31 March 2011

Robert Heinlein

Steve Sailer wrote yesterday about the unique author Robert Heinlein

Heinlein was a huge influence on me: my near 20-year libertarian phase might not have happened had I not read The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and Time Enough for Love.

But as Sailer notes, Heinlein himself was not an ideologue. And lately I've been thinking less about the relatively easy question, of what you should do should you happen to find yourself in control of a computer that is powerful enough to give you effective rule over your society, and more about the difficult questions of the interaction of reason, courage, leadership, personal loyalty, loyalty to abstractions — the stuff of what I always thought of as his unsatisfactory later novels like Number of the Beast and Friday.

The unsatisfactoriness comes from the lack of coherent answers to the questions. But if I get round to putting up a new strapline for Anomaly UK, it will be "This shit is difficult". I have come to thoroughly distrust easy answers. Not that I don't believe there are right answers, just that I accept that they aren't easy to find or easy to recognise. Also, they are quite likely to be contingent on all sorts of details we would rather abstract away.

27 March 2011

Kinds of Monarchy

Devin Finbarr asks in the comments whether I'm talking about hereditary or elective monarchy.

The answer is that it is hereditary monarchy that I have in mind. The problems with elective monarchy are, firstly, that it introduces politics to determine the succession. The electors can demand commitments from the candidate that would divide his power. Secondly, it reinforces the damaging idea that the monarch is a "Servant of the people"

The monarch is not a servant, not quite. A monarch is responsible for the well-being of his people, but he is not responsible to his people, or any subset of them.

Rather, I follow Filmer in seeing kingship as an extension of fatherhood. It is clear that a father is responsible for the well-being of his children, but he is not their servant and he is not answerable to them.

Exactly what he is responsible to is not clear — to his ancestors, to his descendants not yet born, to both (to his genes, perhaps, in a modern view of that). Maybe just to himself or to his conscience or to God. (Inevitably, the modern state makes parents responsible to the bureaucracy for their children, with predictably horrific results).

Back to succession, there is a case for giving the monarch the right to choose his heir, rather than going strictly next-of-kin. That involves no division of power, and seems to be a way of weeding out some of the less capable specimens. Against that you have the danger of weak elderly kings being pressured, or of ambiguity.

In any case, it is important to remember, when talking about whether monarchy should be like this or like that, not to miss the point. If we could sit around a table and design a constitution that would be magically enforced, we could do a lot better than monarchy. Monarchy is a natural phenomenon that happens to a society, not something we engineer. The reason for discussing it now is to encourage people to accept it, if and when it happens, rather than to fight against it as modern fashion would dictate. The small print will have to take care of itself.

Incidentally, the "perpetual motion machine" analogy that Devin liked, like so much else here, is due to Mencius Moldbug. I like it chiefly for the resemblance between the designs attempted by enthusiasts to achieve either perpetual motion or separation of powers.

26 March 2011

Justice and Fairness

What is justice?

That's a notoriously difficult question. For what it's worth, I think justice is an emergent property of a well-functioning society, but that's not important right now.

It is not the same thing as fairness. Fairness is a more limited but less ambiguous concept, resting on equality of treatment. If there's no good reason to prefer A over B, then A and B should be treated the same.

If A and B have a dispute, the fair thing is to split the disputed entity evenly, or to toss a coin. That may not be the just thing however — but justice is difficult and might depend on all the details of the dispute.

(Fairness can extend a bit further than that. If A and B made an agreement, and A has complied with it, then B should too, even if the agreement imposed different demands on each of them. It is not fair for the agreement to be enforced on one party but not the other).

Games and sports, in particular, should be fair. The reason we want them to be fair, is that it makes the result less predictable, which is more exciting. People will neither play or watch sports where the outcome is not in doubt. And the authors of the sport's rules want people to play the sport.

War is the same. If it is made fair, then people will be more willing to play. There is a difference, though, which is that in general we do not want to encourage people to play war.

Which takes me finally to this tweet from "end of tyranny":
#NFZ levels the battle field, which ain't in #Qaddafi's favor. Here's to a free #Libya
The level battlefield. The only thing that nobody should want.

There are three reasonable positions one could have toward the conflict in Libya. One could want Gadaffi to win. One could want the opposition to win. Or one could want peace.

A "level battle field" is not a means to any of those ends. It is a means only to encouraging war for its own sake. To create it on humanitarian grounds is insane.

I think Aretae makes a similar, if less blatant, error in the post I discussed earlier.

He says, in the context of politics:
Manipulating the rules of the game has a high likelihood of having SUBSTANTIALLY higher returns than competing on a fair playing field
Politics, like war to which it is closely related, does not take place on a playing field. Making politics more fair will not necessarily make the outcome more just, but will make participation more attractive, which is a bad thing.

Politics or Rules-Manipulation?

Aretae believes that politics is inevitable, and looks to reduce the damage that it can do.

I should clarify what I mean by politics, because I've perhaps warped the meaning of the word a little. I feel a bit like I'm a fish trying to invent a word for water.

The exercise of power is not, in itself, politics. Politics is the process of attempting to gain or retain power. I am concerned with state power, but other forms of power (such as in an organisation) also can produce politics. A company department manager trying to make the department more profitable is not politics; trying to make his department larger is politics.

The actions of a person with power, if he is rational, will be motivated in his actions by one or more of the following three concerns:

  1. To increase the value of those things he has power over ("improve")
  2. To increase the share of that value that comes to him ("appropriate")
  3. To increase or maintain the power that he has ("win")

Improving is positive-sum. The more a ruler acts succesfully towards aim 1, the more I would call what he is doing "good government".

Appropriating is nearly zero-sum. The ruler gains, but whoever would otherwise have received the value loses. Appropriating can be in conflict with Improving, because rearranging resources is likely to reduce efficiency.

Winning can be strongly negative-sum. Whatever resources are diverted to aim 3 are not available for other purposes. A policy of Winning at all costs can be so destructive as to appear insane.

Conventional attitudes to political systems are shaped primarily by fear of Appropriating. Mechanisms are intended to set Appropriating and Winning in opposition, so that rulers avoid taking a large share for themselves as that risks their power. They work.

However, the mechanisms that do this have to legitimise Winning: rulers acting under these mechanisms openly seek to extend their power, because that is "how the system works".

Worse, for the system to work, it has to also legitimise threats to the ruler's power ("Losing"). If the ruler's power is not threatened, Winning is not operative, and Appropriating is unchecked.

Introducing these mechanisms works, and improves government. Introducing a threat to a ruler's power that will become stronger the more he appropriates will discourage him from appropriating.

But for attempts to cause the ruler to Lose to be affect him, they must have a realistic chance of succeeding. A realistic chance of power is power in itself. It can be traded, borrowed against, threatened with. A "politician" is one who holds "Virtual Power", and tries to increase it, just as a fund manager tries to increase the assets he holds.

But since the ruler, by the design of the system, is held responsible for the condition of his realm, and gains power by making it successful, his opponents the politicians gain only by making the realm less successful.

Democracy is a method of producing a group of people with both the capability and the motivation to make government worse.

There is a way around the problem, which is to make authority clear and simple enough that it is obvious when problems are the fault of the opposition rather than of the government.

Aretae says, "One huge component of increasing the net welfare of the citizenry is to decrease the ROI on manipulating the rules of the game. How can you do that?"

Why put such emphasis on manipulating the rules? I would only worry about that if I thought the rules were any good to begin with. You can — and we do — have hugely destructive politics entirely within the rules of the game, as opposing parties quite legitimately divert resources to one favoured group or another in order to acquire and retain supporters. That isn't either a manipulation or a breach of the rules: it's democracy working as designed. Opposition politicans, with their virtual power, also make threats and promise favours, some openly and some in secret.

Notably, the ruler and the opposition have one area of shared interest — one direction in which the power and the virtual power can be united. And that is to keep out of the power system anyone who isn't already in. That needn't even require "manipulating the rules", though that is the obvious way. Threatening those who support outsiders is effective enough. Threats need not be direct. For any identifiable group, there are policies that harm it.

Of course, the outsiders can't be protected, because giving someone any kind of protection from reprisals by the combined forces of politicians means giving them yet another lump of unaccountable power.

Aretae's next solution is to limit the ability of the ruler to do anything — the less power he has, the less his power is worth fighting for.

There are several problems with that. The first is that limited government implies that someone is doing the limiting (the "political perpetual motion machine"). They must have power too. It is therefore not just the power of the nominal ruler that is being fought over, but also the power that belongs to whoever the limiter is. That goes also for any attempt to protect outsider groups from politicians — the result is they become independent power centres.

The track record of limitations on government is possibly even worse than that of monarchs' lack of rivals.

The second problem is that power is always worth fighting for, because power is status. It is worse messing up a country in order to keep power over it, even if the power is limited, and it is worth fighting to increase your power, even if there's nothing particularly useful you could do with more power.

The scale question is difficult too. Small states can be very effective, but they usually require some level of cooperation between each other, at least for defense. That means a division of power between national and supernational authorities, and that division is another variable which can be fought over. The EU is the prime example; for everyone in European-level government, the primary question is what the extent of EU power is. Any ideas as to what would be good or bad to do with that power are entirely secondary to retaining and extending it.

International politics are a problem for my vision too, of course. I mentioned the Sun King in my previous post, without mentioning the fact that his reign was a period of continual war. Will an absolute ruler always lean towards conquest? I need to address that.

Mencius like Aretae preferred the city-state scale, which he called "Patchwork". However, his explanation for why this would be peaceful rested on the rulers of each patch being rational, which itself rested on neocameralism, which rests on our old friends the cryptographic weapon locks in which I do not believe.

My Westphalian World of Monarchies is not going to be as peaceful as Moldbug's Patchwork, because my kings will not be as rational as his chief executives. Some kings are going to succumb to the lure of conquest as a source of excitement and challenge, even if it is clearly not optimal in return-on-investment terms.

Therefore external security will be a much larger consideration in the design of the countries themselves. City-states may turn out impractical on defensive grounds, while very large states have to devolve power for practical reasons, which tends to produce serious internal politics. (If there is a way of managing a very large operation without devolving power, the commercial world has not yet found it.) Maybe there is some sweet spot of size that is large enough to be defensible, but small enough to be managed without compromising centralism. Obviously doing as little active management as possible is a key technique.

Edmund Burke on the Libya situation

Highly topical: Burke talking about the attitude of the Revolutionary French government to peace negotiations in 1796, from the first "Letter on a Regicide Peace"
The first paper I have seen (the publication at Hamburgh) making a shew of that pacific disposition, discovered a rooted animosity against this nation, and an incurable rancour, even more than any one of their hostile acts. In this Hamburgh declaration, they choose to suppose, that the war, on the part of England, is a war of Government, begun and carried on against the sense and interests of the people; thus sowing in there very overtures towards peace the seeds of tumult and sedition: for they never have abandoned, and never will they abandon, in peace, in war, in treaty, in any situation, or for one instant, their old steady maxim of separating the people from their government.
It is impossible for a democracy to make peace with a non-democracy. Overthrowing non-democracies is a permanent foreign policy aim of any democracy.

Compare with John Redwood, taking a moderate position, this Wednesday:
"We would all like the Libyan government to behave better, and would like democratic forces to be allowed to protest and to seek peaceful change" (my emphasis).

Obviously I'm not specifically having a go at Redwood, his blog happened to be the next one I read. Almost nobody would disagree.

If our governments make peace, or even alliance, with a non-democratic regime, it goes without saying that they will still wish to overthrow it given an opportunity.

Gadaffi thought he had a deal in 2003: he made a whole lot of concessions to the "international community", and the US would stop trying to overthrow him. And it did, really. Until the moment when he appeared to look weak, and the entire democratic world went in for the kill.

Sandeep Baliga points out the obvious lesson of these events for the likes of North Korea. It is a simple fact, so obvious to us that we don't ever see it spilled out, that the democratic world will never cease to wish to remove the NK regime, whatever if offers, whatever it does, short of calling elections to abolish itself.

No peace is possible; only a ceasefire that will vanish the moment that the regime's grip on power is weakened. Not even allies like Egypt or Pakistan are safe.

20 March 2011

A Clockwork Orange

Came across this quote by Anthony Burgess, on the last chapter of "A Clockwork Orange" (from his publisher's tumblr):
…But my New York publisher [W.W. Norton] believed that my twenty-first chapter was a sellout. It was veddy veddy British, don’t you know. It was bland and showed a Pelagian unwillingness to accept that a human being could be a model of unregenerable evil. The Americans, he said in effect, were tougher than the British and could face up to reality. Soon they would be facing up to it in Vietnam. My book was Kennedyan and accepted the notion of moral progress. What was really wanted was a Nixonian book with no shred of optimism in it. Let us have evil prancing on the page and, up to the very last line, sneering in the face of all the inherited beliefs, Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Holy Roller, about people being able to make themselves better. Such a book would be sensational, and so it is. But I do not think it is a fair picture of human life.
To me the last chapter was far from optimistic: it was a last horrific twist to the whole book.   The idea that Alex had something deeply and fundamentally wrong with him to do all those things is a comforting one, and is also the justification of the extreme "corrective" methods that the establishment in the book attempt.  

The last chapter tells us that both the reader and the authorities got it completely wrong; that normal people can behave like that if they are not guided through youth not to.  That the guy in the pub on the next table might have tortured people to death for kicks when he was a kid, and later grown out of it.

Now I'm sure Burgess knew what he meant.  But I don't think my interpretation contradicts his quote — they are two sides of the same coin.  The Christians believe that anyone can be saved because they believe that everyone is a sinner.  The belief that only a few born-evil people are capable of behaving that evilly is the comforting one, but as Burgess says it contradicts all our inherited beliefs.  It is also, coincidentally, wrong.

19 March 2011

Actually Existing Monarchy

Aretae is the latest, though by no means the first, to observe that the ideal I have described, of the Monarch whose Unchallenged Authority removes all internal conflict and politics, does not closely resemble European history as we are familiar with it.

My response — inevitably — is that those monarchies that were forever engaged in political struggles against internal power centres and rivals were not Proper Absolute Monarchies — they were transitional stages on the way to creating proper monarchy.

Stop sniggering at the back!

But that is indeed how they saw things. Early monarchs were not able to raise armies and levy taxes effectively, as they did not control an apparatus adequate to do so. They relied on an aristocracy to provide those — and the Barons were not under the King's personal authority, but tied to him by a net of property rights.

By the 16th Century (in England, I think France and Spain were more or less in step, or slightly ahead), the Lords' importance for raising armies was reduced, and the apparatus of war was more under the control of the Monarch and his chosen subordinates. However, substantial tax-raising was still beyond the capabilities of the Royal administration. As the importance of the Lords declined due to their military irrelevance, their taxing duties were spread across a wider group of landowners and leading urbanites. The Lords together with representatives of the other tax-raising groups give us the Parliaments of the 16th-17th centuries.

As communications, literacy and the other technology of government advanced, the Royal administration became capable of levying taxes without assistance of pre-existing, independent, local power structures. However, the fact that tax collection had traditionally been done through and with the approval of those structures meant they saw their role in the process as a right, and resisted being taken out of the loop.

Unfortunately, as Charles I tried to complete the process of discarding the last piece of obsolete feudal detritus — parliament — he ran into trouble. He was stymied by a combination of his own incompetence and the after-effects of the reformation. However hard the King and his supporters argued that the path their opponents were on could lead to only to democracy, they were not believed.

In France and Spain, the Catholic monarchies succeeded where the Stuarts failed. Meanwhile in England, as had been forseen by the Cavaliers, the power of Parliament decayed into party politics and a ruling class devoted to the creation of propaganda. (I recommend Ophelia Field's book which describes the process vividly.)

English politics produced more and more effective propaganda (that being, then as now, its main output), and the poison of Locke and the like spread Whiggism to France, and despite the tragedy it produced there, continued to gain ground until the twentieth century, when outright war against all monarchy became practical and in the end successful.

So, on Aretae's point, I do not have a royalist utopia to point to — no English king, even in theory, could do whatever he wanted. The 80 years of Louis XIV and XV does hint at what is possible.

This is the conversation I want to have: let us accept that politics is the problem, and discuss whether absolute monarchy is a solution. I am far from certain, and am open to consider alternative solutions, whether they be rigged elections, institutionalised criminal gangs, seasteads, or whatever. Monarchy still seems the most promising line to me, particularly in Britain where we have a mythology and an extant Royal Family to return to.

The Swiss Canton/Medieval City-State deserves a separate post.

75 dead in power station disaster

18 months ago.  You do remember the weeks of non-stop media coverage, right?


Not a major disaster, of course.  Nothing can compare with the Banqiao Dam failure in China, which killed 26,000 people in 1975.

Of course, communist countries were notoriously careless about safety and the environment.  In Western countries, Hydro power is perfectly safe...

39 Dead in Georgia USA, 1977 from a decommissioned hydro plant.  Just because it's not in use any more, doesn't mean it's not still dangerous.

And, of course, the only one of these I actually heard of without looking for it, the 2000 killed in Italy in 1963.  Hydro plants are particularly vulnerable to earthquakes.

This isn't meant to be an anti-hydro rant.  Hydroelectric power is the only proved form of renewable energy.  But all power stations of any kind, by their essential nature, concentrate large quantities of energy into a small volume.   That is intrinsically dangerous, whether its lakes of dammed water, radioisotopes, oil or natural gas...   The concentration of energy almost always has environmental impact, and always has risk.

No conceivable nuclear accident matches Banqiao dam.   No nuclear accident in the first world has matched Kelly Barnes Dam (unless something new goes seriously and unexpectedly wrong at Fukushima).  Arguably, no nuclear accident in history has matched Sushenskaya — and that wasn't even kept secret, it just wasn't newsworthy.

17 March 2011


Briefly reposting a piece of mine from 2005, which was itself a repost from 2003.

At the end of the 1991 Gulf war there was an argument. Some people wanted to remove Saddam Hussein's government in Iraq. Others opposed this either because they felt it would have bad effects on the region as a whole, or more simply because it would cause unnecessary bloodshed. It was decided, in my view rightly, to end the war with the restoration of Kuwait.

Many who opposed an invasion of Iraq nevertheless hoped that Saddam Hussein would be overthrown. Part of the Iraqi population was already in revolt, and it seemed an easy and harmless thing to help things along a bit. The Iraqi security forces could be prevented from wiping out the rebellion by establishing safe areas and "No-fly zones", which could be justified on humanitarian grounds in any event.

Unfortunately the idea, approved by the UN Security Council, was not thought through. Carried away by the prospect of getting Saddam Hussein overthrown "for free", the long-term situation in the case that the rebellion was unsuccessful was ignored. The United Nations, a body whose purpose is peace, and empowered to sanction war only to prevent wider war, was in fact ordering a perpetual war. It is an act of war to send armed forces into another country to protect a rebel army. The U.S.A. and U.K. have, with U.N. backing, been waging war against Iraq every day for over a decade. This situation should never have been created. Once it was decided in 1991 to allow the Iraqi regime to stay in power, then for consistency's sake Iraq should have been accorded the full sovereign rights of any other country, including the right to use force against "traitors" in its territory.

If I had made this argument at the time (which I didn't), I am sure I would have found little agreement. I would have been told that I was putting inappropriate and outdated principles ahead of the lives of innocent people. It is only with hindsight that we can see what has come of the denial of the basic principle of Iraq's sovereignty. The twelve year war against Iraq, with its blockades ("sanctions"), its bombings and its imminent bitter end has claimed more innocent lives than either of the two logical alternatives in 1991 would have done, even without taking into account that it was the immediate provocation for the worst terrorist massacre in history.

At its root is arrogance. GWB has been widely accused of arrogance in recent weeks, but nothing has matched the arrogance of his father and his UN supporters in believing that they could expect peace and cooperation from a foreign government while openly attempting to overthrow it in defiance of its traditional sovereign rights. GWB has the humility to recognise that to interfere in Iraq to the extent of inspecting its chemical factories and limiting the actions its security forces, he must fight a war, take the responsibility and take the consequences. The UN Security Council still has the arrogance to believe it can achieve the same ends without bloodshed.

12 March 2011

Anomaly UK

I've been doing this for over six years now, and some of the first things I posted I'd written up to a year previously. I want to recap over the major propositions that define what a newcomer would find.


Most people would be better off in a society with minimal government as advocated by the libertarian movement. However, this is against the interests of politicians who need to use patronage to defeat their rivals, and therefore is not achievable under democracy or under any other political system.

Politics is not inevitable, however. If rule is in the hands of one unchallenged individual, he would be in the position of owner of the realm, and would act to maximise the long-term value of his asset. In the process, he would provide better government than any modern state. It is politics itself that is the problem.

Back in Democracy, for those not being directly promised bribes by one candidate or another, the amount of predictable improvement in policy by electing one candidate rather than another is often outweighed by the difference in entertainment value between the candidates, as estimated using the market prices of entertainment. Democratic politics can therefore be seen as a small section of the (huge) entertainment industry. That is not to say that government is insignificant, just that the changes that can be made to government by democratic politics are.

My views on this have been dramatically affected by Mencius Moldbug, of the blog Unqualified Reservations.


The Climate Change debate is about politics, not science. The question is whether the small chance that disastrous change will happen but can be averted by a concerted global programme of austerity justifies the costs of such a programme. The dangers are exaggerated by those who support austerity or transnational government or both. The dangers are minimised by those who support prosperity or small-scale government or both.

The political significance of climate science means that scientists on both sides feel justified in employing levels of dishonesty that they would never contemplate in ordinary scientific disputes. While this dishonesty is very minor in the context of politics, it is destructive of the scientific process, which requires exceptional levels of honesty to function properly.

My impression is that the so-called consensus towards Global Warming is a house of cards built on flimsy speculations, and sustained by special-interest funding and by political animosity towards critics. That conclusion is suspiciously convenient for the political views I held at the time I first reached it, but has in fact outlived the political convictions that one might have suspected of motivating it.

Global Politics

I think the arguments used to advocate the Iraq War were legitimate, but that the costs of the war, both to the OIF alliance and to everybody else, outweighed the benefits and it was therefore a mistake. There were people who correctly anticipated this, but I wasn't one of them; I was a "don't know".

The major competing political forces in the world are the EU's corporatist totalitarianism and the USA's residual individualism. No other world power or ideology - including Russia, China and radical Islamism - comes close to challenging either of them.

Many foreign countries are crap places to live, but I don't think there is any strategy for improving them by military action that will have overall beneficial results, although it might get lucky now and again. I think it is more beneficial to respect the sovereignty of other countries' governments, even where they are very nasty.


Copyright exists to correct a market failure: that the creation of new valuable information benefits anyone who obtains a copy, but the costs are concentrated on the creator. Like all interventions to correct market failures, there are dangers, including capture of the regulatory structure by concentrated producer interests, which has clearly been demonstrated by retroactive extension of copyright terms. Also, as with other such interventions, it is not obvious that the market cannot find its own solutions to internalise the externality, nor is it obvious that the costs of regulation and the deadweight losses do not outweigh the benefits of the correction. Getting rid of copyright might be an overall benefit, although it would be dangerous. The evidence is overwhelming that reducing the scope of copyright would be beneficial, and that regulation aimed at suppressing technologies that are used to evade copyright enforcement is very harmful.

Free Software is cool. The overhead of protecting copyright in software is very damaging to the efficiency of the software production process and to the quality of the product.

his post will remain as a kind of "index" to the blog, and I update it if my positions change. For comparison, an older version is here

Why you should be a reactionary

Why I am not has disclaimed the label of "reactionary" I put on him when I linked to him. Fair enough, it is a clumsy label (perhaps "Sith" as used by MM is better), and the title of his blog suggests a certain wariness of labels in any case.

Concretely he goes on to paint a more optimistic view of conservatism than you will get from us reactionaries. 
Frankly, my lifetime (I was born in 1981) has seen progressivism dragged behind conservatism, as the right has progressively neutered the left and so the progressive need to stand on some of the middle ground has forced them ever rightwards. The current Labour Party is far to the right of where the SDP stood at its formation.
I think that is his mistake. It is true that since the 1970s we have seen privatisation, liberalisation of international trade, and reduction in top tax rates.

But those were just a blip in the tide of advancing progressivism. Even leaving out the nationalisations resulting from the financial crisis, the regulatory state, backed by employment, equality, competition and environmental laws, exerts as much control over a lot of "private" business as the 70s state did over nationalised industries.

Top marginal tax rates are pushing back towards 1970s levels, and for most people the tax burden is much heavier than then.

Voluntary co-operation has been all but wiped out by crowding out from government services and from state-sponsored fakecharities, and also by regulation, most egregiously the protection of children laws, but with health & safety, occupational licensing and so on doing their bit. The coalition has rolled back a tiny fraction of the last decade's impositions, but the expectation is that, like other governments, that is the lot and it will then turn round and start adding on further restrictions. (Remember that Labour on coming to power started by liberalising pub licensing hours — a typical "opposition" policy that looks totally out of place against their subsequent approach).

Voluntary association is also hamstrung by the nationalisation of virtue — the idea that only the state is entitled to distinguish moral and immoral behaviour.

As for "ending the progressive war on the family" — that is long ended; the war on the family was won decades ago. With illegitimacy rates near 50% and most marriages ending in divorce, family life is now a faintly eccentric choice, rather than an expected norm.

In all these areas, everything except international trade, that is, the current Conservative party is far to the left of the 1970s Labour party. And I can say with confidence that the Conservative party in 20 years will be further left still.

So what of the trade question — why is that an exception to the general leftward drift of the Zeitgeist: a mysterious consensus, which changes over the decades? The only answer is that occasionally reality made itself felt. In the post-war period, protectionism was believed to be generally a good thing across left and right.  Reality occurred in the 70s, free trade got a good jump in the 80s, and has been fading ever since. We get as much state as we can afford, but just occasionally the left gets ahead of itself and we get a level of state destructiveness that physically cannot be sustained. In that circumstance, and only that circumstance, are rightists allowed some small victories. To claim those as victories for conservatives is to underestimate reality. (In fact, I seem to recall that in its last days even the Callaghan government was moving towards some Thatcherite policies, as the situation so urgently demanded them).

The best understanding of the place of conservatism in Britain today comes from Peter Hitchens (e.g. The Cameron Delusion, as well as his blog.  I have not come round to his views on drugs, but otherwise I consider his analysis sound.  (Remedies are another matter, but there we are all floundering to some degree.)

Only reactionaries realistically oppose progressivism.

Two points from Ezra Klein

Common Mistakes Made By Economists

1. Political power matters. There are many outcomes that are economically efficient in the short term but lead to a dangerous imbalance of political power in the long term

I wouldn't use the word "imbalance" - balances can be dangerous too, but otherwise the most overwhelmingly important point in politics.

8. Policy arguments are often conscripted for political purposes...

This is a great sighting near the surface of something so deeply assumed that the assumption is normally invisible: policy is the opposite of politics.

Klein's strapline is "Economic and Domestic Policy, and Lots of it". But politics is only allowed in when it forces itself, by point 1.

I have only seen the view of politics being opposite to policy stated so clearly by critics, such as in Mencius Moldbug's Explanation of democratic centrism

04 March 2011

99% chances

Another sensible article by John Kay, this time about financial models. He mentions the Allais Paradox, which relates to what I called folk probability.

I have a quibble though: Kay says "There are no 99 per cent probabilities in the real world". Clearly, there are. That doesn't mean, though, that you or I know what they are.

The real point is that at very low probabilities, the chances of your model being wrong dwarf the chances you're predicting. If you model a probability as 20%, but there's a 2% chance that your model's significantly wrong, the true probability is somewhere in 20±2%. That's useful to know. But if you model a probability as 0.2%, that doesn't magically make your chance of having got the model wrong a hundred times smaller. What you really have is a probability of 0.2±2 %. It might as well be 1±2% or 0.000001±2% — the question of how sure you are about your model is far more important than whether the model says 1% or 0.1%

More comments on John Kay pieces: ICI rents climate, copyright

03 March 2011


I don't have a strong opinion toward what voting system future General Elections will use. I don't think that who gets elected is very important:  voters don't have any control over immediate policy; they only have influence over the long-term direction of policy, and that doesn't depend on who wins any given election.

However, I used to be very interested in voting systems, and I have an intense dislike of bad arguments. The bad arguments in the AV debate come mainly from the No side.

The silliest is the cost argument. They claim that a switch to AV would cost 250 million pounds. That is highly improbable, and includes the cost of the referendum itself, which is a sunk cost in any case since the referendum is now going to happen.  But just take it at face value for a moment.

Assume AV is an improvement — if it is not then the cost argument is irrelevant.  250 million is about five pounds per voter. The average voter will probably have the opportunity to vote in another six or seven elections. If a significant improvement in the value of a vote is not worth a quid, then what is a vote worth? The only people who should be influenced by the cost argument are those of us who believe that voting is worthless anyway.

There is also talk of voting or counting machines; that is a much bigger and easier argument than AV itself.  Introducing machines is a huge mistake. FPTP hand-counted is far superior to AV with machines, since there is no reason for anyone ever to trust the machines.

A bizarre gem came from John Redwood, who wrote on his blog, "we think it undesirable that elections are settled by the second preference votes of those who vote for minor or unpopular parties". He doesn't say why. If you like your local independent, or Green, then the fact that you also prefer Conservative to Labour should therefore be of no interest?

A more cogent objection is that AV would produce Labour/Lib Dem coalitions into the indefinite future. I do not dismiss that, but I think it is mistaken. For one thing, the current situation shows that the support for the Lib Dems, being as it is a historically-produced random collection of highly disparate groups, with no policy positions in common at all, cannot survive the Lib Dems actually holding any power. But more to the point, the biggest effect of AV is within the parties themselves.

In 1981, a handful of senior Labour figures broke away from the party to form the SDP. That was only possible because of the utter failure of the previous Labour government, and the sheer disarray that the party was in. The SDP held a handful of seats for a few years, then merged with the Liberal party.

But imagine how much easier the job of splitting a party would be under AV. The problem the SDP faced was that for most Labour supporters, voting for the SDP instead of Foot was more likely to produce a Conservative MP than an SDP MP. AV greatly lessens that effect: if 50% of voters prefer Labour to Conservative, it is almost impossible for the Conservative to be elected because of the Labour vote splitting between two rival factions.

In fact, other factors might turn out more important than the voting system itself: in the face of the threat of splitting, I would not be at all surprised to see steps taken to defend the leadership of parties from internal dissenters. Pay particular attention to rules on party funding or ballot entry.

I think AV would give voters slightly more influence than they have now. I am quite unsure as to whether that's a good thing or a bad thing: the Establishment in this country does damage in internal competition and through its religious attachment to Universalism, but on the other hand it is generally less stupid than the voters. So at the end of the day I am in the Whatever2AV camp.

01 March 2011

Car Insurance

The EU car insurance ruling is a thing of beauty because it rules out most of the theories of why the EU does the things it does.

There is no possible ideology behind requiring insurers to ignore risk factors. There is no favoured class which will benefit — even the benefit to young male drivers will be very minor*, and there is certainly no general EU intention to benefit that class. There is no practical benefit. The only reason for the EU to decide to interfere in this particular question is because it can.

And there is nothing irrational in that. The EU wants to interfere in as much as possible, regardless of the lack of any justification, because everything it can touch increases its relevance — its power. This creates jobs for people to check that car insurance rates are in compliance. It creates opportunities for deals, exceptions, opt-outs, and straight out bribes. That is a sound, logical course action for a self-styled government with no country.

*since if the insurers adjust rates to bring in the same revenue as before, the effect will be to discourage low-risk female drivers and encourage high-risk male drivers, which will cost the insurers a lot more in claims — therefore the insurers will have to set the rate much higher than the weighted average of what it charges now, and accept a corresponding fall in business.