNP

Fraser Nelson has an article in the current Spectator on the rise of the BNP.

The story he tells is that "Britain has never been racist", but that voters are being deceived by the BNP's "devious ploy: distracting public attention from the racist reality of the BNP by representing itself as 'the helpful party'"

Nelson's estimate of the stupidity of the ordinary Briton is impressive, but I suspect it is he that is being deceived. My own impression (not, I confess, based on any very deep connection to the man in the street) is that at the very least a large minority of the British white working class is quite racist, but knows perfectly well that it is not allowed to say so. Previous far-right political movements have failed, not because voters have disagreed with their racism, but because they have perceived accurately that the movements will be crushed by the establishment by any means necessary. The public likes a strong horse.

The BNP's current softer facade is succeeding, not because voters are fooled by it, but because they see that it makes the BNP harder to exclude (and because the weakened establishment has itself lost authority). They can look an elite political journalist in the eye and tell him that they will vote BNP, but they're not racist, oh no, that would be wrong, and they can suppress a smirk, and think to themselves, "yes, this time we might actually be going to get away with it".

Maybe I'm the only one to think of this possibility, but I don't think so, because it is the only thing that explains the establishment's terror at what is, by the numbers, still very much a fringe movement. I really don't know how many people in Britain are racist, and nobody else does either, because those who are are afraid to say so. If the political momentum ever goes to the BNP, then its secret followers will feel free to stand up and say what they believe. I would not rule out the possibility that they are already a majority, but don't know it. The anti-racist consensus might be blown away like Ceaucescu if they speak up and find that they are strong. That would make the determination of the establishment to clamp down on every racist squeak a necessity rather than an overreaction.

Ah, the dilemma of the left-winger, who believes that the working class is entitled to rule, and yet unfit to do so. I would laugh aloud at their discomfiture, if the stakes were not so high.

Update: BNP Failure