Friday, March 16, 2007

Kuntzel, Gracchi and the Western Defence of Freedom of Expression

At the time of the protests over the Pope's quoting of a Byzantine Emperor on the subject of Islam and the rational examination of faith Anne Applebaum urged unity in response to the threat to freedom of speech:

"But Western reactions to Muslim "days of anger" have followed a familiar pattern, too. Last winter, some Western newspapers defended their Danish colleagues, even going so far as to reprint the cartoons -- but others, including the Vatican, attacked the Danes for giving offense. Some leading Catholics have now defended the pope -- but others, no doubt including some Danes, have complained that his statement should have been better vetted, or never given at all. This isn't surprising: By definition, the West is not monolithic. Left-leaning journalists don't identify with right-leaning colleagues (or right-leaning Catholic colleagues), and vice versa. Not all Christians, let alone all Catholics -- even all German Catholics -- identify with the pope either, and certainly they don't want to defend his every scholarly quotation.

Unfortunately, these subtle distinctions are lost on the fanatics who torch embassies and churches. And they may also be preventing all of us from finding a useful response to the waves of anti-Western anger and violence that periodically engulf parts of the Muslim world. Clearly, a handful of apologies and some random public debate -- should the pope have said X, should the Danish prime minister have done Y -- are ineffective and irrelevant: None of the radical clerics accepts Western apologies, and none of their radical followers reads the Western press.
Instead, Western politicians, writers, thinkers and speakers should stop apologizing -- and start uniting.

By this, I don't mean that we all need to rush to defend or to analyze this particular sermon; I leave that to experts on Byzantine theology. But we can all unite in our support for freedom of speech -- surely the pope is allowed to quote from medieval texts -- and of the press."

Now a lecture by Kuntzel on the Nazi origins of Arab anti-semitism has been cancelled in response, according to the Leeds German department and Kuntzel himself, to a perceived threat of violence. Gracchi has addressed the debate in the scholarly manner which befits a careful and insightful mind by addressing the ideas in Kuntzel's work. His analysis is persuasive and it would appear that there are serious problems with Kuntzel's thinking. However, is that the point?

After all, Gracchi is equally emphatic that there is nothing racist or Islamophobic in Kuntzel's work and certainly nothing deserving of censorship. He just thinks Kuntzel is wrong. It would seem that he's making a similar mistake to those who rushed into a discussion of the merits of the Pope's words while his enemies were killing nuns. I don't think the crisis here is nearly as severe as no one has been hurt and it looks like the university may just have been overcautious. Nevertheless, it is still a case where critiques of Kuntzels work might be less important than rallying around his freedom of expression.

Essentially I think Gracchi is probably but right but that the subtlety of thinking that is his trademark may have caused him to get his priorities wrong in this instance.

Gandhi and the Global War on Terror

Gandhi's understanding of economics was less than impressive. Autarky was lunacy for pre-WW2 Nazi Germany as it lost the benefits of trade but, as they were expecting a major war, at least got them used to the isolation war would impose. However, India's one attempt to take on a country its own size, China, proved its army rather feeble. No one seriously expects Pakistan to cut India's trade links so that danger is not really a risk India faces. India effectively inflicted upon itself a mild version of what the Royal Navy imposed upon Germany in the First World War.

Fred Thompson, writing for the National Review, highlights just what it means to take Gandhi's approach in foreign policy:

"And that's a pretty good question. At what point is it okay to fight dictators like Saddam or the al Qaeda terrorists who want to take his place?

It turns out that the answer, according to Gandhi, is NEVER. During World War II, Gandhi penned an open letter to the British people, urging them to surrender to the Nazis. Later, when the extent of the holocaust was known, he criticized Jews who had tried to escape or fight for their lives as they did in Warsaw and Treblinka. "The Jews should have offered themselves to the butcher's knife," he said. "They should have thrown themselves into the sea from cliffs." "Collective suicide," he told his biographer, "would have been heroism."

The so-called peace movement certainly has the right to make Gandhi's way their way, but their efforts to make collective suicide American foreign policy just won't cut it in this country. When American's think of heroism, we think of the young American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, risking their lives to prevent another Adolph Hitler or Saddam Hussein.

Gandhi probably wouldn't approve, but I can live with that."

A stopped clock is correct twice every day. It seems possible Gandhi was just lucky that the one time he had a position of leadership he was fighting a power unwilling to crush his non-violent resistance with military force. Or did he simply extrapolate from his moment of success to all manner of very different situations? Was his judgement that clouded by solipism?

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Blue-Corner Hollywood?

As I've discussed before Hollywood has never been entirely left wing and many films are complex enough to interpret in either direction or address a philosophical theme in a right-wing manner. However, what appears to be a new trend is the release of explicity right-wing political films. It is in the 'count on the fingers of one hand' stage but I think that South Park has demonstrated that politically charged and right-wing material can be successful. Thank You For Smoking followed in South Park: The Movie and Team America's wake.

Now, 300 is not a political movie in the same way but be under no doubt that if it closely follows the comic, which everyone says it does, it is very right-wing. It is based upon a comic by Frank Miller, creator of Sin City, which has a "Further Reading" section at the back including Victor Davis Hanson, author of "The Western Way of War" and well respected by a certain kind of conservative. Many left-wing reviewers in the US are getting worked up just because it's the first war movie in an age not to have an anti-war message. More than that it is a specific tale of war against and sacrifice to defeat an enemy trying to crush the nascent West.

Is it any good? There are loads of reviews out there and I'll add my own next Thursday once I've seen it at the BFI IMAX.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Fed-Ex Socialism

As I noted in a comment at his blog a little while ago Chris Dillow is an advocate of a rather rare form of socialism. Here's my comment:

""This presumption illuminates the distinction between mine and Labour's leftism. Much (not all) Labour policy does regard people as passive objects. Workers need minimum wage and health and safety laws because they're incapable of fighting for decent pay and conditions themselves. They need a nanny state as they can't choose correctly how to live their lives. And workers' control of firms and public sector bodies is not even considered, because workers aren't fit to run organizations.

By contrast, my leftism rests on a view that people are capable of running their own lives."

I'm surprised you didn't have more sympathy for "What's Left"'s prevailing sense of loneliness."

Essentially his vision of the left is rooted in the idea that democratic control of capital by workers will prove more efficient than capitalist control by owners. He sees private equity as an early attempt to grope towards a replacement for inefficient traditional forms of ownership.

Now, the essential question which any economist should be asking at this stage is, if it's more efficient why hasn't it happened already? I presumed that Chris, as a socialist, would answer that workers do not have access to capital and need redistribution to get it, however, this sentence from that post suggested that this wasn't his vision:

"Could it be that capitalism - like feudalism - will die a slow death as thousands of capitalistically-owned firms gradually mutate into ones owned in more efficient - and egalitarian - ways?"

In this new post he makes it clear that he agrees with Tyler Cowen that capital is not the main bar to the wider development of co-operatives and identifies other reasons. These are mostly cognitive biases such as the "myth of leadership", status quo bias or adaptive preferences. I don't think risk aversion is compatible with Dillow's case as if workers genuinely don't want risk and would prefer capitalists take it for them then capitalism may be optimal even if less productive.

There seems some reason to doubt his thesis, as he acknowledges there are already plenty of co-ops about, surely they should undermine the popular assumption that capitalism is the only way; the existence of which seems essential to much of his logic. If people can see Waitrose and law firms demonstrating the efficacy of worker control surely they would not adapt their preferences, for example.

However, if we accept that the current co-ops are too rare to undermine these irrationalities then there is an interesting implication. If co-ops are the central objective of a left-wing economic programme, as Dillow has suggested they should be, and if he expects them to rise to dominance through competition within the liberal economic system then surely politics is relatively unimportant to the advance of socialism? Dillow's logic would seem to be a case for intellectual socialism being more of a management doctrine than a political philosophy.

The right-wing in the US often aspire to Fed-Ex solutions. Their battle to reform the postal service repeatedly failed but, in the end, the results of their failure were overturned by the advance of Fed-Ex and other private carriers. If this is the best path for socialism as well doesn't this mean all the left-wingers who are currently heading off into NGOs, pressure groups and the Labour Party should instead be heading into practical occupations and then leading the charge for the left to outcompete capital? To quietly make obsolete the enemy it failed to destroy politically.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

"I have no idea what I'm talking about but I figure I'll write about it in a national newspaper anyway"

Chris Dillow, hardly a bastion of the capitalist right, destroys, what he is right to describe as, a candidate for worst Comment is Free article ever. There is some fierce competition and I'm not sure it is in the top ten but it is certainly pretty dismal. I don't really have much to add to the analysis itself but it does seem important to note just what a collapse of editorial judgement at the Guardian this constitutes:

"But whatever is private equity? I've looked it up and I still can't quite make it out. It's in another language: angel investing, mezzanine capital, passive limited partners and hurdle rates. What? I asked my friend Rosemary and she couldn't even be fagged to think about it. "I don't know anything about all that," says she. "Just shut up and let me get on with my gardening." Luckily, my friend Fielding saw a programme on it, and he explained."

It almost sounds like a parody but I'm pretty sure it isn't.

She has just professed not just to her own ignorance but the ignorance of the few people she has spoken to on the subject. At least Hutton claims to have some kind of insight; this article doesn't even really aspire to any knowledge on the subject. The Guardian's audience should be appreciated by its editors as an enormous luxury, a chance to speak to so many people, but instead they show a kind of contempt by accepting this, presumably on the basis of it being ideologically satisfying.

I worry that, further, they might actually have liked its style, the unquestioning acceptance that this new capitalism is a fresh evil. The light-headed, self-satisfied lack of the drive to question ideological received wisdom is being sold as a lifestyle choice. The parroting of opinions obtained casually through friends is described as a preferable alternative to the hard, ungratifying and vaguely nerdy work of trying to "make it out" on your own. Instead of trying to inform their readers they are trying to instill in them the idea that to close your mind is to prove that you are urbane and fun.

C4: The Great Global Warming Swindle

If you watch one video this year...

The great global warming swindle focusses not on the material I've always found more convincing; the policy analysis of emissions curbs. Instead, it takes the science on directly with great verve and makes a case I haven't really heard all in one place before.

Update: This is the best response I've heard to the points the programme raises. Make up your own mind on the science, I'm inclined to believe that the truth is that there is good evidence for something close to the IPCC convention view of what is going on but that it is far less extreme and certain than the green movement is pretending to boost its political case. This is the kind of view that Lawson's speech and most of my own writing on the subject is based upon and is not overly dependent on a particular side of the scientific debate.

Monday, March 12, 2007

The Death Penalty and Gun Control

It might seem strange but it occurred to me today that it is interesting to consider the debates over gun control and the death penalty together rather than separately. After all, opinions on the two subjects usually move together; I think most people who support gun control oppose the death penalty and vice versa. Although neither debate is particularly active in the UK they are still interesting particularly because they are non-economic issues on which libertarians often take the right-wing side and I do not. I'll quickly describe my views on each issue and then go on to discuss why the death penalty and gun control cases face problems when combined.

I'm not opposed to the death penalty because of the possibility of error. We cannot give someone twenty years back any more than we can resuscitate someone we've executed. The difference in terms of what we take from someone when we make a mistake scales just as with most punishments of greater severity. Also, I'm not opposed to the state killing of itself. I believe that the state can need to kill people in wars with external enemies and that the police will need to shoot to kill when facing internal enemies with little injunction about slaughtering their fellow citizens.

I think the evidence on the death penalty as a deterrent is mixed and I'm not sure one can form an opinion on the basis of such a practical consideration alone. My opposition to the death penalty stems from my belief that it makes a coward of the state. While a murderer may have been a fearsome beast at one point when they are executed they are strapped down with a shaved leg and wearing incontinence underwear. They aren't any more dangerous than a newborn and are utterly unable to defend themselves. When people, on being told that you don't want your state killing people, argue that to be consistent you must be an absolute pacifist I always think they do more to smear war than strengthen the death penalty. "The noblest fate that a man can endure is to place his own mortal body between his loved home and war's desolation"; by contrast, the death penalty is an ugly, cowardly practice and one I would not support even in return for quite significant changes in crime figures.

I support gun control as I can see it working in Britain. Apart from tiny pockets with exceptional social problems, even there gun crime is far lower than in equivalent areas of the US, guns are not a part of British life. The case right-wingers make against gun control in the US, that it only restricts the law abiding, just doesn't work in reality; a comprehensive gun control can make obtaining them far more difficult. This works particularly as it is combined with a police force which is composed of unarmed beat officers and armed response units which prevents an arms race as the only armed officers cannot be outgunned as US cops can be.

With guns the bar to murder is so much lower. Killing a person, or yourself, without a gun is, barring an accident, usually a rather slow and physically demanding process which often fails and which one has time to reconsider; the passion required for a crime of passion murder often isn't sustained. Equally, when burglaries go wrong, for example if someone is surprised in the act, the chances of someone being killed are much lower.

I think that the libertarian case against gun control is, perhaps, overstated. All but the hardcore anarcho-capitalists accepts that the state should defend property rights and that relies upon a state monopoly on the use of force. Surely prohibiting devices which give one such significant potential for using force could make that task massively harder and undermine the legitimate function of the state?

Neither my view on the death penalty nor my opinion of gun control is necessarily universalist. I am prepared to be quite understanding towards developing country states which have trouble establishing a credible deterrent and need the death penalty's strength to keep order. Equally, in states which cannot keep order an armed citizenry might be a force for stability as the state cannot do nearly enough to protect property rights itself; mass ownership of guns might be a least bad option compared to rule by the unscrupulous. This would seem to explain why the 'only stopping the law abiding have guns - you'll get more crime' argument seems to have been accurate in Jamaica. However, neither of these conditions appear, to me, to obtain in any Western country.

Now, here's this article's punchline. The US has a lot more homicide than the UK despite hardly being a more lawless place these days. This difference has to be largely explained by differences in the number of guns about, particularly as many of these homicides are carried out with guns. It also has the death penalty. If we assume that the pro-death penalty case is right and it is a credible deterrent then guns have to cause enough murder to obscure both the effect of the death penalty and the actual disparity in murder numbers. This means that either the death penalty isn't proving an effective deterrent or guns are causing a truly vast increase in the number of murders; most likely a combination of the two. Considering the case for the death penalty and the case against gun control together demonstrates just how weak both cases are.

LSE Open 2007

Well, I survived.

The tournament was a huge success. Everyone had great fun, the organisation was sharp and I saw some good debates. In particular, the debate on selling citizenship brought out interesting questions such as the price/value distinction which rarely emerge in debating.

The winners were Sam Block and Diairmuid Early. The best speaker on tab and in the final was Sam Block. The best team on the tab were "The Half-Chinese Construction Barrister Lobby Group" composed of Alex Wright and Shannon Eastwood.

The motions were:

Round 1: This house would Directly Elect the British Prime Minister.
Round 2: This house would Admit Taiwan to NATO.
Round 3: This house would provide tax breaks to couples with children.
Round 4: This house would crimininalise smoking and drinking while pregnant.
Round 5: This house would allow individual British people to sell their citizenship.
Quarter-final: This house would introduce a 28% flat rate of tax on any income above £9000 per year.
Semi-final: This house believes those suspected of crimes against humanity should be tried in British courts regardless of where the crime took place.
Final: This house would leave the European Union.

Two trends I noticed. Firstly, debating is becoming very, very law oriented, almost to the exclusion of all other disciplines. Only international relations is still permitted to muddy the water. At the mere notion of financial or, particularly, tax implications in a motion there is a widespread sense of resentment and a chorus of "boring". This hasn't always been the case, when I started out, not so long ago, it was non-political legal theory motions that got such a reaction but they are now the vogue.

That debating might come to be dominated by lawyers is entirely understandable, although possibly a shame, as it is such a vital training for the bar; trainee barristers who haven't debated during their undergraduate years are a sad sight. However, with an economics training I find it pretty alarming that the legal minds of the future find economics so alien for a couple of reasons:

Firstly, legal thinking has been radically affected by the ideas coming out of economics. The Coase Theorem is the classic example but there is an entire journal devoted to the 'law and economics' genre. Secondly, many of the consequences of all the cases that these future barristers go on to argue will play out through the economic system and, often, through the tax system which they find so boring. Having an interest in these issues seems vital to any lawyer who wants to understand the world the law operates in and the interests of their clients.

The second trend was that the anti-French meme had been taken to bizarre levels. In almost every round the debate was somehow related, by at least one speaker in each round, back to the shortcomings of the Gauls. Myself and Neill Harvey-Smith (there is a funny account of just how tenuous some of the critiques of France were on his blog) were discussing this before the final and joking that things weren't likely to improve with a motion about the European Union. That proved alarmingly prescient as an American team defined the final into a joke (which was good fun but something of a shame) about how awful the French were and that they should leave the EU.

I am hardly a great apologist for the French political system and the country is far from perfect but at what stage does a funny, ironic old rivalry become ugly and closed-minded? Voltaire, Montaigne, Bastiat, Rousseau; most nations would be proud of just one of them. That is but a tiny sample of the French contribution in one field and the French can boast a similarly impressive achievement in almost any important human activity you care to mention. Jokes about the shortcomings of France are funny but if we use them too often might we internalise the joke and actually blind ourselves to the breadth and depth of the French contribution to the best things in life? Or am I taking things too seriously?