Sep 302009

Why is it that one of the most disapproving expressions in the English language is ‘I completely support your right to [insert action with which the speaker disagrees]’ ?

Sep 302009

The men of the country have not come off well in a poll rating the quality of the world’s male lovemakers. With #1, the worst, being Germany:

2. England (too lazy)

7. Wales (too selfish)

8. Scotland (too loud)

Still, better to be too lazy, selfish, or loud, than have the problem Germans have, which is apparently that they are ‘too smelly.’

But hey, Irishmen are the fifth best lovers in the world, behind Spain, Brazil, Italy, and France. Too bad the article doesn’t tell us what, exactly, makes them so good…

Sep 272009

A piece by Simon Jenkins on Comment is Free got me thinking this evening about third-party voting and why (or why not) people might engage in it. Jenkins’s essay is a particularly interesting example of this political question, because he essentially demands the existence of a third party he would not actually vote for, but which he would expect other people to vote for, so as to create some sort of actual choice in what is currently, for all intents and purposes, a two-party system:

I want a Liberal party, a proper one. I might not vote for it, but I would like one around: a party that believes unashamedly in the supremacy of the individual, whose freedoms are protected by government against government, in personal risk and identity, in a safety-net welfare not an all-encompassing one.

His problem is, of course, that the Liberal Democrats do not truly present a third alternative, sharing, as they do, many policies with Labour and the Conservatives.

Clegg trooped yesterday to the Liberty fringe at Bournemouth, to preach his opposition to ID cards, control orders and detention without trial. But the Tories also oppose these.

The party is a fair-weather friend to personal freedom. It has not been protesting at the responsibility-sapping inanities of health and safety laws. It does not campaign in defence of church ladders, the right to swim, or the freedom to photograph children. It is in favour of those most useless of nanny state inventions – asbos – and even wants them supplemented by “acceptable behaviour contracts” between state and parents.

The party is nowhere on the classic libertarian agenda, let alone an anarchist one. It does not oppose seat belt and helmet laws, or support risk thresholds, naked streets and shared space. I can find no sign of opposition to stringent planning. The party appears in favour of enforcing wind turbines. It cheers on each health scare, from foot-and-mouth to swine flu, as if it were a slave to the beef lobby or the pharmaceuticals industry. It never pleads the cause of letting people look after themselves. To Nick Clegg, “something” must always be done.

Today’s Liberal Democrats are yesterday’s collectivists ill-disguised: witness their grimly uncritical support for regional government and for ever greater European integration.

Jenkins wishes, instead, that there were a party that

…would champion smallness in everything. It would back families against neighbourhoods, neighbourhoods against councils, councils against regions, regions against Whitehall and Whitehall against Brussels. It would stage a bonfire of controls and regulations. Smallness and autonomy are the only guarantees of personal and institutional freedom, with a commensurate rise in responsibility.

However, let us remind ourselves that he asserts initially, ‘I might not vote for it, but I would like one around‘.

Some of the commenters point out to him the existence of LPUK and UKIP, all to the good.

But I find myself instead asking, ‘What is the point of wishing for the existence of a party you expect other people to vote for, but would not vote for yourself?’ He wants a true opposition party to exist, but is not willing himself to take the electoral risk that would allow such a party to gain momentum or a more powerful voice.

This is a classic example of the Prisoner’s Dilemma that crops up in the present electoral system. In Britain, what we have is Duverger’s principle illustrated on a massive scale: our single-member district plurality system means that two parties dominate, and a vote for a preferred third party often translates into a vote for the least preferred of the two major parties. This principle was all over the news in the US in 1992 (when people who voted for Ross Perot were accused of thereby diminishing the Republican vote count) and again in 2000 (when people who voted for Ralph Nader were accused of thereby diminishing the Democratic vote count).

In this sort of electoral system, it is not rational for an individual to vote for his first preference if it is a third party, simply because he perceives that doing so will hamper the chances of his second choice winning, and therefore contribute to the victory of his least preferred party – i.e., ‘If I vote for the Lib Dems, it will take away a vote for Labour, allowing the evil Tories to win.’ If most potential third-party voters make this rational decision, the third party will not win, but neither will the least preferred party – meaning that most potential third-party voters end up casting their ballot for their second choice, the compromise between the party they prefer and the party they despise.

The only way to avoid this, as the Prisoner’s Dilemma illustrates, is if potential third-party voters unanimously agree to cooperate and vote for that third party. Only with unanimous cooperation can they hope to achieve their desired outcome, rather than a least-worst compromise. This outcome almost never happens, however, precisely because of people like Simon Jenkins; if one person defects, the most rational decision for everyone else is to defect, too. It is one of those curious instances wherein rational action produces a less favourable outcome.

If this is rational action, then, how can libertarians – who are almost all potential third-party voters – overcome the electoral dilemma?

Since unanimous cooperation is not impossible, we could certainly try to create a voting bloc in which everyone promises to vote for the preferred third party. Assuming everyone followed through on his promise, such a plan could work. On the other hand, what if the number of unanimous voters is still not large enough to put the third party into power? If that were the case, it would again become more rational to defect, since even unanimous cooperation would not result in the preferred outcome. The only way to overcome this problem, then, would be to ascertain before balloting the number of potential third-party voters who might be persuaded to cooperate.

This is why PR finds so many advocates amongst potential third-party voters. Not only does it allow us to know how many people prefer the third party as their first choice, it protects that (presumed) minority from seeing their vote metamorphose into an advantage for their least preferred choice. The critique I hear levelled most often against PR is that it rarely returns a legislature with a clear majority party – often it results in coalition governments. There is something to be said in favour of coalition governments, however: quite often they are unable to accomplish much, which for a minarchist is no bad thing. But that, ultimately, is still the least-worst compromise: what a voter implicitly wants is for the party he votes for to hold a majority. I do not want a coalition government that does comparatively little; I want a libertarian-majority government that does practically nothing at all.

The electoral Prisoner’s Dilemma is something that I would guess all non-centrists bemoan; it is very difficult to achieve unanimous cooperation, and even if you could, it might still fail to deliver the preferred outcome. What, then, can we do?

James Hanley, at Positive Liberty, gets right to what I think is the heart of the matter: the single vote with which we are endowed in populous countries is, statistically, ineffective. In that case, then, ‘winning’ can no longer take priority of place in our decision-making process. The secondary value of voting is to exercise our democratic power in what is, essentially, the only mechanism left to us as individuals for doing so. It is only by voting for our first preference that we actually fulfill the democratic function of the individual:

There is one final critique of Scott’s argument that, on a personal level, I can’t ignore.

Otherwise, the voter truly misses out on democracy; he is merely a statistical deviation, instead of being part of a current of public opinion… Your argument is…potentially damaging to the notion of democracy.

I admit that I just don’t get this. I can’t make the same kind of definitive technical argument I have above, as we’re in much fuzzier territory here, but it strikes me as being a very collectivist notion of democracy. If I vote Libertarian because that is my true preference, how am I missing out on democracy? I get the point that I am a statistical deviation – .32% of voters cast votes for the Libertarian candidate in the 2004 presidential election, so it’s accurate to call us deviants, from a statistical perspective at least – but I did vote, and I did engage in argumentation and debate about the candidates, so it seems to me that I didn’t miss out on democracy at all, but was quite engaged in practicing it. And how an individual following their conscience and casting a statistically insignificant vote could endanger democracy is, to me, wholly unfathomable.

It seems a strangely collectivist notion of democracy, in which the individual is only a real participant if he sublimates his own beliefs and desires and joins in with one of the prevailing mass movements. And that, it seems to me, is the greater danger to democracy, because then we can demand that people set their conscience aside, that they do not oppose the mass but surrender themselves to it. We then end up with a Roussean society, which requires

…the total alienation by each associate of himself and all his rights to the whole community [and] since the alienation is unconditional, the union is as perfect as it can be, and no individual has any longer any rights to claim. (The Social Contract, Ch. 6.)

I am not accusing Scott of advocating that, as nothing in his post suggests that’s what he meant. But it seems to me to be the necessary conclusion of his premise, that the individual is not participating in democracy if they are not persuaded to join a major voting bloc.

Whether it is rational for an individual to vote third party and whether it is democratically legitimate to do so are very separate questions. The answer to the first is a clear “yes,” but the answer to the second depends on our understandings of democracy. My understanding of democracy is that it is a constraint on the state (or at least more likely to constrain the state than is autarchy), and that it constrains the state by allowing each individual to follow his or her own conscience when casting a vote. It certainly includes – with absolute necessity – the right to try to persuade others and to try to create a voting bloc, but the refusal to join a voting bloc comports with my understanding of democracy. And while it might be said that my vote is, consequently, a futile gesture, my vote’s inability to change the outcome means it is no less futile when I cast it for a major party.

One can argue about whether the individual has a democratic function – in fact, there are many libertarians, particularly in the US, who insist that voting in any way whatsoever for anybody merely puts the stamp of legitimacy on what is a fundamentally illiberal system of governance (in other words, any attempt at democracy always becomes the tyranny of the majority, in which the rights of the minority are trampled upon by force in the name of the common good) – but if you believe voting is ‘a right that should be exercised‘, as many people do, then prioritising that democratic function when winning is perceived to be impossible cannot fail to be at least a little bit seductive.

And who knows – maybe libertarians do have the critical mass needed to win a majority, and we just don’t know it yet. But we’ll never find out if we allow ourselves to remain trapped in the Prisoner’s Dilemma of settling for second best.

Sep 272009

And so, as part of my on-going attempts to continue living and working in this Promised Land, yesterday I had my appointment to be branded get my biometrics enrolled for an ID card.

The process revealed some flaws in the system. First of all, the Border Agency still has my passport, because it is still considering my visa application. So when I showed up yesterday to provide biometric proof of my identity, I did not actually have any ID, nor was I asked to present any. I could have been anybody. The Border Agency will have to go through the time-consuming process of making sure the pictures and signature I sent them match the picture and signature I gave yesterday. Handwriting analysts must finally be having their day in the sun.

Second, although their website states that the enrolment process takes 5-10 minutes, this is not strictly true. I showed up the requisite half-hour before my appointment time; two hours later, I finally had my five minutes of fingerprinting and facial scanning. The waiting room was packed full of people, like a slightly more civilised version of a refugee camp, most of whom were asleep with the best pregnancy pillow. I kid you not; that is how long people were made to wait. I myself had a lovely hour-long nap, read the newspaper front to back, and managed a couple of chapters of a novel as well. However, as the Border Agency is quick to assure us, tougher checks mean longer waits. And we will all sleep soundly in our beds at night as a result.

Third, and most important, the people taking my biometrics had absolutely no idea what was going to be done with them. My primary concern since being told to go and give my biological data has been that the Border Agency may still refuse my visa application. If that happens, what is going to be done with my data? Will it be removed from their database? If not, what justification does the UK government have for retaining the fingerprints and facial scans of a non-resident foreign national? Unfortunately, my enrolment officer could not answer the question. Neither, it seems, can the Border Agency website. I find it difficult to believe nobody has asked this question. The Home Office has been enrolling foreigners on its biometric identity database for nearly a year now; a significant proportion of those are going to be people who never did get a visa. Is the Home Office removing their data from the database and destroying it? I doubt it.

The upshot of this whole tagging process is that I may, in the end, never get the visa, and a foreign state will end up possessing more of my personal data than my own government, with far less justification. It’s a worst-case scenario, I know, but still: the bastards.

Sep 262009

Every couple of days, I go round and check out Juliette’s blog, because she’s very funny. She’s the origin of David Cameron’s Homeric new epithet, the Buttered New Potato. These visits have paid off in links lately, too, to blogs that focus on that other great conflict of Western society that is not libertarian vs. authoritarianism: relations between the sexes.

This blogular phenomenon had, until recently, passed me by, but now that I’m in the know, I’m fascinated. I have always read one or two feminist blogs, and now I’ve been introduced to anti-feminist blogs.

The anti-feminist position, as far as I can tell, is that the feminist movement has led to the breakdown of the family, injustice in the legal code, the reduction of freedoms, and the rise of socialism. No-fault divorce, easy birth control, alimony and custody laws that automatically favour the woman, the relative lack of shame heaped upon promiscuity and single motherhood, women pursuing careers: these have all disrupted society.

As with any blogular topic, you find wild variations on the theme. There is Roissy, whom Juliette calls He Who Must Not Be Named, presumably because she enjoys reading his blog (it’s very well written and entertaining) but feels a bit sick afterward.* I particularly like Roissy, however, not just because he wrote the best eulogy for Ted Kennedy I’ve read. He’s essentially an hedonic anarchist, which is an absolutist point of view I can completely respect. There is also the Female Misogynist, who chronicles all the dreadful stuff women can be found doing, like raping teenage boys and murdering their own children; there is Novaseeker, who writes long and well researched posts about the marginalisation of men in Western culture.

As usual, I can see the validity of both sides of the argument. Many women the world over are treated appallingly by the men in their society. This is not so much the case in the West, but certainly there is still sexual objectification of women. And it doesn’t seem fair to me, because I personally enjoy working and having sex without getting pregnant, to assert that the best place for a woman to be is in the home looking after the children.

On the other hand, it also seems clear that feminism is being used to ill effect: the legal system that favours mothers, affirmative action, everything Harriet Harman does, state support for single motherhood when every study shows that living in a one-parent household is bad for children.

Some of these blogs also argue that women are mentally and temperamentally unsuited for the things they’re doing in this modern, feminist world: women make decisions based on emotion and expedience; women overwhelmingly vote for a provider state; women appease the perpetrators of injustice rather than challenge them. The blogs call this ‘evo psych’ and declare that biological science proves all of these assertions true. Again, I can see where this case is coming from. I don’t know if it’s true that women are less objectively rational than men, or whether it’s a result of nature or nurture. (Mind you, I think irrational behaviour stems ultimately from a desire that reality not be what it is, and men are just as capable of wishing that as women.)

Ultimately, however, I am a libertarian, so my only real analytical reaction to this debate is how either side squares with my libertarian principles (or not). And what it all boils down to, for me, is where the restrictions on freedom lie. On the feminist side, and I’ve said this before, the pursuit of ‘women’s rights’ is being used to develop a partisan legal system, particularly when it comes to family law, and to reduce the efficiency and profitability of our economy by shoehorning people into jobs (for which they may be unqualified) simply by virtue of their sex. Forcing an unfair legal system and unfair employment regulations onto a populace in the name of fairness is inherently nonsensical.

On the anti-feminist side, there is absolutely no justification for preventing women from voting, or preventing women from working in jobs for which they are qualified. The ‘common good’ carries no weight with me. It may well be that in doing these things, collectively women are harming society; but as long as their individual pursuit of happiness causes no specific harm to any other individual, I see no reason why women shouldn’t be allowed to do as they please.

Naturally, therefore, I can agree with neither side really. Both feminists and anti-feminists appear to wish to force their values and world-view on everybody else. This attitude is fundamentally incompatible with libertarianism. And incidentally, I think the attitude stems from the sort of positivist-rights culture in which we now live, where ‘rights’ basically consist of whatever anybody thinks he’s entitled to, rather than basic human liberties protected from infringement by an impartial rule of law. Neither the oppression of women nor the oppression of men would be possible if it weren’t for the positivist state that colludes in identity politics and thinks it has a mandate to try to cure all of society’s ills.

I’m not the first to examine this debate in terms of libertarianism, either; this essay on libertarianism and Roissyism is vaguely insightful, although I’m sceptical of his conclusion that ‘Libertarianism and “Roissy-ism” have the same goal in common: minimize government intrusion in our lives.’ The goal of Roissyism appears to be to take advantage of the cultural breakdown to score as much sex as possible with the most attractive women possible; but certainly the philosophical basis of this goal is the maximisation of personal happiness. Although that’s certainly part of libertarian philosophy, I’d contend that what Roissy and the author of this essay, miss out is Mill’s harm principle. But then, neither of them is writing an opus of cultural and political philosophy, so I may have an incomplete perspective.

*The height of Roissy’s genius is introducing to me the concept of the shit-test. Women definitely do this. I’m guilty of it myself – in fact, I would go so far as to say that almost all the arguments I’ve ever had in relationships are the result of my shit-testing. Roissy blames it on evo psych – he claims it’s one of the ways women judge the alphaness (or lack thereof) of a man. He’s probably right; but shit-testing needs to stop, because in the end, it’s completely counterproductive. I’ll even put my money where my mouth is, and pledge to suppress the urge to shit-test here and now.

Sep 252009

Being a politician must be so hard sometimes. Sandwiched between three mutually exclusive needs – to promote himself, to cover his ass, and to appear to be a normal human – any successful office-holder will, from time to time, find himself forced to make statements of extremely dubious morality, not to mention crass stupidity:

The paper quotes the mole as saying: “It’s not easy to watch footage on the television news of a coffin draped in a Union Jack and then come in to work the next day and see on your computer screen what MPs are taking for themselves.”

The mole claimed the contrast between conditions facing soldiers and the MPs’ claims “helped tip the balance in the decision over whether I should or should not leak the expenses data”.

Asked on Sky News if he understood the motivation for the expenses leak, Prime Minister Gordon Brown said: “I don’t think so.”

What’s happened to you, Gordon? Did somebody polarise your moral compass to point south? Or do you truly not understand why somebody might feel morally obliged to expose how the nation’s representatives were busy enriching themselves at the expense of the lives of the nation’s defenders?

Hey, though, at least the soldiers have helmets, boots, and socks. What more could they possibly need? Never mind that, by your own admission, the taxpayers’ cash you spent on refurbishing your kitchen could have equipped two extra soldiers – or given nine of them a £1000 pay rise. But where’s the point in that, right? The more of them who die from lack of equipment, the fewer you have to pay for, making the pot of money available to you that little bit bigger.

Sep 212009

The BBC has posted a link to part of an interview George Stephanopoulos had with Barack Obama in the wake of the Jimmy Carter ‘People oppose Obama because they’re racists’ declaration.

In the bit of the video that you can watch, Obama actually says something that surprises me, not because it’s not correct, but because it is – Obama has demonstrated in under two minutes that not only does he understand why so many people oppose his policies, he’s also willing to say so when it would be easier not to:

Obama:Now, there are some who, setting aside the issue of race, actually I think are more passionate about the idea of whether government can do anything right. And I think that – that’s probably the biggest driver of some of the vitriol –

Stephanopoulos: That, are you going to raise their taxes.

Obama: It – well, it goes beyond taxes. Anytime there is a president who is proposing big changes that seem to implicate the size of government, that gets everybody’s juices flowing.

Leaving aside the indelicacy of mentioning flowing juices – whatever he means by that – it’s quite obvious that Obama understands the conservative position vastly better than his supporters, including Stephanopoulos by the way, who are busy ejaculating accusations of racism and greed all over the place rather than taking issue with the fact that many Americans simply do not agree that the federal government has any legitimate role in the provision of health care, however unfair or unworkable the current system might be. When Stephanopoulos opines that such people are only interested in the number on their tax returns, Obama rightly corrects him. It’s not all about taxes.

Every now and again, Obama says little things that like this which indicate to me that he may actually be willing to engage with the meaningful criticisms of his policies – that he may actually acknowledge that the size of the state, and the extent to which it interferes with people’s activities and behaviour, is a topic worthy of reasonable debate. And I feel a little bit of this much-vaunted ‘hope’ well within my breast, because I very rarely encounter anyone from the other side of the political divide who is willing to debate that without resorting to calling me an anarchist (‘We need government to rein in people’s baser natures! Hobbes said so!’), a hater of democracy (okay, so this one’s kind of true), or a tinfoil-hat-wearing paranoiac (‘Bitch, please – this idea that governments want to turn us all into serfs is just a crazy conspiracy theory. Run off to your log cabin in the mountains with your shotgun, why don’t you’).

Then I remember that Obama said this, too, and the tiny, fragile, puppy-dog-eyed bit of hope curls up and dies.

Obama: But I don’t want the folks who created the mess – I don’t want the folks who created the mess to do a lot of talking. I want them just to get out of the way so we can clean up the mess. I don’t mind cleaning up after them, but don’t do a lot of talking. [crowd cheers madly] Am I wrong, Virginia?

[crowd shouts ‘No!’]

Sep 182009

All kinds of bizarre financing going on here, just to keep the airline above water* ‘through the global downturn in air travel.’

With everyone from Al Gore to British doctors insisting that we all reduce our carbon footprint – i.e., no flying for the plebs – and governments slapping green taxes on airfare left, right, and centre, I wonder just when exactly AA thinks passenger traffic is going to pick up again.

Especially when the service they offer is such utter, utter shite.

I myself used to be quite a loyal AA customer, in the grand old days of four years ago, when I could buy a ticket for a service from my local airport direct to Gatwick for $350 (incl. tax). I would fly on a not-obnoxious Boeing 777 and the flight attendants would bring me tomato juice with a friendly smile.

These days, you can’t buy a ticket like that for less than $1200, and the service flies to Heathrow instead. It runs on 747s (shite) with incredibly rude cabin crews who tell you off for getting out of your seat to use the toilet.**

Since the last time I flew on that dismal AA service (July), I have flown on the Virgin Atlantic service from DC to Gatwick (August). I did not mind in the slightest that I was routed through DC, because what I lost in time was made up for by VA, who outshine American like the sun outshines the moon. On the beautiful new Airbus with seat-backs designed to shift down and back rather than recline onto someone’s patellae, the flight attendants encouraged us to walk about the cabin to stretch, plied us with complimentary booze, and provided us not just with pillow and blanket, but also woolly socks, eyemask, and teeth-brushing kit. Need I emphasise that on most other airlines, those are things you only get in business class or better? And I was in economy.

And the whole thing cost me HALF of what I would have paid on American.

Needless to say, I wrote American a letter explaining all of this, and their eventual response was that they hoped to continue to provide me with good service. Ha! They only way I’d fly American again would be if they dropped their fare to $1 (incl. tax). For all those people whose ‘shares in AMR jumped 18% on the back of the news,’ my advice to you is: sell up now, motherfuckers.

*You see what I did thar?

**Mind you, this is still better than Thomas Crook. But then, so’s a bowlful of steaming ordure.

Sep 162009

In the last two days, I have been led to believe, by the search terms that lead people to this blog, that the hardest word in the English language to spell is ‘Australian.’ Here are a few of the variations since yesterday:


Oddly enough, these orthographically-challenged Googlers all seem to be searching for websites that feature Australian women having sex.

Except for the one visitor who spelled Australian correctly, whose entire search term was perfectly capitalised, punctuated, and somehow managed to convey the author’s sense of incredulousness: “Do Australians really fuck sheep?”

Sep 162009

Lately I have been debating the merits of Blogger vs. WordPress from the point of view of one who knows little about web technology, i.e. myself.

Blogger pros include all kinds of funky little settings you can play around with, like comment functions and notifications, and the ability to download free templates (or, if you are awesome, which I’m not, design a template yourself or fins out what the cost of an ecommerce website is and start from there) and use them, also for free. Downsides include not-so-friendly user interface and no stats page.

WordPress pros: friendly user interface and the stats page. Downsides: if you have a free account, you can only use the templates they let you use – no messing around with your blog’s appearance unless you pay.

And there is one drawback they both share: it is very difficult to find a template that doesn’t use sans-serif fonts. I hate sans-serif fonts. They’re hard on my senescing eyeballs. My total cheapness means that I can’t do anything about that in WordPress anyway. My total ignorance of code means that even though I could change this on Blogger, I don’t know how.

Also, although you can convert a Blogger blog to WordPress, you cannot, apparently, convert a WordPress blog to Blogger, which means that if I went apostate, I’d essentially have to start all over again and hope that the people who read this blog care enough to get the new feed address or whatever.

(Am I displaying my lack of tech savoir-faire well enough?)

Does anybody recommend Blogger over WordPress, or vice versa, and have any advice to offer me in my dilemma? Or should I just gird my loins and fork over the ten ‘credits’ WordPress demands in return for versatility?

(And please, no anti-Google screeds. I’m not a Google fanatic but I’m afraid Satan’s corporate corruption has already tainted me, in that some time ago I went Google Mail and I’ll never go back.)