What Libertarians can learn from Antonio Gramsci and Why they Should Join the Tories.

I describe myself as a Libertarian, mainly because the traditional labels of ‘left’ and ‘right’ don’t fully fit. As P.J. O’Rourke remarked “Turn right at Economics, Take a left at sex and drugs, straight ahead to paradise“*. The right are largely economically liberal, but socially authoritarian, and the left, the opposite. And this varies by time and place, influenced by history. Swedish neo-nazis for example are strongly in favour of that kingdom’s generous welfare state. But I don’t want to ‘smash the state’. Shrink it, gradually, for sure. But I don’t want a revolution. Nor do I see much fundamentally wrong with representative democracy.

Libertarians too often have an intellectual jump-off point at their state-free utopia. This isn’t libertarianism, but anarchism, but these anarcho-capitalists hurl abuse at any libertarian whose ideas include working with existing institutions: not “real” libertarianism. There’s no coherent plan to get from a state which takes 50% of GDP and thinks it reasonable to control the font on cigarette packets, or the contents of Children’s lunch-boxes, to one where the state keeps to its reasonable functions. Thus libertarianism is a philosophy for spotty herberts, ranting in pubs, mainly to each other. And the An-caps are to blame.

Unless your intellectual jump-off point is our society and government, complete with problems, here and now, you will be ignored. This is why Labour was out of power for nearly two decades until they abandoned their marxist fantasy. The Tories fell into the trap of imagining an Elysium somewhere around 1953, which saw them out of power while Gordon Brown laid waste the economy. The party that wins power is the one with a clear solution to the problems of the country now, and an optimistic vision for the future sufficient to encourage people to vote.

The problems faced by the UK government are a deficit requiring spending cuts, and preventing tax-cuts. A population which appears to be obsessed by immigration (especially in the kind of places where there is little). This means the solutions are extraordinarily unpopular, as the left hate spending cuts, as the right thinks not giving tax-cuts is tantamount to socialism. Social liberalism, gay marriage for example seems to have brought out the right-authoritarians out in full-scale culture war. Immigrants are the first casualty, as they seek their fantasy ’50s Britain.

Despite extraordinarily difficult political headwinds, the coalition’s doing a good job. Taxes have even been cut, especially on the low-paid. In-work benefits are about the same or more generous, increasing the returns to work, and out of work benefits have been frozen or squeezed. This tax-cut, and benefit rise has been largely responsible for the missed deficit targets. But the effect has been profound. Added to the incentive effects, supply-side reforms, mainly making it easier to fire, and less costly to employ, have seen something of a jobs miracle. Despite a weak economy, millions have found work, and the coalition has mostly achieved this by increasing incentives to the out of work, and by reducing obstacles to jobs being provided. Even the jobs miracle is grotesquely unpopular. Ranty rigties and “libertarians” bemoan the increased in-work benefits bill. The left are having a right old froth about “zero-hours” contracts or the rise in self-under-employment.

But everywhere you look, the coalition’s been shrinking the state’s influence over economic life, and seen a flourishing of private sector economic activity. State headcount, the bean-counters and box-tickers of Gordon Brown’s expensive client state, has been pared back to pre-1997 levels. The debate about the deficit has been comprehensively won – even Labour has abandoned its punk-keynsianism in rhetoric at least.

Ranty twitter libertarians often ask how I can stomach being a Conservative. It’s simple. They do a good job in day-to-day government, and they do shrink the state overall. It is true Conservatives are not libertarians. The clue is in the name. But they are fellow-travellers, at least as far as they want to go, and especially so in matters economic. The Cameroons are also reasonably socially liberal. They do want to get the state out of the bedroom, and pursue a more reasonable set of drug laws. The Tory party has lost its ranty, EU-obsessed authoritarians to UKIP, who, one suspects, mostly hate the EU because it prevents bringing back hanging. And the Tory party looks a whole lot better without them.

Libertarians should offer a vision of a freer, richer, stronger UK, starting with the rich, free and strong UK we have now. We should do so by infiltrating the existing parties and making arguments for policies that work mainly by freeing people from state dependency and control. Citizens’ Basic Income, protections to civil liberties, freedom of expression and association. If there were more libertarians making the arguments rather than stomping off in great huffs like David Davis, or Douglas Carswell, we might get somewhere.

But Libertarians are too selfish, immature and self-centred to compromise. We do have the answers. Libertarianism is right, good and helpful to people. But we are absolutely rubbish at making the arguments to those who matter because we couch the arguments in such absolutist terms. Libertarians need to get their shoulders to the wheel of debate, instead of standing at the sidelines shouting incoherent abuse to people trying to come up with solutions to problems faced by people in the here and now. Otherwise we leave policy-making in the here and now to Gramscian marxists who’ve already completed their long-march through the institutions.

Libertarians should join the Conservative party. Not because the Conservative party fully agrees with us, but because it should.

*if anyone can find the source for, or correct me on this quote, I’d be grateful.

Government and Mazlow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Life, even after a few years of falling wages, is pretty good in the west. Whatever the idiots of the left tell you, you need to pretty comprehensively screw your life up to be homeless in any developed western economy. Some people fall through the net, but they’re exceptions who’re often on the streets because they reject help. Starvation in the west, is almost always a result of mental illness, not want. This is why shroud waving about ‘the bedroom tax’ has fallen flat. It’s just contrary to what people can see with their own eyes.

So, unlike almost every society preceding it, the west delivers all the physiological needs of food and water to all of its people, with near 100% reliability. Most do a pretty good job of providing affordable healthcare too.

With the bare necessities of life secure, a place to live is fairly high on the list of requirements. And very, very few people have nowhere to live. Some fall through the cracks, and for too many it’s far too expensive to live reasonably near work. We build too few houses, and prices are too high for sure. But that’s a problem soluble within the present system. Unlike many economies on earth, however almost everyone in the west has access to a secure house.

Other elements in ‘security’ are amply provided by western societies. We enjoy secure property rights. Few of us die of violence. There is justice, imperfect to be sure, but there is a reliable dispute resolution process. We can travel freely, and seek to do business worldwide, and assume contracts are honoured. Regulations ensure our homes and workplaces are safe. None of these are perfect, but by with centuries of problem-solving, things get better, in fits and starts.

This is the bread and butter of politics. The steady, patient accumulation of good ideas, and the abandonment of bad ones. Free market, democratic capitalism has delivered material wealth unimaginable to our forebears, and will continue to develop improvements, and hopefully find ways to distribute them better. Regulation, and robust institutions to enforce them, are necessary, in part so people don’t have to re-invent the wheel every time they innovate. What works – from hard hats on building sites to banking capital adequacy is a reasonable function of government. And it’s pretty dull. Much of this is supranational trade regulation, outsourced to bodies like the WTO and EU to enable bigger, and therefore more efficient markets. Too much regulation, of course strangles the golden goose. But that too is tested world wide and locally. Bad ideas like marking-to-market are abandoned, good ideas which seem to work, spread. This is only possible because people are allowed to question our rulers.

From Magna Carta in 1215 (and similar ideas in the Islamic world at about the same time) which put rulers under law, imperfectly, and with many retrograde steps, the idea that Government should obtain their people’s consent gained traction. And because people are good at solving problems, the societies which governed by consent, and which broadened the stake in society, were far more successful than the autocracies with which they competed. We free people have seen off big, bad ideas: The divine right of kings, Bonapartism, religious absolutism, slavery, fascism, communism and we’re having another competition with religious absolutism now, but no-one thinks seriously that Radical Islamists pose any existential threat to western democracies.

We, broadly if not universally, won. And if the Koreans or Japanese have caught up, it is by taking up our good ideas and applying them to their society. They now compete to generate the new ideas which help society improve. As more and more countries join us on the technological frontier – the former soviet Eastern Europe is catching up fast, as is China, and so more and more of humanity’s creative endeavour will be applied to solving problems, creating solutions we can all share.

In politics, it’s tempting for politicians to rubbish others’ ideas and try to sell theirs as revolutionary. But because we’ve defeated all the really, really bad ideas, we’re now arguing about ever smaller and smaller problems. This, in turn makes politicians look small and petty. We’re no longer arguing about how to organise society, we’re arguing about distributing success. This requires managers, not leaders. And so turnouts fall worldwide and people shift from parties of government to single-issue pressure groups. We hanker for the old, simple, black and white questions were WE could broadly persuade ourselves that WE were on the side of Angels, and THEY were the bad guys. And if you grew up with the cold war, in the democratic west, we were the ones outside the wall, asking the others to tear it down. And now, the Green movement is on the side of the planet against big, bad business, which is destroying the planet. Or UKIP blaming everything on the EU and the LIBLABCON Westminster clique.

Feeling part of something, especially AGAINST something self-evidently wicked, is more important in many ways than material and economic security. These are the social, love and esteem layers of Mazlow’s Hierarchies of need. British elections in the 1980s were in part between those who sympathised with the communists, and those who identified with America. Parties were mass movements, and satisfying as a result. In success, politicians lost something to define themselves against, even as they maintain the forms of adversarial debate. When you’re discussing potential nuclear holocaust, or how to defeat fascism, this is fine. But if you’re trying to present £11 a week  off benefits as existential crisis, or a small change in tax-rates as a return to communism (guilty as charged…) you just look ridiculous.

While this was manageable during a long rise in living standards, it rapidly became less so when the great recession hit. Having got used to success, governments spent and spent to fund promises of ever greater services, and ever greater consumption. And eventually the money ran out. Insurgent parties then moved into the void across the world – UKIP, the Tea Party, Front National and others. Some more responsible than others, but each coming with their own comforting ‘Them and Us’ narrative.

Ultimately I think these parties, should they ever be confronted with the realities of Government will either end up looking exactly like the parties they claim to oppose, be absorbed by them, or will implode under the weight of their internal contradictions. The upper levels of the hierarchy of needs are not really deliverable by politicians. All they can do is promise to manage the ever shrinking portion of economies needed to deliver safety, security and possibly health to the people. It used to require the productive efforts of 95% of humanity just to provide food, a task delivered in the west by just 1% now.

People want to be listened to, as an inevitable consequence of having enough to eat and a place to eat it. But everyone wants something different. So we require a new politics, one that enables and facilitates, rather than seeking to impose a one-size fits all approach. Formal government needs to shrink, sharing, as David Cameron used to say in the good times, the proceeds of growth between tax-cuts and better services. This will leave people to seek the social, love and esteem without government interference, and with an ever-shrinking burden of taxation. You want freedom. Free people from want, let them feel secure, then watch our creative talents take man to the stars.

Yes, we (unfairly) despise politicians, because they have solved the major problems of life, and continue to do so. The answer isn’t to return to them-and-us politics, but with smaller questions; Instead we must take more questions out of the politicians’ purview. Their job is largely done, and they can recede, to be the people to whom we outsource the bin collections and sewage regulation. What they do is important. But it is now unglamourous.

One day perhaps we will give no more thought to the Government that delivers health services, organises some redistribution, funds education services and defends the realm than we do to the remarkable supply-chain that delivers our bread. Libertarianism will not come from destroying government, but by building on its successes something vaster and grander, and more satisfying to the people who live in it than any Government or bureaucrat could possibly imagine. Let us not despise democratic government, but reduce it over the next few centuries to the status of the monarchy in the UK now, a useful, decorative relic which doesn’t get in the way much, while the free people get on with delivering what people actually want from each other.

On Charlie Elphicke’s plan to ban the Trolls.

I write as a pseudanonymous blogger. My nom-de-plume is an old nickname from growing up. It’s useful mainly because It means I can keep my political writing and activism separate from my professional life. But if you really, really want to find out who ‘Jackart’ is, it should take you about 2 clicks. This filtered permeability is deliberate. A Google search will either throw up my professional life, OR the blog, but not usually both.

A am not in any meaningful way, anonymous. But I understand why people might be. The Military ‘Service test’, company social media policies and so forth usually expressly forbid the expression of political opinion online. The exception seems to be the public sector hard-left who revel in their employers’ support for their hard-left activism and desire to ‘expose’ those who ‘have vile views’ (ie disagree). Letters to employers can often follow some pretty mild expression of what is  often basically ‘Economics 101’.

The real bullies are all too often those defending the status quo from those who think differently, and ‘Troll’ has come to mean ‘anyone disagreeing with a lefty on the internet’. Real Trolls are just people whose hobby is winding up the self-important and humourless. The endless tweets of “your a dick” (the grammatical error is part of the gag) to Richard Dawkins is an example. The aim is to get a rise. And to this end, the perma-outraged Caroline Criado-Perez, the womyn behind the campaign to get a woman womyn on the £10 note, is great value. She will always bite. So she’s targeted by Trolls. Some of whom are hilarious, some of whom aren’t.

Trolling is not the same as ‘flaming’. Flaming is the straight exchange of insults. This too can be cathartic and when indulged in between people who aren’t offended, can be enjoyable. A good insult can be poetry. Use of robust Anglo-Saxon shouldn’t be illegal.

We’re also moving into the territory where giving offence is becoming illegal, encouraging a competitive victimhood race to get your identity/religion/political beliefs  legally protected. This is profoundly undemocratic, with a chilling effect on free expression. If you don’t like something, block, ignore and move on (on which more later). Free speech must come with the freedom to offend, or it isn’t worth anything, and political debate becomes a circle-jerk around the status quo. To the extent that it already is, partially explains the rise of anti-establishment parties. Offensive comment isn’t “trolling”, and shouldn’t be illegal, however angry you may be about your shibboleth being held up for challenge or ridicule.

Nor is the stalking, harassment and abuse meted out to some people “trolling”. I’d quite happily wind up Miss Criado-Perez, because I think she’s an insufferable, po-faced, hypocritical misandrist who’s more or less wrong on everything. But just as you’re allowed to ask “name me something a woman has invented” to a feminist in a pub in order to piss her off, you’re not allowed to say “I’m going to rape you, you fucking bitch” in a pub, on Twitter or indeed anywhere else. There’s a line. That line is threats, harassment and incitement. The line exists in law, and no further law is needed. You can say what you like up to that line. But if the target of your abuse leaves the pub (blocks you on Twitter), and you follow them home (set up multiple sock-puppet accounts), you’re moving from legal free speech, into harassment. Prolonged harassment is already illegal, online or in meatspace.

Which brings me to this excrescence from the Tory MP, Charlie Elphicke.

Hate-tweeting trolls make people’s lives hell. They’ve got out of hand on social media and we need to crack down on it

Great, enforce the laws that already exist.

we cannot just be tough on hate-tweeting, we must be tough on the causes of hate-tweeting, too. We should target the anonymity hate-tweeters use to harass people online. At the moment it’s just too easy to set up a bogus account and viciously stab at people from behind the curtain.

Does he mean “people” or “politicians”? So much good is done by people who tweet, blog and write anonymously, maybe because their views are controversial, or because “procedures” forbid those who know, from telling the truth. Remember night jack?

I would fisk the whole thing, but as it doesn’t address the issue that sprang instantly to mind with his first sentence, there’s no point. Elphicke is talking out of his arse.

Anonymity is a vital component of free speech, because it allows uncomfortable truths be told to those, like Elphicke, who exercise power. And if you really need to find who someone making actionable threats is, it’s easy enough to find out. Even the careful Old Holborn was ‘exposed’ eventually, after trolling the whole of Liverpool. But as he’d said nothing illegal, he’s able to wear his title of ‘Britain’s vilest troll‘ with pride.

Peter Nunn, on the other had crossed the line. Threatening to rape someone, the MP, Stella Creasy on twitter is not ‘Trolling’ and is (rightly) already illegal. He was gaoled for 18 weeks under current legislation. Perhaps Ms Creasy is right. Perhaps we do need to take such threats more seriously. But it’s clear from this case we don’t need another law to do so.

The tone of debate on twitter is not the same as that in the house of commons. It’s more like how a rowdy pub would be were it to hold a political debate. People are engaged through the medium of twitter. It’s potentially a superb means for politicians to reach out to the people and bridge the divide. Some, like Michael Fabricant or indeed Stella Creasy get it. Others like Elphicke clearly don’t. But trying to turn Twitter into the Oxford Union isn’t going to work. All it will do is encourage another online network, which isn’t regulated by the nanny state, to be set up where people can flame each other at will. Most of us enjoy the rough and tumble of debate, and sometimes minds are changed.

Perhaps someone should point out that calling Charlie Elphicke a stupid, ignorant know-nothing with a face like a baby’s arse and brains consisting of what comes out of one, isn’t “trolling”. It’s fair comment. I’m a card-carrying Tory, so nor it this a partisan attack. Indeed I’m ashamed to share a party with someone so wildly illiberal and ignorant of what he speaks. How DARE he write something so ill-informed and stupid?

This fear of “trolling” is nothing more than a particularly egregious moral panic. A good insult can be poetry. There is no right to live unoffended. We don’t want to ban anonymous comment because we’re a democracy. We have already banned abuse, threats and incitement because we’re civilised. 

Democracy, the State and Libertarianism

Libertarianism is the political belief that there is no crime, except the initiation of force or fraud. Philosophically we have much in common with the Anarchists: A belief that much of what a formal state would do, policing and so forth could and should be done without the state doing it. Some deontological libertarians oppose state action wherever possible, arguing that tax-funding is inherently coercive, and should be minimised where possible. I am however a consequentialist libertarian: I am content for things to be paid for out of taxation where the outcome otherwise would be sub-optimal.

Few argue the poor, who are mainly where they are because of bad luck, should go unhoused and without medical care. And as health care insurance would cost most for those who are likely to need it most, and almost everyone will need health care at some time, and whether you will or not is simply not predictable. Taxation in this regard is just a big risk-pool. Private-sector insurance doesn’t to solve any extra problems and adds a few of its own. Voluntary insurance adds especially a significant element of free-rider costs: We’re not going to deny care to an uninsured car-crash victim. Compulsory insurance is not significantly different to taxation in any meaningful way.

Obviously the state running anything is a disaster as the NHS and the British state ‘education’ system amply prove, but the state can be an efficient risk-pooler and purchaser on behalf of the population. This is why I favour a Free (ish – I’m not averse to small consultation and prescription charges) at the point of delivery, state-funded health care, but delivered by a variety of providers. Hospitals, clinics and so-forth can be owned by businesses, charities, partnerships and so forth. All the state needs to do is decide what gets funded out of taxation, and what isn’t. Then it needs to make payments on behalf of patients. The tax is morally no different to the compulsory insurance required by many countries, and this is what the British are used to.

As for health, so too for education. The state should however get out of provision, being content to operate a voucher program for schools. Everyone gets equal access, and gets to choose which school specialising in which brand of ideological idiocy will get to indoctrinate little Johnny. Of course most people will pick the best, middle-of-the-road school which is local enough to get to, but the competition for students will drive up standards. The other crucial difference is that market systems tend to not have shortages because there is no planning. Markets allocate sufficient resources where it’s needed better than any state bureaucrat ever could.

Transport policy: Nothing brings out the sociopath in people more than how they get about. People like roads, except near where they live. They cheerfully speed, yet complain about others doing so on their road. They regard any spending on road/rail/cycle/airports as wasted, unless they themselves use those services, in which case, the spending is grotesquely inadequate, and should be doubled immediately. “For the good of the economy. I’m thinking about others you see.” The state therefore has to mediate who gets what transport infrastructure, where and in what form, compulsorily purchasing, where necessary land in order to achieve the greater good. This sometimes requires an initiation of force, otherwise on stubborn landowner can hold up the economic development of an entire nation. It should be hard, and under democratic control, but roads are a another crucial area of reasonable roles for the state.

Everywhere you look, you find a reasonable role for a state. It’s just much, much less than the state does currently. Too many libertarians are ideologically committed to no state action. If your intellectual starting point is a state-free utopia, I reject that as completely as I do every other Utopia. Accepting there to be roles for the state is not un-libertarian. In general, I’ve long argued that Libertarianism is a state of mind, not a practical manifesto for government. I come from the long British tradition of rejecting grand ideas, preferring to ask which is the best on offer. Ultimately, the deontological position is childish.

You cannot persuade people to accept a state-free vision, and persuading people is necessary to get anything done in a democracy. You can persuade people that certain things: what people eat, drink, smoke etc… are none of the Government’s business. You can persuade people that the Government doesn’t need to own everything or spend 50% of GDP. If you say “let’s abolish the police”, you won’t be take seriously. If you say “Lets’ abolish the Department for business innovation and skills” you might be. There’s plenty of low-hanging fruit.

Libertarians need to start thinking about where we are right now, rather than imagining some ghastly Randian utopia , with other libertarians over a pint; a utopia towards which no-one sane will want to travel. Just as the fault of every planned system is the fact that everyone imagining one puts themselves in the role of planner, every objectivist, deontological libertarian ranting about a state-free utopia imagines himself in the role of John Galt.  The state is spending 50% of GDP and seriously discussing school lunches and the font on fag-packets. Never has there been more need for libertarians in Government. But the movement needs to grow up.

On the “Crisis of Democracy”…

Electoral turnout is falling, and those that do bother to vote are increasingly not opting for one of the two main mass parties: Humans for the Conservatives and Labour for the Orcs. This means any Prime-minister (who is more or less guaranteed to be either David Cameron or Ed Miliband after 2015), is going to lack legitimacy. Some say the fact that the likes of Tony Blair or David Cameron, who became PM on a small plurality of the vote, discredits democracy. By this analysis, our system, because the House of Commons is not the result of an accurate tribal headcount, is illegitimate.

All this represents is the fact political argument in the west is no longer about whether everyone gets enough to eat. Everyone now does. Political argument, even in these times of “Austerity” is really about the distribution of plenty. We’re now so far up Mazlow’s hierarchy of needs that even Sun-readers who have a roof over their heads, and more than enough to eat, now expect their unconsidered views to be listened to.

The four stages of learning are:

  1. Unconscious incompetence: You don’t know how little you know.
  2. Conscious incompetence: You now know how little you know
  3. Conscious competence: You can make the right calls with the right information, if you think about it.
  4. Unconscious competence: Like changing down a gear in a car after 20 years of driving, you can do it without thinking about it.
Level 0. is of course, where most people have existed in matters of political economy, feeling absolutely no need to find out anything, voting largely out of habit and gut feeling from an opinion of the candidates and parties gained almost by osmosis from the media. Because each vote changes so little, this ignorance is entirely rational. It profits people far more to become expert in whatever they do for a living, using leisure time for… well… leisure. Most political activists are also at level 0, seeing politics in terms of a sport, backing a team chosen in childhood without any significant analysis of why using confirmation bias to exclude any troubling data. Even so, more and more people are rising to level 1.

The political anger is due the fact that having found out a bit, some people have started expressing opinions, and now feel ignored. They have learned to find a profit & loss account and do some basic arithmetic and conclude that corporate tax is being “underpaid” without troubling themselves to understand why this might be. Some people hear some funny accents on the bus and conclude they’re being “swamped” by immigrants. Yet these “problems” are ones of enormous complexity, utterly unsuited to the simplistic solutions being proposed by the man in the pub. But there are politicians prepared to ride the wave of this solipsistic anger, hence the rise of minor parties, especially between elections, when the electorate don’t feel they’re choosing something important like the Prime-minister.

People have found out a bit, and don’t like what they see, because a little knowledge is a dangerous thing and people fear that which is only partially understood. Here be dragons.

I reckon I’m at level 2. All I understand is how little I know, and I am deeply sceptical of anyone who claims to have the solution to complex political problems. There are trade-offs, but no answers. Side-effects are unknown and unknowable.

The list of people at level 3. in matters of modern political economy is very, very small, consisting of Ben Bernanke, a couple of Nobel Laureates (but NOT Paul Krugman), a few central bankers, people at the top of a few businesses. Even these people might just be level 2. but with power. Everyone else who claims to have the answer, is lying.

No-one is sufficiently able to collect and process the data to successfully manage an economy at level 4.

The answer is, of course more direct democracy hoping a semi-engaged electorate can be bothered to turn out for local referenda; and trusting to the wisdom of crowds. The answer is also the ‘electorate of one’ allowing markets to give people power over their own lives and removing a lot of competences from political control, devolving them to the individual and family.

It’s because of my scepticism that I favour market solutions, and resist political control. Not because I think it’s an answer, but because I don’t think there is one, so we should let everyone make up their own minds about their priorities as far as possible. The job we’re asking politicians to do is impossible. So let’s make it easier, by getting government to concentrate on its core functions (there is an argument to be had about what the core functions are). Let’s take back the power (and money) from politicians as far as possible, and so make decisions at a level where mistakes aren’t catastrophic.

Libertarianism, the only solution for people who have sufficient wisdom to know they’re ignorant.

On “Nothing to Hide, Nothing to Fear” from PRISM

It appears the NSA and GCHQ are able to read people’s e-mails more or less at will. The whistleblower, Edward Snowden, who made this startling revelation has fled to…. China…. (well, Hong Kong, but the irony remains).

Of course the NSA and GCHQ can read our communications, THAT’S WHAT WE PAY THEM TO BE ABLE TO DO. The difference between countries like Britain and America, and those like China, is the security agencies of the former are genuinely looking for people who want to hack soldiers’ heads off in the street or blow themselves up on buses, while mostly ignoring people saying “I disagree with the Government”. China on the other hand, is about monitoring its citizens’ opinions of the Government.

Now, I’m not going to defend in detail the hyperventilating response of the US authorities to people like Snowden and Bradley Manning. Manning, in particular has been vindictively treated, and Snowden is rightly afraid of the same treatment.  But the wikileaks scandal did lead to widespread legitimate questioning by electorates about what is being done in their name and that is a good thing. The USA is in danger of losing sight of what made it powerful – the freedom enjoyed by Americans to think what they will. The suspicion of Government has been replaced by a fawning deference to the intelligence-military-industrial complex. But this is a cultural battle, not a political one.

There’s a reason some things are secret. Large-scale, indiscriminate leaking of information can cost lives if it means agents and sources in hostile countries can be identified. In an ideal world, our Governments wouldn’t need secrets, but we don’t live in an ideal world and there’s always an ideology of the angry – radical islam, before that Communism, anarchism and so forth which demanded surveillance. There’s always going to be a battle between those who favour security, and those who favour openness, in which will be impossible to strike the right balance at all times. What’s important is to keep the tension so that neither security prevents free thought, while allowing spooks to monitor some bad-guys. Libertarians on Twitter, most of whom have absolutely nothing to do with the intelligence agencies, are instinctively outraged about attacks on privacy by state agencies and kick up a knee-jerk fuss without thinking the issue through. As the overlap between Twitter libertarians and Geeks is almost total, internet freedom is felt very personally. Most people (and we live in a democracy) are more outraged when the spooks whom we pay to keep us safe, fail at their task.

It’s too easy as a libertarian to start from a position of “all state action is wrong” then work from there. It’s possible to make the intellectual arguments about how wicked the intelligence agencies are or even deny their utility. Of course they’re there to defend the Government and the State. Only an extremist could think this somehow wrong. Because the one part of the British state which appears to be doing its job is the intelligence agencies who are actually protecting ordinary people. It won’t be the politicians getting blown up on buses. In crying foul when intelligence agencies are doing what we pay them to do, you leave the non-aligned with the impression that Libertarianism is rather childish, and has nothing to say about the problems facing the world today, preferring to imagine a perfect state-free utopia. But Libertarianism is not anarchism. The state has the right to defend itself, and the majority law-abiding population, from those who would seek to use violence and subversion, rather than democracy, to achieve political ends.

Don’t believe we’ve got the balance right? How many countries would let parties which openly call for the break-up of the country to sit in the legislature? That’s allowed basically in Western Europe and the Anglosphere. If you’re prepared to use democratic means (which means persuading voters) you’re legitimate, more or less whatever you want to say.

Clearly, the intelligence agencies have foiled all but a handful of big attacks on our society, and they have done so by quietly watching the enablers and inciters. It seems probable had ‘the not-employed-as-plumbers’ Adebolajo and Adebowale gone into a hardware shop and bought a load of pipes and chemicals, they’d have been lifted for preparing a bomb. The fact these two were known to the intelligence agencies at the time of the Woolwich attack at all means MI5 is doing something right. The fact they weren’t lifted suggests the agencies have a mind on civil liberties. No intelligence agency can be wise to every threat, or use perfect judgement and most people are realistic enough to see that.

If the PRISM data is held, to enable people already of interest to be looked into more closely (and social networks here are vital) then this is understandable, and frankly despite protestations to the contrary, I expect the NSA to be able to do this to US citizens too. This is going to happen anyway, but I’d rather it be in a legal grey area as it is now, which will persuade the spooks to not ‘take the piss‘. During the cold war, Left-wing organisations and trades unions were often accused of being in league with the enemy – the Soviet Union. Most were not, and some like the Communist Party of Great Britain were openly sympathetic to Moscow. MI5 had files on Labour movement figures, many of whom ended up in Government.

Before mass communication, it was easy. You tapped telephone lines, steamed open letters and broke the codes of people you thought might be a wrong ‘un. Laws enabling agencies to do this, in extremis, were enacted. Nowadays it’s a bit harder. The sheer volume of electronic communications leads to agencies to data mine using algorithms to look for data in which they might be interested. The problem is that most extremists are, by nature, thick and incompetent. They’re easy to find by traditional means. The intelligent ones who’re actually capable of organising the big atrocities are harder to pin down. Simple encryption will defeat data-mining of PRISM data. No encryption is perfect, but it requires resources that will only be deployed if the agencies are already looking at you. It’s the network analysis from the thick and incompetent foot-soldiers and human bombs which leads to the clever, effective terrorists.

To me, the Cold War ‘Spycatcher’ stuff on Labour figures is reassuring. MI5 had a look, found nothing of interest and ignored them. People who had been of interest for a bit were not prevented from seeking high office. Preventing politicians of one side from entering office would have led to scandal of epic proportions. The very legal grey area the in which the spooks operate appears to have been a protection far better than any law.

Now, with all intelligence agency behaviour to be subject to laws, laws will be drafted to allow the Government to monitor communications. Given this legal top-cover, the Agencies will do so with alacrity. The volume of data stored, and the freedom with which it will be used, will rise exponentially. Any competent plotters will regard the Internet as fundamentally insecure, and will find other ways to communicate thus rendering them invisible. Furthermore, there’s the opportunity cost: spooks will spend all their time checking out people who tweet they’re going to Blow the Airport sky-high, and missing the next competent killer as a result.

The spooks belong in the shadows, collecting information, but being careful what they do with it, lest anyone find out how. William Hague said “we’ve nothing to fear from GCHQ”, and I agree with him. But the argument of Labour home secretaries that “if you’ve nothing to hide, you’ve nothing to fear” (which I’ve long thought should be criminalised, punishable by 42-days in prison) does not follow. Data, in the volumes it’s generated these days, can be mined to create an entirely false picture of a person. A number of angry tweets will be used to demonstrate in court a violent personality disorder. An essay which in context is obviously dripping with irony, will be used at face-value out of context to demonstrate the opposite of what’s meant. (*innocent face*). Too much data means the wood will not be seen for the trees, as innocent people fall under suspicion.

The East-German Stasi used to monitor all and sundry, keeping detailed records of pretty ordinary lives. To what end? They failed to spot the imminent collapse of the regime because they were too busy recording the conversations of playwrights. Couldn’t happen here? Look at the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA): it was supposed to bring what was already happening under regulatory oversight. What it allowed was local councils to see who was sleeping where, to prevent benefit fraud. The law supposedly designed to protect the British people caused the (presumably) unintended consequence of council bin-snooping and so extended the power of the state.

Britain is not becoming like China where free expression of political thought is illegal. Nor has the British government over-reacted to a now-minuscule terrorist threat, like the Americans have since 9/11, and thrown all oversight of their intelligence agencies out of the window, with criticism of the Government agencies deemed unpatriotic. There is a judgement to be made. So long as the spooks have at least as much to fear as a result of getting it wrong, then it’s probably right to say ‘if you’ve nothing to hide, you’ve nothing to fear’ in this instance (…42 days in gaol? I’ll go quietly, yer-‘onner). The right people: people who want to blow themselves up on public transport, are subject to surveillance, and no-one should think this is wrong. It’s what we pay intelligence agencies to do. There have been remarkably few stories of people incorrectly so targeted, unlike the bin snoopers brought about by RIPA.

If PRISM became wholly and undeniably legal, then the risks the spooks run by using its data would fall, and the temptation to abuse it would therefore rise. So. Let’s not give ’em the temptation. The Data and Communications Bill in particular would force exactly the sort of network data contained in Prism to be stored, but thankfully it has been killed off by the Liberal Democrats and some Tories. (You see why I like the coalition? The sillier instincts of both parties are tempered) This bill would have given the intelligence agencies powers they neither should have, nor need to foil the current threat of Islamist extremist terrorism.

However the spooks are doing it now, semi-legally or not, it’s working well. So it doesn’t need fixing.

Check Your Privilege, For Libertarians.

If you’re debating with a certain type of lefty, you might get told to “Check Your Privilege”. This confusing order means that if, for example you’re debating the welfare state, if you’re securely employed and don’t know what it’s like to live on benefits, your opinion is irrelevant. It’s effectively saying “you’re borgeouis, shut up”. Dan Hodges dug deeper for the Telegraph.

Apparently the phrase “check your privilege” first originated on the
social justice blog, (no, I’ve no idea what a social justice
blog is either). Shrub was set up by Andrea Rubenstein…

‘CYP’ can be frustrating. But this post by Pete Spence argues some of these ideas could be an important part of libertarian thought, if Libertarianism is not to be an intellectual ghetto for rich, white, smug men with good jobs who don’t want to pay tax.

The concept of Checking Your Privilege asks you to ask yourself “is life different for other people?” and asks you to listen to those who have different experiences. It’s a sharing of information.

e.g. If you are not considered overweight, you may not be aware of the extent to which those considered overweight are harassed. You may not be as acutely aware of the overrepresentation in TV and advertising of people considered to have a “normal” body type.

Intersectionality asks you to remember that individuals are affected by several different things at once.

e.g. Someone considered overweight may also be considered successful, and have a high income and good education. They are relatively privileged when compared with someone considered overweight who is also unemployed.

Of course we all ignore this when debating, and descend into shorthand. The key is to always blame the system, for example when discussing benefits and unemployment, not the people, who’re mostly just responding to incentives. A rule I’m pretty good, though not perfect at adhering to.

These three concepts are all inherently individualist ones. They ask you only to remember that information asymmetries exist. People can not be treated homogenously, and suffer particular issues that are individual to them. We should act accordingly.

Of course when a rabid feminist tells you to “check your privilege”, they’re trying to shut debate down, not asking you to think about the other’s condition. It’s a form of ‘ad-hominem‘, saying your argument is wrong because it’s a rich, white guy making it.

A consistent approach requires libertarians not just to be critical of
state power, but also of overbearing corporate power and the power of
societal expectations and shame. The ideas of privilege, checking
of privilege, and intersectionality help us to do this. The complexity
of our world is a practical reality, and a problem for centralised
approaches, not a call for them.

And here the libertarianish twittersphere in particular falls down, because it’s not clear many people realise how much power large companies wield.  It’s too easy to see non-state players as somehow on my team against the state, whereas it’s a core role in a night-watchman state to protect people against the interests of rapacious companies for example by enforcing competition law.

Libertarians should not be anarchists, always railing against the state, without considering the proper functions of Government, including economic regulation. Monopolies, state or private serve no-one except the interests of the producer. Extremism, morally blaming weaker members of society for their plight or acting as an apologist for Companies is not going to help the central idea of libertarianism spread.

That is social liberalism, and economic liberalism can go together, ideas which appears to be the future of British politics. Let’s not scare potential supporters off by not considering why some people might be scared by the concept of freedom from state interference.

On BMI, Smoking and Physical Fitness

Quite often amongst libertarians there’s a ‘drinkin’ smokin’ and ahm-a-gonna-continue-coz-you-ain’t-gonna-stop-me attitude’. Because the BMA advises something, some libertarians willfully do the opposite.

I entirely understand the wish to blow the smoke of an unfiltered Senior Service into the face of any public-health busybodies I see. There’s enormous glee for example in the reporting of the meta-study released recently which suggested the slightly overweight live longer than those in the “healthy” BMI range. This is something that I thought was long-known. The VERY underweight live the longest, as near-starvation prevents some damage caused by free-radicals in cells during metabolism. We all know what healthy people look like, but it’s apparently just as healthy to carry a bit more weight as you age. The findings of the report are not surprising.

BMI was invented in the 19th century, when people were calorie constrained, cars hadn’t been invented and everyone was skinny, worked in manual labour, and walked, rode, or cycled everywhere. “Normal” was different back then. However BMI’s not a bad rule of thumb. Normal these days is a bit overweight, and certainly not doing the exercise or suffering the occasional bout of hunger for which nature designed us.

The key is muscle. If you’re carrying muscle, and we carry a lot more of it than our great-grandparents, you’re active, a bit of extra fat isn’t a problem for your body to bear, but big muscles are heavy and so push you into “overweight” on the BMI.  If you’re built like a jockey’s whip, you’re completely sedentary and have an unhealthy lifestyle, you can have quite a high fat percentage and a low BMI as fatty tissue is less dense than muscle. Catwalk models have bad skin from make-up and a diet of cocaine, bulimic vomiting and fizzy white wine yet fall at or below the healthy range. Most professional Rugby Players, on the other hand are “obese” thanks to their large muscle mass. There’s no doubt which looks more healthy (without makeup).

Make-up can be used to disguise an unhealthy lifestyle and unhealthy BMI.

I’ve never been a heavy smoker, but I have recently got into the habit of enjoying a cigarette or two in the evenings when I get home from work. I have for one reason or another been without a bicycle for much of the last few months. I’ve been drinking nearly every day and eating too much. I’ve not been taking exercise. I’ve got a bit fat. My BMI is 25.6. Very slightly over the border into overweight. And that’s probably about right. Fat, but not dangerously so. It certainly doesn’t help anyone who isn’t a professional athlete to see the BMI and think “Overweight is good”, because it isn’t.

Just a week of running and swimming each evening, and giving up the cancer-sticks entirely and cutting down the booze, I feel great. The first run was horrible. The second wasn’t much better. But on the third, I felt I’d cleared out some crap from the lungs and I enjoyed it. From previous bouts of fitness fanaticism I find at first you hate it. Then you start to enjoy it. Then you start to need it.

What interests me in the epidemiology is to what extent is the huge health penalty with which smoking is correlated to do with the harms of smoking itself, and how much is to do with the fact that people who smoke are also less likely to make healthy choices with exercise and food? It’s my belief that for day to day well-being, being sedentary is worse than light smoking. If you take regular exercise, I suspect you can get away with a fag with your pint afterwards. But I’m not a doctor, nor am I a public health epidemiologist. I don’t know.

Just because some nannying doctor tells you something is good or bad for you, doesn’t mean he’s wrong. Feeling hungover, lethargic and listless is not as good as feeling bright, cheerful and healthy. Pretty girls prefer men with toned muscles. You’re better in the sack with those pretty girls (or even your significant other) if you take some exercise. Fit people suffer less depression and have higher self-reported happiness. You’ll live longer and so generate more personal utility from the taxes you pay as you burden the NHS with your longer senescence. You sleep better after exercise, and are so more productive when you get up. Live fast, die young? Sod that. Live fast, die old, that’s my motto.

I’ve just started an exercise regime. I’m not just happy about it, I’m smug about it too. Hate me.

Why I can’t Vote for UKIP

While I sort of agree with them about Europe, in common with most of the electorate, I just don’t think it’s that big a deal, and we’re probably going to get what we want – a 2 speed Europe – anyway. I simply don’t know to what practical problem “pull out of the EU” is a solution. There is a democratic deficit at the heart of the EU of course, and I would like a bit more parliamentary sovereignty  But UKIP seem to imagine EU membership is without benefits and leaving is without cost. Most of what makes the UK a shitty place to live is home-grown. Our politicians have (alas) not been as effective at protecting our basic liberties as the European courts.

Points 1 & 2 in “what we stand for” deal almost entirely with Europe as if it’s a mill-stone round our necks, preventing democracy and prosperity. If they get their way, and I hope one day they do, there are going to be a lot of disappointed UKIPpers who are going to have to find another boogeyman to blame for their inadequacies.

They claim to want to cut the deficit but make spending commitments in areas of defence, law and order, and offer tax-cuts all round, paid for, it seems by a local sales-tax to replace VAT (this is a EU-mandated tax, you see…) and the benefits of leaving the EU. This is, obviously laughable.

I cannot live with their immigration policy which is pure demagoguery allied to ‘lump of labour‘ fallacy idiocy.

Their law and order policy looks like an expensive and unjust march towards a police state and mass incarceration along red-state US lines. I cannot support this.

They plan to re-introduce Grammar schools. This has long been on the Tory activist wish-list. I am not sure separating the sheep from the goats at 11 is just, or that it will appeal to the majority who know, in their heart of hearts that little Johnny will be a goat. The only reason the Tory ‘free schools’ policy isn’t supported is that it can’t be sold to golf-club bores as a return to a better yesterday.

“Our way of life” is a bit more than smoking in pubs and fox-hunting. And for a ‘libertarian’ party, there seem to be a fair few dog-whistles about ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘immigration’. Yes, yes, yes. I know it is possible to debate the meaning of the word, and abhor the “seperate but equal” apartheid for which it stands. But that’s not how the white working class electorate see it: in the North UKIP are competing with the BNP for ex-Labour voters. The party may not be racist, but they are certainly gunning for racists’ votes.

UKIP have a thin veneer of libertarianism, masking an unpleasant demagoguery. In common with most small parties, they can afford to have uncosted and simple policies, as they will never be called upon to implement them. At heart they’re mere Poujadistes, anti-intellectual protest-votes for people hankering for an imagined past. People who feel the Tory party, competing in the centre-ground for votes, has abandoned them, or never represented them, in all their resentful, chippy glory. I’m just disappointed so many clearly intelligent correspondents seem taken in. Farage aside – he at least has wit and energy – the party is rather unpleasant.

My prediction: the Party’s current polling is an ephemera which will last until the next round of Euro Elections. Nadine Dorries will defect to UKIP, and sit as their MP until the next election. You’re welcome to her. They may even come first in the popular-vote at the Euro elections but this seems unlikely  and this is a measure of the public’s contempt for the institution. They will then come fourth, behind the Liberal Democrats in the general election, and win no seats.

On Freedom…

… Which could be a musing on the excellent essays by Isiah Berlin, but isn’t. It’s much more prosaic than that.

Twitter is asking me to sign a petition: @nomorepage3 by someone called Lucy Holmes (the world’s greatest Kylie tribute artist, apparently. No… Me neither).

I am not going to sign this petition, mainly because Liberal free-market democracy requires a mindset that if you don’t like something, broadly you don’t have to do it. Furthermore, those that DO like to do something, watch Films by racists or bowing down before a God or looking at bare breasts in a newspaper, should be free to get on with whatever it is they want to do, unmolested by agents of the state, religion or busybodies. If we are to remain a Liberal, free market democracy, we must be as hard on the busybodies as we are supporters of minority pursuits. I disapprove of the desire to ban things far, far more than I do bare breasts in a paper.

Obviously the state proscribes some harmless activities for our own good: Enjoying a pint with a cigarette in a pub, for example. Or smoking Marijuana at any time. Though broadly speaking, in most grown-up liberal democracies, these things are possible if you’re prepared to break a poorly enforced law. The police take things like murder really very seriously indeed. If you kill someone it’s rather hard to get away with it. On the other hand, millions buy illegal drugs every weekend, unmolested by the police. Even when Homosexuality was illegal, laws against it were rarely enforced. This shows, broadly, that even where the law is an ass, society has it’s head screwed on right.

Ultimately, I am a Libertarian, which means I believe your body is your own to do with what you will. If that means flashing secondary sexual characteristics for a photographer, and be handsomely paid to do so; or sticking cocaine up one orifice, and a cock up another; or for that matter, do something really stupid and dangerous like read the Bible or Marx, you should be free to do so being stopped only from hurting others through recklessness or aggression.

It’s amazing how the arguments of people who would deny the us freedom always look the same. Let’s look at the preamble to Lucy Holmes’ petition to Dominic Mohan, the editor of Britain’s best-selling daily Newspaper, the Sun.

We are asking Dominic Mohan to drop the bare boobs from The Sun newspaper.

We are asking very nicely.

Please, Dominic.

No More Page 3.

George Alagiah doesn’t say, ‘And now let’s look at Courtney, 21, from Warrington’s bare breasts,’ in the middle of the 6 O’ Clock News, does he, Dominic?

Philip and Holly don’t flash up pictures of Danni, 19, from Plymouth, in just her pants and a necklace, on This Morning, do they, Dominic?

No, they don’t.

There would be an outcry.

And you shouldn’t show the naked breasts of young women in your widely read ‘family’ newspaper either.

Consider this a long overdue outcry.

Dominic, stop showing topless pictures of young women in Britain’s most widely read newspaper, stop conditioning your readers to view women as sex objects.

Enough is enough.

Thank you.

Why do you care, Lucy? What does it matter to you if some people like to look at other people in their pants? Why are you so offended by the notion that men, in particular enjoy looking at pretty girls in the buff? If you don’t like it, don’t buy the Sun. Of course there are no naked boobs on the 6-O’clock news, BECAUSE THE LAW SAYS THERE CAN’T BE. Maybe if there were bare boobs on the telly at 6 pm, more working-class people would watch the news?

If you’re really offended, encourage others who share your views to not buy the Sun. The Sun, however is the UK’s best-selling paper, with is rather a standing retort to your world view, and I suspect this is the real reason you want Page 3 banned. I am reasonably sure that anyone signing this petition has already voted, by not buying ‘the Sun’, so the signers of this petition are simply looking to impose their preferences on other people.

The idea that a semi-naked woman on Page 3 “encourages men to view women as sex-objects” is ridiculous, as I don’t see ms Holmes objecting to the similarly attired David Beckham advertising versace smellies and smalls. This pathetic diatribe contains the logical inference, supplied without argument or evidence, that children seeing bared breasts (organs designed to feed children) will somehow damage them.

The arguments are so weak they essentially boil down to “we, the enlightened object to something you, the proles, do; so we’re banning it“. This has happened to smoking, which died out in the middle-classes but persists amongst the kind of people who build houses and clean streets. Once this happened, pubs, clubs, businesses were denied the right to allow their patrons to smoke. “For the children” was invoked, but pubs, the kind where working class people gather, not the nice gastro-pub, closed as a direct result. How is anyone happier or better off, drinking at home rather than in a pub?

Cocaine was freely available, and widely used by middle-class dentists and psychatrists. Opiate addiction used to be known as the soldiers disease, for which Cocaine was prescribed! The British Royal family were high as kites at Balmoral at the turn of the century. Currently illegal drugs were only banned when the working classes started taking them. Not because the drugs are particularly harmful, but because middle class people don’t like the poor and seek to tidy them up. They failed.

The people who are most keen on clearing “slums”, temperance, drug prohibition, anti-smoking, anti-obesity, sure-start, parenting classes and means-tested welfare are the political left, who are also most keen on taxing the poor’s few remaining pleasures. The left claim to act in the poor’s interest, but they don’t seem to much like the poor, and so wish to alter them “for their own good”. This isn’t about the working class’s self-improvement, it’s about power and class and brute, miserable prejudice of purse-lipped puritanism and middle-class hypocrisy. C.S Lewis:

Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.

Perhaps the libertarian solution is better: Make sure the poor have enough to survive, but otherwise apply benign neglect. Leave ’em alone for a bit, see what they come up with. Then leave that alone too. Some of “them” might “succeed” and join the middle-class at table; the routes to self-“betterment” must always be open. Otherwise, who are we to judge what they do? Many poor people are happy. The left, with its endless interference and fussbucktry seems intent on keeping the poor in their place (and so the fuss-buckets in jobs). I am not sure the interference helps the people it’s meant to.

Were we are all free to make our own choices to both social AND economic spheres, the world would be a better place. It does not matter to me whether your drug of choice is a glass of Sherry after lunch,  or speed-balling smack and cocaine whilst wearing a crotchless gimp suit. It makes no difference to me whether you spend or save, watch TV or go for a run. So much of people’s desire to “help” the poor is simple distaste for what other people CHOOSE to do.

The only thing that’s certain: everyone’s more miserable when mere prejudice is turned into law.

WHY do you care what people you don’t know do with their free time and spare cash? Why don’t you focus on your own life a bit? Because many of these people you’re trying to help don’t WANT and HAVEN’T ASKED FOR your help. Listen Guardian readers: SUN READERS DON’T CARE ABOUT YOUR OPINION, so leave them be. They will probably be happier. And you, without an object of your pity and disapproval, might have to confront your own demons, whatever they are. The nanny-state fuss-buckets might be more miserable. Y’see ‘freedom’ means that some people do things of which you or I disapprove. I get that. Lucy Holmes doesn’t. I’m happy to let Page 3 exist, she isn’t. Not my problem either.