Saturday, September 23, 2006

Crisps equal Oil

The BHF has 'revealed' that one packet of crisps per day is equivalent to drinking almost five litres of cooking oil every year. This kind of study angers me. What does five litres of cooking oil mean? Even when I eat healthy meals, a stir fry say, there is a splodge of oil in there. Fast food presumably contains a good deal more. I would consider it entirely plausible that these will also add up. What this entire story is missing is the connection to some kind of effect that is scary. Drinking oil is a little weird and gross but doesn't exactly instil much fear.

The new advertising campaign appears to be based entirely on the 'drinking oil' premise but does drinking oil really carry much shock value? It isn't like seeing the injuries that come with getting bit by a car or the clogged up veins that are a result of smoking.

As such, I doubt this will change much. If the loss of status and mockery that comes with obesity isn't enough to change behaviour I doubt changes in the media environment such as this or the campaign to ban certain advertising will make a big difference.

I think that sometimes shock advertising campaigns are at the opposite extreme and are unnecessarily harsh. There was a recent cinema campaign aiming at convincing women to avoid unlicensed taxicabs and the risk of rape this entails. It consisted of a group of women enjoying a club but then dragging one of their number off to be sexually assaulted. It then ended on the statistic that there are x number of rapes per year of women who take unlicensed taxis.

Now, I doubt most people knew that statistic before hand and it seems likely to me that it would be enough to change the behaviour of anyone paying attention. For that reason, I doubt it was helpful to inflict that kind of stress on the movie going public; the shock was more likely to turn people off than increase the impact of an already strong statistic.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Andrea Leadsom's recipe for DISASTER!

Andrea Leadsom has a recipe for the perfect British society. Some flaws are immediately apparent:

"Take one cup of Anglo Saxon determination"

Read Mencken's essay on Anglo-Saxon courage. We're remarkably determined because we tend to position ourselves onto the winning side.

"Mix with a jugful of Muslim respect for the family"

Steven Sailer has quite a persuasive argument that this is thanks to the tendency of those in the Muslim world to marry their cousins. This increases the closeness of the genetic relationship within extended families. There are a couple of problems with this. First, marrying your cousins is weird and creates freak babies and premature death. Second, it encourages nepotism which hurts the development of a liberal society.

"Stir in a pinch of traditional Asian modesty"

This modesty often manifests itself as a lack of openness to outsiders. This is why Asian business made use of relation based contracting in its early years which led to the investment bias which unravelled in the Asian Financial Crisis

"Whisk with two tablespoonsful of military respect for authority"

This can be a good thing or a bad thing depending on the authority in question. Respect for authority will tend to vary based on how attractive the authority is rather than any cultural affinity for authoritarianism. Where this cultural affinity is supposed to exist it is usually a source of trouble, i.e. Jasper Becker's explanation for the failure of nascent Chinese democracy.

"Serve on a bed of East European work ethic"

This is clearly a result of context. The Eastern European work ethic wasn't quite as evident during their period of post war Communist control. Free societies generally build a fine work ethic and socialism generally kills it. However, this actually means that we don't have this to learn from other cultures but, rather, to encourage it through the right institutional framework. 'Culture' as a determinant of national success is overrated.

"And enjoy with a full glass of British belief in the freedom of the individual!"

This is the real winner. May I suggest a liquid diet?

"There is a serious point here - we in the so called 'Western civilisations' have so much to learn from other cultures, and they would stand to gain so much by learning from ours. We don't have all the answers - far from it.......but nor do any other culture or religion. It's only by mutual respect, a willingness to learn and the courage to live together that we will build a better life for our children."

There are many Muslim, Asian and other people, both today and historically with ideas and perspectives to offer which we should be open to. However, I would suggest the West's distinctive values have been its strength.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

The strange death of my libertarianism

On Monday the Devil posted up this animation. I first came across it when an angry Irish libertarian friend linked it in an e-mail with the title "THEY SHOULD SHOW THIS IN SCHOOLS". I've been meaning to write about this particular animation for quite some time for a simple reason; it killed my libertarianism.

To be fair my sense of myself as a libertarian had always been precarious. I am of a moderate temperament and could never quite stir myself to the indignation that appears necessary for such a radical philosophy. Libertarianism has to be radical as anyone who calls themselves a libertarian but doesn't verge on anarcho-capitalism is just trying to feel "dangerous" without any real risk; they're listening to gangster rap while stuck in traffic on the M6.

However, for quite some time in my early university years I considered myself a solid libertarian. I was convinced that a lot of the problems people describe as the market's actually came from attempts at state intevention; I remain convinced that this is the case. My credentials were solid: I was a member of the LSESU Hayek Society from within days of entering the university and was one of the first to combine that with activism within wider student politics. It was fun to have a two word answer to almost any political query (privatise X). Finally, in a university full of lefties proud of their socialist-liberal credentials it was great fun to argue social issues at them from the liberal end (legalising heroin for example).

Libertarianism is far better suited than conservatism to university politics as it is encouraged by the libertinism that student life entails. I was always quite good at making use of this advantage to dent the socialist haze in which most student's political understanding operates. Being right wing at the LSE is a lot like being a missionary in that you know you're more civilised but can't appear too smug as you're chronically outnumbered; I had at least one solid conversion to my name and made a good missionary. At one point I even managed to defeat a motion in the Union General Meeting condemning Coca-Cola for murdering trade unionists with a memorable "Lots of murders in Columbia, relatively few in the Coca-Cola company; where do you think the problem is?" defence while carrying a can of that fine Atlantan soft drink.

However, what began to bug at me was the effect that the contradiction at the heart of libertarianism tends to have on its adherents. The contradiction is this: If you believe that the principles in this cartoon are true then you cannot use state power, which always equals slavery and violence, to any end as this would be morally wrong. However, property rights are not rights unless there is some means of enforcement to prevent infringements. That immediately kills the moral simplicity this cartoon is trying to establish. In the society this cartoon seeks to create property rights would not be rights but rather a privilege conferred by popular whim and vulnerable to death by free rider effects.

Most libertarians get over this by the simple device of the night watchman state; property rights violations are okay so long as they are that minimum required to defend property rights. The problem is that in doing so they instantly lose the claim to having an absolute principle and libertarianism loses its moral certainty.

Further, what this logic relies upon is that defending property rights is the kind of duty for the state you can actually fit on the back of a postage stamp. It isn't. The experience for most of humanity both now and historically has tended towards being chronically unsure of their property's security against being lost to the unscrupulous or violent. While the state is often one of the biggest dangers to the security of property and person it tends to be at its most dangerous when a failure to protect its citizens from internal strife or external aggression has endangered its survival. Britain's historical liberalism is not unrelated to its high degree of military security. The European welfare state was built to justify nations following their failure to defend their citizens from invasion and occupation (see A.O. Milward for more on this).

Quite a few libertarians respond to this conundrum by becoming incredibly hawkish on law and order; longer sentencing and even the death penalty are used to create a boiling in oil effect. This is unlikely to prove effective. To create the kind of society where property rights are a reality you need quite a few things: a citizenry sufficiently educated that it can engage in contracts and understand the law, no drug addiction removing the ability to make indepedent decisions in future, the nationalism that makes people willing to sacrifice short term interest for the defence of common rights, the kind of military which can defend against foreign attack.

While libertarians can point to failures in state provision of all these things what they cannot do is get around the possibility of people being ruled out or ruling themselves out of effectively making the free decisions that negative liberty requires. The old question of whether people should have the right to sell themselves into slavery becomes more relevant when you ask the question of whether people should be allowed to fail to educate themselves and their children to such an extent that they cannot understand the law or the market transactions a liberal society relies upon.

All of this implies that the best society to defend property rights in reality may not be the one which most privileges them in the abstract. It was this understanding that was slowly killing my libertarianism; that an abstract of pure liberalism was harmful rather than supportive of the defence of greater freedom in the real world. I still consider liberty to have value beyond its side effects in boosting income etc. I still find most social conservatism off-putting or vaguely comical. However, it was when I saw that cartoon and saw the sheer folly of a utopia where libertarianism leaves the defence of liberalism to ad hoc popular whim that I realised it was no longer a useful term in describing what I thought of the world.

Looking at the ConservativeHome picture for the story of a UUP defection to the Tories alerted me to the presence of Wanting to see what the Northern Irish Conservatives had to offer the world I took a look. What was the first thing I saw?

The brick wall above linking to The images down the side of the homepage on wall-of-shame are a little too friendly featuring ethnic minorities, women and a disturbing amount of yellow but other than that it is a first class feast of negativity. Nice to know that the regional party in Northern Ireland is maintaining its own personality. Yay.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

John Reid's Speech on Islam

Given the circumstances, with new terrorist plots emerging on a weekly basis, for John Reid, the Home Secretary, to give a speech advising Muslim parents to watch for signs of radicalisation in their children seems almost excessively moderate. After all of these plots are uncovered the stories almost inevitably contain quotes from parents shocked at discovering their children had anything to do with militant Islam. However, the speech was shouted down repeatedly while it was being given and has met significant opposition since.

Ahmed Versi's contention that this is requiring parents to spy on their children is ridiculous. Trying to keep a track on whether your offspring are falling in with a bad crowd is a fairly normal parental occupation.

Suggestions that this amounts to 'demonisation' or a labelling of the Muslim community as potential terrorists are also misguided. Every time another Islamist terrorist plot is discovered or executed that is a far greater contribution to the label of 'terrorist' being placed on British Muslims. If those who see themselves as spokespeople for the Muslim community really wish to defend its interests and image they would do well to commend Reid's message.

The violent threat posed by extremists within the British Muslim community will not be wished away. Measures in the UK's struggle against Islamist terror can be divided into actions by the Muslim community or actions by non-Muslims. The more the British Muslim community does to assist in preventing terrorist outrage the less there will be a need for harsher polices to be imposed upon them. Those, like Mr. Versi, who dislike measures taken by the British state in its struggle to control terror should reflect on whether their opposition to calls for parental "spying" will mean that they wind up leaving the British state to do far more of the work in confronting terror; this is not something they will enjoy.

China, India and the US: The changing balance of economic power

This graph, from the Wall Street Journal and highlighted by Greg Mankiw, does a brilliant job of highlighting the extent to which the US displaced the older economic powers which are now experiencing a renaissance of economic power rather than a first taste of it.

The inclusion of Europe would answer the obvious question of who was relatively declining and then improving relative to the three nations in this study before and after World War II.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The Pope vs. Islam

As I have noted in earlier posts on this blog it does appear to me that it must have been a conscious choice to use the relevant quote, critical of Islam, that the Pope did use in his speech. It would appear to me he included this quote as something of a snipe. Emphasising Islam's irrationality so that his speech about rationality served the additional purpose of making clear that Christianity was special; particulary by comparison to its closest, by numbers, rival. I do not think this was wise for a figure like the Pope whose spiritual authority implies he cannot easily speak just for himself.

However, the reaction of the Muslim world has been so utterly irrational and savage that criticism of the Pope is no longer helpful. What seems remarkable to me is the tendency of the protests to steadily increase after the initial crisis. They appear less out of outrage at the offence itself, which one would assume would dissipate from the moment it was given, but, instead, as part of a desire to prove one's religious piety by comparison to other people and areas of the world. This response has nothing to do with genuine questions over the Pope's comments and does not deserve the succour which comes with continued criticism of his actions even if that criticism is more subtle and sensible among the Western commentariat. If you wish to find offensive opinions and actions you will find that the Vatican is not the best place to look at the moment. The Pope is more sinned against than sinning.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Swiss Interior Minister on the Pope's Speech

Those lucky Swiss. Their interior minister has managed to, in clear terms, describe how a speech confronting a controversial issue but an important one to debate, the place of rationality in religion and faith in science, became a confrontation thanks to the carelessness of a professor new to the scrutiny of being Pope. Couchepin has cut through a lot of the empty rhetoric surrounding the issue on both sides. The Pope committed no great evil, his speech did not deserve the fury it has been getting from the Islamic world, however, the example he chose was a mistake for someone in his position.

Manuel II Paleologus

Peter Robinson's post on the Corner about Manuel II Paleologus is a fine one. It doesn't make the Pope's quote more helpful in assessing the truth of whether their is an Islamic tendency to violence; this was clearly someone more exposed to the savage than the civilised in Islam. However, it would be sad if this diplomatic spat were to leave him tainted, unfairly, as a narrow and unpleasant man. Runciman's history of the Fall of Constantinople is a fine place to start in gaining a broader perspective on the events and people of this historical period.