Feb 202011

Andrew Rawnsley in The Observer today has written a fairly ridiculous article in which he complains that FPTP supporters spend too much of their time being negative about AV, and uses the second half of the article to be negative about supporters of FPTP.

But let’s pass over this lack of self-awareness and give him a bit of credit; he does lay out succinctly what are supposed to be the advantages of AV:

I do think it would be a fairer and more appropriate electoral system for contemporary Britain. It will be a worthwhile improvement if MPs have to gather some form of support from at least half of the voters. The parties will be impelled to engage with more parts of the country than just a minority of marginals and it will pay MPs to connect with more parts of their constituencies.

I’d like to address these points a bit more seriously than I did yesterday.

First: the claim that AV is more appropriate for contemporary Britain. By Rawnsley’s lights this may well be the case, but what is so different about contemporary Britain? If AV is appropriate now for the reasons he gives, it has always been appropriate, and FPTP is a bastard system that has always been unfair and unrepresentative. And if this is true of FPTP in Britain, it is true of FPTP everywhere and at all times. Rawnsley does not address why, then, most democratic countries use FPTP.

Second: that MPs will have to gather support from at least half the voters. This is probably right, for certain values of ‘support’ and ‘half.’ For one thing, nothing in AV necessitates that an MP will have the support of half the constituency electorate; only that s/he will have the support of half of those who actually voted. If we examine, for instance, the Oldham and Saddleworth by-election in January, we see that less than half of the electorate turned out. Already we are not going to have the majority of voters represented.

Furthermore, if we redistribute the votes from all but the top four parties (Lab, Lib, Con, UKIP) to Labour, for the sake of simplicity, their share of the votes cast goes from 42.1% to 49.3%—not enough to win under AV.

Now we have to play a little game. Which party would UKIP voters place as their second preference? Probably Conservative. If we distribute the UKIP votes to the Conservatives, our top three totals are as follows:

Labour: 49.3%
Lib Dem: 31.9%
Conservative: 18.6%

Still no majority. So we have to redistribute the Conservative votes to their second preferences, and the UKIP votes to their third preferences. I have a difficult time believing that either of these groups of voters would choose Labour as anything but their last wish, although some might have chosen parties already eliminated in earlier rounds. However, let us say that most of these votes would go to the Lib Dems next, so we’ll add another 15% to the Lib Dem share, giving us:

Labour: 49.3%
Lib Dem: 46.9%

Um, crap. We’re on our last two candidates. We’re certainly not going to start fiddling around with the second preferences of the Lib Dem voters, as that would be utterly absurd. But if we don’t, then we don’t have a candidate with at least 50.1% of the votes cast. So AV does not necessarily deliver MPs support from at least half the voters who voted.

Now obviously this is a rough and dirty calculation, that doesn’t take into account tactical voting. There may have been Conservatives who voted Lib Dem in the hope of keeping Labour out, as the Lib Dem candidate very nearly won in the general election. But that still doesn’t solve the problem that the Labour candidate, even if you very generously allow all of the smaller-party votes to them, would most likely not have achieved a 50.1% majority under AV. What happens in that case? A run-off, which would be less fair even than FPTP, since it would deny a good 50% of the voters to select a candidate they truly agreed with and thereby restrict voter choice even further? Who knows.

Third: the claim that AV would impel parties to engage with more of the country than just marginal constituencies. This, I fear, is a silly belief. Seats are ‘safe’ because a majority of the voters in those constituencies firmly and regularly support one party. Let us examine what is generally considered to be the safest seat in Britain: Bootle in Merseyside, which has been held by the Labour party since 1945. In that time, the Labour candidate has never won with less than 50% of the votes. The closest was in 1955, when the Labour candidate won with 52% of the vote. Since then, the Labour share has been well over 60%, once even as high as 83%. Other parties in Bootle simply do not have a chance, nor would they even under AV. This seat is not ‘safe’ because FPTP delivers a skewed result in which some people’s votes don’t count. This seat is ‘safe’ because the vast majority of voters there like Labour. And the fact that it’s ‘safe’ doesn’t appear to affect voter turnout; turnout in Bootle is no worse than anywhere else on average.

I’m not going to spend my whole afternoon trying to discover whether these facts are similar for all ‘safe’ seats, but I imagine they probably are. In which case, even under AV, I have a hard time believing Labour would bother directing its campaign effort at Bootle. Labour is in no danger whatsoever of being ousted from Bootle.

Parties will always campaign the hardest where they have to work the hardest to get elected, and I see no reason to think this would not also be the case under AV. It seems that the real complaint here is that parties don’t engage on a broad national level during election time, which is a pretty bizarre complaint if you ask me. A particular candidate need only bother engaging with the voters in his own constituency anyway; they’re the only ones who can vote for him. If his party as a whole focuses its campaign efforts elsewhere, that’s between him and his party, not between him and his voters. AV won’t solve this.

Fourth: AV will pay MPs to connect with more parts of their constituencies. If this is true, then MPs are damned stupid and there is simply no saving them. What candidate does not try to get the largest share of the vote possible? What candidate does not, already, try to increase his existing majority? In short, what candidate is not trying his damnedest to win? Show me this person. No, really: show me.

AV, therefore, is not a solution to minority majorities, safe seats, or MPs who don’t give a damn about the voters. It does not even make every vote ‘count,’ as there is still only one winner. At best, it is an opportunity for those who feel unrepresented by any major party to give their support to the candidate they dislike the least, and a chance to indicate that a vote for a party doesn’t necessarily equate with wholehearted support for that party.

But FPTP already permits people to send these signals. And send them the voters do. What, then, is the advantage of AV? That we would have a better way of quantifying these signals?

I mean, imagine how this would pan out. My MP is Chuka Umunna. Here is how he won:

Labour: 42.8%
Lib Dem: 35.8%
Conservative: 18.3%
All others: 3%

Let’s assume the Conservatives all give Lib Dem as their second preference (I have a hard time believing any real Conservative voter would choose Labour anything but last.) Under AV, it’s therefore possible that Chuka Umunna would have lost. But could anyone then claim that Chris Nicholson was supported by more than half the voters? No. A true statement would be that Umunna was supported by less than half the voters. Since the FPTP vote already delivers this message, there is no need for AV to send the signal. Another true statement would be that more than half the voters preferred someone other than Umunna. Again, we can see this from the FPTP vote. But why should this mean Nicholson deserves to win, when clearly more voters actively want Umunna than passively reject him? Those 42.8% of people who really want Labour are effectively disenfranchised by the fact that the Conservatives get to vote twice. How is this ‘fair’?

Or let’s examine it another way. Lots of people vote Lib Dem for tactical reasons—in the case of Streatham, probably as a vote against Labour. Under AV, the theory goes, people wouldn’t need to do this. Suppose a third of those Lib Dem votes were actually Conservatives in sheep’s clothing. Under AV, our first-preference result might look like this:

Labour: 42.8%
Conservatives: 30.1%
Lib Dem: 24%
All others: 3%

Let’s be generous and say that of those 24% of voters whose first preference is the Lib Dems, a third choose Labour second and two thirds choose the Conservatives. In which case Chuka Umunna wins, and AV delivers a result absolutely no different from FPTP: Chuka Umunna becomes MP for Streatham. Everything else an AV vote might tell us is academic.

If I studied the results from every constituency in the 2010 general election, I could probably show this again and again: AV would deliver an obviously unfair result, or one exactly the same as FPTP, or one where nobody manages to secure more than half of the votes. The more marginal the seat, the more likely an unfair or inconclusive result; the safer the seat, the less difference AV would make.

FPTP means that a candidate can win with less than half of the votes. Admittedly this is not great. But at least it means he was wanted by more voters than any other candidate was. At least it means every voter had exactly one vote of equal weight. Why should we reject this system for one in which some people’s half-hearted second preferences are held equal to others’ whole-hearted first, and may not even then deliver a conclusive result? That is not ‘fair’. That is the bastard system.

Feb 192011

I’ve decided that ‘electoral reform’ is an issue so utterly pointless in the modern British polity that it deserves me taking the piss.

For your pleasure and mine, I’m going to provide alternative answers to Yes2AV’s FAQs.

Q: How does AV work?
A: It destroys even the fig leaf political parties have to wear of possessing a consistent, unified ideology about how governing should take place, and instead replaces it with a system in which contradictory, populist vote-chasing sets of laughable ‘policies’ are constitutionally enshrined and pursued by all political parties at one and the same time.

Q: So what’s the point?
A: There is no point. You’ll still only get to vote every four years, and the Government will still do whatever the fuck it wants, manifestoes be damned.

Q: Isn’t that too confusing?
A: Only if you possess insufficient intelligence to observe that even under AV, your ‘fairer’ vote won’t necessarily deliver a candidate or Government of your choice.

Q: Isn’t it fair that the candidate with the most votes wins?
A: Nothing is fair when ‘fair’ is defined as ‘not losing, ever.’

Q: Doesn’t that mean that some people get two votes?
A: Yes. In fact, more than two; some people might get as many votes as n-1, where n is the number of candidates on the ballot paper. And even then, the candidate in second place still loses.

Q: Don’t you end up with the Least-Worst candidate?
A: You end up with a Labour or Lib Dem candidate. Whether you consider that ‘Least-Worst’ is up to you.

Q: Do I have to give a 2nd preference if I don’t have one?
A: Not yet. But it’s only a matter of time before all of this shit becomes compulsory in the name of ‘fairness.’

Q: Will my ballot change?
A: Yes. Right now the ballot is designed so that even the illiterate and innumerate can vote. Do you really think that a voting system that requires people to be able to count and write in actual numbers won’t result in a total re-design of the ballot to make it more accessible? Get real.

Q: Who uses AV?
A: Almost no other democratic country in the bloody world. The one that does—Australia—has had a hung Senate for 25 years. In its House of Representatives, the same two factions exchange control every couple of elections. But I guess this regularly alternating result, identical to what happens in the UK, is okay with the voters, since at least their votes were ‘fair.’ (UPDATE: Their votes were also compulsory.)

Q: Who benefits?
A: Whichever two of three main political parties are the most similar to each other.

Q: Who loses out?
A: Everybody else.

Q: Wouldn’t AV mean more hung Parliaments?
A: Probably. But surely that’s the idea? No winners = no losers = ‘fair.’

Q: Wouldn’t AV mean more tactical voting?
A: All voting is tactical. Get over it.

Q: What about the constituency link?
A: MPs who actually care about their constituents will do so whatever the electoral process. MPs who don’t, won’t. This is true even in marginal seats.

Q: Wouldn’t reform help minority parties like the BNP?
A: Of course not. Extremists don’t deserve ‘fair’ votes.

Q: Doesn’t the current system let us ‘kick the rascals out’?
A: Not really. But then, if Australia is any indication, neither will AV.

Q: Won’t election night take longer?
A: Yes. It will also be more susceptible to unintentionally spoilt ballots (“Hey, this one has two 1s! DOES NOT COMPUTE.’), mistakes (‘Are we on second preferences now, or third? I’ve been counting for 15 hours straight and I’m bleeding to death from paper cuts.’), and fraud (‘That 2 totally looks like a 1. Yay, another vote for Labour!’).

Q: Will AV boost turnout?
A: No. AV won’t make busy people less busy, apathetic people less apathetic, or disenfranchised foreigners, prisoners, and homeless people less disenfranchised.

Q: Will AV change things on the campaign trail?
A: Yes. Candidates will promise even more of the bland sameness than they do now. Good luck with your Hobson’s Choice.

Q: Why a referendum?
A: Because even though we elect representatives to make every other decision about our lives, our country, and our money, and this is considered right and proper in the case of (for instance) letting the people determine Britain’s role in the United States of Eurasia, whether we put Xs or numbers on a ballot paper every four years is way too important to be left up to those jokers. After all, this is the one instance in which the public choice problem is admitted to exist.

Q: Isn’t First-Past-the-Post a British tradition?
A: Yes. Which is why it MUST GO. You fucking racist.

Q: Do the public even care about voting reform?
A: No, which is why this referendum doesn’t require over 50% of the electorate to vote in it for it to count, and why it’s being held at the same time as notoriously low-turnout local elections. If the public really cared, as represented by their representatives, we’d get a special Referendum Holiday with voting booths on every street corner.

Q: Isn’t electoral reform just for Lib Dems?
A: No. It’s for Labour too.

Today’s episode has been brought to you by the colour There’sStillOnlyOneWinner and the letter GTFOverIt.

Feb 062011

Unlike DK, who thinks it all boils down to pointless questions of semantics, I have a great respect for philosophy. Perhaps too great, in that I have always understood its purpose to be the examination of stuff, any stuff, with the goal of reaching enlightenment, or just understanding, or even just theoretical solutions to theoretical thought-problems.

In simplest terms, I think the purpose of philosophy is to examine with intent to reveal, rather than obscure. If that means delving into pointless semantics, so be it. Words, after all, have meanings. And if it means spending a lot of time examining something and ultimately getting no further toward a conclusion than, ‘Well, I guess it sort of depends,’ I’m cool with that. Stuff has many facets, and people have many perspectives. Sometimes agreement can be reached, and sometimes it can’t. And when it can’t, that’s often more interesting, because then you can examine why, which hopefully leads to more enlightenment, or just understanding, or whatever.

So it pains me to read stuff like this from supposed champions of philosophy.

According to La Wik, Alain de Botton has had an elite education which, presumably, trained his mind in the ways of examining stuff, including a master’s degree in philosophy and an unfinished PhD in same. He is credited with making philosophy accessible to a wider audience, though not without some accompanying criticism.

I recognise that a first-rate education and some degrees is no guarantor of quality of thought, but I would have liked to hope these can permit a man’s thought to rise at least fractionally above that of the common herd.

But there is no point of view or argument in this article that I have not seen a hundred times before from all types of people, even from the keyboards of that most reviled and aphilosophical species, the blogger.

There’s the underlying theme of ‘people are so selfish, they actually think they have nothing to learn from the government about how to live!’

There’s the crass comparison with religious rules and taboos, observers of which ‘libertarians’ are said to pity often—a necessarily unfounded statement, and one that entirely fails to examine the question of consent.

There’s the assertion that the existence of advertising makes us unfree and mass consumption has turned us away from morality.

And then finally, there’s the blanket belief that ‘we’ (speak for yourself, Alain) lack the strength to resist temptation and could all do with reminders to be nice and act like good grown-ups.

We may begin to wish that someone could come along and save us from ourselves… Complete freedom can be a prison all of its own… It is not much fun, nor ultimately even very freeing, to be left alone to do entirely as one pleases.

To paraphrase a rather greater thinker than I: is this language which philosophy may properly speak?

Is it part and parcel of making philosophy accessible to the masses to obscure meaning with meaningless contradictions? Freedom can be a prison, indeed.

Is it the task of philosophy to perpetuate misconceptions such as equating libertarianism with absence of moral judgment, when in fact libertarianism contains very robust concepts of what constitutes right and wrong?

Perhaps so; I, after all, am a product of state education and have no degree in philosophy. Who am I to judge?

But all the same, I feel desperately sorry for the real philosophers out there, when the man popularising their discipline to the proles is a real-life version of Dr Floyd Ferris.

Jan 202011

It appears that the House of Representatives has voted to repeal last year’s bloated healthcare act and has put committees together to draft new legislation to replace it—without a timetable.

As you will know, the ‘without a timetable’ aspect is something I lean toward favouring, as I criticised the act heavily, in large part for this reason:

Obama and his Congress sure did fuck it up, didn’t they? Instead of doing thorough research, either before the election or after it, and determining the best possible way to ensure universal, affordable healthcare, they cobbled together a travesty of a bill, full of unrelated pork to get various hold-out politicians onside, that when all is said and done, could serve as an exemplar of what every rent-seeker (in this case, the insurance industry) hardly dares even to dream.

But this vote is not a repeal in itself, of course. That whole ‘checks and balances’ thing means that the repeal bill will have to go before the Senate and win passage there, and then go before… the president. And, typically:

Democratic leaders in the Senate have vowed to shelve the repeal bill, and President Obama has said he would veto repeal if it ever reached his desk.

‘Shelving’ essentially means that the Senate Majority Leader, one egregious Harry Reid, can simply refuse to put the House bill onto the Senate’s legislative timetable—more or less indefinitely, if he so chooses. And even if, by some miracle of organised crime, intimidation, and sweet sweet reason, Republicans get the bill put on the Senate timetable and manage to pass it there, Obama can employ a number of veto tactics depending on when over the course of the legislative session the bill is presented to him. (Although he is required to submit his reasons for vetoing in writing; I wonder what boilerplate he’d spew on that occasion?)

The Congress can override the veto, but only with a two-thirds majority vote in both houses. So that’s pretty unlikely unless the Tea Party start getting uppity again.

I’m pleased the Republicans in the House have taken this first step, and they have a backstop in the fact that the healthcare act is being challenged in a number of cases and has already been ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge. (That ruling is under appeal, naturally.)

But they won’t get anywhere in the absence of some serious pressure from the American people, and given how the sheeple are, and how blind the Democrats are to protest and demonstration when it’s against their policies, I think the actual repeal of this hideous act will not occur. It’s more likely to be struck down by the high court, and even that’s pretty pie-in-the-sky.

Still, I wonder if the Democrats will now begin to hyperaccuse themselves of being obstructive, partisan, and resistant to the expressed will of the demos. It’s hard to imagine anything that demonstrates those qualities more than:

Democratic leaders in the Senate have vowed to shelve the repeal bill, and President Obama has said he would veto repeal if it ever reached his desk.

UPDATE: Hmm, seems I forgot about those little things called states…

Jan 152011

A comment on Clay Shirky’s piece in the Guardian entitled ‘Wikipedia—an unplanned miracle’ hath pleased me:

by any traditional view about how the world works, Wikipedia shouldn’t even exist

I can understand what you mean, if we replace “traditional” with “orthodox”, and I remember that this is The Guardian.

Elsewhere, the idea of emergent order, and its superiority to centrally planned order, has been commonplace for centuries, described by Smith, Hume, Bastiat, Hayek, etc.

This is an unplanned miracle, like “the market” deciding how much bread goes in the store.

Suspicious quotes around “the market”! Perfect.

But you have a point… no need to tax anyone, no need to order anyone to do anything. Mystifying, to be sure. Maybe worth further investigation?

Wikipedia, though, is even odder than the market: not only is all that material contributed for free, not only is all that material contributed for free, it is available to you free; even the servers and system administrators are funded through donations.

Actually the greatest writers on emergent order often wrote about the emergence of the Law, which is also (hopefully) not driven by money changing hands. A more recent example, almost contemporary with Wikipedia, is open source software.

People don’t always value only money; most people want respect and admiration, an many get it from their visible contributions to things regarded as socially valuable.

When a minority were very rich, they would make extravagant gestures like building whole hospitals, orphanages, colleges, etc. (obviously with a nice statue of the generous founder). These days large swathes of the middle classes have enough spare time and income to be a little bit philanthropic, leave their mark and feel good about themselves (and how others see them).

As people get better off, there is less and less need to order them to take care of their society. And people are getting better off. So the real mystery is not that something like wikipedia works, but that we don’t let other things work the same way.

I wonder if Clay Shirky, author of a book subtitled ‘The power of organising without organisations’, is really so blind he thinks his insights only apply to the internet, or if the suggestion this might be the case is the fault of some overly-zealous Guardian editors.

Nov 032010

I didn’t start blogging until well after the 2008 US presidential election, so I haven’t got the documentary evidence to prove this, but I was one of the many who said at the time:

‘Well, y’know, Obama… I wish him well, I really do. It would be great if he got the nation back on its feet. Hell, it would be great if he could really do even half the shit he says he’s gonna do. But I’m sorry, this is total fantasy. The president has nothing like that kind of power, and it’s just not going to work.’

The number of people who popped up, then and later, to tell me I misunderstood the structure of my native body politic was staggering.

In fairness, Gary Younge wasn’t one of those. But it seems that Apollo has been startlingly generous toward me and those who shared my views, because Gary Younge is now saying the exact same thing.

Their mistake was to believe that transformational change was something you could impart to a higher power – the president – and then witness on CNN. The problem was not that many set their hopes too high but that rather than claim those hopes as their own they invested them in a single person – Obama – and in an utterly corrupted political culture.

The difference, of course, is that Younge attributes this ‘corrupt political culture’ to something rather different than what I was thinking. His analysis isn’t wrong, by any means, but…

A winner-takes-all voting system where both main parties are sustained by corporate financing, the congressional districts are openly gerrymandered and 40% of the upper chamber can block anything, is never going to be a benign vehicle for radical reform. Virtually every enduring progressive development in US politics since the war has been sparked either by massive mobilisations outside of electoral politics that have forced politicians to respond, or through the courts.

…are all of those really such bad things? I mean, bribing candidates electoral financing is a criminal clusterfuck, and gerry-mandering is so endemic its practically become an American trope. No argument from me that those are serious problems—not because they hinder radical change, but because they systematically and deliberately seek to reduce the human right of individual self governance.

But the fact that 40% of the American Senate can filibuster* a bill? There’s kind of a reason for that. It’s so that radical reformers can’t trample over the rights of the minority. I’m not going to say something here along the lines of ‘Surely Younge can’t think that’s a bad thing?’ because that would be a cheap rhetorical device. Of course he thinks that’s a bad thing, provided that minority disagrees with him.

And so we arrive, inevitably, at the ‘oh, poor Obama’ bit. Yes, Younge says the whole sordid business is partly Obama’s fault. Yes, his criticisms of Obama are all actually veiled compliments. Because y’see, President Obama is embedded in a sclerotic system that refuses to let him shine his light.

Strangely, when I make that same argument to my boss, he’s not impressed.

Oh, and P.S. Younge doesn’t forget the obligatory dig at the Tea Party, who while Obama ‘imitated radicalism,’ have managed to snow the American public by ‘affect[ing] anti-corporate populism.’

Blah fucking blah.

Truly, y’all, while it is certainly true that the pressures of work leave little energy for blogging, there is another reason my posting has fallen off: I’m sick to death of this ridiculous charade we all perpetrate on ourselves, that government and politics matter.

My god, the significance and gravitas with which politicians and their apologists invest their every fart, their every random, ‘radical’ idea for making us all better people! And with what lame naivete people lap that shit up.

Recently I was engaged in a debate via email with a good friend of mine, a committed left-winger with a bizarre hard-on for Margaret Thatcher. It was the kind of debate you have over and over with friends of the opposite political persuasion: it’s all been said before, you know you don’t agree, but nevertheless one party or the other believes that somehow, this time, someone’s mind is going to change. Here is what he said (quoted entirely without permission and with punctuation and spelling corrected):

Any political, social or religious value system that doesn’t have at its heart a concept of what a “good person” is and how to help people achieve it is pointless. People can disagree about what being a good person is, or that it’s wrong to coerce people to follow a particular lifestyle, but not to engage in the debate, or to say that you are somehow morally neutral while supporting policies that would totally impoverish millions of people and deny them real freedom of choice in their lives (except to either follow the ethical codes set down for them by the rich or starve) is simply hypocrisy. Also, you are interested in being a “good person,” you just don’t agree with [Monbiot’s] definition of what that is. Only sociopaths have no interest in being a “good person”.

Have you ever heard such tiresome bollocks? Notice, first of all, the conflation of political with religious value systems. From an avowed atheist, that’s an interesting tactic. Second, observe the clear admission that there is no universal concept of what a good person is. Finally, witness the neat tactic of suggesting that, since only sociopaths share my view, and I am clearly not a sociopath, I cannot possibly mean it when I say I have no interest in being a ‘good person.’ (I do wish people had less of a tendency to engage in armchair psychology.)

And finally, see how he assumes that the point of it all is to make people good! All politics, all governance, all ideology, should have this aim! And it is a weighty aim, so all enterprise engaged in pursuing this aim is weighty enterprise, and not the pathetic game-playing of a bunch of meddling control-freaks who honestly, genuinely believe there is a desperate need for the ‘service’ they provide.

Bitch, please.

Sometimes it’s hard to be a libertarian and a historian, because nothing I know of in human history suggests we will ever not have government. At first we lacked it, but then we built it, because there was always some overpowering reason why a couple of dudes had to be in charge of shit. Whether it was coordinating the defence of the village or making sure people didn’t go to hell, there was always some realm of human activity that simply couldn’t be looked after by the voluntary, individual acts of the people concerned.

At least back in the day, those couple of dudes were honest about it: ‘I’m the best fighter, peasant, and if you don’t do what I say, I’ll do you.’

Now, the justifications are a lot more spurious. On the one hand, you have the politician, who starts with ‘I’ve consulted and studied and learned and listened, so vote for me,’ then moves to ‘Lots of people voted for me, so STFU,’ and ends with ‘I’ve got the bombs, motherfucker.’ Are any of these legitimate?

On the other hand, you’ve got the Chris Dillows of the world, who know an awful lot of stuff about human behaviour and this bias and that bias and that other bias also, but whose basic argument seems to boil down to ‘Rational action is imperfect, so the role of government is to insulate people from their own and others’ crappy choices.’

Well, you know what? That sucks. If we’re all irrational actors, what hope is there, even if we were governed by philosopher-kings? What’s going to protect me from their irrational actions?

And so, I say to you, my predictions about Obama have come true. This fact brings me little pleasure. Instead it deepens my cynicism. I don’t claim expertise in everything—in almost nothing, truth be told—but at least against all fucking odds I’ve acquired enough wisdom to know the virtue of humility, especially when it comes to telling other people how to live their lives and feeling massively important in doing so.

To all people like Gary Younge, Obama, every politician on earth, and everyone who helps embiggen their heads, I say with Jacopo Belbo, ma gavte la nata. Pull out your corks, you buffoons.

*No, they do not actually have to filibuster. It’s more of a ‘let’s not and say we did’ tactical deployment. A degraded holdover from the Roman Senate, which recognised the right of a speaker to speak until he was finished, and could not sit later than sunset. Cue Cato Uticensis, famous for being able to harangue the house in filibuster from early afternoon until the Senate was obliged to dissolve for the day. If Senators actually still had to do this, I predict we’d see a lot fewer filibusters.

Jul 242010

In all the la-de-da with John Demetriou about my previous post, I totally forgot that I’d read another piece about American rage etc. only recently, one which I found pretty compelling.

It is, of course, the work of the genius Mencius Moldbug, a superior man loftily unaware of the petty squabbles on these here blogs, and in fact he wrote his explanation before either JD or I donned the mantle of trying to address recent developments in the United States. An excerpt:

When gentlemen look at progressivism, they see a movement whose purpose is to help the underclass, those whose plight is no fault of their own. When peasants look at progressivism, they see a movement whose purpose is to employ gentlemen in the business of public policy, by using the peasants’ money to buy votes from varlets. Who, in the peasants’ perception, abuse the patience and generosity of both peasants and gentlemen in almost every imaginable way, and are constantly caressed by every imaginable authority for doing so.

Not only had I read this two weeks ago, I even remarked on it in a discussion with sconzey in the comments to this post. I do urge you to go an read the whole thing, and then read the whole of Moldbug’s blog. It will take a long time, but it’s worth it.

I can only blame this omission of mine on my recent birthday; truly, it seems forgetfulness does come with advancing age…

Jul 212010

[I wanted to leave this as a comment over at John Demetriou’s original post, but his implementation of Blogger rejects comments of more than 4,096 characters.]

JD, unlike your usual rants, this post is dire. I don’t mean that to be harsh, but you’re coming at this from an angle of misunderstanding that makes your ‘I don’t understand’ claims all too believable.

For one thing, you refer to ‘Americans’ and ‘the American people’ as if there is one collective American mind, and you find its schizophrenia puzzling. Perhaps for the sake of simplicity, it might be better to think of Americans as two collective minds: those who voted for Obama, and those who didn’t. For all sorts of reasons, he is and has been a polarising figure. And so you have two poles, rather than the single mad hive-mind you say is so bizarre. It is one pole that exhibits ‘curious rage’ against Obama, not ‘the American people.’

For another thing, you massively overstate Obama’s popularity during the election and at the beginning of his term. You assert that he ‘won by a landslide’ and was the subject of ‘hero worship,’ ‘hagiography,’ and high approval ratings. In fact, he did not win by anything like a landslide. He won with 53% and 28 states.

By comparison, in 2004, George W Bush won with 51% and 31 states. In 1988, George H W Bush won with 53% and 40 states. And in 1984, Ronald Reagan won with 59% and 49 states. And that wasn’t even as impressive as the 1972 election, when Richard Nixon (Nixon, of all people!) won 49 states and 61% of the vote.

Obama has had nothing like the electoral success other presidents have managed. Your perception of hero-worship and hagiography, just like your perception of rage and hatred, comes from one pole of the American populace.

Furthermore, your understanding of the role of US president is woefully incomplete. You say that ‘Bush inherited an excellent, albeit imperfect, set of books from Clinton and very quickly wrecked it.’ As if either Clinton or Bush had anything whatsoever to do with the books or quality thereof. Congress controls the cash, and the Congress that delivered Clinton a budget surplus was, in composition, almost exactly the same Congress that fucked it all up for Bush. And the Congress Obama has been working with is, in composition, almost exactly the same Congress Bush was working with during his last two years in office. The state of the books in the US is entirely unrelated to the views and actual quality of the president.

You also say that Obama is hated ‘for having the temerity to actually carry out what he proposed to do.’ Again, the president does not ‘do’ things. He does not draft legislation, propose it, debate it, or vote on it. He merely signs it once it’s made its way through Congress. (Or not, as the case may be, but I don’t think Obama’s actually used his veto yet.)

So any carrying out during Obama’s term has been done by Congress. And what they have carried out bears little actual resemblance to the platform on which he campaigned. Sure, the health care bill, but what about everything else? What about the war, the ‘middle-class tax cuts,’ the great repeal of the Bush administration’s incursions on civil liberties? Neither he nor Congress have done any of those things, which were major selling points among Obama’s supportive node. Surely you don’t think the whole election revolved around the question of a healthcare bill?

A healthcare bill which you describe thus: ‘The timing…was perhaps ill-judged, even from a social democrat perspective, but this was one of those once-in-a-thousand-years opportunities, politically, to achieve this ambition.’ For a once-in-a-thousand-years opportunity, Obama and his Congress sure did fuck it up, didn’t they? Instead of doing thorough research, either before the election or after it, and determining the best possible way to ensure universal, affordable healthcare, they cobbled together a travesty of a bill, full of unrelated pork to get various hold-out politicians onside, that when all is said and done, could serve as an exemplar of what every rent-seeker (in this case, the insurance industry) hardly dares even to dream. That’s not even to mention the costs this bill imposes, both to individuals and to the body politic, which have been revised upward continually since the passage of the bill. And the bill fails to achieve even its basic objective, which is to ensure that the poor and low-paid have access to affordable, customised insurance and care.

Is it any wonder that a significant number of Americans are horrified and disgusted by it?

All of this is a far cry from, ‘Hey, you all voted for him, he did what he said he’d do, so what’s the big problem?’

Finally, you assert that les Americains sont fous because ‘their media and overall educational standards are so lacking in substance.’ This is, basically, not true. Unless by ‘their media’ you mean Fox News, and by ‘their overall educational standards’ you mean ‘those five schools in Kansas where they teach intelligent design.’

Or perhaps you just mean the rednecks, Tea Partiers, and Christians are poorly educated. Maybe you can confirm or deny.

What I don’t understand is why you are displaying so much contempt for a bunch of people who, for the most part, share your opinions. These are people who didn’t vote for Obama (as presumably you wouldn’t have, did you have the opportunity) and who loathe what he stands for and what he’s supported as president. Sure, some of them have authoritarian tendencies, but they’re with you on at least 50% of stuff. If you were in their position, wouldn’t you be angry? They didn’t want him, they didn’t vote for him, and his presidency is riding roughshod over their cherished conception of what the United States is.

I never expected you to take this position, I must say. That you would present Americans who disagree with their president and his Congress, and who display that disagreement with words, ideas, and peaceful legitimate protests, as ‘wild, irrational…mad and retarded’ comes as a great surprise to me.

And a serious disappointment.

UPDATE: JD rebuts here.

Jul 042010

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organising its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.

John Demetriou suggested another blogging challenge the other night, the topic to be: whether it is best to create a libertarian state by means of democracy, or by means of revolution. It seems rather appropriate to address such a question on this particular day, the anniversary of the only occasion in which the creation of a liberal state was attempted by both means at one and the same time.

Two initial problems present themselves when I consider this question. The first is that revolution is historically successful at changing the form of a government, but is usually violent and therefore illegitimate, and rarely creates a more liberal government in place of the one overthrown. The second is that democracy is non-violent and therefore legitimate, but where it successfully changes the form of government, it rarely creates a more liberal government in place of the one overthrown.

What these problems suggest to me is that changes of government are rare, sometimes violent, and usually for the worse. This presents a great difficulty to your average liberal or libertarian, for even though we may believe we have the right, as above, to alter or abolish a form of government that is destructive of our liberty, we are terribly reluctant to exercise that right—and as a result, never actually remove the destructive government from power.

A third problem, of course, is that the form of government currently destructive to our liberty is a democracy itself. And the idea of democracy is today so untouchable, any suggestion that it might be the democratic system which is destructive of our liberty, rather than simply the people in charge of it at the moment, is met with a sort of outrage.

Or else it’s met with a patronising smile and a statement to the effect that if libertarian government was at all desirable, the demos would desire it and vote for it—and the fact that they haven’t isn’t a fault in democracy, but a fault in libertarianism.

As much as I loathe the patronising smile etc., I’m beginning to believe that point of view may, indeed, be the correct one. It’s certainly true that the demos are rarely presented with a libertarian party or candidate to vote for, but even when, on occasion, they have that alternative, the majority of them don’t choose it. Libertarians and liberals, I conclude, are therefore a minority in democratic nations, and don’t have the option of democratic overthrow of the government even if they wanted to attempt it. We could, as the patronising smilers are wont to say, try to convert others to our way of thinking and thus grow to become a majority, but that’s difficult as well.

Most people can agree, roughly, that governments must not infringe the life and liberty of their citizens. (The disagreement usually regards criminals.) Libertarians would have no problem generating a majority with that view, because here at least, that majority already exists, and is why the government is not judicially murdering its opponents or locking them up in gulags. The ‘unalienable right’ libertarians can’t get a majority agreement about is property (coyly omitted from the excerpt above).

Oh, the government cannot (does not) come and take your stuff willy-nilly, sending in soldiers or policemen to boot you out of your house or snatch your family silver or raid your stash of cash under the mattress. Your property is, for the most part, protected from such predation—because you possess it.

But the government does take a certain category of your property, which it conveniently defines as property you’ve never legally possessed and thus has never actually been ‘yours.’ This is what the government calls ‘taxes.’ And, in Britain at least, most people never actually possess most of the tax money the government collects. It flows straight from their employers into the government coffers without ever passing through the fingers of the taxpayer. There are other types of taxes which do pass through taxpayer hands first: road tax, car tax, VAT, council tax. But that money never actually belongs to the taxpayer either, as evinced by the fact that if the taxpayer tries to keep it in his possession, he is charged with criminal activity: to wit, theft.

So the government declares that a certain proportion of the property within its jurisdiction belongs to it, regardless of how that property is generated or allocated originally. In practice, anyone who is employed (i.e. engaged in the production of property) is also employed by the government, by definition. In return for generating property for our employer, we receive a cut; in return for generating property for the government, we receive services. Quite naturally, the cut we receive from our employer is smaller than the amount we produce for him, and so it is reasonable to assume that the services we receive from our government are worth less than the property we produce for it.

In our chosen employment, however, all of our colleagues are in the same boat. Their cut is also less than what they produce. In our government employment, though, it’s a different story. Some people receive much more in services than they provide in tax—and some people receive services for which they provide no tax at all! In fact, the more tax one provides, the fewer services one receives, and the less tax one provides, the more services one receives!

There, then, is the source of the disagreement, and of the libertarian minority: most people, under our current form of government, perceive that the value of the services they receive is greater than the value of the tax they pay. For some people, this is factually true, and for others, it’s nothing more than perception: but as long as the majority perceive that they are receiving more than what they pay for, the libertarians (who generally perceive the opposite) will remain a minority.

And as long as most people think they’re pulling the wool over the government’s eyes in this way, they will neither (a) consider their property rights infringed, nor (b) support any change in government that eliminates that state of affairs. I submit that this must be the case, simply because whenever the government has moved in a general libertarian direction, it’s been because people have perceived, for a time, that government services are no longer worth vastly more than the tax contributions that pay for them. That was the case in Britain in the eighties, and that’s the case in Britain now.

You see the difficulty, no? Joe Bloggs can go into the store and pay 50p for a plasma television. It’s not a great television, but it works most of the time, and hey, he’s not going to get better anywhere else for 50p. Now you try stopping him outside the store and saying, ‘Hey, man, doesn’t it bother you that you can’t choose not to buy the television? That you pay the store 50p whether you take home the television or not? That I pay the store £50 but I’m not even allowed inside?’

Joe isn’t going to say, ‘Hey, you’re right. Screw that television, and screw this store.’

He’s going to say, ‘Well, I paid my 50p, so I’m entitled to the television. And if it could get £50 off you, the store must think you can afford to buy your own television for full price somewhere else. And if this store didn’t exist, I wouldn’t be able to have a television at all, whereas you would—so this way is only fair. See ya!’

All of which leads this cynical libertarian to conclude, ultimately, that most people don’t want a libertarian state. They don’t think the current form of government is destructive to their rights, and they don’t think it’s destructive to libertarians’ rights either. After all, if we’d just shut up our bitching, we could be busily defrauding the government, too. Or at least believing that we are.

As long as these perceptions prevail, nothing short of violent revolution has a chance of producing a libertarian state. And libertarians, I like to think, don’t do violence.

So if democratic change isn’t possible, and revolution is abhorrent, how do we arrive at a libertarian state? The only method I can imagine is to become so prosperous, as a society, that people no longer need some of the services the government provides, and can purchase the others more cheaply elsewhere. [UPDATE: For what it’s worth, I think the rise of the pernicious ‘inequality’ meme is proof that we’re really close to achieving this level of prosperity.] The best way to become that prosperous would be, of course, to have a libertarian state; but I think it’s possible to get there without one. It’s just going to take a hell of a lot longer, longer than I or my children or my grandchildren will live. In the meantime, the best thing I can do to help bring about a libertarian state is never, ever to shut up my bitching.

Read Obnoxio the Clown’s answer here.

John Demetriou weighs in at last here.

Jun 122010

Great words from Mr Civil Libertarian:

Politics and ethics aren’t easy bedfellows. That’s because there’s nothing ethical about politics. Politics as we know it consists entirely of: Using the force of the state (which is unethical) to coerce (which is unethical) otherwise peaceful citizens into a) giving up their preferred way of life (unethical), b) giving up their justly acquired property (unethical), c) obeying the rules of a small section of society under threat of severe punishment (unethical), and also d) committing violent, coercive acts against citizens of other Nation States that they can claim no possible right over (VERY unethical).

There’s very little politics can do that is ethical, since ultimately, the power of politicians comes, not from namby-pamby “social contracts” (which you never knowingly signed, cannot rescind, and cannot see the terms of) or from any sort of “God given right”, but ultimately from the use of, or the threat of use of, violence against you. What Lucas, as a Member of Parliament, does, is work as yet another embodiment of this established violence. That’s her job. That’s her role. To claim she is “ethical” makes a mockery of ethics.